Compiling a list of classic Bruce Springsteen songs is both easy and a challenge. It’s simple because there’s so much from which to choose. But it’s also a challenge for that very reason, given the vast catalogue The Boss spawned over the past 40 years. And no matter what the final choices are, it’s inevitable that there will be those who bemoan the fact that their favorites weren’t included.
In an attempt to span his entire trajectory, we’ve included songs from every phase of his career, and practically every style—from the more commercial chart toppers to those that served as anthems for every helpless and heartbroken individual straining to see some sort of light at the end of the highway or some kind of beacon that promised hope for a future clouded by dashed hopes and a low estimation of what they might someday achieve. If nothing else, Springsteen is a dreamer and an idealist, the eternal optimist even in the most troubling times. Here then are the 20 best Springsteen songs—the ones that emanated light even in the midst of darkness and despair.
Something of a lost classic originally destined for The River, its only official placement on a Springsteen album came via its inclusion on the bonus disc that accompanied The Essential Bruce Springsteen album. Consequently, it’s one of those tracks that’s best known not in its original incarnation, but rather by the classic cover performed by Dave Edmunds, whose faithful rendition gave the song the relentless drive which was originally intended.
Springsteen retraces one of his earliest influences, Woody Guthrie, in this in this unabashed ode to John Steinbeck and his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath. Drawing parallels between the book’s Depression-era setting and the economic milieu that befell America’s middle class during the Bush years, it tracks the plight of disenfranchised workers left behind by the harsh realities of government indifference. Taken from the album of the same name, it was later reprised with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello on the politically charged High Hopes.
An ostensible song about escape, “Atlantic City” also grapples with the darker designs of organized crime, the seduction of easy money, and the inevitably of facing one’s mortality. (“Everything dies, baby that’s a fact”). Culled from the otherwise austere Nebraska, it became a jaunty return for The Band in their post Robbie Robertson reincarnation. Gritty and folksy all at the same time, it finds Bruce and company purveying some rootsier realms.
The title track of the album released in the wake of 9/11, “The Rising” is an essential call to arms, beckoning a rebound with the drive and determination that only Springsteen and his newly reunited E Street Band could muster. Anthemic in it its ferocity, it’s the song that America needed most at that moment, as the nation struggled to come to grips with the tragedy that befell it in attempt to rise from the ashes and assure the world that we would remain unbowed. Today, it remains one of the most significant songs in The Boss’ entire canon.
Three years after its release, “American Skin” is as timely as ever, and sadly so. Written to protest the police shooting of a 22-year-old black West African immigrant who matched the description of a rapist that had been terrorizing a New York neighborhood, it defines the divide between law enforcement and the people they’re sworn to serve. As the victim reached for his wallet, the plainclothes cops assumed he was going for a gun and subsequently shot 41 rounds, striking him 19 times. Although the officers were later tried for murder, they were found innocent by the jury, leading to tense relations between the police and the public. Springsteen’s outrage is evident, and in light of recent incidents, it may be even more so today.
Nothing less, nothing more than a beautiful love song telling of unending devotion of Lucky Town, it features one of Bruce’s most heartfelt deliveries and lyrics that state in unequivocal terms the bond two lovers share now and hopefully forever. A sequel of sorts to the “One Step Up,” it finds him at his most reverential.
Released in 1980 on double album The River, “Hungry Heart” became Springsteen’s first hit on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Upbeat in tempo and sultry with to Clarence’s subtle staccato sax, the song actually conveys a dull ache that captures the universality of yearning. —Hilary Saunders
Written for the film Philadelphia and its documenting of the AIDS epidemic, the despair is obvious in one man’s quest for salvation despite alienation and the uncaring attitude of friends and strangers alike. The song’s muffled arrangement and Springsteen’s forlorn vocals make for a powerful and provocative combination, one that resonates regardless of its downtrodden sentiments. Evidence of the song’s powerful impact resides in the fact that it won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, further recognition of Springsteen’s elevated standing amongst serious pundits and populist devotees alike.
Like many Bruce classics, the title track to his 1992 album found him on the search for salvation, a refuge where he could exorcise his demons and find a place where the future would allow him to effectively put the past aside. “I’m going down to Lucky Town / Down to Lucky Town / I’m gonna lose these blues I’ve found.”
One of Springsteen’s most fully realized love songs, “Brilliant Disguise” finds its narrator questioning his lover as to her continued affections, and wondering all the while why he’s no longer worthy of her affection. It had direct correlation to what was occurring in Springsteen’s own life at the time, specifically, his pending divorce from wife Julianne Phillips. “We stood at the alter / The gypsy swore our future was bright/but come the way we are / Well maybe baby the gypsy lied.” The underlying doubt and sadness is palatable, given the self-doubt and sadness that accompanies the severing of a relationship so rich in love and commitment. Taken from the album Tunnel of Love, it eventually reached the top five on the charts.
The joy of The Promise: The Lost Sessions of Darkness on the Edge of Town, released back in 2010, is the notable twinkle of notions that would later grow into classic rock staples. One example is “Because the Night,” that became Patti Smith’s most commercially successful number in 1983. Here, Springsteeen reclaims his song with grace and brooding sensuality. — Beca Grimm
A celebratory song that revels not in the broken promises of the past or the unsecured hopes for the future, but in the satisfaction that comes from memories of when every new morning seemed brighter than the day that came before it. Partly autobiographical, it boasts its share of nostalgia, but the up-tempo delivery moots any hint of a maudlin mood while fully connecting past and present.
Those bouncing synths make this a song of sheer joy and nothing more. Plus, its video featured a willing young actress named Courtney Cox pulled to the stage by a giddy Bruce to share the song’s refrain. That Bruce, what a charmer!
In the world of rock ‘n’ roll, there are musicians and then there are performers. It is respectable to see a band leave everything out on the stage during their performance, but it is so often at the cost of their music coming in second. But with Springsteen, the personality is as important as the music is. Only a group assembled by the likes of the Boss has the ability to keep up with such a kinetic performer, but the E Street Band plays right alongside the icon, even during their 10-minute rendition of “Jungleland” closing out the show. To put it bluntly, there is a clear reason why no one questions Springsteen’s title as “The Boss.”— Kurt Suchman
The title track from one of Springsteen’s darkest and most moribund albums, the song conjures up the notion of the religious faithful going down to the river to cleanse their sins. In this case however, the river is a metaphor for the narrator’s humble origins and the dark despair that accompanies his overwhelming personal malaise. The vivid imagery and sense of foreboding still make this one of Springsteen’s most powerful testimonials.
The defiance and insistence that sparks this song became typical of Springsteen’s rebellious nature. It became an anthem of sorts, going beyond the metaphysical meanings of his earlier work about teenage edge, angst and dissatisfaction, while giving literal meaning to his urgings for his audience to never settle in their quest, and never to back down—indeed, never to surrender. It too was appropriated for a presidential campaign, this time by John Kerry, who apparently got the Boss’ blessing.
By the time “I’m On Fire” was released as a single in February of 1985, Bruce Springsteen had himself become a bonafide sex symbol (a turnoff to many longtime fans). I can’t think of many songs that build up this much sexual tension, with its slinky guitar line and lyrics that hint at an adulterous affair, but never quite divulge whether or not it’s carried out. And, as only the Boss can do, we experience this infatuous fantasy with the narrator: “At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet and a freight train running through the middle of my head.” Who needs a cold shower? —Mark Lore
With its brassy refrain and sashaying rhythm, this became one of the most enduring songs from Springsteen’s first major hit album Born To Run. The lyrics supposedly relate the story of the E Street Band’s initial formation, but the exact meaning of the phrase “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” still remain a mystery.
Destined to become one of those songs that unintentionally brought Bruce wider recognition, it was more about defeat and despondency than the victorious notion that many mistook it for. Told through the eyes of a returning Vietnam vet, it attracted the attention of candidate Ronald Reagan, who attempted to use it as his presidential campaign song. To quote The Gipper, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.” For his part, Springsteen disassociated himself with the Republican contender, denying permission for its use. He also turned down an offer from the Chrysler Corporation to use it in a car commercial, a deal that would have been worth several million dollars.
Taken from The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, “Rosalita” became a live showstopper, not to mention an obvious showcase for Clarence Clemons’ blazing sax solo. It allowed Bruce to reaffirm his pure, unadulterated love of classic rock ‘n roll, sans any deeper meaning other than simply a desire to woo the girl. It still stands among the greatest rockers in his repertoire.
Another song that originated after Davis’ demand for a song that could be construed as radio ready, it also brought Manfred Mann similar success in Bruce’s stead. One of Springsteen’s catchiest tunes, it relied more on an ebullient chorus and catchy refrain than the preponderance of lyrics and unwieldy construction that characterized those earliest efforts. Nevertheless, that “Greasy Lake” still holds fascination.
One of Bruce’s earliest hits, courtesy of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (who sounded like to replace the word “deuce” with douche”), it was written in response to Columbia Records label boss Clive Davis’ insistence that the album Greetings From Asbury Park needed a bona fide hit. Springsteen later admitted he used a rhyming dictionary while writing the lyrics “Madman drummers, bummers, and Indians in the summers with a teenage diplomat,” although there are autobiographical references tossed in there, as well. The “madman drummer, for example, refers to E Street Band original drummer Vini Lopez, while Indians in the summer references his Little League baseball team.
A turgid melody and a sense of foreboding make this one of Springsteen’s most ominous entreaties. “Everybody’s got a secret, Sonny /Something that they just can’t face / Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it / They carry it with them every step that they take” An overall sense of pessimism is festering below the surface, but the darkness breeds defiance, showing that, as always, the speaker remains unbroken and up to the task of staring down whatever challenges lie before him.
“Thunder Road” is perhaps the Springsteen-iest Springsteen song—Born to Run’s opening track is all dead-end towns and broken dreams and new aspirations of shaking off the dust of “the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets” and getting out. Lyrically, it’s stunning, chronicling Mary (who famously “ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re alright”) and her boyfriend, their young love and their “one last chance to make it real.” There are far too many incredible lines to rattle off here, but if “there were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away” doesn’t get you right in the heart, you’re probably dead inside). Musically, it’s a slow burn, just harmonica and piano at first, before building to the Boss’s euphoric cry of “it’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win” and exploding into a glorious instrumental coda fueled by the legendary Clarence Clemons’ sax.—Bonnie Stiernberg
His greatest hit, that is, the first song pop radio ever embraced, it signalled Springsteen’s ascent to cult heroism. The freedom and unbounded energy echoed in the words of its immortal refrain suggested anything is possible even when everything is left to chance.