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)

Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty Images


“Atlantic City”

Nebraska, 1982

Nebraska was my entry, how I got into Bruce. That was the easiest one to spend time with, because it was so bare and so direct. And the storytelling is so interesting. The song “Nebraska” – you hear the first couple of notes, and you are right in this world.

Our [2004] album, Funeral, was not exactly the record you want to put on at any minute of the day. It takes a certain amount of engagement to make a connection with it. In a way, it’s like Born to Run, which demands something of you. Whereas Nebraska – it can be on in the background, and it sucks you in. It’s not asking for your complete attention. There is not this huge band hammering in your face. It can sneak up on you.

“Atlantic City” has a hook. The pop aspect to it backs up the storytelling. You find yourself humming that song all the time. And that is the connection point. And there are these little details in that song that you don’t hear in a pop song: “Put on your stockings, baby, ’cause the night is getting cold.” But it’s got this incredible hook to it.

There are certain limitations to rock & roll, the sounds you can make. But there are an infinite number of stories. This record is about storytelling and using music to heighten the story.

By Win Butler of Arcade Fire

ATLANTA, GA - August 22: Bruce Springsteen performs with The E-Street Band at Alex Cooley's Electric Ballroom on August 22, 1975 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage)

Tom Hill/WireImage



Born to Run, 1975

In his Rolling Stone review of Born to Run, Greil Marcus said Roy Bittan’s cascading piano intro to “Backstreets” was so powerful “it might be the prelude to a rock & roll version of The Iliad.” The song has invited many interpretations: It may be about Springsteen’s early-Seventies ­girlfriend Diane Lozito, or a close male friendship that’s faded (some hear homoerotic undertones in the song). He contrasts tragic images – “Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see/Trying to learn how to walk like heroes we thought we had to be” – and triumphal music that echoes mid-Sixties­ Bob Dylan (especially in its Blonde on Blonde-style organ). It’s taken on deep personal meaning; he played it frequently in 2007, after longtime assistant Terry Magovern died, and it opened the first show the E Street Band played after organist Danny Federici died in 2008 (poignantly, minus the organ part). “Put on ‘Backstreets’ and everyone holds up their whiskey and sings along,” says Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast. “It really brings people together.”

Kirk West/Getty Images


“The River”

The River, 1980

Many of the tragic characters in Springsteen’s songs are fictional. But the teenage couple in “The River” were drawn from his own real-life experience. Springsteen’s sister Ginny became pregnant at age 18 and quickly married her child’s father, Mickey Shave, who took a construction job to support his family. “They had to struggle very hard back in the late Seventies, like so many people are doing today,” Springsteen said when he performed The River live in its entirety in 2009. He turned their story into his most moving working-class lament, a slow, sparse ballad with a mournful harmonica part that starts to sound like a funeral dirge as the song ends. Springsteen debuted “The River” at the No Nukes concert in September 1979, shortly after recording it with the E Street Band at New York’s Power Station studio. His sister was in the crowd, but she didn’t know that Springsteen had written a song about her. “Every bit of it was true,” Ginny told Springsteen biographer Peter Ames Carlin. “And here I am, completely exposed. I didn’t like it at first – but now it’s my favorite song.” Today, Ginny and Mickey are still happily married.

Clayton Call/Redferns/Getty Images


“Racing in the Street”

Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978

Side one of Darkness on the Edge of Town closes with the most quietly devastating song in Springsteen’s catalog. Although it was also recorded as a fiery full-band rocker, the version on the album is a stripped piano ballad, sung from the perspective of a small-town loser with a souped-up car and a tired-eyed girl. Introducing the song live in 1978, Springsteen said it was inspired by “this little fire road” outside Asbury Park. The lyrics riff on Martha and the Vandellas’ Motown classic “Dancing in the Street” and even recommend engine heads for a ’69 Chevy. But as the song’s solemn instrumental coda rolls on, you know there’s no happy ending on the horizon (“Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea/And wash these sins off our hands,” Springsteen sings). “The meaning is as much in the parts where he doesn’t sing as where he does,” says Tom Morello. “You really feel this endless helplessness as they drive on into an uncertain future.”

UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 11:  REDBANK  Photo of Bruce SPRINGSTEEN, Bruce Springsteen performing on stage - Born to Run Tour, 27  (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images


“Thunder Road”

Born to Run, 1975

Springsteen was sure that Born to Run would open with its title track – until he wrote “Thunder Road.” “‘Thunder Road’ was just so obviously an opening, due to its intro,” he says. “It just set the scene. There is something about the melody of ‘Thunder Road’ that just suggests a new day, it suggests morning, it suggests something opening up.” He wrote “Thunder Road” on the piano in his living room; later, keyboardist Roy Bittan elegantly extrapolated Springsteen’s parts. Said Springsteen, “Roy’s attack and formulations of what I showed him really created a very, very unique sound, and, in the end, if people hear that today, they go, ‘That sounds like the E Street Band.'” Like many of Springsteen’s early songs, the lyrics hint at a perspective beyond his years: “So you’re scared and you’re thinking maybe we ain’t that young anymore.” “The songs were written immediately after the Vietnam War, and you forget­ everybody felt like that then,” Springsteen says. “There’s quite a sense of dread and uncertainty about the future and who you were, where you were going, where the whole country was going, so that found its way into the record.”

BLOOMINGTON, MN - 1978:  Rock and roll icon Bruce Springsteen jumps into the audience during a 1978 Bloomington, Minnesota concert. Springsteen spent much of 1978 playing small midwest venues while he battled his record label over control of his music. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

George Rose/Getty Images



Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978

“I came up with titles, and I went in search of songs that would deserve the title,” Springsteen said, describing the writing of Darkness. “‘Badlands’ – that’s a great title, but it would be easy to blow it! But I kept writing, and I kept writing, and I kept writing and writing until I had a song that I felt deserved that title.” He nicked a riff from the Animals‘ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and tapped the ferocity of the punk singles he’d been listening to at the time and ended up with a song that perfectly fits Pete Townshend’s definition of a rock anthem: “praying onstage.” “I believe in the faith that can save me/I believe and I hope and I pray/That someday it will raise me/Above these Badlands,” Springsteen sings. “That’s him singing the high part, while his other voice, this full-throated thing, continues below,” says Jackson Browne. “It’s cool and thrilling. There is an economy of language that comes in here. He’s building a persona, a lexicon of references.”

UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 11:  Photo of Bruce SPRINGSTEEN; performing live onstage at Redbank, on Born To Run tour  (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images


“Born to Run”

Born to Run, 1975

When a 24-year-old Bruce Springsteen began writing “Born to Run,” he had a title, a surf-guitar riff indebted to Duane Eddy’s “Because They’re Young” and the Tornados’ “Telstar,” and some desperate, extravagant hopes. “I had these enormous ambitions for it,” said Springsteen, who was, at the time, a hitless cult artist in dire danger of losing his record deal. “I wanted to make the greatest rock record that I’d ever heard. I wanted it to sound enormous, to grab you by your throat and insist that you take that ride, insist that you pay attention – not just to the music, but to life, to being alive.” Springsteen started work on the song one day in early 1974, sitting in his bed in a rented cottage a couple of blocks from the beach in Long Branch, New Jersey, and the record then took shape in a small Hudson Valley studio, via six months worth of overdubs, some never used: endless acoustic and electric guitars, electric and acoustic piano, organ, glockenspiel, strings, violin, synth, engine noises and a choir.

“We went through a lot of different ways of playing it,” said former E Street Band drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter, who left the band shortly after finishing the song. “I became a pretty good dart player, pool player, hanging out in that studio.” Springsteen hit his target, ending up with a brash, careening masterpiece that became his signature anthem. At age 64, he’s still able to infuse passion and meaning when he plays it with the E Street Band under blazing house lights.

“It was a record of enormous longing,” he says, “and those emotions and desires never leave you. You’re dead when that leaves you. The song transcends your age and continues to speak to that part of you that is both exhilarated and frightened about what tomorrow brings. It will always do that – that’s how it was built.”

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