Inspired by a recent piece in the Guardian by Alexis Petridis, listing the best 50 Bob Dylan songs, here is my (very subjective) top half-century of songs from Bruce Springsteen. It didn’t quite leave me sweating like The Boss after one of his three-and-a-half hour concerts but it is a mammoth task to sieve through every song of Springsteen over 35 years but here goes. The list ends with many of the staple favourites from his concerts with, I think, a bit of a leftfield choice of the top song, based on a glorious performance of it in Rome in 2013 that lifts the spirits in these troubled times, times in which we’re asking will we ever see mammoth live concerts ever again?
This is a labour of love, which in itself sounds like a Bruce song. The sheer volume of Springsteen’s output, like Dylan’s, makes this an impossible task. In the Dylan list, for instance, Lay Lady Lay didn’t make the cut. There are a lot of great Bruce songs that failed to make the top 50 here. Because what to leave out is the problem. But it’s a nice parlour game for these long lockdown days and perhaps America’s laureate will provide us with the consolation of a new song about this grim period of history. So as the mighty Max Weinberg beats out a rhythm, here it is, the ultimate set-list. Bruuuuce! A one-two-three-four…
From the four-album selection Tracks, a mass of unreleased songs from 1998 stretching over three decades, this romantic ballad is a bit soppy, a bit Radio2-ish, and very over-produced. But it’s irresistible. And it just makes me feel, well, happy.
49: Black Cowboys
Featuring on the underrated 2005 album Devils & Dust, Black Cowboys is the story of a teenager, inspired by reading about ‘the black cowboys of the Oklahoma range’, who leaves his mother and drug-dealing boyfriend and heads west. It has a dreamy melody to offset its sad content.
48: Hungry Heart
Springsteen’s first hit single in the UK, from The River album, Hungry Heart is unashamedly poppy. Its catchy singalong chorus was made for the radio and its cheery, goofy tune makes it impossible not to sing along.
47: The Line
The Ghost Of Tom Joad is an understated masterpiece. Like Nebraska, the songs are mostly stripped-down tales of those living a hardscrabble American life. The central character is a widowed border patrol cop trying to stem the flow of Mexican migrants. He falls for one of them, Louisa, her ‘hair as black as coal’ bewitching him and reminding him of what he had lost. He is betrayed. It’s a sad and lovely song about a man who doesn’t really know where the line is.
46: My Hometown
Born In The USA in 1984 established The Boss as a global star and spawned seven hit singles. It closes with a rather more downbeat song than the 11 that preceded it. My Hometown is a lament for communities destroyed in post-Industrial USA and the troubled towns in which the foreman says ‘these jobs are goin’ boys and they ain’t coming back’. Danny Federici’s organ helps add to My Hometown’s melancholic air.
Almost any track from Darkness On The Edge Of Town, a gritty album that catalogues small-town tensions and frustrations, could make the cut but there has to be a place for Factory, a bleak condemnation of a system that reduces workers to faceless Lowry-like figures with ‘death in their eyes’. It was recently covered by Lucinda Williams.
44: Drive Fast (The Stuntman)
This song from his most recent album just edges out the title track on Western Stars. Western Stars tells the tale of a washed-up actor whose main claim to fame is that he was once shot by John Wayne. Drive Fast is a song about a hobbling stuntman with ‘two pins in his ankle and a busted collarbone’ whose scars are as much mental as physical.
43: Meeting Across The River
Often paired in live performance with the more spectacular Jungleland, this the seventh track on Born To Run has a real poignant feel whose highlight is the haunting trumpet of Randy Becker. A jazz-infused song of a small-time criminal whose luck is out and who is begging his friend Eddie for a ride across the Hudson to meet a connection. You know it won’t go well.
A powerhouse song from The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) is a young man’s bragging celebration that the record company has given him a big advance and whatever Rosalita’s disapproving dad thinks she should celebrate with him. An old staple of live shows with some stratospheric sax from Clarence Clemons.
41: The Promise
An off-cut from the Darkness On The Edge of Town sessions, it really belongs on that record but had to wait almost 40 years before surfacing on the album of the same name. The Promise is unbearably sad. Its protagonist ‘cashes in his dreams’ after breaking a promise, the optimism of Thunder Road stranded in a cul-de-sac.
40: Back In Your Arms
Another from the Tracks compilation, this is a tale of lost love, the singer regretting that he is a ‘prisoner of his own blindness’. Clarence Clemons’ lovely sax solo near the end gives it an added emotional spark. Springsteen has often performed this soulful song live with a long spoken intro, à la Isaac Hayes. The stretched-out version is even better.
39: Devils And Dust
The title track of the 2005 album received a grammy award nomination. A lot of Springsteen’s best songs are about the military and in this one a soldier in the Iraq War questions whether God really is on his side. The slow build-up with Springsteen opening on acoustic guitar changes to a powerful chorus that includes the strings of the Nashville String Machine. This sombre tale won a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year.
38: Girls in Their Summer Clothes
From the Magic album, this track sounds so much like an authentic Sixties pop song that it could have come off the Brill Building production line. It is sunny and happy but there is a dark side. The singer is led ‘a fool’s dance’. And the line ‘She went away, she cut me like a knife’ midway through gives the song a jolt. As Carole King would have said: ‘It might as well rain until September.’
37: Human Touch
In March 1992 Springsteen released two albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town, at the same time. The kindest thing that could be said is that there was one decent album in there. But the title song of the first is a strong song, a dark tale of disenchantment while 57 Channels (And Nothin’ On) is a canny prediction about the approaching hell of satellite TV.
36: Secret Garden
One of many unreleased out-takes from those Human Touch sessions, it is difficult to see why it was initially rejected. Because Secret Garden, later reworked for a 1995 Greatest Hits album, is a lovely, tender ballad. It gained popularity after being included in the soundtrack to the 1996 film Jerry Maguire.
35: Growin’ Up
From Springsteen’s first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, and recorded in late summer 1972, David Bowie recorded a version of this on his Diamond Dogs session with Ronnie Wood on guitar. It is a much-covered song with some dazzling wordplay and with Blinded By The Light kicks off the album in full throttle.
34: Brilliant Disguise
In 1987 Springsteen recorded the album Tunnel Of Love following the collapse of his marriage to the actress Julianne Phillips. Some of the E Street Band perform on the album but mostly it’s the man himself, often with the help of drum machines and synthesisers. One of five songs released as a single, Brilliant Disguise is a raw confession of self-doubt. ‘We stood at the altar, the gypsy swore our future was bright, but come the wee wee hours, well maybe baby the gypsy lied.’ The role play of the ‘faithful man’ and the ‘loving woman’ doesn’t work out for the ill-matched pair.
33: I’m On Fire
There are a lot of tracks from Born In The USA that could make the cut but this song, originally destined for the Nebraska album, has to be there. A tale of lust with a choppy Johnny Cash-style rhythm, it was the fourth of seven singles from the album to make it to the singles chart. Poor a bucket of water over that man!
32: We Take Care Of Our Own
Written in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the title is of course ironic. The first track of the Wrecking Ball album has a catchy, rolling riff and it delivers a real emotional punch to the solar plexus. It has relevance today: in the country of Donald Trump the cavalry really have stayed at home.
31: Highway 29
There are so many good songs on The Ghost Of Tom Joad that it is difficult to know what to leave out. This tale of a star-crossed romance between a small-time criminal and a woman he meets in a store is a quiet, melancholy song that lodges in your head and stays there.
‘They wanted to know why I did what I did. Well, sir, guess there’s just a meanness in this world’ must be the bleakest couplet its author has ever written. The story of murderer Charles Starkweather opens the downbeat album of the same name. This stark, intense 1982 release shocked critics at the time but its grim brilliance has been long recognised since.
29: The Last Carnival
Working On A Dream is not Springsteen’s best album, not by the longest of chalks, but it ends on a high with this touching tribute to the E Street Band’s Danny Federici. The song begins with the sound of the fairground waltzer and ends with a celestial choir. ‘We’ll be riding the train without you tonight,’ Springsteen sings in between about his old friend and it’s impossible not to shed a tear.
A hit single for the Pointer Sisters, The Boss once said: ‘I sent Elvis a demo of it but he died before it arrived.’ You could imagine Presley singing this one, a snakey, bluesy track and astonishingly one of more than 50 songs that didn’t make it on to the 1978 Darkness On The Edge Of Town album. Springsteen was apparently upset that the Pointer Sisters’ version reached No2 in the charts in February 1978 and we had to wait until the Promise album before his recorded version saw the light of day. It was worth the wait, though.
27: Devil’s Arcade
The closing song on Magic is its best: a tale of a recovered soldier in the Iraq War who returns home to an uncertain life and the endless card games in the blue-painted wards. It’s about the unlucky heroes who are cut down in the bitter fires of the devil’s arcade.
26: My City Of Ruins
This gospel-tinged song closes The Rising, the 2002 album that Springsteen devotes to the aftermath of 9/11. Despite the stark opening line ‘There’s a blood red circle on the cold dark ground and the rain is falling down’, it ends on a hopeful repeated note ‘Come on rise up’. Zac Brown and Mavis Staples performed a wonderful version of this for a Springsteen tribute album.
25: You’re Missing
Another one from The Rising, this song is about grief and the waiting for bad news. ‘God’s drifting in heaven, devil’s in the mail box’. It’s about time stopping, the unwanted phone calls and the gap left by a missing loved one.
24: Streets Of Philadelphia
An Oscar-winning song from the film Philadelphia, this also reached No2 in the British singles chart. The subject matter, dying from HIV/Aids, makes it a harrowing listen but it has some memorable lines. ‘At night I could hear the blood in my veins, it was just as black and whispering as the rain on the streets of Philadelphia,’ is one of them.
23: Darkness On The Edge Of Town
The title song of what many still consider to be The Boss’s best album. Springsteen withdrew to a New Jersey farmhouse from the fame that followed Born To Run to write a host of songs about life in the confines of the kind of small town in which he grew up. This song is subdued and bleak, the tone set by Roy Bittan’s measured melancholic piano.
22: If I Should Fall Behind
A rare gem from Lucky Town, this is a heartfelt romantic song that has become a favourite in live performances and is showcased best on the 1999 Live In New York City album where members of the E Street Band sing along, and in Clarence Clemons’ case growl along, to create something really moving.
21: One Step Up
A single from Tunnel of Love, this charts the breakdown of a relationship. Patti Scialfa contributes a lovely background vocal at the end of a sad, moving tale told by a man in a bar trying to make sense of it all.
20: Independence Day
Springsteen had a well-documented difficult relationship with his father Douglas when he was growing up in New Jersey. The brooding Springsteen Snr inspired this raw tale of a son saying goodbye after doing his best to appease his overbearing relative. A slow ballad with a piping organ from Danny Federici and a lovely melting sax from Clarence and one of the best songs from 1980’s The River.
An absolute belter from the Tom Joad album, Youngstown tells the story of a steel works in north-east Ohio and the people who worked in the furnaces. In live performances it has been cranked up into a full-blooded rock song. It contains a rousing chorus and some brilliant images. ‘Them smokestacks reachin’ like the arms of God into a beautiful sky of soot and clay’ is one of them.
18: Drive All Night
A slow, brooding epic given the full treatment in live performances. ‘I’d drive all night just to buy you some shoes and taste your tender charms’ sounds trite written down but is just right in this song from The River. When Clarence’s sax breaks through, the emotional levels go off the scale.
17: Dancing In The Dark
An uptempo number from Born To Run and one of Springsteen’s signature songs. The first hit from his biggest-selling album, it is a song of celebration despite its darkish lyric. The swelling synthesiser sound of Roy Bittan dominates. John Legend has recorded a jazzy version of this old favourite.
Overblown, melodramatic and a trifle pretentious, Jungleland is nevertheless magnificent. A tale of gangs of New York closes Born To Run. This mini-opera was not completed until 19 months after its first rehearsal. The wordless wails at the end and Roy Bittan’s dramatic piano flourishes bring the song to an epic conclusion.
15: Stolen Car
Another piano-driven song from The River, it tells the story of a man with a broken marriage who drives a stolen car through streets in the night and just waits to be caught. A song about alienation it is all the more effective for being stark and simple.
14: Across The Border
A personal favourite that I want played at my funeral, this song from Tom Joad has a country feel and has been recorded by Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. A lovely dreamy sound enhanced by the steel guitar of Marty Rifkin as Tom Joad dreams of a better life across the border where ‘pain and memory have been stilled’.
13: The Promised Land
Bruce took a trip to Utah and Nevada with Steven Van Zandt in the summer of 1977. He was upset because his hero Elvis Presley had just died and wrote this rousing anthem as a homage to The King and Chuck Berry who had also written Promised Land about his journey west from Virginia to California. It’s a young man’s song about chasing a mirage and one of many highlights on Darkness On The Edge Of Town.
12: Land Of Hope And Dreams
This 1999 song closed 2012’s Wrecking Ball album. Unashamedly upbeat with a gospel flavour, it begins with a crashing drum sound and neat guitar riff. Lyrically it references Woody Guthrie, and the message is that everyone is welcome aboard the train, not just the righteous.
The most ambitious song from The Rising but overlooked because as far as I know it hasn’t been performed live. A haunting song that takes the breath away. It tells a narrative through the mother of a female suicide bomber and the mother of an American soldier living in West Virginia.
10: Born To Run
Springsteen’s best-known song and his first worldwide single release, an anthemic love letter to a girl called Wendy composed in late 1973. The theme is a simple one: Get out of Freehold, New Jersey, Bruce’s home town, via Route 9, ‘sprung from cages out on Highway Nine’. The song was written around the opening distinctive riff.
9: Atlantic City
This song from Nebraska has been transformed into a more strident full-band arrangement in E Street Band concerts. Originally recorded in his bedroom and mixed through an old Gibson guitar unit, it has a lo-fi quality to match the subject, a grim tale of a young couple’s escape to the resort and the man’s death when he is caught up in mafia-related crime and violence.
Badlands opens the Darkness On The Edge Of Town album with a jolt. Its galloping riff is infectious. Bruce was a great fan of the underrated Animals and that riff is based on the English band’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. The theme is a familiar one, a man down on his luck searching for a better life. The song has become a thrilling staple of live performances over four decades.
7: Because The Night
Generously offered to Patti Smith and a song that propelled her to mainstream success. It was originally recorded in the summer of 1977 for the Darkness On The Edge Of Town sessions. Smith added her own lyrics and recorded it for her Easter album. It has not appeared on any of Springsteen’s studio albums but was included on The Promise compilation.
6: Racing In The Street
Many critics consider this Springsteen’s greatest song, a ballad that begins with a graceful piano intro from Roy Bittan and later picks up pace with Danny Federici’s mournful organ. It is an homage to Martha & The Vandellas’ 1964 Dancing In The Street and alludes to the Beach Boys’ Don’t Worry Baby, another song about drag racing. But the symbolism is obvious, the fast car representing freedom in a stifled life.
5: American Skin (41 Shots)
Perhaps the nearest Springsteen gets to a straightforward protest song in the manner of Bob Dylan. The incident that stokes his anger is the shooting of the unarmed teenager Amadou Diallo. Shamefully, some New York policemen called for the boycott of shows in the city as a result. There is a blistering version of this on the High Hopes album with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine on guitar. This time the shooting of Trayvon Martin had made it depressingly relevant again.
4: The River
The title track of his 1980 album, the tale of a struggling couple with the river used as a symbol for a brighter future. Bruce’s sister Ginny once said to him ‘It’s about me, isn’t it?’ and the author has said that it the best bit of criticism he has ever had. A ballad with a haunting harmonica and the centrepiece of many of his live performances, it has a quiet majesty that foreshadowed the darker tone of Nebraska.
3: Born In The USA
The opening blast sounds like a thunderstorm as Roy Bittan’s synthesiser is mixed with what producer Chuck Plotkin called Max Weinberg’s ‘exploding drums’. Born In The USA is not a flag-waving celebration of what Ronald Reagan thought it was to be an American. It is a howl of rage against war and in particular how American Vietnam vets were treated. ‘I had a brother in Khe Sanh, fighting off the Viet Cong, they’re still there; he’s all gone’ should have made that abundantly clear even to dear old Ronnie. Often performed as an emotional acoustic version. A stunning protest song.
2: Thunder Road
Springsteen had joked that The Animals’ We Gotta Get Out Of This Place pretty much summed up all of his songs. The opening track of Born To Run begins quietly with a duet of Roy Bittan’s piano and Bruce’s harmonica and turns into a rousing song of a young man’s pact to rescue his girlfriend Mary from her small-town life. There’s a great image of the escape road snaking away ‘like a killer in the sun’ and its famous reference to Roy Orbison ‘singing for the lonely’. Thunder Road was a 1958 film starring Robert Mitchum, a tale of running moonshine in the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee but Springsteen put it on the map.
1: New York City Serenade
Not an obvious song to make the No1 slot, even though the E Street Band have performed many versions of this since it appeared on Springsteen’s second album, The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. It muscles its way to the top on the strength of one live performance in Rome in November, 2013. This showcases the talents of the band, from Roy Bittan’s lovely piano intro, through to the keening sax playing of Clarence’s nephew Jake Clemons and the interplay of Max Weinberg’s drumming and the bass of Garry Tallent. A work that is lyrically abstruse, with characters that could have populated one of the songs on Born To Run, this is an operatic track that is difficult to categorise, part classical, part rock, part jazz and part soul. It features the Roma Sinfonia and there is an audible gasp from the audience when they emerge from the darkness and they all look so happy to be out there playing with the world’s biggest rock star. Truly, there was magic in the night.