Bruce Springsteen: 100 Greatest Songs of All Time – Rolling Stone
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100 Greatest Bruce Springsteen Songs of All Time

An expert panel of writers and artists pick Springsteen’s best songs, from “Rosalita” to “Wrecking Ball”

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 12: Bruce Springsteen performs onstage during 'Springsteen On Broadway' at Walter Kerr Theatre on October 12, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)

Bruce Springsteen performs onstage during 'Springsteen on Broadway' at the Walter Kerr Theatre on October 12, 2017 in New York City.

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

In the 41 years since the release of his debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., Bruce Springsteen has built up a catalog of songs nearly unrivaled in the history of rock, from the streetwise drama of his early work, through to the stadium-shaking heights of Born in the U.S.A., and continuing on to his recent socially and politically impassioned efforts like the new High Hopes.

Such sustained greatness makes choosing highlights a deeply subjective job, but we’ve given it our best shot. Selected with the help of a panel of writers and artists, here are our picks for Springsteen’s 100 greatest songs.

The panel: Win Butler (Arcade Fire), Andy Greene (Associate editor, Rolling Stone), Dr. Lauren Onkey (The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum), Jackson Browne (singer-songwriter, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer), Mikal Gilmore (Contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Christopher Phillips (Editor and publisher, Backstreets magazine), Peter Ames Carlin (Journalist, Springsteen biographer), Brian Hiatt, (Senior writer, Rolling Stone), Rob Sheffield (Contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Bethany Cosentino (Founding member, Best Coast), Alan Light (Journalist and author, The Holy or the Broken), Steven Van Zandt (Actor, guitarist, E Street Band member), Bill Flanagan (Executive vice president, MTV Networks), Edward Norton (Actor-director, two-time Oscar nominee), Warren Zanes (Founding member, the Del Fuegos), David Fricke (Senior writer, Rolling Stone), Tom Morello (Solo artist, Rage Against the Machine guitarist)

Tom Hill/WireImage

100

“Fire”

Live/1975-85, 1986

One of Springsteen’s most covered tunes (it’s been done by everyone from Cher to Link Wray), “Fire” was written in 1977 to be sung by Elvis Presley; as Spring­steen has said, “I sent [Elvis] a demo of it, but he died before it arrived.” The Pointer Sisters‘ rendition became a Number Two hit, but Springsteen’s take on Live/1975-85 ignites the Fifties-style torch song’s soft-loud dynamic like no one else’s.

Peter Wafzig/Redferns/Getty Images

99

“American Land”

Wrecking Ball, 2012

Originally recorded during The Seeger Sessions in 2006, “American Land” turns a poem written by a 19th-century steelworker (and set to music by Pete Seeger) into Springsteen’s version of a Pogues song. It’s a rowdy Irish jig celebrating the American-immigrant experience, the Celtic strain in the roots-rock tradition and the unbridled joy of performing, in this land or any other.

Scott Harrison/Getty Images

98

“Brothers Under the Bridge”

Tracks, 1998

There’s a Springsteen song with a nearly identical title: an uptempo E Street rave-up left off Born in the U.S.A. This “Brothers” is entirely different, a stripped-down Vietnam ballad that puts all the pain up front. Over military drum taps, Springsteen sings about a homeless vet who hides out with other men like him at a California campsite, trying to avoid the highway patrol and his own memories.

Martin Philbey/Redferns/Getty Images

97

“County Fair”

The Essential Bruce Springsteen, 2003

Cut in 1983, this song didn’t get its first official release for another 20 years. And though “County Fair” was written in the wake of Nebraska, it feels worlds away from that album’s stark hard-luck tales. It opens with acoustic guitar and the sound of crickets chirping, as Spring­steen sings about small-town romance on a summer evening, riding the roller coaster and dancing to a local band called James Young and the Immortal Ones.

Us Rock Musician Bruce Springsteen Performs in Concert in Arnhem Netherlands 01 December 2007 Springsteen is on Tour to Promote His New Album 'Magic' Netherlands ArnhemNetherlands Music Bruce Springsteen - Dec 2007

Olaf Kraak/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

96

“Long Walk Home”

Magic, 2007

“Long Walk Home” reflects a turbulent time in America, marked by economic decline, constitutional decay and endless foreign wars. It’s no accident that this is the song Springsteen quoted when he endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008. “He speaks to the America I’ve envisioned in my music for the past 35 years,” Springsteen said. “A place where ‘nobody crowds you, and nobody goes it alone.'”

bruce springsteen

Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

95

“All That Heaven Will Allow”

Tunnel of Love, 1987

Like so many of the great songs on Tunnel of Love, “All That Heaven Will Allow” lays bare the hope and fear of a man in love. Springsteen sings about steps in a couple’s life together – a date in a nightclub, sharing a house, the dread of dying too young. He even tries to talk his way past a nightclub bouncer (“Come on, Slim, slip me in, man”). The song became a centerpiece of the 1988 tour, with a long introduction co-starring Clemons and set on a park bench.

(Original Caption) Bruce Springsteen. (Photo by Marty Fresco/Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

Marty Fresco/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis/Getty Images

94

“If I Was the Priest”

Unreleased, 1972

The first time Springsteen met John Hammond, the legendary talent scout asked whether he had any songs that he would never perform live. Springsteen responded with this cowboy ballad about a town where Jesus is the sheriff and the Virgin Mary runs the Holy Grail Saloon. “When he sang that song,” Hammond later recalled, “I knew he could only be Catholic.”

bruce springsteen

Tom Hill/WireImage

93

“The E Street Shuffle”

The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, 1973

The slippery junkyard funk of this track, complete with clavinet, tuba, bongos and a horn riff interpolated from Major Lance’s “The Monkey Time,” is utterly unlike the stadium stomp that would become the E Street Band’s signature. Few songs give a better sense of what the earliest incarnations of the group sounded like live. Says Craig Finn, “The way he references the band, it’s like a mission statement.”

Bruce Springsteen performingBRUCE SPRINGSTEEN IN CONCERT, MANCHESTER, BRITAIN - MAY 1999

Bruce Springsteen performing BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN IN CONCERT, MANCHESTER, BRITAIN - MAY 1999

Adrian Dennis/REX/Shutterstock

92

“Sad Eyes”

Tracks, 1998

Recorded shortly after Springsteen had broken up the E Street Band and relocated to L.A., this rarity wasn’t released until eight years after it was recorded. Studio musicians like bassist Randy Jackson and Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro give it a modern feel. It also harks back to rock’s past, from a lyric that could have been in any number of lovelorn Fifties hits to Springsteen’s falsetto. “I tried to write something that was soul-oriented,” he said.

NETHERLANDS - APRIL 29: (FILE PHOTO) Obituaries In 2011: As 2011 comes to a close, we look at 25 famous personalities that have died in 2011. Please refer to the following profile on Getty Images Archival for further imagery and additional Obituaries of 2011. http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/EditorialImages/Archival?parentEventId=107851819AHOY Photo of Bruce SPRINGSTEEN and Clarence CLEMONS and Steven VAN ZANDT and LITTLE STEVEN, L-R Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt (aka Little Steven) performing live on stage (Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns)

NETHERLANDS - APRIL 29: (FILE PHOTO) Obituaries In 2011: As 2011 comes to a close, we look at 25 famous personalities that have died in 2011. Please refer to the following profile on Getty Images Archival for further imagery and additional Obituaries of 2011. http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/EditorialImages/Archival?parentEventId=107851819 AHOY Photo of Bruce SPRINGSTEEN and Clarence CLEMONS and Steven VAN ZANDT and LITTLE STEVEN, L-R Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt (aka Little Steven) performing live on stage (Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns)

Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty Images

91

“Ramrod”

The River, 1980

“Ramrod” isn’t exactly Springsteen’s deepest song. It’s simply a barnburner about a hard-working guy looking to take a pretty girl on a drive. “His cleanest, coolest, purest track,” said superfan Stephen King. The song explodes onstage, often stretching into the 10-minute range with false stops and James Brown-like collapses, causing Van Zandt to “revive” the fallen Springsteen.

NETHERLANDS - JUNE 19:  ARNHEM  Photo of Bruce SPRINGSTEEN, 19-06-1999/BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN/GELREDOME/ARNHEM  (Photo by Peter Pakvis/Redferns)

Peter Pakvis/Redferns/Getty Images

90

“Back in Your Arms”

Tracks, 1998

The 1995 documentary Blood Brothers shows Springsteen and a reunited E Street Band painstakingly working on this song. After it finally ended up on Tracks, fans fell in love with its sad, organ-fueled recollection of a past love. When the group played it on the 1999 reunion tour, it seemed Springsteen was singing about his bandmates in the line “all the love I’ve thrown away and lost.”

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Musician Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band  perform at the Bridgestone halftime show during Super Bowl XLIII between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

89

“Blinded by the Light”

Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973

Springsteen wrote this in hopes of meeting his label’s desire for a hit – and in fact Manfred Mann took it to Number One three years later. Springsteen has described the track – written with “a rhyming dictionary in one hand and a notebook in the other” – as a sort of coded autobiography: “I wanted to get blinded by the light, I wanted to do things I hadn’t done, see things I hadn’t seen.”

Bruce Springsteen acoustic performance taping of "VH1 Storytellers" to air on VH1 April 23, 2005 at 10:00 PM EST (Photo by KMazur/WireImage)

Kevin Mazur/WireImage

88

“Devils & Dust”

Devils & Dust, 2005

Much of Devils & Dust was written during the Tom Joad tour, but the title track was inspired by the Iraq War. “It is basically a song about a soldier’s point of view,” Springsteen said. “But it kind of opens up to a lot of other interpretations.” It was attempted as an angry rocker and a ballad, before Brendan O’Brien found a middle ground. Said Springsteen, “It picks up a little instrumental beef as it goes.”

bruce springsteen

Phil Dent/Redferns/Getty Images

87

“Bobby Jean”

Born in the U.S.A., 1984

“If you got a good friend out here . . . that means something to you, this is for you, ’cause there ain’t nothing like it,” Springsteen said, introducing this song in 1984. This Born in the U.S.A. rocker was widely seen as his farewell to Van Zandt, who left the band just before the album’s release (but returned about 15 years later). The song’s aching nostalgia is summed up in one of Clemons’ most evocative sax solos.

bruce springsteen

Peter Pakvis/Redferns/Getty Images

86

“Restless Nights”

Tracks, 1998

In the summer of 1979, Springsteen practically wore out his cassette of Raspberries’ Best. “They were great little pop records – I loved the production, and when I went into the studio, a lot of the things we did were like that,” he recalled. “Two-, three-, four-minute pop songs, coming one after another.” One of the best of his power-pop nuggets is this outtake from The River – few other artists would toss aside such a perfectly catchy chorus.

Bruce Springsteen performs at the Uptown Theater, Chicago, Illinois, October 10, 1980. (Photo by Kirk West/Getty Images)

Kirk West/Getty Images

85

“Fade Away”

The River, 1980

Springsteen described the mood of this hushed, agonized ballad as follows: “Have you ever felt a love that you’ve had slipping away? That is an ugly feeling. You don’t know what you can do to fix it, probably nothing.” The song also suggests heartbroken girl-group pop, and the choked, almost adenoidal vocals borrow from Elvis Costello circa “Alison.” It’s one of Van Zandt’s favorite Springsteen songs.

LOS ANGELES - DECEMBER 1984:  Rock and roll legend Bruce Springsteen poses for a portrait in December 1984 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images)

Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images

84

“Pink Cadillac”

Non-album single, 1984

Combining an image from Elvis Presley’s “Baby Let’s Play House” with a lean rockabilly rhythm, Springsteen emerged with one of his sexiest tracks. “This is a song about the conflict between worldly things and spiritual health, between desires of the flesh and spiritual ecstasy,” he once said onstage. It was the B side to “Dancing in the Dark,” and Natalie Cole had a surprise hit with the song in 1988.

bruce springsteen

Kevin Mazur/WireImage

83

“Lonesome Day”

The Rising, 2002

With this driving E Street showcase, Springsteen found a way to combine his more personal Nineties songwriting with a broader outlook (and to replace his overused synths with violin). “The first verse, it feels like it’s a guy who’s talking to his girl,” he said. “The second verse . . . I switched out of this personal thing to this sort of overall emotional mood and the feelings that were in the air in the States. But . . . one thing works with the other.”

Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images

82

“Drive All Night”

The River, 1980

Springsteen first recorded the hypnotic “Drive All Night” for Darkness on the Edge of Town, but it had little chance of making that album: A lengthy, soul-based love song, it didn’t mesh with Darkness‘ concise tracks. He inserted bits of “Drive All Night” into live versions of “Backstreets” and found room for it on The River. Until 1999’s “Land of Hope and Dreams,” it seemed like it would be the last of his sprawling epics.

NEW YORK - AUGUST: Bruce Springsteen performs on stage on Born To Run tour during a residency at the Bottom Line in August 1975 in New York. (Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)

Richard E. Aaron/Redferns/Getty Images

81

“Night”

Born to Run, 1975

“The characters on Born to Run were less eccentric and less local than on Greetings and . . . Innocent,” Springsteen wrote in Songs. “They could have been anybody and everybody.” That’s certainly true of “Night”: The only song on Born to Run under three minutes, it’s an archetypal straight-ahead car song with a Chuck Berry-esque opening line Springsteen grafted from a 1970 Steel Mill song called “Oh Mama.”

Legendary rock star and icon Bruce Springsteen performs with Clarence Clemons. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)

Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis/Getty Images

80

“Out in the Street”

The River, 1980

“Out in the Street” turns the one-take bar-band feel Springsteen wanted for The River into what might be his most unencumbered declaration of freedom through community. Van Zandt, who became a co-producer on the album, shares euphoric vocals, and Max Weinberg’s clarion song-opening shot more than meets Springsteen’s demand: “I wanted the snare drum to explode.”

Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images

79

“The Ties That Bind”

The River, 1980

Springsteen’s love for mid-Sixties garage rock and British Invasion hits runs through the opening track from The River. Although Springsteen is a meticulous record-maker, this song was cut fast, in a day, to retain its freshness. “I knew I wanted more of the roughness and spontaneity of our live show,” Springsteen wrote in Songs, describing his approach to The River. “I was determined to let the band play live and let the music happen.”

Peter Still/Redferns/Getty Images

78

“My Hometown”

Born in the U.S.A., 1984

“I used to think that once I got out of town, I was never going to come back,” Springsteen said of his native Freehold, New Jersey, where he grew up. “I realized I would always carry a part of that town with me no matter where I went or what I did.” Springsteen was living in California when he wrote “My Hometown,” a scathing indictment of post-industrial America. Originally titled “Your Hometown,” it was demo’ed as a speedy rockabilly tune.

UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 13:  MADISON SQUARE GARDEN  Photo of Bruce SPRINGSTEEN, Bruce Springsteen performing on stage  (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 13: MADISON SQUARE GARDEN Photo of Bruce SPRINGSTEEN, Bruce Springsteen performing on stage (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images

77

“Two Faces”

Tunnel of Love, 1987

“Two Faces” is the bleakest song on Tunnel of Love, with Springsteen singing about making his wife cry and destroying the relationship. “I wanted to write a different kind of romantic song,” he said. “One that took in the different types of emotional experiences of any relationship where you are really engaging with that person and not involved in a narcissistic romantic fantasy or intoxication or whatever.”

Christopher Pillitz/Getty Images

76

“Roulette”

Non-album B side, 1988

This outtake from The River sessions emerged in 1988 as the B side to “One Step Up.” By then its frenetic spitfire tale of a desperate man trying to save his family after the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster took on a chilling new meaning following the Chernobyl meltdown. Explaining why he left it off The River, Spring­steen said, “Maybe . . . I thought it was too specific.”