Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Top 50 Bruce Springsteen Songs

In which we once again foolishly attempt to winnow down one of the greatest bodies of work in rock and roll history—Bruce Springsteen's oeuvre—to the very best 50: a fool's errand if ever there was one. 

As with our earlier list, The Top 50 Beatles Songs, feelings were hurt, noses bloodied, paternity questioned, evidence planted, warrants served, but at long last we did it, and definitively too, one might add. 

Except that six months after we compiled the list, we each took a look at the list and realized that at least one or two masterpieces had somehow gotten left off—no "Highway Patrolman"?! No "For You"?! No "Pink Cadillac" or "Streets of Philadelphia" or "Queen of the Supermarket"?! Madness, madness, we say!—each of us logically blaming the other.

A sign of just how wide and deep the greatness of Bruce Springsteen goes? Or how one's view of art changes constantly? Or impossible to get just right a task like this is?

So. You've paid your money, you take your chances: The Top 50 Bruce Springsteen Songs. (So far.) In alphabetical order. Because numbering these by quality? No. No.
That's a bridge too far, even for us.
 

“4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” — “For me this boardwalk life is through,” Bruce mutters exhaustedly at the end of this magnificent lovesick Jersey Shore travelogue. A justifiable favorite of Springsteen’s longtime hardcores, this ballad of loss and lust amidst all those odd characters from his past whispers in gorgeous understatement. The weeping guitar he pours over the rhythm line breaks your heart, Dan Federici’s accordion is perfect accompaniment, and Vini Lopez’s drumming is almost, dare we say it, subdued. This was the earliest sign of a wild child starting to grow up—Madame Marie and the Tilt-a-Whirls would soon give way to highways and the dreams beyond the pier lights, even as he looks to get lucky with Sandy one last time. A breathtaking farewell.

“American Land” — In which the E Street Band turns into the Pogues. This stomping Celtic-infused immigrant's tale appears as a bonus track on two albums – live on the 2006 Seeger Sessions and a studio version on the most recent Wrecking Ball. Both are brilliant. Inspired by a folk song—“He Lies in the American Land”—that Pete Seeger later covered, it talks of all America promises to be...and all it promises not to be. It could easily be looked as the Irish twin to “Born in the USA.” One of Soozie Tyrell’s finest ever moments; she drives it along in celebratory fashion, despite the sometimes downbeat lyrics. And an awesome concert staple.

“American Skin” — Even the best person can make a horrifying mistake. The question is: what happens then? Do you go tharn, take the understandable and human route and try to hide it, hope you can jerry-rig a solution and maybe get away with it? Or do you choose the hard road and back up and admit the error, ask for forgiveness and try to actually fix things? That’s the question Bruce Springsteen ponders in this wildly misunderstood song, which opens with a police officer who’s just shot someone, on his knees, "kneeling over his body in the vestibule, praying for his life." But after focusing initially on the one cop, Springsteen pulls the camera back and shows how this question relates to our entire country. He doesn’t have the answers but he’s maybe the only major artist still willing to ask the hardest of questions, audience reaction be damned. "We're baptized in these waters and in each other's blood." 

“Atlantic City” — "Everything dies, baby, that's a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back." Bruce Springsteen, famous lapsed Catholic, going all eastern religion? Not quite. This tragic tale of a man who's basically tried to do everything right yet finds himself with no alternative to a life of crime opens with violent death and has him agreeing to do a favor for, you know, a guy. But despite that, what he's really hoping will be reborn is his luck and the love he and his girl once shared—and not necessarily in that order. In fact, given his concern for her well-being ("put on your stockings, baby, 'cuz the night's getting cold"), perhaps their love isn't quite the goner he thinks it is. Maybe—maybe—their love will return and be enough to see them through the bad ending we can see coming a mile away, even if he can't. But don't count on it. 

“Backstreets” — Where to begin? Perhaps Roy Bittan’s extended piano opening, once described as being so beautiful “it sounds like the musical opening of The Iliad.” Or the story itself, two friends (lovers?) believing in each other enough that maybe it would someday get them somewhere. Or Bruce’s heartbreaking scream at the climax (hello, nurse!), followed by a soul-draining guitar solo almost too painful to listen to. A key ingredient of the epic Born to Run album which launched him, “Backstreets” had it all, culminating in one of the finest rock-n-roll lyrics ever written which brought the desperation, longing and search for something great to the fore: “Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see? Trying to learn how to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be?” 

“Badlands” — One of the earliest and best examples of Bruce Springsteen’s mastery of hiding a paradoxical juxtaposition in plain sight, this song is remarkably dark while sounding utterly triumphant. Starting with violent imagery and confusion (“Lights out,” “a head-on collision smashin’ in my guts”)  before laying it right out there in the chorus, “Let the broken hearts stand as the price you've gotta pay,” implying, no, outright declaring that broken hearts—note the plural, meaning it’s not only the singer’s heart who’s getting broken but he, in turn, is breaking the hearts of others—are simply the cost of getting what you want. Does it end with a declaration of hope and faith? It does, and it’s stirring, but even that’s not quite as convincing as the simple sound of the Mighty Max abusing his snare and the Big Man testifying.

“Born in the U.S.A.” — First comes single-shot drums that Max strikes so violently they sound like cannon fire, accompanying a Roy Bittan synthesizer so uplifting it makes you want to stand up and salute. But this is no jingoistic anthem, as is clear the second Bruce spits out the words, “Born down a dead man’s town, the first kick I took was when I hit the ground.” It’s a brutal tale of a frustrated Vietnam veteran forgotten by his country, screaming anger and outrage. This song elevated Bruce from a rock star into an American Icon, somewhat ironically given the content. But its intent was clear and resounding to those who were paying attention—every American deserves a voice. 

“Born to Run” — Only a handful of even the greatest artists can come up with That Song, the one that somehow encapsulates almost everything great about them: The Rolling Stones nailed it with “Satisfaction” and Nirvana with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This is where Bruce does it. The singer of this song wants: he wants to break free, he wants to find where he fits in, he wants desperately…even if he’s not sure exactly what—but whatever it is, he doesn’t have it, that he knows. Most of all, he wants love, he wants someone to feel as passionately as he does. What he doesn’t seem to quite get, but what the listeners do, is that he’s got it already: the E Street Band playing their hearts out behind him, laying it all on the line, leaving nothing on the table, and in the process creating one of the very greatest rock and roll songs of all time. That's love.

“Brilliant Disguise” — At the apex of Tunnel of Love, his 1987 masterpiece about the perils of relationships, comes a work of art that shows exactly how tremulous the idea of love and marriage can be. "Now look at me, baby, struggling to do everything right. And then it all falls apart when out go the lights." Bruce wears his heart and soul on his sleeve here, wondering how things that seem so right can get so wrong, and baffled that he never banked on doubt and fear coming into play when he fell head over heels. This song—mid-tempo with a great pop melody—lays it all out there, cold and stark.

“Dancing in the Dark” — The Boss goes...dance? What seemed like such a departure makes total sense in retrospect. Springsteen's music was always heavily influenced by r&b and pop, and one of his biggest early(ish) hits was courtesy the Pointer Sisters. So strip away the 80s synths and Max’s drum machine impersonation and you’re left with a typically bleak, desperate Springsteen lyric ("I ain't got nothin' to say," "I wanna change my hair, my clothes, my face," “I’m just livin’ in a dump like this”) hidden in plain sight, thanks to a crazily catchy melody and shiny happy people production. Sure, the Big Man’s sax comes in at the very end to lift the spirits, and the video was all glistening biceps, tight jeans and smiles, but underneath all that is a cry of desperate unhappiness—which, as with John Lennon and “HELP!”, pretty much no one noticed at the time.

“Darkness on the Edge of Town” — “Everybody’s got a secret, sonny, something that they just can’t face.” Such is the sentiment on this final tale of despair and desolation, on an album filled with tales of despair and desolation. Unlike his previous two records, which ended with sprawling city operas bathed in romance, this is dramatically understated by comparison (at least until the explosion at the chorus). Bruce offers no answers to overcoming our crippling struggles, though we do get an assurance that he’ll be there, “with everything I got,” no matter the cost. And maybe that will be enough to finally see some light, maybe it won't. But this is how this brilliant record ends. Not awash in a dreamy glow, but wrapped in darkness. 

“Devils & Dust” — “I’ve got my finger on the trigger but I don’t know who to trust.” Springsteen returns to the themes of honesty, malleability of trust and elusiveness of knowledge explored in “Brilliant Disguise” but now transposed to a warzone. "What if what if you do to survive kills the things you love?" he wonders. This time it’s not just his wife he’s not sure he can trust, it’s his foreign allies, his leaders, even his combat buddies—and most of all, just as in the earlier meditation on marriage, himself: "when I look inside my heart, there's just devils and dust." 

“The Ghost of Tom Joad” 
— Homeless families sleep in their cars, a preacher smokes a cigarette by a campfire, cardboard dwellings underneath highway overpasses are suffused with despondency. “Welcome the new world order,” Bruce sings, chillingly, almost too softly to be audible. This is the world Bruce sings about on 1995’s stark, acoustic The Ghost of Tom Joad album, and never more pointedly or accurately than on the magnificent title track. Where are the heroes? Where is Steinbeck’s legendary figure, rushing in to stand and fight for all those who are so badly without a champion? At the end Tom’s ghost finally seems to arrive. But has he arrived too late? We don’t know, but neither Bruce nor the times that have followed the song’s release give us much reason to be optimistic.


“Girls in Their Summer Clothes” — Bruce meets Brian Wilson! Okay, not really. But the warm pop charm of this 2007 song sounds like a dream as its played, as sweet and easy as the summertime it sings about. Though there’s a sharp melancholy edge here too. (Big surprise.) Bruce is hitting the town to see the beautiful girls and even boasts “tonight I’m gonna burn this town down,” but he also makes it clear that they all simply “pass me by.” Brendan O’Brien’s production, Max’s effortless timekeeping and the layers of guitars and keyboards all add up to a wondrously hummable tune that 25 years earlier, in an era when FM rock existed, would have become a radio staple.

“Glory Days” — That big carnival organ, the fresh-faced, smiley video: they obscure that this song is actually about people who've found themselves washed-up has-beens by the time they're old enough to vote. An oddly prescient lyric from Springsteen, considering he was already successful but nothing like the global megasuperstar he was just about to become, and a cautionary tale to himself he seems to have taken to heart: "I hope when I get older I don't sit around thinkin' about it...but I probably will." The utterly straight-ahead music, all three chords, fits perfectly—especially the way the opening guitar riff is syncopated so you can't tell where the 1 is. Once Max firmly establishes the beat, you almost forget there was ever anything amiss. But there was.

“Growin’ Up” — The song that got it all started. When a 23-year-old Bruce Springsteen auditioned for CBS in 1972, this song is what he played. And boy howdy did it work. Bruce’s first great song, it's an impish explanation of who he was and where he hoped to go, backed with some of his finest early wordplay and driven along by a perfectly sweet piano. Bruce the Romantic wasn’t quite born yet, but this lookback shows he has an idea where he’s headed, particularly with this: “I swear I found a key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car.” Soon enough he’s be hitting the road in search of glory, but for now, he was content to keep growing up. 

“Hungry Heart” — His first real hit, “Hungry Heart” established the new Springsteen modus operandi: catchy, upbeat, 3 or 4 chord tunes with a singalong melody you can dance to and a lyric that Leonard Cohen would consider too dark: "I got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack—I went out for a ride and  I never went back; I met her in a Kingtown bar—we fell in love, I knew it had to end." Originally written for the Ramones, it opens with Max’s most overt Motown tribute, has a lovely organ solo from the late Phantom Dan, and is the last Bruce song of which Clarence’s honking sax is part of the very fabric (as opposed to a marvelous addition). Fantastic backing vocals by the Turtles—the first Springsteen song with such sweet harmonies—help make this the first utterly perfect pop song he wrote and recorded himself.

“Incident on 57th Street” — The first of Bruce’s three longplay street operas—the other two would be “New York City Serenade” and “Jungleland”—and also the most straightforward narrative. Romance plays out in Shakespearian terms at the tenement level, where heroes Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane shoot for love amid all the underworld uncertainty. “We may find it out on the street tonight, baby. Or we may walk until the daylight, maybe.” David Sancious’ piano work is among his loveliest ever, and gives the song its heartbeat, while Bruce’s vocals are weary, wounded and unceasingly tender. One of the very favorites of his old-guard fans, with good reason. 

“Independence Day” — Rock and roll has always been a form of rebellion—against authority, against society, school, the law...against parents. But no one has written about parents as often or deeply as Bruce Springsteen. Originally shaggy dog stories, and later howls of protest and pain directed at his father, he's more recently been writing from the other side, as a father himself. But for all the spine-chilling angst of "Adam Raised a Cain," he never wrote as movingly as this lament for the seemingly unbridgeable gap between him and his father. Too similar to be able to reach each other, the narrator feels he has no choice but to leave, granting each other independence—the son’s not the only one gaining his freedom here. The final lines, "I swear I never meant to take these things away" are as sad as any lyrics he would ever sing. But long before he gets to those words, Danny's heartbroken organ lines and Clarence's aching sax have already told the story.

“Jack of All Trades” — An anthem for the 1% v. 99% times we live in, this gorgeous six-minute piano ballad, ultimately taken to some heavenly plain at the climax by guest guitarist Tom Morello’s searing, simplistically perfect solo, is the culmination of Bruce’s 40 years of writing about the hopes, dreams and limitations of the working man. A handyman wants—needs—to work, and remains resolute that a man with his skills will always be able to find employment. He repeatedly tells his loved ones, “We’ll be all right”—but is he trying to reassure them or himself? Because as this song makes it clear, people like the narrator do not call the shots, and remain forever at the mercy of those who do. His newest great song, and a heartbreakingly spot-on picture of the now, written by someone who’s seen it coming for decades. 

“Janey Don’t You Lose Heart” — Dave Marsh once wrote that one sign of just how great the Beatles were was that no other band in history could ever have afforded to bury a song and performance as brilliant as "I'm Down" on a B-side. The exact same thing could be said for Bruce Springsteen and this song. An utterly perfect piece of pop from a guy whose melodic gifts are often overlooked, it was one of nearly 80 songs he wrote and recorded for Born in the USA.  In the hands of a lesser writer the line, "'til every river  runs dry, until the sun, honey, is torn from the sky" could have been hackneyed, but Springsteen follows that up with the decidedly unhackneyed and unexpected, "'til every fear you've felt burst free." Other artists with long and successful careers would have made this song the centerpiece of their finest and best-selling albums. He made it the flip side of his sixth single off that album. That is an embarrassment of riches.

“Jungleland” — Bruce’s epic nine-minute-plus street saga, stretching from Harlem to the Jersey state line, is one of rock-n-roll’s most unusual masterpieces. Veterans reunite, punks and their lovers “take a stab at romance” while the cops chase them away, and gang fights play out in operatic form amid urban battlegrounds bathed in advertising neon. The entire world seems hanging in the balance as Bruce tells the story, motored along by startling power chords, stunning changes of pace, gorgeous piano and violin accompaniment, and perhaps his most diverse vocal performance ever. And right in the middle of all the grandiose madness, Clarence Clemons pens a love letter to the fans, delivering a two minute and eleven second saxophone solo that leaves us breathless. There is only one Bruce Springsteen, and there was only one Big Man. “Jungleland” explains why.

“Kingdom of Days” — “I count my blessings that you’re mine for always. We laugh beneath the covers and count the wrinkles and the grays.” Bruce is all grown up – the romance of his early escape years has been sought and conquered, the doubts of Tunnel of Love are gone, and now is the time for him and Patti to look back on the years and share a laugh as they grow old together and enjoy the blessing of days gone by and days to come. It goes without saying that no rock star has ever aged as gracefully as Bruce Springsteen, and the contented ease with which he sings this lovely little 2008 song makes it clear his happiness is well-earned and very real. We all long to have that someone to laugh and smile with, years down the road, and look back at all we’ve done together. Inside his kingdom of days, a very satisfied Bruce Springsteen has exactly that. 

“Land of Hope and Dreams” — The "This Land Is Your Land" for the 21st century, this song could have been an embarrassingly didactic screed. In Springsteen's capable hands, it's a moving testament to his love for his country and his fellow humans as well as the long-lasting impact his long-abandoned Catholic faith had on him: "This train," he asserts, "carries saints and sinners, losers and winners, whore and gamblers"—which is to say, there's room for all of us. Most of all, it's the finest bit of heartland rock the E Street Band ever produced, channeling and (at the very least) equaling even the mighty Band in its total mastery and assimilation and amalgamation of gospel, country and blues—in other words, rock and roll. "This train," he asserts, "carries winner and losers." And you don't just want to believe him; for as long as the song lasts, at least, you do. All aboard.

“Long Time Comin’” — Bruce Springsteen said he didn't release this song—a little-known sequel to his beloved "Rosalita”—for years because it was "too happy." Only Springsteen could think a song featuring a pair of dads—one of whom’s a deadbeat and the other a self-professed failure—was too happy. On the other hand…well, he's right: it is an ultimately beautiful and joyous song, wherein we discover that since leaving the swamps of Jersey for that little café down San Diego way, Rosie and her boy have stayed together and aren't just parents themselves now but still every bit as electric together as they were back when Rosie's parents wanted to keep them apart—“It’s me and you, Rosie, cracklin’ like crossed wires.” Lyrically rich and intricate, it also hits like a jackhammer, as with the heartcrushingly intimate image of the singer gently placing his hand on his sleeping wife’s belly in order to feel the baby inside kicking. Once again, only Dylan has managed to grow older while still being so far ahead of the pack qualitatively.

“Long Walk Home” — Time and again, Springsteen has refused to go the easiest, most commercial route, preferring instead to poke at the dark underbelly of the American dream and shine a light on the things forgotten about or trampled underfoot, whether people, promises or values. "That flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone," Bruce sings, "Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't." Ah, if only. "Now it's gonna be a long walk home." Six years down the road, sadly, we're still trying to find our way back, with no end in sight.

“My Beautiful Reward” — Freed from whatever constraints he felt the E Street Band had put on him, and now happily (re)married with a kid, Bruce showed his thankful side on 1992’s solo effort Lucky Town. And this, perhaps the record's best track, gave voice to the joy of the search. “Down empty hallways I went from door to door, searching for my beautiful reward.” We never learn exactly what the reward was, only that the quest to find it never seems to end—he’s still looking high and low as this gentle and melodic gem ends. And the search likely continues today, proving that happiness and satisfaction don’t necessarily have to be the end of the journey. 

“My Hometown” — Bruce Springsteen has focused sharply over the last 30 years on community systems, and how the failure of those systems can lead to social devastation. Where 1982’s Nebraska deals pointedly with the impact those failures have on the individual, “My Hometown” takes the theme more universal and applies it to overall society while never ignoring the impact upon the individual. “Foreman says these jobs are goin’, boys, and they ain’t coming back to your hometown.” Times have changed, and not for the better, and the world we imagined ourselves growing into is no longer a reality. By the end of the song the narrator considers packing up his family and moving on, knowing his son won’t ever have the same opportunities here once promised to him. Bruce would revisit these themes often in later years, with both optimism (“My City of Ruins”) and pessimism (“Long Walk Home,” “Death to My Hometown”) but this sparse 1984 tale laid it out bluntly and with aching poignancy. Son, take a good look around.

“Nebraska” — Rock has always been interested in exploring the taboo and mysterious, making not just death but murder a perfect subject. But serial and spree killers and mass murderers are a bridge too far for many—or if not, they tend to go for the lighthearted or crass, as though it's just too frightening or dangerous to address seriously. Not Springsteen, who not only tackles Charles Starkweather’s story, but actually puts himself in the killer’s head, singing in a chilling first person. The result is moving and terrifying, as Springsteen’s flat delivery conveys an emotional remove even when inside the murderer’s mind, trying to explain his motives. But whereas Sufjan Stevens somehow found the common humanity shared by even John Wayne Gacy, Springsteen discovers no such thing. His final reveal: it’s all pointless, and life and death are just random events driven by base animal instincts, signifying nothing. "Well, sir," the narrator sings in a nearly inflection-free voice, "I guess there's just a meanness in this world." That this is the first song off his new album was a pretty clear indication that the guy who’d written “Rosalita” and just had his first major hit with “Hungry Heart” had changed his focus a bit. 

“New York City Serenade” — For many, the Holy Grail of live performances—rarely played anymore, but when it is it’s something to be cherished. The longest song Bruce ever recorded, it’s also one of his most eclectic, combining at different times elements of classical, jazz, funk, blues and yes, even prog. Not as straightforward in narrative its 1974 companion piece “Incident on 57th Street,” and without quite the grandeur of the next year’s “Jungleland,” “New York City Serenade” instead crackles and hisses with the sounds of the city streets, sounds that had such a profound impact on Bruce in his younger days. David Sancious’ extended piano lead-in is breathtaking, and the E Street Band—still in its infancy at this point—plays like a family that’s been together for 100 years. It all ends with a junk man “all dressed up in satin,” singing his heart out as he collects the trash. Wherever he looks, Bruce Springsteen can find the music. And make it beautiful.

“One Step Up” — Everything in this song is off kilter: the heater's cold, the car’s immobile, birds are mute, the married guy pretends he’s single. Even the title—for every step forward the narrator and his wife try to take, they end up taking two back, finding themselves further and further from their goal. The singer’s desperately unhappy about this state of affairs, and the end of the bridge, where he admits he’s not the man he wanted to be before whispering “I’m caught,” is perhaps the saddest moment in any Bruce Springsteen song. Finally, tempted by easy and available infidelity, he finds himself remembering the previous night’s dream, he and his wife happy again, as he holds her in his arms, dancing…one step up and two steps back, and for the first time, there’s a graceful balance. But, of course, it’s only a dream. That each of his final lines are echoed by his future-but-very-much-not-then-current wife Patti Scialfa only adds to the skewed reality of the song.

“Paradise” —Oddly overlooked on his 2002 E Street Band reunion album, The Rising, Springsteen took the almost unbelievably brave step of singing this song initially from a suicide bomber’s point of view, attempting to make sense of the inexplicable and, stunningly, succeeding. As though that weren’t challenging enough, he then spins the camera around and sings from the point of view of a dead victim of terrorism. One of Springsteen’s loveliest melodies is wedded to haunting music and the result is a song unsurpassed in emotional resonance. This is not the finest song Springsteen has ever written. But he has never written a more powerful one.

“The Promise” — When Bruce Springsteen wrote “Thunder Road” in 1975, the title represented the dreamscape laid out before the narrator and his girl, a symbol of limitless romance and possibility. But just a year later, mired in a lawsuit with his manager over the creative control of his future, Bruce came back to Thunder Road, only now it was an unreachable place, a symbol of dashed hopes and dreams. This is “The Promise,” the first song Bruce ever wrote that replaced youthful romanticism with cold, bitter reality. Very possibly due to the legal fight he was enduring, the song conveys heartbreak and loss he never saw coming. “Everyday it just gets harder to live this dream I’m believing in,” he sings, accompanied by a melancholy piano and a voice that seems older, harder. History proves Bruce bounced back magnificently from this setback, but there’s no doubt that something in him had changed forever, and Thunder Road would never hold the same promise again.

“The Promised Land” — The singer is a man—not a boy—pushed to the point of exploding into violence, fighting to live the right way but nearly blind from exhaustion and frustration, and believing that only howling dogs understand the way he feels. Incredibly, this seemingly grim ode to determination is one of Bruce Springsteen's most triumphant anthems, and an early precursor to the dark lyrics/upbeat music juxtaposition that would lead to megastardom and mass confusion on Born in the USA. Here we get an early sense of just how deeply his upbringing influenced this famously lapsed Catholic, as religion permeates the song, right down the title. Tellingly, however, he actually sings not of the promised land, but a promised land. And after all these years, despite all evidence to the contrary, he still seems to be searching for it, and trusting that it's out there, somewhere.

“Racing in the Street”— Even in a list of Bruce Springsteen's 50 greatest songs, a few stand out. “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road” get the majority of the love, and understandably so. But if this is not his finest song, well, he has never written a better one, not even those aforementioned titans. A melody so heartbreakingly sublime it was stolen by Academy Award-winning composer James Newton Howard for the Pretty Woman theme. And lyrically? It’s the story of a guy whose only interest in life is illegal car racing until he finds The One—but discovers she’s too broken herself, too beaten down by life for even love to save her: "she sits on the porch of her daddy's house but all her pretty dreams been torn; she stares off alone into the night with the eyes of one who hates for just being born." He vows to keep on trying but in the end turns back to the hotrodding, to a race where you go as fast as you can to be the first guy to get…nowhere.

“Reason to Believe” — At the end of the bleak darkness of his iconic 1982 Nebraska—the startling, stripped down collection of tales of hopelessness and decay—finally comes a hint of daylight. Or does it? Is “Reason To Believe”—the most provocative, open-ended song Bruce would ever write—an “attaboy” to the human spirit or a scornful slap at people who have the audacity to believe in something simply not there? The song rolls along like the river it twice mentions, bouncy and free, but his voice is straight from the barren dirt. Heartbreak and death are everywhere, yet the song is also laced with odd strains of hope. Grooms and brides are jilted, a man prods a dead dog to do a canine Lazarus impression, babies are baptized and old men die. And through it all people find a reason to believe, which leaves the narrator in astonished wonderment. Us too—both at the nature of Bruce’s answerless question, and that even in his retreat to stone simplicity, he was still able to create such a poetic conundrum for the ages.

“Reno” — From the earliest days, Springsteen’s portrayal of relationships tended towards the romantic, in the literary sense. Lovers were soul mates, albeit suicidal or doomed ones, or whose love had died—but always with a sense of high drama. Not so in this song off 2005’s solo album Devils & Dust. The tale of a heartbroken man’s meaningless visit to a prostitute is told in clinical detail, and the combination of Springsteen’s flat delivery and the sad hollowness—unable to face the reality of his lost relationship and what he’s doing, the singer either looks out the window or closes his eyes, rather than allow himself to see what’s really going on—make it, despite its ostensibly prurient topic, as unerotic a song as the man has ever recorded.

“The Rising” — A firefighter rushing into what the listener gathers is a soon-to-collapse Twin Tower can see neither in front nor behind and is burdened, weighed down by his equipment, even as he’s vitally tethered to a lifeline. Springsteen uses this gripping situation as a metaphor for the country as a whole (and his own career). Ever the contrarian, he takes this dark story and leads us to a beautifully and believably hopeful ending, even using a “Smells Like Teen Spirit”-type guitar solo to lift it even higher. How odd and sad, then, that a decade later, it’s clear to Springsteen (and most of us) that he was, in fact, being far too optimistic and that, stunningly, things might actually get in many ways even worse from there.

“The River” — A mournful harmonica drawls at the outset, echoing as if it’s being played by the last person on earth. Which is appropriate for this take of loneliness and resignation. A young man gets his young lover pregnant, and any romance they once enjoyed—swimming in the river together, sleeping by the shore—is out the window. Replaced by a hastily arranged marriage and unprepared adulthood. “The River” is among the saddest songs Bruce ever wrote, punctuated by the throbbing line near the end, “I just act like I don’t remember, Mary acts like she don’t care.” But they do care, Bruce makes clear. They do remember what once made them love each other. It’s just that time, like their river, can’t stop for them, and they’ll never be able to catch up. The song is a beautiful, telling portrait of believing in something that’s not there, and what happens when you finally realize it’s not there. 

“Rosalita” — The hero stands down in the street, beckoning his super-idealized girl to come run away with him. She’s forbidden fruit—her protective parents can’t stand the reckless suitor. His pitch is not exactly romantic—it’s defiant (he is literally insisting that she run away from home), desperate (he calls it her “last chance”), dirty (“Daddy’s coming?” Jeez!) and borders on Faustian. And here’s the kicker—we don’t know if the hero ever gets the girl; when the song ends he’s still bellowing up to her to come out tonight. That’s “Rosalita.” The most raucous, rambunctious, rebellious and revved up seven minutes of rock-n-roll ever recorded, a song destined from chord one to become both an FM classic as well as the Washington Monument of live performance. From the twangy, irresistible Telecaster that opens it to an ending that sounds, as Eric Guterman wrote, like “the entire E Street Band collapsing in a heap,” “Rosalita” never once comes up for air. We have no idea if Rosie ever takes the wild ride, but we do. And we love every crazy second of it.

“Shut Out the Light” — The literal and figurative flip side to “Born in the U.S.A.” This quiet, acoustic song about a Vietnam vet’s problems upon returning home may indeed feature the same narrator as on the better known A-side. But whereas that song was loud and angry, this is soft and solemn, and this time the pain is personal and inwardly-focused, still discovering how the country has failed its vets but with none of the outward fury of the A-side. The singer of “Born in the U.S.A.” couldn’t find a job. The singer of “Shut Out the Light” can’t even sleep through the night, waking in terror and tears, so shattered that he’s reducing for calling for his mother for comfort, as not even his wife can quite reach him. As the song ends, the singer finds himself standing in “a river without a name,” staring “across the lights of the city and [dreaming] of where he's been,” unable to face waking reality even as he’s unable to hide from it in sleep. Together with “Born in the USA,” “Shut Out the Light” provides a moving, unexploitative examination of the issue in a way most full-length feature films can only dream of. 

“Spare Parts” — Possibly the most unlikely of Bruce’s great songs, as well as one of the most terrifying. The guitar scream at the beginning gives way to a frayed, deep country blues riff, followed by this sternum-punch opening line: “Bobby said he’d pull out, Bobby stayed in. Janey had a baby, wasn’t any sin.” Then comes a bitter, furious story of betrayal, personal failures—including, horrifically, a near-infanticide—and, ultimately, redemption. From Max’s thunderous, unflinching beat to a scorching harmonica solo played by guest James Wood, to a vocal take that reminds people just how ferocious a singer Bruce can be, “Spare Parts” is the 50-foot rollercoaster drop that shocks the listener upright amidst all the other quieter, haunting images of the masterful Tunnel of Love album.

“Spirit in the Night” — One of his earliest classics, 1973’s “Spirit in the Night” finds Bruce in what would become familiar territory, singing about good friends and good times. Only this story of a wild group of friends enjoying an endless night together has a mystical, magical quality attached to it, playing out like rock-n-roll comedia dell’arte. Fueled by Clarence Clemons’ smoky, jazzy saxophone and Mad Dog Lopez’s loose-limbed swing, Bruce introduces us to the likes of Crazy Janey, Hazy Davy, Killer Joe and Wild Billy, all characters making their way up to Greasy Lake for a night of sultry moonlit madness. “It felt so right,” he sings triumphantly, even as it ends with one of the characters injured and a hint of consequence invading their hours of hedonistic freedom. It sounds right, too, and intoxicating enough for us to still want to be there.

“Straight Time” — A complex tale of an ex-con trying to go straight even as he’s pulled in opposite directions both by family members and his own desire, the keys lines are: “Eight years in, it feels like you're gonna die/But you get used to anything—sooner or later it becomes your life.” Does that include our failings? Did he get too used to a life of crime to go straight? Or if he can just be strong enough, can he eventually get used to walking the straight and narrow? It doesn’t seem likely, as indicated by the fact that his loving wife, who married him knowing full well his past, can’t help but watch him out of the corner of her eye as he plays with their children. The song ends inconclusively, the singer having prepped a sawed-off shotgun—has he used it yet? Is he going to?—and with a smell he can’t get off his hands. But what is it? The scent of the rendering plant where he works, turning waste material into something useful…or is it something else, something even more sinister? 

“Thunder Road” — The first thing you hear is a harmonica winding upwards, sounding like it's coming from and imbued with the dark, rich loam of the midwest, accompanied by a slow piano which is nearly classical in tone without ever being anything less than 100% rock and roll. After only a few seconds, they speed up together and just like that, the curtains are pulled back and a vista opens up and all of America is spread out before you as day breaks. No one could have predicted it. No matter how big a fan you were of Springsteen's first two albums or his shows, there was no way to anticipate the masterpiece which was Born to Run and its opening song, a barely-challenged contender for Greatest Springsteen Song Ever. A widescreen, cinematic masterpiece which aimed for the scope, ambiguity and drama of The Searchers or The Godfather and the pure rock and roll power of Orbison and Spector, it is a stunningly brash move from a 25-year-old on the verge of being dropped from his label for low sales. Instead of playing it safe, he threw caution to the wind and shot for immortality and in the very first song, he grabbed it by the short hairs. The narrator is completely convincing, even as he’s far from smooth—unless “you’re not a beauty but, hey, you’re all right” is actually a successful pick-up line, and a vow to break all promises is itself a convincing argument for trust. In the larger context of the album and his career as a whole, you realize that the singer’s not so much running to something promising as away from his current life, and you can’t help but suspect that while the night was bustin’ open and he’d learned how to make his guitar talk, he never really did find what he was looking for—after all, as the song ends, Mary herself is still on the porch, undecided. But while the original recording is playing, failure is simply impossible to conceive. And when the “Layla”-like coda kicks in and Clarence’s sax harmonizes with Danny’s glockenspiel and Roy’s piano and Max takes it all down to a majestic half-time, the music proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that there really is magic in the night and for at least these few minutes, they have pulled out of there, and they have won.

“Thundercrack” — This ramshackle marathon of swashbuckling studio fun from an old, old incarnation of the E Street Band serves to represent the very best of Bruce's early, unreleased jams. While "Kitty's Back" instead made it onto his second album, "Thundercrack" makes this list, and (at least to us) is superior. Ostensibly it's a lovesick and slaphappy ode to a "dancer" (yes, that probably means stripper), who moves up and back and slips and slides and bumps and grinds her way into the narrator's heart. The interplay between Bruce, Clarence and piano maestro David Sancious is spectacular during the extended instrumental free-for-all, and the "round and round" chorus is disarmingly lovely. Once more, and with feeling, this is a track never quite worthy enough to make it onto an album. Amazing.

“Tunnel of Love” — Bruce Springsteen, blue collar troubadour, turns marriage counselor—and a remarkably adept one, so that it’s almost surprising that the marriage didn’t take, given how insightful he seems to be. There’s no car or motorcycle in sight, just a funhouse ride—a mode of transport which gets you absolutely nowhere. But there’s no blame in this song, merely an acknowledgement of how hard it can be: “the lights go out and it’s just the three of us: you, me and all that stuff we’re so scared of.” Whereas lesser writers would turn it into a Dear Alex & Annie-style number (we’re lookin’ at you, Mr. William “Tell Her About It” Joel), Springsteen keeps the focus on the difficulties, offering no pat solutions. Max provides as danceable a beat as he’s ever come up with, trickily helping obscure the lyrical darkness and, generously, the insane, unpredictable guitar solo is handed over to Nils for the first time. Most notable of all, Patti’s prominent vocals float hauntingly over the back half of the recording like a banshee. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, maybe it’s not quite so shocking the first marriage didn’t last. 

“Walk Like a Man” — Bruce stands with his Dad at the altar, watching his bride come down the aisle, ready to walk with her into...a lifetime of doubt. Hopefully, "Walk Like a Man" has never been anyone's first dance. On every other plain, though, it works wondrously. A gorgeous melody led by Danny's angelic organ, lyrics as heartfelt and true as he had ever written, a resolution (of sorts) to his longstanding and painstakingly documented issues with his father, and a plea to himself to do what is right, to walk the way a man does, with his bride arm and arm into whatever may come. With all the darkness and uncertainty such a "mystery ride" connotes. Written as the centerpiece of 1987's Tunnel of Love, Bruce makes it clear before, during and after this song that not all was rosy, and not all was right. But still, he's standing there the only way he knows how. As a man. And he's learning just how hard it is to be one.

“Wreck on the Highway” — Bruce's 1980 double album, The River, contained everything from barroom ravers to frat rock, from ballads to rockabilly to soul, but when the final track played we heard...something totally different. Mournful, slow, organ-driven country, a meditation on mortality about a man dying alongside a rainy highway one night, and the narrator's instant reflection on what this stranger's death will mean to those who loved him. "Sometimes I sit up in the darkness and I watch my baby as she sleeps. And I climb in bed and I hold her tight, I just lay there awake in the middle of the night, thinking about that wreck on the highway." It is a stunning, bold, tragic, gripping and unceasingly beautiful way to finish off the 20-song collection, and as the song plays off in an extended Danny Federici and Garry Tallent coda, the listener is left speechlessly wondering what Bruce could possibly do next. We found out two years later with Nebraska. And we are still finding out, more than three decades down the road.

“Youngstown” — This solo song is so class-conscious and steeped in history even Woody Guthrie would have been awed. The narrator comes from a long line of patriotic steelworkers who have watched as their town is discarded, crippled by the very mill owners they’d made unimaginably wealthy: “The story's always the same—now, sir, you tell me the world's changed, once I made you rich enough…rich enough to forget my name.” Just how disillusioned are these loyal vets? This much: “We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam, now we're wondering what they were dyin' for.” But the horror isn’t confined to this plane of existence—the singer fully expects his trials to continue into the next: “When I die I don't want no part of heaven, I would not do heaven's work well; I pray the devil comes and takes me to stand in the fiery furnaces of hell.” The most tragic part isn’t that the singer doesn’t believe he belongs in heaven with those billionaires who’ve so abused him and his, or even that he believes his life’s work has better prepared him to spend eternity in hell than in paradise. It’s that by choosing to work for the devil in the afterlife, he’s unwittingly volunteering to continue working for the very same ones who’d destroyed Youngstown in this world.

 

10 comments:

  1. Excellent, thoughtful list. I would add for consideration:
    Living Proof -- Springsteen moving from rocker to father and adult.
    This Hard Land -- like 'Land of Hope and Dreams', the essence and best of what we are, defeat, hope, and riding for something better.
    The Hitter -- not one of my personal favorites, but possibly the best song ever about fighting and fighters.

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  2. Where is Cover Me??????

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  3. Hard choices had to be made, I'm afraid. I mean, jeez louise, between the Tracks compilations and Promise boxset, the previously unreleased songs on the Greatest Hits and Essential sets, there's 100 songs right there--and that's before you even start in on the official studio albums.

    We didn't even consider some of my very favorites, such as "Man at the Top" or "Open All Night" or tracks as brilliant as "Stolen Car" or "The Price You Pay." "Further On Up the Road." "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out." "I'm Goin' Down." "Valentine's Day." Good Lord-a-goshen, the stuff we left out? Most major artists would give us several limbs for them.

    I'm pretty sure DT still has nightmares about having to leave "Bobby Jean" off.

    Having said that, "Living Proof" is one of those that in retrospect I wish we'd found room for. But what gets booted in its place?

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  4. Cover Me is one of my least favorite bruce songs, at least the way its covered on BiUSA. almost a disco sound. I'm with you on I'm Going Down, simple but great...oh so many, they can't all be on the list!

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  5. Good list but I'd definitely have had Living Proof in there, one of my all time favourite songs.

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  6. No 'Back in your Arms' or 'Stolen Car' ? The entire 'Darkness' album should be on ANY list of the best Springsteen tunes, but I guess that's just me. They (Bruce included..) just don't write 'em like that anymore.

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    1. I'm afraid we're going to disagree with you there—although, sadly, it's not just you: we've encountered many, many Bruce fans who still attend every tour, sometimes even multiple shows per, yet don't give a hoot about his current work. Darkness on the Edge of Town may very well be the single greatest Bruce Springsteen album, which means its peers are the likes of Revolver and Abbey Road, Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed, Who's Next and Songs in the Key of Life and Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks and Astral Weeks and London Calling and so on and so forth. And it's true Springsteen no longer writes the way he did back when he was 29—which is a good thing, since he's no longer 29 and if he did it would likely be, at best, mildly embarrassing, and more likely troubling, a sign of stunted development and complete lack of growth.

      What I think you meant, though, is not that he doesn't write like that stylistically any more—although he certainly does continue to explore many of the same themes that first began to obsess him on Darkness—but that he doesn't write as well any more, and I'm afraid that's simply, to use the term coined by the great Jack Donaghy, hogcock (a combination, as I'm sure you're aware, of hogwash and poppycock). The point of this exercise of ours—besides being enjoyable for us—was to try to illustrate to long-time fans who stopped giving his new records the same kind of attention as his older records once the early 1980s rolled around, that Bruce Springsteen—against all odds—was still producing masterpieces on par with the very finest of his earlier works. We can't quite comprehend how someone who loves Darkness could really listen to "Youngstown" or "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" or "Long Time Comin'" or "Paradise" or "Land of Hope and Dreams" and not recognize the beauty, the majesty, the genius, the remarkable power in those songs, different from but equal to his very finest work, able to stand proudly shoulder to shoulder with "The Promised Land" or "Adam Raised a Cain," brilliant as those are.

      Is "Reno," say, or "Long Walk Home" or "Kingdom of Days" as good as, say, "Something in the Night"? No. They're better.

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  7. This is a well thought out list with articulate and insightful commentary. You guys are obviously serious fans. I was pleasantly surprised to see new classics like Reno, Girls in Their Summer Clothes, Paradise, and Long Walk Home make the list. Not sure I can agree that Thundercrack bests Kitty’s Back but that’s a minor quibble, as both are masterstrokes from the early era. I, too, am a major fan so it’d probably be easier for me to simply list my least favorite songs than my 50 favorites.

    Having said that, a few songs that most certainly would have made my top 50 – the understated but brilliant Stolen Car (probably my third favorite track on the album after the title track and Independence Day), Bobby Jean (the best song on the Born in the USA album, in my opinion), You’re Missing (only Bruce can get away with a phrase like “everything is everything” and have it punch your guts out), and Leah (the Springsteen song I’ve included on more mix discs – remember those? – than any other). And I may have tried to find room for Dry Lightning and Living Proof but I'm not sure what I would have been able to excise for that to happen.

    --Graveyard Boots

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  8. I may have tried to find room for Dry Lightning and Living Proof but I'm not sure what I would have been able to excise for that to happen.

    And there's the rub, right? I love both songs—and we'd especially have liked to include more from the Human Touch/Lucky Town LPs ourselves and if we had "Living Proof" is almost certainly the track that'd have gotten the nod—but what do you cut?

    DT's with you 100% on "Bobby Jean," incidentally. Meanwhile, I'm sorta kinda with you on "Thundercrack"—I loved the song from the first time I heard, back on the staggering if spurious 1974 Kent State bootleg, but think as a song, it's not really Top 50 material. But DT sat on my chest and made me listen to "Man's Job" over and over until I agreed to let "Thundercrack" on the list and so, oh well.

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  9. Cadillac Ranch, Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, I'm Goin' Down. WHAT!!!

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