First things first: if you’re only tuning in for the top ten Bruce Springsteen albums, you’ve arrived late to the party, and you must check out the first installment, conveniently linked here.
Now! I believe we have a list to resume, or something like that.
10. Magic (2007): Where follow-up album Working on a Dream‘s series of self-contained pop songs worked in short bursts but were rarely in service of the album as a whole, Magic straddles the line between Bruce’s thematically cohesive finest works and his scattershot pop records: even in the album’s prettiest moments, Magic is underscored by a sighing wistfulness and varying degrees of melancholy. And generally speaking, it yields dividends: “Radio Nowhere” nicks an all-too-familiar riff, but it, along with “Last To Die”, achieves an apocalyptic fury in its barreling minor-key simplicity, and when Bruce and the E Street Band turn their collective eye to Wall of Sound pure pop, the results are largely striking, none more so than “Girls In Their Summer Clothes”, Bruce’s most glorious tip of the hat to classic pop since The River. That song and “Your Own Worst Enemy” sound terrific layered in symphonic production flourishes and E Street harmonies; “Livin’ in the Future” comes close to capturing E Street Band lightning in a bottle, gargantuan Big Man sax lines and all. It’s an exciting retro direction for Bruce, full of surprising detours and poignant melodies.
9. The Rising (2002): First things first: you don’t need some internet writer a decade later telling you what event inspired The Rising, or revisiting the day in question and the national mood of the time. What I can tell you is this: being inspired by 9/11 doesn’t make The Rising Bruce Springsteen’s best album, or even (theoretically) a good one, as Alan Jackson can tell you. But The Rising is a good album, and being inspired by 9/11 does illustrate Bruce’s uncanny way with a concept. Like fine literature, Bruce and a newly-reunited E Street Band sift through the entire spectrum of human emotion in the face of unspeakable tragedy and come up with something that sounds a lot bigger than 9/11: The Album. It’s a bold record with many colors and textures, and while Bruce has the ability to wither defenses with songs like the devastating, somber “You’re Missing” and the unbearably moving “My City of Ruins” – wherein Bruce deploys a full gospel choir without, astonishingly, a hint of hubris or excess or anything less than genuine – he also understands the fundamental role music plays in the healing process, and subsequently treats us to swinging, sunny numbers like “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day” and frenetic rave-ups like “Mary’s Place”, insisting that we heal not only through tears, but through euphoria. It’s overlong, and messy, and it hits as often as it misses, but for better or worse, it’s an album greater than the sum of its parts, and resists the urge to make its point with drippy sentiment.
8. Born in the U.S.A. (1984): Marked by its bellowing, furious title track – famously misappropriated by Ronald Reagan as a patriotic conservative anthem – and production tics that plant it as very much a musical byproduct of its time, Born in the U.S.A. features what might be Bruce’s most concise collection of pop tunes. As such, it was a chart monster, spawning a ridiculous seven top ten hits and splitting the difference between blue-collar unrest and wistful sentiment; calling it overrated would be a bit of a stretch, especially given how strong most of these songs are, but it never really kicks into high gear, the E Street Band largely reining it in, eschewing hyperbolic arrangements for tighter, metronome-steady pop songcraft. And a lot of these songs could benefit from it: megahits “Glory Days” and “Dancer in the Dark” sound worse with each passing year, often-evocative lyrics falling prey to chintzy baseball-stadium keyboards and sterile instrumentals. Thankfully, Bruce resurrects the yearning, open-highway spirit of Born To Run with “No Surrender” and nostalgically laments a fractured friendship on the heartbreaking (yet optimistic) “Bobby Jean”, and these are just two of the man’s finest moments; elsewhere, “Cover Me” pulsates with snarling energy, “I’m On Fire” offers a dark, lusty take on the bedroom ballad, and “I’m Goin’ Down” provides the flipside, a chaster, poppier take on sexual frustration that pops and grooves with Bruce’s best no-frills pop tunes.
7. Nebraska (1982): The For Emma, Forever Ago of social unrest, Nebraska conveys the early despair of the Reagan era with vivid, stark imagery, rife with isolation and the fractured narratives of a fragile psyche. Nebraska was the least-immediate Bruce Springsteen record to date in 1982, and it’s true: this sparse, fatalistic version of highway folk takes some getting used to. Once it’s absorbed, however, Nebraska becomes a shockingly powerful commentary on the shifting dynamics of good and evil, the psychology behind the murder-ballad narrator, and the grey areas in between.
6. Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ (1973): Arguably the genesis for the “new Dylan” tag Bruce was saddled with early on in his career, debut record Greetings From Asbury Park doesn’t arrive with the kinks ironed out: there are reams of free-form, abstract lyrics that don’t quite land, and non-starters like “Mary, Queen of Arkansas” and “The Angel” that are more slow than burn. Still, Greetings‘ flashes of brilliance outweigh its weaknesses, and what flashes they were: the urgent “For You” is an early career standout, and unlike later, more linear works, it and “Growin’ Up” telegraph their theses through evocative language and pure, youthful exuberance. It’s thrilling to see what elements would creep into his more accomplished later work; these are the kernels of a young genius at work, and more importantly, a kinetic blast of raucous rock energy, infused with literary storytelling and left-field turns of phrase.
5. Tunnel of Love (1987): Never content with making the same album twice, Bruce has reminded us time and again that after the good times comes the hangover; written and recorded in the final year of a turbulent marriage, Bruce once again narrows his focus, this time excavating romantic love for all the insecurities and peccadilloes contained therein. It’s a courageous follow-up to a blockbuster record, something this inward and probing – and sad, so unbearably sad at times that it’s hard to take, as on “One Step Up”, a work of devastating beauty that sifts through the wreckage of a loveless marriage. Grudging acceptance is reached on “When You’re Alone”, and the devious, often-barbed machinations of deceptive lovers are starkly examined on “Brilliant Disguise” and “Two Faces”. Frustration and stubbornness raise their heads early on (the ferocious “Spare Parts”, for example) and slip, like dueling hydra heads, around the album’s narrative; musically, Tunnel of Love is rooted in its time, but never imprisoned by it, late-’80s production tactics never choking the life out of one of Bruce’s most incisive sets to date. It’s such a personal, desperate record that it never misses the E Street Band; in fact, it functions better without it, its bruised restraint benefiting from the minimalist approach. Euphoria is never the name of the game on Tunnel of Love, and the result is one of the greatest break-up records ever recorded.
4. The River (1980): The sprawling, panoramic double-album that earned Bruce his first Top Ten hit (the swinging, deceptively upbeat “Hungry Heart”) is a beautiful mess. It’s willfully scattershot, vacillating wildly between emotional poles, but it may also be the finest distillation of Bruce’s multiple aesthetics: bouncy, goofy roadhouse rock and roll (“I’m A Rocker”, “Cadillac Ranch”, the priceless “Sherry Darling”) collides with the working-class frustration and jilted Americana of 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town (“Independence Day”, “Jackson Cage”, the heart-stopping “Point Blank”), incorporating Brill Building classic pop (“I Wanna Marry You”) and forecasting the downbeat fatalism of Nebraska (“Wreck on the Highway”, “Stolen Car”) along the way. It’s a greatest-hits package in one double album, capturing the multiple personas of a performer at his peak; witness the evolution of Bruce’s longing vocal performance on “Drive All Night”, the way that three chords repeated over 8 minutes never sounds too repetitive, the way that he bleeds pathos and desperation from a simple, yearning lyric, and you too will realize that The River is the work of an artist on a hot streak.
3. Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978): A battle-scarred howl of passion, Darkness on the Edge of Town might lack predecessor Born To Run‘s exuberance, but slowly emerges as the most logical destination. Over the course of three records, Bruce’s heroes enjoy their youth, hope to escape their small-town grind before they’re too old to enjoy it, and then grow roots, unable to fulfill the highway’s promise. Here, the highway offers temporary release, but escape is always described as fleeting, a brief respite from the soul-crushing in-and-out of “the work, the working, just the working life.” Darkness‘ hopelessness is palpable, its futile yearning utterly primal, resulting in the aching howls of “Something in the Night”‘s anguished coda and “Racing in the Streets” dusky weariness. But pointing to standouts is, ultimately, futile – the heroic, romantic narrator of “Born to Run” is trapped in his death trap, his suicide rap, and he’s sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor. Each song, each second of each song is fraught with this array of emotions; like Born To Run, Darkness is a bellow directly from the gut. It’s just that this time around, our heroes are bellowing to a brick wall.
2. Born To Run (1975): A classic, plain and simple. This was Bruce bridging the gap between two records; where follow-up Darkness on the Edge of Town finds the “romantic young boys” of 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle growing up and facing the harsh realities of working life, Born To Run captures them in glorious widescreen cinematics, ready to ride Thunder Road all the way to redemption. This highway motif oozes from every pore of Born To Run, and it, appropriately, feels like the most road-ready record in Bruce’s entire repertoire. Its seams burst with jaw-dropping musical moments: Bruce’s forceful, emotive wail in the second half of “Backstreets”, for example, or that sumptuous moment in the image-thick “Thunder Road” where Bruce declares that he’s “pulling out of here to win” and the band positively floors it in the coda. Clarence Clemon’s robust sax lines snake out of the ether on the pounding “She’s the One”, and drive stunning closer “Jungleland” to climax. It’s a rich, timeless, immediate record, and perhaps Bruce’s most definitive album-length statement, his least-disputed classic.
1. The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle (1973): And here we get personal: the slow climb to adulthood and maturity is often a heartwrenching process, and the overarching narrative that informs the innocence lost in the journey from The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle to Darkness on the Edge of Town is a potent mirroring of my own fears. At 26, I feel trapped in my environment; a few years ago, I felt on top of the world, full of whirlwind romance and wild, sleepless nights. Darkness may, at my age, seem to be a bit more relevant than Wild & Innocent, but no: I prefer to cling to the freewheeling, spirited youth of the latter. It’s an album that has grown with me; when I first heard it, it seemed relevant to me, full of puppy love and street drama and in-the-moment articulation, and when I listen now, I hear the poetic free spirit I always thought I was. It was a time when the Jersey shore Bruce romanticizes here had nothing to do with MTV, a time when these rowdy seaside nights were indicative of the Jersey I always thought I lived in as a kid, a time when I’d have assumed Snooki and JWOWW were simply Pokemon names.
Each note on Wild is in place; each word is sung to perfection; each song is given room to breathe, often turning into free-form, jazz and r&b inspired jams in their codas. Side Two is simply the finest second side of a record in all of rock and roll: “Incident on 57th Street” introduces us to the concept of the “romantic young boys”, an ideal that Springsteen would soon upend and turn into tragedy. Four minutes in, the busy, ecstatic arrangement pares down into sparse, brushed percussion and Garry Tallent’s understated bass; the minute that follows is my single favorite minute in Bruce Springsteen history, 60 endlessly replayable seconds that crystallize Bruce’s ability to subvert narrative expectations, a minute of astonishingly vivid, cinematic imagery. The song ebbs and flows into the ecstatic “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and the free-associative urban waltz “New York City Serenade”; it’s the best album flipside in rock history, and The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street shuffle remains, at least for this superfan, Bruce Springsteen’s finest hour.
Questions? Comments? Did I severely over- or underrate your favorite Boss album? Drop me a comment and weigh in!