Today, Bruce Springsteen releases his 21st studio album. It’s called Only The Strong Survive, and it’s a collection of 15 soul music covers. I am a life-long Springsteen fan — I started listening to him in 1984, when I was 7 years old — but I have a confession to make: I don’t really care about this record.
Nothing against Bruce making a covers album of old R&B tunes — the man has earned the right to do what he wants. And, after listening to Only The Strong Survive, I concede that the idea was executed about as well as I could have hoped or expected. Nevertheless, as a professional dispenser of musical opinions, I don’t have a whole lot to say about whether Bruce does justice to the Commodores’ “Nightshift” or the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain.” I do, however, have a whole lot to say about Bruce’s overall body of work, and how this new album fits in that vaunted catalog.
That is why I am indulging in an exercise almost as old as Springsteen’s storied career: I am ranking Bruce Springsteen albums! (In case you missed it in 2020, his songs are ranked here.) Where does Only The Strong Survive slot? Is this record “strong” enough to “survive” being compared to his most beloved classics?
Let’s find out!
21. High Hopes (2014)
Ranking Bruce Springsteen albums is like taking a journey through life. We all know how life begins, and we all know how life ends. It’s the part in the middle that’s a mystery. In this analogy, I’m suggesting that the worst Bruce Springsteen records are pretty obvious, and the best Bruce Springsteen records are also pretty obvious. But where do you put Lucky Town, Devils & Dust, and Magic? Now there is a question.
I am going to try to make this as interesting as I can. There’s at least one Boss album that is generally acclaimed that I do not like. And there’s at least one Boss album that is sort of under-appreciated that I probably overrated as a reactionary stance. But I honestly love it and I’ll make my spirited defense when the time comes. Also, the albums at the top are placed in an order that will surely offend some fans. The issue of where to put Tunnel Of Love always seems like an argument starter among Bruce Tramps. I expect this list to be no different.
What I’m saying is that I attempted to make a list that is not boring or chalk-y. But there are limits to how interesting you can be. For instance, this is the worst Bruce album. I wish I could be more creative here, but it’s really no contest. Unimaginative Boss fans might argue that Human Touch belongs in this spot. But that just means they stopped paying attention to the man’s catalog after 1992. Or they misguidedly tossed out Human Touch after hearing “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)” for the first time. Either way, those people are dead wrong. High Hopes is worse than Human Touch and every other Springsteen LP by a wide margin.
Why is this true? I could be snarky and make a joke about the overuse of Tom Morello or the atrociously ugly album cover, which rivals The Ghost Of Tom Joad in the annals of atrociously ugly Bruce album covers. (There is a lot of Bruce album cover discourse on the horizon. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) But it really comes down to this simple fact: High Hopes has the fewest number of good songs. There are exactly three — “Frankie Fell In Love” (the weakest Bruce track featuring a character named Frankie, which is practically a sub-genre of Bruce songs onto itself), “The Wall” (an inferior sequel to “Born In The U.S.A.” that’s still pretty affecting), and “Dream Baby Dream” (a Suicide cover that generously put some dimes in Alan Vega’s pocket near the end of his life).
Otherwise, this collection of outtakes and re-recorded songs lacks the commitment one expects from our hero. This is a guy who’s famous for writing five songs for every one that he puts on a record. But on High Hopes, he suddenly decided to only include the rejects. The result is the one Springsteen album where it seems like he’s not trying hard enough.
Co-producer Ron Aniello’s comment on Bruce’s process for this record is telling: “I’m not sure what he had in mind from the beginning, but this is what we ended up with.”
This is what we ended up with. Thank you, Ron. I rest my case.
20. Only The Strong Survive (2022)
I have a friend who does not like Bruce Springsteen. Actually, “does not like Bruce Springsteen” doesn’t do his feelings justice. He loathes Bruce with a goddamn passion. He can’t stand Springsteen’s endorsement of saxophone solos. He is allergic to rock songs set in factories. The sound of raspy vocals makes his hair stand on end. The cover of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” makes him want to join the Church Of Satan. He even finds Bruce’s underbite irritating.
Because my friend knows that I love Bruce with a goddamn passion, he occasionally likes to needle me by, say, making fun of his least favorite aspect of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” i.e. the part where Bruce stifles a chuckle while singing the chorus. (I concede this is somewhat smarmy.) Or — if he’s really going after low-hanging fruit — he will text me a GIF of Bruce swinging his arms like Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club from the “Dancing In The Dark” video.
When I heard that Bruce was releasing an album of soul music covers, I immediately thought about my Spingsteen-phobic pal. Only The Strong Survive sounded like an idea that he would make up in order to annoy me. It’s a satire of aging boomer rock — The Big Chill of Bruce albums — that somehow became real.
This record leans into the least cool elements of the Springsteen persona, and exhibits none of the coolest ones. In the future, when I try to counteract my friend’s mockery by pointing out that Bruce is a master of cinematic storytelling in song that feels as vivid as Taxi Driver, Blue Collar, or any other classic character study from 1970s Hollywood, he will swiftly point to this record. And I’ll just have to take it.
I am surely being at least slightly unfair here. This album has only just come out. It might blossom over time. Maybe in five years I’ll love it. Bruce does sing well throughout, and the material is well chosen. (I thank the gods of New Jersey that he did not cover the ultimate hack-y bar band tune, “Mustang Sally,” like when he performed with Phish at Bonnaroo in 2009.) I would compare it to Bob Dylan putting out three consecutive albums (including one triple LP) of American songbook standards in the mid-2010s, only that was wholly unexpected while Only The Strong Survive is exactly the sort of covers album one would expect from Bruce Springsteen.
But this album is not bad. I just can’t in good conscience put it above any album of Bruce originals. Except, of course, High Hopes
19. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)
His other covers record. It’s his superior covers record, but I must stay true to my “rank the covers records below any album of Bruce originals save for High Hopes” rule.
I can’t say many negative things about it — the performances are spirited and amiably rough hewn, the sentiments expressed by these ancient tunes are admirable to the point of being unimpeachable, and Bruce’s heart is obviously in the right place. I enjoy it whenever it’s on. It’s just not a Bruce record I find myself reaching for all that often. It’s fine, and maybe that’s the problem. The inherent righteousness of the enterprise is baked into the music, and ultimately suffocates it. As a concept — Bruce records a collection of folk tunes as a response to the horror show of the post-Hurricane Katrina George W. Bush administration — We Shall Overcome is so on the nose that if it hadn’t come to fruition organically NPR and PBS would have deployed a tote bag-wielding army in 2006 to compel him to make it.
What’s interesting in retrospect is how much older Bruce sounds on We Shall Overcome compared with Only The Strong Survive. It represents the absolute pinnacle of Springsteen cragginess. When Tom Waits heard this record, I’m sure even he believed that Bruce needed to clear his throat for 47 consecutive hours before singing another word.
18. Working On A Dream (2009)
I wanted to rank this one higher.
I realize that sounds insane, as Working On A Dream includes what is likely the dumbest song in the Springsteen canon. I refer, naturally, to “Queen Of The Supermarket.” When was the last time you listened to “Queen Of The Supermarket”? I just put it on for the first time since 2009 and let me tell you: It’s a miracle that Bruce wrote this, and then recorded it, and then listened to it, and then (!) thought about it, and THEN (!!) made the decision to put it on an album. The same guy who left “The Promise” off of Darkness On The Edge Of Town and “Roulette” off of The River and “Murder Incorporated” off of Born In The U.S.A. pondered the existence of “Queen Of The Supermarket,” weighed all of his options, and said, “Yes, I want the world to hear this.” It’s a decision that I find both inexplicable and extremely fortuitous for the rest of mankind. For “Queen Of The Supermarket” is not a mere song. It’s the plot synopsis of a rejected Cameron Crowe rom-com screenplay. It’s the most accidentally hilarious thing Bruce has ever done. A masterpiece of cringe. It’s awful, and I love it.
If you’ll indulge me, I would like to quickly rank my three favorite lyrics from “Queen Of The Supermarket.” I’m limiting myself to three because we have a lot of music to discuss, and I don’t want spend more time on this song than on “Backstreets.” (Though I suspect I have already done that.) But I assure you: I could, if inclined, write thousands of words on every lyric in “Queen Of The Supermarket.” It’s that bad/amazing.
3. “As the evening sky turns blue / A dream awaits in aisle number two.”
2. “Though her company cap covers her hair / Nothing can hide the beauty waiting there.”
1. “As I lift my groceries in to my car / I turn back for a moment and catch a smile / That blows this whole fucking place apart.”
I could go on and on about this album. (We haven’t addressed “Outlaw Pete” yet.) But I want to make it clear that I honestly enjoy it. I enjoy it because Bruce doesn’t normally make albums like this. Working On A Dream is his version of a 21st-century Neil Young record — it commits to wacky and ill-conceived ideas with a conviction I find infectious. It’s thoroughly silly but never boring. It’s like High Hopes if Bruce had been swinging for the fences. My favorite “bad” Springsteen record, hands down.
17. Wrecking Ball (2012)
In Bruce’s best songs, dreams frequently portend doom. In “Badlands,” you wake up in the night with a fear so real. In “My Father’s House,” you imagine wandering through a dark forest and into the arms of a paternal figure who has long been absent in real life. In “Downbound Train,” you hear the voice of the lover who abandoned you, and it echoes through your skull like an anxiety order. In “Valentine’s Day” — his most nightmarish track — you’re warned that if you die in your dreams you really die in your bed.
This is Freddie Krueger material. But it’s no longer where Bruce lives. Starting with The Rising, his songs shifted from the figurative to the literal. One of the ramifications of this is that dreams stopped being parables that signify complex psychological matters and started becoming blunt instruments for aspirational platitudes. Dreams no longer happened to you; you now had to “work” for them. Therefore, the need for dream analysis was rendered moot. His new dreams were as direct as a “call to action” fundraising email from a politician.
This was not an improvement. By the time Bruce entered his “Obama Administration” years, he was aping his future podcasting partner’s rhetoric. On this album, he’s fond of declarative statements — “We Take Care Of Our Own” was a message that a listener might have ascertained from the Reagan era story songs of Nebraska and Born In The U.S.A. But now he was just stating it plainly, right in the chorus of the album’s lead-off track. “Land Of Hope And Dreams” has a similar stump speech quality — it’s impossible to not interpret it as a feel-good populist anthem. That might be okay if Wrecking Ball didn’t also sound over-worked and busy, like a presidential inaugural ball, with too much pomp and circumstance.
I don’t want to be too hard on this album. The title track still ranks with his very best tunes of the last 20 years. I recognize that it is, at least, better than Working On A Dream. But it’s not nearly as fun.
16. The Rising (2002)
The thing everybody remembers about this record is the origin story: Bruce is stuck in traffic a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks. A stranger pulls up next to him. The man rolls down his window and says to Bruce, “We need you now.”
If we were talking about any other artist, this story would be preposterous. Imagine it coming from Brandon Flowers or Win Butler, and it’s impossible to keep a straight face. But for the people who revere The Rising, the idea that some random person addressed Bruce like he was Batman and Bruce went along with it by attempting to save (or at least soothe) the soul of America with his music is what gives the album gravitas. And here’s the thing: Because we’re talking about Bruce Springsteen, it’s not completely preposterous that people looked to him like he was Batman post-9/11. A lot of Americans really did look to him for wisdom and solace. And, if you saw him perform “My City Of Ruins” — originally written about Asbury Park, now transferred with sad ease to New York City — during the America: A Tribute to Heroes benefit, it really was cathartic.
I get why this album means a lot to people. (And I get why those people will be pissed to see it at only No. 16.) But for me, a long-time skeptic of The Rising, the album’s origin highlights its central flaw. This is the album where Bruce embraced his role as a self-aware national monument, and that’s my least favorite version of Bruce. It’s meant to elevate him, but it actually reduces his art. I vastly prefer “singer-songwriter Bruce,” the guy who writes about people rather than current events, the keen observer whose characters exist in an authentic milieu that draw the listener in and allow for the space to infuse our world into his.
It’s the difference between an album like Nebraska feeling as relevant to 2022 as it was to 1982, and The Rising being very much tied to its era. The former album sets timeless existentialism to a simple musical tableau; it applies to any dark period in our nation’s history. The latter is “ripped from the headlines” melodrama with a dated “mainstream rock circa 2002” sound; it will always be “the 9/11 album.”
15. Western Stars (2019)
Am I the only Bruce Springsteen fan on Earth who thinks Western Stars is better than The Rising? If I am, so be it. Come on up, lay your hands in mine, and hear my case: This album is a fine example of our hero in “singer-songwriter Bruce” mode, in which he gets back to crafting gripping character studies replete with well-chosen lyrical details that stick in your brain long after the song ends.
Take the title track, in which he writes about a past-his-prime actor haunting the dives of Los Angeles. It’s a song you simultaneously see as well as hear. Now this is the Springsteen I love:
Here in the canyons above Sunset
The desert don’t give up the fight
A coyote with someone’s Chihuahua in its teeth skitters ’cross my veranda in the night
Some lost sheep from Oklahoma sips her Mojito down at the Whiskey Bar
Smiles and says she thinks she remembers me from that commercial with the credit card
That’s just great writing. But the un-Springsteen-like nature of the music and iconography — the lush orchestrations, the crooning vocals, the strangely polarizing cowboy hat he wears on the back cover — put a lot of people off. (Regardless of what the haters say, the front cover is Bruce’s best since Tunnel Of Love.)
I’m really into the “alternate history” aspect of this record, which re-posits Bruce as a cosmic Americana artist in the vein of singer-songwriters who emerged around the same time that he did in the early ’70s. What Western Stars presupposes is: What if Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. sounded more like records by Kris Kristofferson, Fred Neil, Mickey Newbury, or even Neil Diamond? The answer is: Probably not as good. But still, it’s an interesting thought experiment.
14. Human Touch (1992)
It’s impossible to overstate how dated this album sounded upon release on March 31, 1992. Even when it was brand new, it was at least three years out of date. The only record I can compare it with is Def Leppard’s Adrenalize, which came out the same day and similarly felt like a pre-grunge relic that was recorded in 1989 and then inexplicably shelved until the exact moment when Nirvana and Pearl Jam made the rock behemoths of the 1980s irrelevant.
My problem was that I loved Bruce Springsteen in 1992. I loved him ever since I borrowed my father’s cassette of Born In The U.S.A. at age 7. And I was excited to hear Human Touch and its superior companion album Lucky Town. But I couldn’t talk about that with my friends. And that’s because — in the video for “Human Touch” — Bruce has a bushy mullet, he wears a gold chain, and he also dons a dark vest with no shirt underneath. My hero suddenly looked like Jon Bon Jovi’s older brother, and this was not something that eighth graders in 1992 (except for me) found especially cool.
But 30 years later, I remain hopelessly fascinated by this record. I am fascinated by how Bruce clearly did not know how to carry himself as a 42-year-old rock star in a dramatically different rock music scene. I am fascinated by how he ditched the E Street Band in favor of L.A. studio musicians because he was still trying to come to terms with the massive success of Born In The U.S.A. (and how it changed his life and the context in which his music was heard and understood) eight years later. I am fascinated by how he made the slickest album of his life at a time when overtly slick rock music was less fashionable than it had ever been in Bruce’s lifetime.
Human Touch sounds like an album that Bruce Springsteen did not want to make, which is confirmed by how he made a better record immediately afterward and then put it out at the same time as Human Touch. But he did make it, and in the process revealed an unattractive side of himself — rich, out of touch, confused, vulnerable — that is nonetheless mesmerizing.
I understand that being engrossed by a car wreck does not necessarily make that car wreck artistically viable. So I’ll add this: There are a lot of good songs on this record! The title track is a surprisingly proggy explication of “therapy era” Bruce. “Soul Driver” is a solid rip-off of “Little Wing.” “Gloria’s Eyes” is a really good throwback to the bar-band grinders on The River. “Wish I Were Blind” is a touching break-up ballad. (In the spirit of keeping it positive, we’ll forget that “Real Man” exists.) It’s just that the good songs on Human Touch aren’t recorded in a manner that does them justice.
Which is why the live album In Concert/MTV Plugged is an essential — and oft-overlooked — curio from this period. It actually makes these songs sound like actual rock music. Digging into that album will make you like Human Touch more.
13. Letter To You (2020)
In 2020, Bruce Springsteen gave an interview to Brian Hiatt of Rolling Stone in which he made a proclamation that initially smacked of hubris, but was actually confirmed as fact by the album he was promoting at the time. The topic was Bruce tinkering with his sizable library of unreleased songs, which he has apparently been updating with overdubs for possible future release. “If I pull out something from 1980, or 1985, or 1970, it’s amazing how you can slip into that voice,” he says. “It’s just sort of a headspace. All of those voices remain available to me, if I want to go to them.” He’s referring to an artistic sensibility, but also his actual voice. The tantalizing suggestion is that Bruce can effortlessly return to one of his previous guises, if he so chooses, whenever he wants.
With this album, Bruce did just that, producing music that resembled his 1978-to-1984 epoch. And he did this by pulling old songs from the vaults, including the delectably bombastic “Janey Needs A Shooter,” which apes the vibe of Darkness On The Edge Of Town. But he also returned to his old methods. At the suggestion of his trusted keyboardist, “Professor” Roy Bittan, he didn’t demo any of the tracks ahead of time. Instead, he played the tunes on guitar for the E Street Band, and worked out the arrangements in the studio. It was how Springsteen had worked with the band in the ’70s and ’80s, though Letter To You took the approach a step or two further.
The result is the most immediate and best-sounding album Springsteen made since the ’80s — the overly busy attempts to “modernize” his sound on Wrecking Ball and High Hopes were happily set aside — even if the songs themselves don’t quite reach the same standard.
12. Lucky Town (1992)
Again, I point any skeptics to the In Concert/MTV Plugged live record, which presents the songs from the Human Touch/Lucky Town period in their best light.
Lucky Town actually sounds pretty good on its own, though. The poor reputation of Human Touch has long doomed Lucky Town to automatic dismissals. But those records aren’t all that similar, save for some shared themes and their similarly half-assed album covers. (“Hey Bruce, can you fasten one button on your shirt and then stand up against that wall? We only have five minutes to shoot a pic for your 10th record.”)
For one, Lucky Town is not nearly as bloated or miscalculated as Human Touch. It is, in fact, the most modest-sounding Bruce record since his debut. And that modesty is what’s most endearing about it.
Knocked out with relative quickness during the endless gestation of its sister record, Lucky Town addresses many of the same subjects as Human Touch but with more humor and down-to-earth humility. On no other record does he write as much about his own fame and the discomfort he felt with his post-Born In The U.S.A. deification. The first half of the record is preoccupied with these concerns. In “Local Hero,” he laughs at himself. In “Better Days,” he’s self-critical. (“It’s a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending / A rich man in a poor man’s shirt.”) In “If I Should Fall Behind” and “Living Proof,” he tries to move past the Bruce Springsteen caricature that his celebrity created by embracing family life. (This is Bruce’s most literal “dad rock” record.) By the time he reaches the album’s closing cut, “My Beautiful Reward,” you feel like he’s achieved some well-earned contentment.
In time, he would accept his role as the President Of Rock Music. But in the early ’90s, feeling normal seemed like a more attractive goal.
11. Devils & Dust (2005)
Coming after the broad and topical arena rock of The Rising, this was Bruce once again retreating to a low-key Nebraska-style coda. Though the writing on Devils & Dust consistently bests its predecessor. Like High Hopes and Letter To You, it’s a hodgepodge of older material, some of which was more than a decade old at the time. But it doesn’t sound like a hodgepodge. Like The Ghost Of Tom Joad, the pre-existing Bruce album it most resembles — it’s Tom Joad with more fleshed-out music — it plays like a collection of short stories about low-income Americans operating on the margins of the country.
The standout song here is “Reno,” for reasons prurient as well as artistic. Simply put, Bruce had never produced a song this sexually graphic before. Though the narrative itself is hardly sexy — it’s about a guy who has an encounter with a sex worker that is deeply unsatisfying. Here’s how the song “climaxes,” to use an unintentional (and wholly inappropriate) pun:
She slipped me out of her mouth, “You’re ready, ” she said.
She took off her bra and panties, wet her finger, slipped it inside her,
And crawled over me on the bed.
She poured me another whiskey,
Said, “Here’s to the best you ever had.”
We laughed and made a toast.
It wasn’t the best I ever had,
Not even close.
“Reno” later caused controversy when it was a factor in Starbucks’ decision to not sell Devils & Dust in their stores. (Another factor was Bruce’s previous anti-corporate statements.) Putting Devils & Dust in thousands of Starbucks nationwide would have both been a marketing coup for normal customers and a depressing development for Springsteen fans. I’m glad this smutty little tune prevented it from happening.
10. The Ghost Of Tom Joad (1995)
The densest Bruce Springsteen album. So dense that it has its own bibliography. So dense that it probably would work better as a Netflix series about migrants in the American southwest struggling to make ends meet in the mid-’90s.
But The Ghost Of Tom Joad is not a Netflix series. It is, instead, Bruce’s most writerly record. The one where he makes you wish he would (finally) write a novel or a screenplay. The words are so rich that the melodies take an inevitable hit. (It is easily his least musical album.) Which is why, for about 20 years, it was mostly inaccessible to me. I respected it. I appreciated the level of research and craftsmanship that went into each song. It was obviously important. But in terms of actual enjoyment, this album existed on a binary opposite the final 35 seconds of “She’s The One.” Those 35 seconds speak to the heart, while this album only seemed concerned with the mind. Enjoying this album almost seemed beside the point. If Bruce sounded defeated about the state of America, why should the listener feel any different?
I don’t feel that way anymore. It took a long time, but this record does speak to my heart now. Though this, again, is due mostly to the masterful storytelling. Like Roger Waters on his early post-Pink Floyd solo records, Bruce deliberately pares back the musical bells and whistles in order to force the listener to focus on the words. I had to play this album while looking at the lyrics — listening and reading simultaneously — for the songs to finally open up.
One of my favorites is “Straight Time,” in which an ex-con tries and fails to resist the pull of the criminal life. Here’s how Bruce reveals the story’s denouement:
In the basement hunting gun and a hacksaw
Sip a beer and thirteen inches of barrel drop to the floor
Come home in the evening, can’t get the smell from my hands
Lay my head down on the pillow and go drifting off into foreign lands
9. Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey (1973)
This, in a way, is also a very writerly record. It’s his “new Dylan” album. Given how cautious and careful Bruce became with his songwriting later on, it’s still a shock to put Greetings on and hear the avalanche of imagery that poured out of him as a young man. As he recently admitted to Howard Stern, “Blinded By The Light” is Jersey Shore autobiography communicated via a rhyming dictionary, to the point of incomprehensibility. (Though this lyric couldn’t be more clear: “She said ‘I’ll turn you on, son, into something strong, play the song with the funky break.'” That’s Bruce writing his past, present, and future.)
Practically everything else about this album is similarly reckless — the recording is unpolished, the instrumentation is ragged, the vocals are loopy, and the arrangements feel loose and hastily conceived. In the short term, these things might have registered as flaws. But in retrospect, it gives Greetings a vitality that many of Bruce’s more belabored records do not have. For a man who quickly became a little too deliberative in the studio, the on-the-fly nature of his first record is a refreshing change of pace.
Back to the “new Dylan” thing: Bruce was so self-conscious about the label that it drove him to write with greater clarity and narrative discipline. By the time of Born To Run, Bruce’s music had found its own lane. (Though his curly hair and beard were still Dylanesque.) But aside from the word salad of “Blinded By The Light,” Greetings doesn’t sound all that much like Bob. It’s more akin to Bruce’s cinematic doppelganger, Martin Scorsese, who also broke out in 1973 with Mean Streets. “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City” is Bruce doing his own Mean Streets. Meanwhile “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” is his Who’s That Knocking At My Door while “Lost In The Flood” points to “Taxi Driver.”
If only Marty had finagled an invite to The Last Waltz for Bruce. Then we could have really brought this parallel home.
8. Magic (2007)
The best Bruce album of the 21st century. This is true for two reasons. But before we get to that, let’s address two superficial aspects of this record that might cause someone to prejudge it negatively.
1) The album cover is terrible. Even by modern Bruce standards! Bruce looks like he just woke up after spending the night sleeping on a train station bench. It’s such a weird image to pair with the album title that it almost seems like an ironic joke. This is Bruce’s idea of magic?
2) The album title is terrible. “Magic” is a pivotal track in thematic terms. (More on that in a moment.) But if you’ve never heard the record, it sounds awkward. A Bruce album named Magic? Is this his David Blaine-inspired opus? Literally any other song from this record would have made for a grabbier title: “Devil’s Arcade,” “Last To Die,” “Your Own Worst Enemy,” “Radio Nowhere,” “I’ll Work For Your Love,” “You’ll Be Comin’ Down,” etc.
Now, why is Magic the best Bruce album of the 21st century? Here’s my case:
1) Like Bruce’s best albums of the ’70s and ’80s, Magic is a rousing record in which current events occur in the background of his characters’ lives. It’s not about current events, it’s informed by them via osmosis. You feel the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lurking in “Gypsy Biker,” but it’s not an explicit anti-war song. You sense Bruce confronting his own mortality in “Girls In Their Summer Clothes,” but the focus is on the beach-friendly melody. “Magic” is an indictment of the Bush administration that could also be applied to any duplicitous presidential era. Magic has that same tension that exists on Born In The U.S.A., in which catchy pop-rock songs have an undertow of political and cultural dread. In that sense, it feels like a return to form.
2) Magic is Bruce’s most successful attempt in the past 20 years at sounding “modern.” In the mid-’00s, he was suddenly revitalized as a trendy reference point for burgeoning heartland rockers like Arcade Fire and The Killers. And Magic is the record he made to compete with the likes of Neon Bible and Sam’s Town. Not only did he compete, he bested the young upstarts.
7. The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle (1973)
As the record sandwiched between the debut Greetings and the breakthrough Born To Run, it’s tempting to classify this as a transitional record. But that’s not really true. This record doesn’t sound like a set-up for the iconic blockbuster that follows it. It’s really the “road not taken” record, or maybe it’s the “get the jazz odyssey vibes out of your system” record. If you’re Mike Appel, original manager and Svengali who broke up with Bruce not long after this record, it represents the pinnacle of his protege’s long gone wild innocence. This is not a transitional record — it’s an island. Nothing else in Bruce’s catalog sounds anything like it.
Nearly 50 years later, my favorite thing about The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle is imagining Bruce’s career if he continued doubling down on writing long, proggy, and mystical epics that resemble an unholy cross of Van Morrison, Steely Dan, and early Chicago. I suspect that I would not be ranking his albums a half-century later. Or, if I were doing that, I doubt most people would care. But I do wish he had made at least one more album like it. An even more expansive sequel would have made it more credible for me to claim to Bruce had a jam-band phase in the mid-’70s.
But that wasn’t meant to be, and you can sort of tell on Side Two, a.k.a. the moment when Bruce goes from being a promising punk kid to a budding genius. Those three songs — “Incident On 57th Street,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” and “New York Serenade” — are Bruce’s graduation. If you want to narrow it down even more, it would point to the part at 6:38 in “Incident On 57th Street” when Bruce pushes his voice to the breaking point — “Or we may have to walk until the daylight, mayyyyyybe“— before ripping a triumphant guitar solo.
Nobody who could do that was going to be satisfied with just being a cult hero. After Side Two of The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle, he was ready to be a star.
6. The River (1980)
So far I have written shockingly little about the greatness of The E Street Band. This is due almost entirely to the structure of this list, i.e. we are just now getting to the defining Bruce and E Street Band records. But when discussing The River, it’s impossible for me to not think of it as an E Street Band record at least as much as a Springsteen one. It’s the one Bruce album where he feels like a member of the band, rather than Bruce and the band.
Much of the credit for this must go to Steven Van Zandt, Bruce’s consigliere and the “garage rock” partisan in The River‘s production team. I give him the credit for the album’s room-y, boom-y sound. More than any other Bruce record, you feel the band as much as hear them — the merciless power of Max Weinberg’s drums, the elasticity of Garry Tallent’s bass, the interplay of Roy Bittan’s orchestral-like keyboard flourishes and Danny Federici’s lyrical piano runs, Clarence Clemons’ show-stopping sax asides, and the bump and grind of Van Zandt’s and Springsteen’s guitars.
Miami Steve understood — possibly better than Bruce? — how the E Street Band should sound. On a purely visceral level, “Two Hearts” is the ultimate execution of this ideal. Listen to it on headphones and it’s like cramming the volume of a Madison Square Garden gig directly into your skull.
Over time, this album has been diminished somewhat by what didn’t make the record. The sheer number of great tunes that Springsteen produced for The River — which surfaced later on Tracks and The Ties That Bind box sets — makes it harder to forgive some of the bum filler numbers. “Crush On You” is normally singled out for derision, but I prefer it to the corny schmaltz of “I Wanna Marry You.” But, again, even the weaker songs are performed beautifully.
5. Nebraska (1982)
Like most Springsteen fans — or most people who have good taste — I love Nebraska. But I also resent it a little, and here’s why: It’s the Springsteen record that people who don’t like other Springsteen albums tend to like. When a person says that Nebraska is their favorite Bruce LP, it’s like saying that Punch-Drunk Love is your favorite Adam Sandler movie. Now, Punch-Drunk Love is probably my favorite Adam Sandler movie, but I recognize that singling out the film that’s the least like every other Adam Sandler movie is a back-handed compliment. It feels like a diss against all the attributes that put the guy on the map. It’s a thinly veiled attempt to praise Paul Thomas Anderson at the expense of Rob Schneider.
The same is true of Nebraska — it’s brilliant, but it’s the one without saxophone, the one without Bruce’s stadium-ready rasp, the one without big guitars and bigger drums, the one without all of the things that define a typical Springsteen record.
All of that aside: This unquestionably is the one Springsteen album where the recorded versions of the songs are better than any live performance. And that has everything to do with the eccentric manner in which it was made. It’s not just that Bruce recorded at home. He also worked on haphazard equipment set up in a recklessly unprofessional manner. The most comic aspect of Nebraska occurred during the mix. He ended up using a Panasonic beatbox that had been damaged after falling off a fishing boat. It had originally died after the accidental drowning, but for some cosmic reason, it suddenly came back to life a few weeks later. And, no matter the resources at the millionaire rock star’s disposal, this was deemed appropriate for the making of the sixth Bruce Springsteen studio LP.
Given these circumstances, I would argue that Nebraska is not a folk album. Bruce didn’t banish technology to replicate an authentic musical ideal from an ancient time. Nebraska isn’t free of modernity; it’s abusive towards modernity. Like a Suicide record, Nebraska turns technology against itself. And that’s what makes it a post-punk album. (This is also apparent from the iconic album cover, which makes Nebraska look like a Bauhaus record.)
4. Born In The U.S.A. (1984)
By the time this album was released, Bruce had discovered his most effective commercial formula: He still wrote intense and alienated songs, but he made them sound happy.
Bruce’s “deceptively upbeat” style of songwriting can be traced back to The River. After the non-stop downers of Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Bruce resolved to make The River a more emotionally well-rounded record than its predecessor. Instead of shelving his catchy good-time music — or, in the case of “Because The Night” and “Fire,” giving away hit songs to other artists — he sought to balance despairing tracks like “The River” and “Point Blank” with bar-band rave-ups like “Two Hearts” and “Out In The Street.” But it’s the album’s most popular track, “Hungry Heart” — the one about the deadbeat who abandons his family while whistling a sweetly nostalgic tune, like a Four Seasons song with lyrics written by John Cassavetes — that really points to Born In The U.S.A.
On paper, “make sad songs sound happy” sounds like a simple strategy. But in practice, it’s a tricky formula. Not everyone can pull it off. Even Bruce Springsteen had his trouble — an acknowledged master of making intense and alienated songs sound happy, this skill also inevitably caused many of his most popular tunes to be misinterpreted. But in commercial terms, Bruce’s track record with the formula is impeccable: Of the seven Top 10 singles released from Born In The U.S.A. over the course of 18 months, at least six of them can be described as happy-sounding “sad” songs. “Dancing In The Dark” is an infectious synth-pop tune about self-hatred. “Cover Me” sets a post-apocalyptic love story (“Turn out the light, bolt the door / I ain’t going out there no more”) to sultry disco-rock rhythms. “Born In The U.S.A.” is a bitter protest number that sonically resembles a rousing fight song. “I’m On Fire” is an obsessive (and arguably one-sided) expression of lust made to sound like a straight-forward bedroom ballad. “Glory Days” uncovers the melancholy of middle age at the heart of simple-minded nostalgia pits it against music that openly panders to nostalgists in love with old-school rock. “I’m Goin’ Down” profiles a couple on the verge of break-up and it comes across as a playful flirtation.
Only the seventh single, “My Hometown,” can be classified as a sad-sounding “sad” song, though even in this instance the pop appeal of the melody lifted it to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart upon its release in late November 1985, just a few weeks after the close of the Born In The U.S.A. tour.
3. Tunnel Of Love (1987)
On the follow-up to Born In The U.S.A., Bruce pivoted to “making sad songs that sound sad.” It sold a fraction of its predecessor and caused shallow listeners to dismiss his latest record as adult-contemporary weak sauce.
Is this album still considered underrated? I feel like it was 10 years ago. It was generally viewed as a synth-heavy mood piece with dated production. But in the decade since, some of the most popular music on the pop charts has emulated the late-’80s MOR pop-rock that Tunnel Of Love personifies. Over the course of 35 years this record went from “of the moment” to “dated” and then back to “of the moment.”
This is a top three Bruce album because it contains his best writing. With the possible exceptions of Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks and Joni Mitchell’s Blue, nobody in a pop-rock context has written better songs about relationships. In fact, Bruce might actually top those masterpieces, because he manages to write about the entire experience of being in love. The album plays like a concept album about the rise and fall of a marriage, from the initial high of infatuation (“Tougher Than The Rest,” “All That Heaven Will Allow”), to the wedding day (“Walk Like A Man”), to disillusionment (“Tunnel Of Love”), to duplicity (“Two Faces,” “Brilliant Disguise”), to infidelity (“One Step Up”), to the break-up (“When You’re Alone”), to even more profound disillusionment (“Valentine’s Day”).
I actually liked this album when I was 11 but I have no idea why. How could have I possibly understood it? But as I age, it only sounds wiser to me. In another 10 years, it will probably be my No. 1.
2. Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978)
We all knew it was going to come down to these two albums at the top of this list. The alpha and the omega. Ultimate fantasy vs. ultimate reality. Dark vs. light. It’s all here.
When I made the rough draft of this list, this was No. 1. As soon as this list publishes, I’ll probably wish I kept it at No. 1. In my mind, it’s basically tied with the album I did put at No. 1. But ties are not allowed here. So, Darkness gets put at No. 2.
Here is where Darkness is No. 1 in the annals of Bruce:
— It has the best album title.
— It has the coolest-looking album cover.
— It has the best making-of documentary. (To quote Jimmy Iovine, “Stick!”)
— It is his best “guitar solo” album. (See “Adam Raised A Cain” or any version of “Prove It All Night” from the 1978 tour.)
— Speaking of the 1978 tour: Best Bruce tour ever.
— It is his most important album in terms of establishing his “classic” arena rock sound and his small-town, blue-collar lyrical themes.
— It includes his best car song. (“Racing In The Street.”)
— It includes his best album-ending song. (“Darkness On The Edge Of Town.”)
— It includes his best song that inspired an enjoyably bonkers Walter Hill film. (“Streets Of Fire.”)
1. Born To Run (1975)
But for the overall No. 1, I have to go with the Bruce-iest of all Springsteen albums, a record that only he could have made and (more important) pull off, an LP that ranks with the greatest of all rock records because Bruce risked making one of the worst of all rock records.
Kim Gordon once said that people go to rock shows to watch people on stage who believe in themselves. More than any other rock star, this explains the greatness of Bruce Springsteen. We love him because he always goes all in on himself and the power of rock ‘n’ roll. He might not always succeed, but he does not waver. He is born to run. He proves it all night. He has a hungry heart. He finds a reason to believe. He will not retreat or surrender. He comes up for the rising. He will work for your love. His love will not let you down.
Sometimes he is delusional. He writes a song about falling in love with a grocery store clerk. He believes that what his fans want is an album of oldies written by other people. He puts yet another dorky photo of himself on the cover of a new record.
But other times, he makes his delusions real. He writes a long song about The Rangers and the Magic Rat and a barefoot girl drinking warm beer on the hood of a car. He corners his sax player and hums an endless solo in the guy’s ear while the guy blows the hell out of his horn. He adds strings and guitar solos and vocal overdubs and a million other sounds. He calls it “Jungleland.” “Jungleland”? Yes, “Jungleland.” He puts it at the end of the record. The record of his life. The one that will make him a legend, or seal his fate as a nobody.
On paper it should not work. On paper it sounds like a potential embarrassment. But in your ears, it’s the kind of song that makes you want to quit your job, cut ties with everyone you know, burn down your house, and move to another town so you can finally become the person you always wanted to be. Only the person you always wanted to be is Bruce Springsteen, and because you’re not actually Bruce Springsteen, you don’t have his elusive superpower that transforms delusions into reality.
At least you can still listen to Bruce. And that, despite everything, is enough.