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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”

bruce springsteen

bruce springsteen

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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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12

“The Ghost of Tom Joad”

The Ghost of Tom Joad, 1995

After three very personal albums in a row – Tunnel of Love, Human Touch and Lucky Town – writing “Streets of Philadelphia” helped remind Springsteen that some of his best songs reached beyond his own experience and, as he put it, “had some sort of social theme.” “It was about re-finding that place in myself,” said Springsteen, who had long admired John Ford‘s film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. “That’s really how the song ‘Tom Joad’ came about. I was interested in reconnecting to those things and reconnecting to the part of myself that had written about them.” In writing “Joad,” he was also thinking about the Republicans’ assault on the social safety net: He dedicated one live version to the “Gingrich mob.” He originally intended it as a rock song, but released it in a hushed acoustic arrangement. Two years later, Rage Against the Machine radically retooled it into an unlikely modern-rock hit – and Springsteen would go on to do the definitive live version with Rage guitarist Tom Morello.

bruce springsteen

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11

“Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”

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

Springsteen wrote his first real anthem for exactly the purpose it ended up serving for decades: to blow the roof off concert venues of all shapes and sizes. The cadence and melody of the song appeared in a Van Morrison-style soul-folk tune called “Henry Boy,” which he performed solo acoustic in 1972. By the time he recorded “Rosalita” in early 1973, it was a surging, exultant, breathless rocker – not to mention, a totally true story: “Tell him this is his last chance/To get his daughter in a fine romance/Because the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance.” Springsteen later said, “The stuff I write is the stuff I live with. . . . They’re all true. Even the names – Big Balls Billy, Weak-Kneed Willie, all of ’em.” (Ex-girlfriend Diane Lozito is believed to have inspired the song, but Springsteen has never given any indication as to Rosie’s true identity.) The song’s romantic dilemma – Rosie’s dad has locked her away – is presented with fierce urgency, except for one lyric, which Springsteen later called “one of the most useful lines I’ve ever written”: “Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.”

bruce springsteen

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10

“The Promised Land”

Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978

The distinctly non-Jersey imagery of this song – tornadoes, a “rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert” – was inspired by a road trip Springsteen took as he worked on Darkness on the Edge of Town. The simple, straightforward music, meanwhile, is one of the best examples of Springsteen stripping down in the aftermath of the wall-of-sound grandeur of Born to Run: “I remember him telling me he really wanted to downsize the scale, that big sound,” producer Jon Landau said years later, describing the transition out of the highly orchestrated Born to Run. Bittan’s spare but expansive piano and Weinberg’s driving beat fit lyrics that balance images of isolation and frustration with a hunger for independence within a larger community. “It really begins our folk-based rock,” Springsteen said of “The Promised Land.” “It goes back to blues and folk, and folk structures – I was not trying to be really melodic, because that immediately pulls you into the pop world. I was trying to create this mixture, this sort of rock-folk music that stretches back all the way, in some ways, to Woody Guthrie and country music and up through the Animals.”

bruce springsteen

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9

“Born in the U.S.A.”

Born in the U.S.A., 1984

Both “Born in the U.S.A.” and its eventual B side, the quieter veteran’s lament “Shut Out the Light,” had its origins in a third, never-finished song, “Vietnam.” That composition split in two after Springsteen grabbed the phrase “Born in the U.S.A.” from the title page of a Paul Schrader screenplay he’d been sent. Springsteen recorded a solo acoustic version of “Born in the U.S.A.” in the same cassette-demo sessions that produced Nebraska, but the song seemed unspectacular in that format. “It was one of the lesser songs on the Nebraska tape,” said producer Jon Landau. But Springsteen revived the song in E Street Band sessions, where it instantly came to spectacular life: “We just kinda did it off the cuff,” Springsteen said. “I never taught it to the band. I went in and said, ‘Roy, get this riff.’ And he just pulled out that sound, played the riff on the synthesizer. We played it two times, and our second take is on the rec­ord. That’s why the guys are really on the edge. . . . To me, [Max Weinberg] was right up there with the best of them on that song. There was no arrangement. I said, ‘When I stop, keep the drums going.’ That thing in the end with all the drums, that just kinda happened.”

bruce springsteen

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8

“Darkness on the Edge of Town”

Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978

If Born to Run was dominated by romantic visions of escape, its follow-up was about finding a place to make a stand. The street-racing narrator of Darkness on the Edge of Town‘s album-closing title track has lost his wife, his money and his hope for a better life, but he remains defiant: “Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop,” Springsteen snarls over a stately, archetypally E Street arrangement. Springsteen described the song’s hero as having “reached a point where you just have to strip yourself of everything to get yourself together.” Steve Van Zandt said it highlights the feel of the whole album. “It looks heroic, sometimes it feels heroic, but it’s actually an obsession, a compulsion,” he says. “The song just sums up that record very accurately, in terms of ‘the stories now, we’re gonna not necessarily have a happy ending.’ You still have the cinematic thing going on, but it’s smaller. The cameras are zooming in. It’s more of an independent film now.”

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7

“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

bruce springsteen

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6

“Backstreets”

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

5

“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

4

“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.”

bruce springsteen

Bob Riha Jr/WireImage

3

“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.”

bruce springsteen

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2

“Badlands”

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.”

bruce springsteen

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1

“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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