Bruce Springsteen was one of the many singer-songwriters hyped as “the new Dylan” in the 1970s, and he reclaimed the simple thrills of ‘50s rock and roll with an unabashed Elvis Presley swagger. But over the last five decades, Springsteen has become a paradigm in his own right, a living embodiment of how good a rock star can be at his job.
With epic four-hour concerts, patiently crafted albums, and the rousing signature sound of the E Street Band, Springsteen is both a man and a myth, New Jersey’s homegrown superhero. But he’s also been a political folk singer on The Ghost of Tom Joad, an MTV-ready pop star on Born in the U.S.A., and a movie soundtrack balladeer on hits like “Streets of Philadelphia,” sometimes stumbling but never entirely losing his way.
The Boss is a survivor — the ‘70s rock legend who most reliably tops charts and fills arenas in the 21st century. But beneath the iconic denim-clad image and the immediately identifiable growl of his voice, Springsteen is an endlessly ambitious songwriter and an unparalleled bandleader. His catalog is full of durable pleasures, from the character-filled early albums to the social commentary of Darkness on the Edge of Town to late-period triumphs like The Rising.
Excitement is already building for Springsteen’s 2023 tour, the first E Street Band trek since early 2017. And today, Springsteen is releasing his 22nd studio set, the soulful covers project Only the Strong Survive. But where does it land in our ranking of every Springsteen album?
22. Human Touch (1992)
By 1992, Springsteen had released a double album (The River), winnowed a double album worth of songs into a single album (Darkness on the Edge of Town), and divided a bounty of new songs into two albums released years apart (Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A.). The success of Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and II, two blockbusters released the same day in 1991, likely emboldened the Boss to try a similar simultaneous rollout for his first two records in five years. Human Touch is the longer and more labored of the pair, featuring subdued pleasures like the jazzy ballad “With Every Wish.” But it also includes one of the goofiest songs he ever released as a single, “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).” And the highlight is the most overt ‘70s Springsteen throwback, “Roll of the Dice,” written with the only remaining holdover from the classic E Street Band lineup, pianist Roy Bittan. The Chicago Reader’s Bill Wyman wrote that “Human Touch is about the worst piece of shit you can imagine coming from a talent on Springsteen’s level.”
Buy Human Touch on vinyl here.
21. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)
We Shall Overcome is an example of Springsteen leaning into what people expected him to be. When he was asked to contribute to the 1998 compilation Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger, he didn’t know a lot about Seeger and the folk music canon, despite the leanings of albums like The Ghost of Tom Joad. Covering “We Shall Overcome” sparked Springsteen’s curiosity, and eight years later, he recorded an album of folk standards popularized by Seeger. The Grammy-winning We Shall Overcome is full of lush arrangements and spirited performances that helped bolster Springsteen’s rep as a caretaker of American musical traditions, but it’s hardly an essential piece of his catalog.
Buy We Shall Overcome on vinyl here.
20. High Hopes (2014)
Rage Against The Machine reinvented Springsteen’s acoustic song “Ghost of Tom Joad” as a fiery uptempo rocker in 1997, a decade before it became commonplace for alt-rock bands to claim him as an influence. That cover was the beginning of Springsteen’s friendship with Rage guitarist Tom Morello, who eventually became an unlikely honorary member of the E Street Band in 2014 when Steven Van Zandt had to film a new season of Lillehammer. Morello’s innovative turntable-mimicking guitars on “High Hopes” and heavy metal shredding on “Harry’s Skin” give this album a sound unlike any other Springsteen record. But as much as you want to applaud both Springsteen and Morello for attempting such an unlikely musical marriage, it doesn’t entirely work. High Hopes, a weird hodgepodge of old and new material of disparate origins, never quite coheres. They reworked “Ghost of Tom Joad,” with Springsteen and Morello trading verses, but it lacks the roar of the Rage cover and the dusky intimacy of the original. The long-awaited studio version of “American Skin (41 Shots)” has cheesy vocal effects that break the song’s spell. But Springsteen’s love of ‘70s synth-punk duo Suicide has long bolstered his underground cred, and he finally committed his cover of “Dream Baby Dream” to wax as an excellent closer.
19. Wrecking Ball (2012)
In the aftermath of the 2009 recession, Springsteen returned to one of his familiar roles: a liberal champion of the American working class. Wrecking Ball’s tales of economic hardship and perseverance lean a little harder on stadium-ready uplift, especially lead single “We Take Care of Our Own,” which felt custom-made for President Obama’s re-election campaign. The album, released less than a year after the death of Clarence Clemons, features a couple of the Big Man’s final performances. Unfortunately, Wrecking Ball also includes the long-awaited studio recording of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a latter-day classic that the E Street Band had been playing live since 1999 — heard here with a different drum arrangement that flattened the song’s grandeur.
Buy Wrecking Ball on vinyl here.
18. Magic (2007)
Five years after The Rising, Springsteen returned with an album that felt like a familiar sequel to a fault. The orchestral pop arrangements and crooning vocals of “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” and “Your Own Worst Enemy” are the only real curveball here, but they point the way toward sounds Springsteen would explore further on Working on a Dream and Western Stars. The album concludes with a hidden track, “Terry’s Song,” a beautiful last-minute addition dedicated to Springsteen’s assistant Terry Magovern, who died two months before the album’s release. “The leadoff track here, ‘Radio Nowhere,’ a cracking screed lamenting the Clear Channelization of simple pleasures, is as fired up and direct as anything he’s written,” praised Steve Kandell in the SPIN review.
17. Lucky Town (1992)
Lucky Town began as a session to flesh out the already complete Human Touch with one more new song — until he wound up with a whole new record. Lucky Town benefits from its faster and more spontaneous gestation, and it’s decisively superior to Human Touch, although it’s not one of his classics. Backed by drummer Gary Mallaber with minimal overdubs, the album features an inspired Springsteen ripping through 10 freshly written tracks on guitar. But the slick ‘80s sound leaves the project feeling overproduced and the songs undercooked. Over the next decade, Springsteen focused on touring and soundtrack work, only releasing one acoustic studio album. But when the E Street Band reunited, Lucky Town’s poignant “If I Should Fall Behind” was the only 1992 song that became a minor live standard.
16. Devils & Dust (2005)
Springsteen’s third acoustic album isn’t as stark and lo-fi as Nebraska or as somberly contemplative as The Ghost of Tom Joad. In fact, livelier songs like “All the Way Home” would’ve fit comfortably on a big, brassy E Street Band record. But that clenched Dust Bowl balladeer voice he favors on these albums does get monotonous. Tom Waits would’ve been proud to write “Reno,” a song where a heartbroken man details a motel room tryst with a prostitute. But it’s just a little disconcerting to hear Springsteen sing lines like “She took off her bra and panties, wet her finger, slipped it inside her.”
Buy Devils & Dust on vinyl here.
15. Working on a Dream (2009)
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band headlined the Super Bowl XLIII Halftime Show five days after releasing Working On A Dream, playing the uplifting title track among his decades-old classics in front of 98 million viewers. But the album itself, recorded quickly between tours supporting 2007’s Magic, is fairly quirky and spontaneous by the standards of later Springsteen. The divisive, eight-minute opener “Outlaw Pete” is a whimsical Western epic with a melody strongly reminiscent of KISS’s disco-era hit “I Was Made for Lovin’ You.” And “Queen of the Supermarket” finds wry romance in the grocery store and drops the most surprising F-bomb in the Springsteen catalog.
Buy Working on a Dream on vinyl here.
14. Only The Strong Survive (2022)
Where We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions allowed Springsteen to educate himself on the folk canon, his second covers album is the work of a lifelong soul music fan digging through his record collection. Instead of running through the same Holland-Dozier-Holland classics that Michael McDonald covers, Only the Strong Survive goes for songs like the second-tier Temptations hit “7 Rooms of Gloom.” Motown producer Frank Wilson’s only single as a performer, “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do),” a single so rare it’s considered a holy grail by vinyl collectors and is celebrated as if it was a worldwide hit. Only the Strong Survive sees Springsteen find joy in singing in a way unlike before. He makes the most of his increasingly raspy voice and hits a couple of lovely high notes on “I Wish It Would Rain.”
13. The Promise (2010)
Many of the surplus songs left off Darkness on the Edge of Town trickled out on bootlegs, box sets, and other artists’ records, and the Pointer Sisters’ version of “Fire” and Patti Smith’s version of “Because the Night” had bigger chart success than anything on Darkness. A little over three decades later, Springsteen assembled the best leftovers into a revelatory double album, with new recordings added, including a completely new take of “Save My Love.“ With uptempo numbers like “Talk to Me” and “Gotta Get That Feeling” that didn’t quite fit the Boss’ uncompromising vision, The Promise presents a fuller picture of the E Street Band’s late ‘70s repertoire.
Buy The Promise on vinyl here.
12. Letter to You (2020)
For Chapter and Verse, the companion compilation to his 2016 autobiography, Springsteen excavated some obscure early tracks, including one written with Castilles bandmate George Theiss. After the latter’s death in 2019, Springsteen memorialized his friend with “Letter To You.” And on the album of the same name, he continued to browse the oldest pages of his songbook, resurrecting three pre-Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. compositions: “Janey Needs A Shooter” (once recorded by Warren Zevon), “If I Was A Priest,” and “Song for Orphans.” While they have remnants of the more verbose Springsteen of the early ‘70s, the songs stand comfortably alongside the new material on Letter to You, avoiding sounding like an uneasy hodgepodge of old and new like High Hopes. And “Ghosts” is the best the E Street Band has sounded since The Rising.
Buy Letter to You on vinyl here.
11. The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)
In early 1995, Springsteen released his first Greatest Hits compilation, which went platinum six times and eventually spun off his final Top 40 hit, “Secret Garden.” But at the end of the year, he scaled down, releasing The Ghost of Tom Joad and touring relatively small theaters for the first time in 20 years. Tom Joad is more fleshed-out than Nebraska, with an occasional rhythm section and that same humming synthesizer patch that’s on just about everything he recorded in the ‘90s. But lyrically, it’s just as dark, if not darker, invoking The Grapes of Wrath in songs about homelessness, ex-cons, immigrant labor, murder, crystal meth, and police brutality.
Buy The Ghost of Tom Joad on vinyl here.
10. Western Stars (2019)
In the AM Gold heyday of the 1970s, Springsteen was playing a different game with his shaggy early E Street Band albums and the bombast of Born to Run. So it was a bit of a surprise to hear him play at making a Glen Campbell record decades later. With crisp production, expansive string arrangements, pedal steel, character-driven story songs, and some of his best-ever singing, Western Stars was a late-career highlight — California sunshine pop with the worldly perspective of one of rock’s greatest poets. At a time when his output had started to feel routine, alternating big full-band records with occasional acoustic albums, Western Stars proved that the Boss could still explore novel terrain.
9. Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (1973)
Meddling label execs are seldomly accused of making an album better, but credit where it’s due: We have Clive Davis to thank for “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirit in the Night.” The Columbia Records president initially rejected Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. for lacking hits, prompting Springsteen to reenter the studio and create the album’s two most enduring songs. They weren’t hits, though, at least not for him: “Blinded” was eventually covered by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, who took it to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, a position Springsteen never reached himself (aside from his appearance on “We Are the World”). Greetings is a shaggy but lovable document of the E Street Band’s early lineup, with original drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez’s busy snare fills matching the woolier, wordier songs Springsteen was writing at the time.
Buy Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. on vinyl here.
8. The Rising (2002)
The Rising arrived more than three years after Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band returned to the stage for a triumphant world tour. But playing the classics is one thing, and creating a new set of songs that continue to grow your legacy is quite another. After 9/11, Springsteen was the right tri-state rock hero to release mournful cuts like “Empty Sky” and “My City of Ruins,” helping articulate the mood in America. The Rising is a sprawling, ambitious album, only 10 minutes shorter than The River, capturing a whole spectrum of emotions, including nostalgic, uptempo songs like “Mary’s Place.” With longtime Pearl Jam producer Brendan O’Brien behind the boards, Springsteen arrived at a crunchy post-grunge version of the E Street Band sound, setting his course for the next couple of decades.
7. Tunnel of Love (1987)
When he released Tunnel of Love, Springsteen seemed to be on top of the world —a newlywed following up the blockbuster success of Born in the U.S.A. But Love’s muted palette and melancholy undercurrent started to make more sense a year later, when Springsteen’s wife Julianne Phillips filed for divorce. At the end of the Tunnel of Love Express Tour, Springsteen disbanded the E Street Band, which shocked his bandmates. In this time of change and upheaval, he wrote probing, introspective songs like “Brilliant Disguise” and “Tougher Than the Rest,” combining acoustic blues with VH1-friendly synth gloss in surprisingly graceful ways.
Buy Tunnel of Love on vinyl here.
6. Nebraska (1982)
In 1982, even the smallest independent bands usually went into a professional studio to cut a record. And while rock stars were increasingly investing in lavish home studios, or using simple four-track and eight-track mixers to make demos at home, the intimacy of DIY home recordings was still rarely shared with the public. But while plotting out the ambitious full-band Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen holed up in Colts Neck, New Jersey with a four-track to cut some demos — and he decided to leave 10 of them untouched as a stark acoustic album. “Atlantic City” affirms that the Boss’ ear for hooks can thrive even in this environment. But the otherwise desolate mood of Nebraska, punctured only by his desperate screams on “State Trooper,” have made it a cult classic, the album that even some of Springsteen’s staunchest detractors have grown to love. “This is the bravest of Springsteen’s six records; it’s also his most startling, direct, and chilling,” Steve Pond wrote in the Rolling Stone review.
5. The River (1980)
During the ‘70s, releasing an album every year was the norm. But Springsteen isn’t your run-of-the-mill artist: Instead, he usually wrote dozens of songs and then meticulously narrowed them down to the perfect LP sequence. But he let it all hang out on The River, a double LP that has room for the big themes of Born to Run and Darkness along with some of the most sparkling and joyous music of his career. After giving away a few hits to other artists, Springsteen was talked out of letting the Ramones have “Hungry Heart,” and he finally scored his first top 10 single. “Two Hearts,” “Sherry Darling,” and “Crush on You” capture the jubilance of an E Street Band concert, sounding a little more like a house party than a studio recording. And they sit comfortably aside more somber songs inspired by his family, like the gut-wrenching “Independence Day” and the title track. If Springsteen had already been stereotyped as a guy who writes songs about cars, he doubled down on The River, with “Cadillac Ranch,” “Stolen Car,” “Ramrod,” “Drive All Night,” and, finally, “Wreck on the Highway” all crowding the album’s second disc.
4. Born In the U.S.A. (1984)
The intertwined dual phenomena of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and MTV’s arrival hit popular music like a lightning bolt in the ‘80s. Suddenly everything seemed bigger, from sales to singles campaigns to video budgets. For better or worse, the major labels reinvested a lot of that largesse into established ‘70s rockers who released their biggest sellers in the mid-‘80s, from David Bowie and Dire Straits to Van Halen and ZZ Top. But none of them seized the zeitgeist quite as well as Springsteen, whose desire to make a nuanced political statement — and a killer rock record with synthesizers — crystallized perfectly in 1984. Born in the U.S.A. was the second album to send seven singles to the top 10 of the Hot 100 (the first was Thriller, naturally). But there’s no filler, either, with deep cuts like “Bobby Jean” and “No Surrender” standing tall alongside “Dancing in The Dark” and the other hits. “Simple enough to be easily grasped, different enough to stand out from the thousand other songs in the air, these melodies and rhythms resonated with emotions as basic as lust, loneliness, anger and yearning and gave them shape,” wrote Geoffrey Himes in his 2005 Born to Run book for the 33 1/3 series.
Buy Born in the U.S.A. on vinyl here.
3. The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle (1973)
The second album Springsteen released in 1973 is a jammy, rambling record with only seven songs, most of them running over seven minutes. And yet it feels far more focused and purposeful than Greetings, channeling a heavy Van Morrison influence into Vini Lopez’s funkiest grooves. David Sancious’ clavinet gurgles on “The E Street Shuffle,” and “Kitty’s Back” features spicy leads from the early days when Springsteen was the band’s only guitarist. Meanwhile, the explosive “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” remains one of the catchiest, most relentless songs he ever committed to tape. “This guy may not be God yet, but he has his sleeveless undershirt in the ring,” wrote Robert Christgau in the Village Voice.
Buy The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle on vinyl here.
2. Born to Run (1975)
Most major label artists eventually come to an impasse: Either the next album is a hit, or it’s over. Springsteen seized that moment in 1975 with an album that catapulted him from a local hero to a national media sensation celebrated on the covers of Time and Newsweek. With his Columbia contract on the line, he brought in a host of new collaborators, including co-producer/manager Jon Landau, engineer Jimmy Iovine, drummer Max Weinberg, and pianist Roy Bittan. They all helped Springsteen build a Phil Spector-inspired wall of sound for his biggest, most cinematic songs ever. The title track, “Thunder Road,” “Jungleland,” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” are all cornerstones of the E Street band mythos, and the album’s odd, stagey experiment “Meeting Across the River” contributes to Born to Run’s epic scope. From the moment the screen door slams and Mary’s dress sways to the tragic denouement of the Magic Rat’s joyride, Born to Run is a vivid, exuberant opera splashed across New Jersey’s streets and highways.
Buy Born to Run on vinyl here.
1. Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
Following up on his big breakthrough, Springsteen returned to the “four corners” approach of Born to Run, painstakingly assembling a running order for Darkness on the Edge of Town where each side begins and ends with songs that help create a narrative arc. But the nostalgic ‘50s romance of his earlier work had been replaced with the weary realism of tracks that felt like they took place in 1978. “Factory” was the first of many poignant songs Springsteen would write about his father. The fury of “Adam Raised a Cain” and the dreamlike rush of “Candy’s Room” have no equals elsewhere in the Springsteen catalog. “Badlands” and “Prove It All Night” give Darkness anthems to help it stand among his brighter, more optimistic albums.
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