10 Best Bruce Springsteen Songs
Bruce Springsteen has been at the forefront of the American music scene for decades. His longevity is no accident. As a songwriter, he is one of the all-time greats. Inspired by his blue collar New Jersey upbringing, his tracks, often tied to a particular time and place, speak to and for the downtrodden and the down and out. His work is loaded with emotional complexity, but his themes are the timeless ones: faith, love, friendship, sacrifice, mercy and redemption. As a live performer, he is relentless. Backed by the legendary E Street Band, Springsteen is one of rock n’ roll’s quintessential frontmen. Few artists inspire such fervent loyalty. And even fewer earn it the way Springsteen has. So in honor of the only Boss we listen to, here are our choices for the 10 Best Bruce Springsteen Songs.
Not long after the 9/11 attacks, Springsteen went for a drive to the beach in Asbury Park, N.J. Stopped at a light, a stranger in the car next to him rolled down the window and yelled, “We need you now.” The single and title track off his 9/11-inspired album, ‘The Rising’ is part of Springsteen’s response. ‘The Rising’ imagines a New York City firefighter climbing the towers that day and thereafter ascending to the afterlife. But the lyrics never make the obvious 9/11 connection explicit, which gives the song an allegorical quality that deepens its resonance.
After making the leap with ‘Born to Run’ in 1975, Springsteen was kept out of the studio for a year due to a legal battle with his longtime friend and manager Mike Appel. The dispute took a toll on Springsteen, and he channeled the resulting depression into ‘The Promise.’ Accompanied only by a piano, Springsteen constructs a haunting dirge about the burden of broken dreams and lost illusions. Never released on a major album and rarely performed live, ‘The Promise’ is one of The Boss’ most personal songs.
One of Springsteen’s most popular and misunderstood songs, ‘Born in the USA’ is in part a tribute to friends who came back from Vietnam damaged or who didn’t come back at all. The soaring riff and throaty chorus led many to interpret the song as a raucous pro-American anthem. The lyrics were much darker, however, showing how the country often falls short of its ideals and can leave people who deserve better beaten down and in despair. It also demonstrates how Springsteen, like few others, at times serves as something of a national conscience.
‘The Promised Land’ opens with a vintage and unforgettable groove lead by a screaming harmonica. Lyrically, it’s classic Springsteen. The overarching theme is one of hope, perseverance and redemption in the face of impossible circumstances and dreams that may not be realizable. Musically, the E Street Band is in full force. A dirty guitar solo is followed by a Clarence Clemons’s sax runs that leaves the listener totally rung out. But Springsteen and the E Street Band don’t stop there, moving right into a fiery harmonica solo and then the heart-thumping final verse.
Playing on the themes of death and rebirth, ‘Atlantic City’ is a powerful story of a couple’s struggle to survive in the face “debts that no honest man can pay.” Their problems seem insurmountable, but they hold on to their love and the hope of a new beginning. They cash in all their money, put on their best clothes and head to Atlantic City, where the narrator will embark on one last desperate effort to secure their future.
Running close to 10 minutes, ‘Jungleland’ is Springsteen at his most epic and operatic. From the opening bars, featuring Roy Bittan and Suki Lahav’s piano and violin, the song demonstrates why the E Street Band is among the greatest rock n’ roll outfits in history. Clarence Clemons’s flawless sax solo is legendary. Springsteen leaves nothing behind with his imagery, crafting a world and a feeling that is impossible to forget: “Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge / drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain.’”
The title track off Springsteen’s double album ‘The River’ is a heart-wrenching portrait of dying love, economic hardship and the existential questions they evoke. Featuring a searing harmonica and scorching lyrics, the song recounts a teenage courtship and marriage, from its blissful, revelry-filled beginnings through its downward spiral and descent into stagnant despair. “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?” Springtseen sings. “Or is it something worse?”
With an epic foot-stomping opening riff, ‘Badlands,’ the lead track off ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’ has to be counted as one of Springsteen’s best. Performed live, few rock anthems can ring as much energy out of a crowd. Inspired by the Animals, the track is the story of a man brought low by heavy burdens but who refuses to give in, defiantly declaring, “That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” An especially powerful rendition can be found on 'Live in Barcelona' (2002).
The opening track off Springteen’s breakthrough album, ‘Thunder Road’ is a man’s earnest plea to convince his love to take a chance, climb into his car and together see what the future may hold for them. With a slow and introspective opening featuring Springsteen on harmonica and Roy Bittan on piano, ‘Thunder Road’ builds in intensity and reaches a soaring crescendo, with Clarence’s saxophone, accompanied by the whole E Street Band, leading the way.
Springsteen has acknowledged that with ‘Born to Run,’ the title track off his breakthrough album, he was dancing on the precipice. The intricate and bombastic Phil Spector-inspired production, the hyperbolic lyrics all could have gone terribly wrong, potentially plunging the track into overwrought parody. But what saves it and makes it one of the best rock n’ roll songs ever is the vulnerability beneath the bravado. Amid the epic riffs and grandiose bluster, the narrator acknowledges, he’s “just a scared and lonely rider.”