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)

bruce springsteen

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45

“Candy’s Room”

Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978

Darkness on the Edge of Town is full of morose and lost characters, but Candy may be the saddest. In interviews, Springsteen refuses to admit that she’s a prostitute, but it’s pretty clear why she has “fancy clothes and diamond rings” and “men who give her anything she wants.” (In “Candy’s Boy,” a tortured ballad Springsteen demo’ed during the Darkness sessions, he sings from the perspective of Candy’s jilted boyfriend.) “Candy’s Room” has torrid guitars and a tightly coiled beat that brings out its dark urgency. “There’s something really romantic about that one,” says Craig Finn of the Hold Steady. “It’s like a rocket ship that blasts out of somewhere private into the world.”

bruce springsteen

Peter Carrette Archive/Getty Images

44

“Downbound Train”

Born in the U.S.A., 1984

Like “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Downbound Train” was a song from the Nebraska demo. Yet despite a slow, hard-bitten feel that’s keeping with the mood of Nebraska, it was actually first written as a jumpy rockabilly tune, over which Springsteen dubbed an echoing moan. The slowed-down version he eventually went with brings out the desolation in lyrics about a guy bouncing from job to job as he ­watches his life fall apart. The song was recorded at New York’s Power Station studio during one of the early Born in the U.S.A. sessions, with the demo’s moan mirrored in Roy Bittan’s brooding synth. “It has a kind of plainspoken poetry that ties it to great country music,” says Melissa Etheridge.

Bruce SpringsteenBruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert, Palais Omnisports de Paris Bercy, Paris, France - 04 Jul 2012

Geoffrey Robinson/REX/Shutterstock

43

“Wrecking Ball”

Wrecking Ball, 2012

Bruce wrote this song for our final shows at Giants Stadium in 2009 before they tore it down. It’s one of those road songs written for the band. They tend to take on a very comfortable arrangement because they’re being written for the live band and with the live band. It’s not like he’s going home in between and writing it and demo’ing it and showing it to the band later. He’s playing us the song backstage on his acoustic guitar, just like the old days. Songs like that take on a different sort of immediacy because they’re literally being worked up at soundcheck.

But it’s become a bigger song than merely about a physical wrecking ball. We had a long conversation about whether it should be the title of our last album. I thought once it’s elevated to the title of the album it actually will take on an additional metaphorical significance that can turn around the defensive negative implications of a wrecking ball smashing a structure or metaphorically smashing one’s past or history or dreams. There’s some of that in there. The song begins to say, “We are now the wrecking ball. We’re out here wrecking your passivity. We’re wrecking your acceptance of mediocrity. We’re out here living it with you in the pouring rain, we’re not afraid of anything. Bring on the wrecking ball.” In order to be reborn, one must die. That’s what it became.

I think it’s a great example of how good craft becomes art. I really believe that is how most of it happens. It’s rare that someone sets out to do something that is great art and actually succeeds at it. Most of the time that’s not the thought. Bruce certainly does that more than most.

By Steven Van Zandt

Bruce Springsteen performs at Alex Cooley's Electric Ballroom in Atlanta, GA, 1975. (Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage)

Tom Hill/WireImage

42

“Meeting Across the River”

Born to Run, 1975

Springsteen dashed off “Meeting Across the River” in “about an hour.” But he wasn’t that fond of it. His then-manager Mike Appel claims he had to lobby to get the song on Born to Run. “That’s a great song,” he told Springsteen. “Reminds me of Naked City.” Roy Bittan’s somber late-night piano figure and Randy Brecker’s noir trumpet back a short, open-ended tale about small-time hoods going across the Hudson to do a deal. “That two grand’s practically sitting here in my pocket,” Springsteen sings, though you get the sense that’s not how the night will end. The suggestive track even birthed a 2005 short-story collection in which various authors took inspiration from Springsteen’s shadowy tale.

bruce springsteen

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41

“If I Should Fall Behind”

Lucky Town, 1992

As hushed and solemn as a hymn, Springsteen‘s ballad from Lucky Town was a tender letter of devotion to wife Scialfa, as they navigated a new life (the couple had their first child in 1990 and were married in 1991). “You and I know what this world can do/So let’s make our steps clear that the other may see,” he sang. As Springsteen told a 1992 crowd in California, “This is my best song about making even small connections.” To achieve that intimate feel, Springsteen played every instrument himself on the track save for the drums, which fell to ex-Steve Miller Band member Gary Mallaber.

Danny Federici, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

40

“Youngstown”

The Ghost of Tom Joad, 1995

Springsteen’s response to the economic devastation of the Reagan years came in the form of this tense portrait of an unemployed steelworker who sees the opportunities of his father dying away. The lyrics were inspired by the book Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass: “I put it down and I laid awake and I thought, ‘What if somebody came and told me that the one thing I could do, well, that wasn’t necessary anymore and how would I come home at night and face my family?'” The arrangement, featuring pedal steel guitarist Marty Rifkin and Soozie Tyrell’s haunting violin, is as intensely brooding as Springsteen’s lyrics.

NETHERLANDS - MAY 08:  ROTTERDAM  Photo of Bruce SPRINGSTEEN, 06-05-2003/BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND THE E STREET/, DE KUIP/ROTTERDAM  (Photo by Peter Pakvis/Redferns)

Peter Pakvis/Redferns/Getty Images

39

“My City of Ruins”

The Rising, 2002

Springsteen debuted “My City of Ruins” in December 2000 at a pair of Christmas shows in his adopted hometown of Asbury Park, which had fallen on hard times since its heyday as a picturesque beach town. But the song took on a new meaning when he performed a gospel-tinged rendition (with just a few lyric tweaks) at a TV telethon for the victims of 9/11, and it served as a devastating closing track to The Rising, recalling the Band’s “The Weight.” In 2012, the song took on yet another meaning when it became a nightly tribute to Clemons on the Wrecking Ball tour. The “City of Ruins” was now the E Street Band itself.

bruce springsteen

Tom Hill/WireImage

38

“For You”

Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973

An early example of Springsteen’s gift for character-driven story-songs: In the back of an ambulance, the narrator talks with his girlfriend, who may have attempted suicide. Some believe it’s based on his ex Diane Lozito; Springsteen – who calls the song one of his “twisted autobiographies” – says he “changed names to protect the guilty.” Onstage, he introduced it by saying, “Back in 1971 . . . I was breaking up with this girlfriend of mine, and when I was away one weekend, she came and painted all the walls of my room black. . . . That’s not true . . . she painted ’em all blue.”

Legendary rock star and icon Bruce Springsteen performs during his Born in the U.S.A. tour in Philadelphia (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)

Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis/Getty Images

37

“No Surrender”

Born in the U.S.A., 1984

Springsteen recorded this defiant anthem at the very end of the Born in the U.S.A. sessions, but he was hesitant to include it on the album, feeling its lyrics were misleadingly romantic. “You don’t hold out and triumph all the time in life,” he said. “You compromise, you suffer defeat.” But Van Zandt convinced him otherwise. “It had a little bit of the ‘Born to Run’ swagger, if you will, and he was concerned he was being a little bit redundant with it,” he said. “I just said, ‘Look, there are certain things, certain themes, certain emotions that it’s OK to be redundant with. . . . Rock & roll is redundant by definition, to be honest.'”

American group Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform in concert, circa 1984. (Photo by Larry Busacca/WireImage)

Larry Busacca/WireImage

36

“Shut Out the Light”

Non-album B side, 1984

For anyone wondering if “Born in the U.S.A.” was an endorsement or a condemnation of the American dream, all they had to do was flip the single over and play its gripping B side. “Shut Out the Light” took inspiration from the book Born on the Fourth of July, by Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic. Over a supple acoustic backdrop and Soozie Tyrell’s violin, Springsteen sings about Vietnam’s hellish psychological aftermath. (He removed two verses, one of which alluded to the protagonist’s drug problem.) Performing the song in stadiums during the Born in the U.S.A. tour, he said, “This song is about leaving home and not being able to find your way back.”

bruce springsteen

Jan Persson/Redferns/Getty Images

35

“Tougher Than the Rest”

Tunnel of Love, 1987

Night after night, on the Tunnel of Love tour, this subtle ballad made for a singularly intimate duet between Springsteen and his future wife, Patti Scialfa. “I couldn’t have written any of those songs at any other point in my career,” Springsteen said at the time. “I wouldn’t have had the knowledge or the insight or the experience to do it.” Spare and tense, “Tougher Than the Rest” is about an emotionally bruised couple meeting at a bar, each hoping this time will be different. “This song is unusual in that it applies this macho way of talking to something sensitive,” says Win Butler of Arcade Fire. “But it’s even better hearing Patti sing it live with Bruce.”

bruce springsteen

Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

34

“Adam Raised a Cain”

Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978

“I don’t make ’em up,” Springsteen said in reference to the songs he’s written about conflicts with his father, Douglas – a withdrawn working-class guy who shared Bruce’s struggles with depression. “Adam Raised a Cain” is a pile driver, featuring a remarkably heavy groove and some of Springsteen’s most searing guitar work. The bitter lyrics (partially inspired by Elia Kazan’s 1955 film East of Eden) give father-son tension an almost biblical depth: “You’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past,” he sings. Before his death in 1998, the elder Springsteen was asked which of his son’s songs he liked best. “The ones about me,” he answered.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

33

“Spirit in the Night”

Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973

When Columbia Records president Clive Davis asked Springsteen to write more radio-friendly tunes for his debut, he quickly came back with two songs: “Blinded by the Light” and this teenage fairy tale about kids escaping out to Greasy Lake. Of all the tracks on Greetings From Asbury Park, “Spirit” hints most closely at the (still-unnamed) E Street Band’s future direction, thanks to the nearly nonstop use of Clemons’ saxophone – until these final sessions for the album, Springsteen hadn’t even been able to locate Clemons to get him into the studio. The song’s swaying bass line was played by Bruce himself.

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 30:  Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith performs on stage during the 25th Anniversary Rock

Kevin Mazur/WireImage

32

“Because the Night”

The Promise, 2010

In 1977, Springsteen was working on an early version of this cathedral-size passion play when Patti Smith, recording in the same studio, heard about it from producer Jimmy Iovine. Iovine, who was working with both musicians, brought Smith a demo of the song, and Smith added her own lyrics, recording it for her album Easter, and scoring her first and biggest hit single. “Bruce did the hook, Patti the words and we [the Smith band] gave it the cannon-blast beat,” said Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye. Springsteen’s excellent studio version wasn’t officially released until The Promise, more than 30 years later.

bruce springsteen

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

31

“New York City Serenade”

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

“My romantic ideas and fantasies of New York City,” was how Springsteen described this song and “Incident on 57th Street.” The 10-minute epic – the longest track on any Springsteen studio album – combined fragments of two earlier songs, “New York City Song” and “Vibes Man” (the latter of which contained images of domestic violence that Springsteen edited out). Arranged by David Sancious, who played its sweeping, jazzy piano lead, it’s full of Mean Streets imagery, spooled out over a song that bridges Dylanesque storytelling, doo-wop and Latin jazz via Richard Blackwell’s subtle conga playing.

Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen, Gary Talent and Miamia Steve Van Zandt performs at The Spectrum on December 8, 1980 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mark Weiss/WireImage)

Mark Weiss/WireImage

30

“Wreck on the Highway”

The River, 1980

This song takes its title and some of its lyric inspiration from country singer Roy Acuff’s 1940s car-crash parable. It portrays the aftermath of an accident from the point of view of a witness who ponders the loss experienced by “a girlfriend or a young wife” as he sees the victim and is haunted by the wreck. After trying it in rehearsal in a country-style arrangement, Springsteen settled on a slower, brooding version highlighting Danny Federici’s meditative organ. “The highway’s closed at a certain point,” Springsteen says of the death-obsessed song. “You have a certain amount of miles that you can make. It’s a recognition of mortality.”

bruce springsteen

Ebet Roberts/Getty Images

29

“Brilliant Disguise”

Tunnel of Love, 1987

I purchased Tunnel of Love when I was 16. I know that for most people, especially bandwagon critics, that album might have been seen as a letdown, because it had to follow the massive eclipse of Born in the U.S.A. But I’ve always felt it got shafted. It’s his divorce album, and I love breakup records – like Marvin Gaye‘s Here, My Dear, or Bill Withers+Justments, or even Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights. On “Brilliant Disguise,” Bruce is so open about saying it’s over. Most people in the public eye go to great lengths to be private, even in the celebrity-obsessed society we live in. But he’s just like, “We gave it our best shot, and it didn’t work.” It’s unresolved. You don’t get that type of honesty and vulnerability from music very often.

Last year, I spent two weeks going to Springsteen shows. I went to, like, four of them – night after night, at the Apollo, at the Garden, in Philly and in Jersey. I watched him literally climbing the walls of the Apollo. He’s in his sixties! I couldn’t do that, and I’m way younger than him. I started studying his catalog even more after that.

When Bruce came on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, that was one of the most magical moments ever in the show. He’s so all-inclusive, and so not full of ego. I mean, I’ve seen acts walk through here with, like, 12 bodyguards just to go to the bathroom. Meanwhile, Springsteen walks in our dressing room without knocking, takes a guitar and starts telling us about Nebraska. That’s just him. When we performed “E Street Shuffle,” he just said, “Follow my lead,” and brought the audience up to dance with us. We were all out on the floor, including the entire staff – wardrobe, makeup, producers, everything. He just has this circus-ringleader quality about him. It’s awesome.

By Questlove

bruce springsteen

Steve Granitz/WireImage

28

“The Rising”

The Rising, 2002

Of all the haunting images to emerge from 9/11, the one that struck Springsteen the most was the one of firemen going up the stairways of the buildings. “You could be ascending a smoky staircase,” Springsteen said in 2002. “You could be in the afterlife, moving – moving on.” This anthemic song – told from the perspective of a rescue worker and recorded in producer Brendan O’Brien’s Atlanta studio – was the first single from the first album he recorded with the E Street Band in 18 years. “You are able to project your own images onto it,” says Melissa Etheridge. “I think ‘The Rising’ is a man coming face to face with his spirituality.”