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Music

Bruce Springsteen's 10 best songs

Bruce Springsteen needs no introduction, which makes much of this opening superfluous, but that’s because he has been so ubiquitous with every breath of rock and roll since the 1970s. He has helped shape America’s catalogue of music by bringing his own perspective of life into the mix.

Punching the songs up with a collection of dynamic hooks and piercing guitar lines, Springsteen’s work has been consistently excellent, boasting a song selection that’s almost as impressive as Sir Paul McCartney’s.

Where McCartney sings from the heart, Springsteen tends to write from the head, and his work has been geared to another form of audience, one that was less inclined to follow the trappings of popular music, but rather seeks to reinstate the finesse of the lyric at hand.

Born to Run is his best work, but that’s not a reflection on the subsequent albums Springsteen has issued to the world at large. His 2002 album The Rising stemmed from his emotional responses to the September 11 attacks, writing a work that was deeply cognisant of the world at large.

His trajectory has continued to grow more prominent in the years since, and he maintains an illusion that has only grown less mystical and more human in more recent years. This is a smattering of his best work.

Ranking Bruce Springsteen’s 10 best songs, in order of greatness

10.’The Promised Land’

The writing was on the wall for Springsteen when he found himself in a legal brawl with manager Mike Appel, leading to a three-year gap between Born to Run and Darkness on The Edge of Town. The singer-songwriter channelled this innate sense of anger, lacing the work with a burning desire to find some resolution in the pop wilderness.

Darkness on the Edge of Town is brimming with first-person narrative, but ‘The Promised Land’ is one of the better realised, focusing on the unfulfilled ambitions that exist in the mind of an everyday worker. The recording is punctuated by an infectious harmonica line that cements the work.

9. ‘I’m on Fire’

One of Springsteen’s out and out rock numbers, the song is fleshed out by a chiming guitar hook that pads out the number with a suitable degree of ballast and bravado. Recording the tune at The Power Station, the finished piece features a pulsating keyboard line splashing against the cymbals and grizzly guitar riff. Springsteen benefitted from his collaborations with keyboardist Roy Bittan, and the tune proved a favourite with other bands.

Big Country recorded a version of the tune, reflecting the changing geography of England in a song that was decidedly American. Bat For Lashes recorded a slower, more hypnotic rendition of the tune, and no less a luminary than Barry Gibb performed the song on stage as a way of thanking Springsteen for performing ‘Stayin’ Alive’ in Brisbane, Australia.

8. ‘Working On a Dream’

The composition exhibits Springsteen in a strangely buoyant mood as if recognising the change in the American horizons. The tune coincided with Barack Obama’s ascent to Presidency and details the change in tone that made for a refreshing change in the songwriter’s trajectory. He was moving away from the denser, more detailed anthems of his younger years, to celebrate the vibrancy and authority of the moment in question.

The song is notable for a piercing guitar hook that accentuates the tune, solidifying the more commercial textures of the tune. The song, like many Springsteen tunes, is open to interpretation and analysis, as is evident from Enda Kenny’s interpretation of the song. Running for leadership of the Irish government, Kenny called this tune his favourite of Springsteen’s work.

7. ‘Blinded by the Light’

The song is better remembered for Manfred Mann’s rendition of the song, and though admirable, the cover focuses more on the soaring vocal melody than the lyrical content of the tune. ‘Blinded by the Light’ was one of Springsteen’s first recordings, and maps out his personal philosophies in a blinding, guitar-oriented work. Springsteen being Springsteen lets the guitars soak in the mix, rather than blast through the proceedings with the vigour of a fiery, ferocious teenager.

As it happens, the song remains an integral part of his mainstay, mixing the infectious chorus with the more cerebral verses. The vocal embodies equal parts lust and lingering displays of unfulfilled dreams. The guitars emulate the changing feelings of the narration that soaks the tune, and the song started a tradition of first narrative dramas that doubled as a parable about America.

6. ‘Atlantic City’

Unlike the majority of the songs, this one is played entirely by Springsteen alone. He tackles the harmonica and guitars alone, invoking the harder-edged elegies of the Woody Guthrie era. Laced in anger, the song demonstrates the change in tone that had entered into Springsteen’s work. He owed it to his fans to be truthful and had to emulate the honesty in his work, even if it meant reworking the rock backdrop for a sparser, more acoustic arrangement.

Indeed, the entire Nebraska album was recorded entirely alone, punching the arrangements with a series of choppy guitar licks. Springsteen is the only musician on the album, having initially pitched the demos to the E Street Band. Dissatisfied with their contributions, Springsteen returned to the sparse recordings, feeling that they were powerful enough by themselves to carry the weight of the album on their album.

5. ‘Lonesome Day’

Having grown up a Beatles disciple, Springsteen must have been thrilled to perform ‘Come Together’ with Axl Rose in the 1990s. Perhaps Bruce Springsteen could have offered Paul McCartney some advice on how to respond to the September 11 attacks, considering that ‘Lonesome Day’ is as dignified as the Beatle bassist’s ‘Freedom’ is hamfisted and derivative. The Rising reunited Springsteen with the members of the E Street Band, who were all compelled to record a tribute to the attacks that occurred in New York.

If the album can claim a masterpiece, then ‘Lonesome Day’ is the one. Staying true to the core central treatise of the album, the tune recalls the horror and mania that followed the attacks. The album was a strangely emotional affair from the otherwise cerebral songwriter, showing that he did have a beating heart. As it happened, the vocals hold a more muscular vocal performance to his usual output.

4. ‘Jungleland’

Springsteen’s tribute to Phil Spector? The recording is flush with orchestral flourishes, punched up by a collection of ferocious guitar hooks and galloping drum beats. Halfway through the song, a saxophone enters, adding another dimension to the colossal mosaic, emulating the swagger and production of the 1960s. ‘Jungleland’ forms the basis of Born to Run, Springsteen’s best album, and one that defined the essence of his career. But Born to Run was a notable step up for the guitarist as a sound artist, and he ably gifts the listeners a series of plush sounding arrangements that showed that rock could be refined as well as rollicking in its outlook.

‘Jungleland’ is a 10-minute epic, no great epic by progressive rock standards, but it still formed a lengthy instrumental segment for the musician who was used to writing concise, cutting tunes that adhered to the rules and regulations pop had laid out for the genre. But ‘Jungleland’ is still a pop song, and no matter the inflexions, chord changes or instrumentation, the song never loses sight of the core melody.

3.’Thunder Road’

This song led to the creation of Cemetery Junction, or that’s what Ricky Gervais would have you believe. “One of the lines that inspired us is from [Springsteen’s] ‘Thunder Road’,” Gervais said. “‘It’s a town full of losers and we’re pulling out of here to win.’ The resulting effort, Cemetery Junction, is an underwhelming feature, but that’s more of a reflection on Gervais’ poor writing credentials than on Springsteen.

As it happens, the song exhibits the loss of innocence Springsteen’s generation felt after watching America fall victim to a ceaseless, unwinnable war. The Vietnam effort was exhausting to watch, and those who weren’t directly affected by it were upset by the horror stories the veteran soldiers informed them on their return from the Asian countryside. In his interview with Far Out, Kevin Rowland explained his intentions to change some of the lyrics to reflect his personal truth, which Springsteen was happy to oblige.

2.’Born in the U.S.A’

This is Springsteen in rock mode, screaming to the rafters with an urgency that stemmed from the vitality of the work. He was expressing his horrors about the effects of war but was disheartened when Ronald Reagan re-purposed the song for his political campaigns. The recording is notable for a pulsating keyboard line that serves as both the main melody and the central hook, but that’s not to say that there isn’t a soaring guitar line, which helps to flesh the frenzied, anarchic backdrop.

Springsteen would later perform the song as an acoustic number, where the lyrics had added pathos. Without the flourishes or fearsome hooks, the song now sounded like the workings of an ex-soldier recuperating from the memories that were swirling in his mind. There is a famous performance from the late 1990s, from a charity show that also included Radiohead, Peter Gabriel and Robert Plant.

1. ‘Born to Run’

In typical Springsteen form, the tune doubles as both a political metaphor and a rollicking stadium anthem, as the feistily recorded guitars are as hummable as the bouncy, buoyant verses that proceed it. The tune holds a sprightly saxophone line, as Springsteen is chased by a collection of cymbal splashes and drum patterns. Springsteen spent six months working on ‘Born to Run’, and although the recording was arduous, the finished result sounds marvellous, invoking the barrelling drum patterns of Spector’s production style.

As it happens, the song holds one of Springsteen’s most committed vocals, punching up the album with a fiery performance that boasts the excitement of a live gig. No wonder the record wound up becoming a mainstay in the songwriter’s live set, and he still plays the song whenever he performs.