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25 Best Bruce Springsteen Songs of All Time
Bruce Springsteen is one of the greatest musical artists in rock and roll history and has written some of the most iconic songs of the rock era. Here is a list of what I think are his top twenty-five songs of all time. The rankings are based on personnel opinion developed during 30 years of following Bruce and enjoying his music. As you can tell I'm partial to the 1975 to 1985 period, which has to be one of the greatest musical runs by any performer in rock history. It was hard to trim it to only 25 songs and I'm sure I've left some deserving ones off the list, but these are my favorites.
25) 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)
From the unique 1973 album The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle this early gem focuses on New Jersey boardwalk life and some of the depressing aspects of it as the narrator tries to seduce Sandy. Musically the song is gorgeous. Bruce whispers the lyrics as if he's singing into Sandy's ear, there is a choir-like effect from the female background singer, and Danny Federici's accordion playing flavors the song with a wistful, whimsical quality. The song also contains the classic line: "Did you hear the cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin' fortunes better then they do."
24) Dancing in the Dark
This song usually gets panned by both music critics and die hard Bruce fans for its synthesizer sound and pop nature, but I think Bruce delivers an edgy vocal performance that is often overlooked. His voice is raspy and direct and there's a slight echo when he sings "you can't start a fire, you can't start a fire without a spark" that is very appealing. It also ends with a smooth Clarence sax solo. What's not to like? Bruce almost hit #1 on the US charts thanks in part to the video with Courtney Cox, but unfortunately it stalled at #2.
23) Candy's Room
From the 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town LP. This may be my favorite Bruce album and this hidden gem is one of the best songs on it. It starts quietly with Max's fast-paced drum sticks and Bruce barely mumbling the lyrics but the intensity keeps building until the end when it's a full out rocker. The best part is the searing guitar lick by Bruce at the 1:28 mark.
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22) Better Days
From the underrated 1992 Lucky Town album. The song starts with chiming guitars that lead into Bruce's gravelly voice. This song showcases one of Bruce's grittiest vocal performances. It sounds like he trained for it by smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for a year. Bruce was sorting through a lot at the time and was also finally reconciling the dichotomy of his wealth and stardom with his blue-collar, working class image. He had also ditched the E Street Band to go out on his own for the album. The song has some telling lines like "find yourself pretending a rich man in a poor man's shirt". A surprising piece of trivia about the song is Randy Jackson of American Idol fame plays bass.
21) One Step Up
An unflinching, gritty examination of a failed marriage where both sides are at fault. The 1987 Tunnel of Love album features some of Bruce's edgiest guitar playing and this song showcases some of it, especially at the end. It also has a great fade-out with Bruce's wordless vocals. Bruce plays all the instruments with only Patti providing backing vocals. No other members of the E Street Band were involved in the recording.The song reached #13 on the Billboard charts after its 1987 release.
20) Hungry Heart
Bruce's first top ten hit. This breezy song stands in stark contrast to many of the darker tracks on The River like "Wreck on the Highway" and "Stolen Car" among others. Bruce did not particularly like it at first and was planning to give it to the Ramones. Thankfully, Steve Van Zandt and Jon Landau urged him to keep it on the album because they thought it had the makings of the hit single he needed to push his career to the next level. It's a light song and Bruce's voice sounds young and vibrant. Apparently, his voice was slightly sped up on the recording, producing a more boyish, top-40 friendly sound. The song reached #5 on the Billboard chart in 1980.
19) Glory Days
The class reunion theme song of everyone that graduated high school in the 1980s. It's been a little overplayed, but just like "Dancing in the Dark" there is something very appealing about Bruce's vocal that I really like. It's clear, direct, and a little raspy. The song also has a raucous, barroom feel, but behind the celebration is the notion that life passes us by quickly and there's nothing we can really do about it but party on. There's also the classic video showing Bruce working at a construction site and practicing his pitching. Julianne Phillips, his wife at the time, also makes an appearance in the video toward the end. The song peaked at #3 on the Hot 100 chart in 1985.
The title track to Bruce's 1982 solo acoustic album about marginalized people in America. This song is the chilling tale of Charles Starkweather and Carol Fugate and their odd murder spree across Nebraska and Wyoming back in 1957-1958. Bruce was in a dark place at the time he wrote this song and the rest of Nebraska, which takes a hard look at what happens to people when they lose their sense of connection with family, neighbors, church, or the community. The music has the quality of a black and white film and is spare and stark, which only makes the piercing harmonica stand out even more. The Nebraska album also made my Top Ten Albums of All Time list.
17) Living Proof
The Lucky Town album has somewhat been forgotten as the years have passed and it's a shame because it's one of Bruce's more underrated works and contains several fine songs. One of them is "Living Proof", which is a painfully honest review of Bruce's journey in the latter half of the 1980s and touches upon his feeling lost, losing faith, looking to escape himself, and ultimately finding redemption through his son's birth. It starts with thumping drum, jangling guitar, and contains one of Bruces' grittiest, rawest vocal performances ever. The song rumbles along and rocks hard and when Bruce finally sings "I found living proof" over and over again at the end it's from a man that has found some hard earned comfort. There's a small bonus if you listen all the way to the very end. A harmonica appears for the first time at the 4:34 mark in the final fade.
16) I'm on Fire
This is a short, odd, eerie, spooky song about lust and longing from the Born in the USA album. It starts with drum sticks, choppy guitar mixed with synthesizer and then Bruce's haunting voice comes in singing "Hey little girl is your Daddy home? Did he go and leave you all alone?" It also has another great music video from the time when music videos actually related to their songs. It shows Bruce working at a garage with a short acting part at the beginning. Directed by John Sayles, it also showcases the exact same white Thunderbird Suzanne Summers drove in American Graffiti. The song peaked at #6 on the Billboard charts in 1985.
15) Stolen Car
Roy Bittan's haunting piano really makes this song about the narrator escaping a once vibrant marriage that now makes him feel only trapped. For some reason the song was mixed to be barley audible like a whisper. When it comes on my car stereo I always have to turn the volume way up just to hear it. The song begins with churning guitar and that stark, piercing piano and leads into Bruce's story. The background vocals that appear at the 1:30 mark add a hymn-like quality to the song. Check out the faster alternate take on the Tracks box set to get an idea of Bruce's creative process and how this song evolved into the final version.
14) My Hometown
The song that turned my Dad into a Bruce fan. Everyone that grew up in the '60's and '70's could picture the images of "main street's white washed windows and vacant stores" and "closing down the textile mills". Bruce's songwriting was at its peak during this time period and he was brilliantly able to use words to conjure up images that were familiar to everyone. The song peaked at #6 on the Billboard charts in 1985 and was the record tying tenth top-ten single from the Born in the USA album.
Another great song from The Darkness on the Edge of Town album that reached #42 on the charts in 1978. It's a high-energy rocker about defiance and railing against the system. My favorite part is the bridge with the great Bruce guitar line that leads into Clarance's sax and then the quiet interlude when Bruce starts "woooo-ing" along with the piano. It ain't no sign to be glad you're alive!
12) Brilliant Disguise
The first song released from the Tunnel of Love album. I remember thinking to myself "hmmm, this is different" when I first heard it. I was expecting something along the lines of the rousing Born in the USA album but Bruce surprised us with a collection of meditative songs about broken relationships and the roles we play in them. Bruce's singing also started to change on this album and is more country twangy than the straight-ahead rocker style of Born in the USA. The song reached #5 on the charts in 1987.
11) Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
A fun, rollicking number from 1973's The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle album that was the centerpiece of Bruce's live shows for years. "Rosalita" was inspired by the fiery relationship between Bruce and his girlfriend at the time Diane Lozito. In concert the song is a showcase for the band, especially Clarence whose sax weaves through it from beginning to end. For some reason it always seems to sound better live and as a result was the centerpiece of Bruce's shows for years. In 1984 MTV started airing a 7:38 minute live version of the song that was taped during the Darkness tour. In the video Clarence is resplendent in his red suit and white shoes and plays a blistering sax.
An expansive, sweeping rock opera from the Born to Run album about the Magic Rat and Barefoot Girl and their adventures one summer night. The song is 9:38 minutes long, but it seems much shorter due to the beauty of the music with piano, strings, and one of Clarence's best ever sax solos. It starts at the 3:55 mark and lasts for 2:11 intoxicating minutes building in intensity and beauty the whole way. I never get tired of hearing it. My other favorite part starts at the 8:45 mark when Bruce starts howling and wailing to finish the song off.
Songs That Just Missed
The Promised Land
Incident on 57th Street
Blinded by the Light
Tenth Avenue Freeze Out
The Ties That Bind
Tunnel of Love
The Ghost of Tom Joad
9) Racing in the Street
A somber character study from Darkness on the Edge of Town about the price one man has paid for his obsession with car racing. Roy Bittan's plaintive piano kicks it off and leads into Bruce's singing, which sounds emotionless and hollow as he tells the story of an all-consuming car racing obsession and the effect it has had on his life and marriage. On one hand it gives the narrator life and something to look forward to during the drudgery of his work days as indicated by one of Bruce's best lyrics of all time: "some guys they just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece. Some guys come home from work and wash up and go racing in the street". However, this focus has come at a great price as it sounds like he has neglected all other areas of his life, in particular the relationship with his wife who cries herself to sleep at night. The music is hymn-like and reverential from the plain piano intro to the way the piano and synthesizer merge together at the end. This is fitting since racing has become something of a God to the narrator of the song.
I think "Backstreets" is one of the best vocal performances of Bruce's career. The song kicks off with a swelling organ and pounding piano and Bruce starts singing with a smoldering, guttural intensity about a lost relationship with Terri. He fills the song with cries, wails, and howls and tears into the lyrics as if he was mortally wounded. Bruce's vocal is gritty, gnarly, and angry, especially at the end when he starts chanting "hiding on the backstreets" over and over again 25 times. It sounds like he expended a crazy amount of energy and that he must have been totally drained at the end of the recording session. I know I feel emotionally exhausted just listening to it. The song was never released as a single. "Backstreets" also showcases one of the forgotten features of the Born to Run album that I really love: Bruce's wordless vocals, which come in at the end.
7) Darkness on the Edge of Town
The title sounds more like the name to a 1950s black and white science fiction movie or a Stephen King novel then the title track to one of Springsteen's best albums. The song contains one of Bruce's greatest vocal performances. He's angry and shouting so loud I can imagine the spit coming out of his mouth as he yells the words into the microphone. There's also the emphatic "huh's" at the bridge and the wordless moaning at the end that add to this unique performance about people coming to grips with the disappointments, limitations, and constraints of adult life. The song was never released as a single.
6) Streets of Philadelphia
This unnerving 1994 song kind of came out of nowhere on the Philadelphia movie soundtrack and may be one of Bruce's last really great hits. It starts with the signature drum machine beat that leads to an ominous sounding synthesizer. Bruce sounds weary and drained, like he embodies the words he's singing about the ravages of HIV and AIDS. The ghostly "la-la-la-la-la's" in the chorus are chilling. The video, directed by Jonathan and Ted Demme, is one of Bruce's best and shows him walking through the streets of Philadelphia looking rough and haggard like he's barely alive, muttering the words to the song. There's no lip-synching in this gritty video. Bruce actually sang into a hidden microphone while he was walking. The song peaked at #9 on the Hot 100 chart in 1994. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1994 and also won the Grammys for Song of the Year, Best Rock Song, and Best Male Vocal.
5) Thunder Road
An iconic track from Born to Run about ditching your mundane circumstances and hitting the road to carve out a better future. At first it's just some guy trying to talk a girl into taking a road trip but along the way it builds into something grand and epic about seizing the moment, shaking off the mistakes of your past, and not looking back. It's not clear what Mary and the narrator of the song will win by hitting the road, how they will win it, and what they will do once they win it. Those questions will be explored by Bruce later on in his career so for now just enjoy the intoxicating feeling of being young again with no responsibilities. The song builds up musically layer by layer. It starts slowly with only piano and harmonica then Bruce comes in and sings with just piano from the 0:19 to 1:12 mark. The band joins in and the intensity ratchets up a notch as Bruce's pleading to Mary increases in fervor. It finishes with a signature Clarence sax solo. A beautifully constructed song and one of Bruce's best. It was never released as a single.
4) Atlantic City
The most radio-friendly track from the sparse and bleak Nebraska album about small time crooks trying to work their way into the mob in Atlantic City. Bruce's cries and echoing background vocals add a haunting feel to the song and the harmonica provides an extra punch as it slices through the music. It also sounds like there's a mandolin in the background. My favorite part starts at the 1:36 minute mark when the guitar strumming, mandolin, harmonica, and Bruce's cries meld together to create quite an acoustic wallop. The line about "debt's that no honest man can pay" rings even truer today than it did 30 years ago. The song was never released as a single, but a grainy black and white video was released and received considerable airplay on MTV back in 1982. The song has been covered by a wide range of artists over the years from the Counting Crows to Eddie Vedder and most recently Mumford & Sons.
3) The River
Bruce really started to come into his own with this sprawling double album from 1980. The title track is a bleak classic about everyday people trapped by their circumstances (a common theme with Bruce). This time it's about the narrator and Mary and their unplanned pregnancy and courthouse wedding, working at a dead-end job and being laid off, and eventually losing their hopes and dreams. Songs like this are what made Bruce great because he was able to elevate the problems of ordinary working class people into epic, poetic struggles. He also uses silence well in this song. It starts with acoustic guitar and a great harmonica solo but my favorite part occurs at the 0:53 mark when there is about a 2 second pause before the music kicks back in again, which only adds to the impact of it all. The song was never released as a single in the US, but did well in Europe where it reached the top ten in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Norway.
What is your favorite Bruce song?
2) Born in the USA
The song that propelled Bruce to superstar, arena-rock God status. It has a live feel thanks to Max Weinberg's drums (which sound like he's banging on steel trash can lids), Bruce's ragged vocal, and the false ending. Roy Bittan's piercing synthesizer runs at the beginning also give it an added edge. "Born in the USA" was written at the same time as the Nebraska album songs and like them it also focuses on marginalized Americans, this time forgotten Vietnam War veterans. Bruce's songwriting had become so refined and cinematic at this point that he was able to convey volumes in only a few words like "there still there, he's all gone". The song has an ambivalent aspect and is often mistaken for an anthem of American pride, most notably by Ronald Reagan at a 1984 campaign speech in Hammonton, New Jersey and by conservative columnist George Will in a famously lampooned column. The song peaked at #9 on the Hot 100 chart in 1984.
1) Born to Run
Bruce's masterpiece and one of the greatest songs in rock history. Surprisingly, it made it to only #23 on the Billboard charts in 1975. An anthem to which everyone can relate about escaping your hometown for that alluring yet elusive something better out there. There's the pulsing intro that sounds like a starting motorcycle, Clarence's turbo-charged sax solo, Bruce's sizzling guitar that leads to the break, and the rousing ending with the woo-oh-oh-oh's. Bruce was heavily influenced at the time by the Phil Spector "wall of sound" production style but he labored over the song for months, scrutinizing every syllable and note until it matched his sonic vision. Through this effort he was ultimately able to make it his own and craft one of the all-time classic rock tracks to which we all owe him a debt of gratitude. Thanks Bruce!