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Bruce Springsteen through the decades: His five best songs from each chapter

“Aging is scary but fascinating, and great talent morphs in strange and often enlightening ways.” – Bruce Springsteen. 

Bruce Springsteen emerged as such an all-American archetype of the blue-collar troubadour that he earned himself the title of The Boss in a rapid promotion to the pinnacle of the gingham wayfarer’s long-winding peak. However, he was such an espouser of solidarity that surely ‘The Comrade’ or ‘The Compatriot’ would’ve been a more befitting moniker. Over the years he has tried to stay true to this mantra, as he says himself: “The great challenge of adulthood is holding on to your idealism after you lose your innocence.”

Over the course of his career, he has also seemingly lived by the line that with age “great talent morphs in strange and often enlightening ways.” Never one to stick in the mud, he has followed the same evolving path as his hero Bob Dylan and every other artist who refuses to play to the gallery. As David Bowie once said: “Always remember that the reason you initially started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society.” This has forever been a tenet of Springsteen’s work, even if he does lament moving away from his early Dylan stylings too quickly. 

Below we’re looking at the best that each of his musical chapters have offered up. From the classic songwriter style of the 1970s to the stadium smashing 80s and the wayward turn of the glossy 90s, right up until his later refinements in recent years. We’ve hand-picked the five best songs that The Boss conjured from each decade and wrapped them up in a career-spanning playlist at the foot of the piece. 

From flop to fame: Bruce Springsteen in the 1970s

When Bob Dylan first heard ‘the next Bob Dylan’ he said, “He better be careful, or he might go through every word in the English language.” As it happens, Springsteen’s debut was even presented to the world with the PR tagline of ‘the next Dylan’. The issue was that Dylan had hardly gone anywhere and if there was to be a ‘this town ain’t big enough for the both of us stand-off’ then only one winner was assured. 

This failed attempt to sell the record’s all-American heart through comparison to others rather than championing the LP’s originality led to a poor chart position. It peaked at a moderate 60 in the US and failed to travel well overseas, but the likes of David Bowie heard it, and thanks to that, The Boss didn’t stay quiet for long. Soon he rifled his way towards Born to Run, and the rest, as they say, is ancient history. 

This rapid rise from despairing doldrums may even seem retrospectively befitting, as he said himself: “Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.”

His best tracks of the 1970s

  • ‘Spirit in the Night’
  • ‘Thunder Road’
  • ‘Born to Run’
  • ‘Jungleland’
  • ‘The Promised Land’

A decade of hit-making dominance: Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s

In the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen’s rise to the top was so all-conquering that he was even helping to flatten the Berlin wall. With Born in the U.S.A he became an emblem of American rock ‘n’ roll itself, but it was a string of masterful albums that had led him there in the first place. 

When discussing the iconic artwork for Born in the U.S.A that seemed to see him at his identity-finding creative zenith, he remarked: “We had the flag on the cover because the first song was called ‘Born in the U.S.A.’, and the theme of the record kind of follows from the themes I’ve been writing about for at least the last six or seven years. But the flag is a powerful image, and when you set that stuff loose, you don’t know what’s gonna be done with it.”

He may have been misinterpreted during this era, but not the dust has settled on the maelstrom that he stirred up, it is remembered as the time that Springsteen unleashed his full gestalt in a sonic assault on the mainstream. He coupled tender dirges with some of the most introspective stadium rock ever written; in short, picking five proves an impossible task. 

His best tracks of the 1980s

  • ‘The River’
  • ‘Nebraska’
  • ‘Atlantic City’
  • ‘Dancing in the Dark’
  • ‘Tougher Than the Rest’

Highs and Lows on a trio: Bruce Springsteen in the 1990s

The 1990s proved to be a tricky time for many older artists and a lot of huge stars from the past found themselves floundering to keep up and often missing the mark in the process. Production values, mass commercialism and a disenfranchised alternative scene created a mishmash that saw Springsteen enter similar waters. As he once remarked: “I tried writing happy songs in the early ‘90s and it didn’t work; the public didn’t like it.”

While songs like ‘Real Man’ might be the very worst of his career, and the artwork for Lucky Town is an assault on decency and class, tracks like ‘Youngstown’ saw him keep his chin up and continue to experiment. This notion of refusing to fall back into safe pastures is one that has defined him as an artist. 

His best tracks of the 1990s

  • ‘Better Days’
  • ‘Local Hero’
  • ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’
  • ‘Youngstown’
  • ‘The New Timer’

Returning to old ways: Bruce Springsteen in the 2000s

As it happens, the 2000s saw Springsteen at his most prolific. During the decade he release; The RisingDevils & Dust, We Shall Overcome, Magic and Working on a Dream. While there would be highs and lows once more, they were all far more creditable efforts than the three he offered up in the 1990s and represented returns to form. 

Returning after a seven-year absence with one of his best records in the shape of The Rising is indicative of not only his creative class, but also his societal importance as an American musician. When the country was struggling to reconcile the tragedy of 9/11, he emerged with a moment of comfort, but also a cognizant dose of reality. 

His best tracks of the 2000s

  • ‘Lonesome Day’
  • ‘The Rising’
  • ‘Reno’
  • ‘Radio Nowhere’
  • ‘My Lucky Day’

Establishing a legacy: Bruce Springsteen in the 2010s and present

After many misinterpretations, cynical snobbish backlash, and a couple of duds, where is Bruce Springsteen now? Well, it would seem that the dust has settled on The Boss in the way that it should have – his legacy as the plain-speaking poet who blazed the trail of folk into stadium rock and paired introspection with a visceral edge is set in stone. 

Now, the next generation are taking note of a back catalogue that stirs with brooding wisdom, artistry and bravura attitude. As up-and-coming star Sam Fender remarked: “My favourite writers are always great storytellers, like Bruce Springsteen; I adore Bruce Springsteen. I feel like he doesn’t beat around the bush, and he doesn’t overcomplicate things. He puts things into layman’s terms and tells stories that anyone can understand.”

His best tracks from the 2010s to now

  • ‘We Take Care of Our Own’
  • ‘Dream Baby Dream’ (Suicide cover)
  • ‘Hello Sunshine’
  • ‘Letter to You’
  • ‘Ghosts’

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