It took me a while to warm to Bruce Springsteen – the radio mostly played his 1980s hits from Born in the U.S.A., and I had him pigeon-holed as a lame, ultra-American, lowest common denominator rocker. But eventually I gave in to his critical reputation and gave a couple of $10 CDs from the bargain bin a try (18 Tracks and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle).
Here are my favourite five Springsteen studio albums. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they’re all from his first fifteen years as a recording artist, but after a lackluster 1990s, he enjoyed an artistic renaissance in the 2000s with albums like The Rising and Devils and Dust.
#5 – Tunnel of Love (1987)
After the huge selling Born in the U.S.A. made him a mega-star, Springsteen released a personal, adult-contemporary album focused on his troubled marriage. There are a few throwaways, but songs like ‘One Step Up’ and ‘Brilliant Disguise’ are brilliant examples of Springsteen’s song-writing craft.
#4 – Nebraska (1982)
Springsteen attempted to record 1982’s Nebraska with the E-Street Band. But he decided that his original demo tapes better suited the haunted, desperate songs, and his demos were released as the official album.
#3 – Born To Run (1975)
Born to Run was Springsteen’s initial commercial breakthrough after his first two albums failed to sell. The huge sound is reminiscent of Phil Spector’s 1960s pop productions. The songs include the fan favourites ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Jungleland’, but I’ve always been partial to the film noir atmosphere of ‘Meeting Across The River’.
#2 – The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973)
The Springsteen of 1973 is a romantic, influenced by Van Morrison, and singing long, complex songs that are in contrast with his more stripped down later work. The E-Street Band’s drummer and pianist were replaced after this album, but Vini Lopez and David Sancious are both great players who bring a jazz feel to the album. The epics ‘Incident on 57th Street’, ‘Rosalita’, and ‘New York City Serenade’ make the second half one of my favourite LP sides ever.
#1 – Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
Springsteen toughened his sound for Darkness, which focuses on working class people trapped in unrewarding circumstances. Each LP side starts with hope and ends with despair, and the music varies from the intensity of ‘Candy’s Room’ and ‘Adam Raised A Cain’ to the resignation of ‘Racing in the Streets’.
Do you have a favourite Springsteen album that I omitted? A favourite from his later years?
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The Rising & Born in the USA would sneak into my top 5 – but no complaints about your list either!
I like The Rising – it’s a good comeback after an indifferent 1990s. ‘My City Of Ruins’ is probably my favourite song he’s done since the 1980s.
It felt like exactly the right album at exactly the right time – Worlds Apart would be in my top 5 Springsteen tunes!
Nebraska just got to be my fave album of his, if you’ll like to know? And then I have big soft spot for Devils & Dust so that would be number two. I think The River would be three and then The Ghost of Tom Joad at four but god knows after? I’ll have to think about that! But you’ve got a great top five list, good work!
I would have picked you to be a Nebraska guy actually – you like the stripped back ones best, right?
Yeah, yeah, that’s right!
Great list, A, and lovely potted descriptions too.
Now please don’t howl me down, but I’ve a teen-of-the-seventies soft spot for rambling double albums, so I’d include The River. Kind of like Springsteen’s ‘London Calling’.
I looked at a few different lists after I made mine. Pretty much everyone had Darkness and Born To Run in the top 2, and Nebraska somewhere in the top 5, but The River was in most of them as well. IMO it has a lot of great stuff, like ‘Independence Day’ and the title track. I love this out-take, which ended up on Tracks, too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DE3lRp6uexY
Great to see Tunnel of Love in your top 5 . I’ve gone through all his work and it’s currently my #1 Springsteen album. The one I go back to the most, and could be his most underappreciated.
There are a few throwaways I think (‘Ain’t Got You’, ‘Spare Parts’), but the good songs are so well written. ‘Tougher Than The Rest’, ‘Walk Like A Man’, ‘One Step Up’, ‘Tunnel Of Love’ are such good songs, and I don’t mind the change to more studio based, adult contemporary production.
I think some critics felt The Boss had overdone it with the synthesizers on Tunnel of Love album , but i love the sound. Besides those songs you mention, the closer Valentine’s Day is another strong, emotional moment.
Yup, I like that one too. The sound is distancing himself from his previous work, but the style makes sense for the material.
Great list. Very similar to my own, all unimpeachable.
Back when I did mine it went
Tunnel of Love
Born to Run
These days I think Wild, Innocent… would swap places with The River
Yes, I remember you rolling out your list and being happy to see Tunnel of Love at third and Darkness winning.
I don’t really like ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ much, but the rest of the Wild, Innocent album is pretty great.
I’m glad you came around to Springsteen who together with John Mellencamp, Tom Petty and Bob Seger is one of my favorite American rock artists. In addition to so many great songs he has written, Springsteen truly is a one-of-kind live performer – I don’t know any artist of his caliber who is playing 4-hour shows! I’ve been fortunate to see him twice – once in the 80s in the wake of the “Born In The USA” album and a second time last August as part of “The River” tour, which brings me to the list.
Leading up to “The River” gig, I listened to the album quite a bit and gained real appreciation for it, so I would add to my Top 5 list. “Nebraska” on the other hand is a record I never warmed up to. I also have to say while it got overexposed on the radio at the time, I love the “Born In The USA” album. Unfortunately, the title song, which on the surface sounds like a glorification of the country but instead is highly critical, became one of the most misunderstood rock songs.
Tom Petty was the easiest of those four for me to like – the others have their moments of bombast, which he doesn’t really have. I should probably try Mellencamp sometime.
The original acoustic version of Born in the U.S.A. that’s on Tracks is much easier to understand. Probably making it the album title and having that cover shot meant it was easy to misunderstand. I really like a few songs on Born in the USA, like ‘Cover Me’ and ‘My Hometown’, but it’s not top 5 for me.
Overall, Mellencamp’s catalog is a treasure trove, in my opinion. Like with every artist who has written music for such a long time, there are ups and downs.
As for Springsteen, I didn’t know the acoustic version on “Born In The USA.” Totally agree the haunting sound is a much better fit to the lyrics. Admittedly, I’m into catchy melodies, so still drawn to the hit version.
Any Mellencamp recommendations? Scarecrow?
“Scarecrow” is definitely a good one. “Small Town” is still one of my favorite Mellencamp tunes!
If I had to name my most favorite album overall, it would probably be “The Lonesome Jubilee,” which is the record after “Scarecrow.” It marks the beginning of Mellencamp’s slow transition away from straight rock to more roots-oriented music. Speaking of which, I also dig his most recent album “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies” with Carline Carter. Thanks to chain-smoking, Mellencamp’s voice has changed quite a bit from his 80s and 90s records, though it fits with the songs and also goes well with Carter’s voice.
Another nice album is “Rough Harvest,” a compilation of stripped down versions of Mellencamp original songs and covers. I think the covers of “Farewell Angelina” and “Under The Boardwalk” are particularly strong.
Cool – thank you!
I love Bruce, and I am almost in full agreement with your Top 5.
Tunnel of Love is a great record, but I would replace it with The River. Tunnel of Love would likely rank 6th or 7th in my book.
Darkness is indeed his best work. There is not a dud in it, and it has many of his greatest songs and lyrics.
Darkness seems to be something of a consensus favourite these days, I think. Which is kind of cool, because the two “Born” albums seem like the highest profile ones.
Yeah, it seems that for a while people gravitated towards those two. But the 80s production has killed some of the hype surrounding Born in the USA, I guess.
I love Born to Run, but both “She’s the One” and “Meeting Across the River” don’t do much for me.
Night and She’s The One are the two songs that haven’t connected for me. I’ve always enjoyed ‘Meeting Across The River’ – I like how it’s mysterious and unresolved.
Yeah, that’s a pretty cool thing about it!
Back when Tony did his fine Bruce album listing, I had one Top Five list. I’ve modified it a bit. 5 – Darkness; 4 – The River; 3 – Born in the USA; 2 – Born to Run; 1 – The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. As far as newer albums, ‘Magic; is good. I saw that tour. And I like the ‘Tracks’ compilation quite a bit.
I’ve been meaning to check Magic out – I’ve covered every Springsteen studio album through to We Shall Overcome, but it seems like most people like Magic, but not so much after that.
I only have 18 Tracks, so I’ve never heard the full thing – I imagine I’d probably like a lot of stuff from the first half. Born in the USA has some really good out-takes too.
I always go back to The River, but definitely Nebraska too.
My selection would amount to a top 1, because I loved and still love The Wild The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle but found Born to Run etc. a descent into Elvis Presley-style bombast after the warm fascinations of Spanish Johnny and Rosalita. Since then, while Hungry Heart and others make me want to try their albums, I’m stuck. It’s probably just me; whenever the masses adopt something I seem to go the other way. I’m the man who thinks Stairway to Heaven is an utter embarrassment and the only good thing about Hotel California is the guitar duel. So I love Bruce and I despair of him at the same time, but if you want to play The Wild The Innocent at my wake I’ll be very happy.
Chris, I would respectfully disagree with you on “Hotel” and “Stairway,” but emphatically agree on “The Wild, The Innocent.” Other than, to a certain extent the first album, he never really did anything like it again. It stands in a league of its own in his canon, IMHO. If my wife and I collectively had a favorite album, that would be it. Playing at funeral – excellent!
My take is that he lost something with Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s my favourite Springsteen album and I appreciate its intensity, but at the same time he gave up on the romantic feel and long epics in favour of a more direct, honest approach.
Born to Run still has Thunder Road and Jungleland which are still epic and romantic, even though I hear you about the change in production style; I guess I’m more sensitive to the change in his writing style, which is connected, but which happened a little later.
I’l catch up to you when i get to him on your takes. I’ve been along for the ride for a long time.His work always has something that moves me on a few levels. My intro was the rocker side of him. That is what hooked me. Enjoyed the short reviews.
Cool – I’ll see you there in a few weeks.
An interesting line-up. Nebraska or Born to Run would be my first… Nebraska is my favourite, but Born To Run was my first Springsteen album. Darkness 3rd, Devils & Dust 4th, with The Ghost Of Tom Joad 5th.
I haven’t heard Ghost of Tom Joad for ages, but last time I found it tough going. My “Cliffs Notes” version is the Rage Against The Machine cover of the title track, and the live version of ‘Youngstown’ on the 2001 live album. You obviously like his acoustic stuff best!
I definitely need to be in the mood for it, but I can’t think of anything he’s done since (other than Devils & Dust, of course) that’s better. The Rising would have been in with a shout if he could have shaved a few tracks off there.
It’s “Born to Run” for me every time, and that was recently reconfirmed when I watched “Wings For Wheels” a couple of times. His career was on the line and whilst up against self imposed and label pressure, he delivered his most triumphant recording.
I think I read once that the single came out well before the album – you’d think the single alone would be enough to establish his career?
You’d think so, yeah, but Bruce knew he had to reproduce the formula over the space of a long playing record I feel.
Yeah, I guess albums were regarded as the pinnacle of artistic achievement. I wonder if it will be like that in the future?
Probably not. People pick a choose their records/downloads/streams to a large extent.
I guess it means you probably get more Spotify streams etc if you market full albums.
Your first lines sums up my approach, now I love him.
“Darkness” is a among the best rock albums ever recorded and surely an American masterpiece. Each song on it is a masterpeice in itself. IMHO it fully deserves to be at the top. I also like a lot Springsteen’s first album.
I should probably expand this to all his albums sometime, but not sure if I can manage to sit through all his 21st century stuff.