- Working on a Dream
Without a doubt, Bruce’s weakest effort. Some flashes of inspiration in the melodies and production are overshadowed by the insipid lyricism of songs like “Outlaw Pete,” the title song, and “Surprise, Surprise.” There’s also “Queen of the Supermarket,” a song whose subject matter is almost surreally bad, in that you really have to wrack your brain to convince yourself if Bruce really did write it, and if so, why? The rest of the record is largely uninspired, with even the best songs (minus “The Wrestler,” which is more of a bonus track anyway) barely rising to the level of ‘good.’
Best Songs: “What Love Can Do,” “This Life,” “The Last Carnival.”
Worst Songs: “Outlaw Pete,” “Working on a Dream,” “Queen of the Supermarket,” “Surprise, Surprise.”
- Wrecking Ball
“Wrecking Ball” came on the crest of a wave of hype, with Bruce touting it as his angriest album in years in its portrayal of the trials of the recession. Unfortunately, “Wrecking Ball” turns out to be quite flacid, only slightly more inspired than “Working on a Dream.” The production boasts some interesting sonic choices, and a few songs have some fire in them (“Shackled and Drawn,” “Death to My Hometown”). Once again, however, Bruce’s lyricism is largely lacking, with little of the cinematic detail or memorable, easily visualized characters that decorate his most beloved material.
Best Songs: “Death to My Hometown,” “Shackled and Drawn,” “Rocky Ground,” “We Are Alive.”
Worst Songs: “Easy Money,” “Jack of All Trades,” “This Depression,” “You Got It.”
- High Hopes
“High Hopes,” when solely analyzing its tracks individually, really isn’t a bad album. The problem with it lies more with is conception and execution, as it’s really just a hodge podge of outtakes with no real structure or theme. Still, the record has a lot going for it; the new studio takes of “American Skin” and the Tom Morello-fied “The Ghost of Tom Joad” manage to carry the emotive qualities of the live versions, and it’s a crime that songs as fantastic as “The Wall” and “Down in the Hole” took so long to find a proper home. There’s also the obscure cover “Just Like Fire Would” and “Frankie Fell in Love,” two charming throwbacks to the sound from “The River,” as well as the majestic “Hunter of Invisible Game.” Of course, there’s some weak material to sift through, particularly the repetitive “Heaven’s Wall” and the corny “This Is Your Sword.”
Best Songs: “Just Like Fire Would,” “Down in the Hole,” “Frankie Fell in Love,” “Hunter of Invisible Game,” “The Wall.” (I’m not coungting “American Skin” and “Joad” because they had been released before in several formats.)
Worst Songs: “Heaven’s Wall,” “This is Your Sword.”
- Human Touch
It’s long been discussed how there’s a great single album lying in the “Human Touch” / “Lucky Town” pairing. “Human Touch,” as the weaker of the two, is also the easier one to pull material from for a hypothetical hybrid. The hit title song, “With Every Wish,” “Roll of the Dice,” “I Wish I Were Blind,” and “The Long Goodbye” are all top-notch Springsteen. “Cross My Heart” and “Soul Driver” are also very good, if not quite as worthy of inclusion. Of course, there’s “Real Man,” the worst song Bruce had written up to that point, as well as the bland entries such as “Man’s Job” and “Gloria’s Eyes.” This is to say nothing of the tragedy that is the album version of “Real World,” a masterpiece of a song executed horribly on record. Be sure to check out both of the soulful renditions from the recently released Christic shows in 1990.
Best Songs: “Human Touch,” “With Every Wish,” “Roll of the Dice,” “I Wish I Were Blind,” “The Long Goodbye.” [Honorable mention: “Real World,” which is just recorded poorly.]
Worst Songs: “Gloria’s Eyes,” “Man’s Job,” Real Man.”
- Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.
Bruce’s debut album, like most, is a bit of clumsy affair, but there’s still a lot of youthful charm and some damn good songs. “Growin’ Up,” “Spirit in the Night,” and “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City” have all stood the test of time as early classics that helped establish the E Street sound, and his laid back original take on “Blinded by the Light” beats the horrific Manfred Mann cover. “Lost in the Flood” also has significance as his inaugural take on issues such as racial tension and the plight of U.S. veterans, both of which he’d write about with far more depth and nuance later on. The only truly bad tracks are “Mary, Queen of Arkansas” and “The Angel,” both utterly foolish songs that even Bruce hates.
Best Songs: “Growin’ Up,” “Spirit in the Night,” “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City.”
Worst Songs: “Mary, Queen of Arkansas,” “The Angel
- Devils & Dust
The third of Springsteen’s moody, stripped down acoustic records, albeit lacking much of the darkness of “Nebraska” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” There isn’t much bad here, but there’s some achingly dull moments, such as “Silver Palomino” and “All the Way Home.” The title song, while good, doesn’t hold up to his earlier veteran epics. Still, there’s plenty to appreciate here, such as the Orbison inspired “Leah” and heartbreaking “Black Cowboys,” the latter tackling the effects of a mother’s drug addiction on her young son in devastating detail. “Jesus Was an Only Son” is a beautiful, touching look at Christ in the context of being Mary’s son, and how she felt as a mother watching her son die. And finally, there is “The Hitter,” a gripping story-song that has all the hallmarks of Bruce’s best character study-type songs. Even the somewhat controverisal “Reno,” with its line about anal sex with a prostitute, is a potent tale of loneliness.
Best Songs: “Jesus Was an Only Son,” “Leah,” “The Hitter,” “Matamoros Banks.”
Worst Songs: “All the Way Home,” “Silver Palomino”
- We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
A loose, relaxed and charming collection of old folk and gospel songs. Bruce sounds like he’s having a lot of fun here, and the band here is a jumpin’ swingin’ unit that serves them well. Some songs are stronger than others, some are quite goofy, but the record is a consistently enjoyable listen thanks to the production showcasing how much of a blast Bruce and the band are having.
Best Songs: “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” “Jacob’s Lader,” “Shenandoah,” “We Shall Overcome.”
Worst Songs: “Pay Me My Money Down,” “Froggie Went A-Courtin'”
- The River
Probably the album I have the hardest time ranking. “The River” is obviously a well known, well regarded and hugely successful record in Springsteen’s catalog. It’s also a rather trying affair, being a double album spanning 20 songs. Bruce’s workaholic tendencies during the recording of it are well known, producing a series of outtakes, both released and unreleased, that fans have swapped out in favor of some of the released tracks to make their own definitive version of “The River.” While it’s a strong record, it does have some issues with consistencies; songs like “Crush on You,” “I Wanna Marry You,” and even “Two Hearts” are incredibly weak by Bruce’s standards, and should’ve been excised in favor of gems such as “Roulette,” “I Wanna Be With You,” and “Loose Ends.”
Even so, any album that boasts “The Ties That Bind,” “Jackson Cage,” “Independence Day,” the masterpiece title song, “Point Blank,” “Cadillac Ranch,” “Stolen Car,” and several other classics is worthy of a fairly high ranking; even “Hungry Heart” still holds up as a great slice of pop music. Bruce also builds off the newfound maturity he found in his writing on “Darkness,” most notably on the chilling “Stolen Car,” as haunted a song as he ever wrote, and one that sets the stage for the morally and spiritually conflicted figures of “Nebraska.”
Best Songs: “The Ties that Bind,” “Jackson Cage,” “Independence Day,” “Hungry Heart,” “The River,” “Stolen Car,” “The Price You Pay,” “Wreck on the Highway.”
Worst Songs: “Two Hearts,” “Crush on You,” “I Wanna Marry You.”
- Lucky Town
“Lucky Town” finds Bruce largely context and relaxed, largely free from the shackles of insecurity and depression found on “Tunnel of Love” and adjusting to his newfound family life quite smoothly. “Better Days,” “Lucky Town,” and the heartfelt tribute to his firstborn son, “Living Proof,” are all about Bruce’s journey during this time, with lyrics that veer between cynical, hopeful, and redemptive, but always honest and often quite touching. Bruce still some darker themes as well; on “Souls of the Departed,” he sings about his experience with the L.A. riots and general violence in his then newfound home of California, analyzing his newfound caution and responsibility in ensuring his son is safe and turns out alright. “If I Should Fall Behind” is a classic Bruce track, a plaintive ode to sticking together when the ride gets rough, and one that has received various different treatments and interpretations over the years; it’s one of his most fluid tracks. And the album’s closer, the soaring “My Beautiful Reward,” has Bruce admitting that while he’s happier than he’s ever been, he still has a long way to go.
Best Songs: “Better Days,” “Lucky Town,” “If I Should Fall Behind,” “Living Proof,” “Souls of the Departed,” “My Beautiful Reward”
Worst Songs: “Book of Dreams.”
- The Ghost of Tom Joad
Bruce’s second acoustic album isn’t as compelling or unique as “Nebraska,” but it’s still pretty damn good, great even. The title song is an enduring modern classic for Bruce, with some of his best lyrics, and “Highway 29,” “Youngstown,” “Sinaloa Cowboys,” and “Across the Border” all rank among some of his best material of the 1990’s. What occasionally hurts the album is that it occasionally lacks musicality, with current events-inspired songs like “Balboa Park” and “The New Timer” reading more like a newspaper article than an actual, fleshed out song. Still, the record is largely filled with excellent work, making it his strongest album of his most overlooked decade.
Best Songs: “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” “Straight Time,” “Highway 29,” “Youngstown,” “Sinaloa Cowboys,” “Across the Border.”
Worst Songs: “Balboa Park, “The New Timer,” “My Best Was Never Good Enough.”
- The Rising
Inspired by 9/11, “The Rising” has Bruce handling a delicate subject with unflappable grace and nuance. Bruce leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the various subject matters and characters that could be drawn from the event, singing from the perspective of a firefighter approaching his death while honoring his responsibility (the title song), a surviving police officer with a case of survivor’s guilt (“Nothing Man”), a loved one trying to make sense of the tragedy (“Lonesome Day,” “Empty Sky”), and even a suicide bomber contemplating the possible futility of his actions (“Paradise”). The album also includes the aching “You’re Missing,” as devastating a portrayal of grief you could possibly find, and the alternatively heartbreaking and uplifting closing hymn, “My City of Ruins.” It’s a bit bloated and includes some weak fare, but “The Rising” holds up as one of his most significant achievements.
Best Songs: “Lonesome Day,” “Nothing Man,” “The Fuse,” “Empty Sky,” “The Rising,” “Paradise,” “My City of Ruins”
Worst Songs: “Waiting on a Sunny Day,” “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)”
- The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle
The first great Springsteen album! Courting a uniquely urban sound, “Wild & Innocent” is drenched in the vibe of early 1970s’ New York and New Jersey, an album filled with street walkers, night owls and party animals with their own agendas and ambitions. Bruce’s writing takes a big step forward here, establishing the skeletons of his core songwriting motifs. “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” is the first of Bruce’s boardwalk ballads, as well as one of the first where the characters and locales of the song seem to truly come to life in the listener’s head. “Incident on 57th Street” and “New York City Serenade” are sprawling, piano driven narratives of hustlers and moral dilemmas that set the stage for “Jungleland” and “Backstreets.” In the center of it all is “Rosalita,” still his ultimate party anthem and first live show stopper. The album’s jazzy, Van Morrison-esque sound further gives its own singular identity in Bruce’s catalog, as evidenced by the title song and the thrilling “Kitty’s Back,” the latter a future vehicle for some of the E Street Band’s most exciting live performances.
Best Songs: “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” “Incident on 57th Street,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight,” “New York City Serenade.”
Worst Songs: “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.”
- Born in the U.S.A.”
Forget the hype, the oversaturation of the album’s big hits, the ridiculous Rambo look and the onslaught of annoying fair weather fans who never listened to Bruce before or since; “Born in the U.S.A.” is a great record with some of Bruce’s best songwriting. The title song, even with its misrepresentation over the years, is still Bruce’s best and angriest tale of the disillusion and mistreatment of Vietnam veterans, its anger punctuated by the ferocity of Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg’s playing. “Glory Days,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” and “I’m on Fire” are simply fantastic pop songs, while “My Hometown” is still devastatingly relevant. The unsung gem of the album, however, is “Downbound Train,” as dark and hopeless a song as anything on “Nebraska,” sung with chilling precision by Bruce.
Best Songs: “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Downbound Train,” “I’m on Fire,” “Glory Days,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “My Hometown.”
Worst Songs: “Darlington County,” “Bobby Jean.”
It will be a glorious day when Bruce makes a record as good as “Magic” again. Some thirty or so years into his career, Bruce scored a late career near-masterpiece with his subtle yet hard hitting attack on the sins of the Bush administration. Like “The Rising,” “Magic” is not dated by the specificity of the events that inspired it, as Bruce’s writing is universal enough to be applied to similar situations in the past or present; the album’s title song, all about dirty tricks and manipulation, could just as easily apply to Trump as it could to Bush. “Long Walk Home” speaks powerfully of an America values have been warped beyond recognition, and the long path forward in restoring the core tenets of our country, and “Devil’s Arcade” is another notch in Bruce’s long swath of great veteran songs, this one focusing on Iraq instead of Vietnam, as a soldier fights his way back to life both physically and spiritually as he returns home. The whole album is powerful and still painfully relevant, and may well go down as the last truly great Springsteen album.
Best Songs: “You’ll Be Coming Down,” “Girls in their Summer Clothes,” “Magic, “Long Walk Home,” “Devil’s Arcade,” “Terry’s Song.”
Worst Songs: “Livin’ in the Future,” “Your Own Worst Enemy.”
- Darkness on the Edge of Town
His first record after a three year lay-off, no record in Bruce’s catalog balances triumph and tragedy so delicately, often in the same song. “Badlands,” “The Promised Land,” and “Prove It All Night” are some of Bruce’s most defiant, hopeful song, yet a close listen to each reveals a hidden sense of futility beneath them, one that is amplified on bleak tracks such as “Something in the Night,” “Racing in the Street,” and the title song. It was on “Darkness” that Bruce demonstrated his staying power, making good on the promise shown on “Born to Run” for Bruce to become an essential voice in popular music history.
Best Songs: “Badlands,” “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Racing in the Street, “Prove It All Night,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”
Worst Songs: “Streets of Fire.”
One of Bruce’s 3 ‘perfect’ albums, “Nebraska” is wholly lacking in subpar tracks, and is arguably the most influential Bruce album after “Born to Run,” its low-fi acoustic sound and dark subject matters influencing artists such as Ryan Adams, Arcade Fire, and My Morning Jacket. None, however, have come close to the haunted, almost nihilistic aura Bruce achieved. Almost every character Bruce embodies on them is either a good man dealing with an avoidable moral decision (“Atlantic City,” “Highway Patrolman”), or has crossed the line between good and evil to a point beyond redemption (the title song, “Johnny 99,” “State Trooper”). More personal affairs come to light on “My Father’s House” and “Used Cars,” in which Bruce recalls seminal events from his own destitute upbringing in the form of the wealth and status longed for by his parents, and on “My Father’s House,” a chilling tale of Bruce’s inability to reconcile his father’s demons with his own. It’s all wrapped up by the endlessly cynical “Reason to Believe,” a sniping, condescending vignette of a jilted lover, the owner of a dead dog and other hapless figures clinging to hope to a pathetic degree. It’s not an easy listen, but that’s what makes it such a masterpiece.
Best Tracks: “Atlantic City,” “Highway Patrolman,” “State Trooper,” “My Father’s House,” “Reason to Believe”
Worst Songs: none.
- Born to Run
“Born to Run”…in second place? Yes, it seems silly, even sacrilege, and I debated whether or not to put at the top just to appease the inevitable critics, but I decided to listen to my gut. Its ranking is not a criticism of its quality or its significance. From the warm, inviting harmonica of “Thunder Road” to the closing howls of “Jungleland,” “Born to Run” still offers a ride like no other Springsteen album, and each song is a classic. I really can’t say enough about this album that hasn’t been said better, honestly.
Best Songs: “Thunder Road,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” “Backstreets,” “Born to Run,” “Jungleland”
Worst Songs: none.
- Tunnel of Love
Bruce’s long awaited follow-up to “Born in the U.S.A.” was a complete 180. He could’ve gone down the route Michael Jackson took with “Bad” and try in vain to recreate the magic of his biggest hit record, with a solid but somewhat hollow, forced collection of songs designed almost solely to be hits. Instead, he churned out the most mature, beautifully written and composed album of his career, chronicling the trials and tribulations of relationships and romance in a sensitive, intelligent manner rivalled only by “Blood on the Tracks.” From the joyous, ‘head in the clouds’ romanticism of “All That Heaven Will Allow” to the soul probing honesty of “Brilliant Disguise,” to the sheer devastation of “When You’re Alone,” “Tunnel of Love” tackles every possible situation and emotion love throws at all of us, making it alternatively his most accessible and relatable as well as most challenging listen, and thus his best.
Best Songs: “Tunnel of Love,” “Cautious Man,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Brilliant Disguise,” “One Step Up,” “When You’re Alone,” “Valentine’s Day.”
Worst Songs: None.