Choosing favourites from Bruce Springsteen's catalogue is no easy feat. The New Jersey native has been crafting songs — from working-class ballads to stadium-ready rockers — since his 1973 debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., resulting in hundreds of songs that could make the cut.
Springsteen turned 67 last week, releasing a new album, Chapter & Verse. It's a companion to Born to Run, Springsteen's new memoir out today, and contains five previously unreleased songs. For the sake of our sanity, those are not included in this endeavour.
In honour of Springsteen's big month, we've picked our favourite of his tracks — 18 full-length albums, 9 Grammys and a full 43 years after he began.
‘Atlantic City’ (1982)
Most Bruce Springsteen songs feature some sense of salvation, a little grace under dire situations, which is probably the reason he is where he is — Bruce gives us hope. On Nebraska, however, that hope is replaced by dread. It’s dark, lo-fi and unpolished, lyrically and musically, and certainly not what you think of when you think of Springsteen. It’s full of criminals, murderers, gamblers, even a patrolman on the ropes, all characters living in the darkness on the edge of town, so to speak. “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact,” he sings on “Atlantic City,” a song whose despairing tone perfectly matches the city of its namesake. It also features a distinct, lo-fi layering of Springsteen’s voice, accentuated by occasional yelps and howls, which only adds to the beautiful misery (you can hear echoes of this approach in acts like Bon Iver and Phosphorescent). And yet, because it is Springsteen, there is just that tiniest glimmer of hope on “Atlantic City,” which comes in the form of a roll of the dice. “But maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” he sings. “Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty, and meet me tonight in Atlantic City.”
— Jesse Kinos-Goodin (@JesseKG)
‘Born to Run’ (1975)
"Remember, in the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins," Springsteen says at the beginning of the official music video for his 1975 career-defining classic. It's a lesson that bears repeating, since more than 40 years later, the world is arguably as far from equal as it has ever been. "Born to Run" is a cautionary tale written with a suburban rebel heart from someone on the other side of the white picket fence letting us know that "runaway American dreams" aren't all they're cracked up to be. Springsteen's social commentary is both explicit and implied in his lyrics, and it's a brilliant move to drive his narrative through the universal lens of an epic love story. "It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap/ we have to get out while we're young/ 'cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run." This is one of the most romantic proposals in the history of rock 'n' roll. The tight guitar riffs are so urgent they border on cartoonish, but instead Springsteen and his band push it to the edge, ramping up the tension and fervour to mirror his narrator's desperation. With every bounce of saxophone, the rushing trill of the keys and crashing cymbals, the E Street Band fleshes out the towering scope of a seemingly simple dream that's actually deeply complex.
— Andrea Warner (@_AndreaWarner)
‘Because the Night’ (1986)
In his 2012 South by Southwest keynote speech, Springsteen made the case that his whole career is just a rewrite of The Animals’ “We Gotta Get out of This Place,” but rarely has that been more true than on “Because the Night.” Originally a throw-away from the notoriously treacherous Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions, the song sketch was given to Patti Smith, who was working next door. Smith’s version would end up being her only hit — top 10 hit in the U.K.; No. 13 in the U.S. — but the song’s majesty never left it’s original conceptualist, who deemed it too melodic and poppy (or “another love song,” as he would later describe it) for his album, but kept it in his live set since the mid '80s. In truth, “Because the Night” has every right to stand alongside Springsteen’s greatest pop moments. It has a timeless melody and, perhaps due to its unrecorded nature, is not beholden to era-specific production like “Dancing in the Dark” or “Glory Days.” Instead, it’s a picture in time; a vivid, fleshy story of forbidden teenage love and revolution. It’s quintessential Springsteen, made all the better by his inability to recognize it.
— Jon Dekel (@jondekel)
‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ (1995)
"The Ghost of Tom Joad" is the title track to Springsteen's acoustic 1995 album, which tackles themes of poverty, the disenfranchised and a broken American dream. The song takes inspiration from The Grapes of Wrath and Woody Guthrie's "The Ballad of Tom Joad."
"The Ghost of Tom Joad" is Springsteen's stripped-down acoustic style at its finest. The soft hum to the tune and the understated harmonica bring you into the protagonist's world: without a home, battling hardship on the road in search of a better life. The lyrics capture the strife of poverty contrasted with the ideal of the American dream. It shows the beauty in the strength of those facing adversity, those who refuse to give up despite the odds.
— Heather Collett (@HeatherCollett3)
‘American Skin’ (2001)
On Feb. 4, 1999, New York City police asked unarmed, 23-year-old Amadou Diallo to show them his ID. When Diallo reached for his wallet, the police fired 41 shots at him. Nineteen of those shots hit Diallo, killing him. The officers were later acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges, but Springsteen indicts them every time he performs this song — his tribute to Diallo — onstage.
“It ain’t no secret
No secret, my friend.
You get killed just for living in your American skin.”
Springsteen, well aware of his audience, closed out each sold-out show on a 10-night run at Madison Square Garden on his 1999-2000 Reunion tour with this song. At the time, Robert Lucente, then-president of the New York State Chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, called Springsteen a “f--king dirtbag.”
Hit 'em where it hurts, Bruce.
— Judith Lynch (@CBCJudith)
‘Human Touch’ (1992)
Bruce Springsteen has a whole catalogue of "cool" songs, and this certainly isn't one of them. But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't my favourite. If he ever played this during one of his famous three-and-a-half-hour sets, I and probably a handful of others would lose our collective minds. At its core — its cheesy, cheesy core — it's a simple song about just needing to be in close proximity to someone. A desire that, no matter who you are, you probably feel multiple times every day. And here comes Bruce Springsteen saying it so simply, and with a classic '90s music video to boot. Plus, that bridge, man oh man. A+. "We're all riders on this train." Yes, Bruce, yes we are.
— Mitch Pollock (@mitchellblack)
‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-out’ (1975)
I must have been six or seven years old the first time I heard Bruce Springsteen's "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out." It was likely an AM Radio staple because I heard it everywhere, from my father's car to my grandmother's kitchen. When it came on, my head would turn and my imagination would kick in. Forget the lyrics; the sonic fingerprint of the song alone would transport you to a dark city street on a windy night. The melancholy horn intro followed by the snappy instrumental rhythm of the first verse puts you in a place and time before the Boss even utters a word. And when he does sing, the story unfolds with the rhythm of a street hustler trying to make things happen.
This is music production at a very high level. Sure, the words and melody tell a story, but more than that, so does everything else. With "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" every note from every instrument sets a mood, pushing the story forward. Springsteen studied the greats: Motown, the Brill Building songwriters, Philly soul and Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. All are evident on "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out," which was Springsteen's turning point. It is this song, and its production, that casts the mould for all the hits yet to come.
— Ron Skinner (@CBCRonSkinner)
‘I’m on Fire’ (1984)
Compared to the bombastic subversiveness of the title track and the hit single "Dancing in the Dark," "I'm on Fire" was a decidedly low-key minimalist single from Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. At the time it was considered a bit of an oddity in Springsteen's catalogue, not only for its generous use of synths, but also for Springsteen's willingness to explore desire and lust, accentuated by his tightly wound delivery. The song's video, directed by John Sayles, was also a curiosity, as it featured Springsteen acting as a car mechanic, with dialogue — a rarity for music videos of the time (Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield," released a year earlier, was the first to do so). Despite the song and the video's outlier status, Sayles takes the song's narrative and, at the end, adds a subtle layer of class analysis, bringing it back in thematic line with Springsteen's best work.
— Del Cowie (@vibesandstuff)
The narrative thread of rock song as social critique that underlines so much of "Born to Run" isn't just picked up in 1978's "Badlands," it's even more blatant and unabashed. Call it a rallying cry or an anthem on behalf of the working class and underprivileged, musically it's not as driven as its thematic predecessor, but that's because the lyrics do so much more of the heavy lifting.
"That it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive,
I wanna find one face that ain't looking through me,
I wanna find one place,
I wanna spit in the face of these badlands."
Incisive and heartfelt, scathing and hopeful, "Badlands" is a beautiful mix of how the personal and political can never really be separated. — AW
‘Hungry Heart’ (1980)
Springsteen's first popular song, "Hungry Heart" was almost a Ramones hit. Joey Ramone asked Springsteen to write him a song after the two met in Asbury Park in the ’70s, but instead of repeating his “Because the Night” history — and Patti Smith’s subsequent success with that Springsteen-penned hit — the Boss kept this track to himself. A slightly sped up, radio-friendly pop gem, "Hungry Heart" was later released as the first single off The River, and it's been embedded in our brains ever since. Even though it has hands in various pop-culture pockets across the decades — the song was featured in Risky Business, The Wedding Singer, The Perfect Storm and as recently as the 2013 film Warm Bodies — when you hear that sax kick in, you can't help but belt out “everybody’s got a hungry heart,” because it's true, no matter who you are.
— Holly Gordon (@hollygowritely)
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