“The best music, you can seek some shelter in it momentarily, but it’s essentially there to provide you something to face the world with.” — Bruce Springsteen
You don’t get the nickname of ‘The Boss’ for no reason, and Bruce Springsteen has spent a lifetime in the spotlight delivering rock and roll jams to gain his accolade. Leader of the E Street Band, Springsteen, has always managed to operate as a wholly singular entity. Though on the face of it, his work could be seen as a little too dad rock to be enjoyed across decades and generations, the honest authenticity of the songwriter has meant he traverses each with consummate ease and a smile on his face.
Springsteen’s canon is bigger and better than anything you’d expect. A performer whose shows routinely go one for over three hours is bound to have a few jams in his back pocket and, next to his red flag, you’ll find a whole host of incredible songs in the Boss’ Levi’s. While we could wax lyrically about the impressive work of Springsteen, perhaps the easiest way to show his widespread influence is by looking at the plethora of talent who have turned to his work as the perfect vehicle for their own expression.
Over 20 studio albums, Springsteen has left no stone unturned and provided a searing group of works that not only outline his own life but acts as a chronicle of the American people too. The American Dream wasn’t something Bruce Springsteen could easily obtain. So, through his extensive musical career, he wielded his songwriting prowess which acted as a weapon to carve his own. His New Jersey, working-class roots enhance every bit of his much-revered brand of lyrical storytelling. For music fans everywhere, Bruce created the real voice of Heartland America.
It may have been a long time since Springsteen stepped onto the stage for the first time and brought his Bob Dylan-effected folk-rock to the masses but, in that time, it feels as though The Boss has become ubiquitous with the music scene, as inextricable as the air we breathe. However, what’s more, important is that he is still as vital as that oxygen, still as potent and purposeful too.
To write a classic pop song is one thing, but to write a pop song that artists can connect with for the rest of their lives, that they can assimilate into their own artistic expression, is something only a performer like Bruce Springsteen can achieve. Usual rules apply (no artist or song enters twice), and below, you can find our favourite Bruce Springsteen covers of all time.
10 best covers of Bruce Springsteen:
‘I’m On Fire’ – Bat for Lashes
Natasha Khan and Bat For Lashes is a unique proposition. They may have made their name in the indie explosion of the ’00s, but the singer has quickly ascertained a role of the serial siren. She provides, without fail, a vocal that will give you chills and, when given Springsteen’s classic ‘I’m On Fire’, she excels once more.
Subtly changing the song lyrics is one thing but managing to transform a Springsteen song into something that feels entirely original is what sets Khan and co apart. Springsteen’s song is one of his finest, and it is enriched by this standout performance.
‘Atlantic City’ – The Band
Written in isolation, Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska is one of his most adored. The record is not exactly radio-friendly thanks to the myriad of dark themes and can sometimes put people off but, given Springsteen’s classic ‘Atlantic City’, The Band don’t make a single mistake with this one.
The Band naturally changes the song’s pace and instead lean on an accordion to drive this cover forward. Levon Helm takes the vocals and pushes the lyrics to their natural dark conclusion, even if the music is oddly upbeat for the content. Springsteen’s original suggests that Atlantic City only holds nightmares for its visitors while The Band dreams of better times.
‘Johnny 99’ – Johnny Cash
There’s a clear affinity between Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen. The two artists are rightly seen as the lifeblood of Americana and Cash has taken on a number of The Boss’ songs over the years. But his version of ‘Johnny 99’ is perhaps the finest of them all.
Written and recorded by Springsteen in 1982, Johnny Cash took the track and not only included it on his 69th album but even titled the record after the song. Released in 1983, Cash turns the song on its head and makes it his own. It’s perfect fodder for Cash as he tells the story of a tragic inmate and once again excels when he has to transfer the emotions of others into his own words.
‘Drive All Night’ – Eddie Vedder & Glen Hansard
Glen Hansard is a little known singer that is often bypassed in the pantheon of performers. He made his biggest splash opening up for Eddie Vedder during the Pearl Jam singer’s run of shows. If crowds decided to wait at the bar until Vedder got to the stage, they would have missed an awe-inspiring performance.
Vedder would often join Hansard on stage during his performance for a duet on this classic Springsteen number. ‘Drive All Night’ is so well delivered on this live showing that the duo even took it into the studio to record, accompanied by the son of E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, Jake.
‘Dancing in the Dark’ – Hot Chip
‘Dancing in the Dark’ is a song from Springsteen’s canon that has been covered numerous times. Therefore, the competition for this spot on our list was rife, it even included Springsteen’s ultimate hero, Bob Dylan. However, there is simply no denying that Hot Chip’s cover of the track is pure bliss.
Released in 2015, the cover soon became a part of Hot Chip’s live set and is a guaranteed party-starter wherever you happen to be. Of course, being Hot Chip, the cover isn’t a simple one. It drags the song into the 21st century and delivers a computerised reason to ask Courtney Cox to dance. When LCD Soundsystem drifts in around the five-minute mark, things kick up a notch. Pure brilliance.
‘I’m Goin’ Down’ – Vampire Weekend
Some artists have a habit of making songs – whoever has written them -sound like they’re straight from their own album. One of those artists is Vampire Weekend. Catching the clip below, we see a stripped back Ezra Koenig and Co. deliver a gentle and gorgeous cover of Springsteen’s ‘I’m Goin’ Down’.
A casual tambourine, a delicate piano, and Koenig’s always sumptuous vocals mean this song is from the grimy Americana it started out as. Springsteen’s version is pure rock, but Vampire Weekend turn the track into a 1960’s ditty. Allowing the melody to take the spotlight, Vampire Weekend simply float along with it.
‘It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City’ – David Bowie
David Bowie’s interstellar otherworldliness and Bruce Springsteen’s rather more straight-laced blue-collared ways might seem like two pretty disparate creative realms, but their paths have crossed more than a few times. Throughout this interlinking relationship, there has been a healthy stem of mutual admiration.
For instance, in 1979 for a BBC Radio Show, Bowie picked out ‘Saint In The City’ as one of his favourite songs of all time, and upon the Starman’s tragic passing in 2016, Springsteen announced: “Over here on E Street, we’re feeling the great loss of David Bowie. David was a visionary artist and an early supporter of our music. Always changing and ahead of the curve, he was an artist whose excellence you aspired to. He will be sorely missed.”
He covered that song during his lifetime and offered a supremely swashbuckling account of it. It’s a perfect combination of style, substance and the ultimate power couple.
‘Brilliant Disguise’ – Elvis Costello
After Born in the U.S.A. confirmed Springsteen as the biggest musical act in the world, Springsteen did what any credible artist would do in that situation and tried to get as far away from the chart-topping album as he possibly could. The follow-up album, Tunnel of Love, was about as far as Springsteen could jump in one leap. The best moment on the understated album is a sheer love song that needs no extra dissection — ‘Brilliant Disguises’ sounds like Springsteen channelling Roy Orbison and expressing himself more personally than ever before.
It makes it a perfect choice for the esteemed performer Elvis Costello when he grabbed a tune to cover for Light of Day, the Springsteen tribute album. Springsteen has covered Costello too, so there’s a degree of mutual admiration. But, more importantly, Costello delivers a sumptuous cover.
‘American Skin (41 Shots) – Mary J Blige & Kendrick Lamar
There’s something entirely arresting about Springsteen’s ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’. It not only captures the tragedy of the time but feels as pertinent today as ever. The song, written about the all-too-common spurt of police shootings, is enough to bring tears to your eyes and action to your hearts. But it gets kicked up a notch when performed by Mary J Blige.
First sang for Hilary Clinton in 2016, Blige eventually went on to recruit Kendrick Lamar to provide a stellar verse for the song. Sadly, despite being leaked on a few occasions, the track was never given the release it deserved. In fact, it’s been removed from almost every channel around. Instead, we have to cobble together the two pieces below. The remarkable thing is, even in doing some YouTube sewing, the song still feels like a groundbreaking moment.
‘Downbound Train’ – Kurt Vile
Kurt Vile is a dab hand when it comes to covers. A dedicated music lover as well as maker, Vile has often lent his unique guitar sound and vocal to another’s song. Given Springsteen’s wonderful ‘Downbound Train’, he delivers another classic. Taken from Springsteen’s seminal album Born in the U.S.A., the track has been endlessly covered, but Vile’s takes the accolade as the best.
Vile, naturally, takes the song back to the very dirt it was born from. Filled with fuzzy guitars and Vile’s natural vocal drawl, the song feels perhaps even more pertinent than before. There’s a rawness to Vile’s version that gets under your skin and remains lodged in your brain. It’s a beautiful piece and a wonderful tribute to The Boss.