In light of Bruce Chester Alan Arthur Springsteen’s (note: not real middle name) 17th studio album, Wrecking Ball, hitting stores this week, Popblerd has turned to one of its resident Springsteen enthusiasts, native New Jerseyan Andrew “Drew” Ratliff, to provide a definitive (read: entirely subjective) ranked retrospective of The Boss’ studio ouvre.
Naturally, sacrifices had to be made. First of all, no compilations: this weeds out the exhaustive bonus disc on The Essential Bruce Springsteen, the four-disc-strong unreleased material compilation Tracks (and its condensed counterpart, 18 Tracks), and 2010’s double-disc vault-exhuming The Promise, which culled leftovers from Bruce’s turbulent Darkness on the Edge of Town / The River sessions into one dizzying set of vintage E Street numbers. And, since they’re largely made up of previously released material, live albums were also a no-go: Bruce’s triple-album behemoth Live 1975-85 misses the cut due to this criteria, as do stellar double-disc sets Live in New York City and Hammersmith Odeon London ’75. These are all essential listening, Boss fans, they really are, brimming with youthful energy and the most glorious heights of rock and roll hubris. They just have no place on a bare-bones list like this.
What we’re left with, then, are those 17 studio albums. Here is one superfan’s ranked take on these, complete with running commentary. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be utterly uninterested – although, in the case of that last one, I’m not quite sure why you’re reading this anyway. Onward, then!
17. Human Touch (1992): Released on the same day as Lucky Town - itself, spoiler alert, not one of Bruce’s strongest outings – Human Touch feels like an afterthought even stacked next to his weaker records. Lengthy for a single-disc offering, but not nearly as brawny and forceful as his other records of daunting runtime, and full of go-nowhere melodies and murky pop production, Human Touch is as sleight as it is meandering. Songs bleed into one another, minor classics briefly surfacing (“57 Channels” is a fan favorite, and it’s fun enough, but lacks Boss magic) only to drift back in the fog again – this may be the only Springsteen album that a fan can rightfully declare “bad”.
16. Lucky Town (1992): A rockier, considerably more tuneful, swifter counterpart to Human Touch, Lucky Town‘s calling card is its spirit – relative, of course, to the turgid Touch – and its melodic sense, which finds Bruce far more fine-tuned than on its notorious contemporary. But where Bruce successfully distanced himself from the E Street sound on 1987’s lovely Tunnel of Love, Lucky Town reads like a collection of songs that could easily be, with some elbow grease and some Big Man, E Street Band pop-rock classics a la Born in the U.S.A. (“The Big Muddy” and stellar, rousing opener “Better Days” seem particularly geared towards this treatment, and the romantic, meditative treatise “If I Should Fall Behind” was turned into a slow, devoted full-band singalong on the E Street Band’s 2001 tour. The latter rendition remains the better, although the song holds up.) Among other things that could have made Lucky Town a better record: not being released at the same time as Human Touch. History would remember this album a lot more kindly if it weren’t paired with Bruce’s scrap-heap record.
15. The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995): Springsteen at his most explicitly political (and Springsteen album covers at their most explicitly photoshopped), Tom Joad is a poignant, lyrically precise record full of social unease and stark imagery; Springsteen evokes Steinbeck’s Depression-era hero both literally and metaphorically, and the juxtaposition of the vivid lyrics against a bare-bones folk backdrop makes Bruce’s words truly pop. A shame the melodies rarely do, then; these top-tier, poetic stories deserve more memorable music. The title track and “Youngstown” remain undisputed classics, however.
14. Devils & Dust (2005): More of a tie with Tom Joad than an explicit victor, Springsteen’s rustic, E Street Band-less follow-up to 2001 comeback record The Rising doesn’t traffic in as much evocative prose, but boasts the more intricate arrangements and tastier melodies. Like his stripped down ’80s (Nebraska) and ’90s (Tom Joad) records, Devils & Dust finds Bruce in folksy activist mode; where The Rising both lamented the tragedy of 9/11 and celebrated the resilience of the American spirit in the face of such sobering violence, Devils is a darker affair, one which retreats deep into the dusty country back roads to examine the erosion of the American dream in the wake of war, the early stages of recession, and the re-election of the worst president many of us are likely to ever see, provided that candidacy thing doesn’t work out for Rick Santorum. Along the way, Bruce stops to smell the roses, and when he’s not having the saddest sex of all time in “Reno” or applying his patented slow burn into an acoustic ballad about the Iraq War, he’s content to find domestic bliss in “Leah”, “Long Time Comin'”, and the glorious “All I’m Thinkin’ About”, wherein Bruce dusts off a rarely-used (but surprisingly supple) falsetto for a rollicking love song.
13. Wrecking Ball (2012): It’s already been reviewed in these pages, but the newest edition to Bruce’s discography is fulfilling Bruce’s one-overtly-political-album-per-decade quota early; indignant, righteous, angry, sad, and hopeful all at once, Wrecking Ball spans the whole of Springsteen’s influences in a fairly rote but reasonably exciting fashion. Notable for its reliance on Bible-belt imagery, inventive mix of acoustic instruments with electronic percussion and samples, and its lyrical examination of the financial crisis, Wrecking Ball, like Tom Joad before it, has mood to spare but few true highlights.
12. Working on a Dream (2009): Something of a companion piece to 2007’s Magic, Working on a Dream finds Bruce’s late-00’s reincarnation of the E Street Band once again trying on individually-contained pop nuggets for the length of an album, albeit with a more optimistic bent. Where Magic‘s songs retained the residual unrest of the Bush era, Dream finds joy in looking forward to a promising future; and that’s about all the consistency the album has, as both song milieu and quality seem to differ from song to song. Regardless, the tracklist is peppered with crackling pop-rock numbers, songs like “Life Itself” and “This Life” frolicking in the symphonic vigor of their earworm melodies, “Surprise, Surprise” and “My Lucky Day” sounding like Lucky Town numbers tarted up with E Street swagger (precisely the reason Lucky Town doesn’t work as well as it could), the spirits of Brian Wilson and Phil Spector deftly woven into the record’s fabric. (This doesn’t excuse “Outlaw Pete”, not a particularly awful song, but a head-scratcher of an opener and possibly Bruce’s eight strangest minutes on record.)
11. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006): Culling from Pete Seeger’s songbook to assemble a folk-rock hoedown of a cover record, We Shall Overcome may not contain any Springsteen originals, but it retains a rough-and-tumble urgency and a live-performance electricity that is uniquely Boss. Bruce is a noted troubadour, acclaimed for the spare, acoustic Nebraska, but playing ringleader to a nimble, kitchen-sink band of session players suits him well; through off-the-cuff arrangements and a thoroughly ramshackle approach, We Shall Overcome edges out lower-ranked albums on the basis of sheer immediacy. A take on gospel standard “O Mary Don’t You Weep” is shot through with a loping New Orleans jazz rhythm, mournful violins, and a veritable chorus of live background singers; it’s also Bruce’s most purely exciting track of the past ten years, give or take a “Girls In Their Summer Clothes”.
And now, we stay tuned for part two!
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