EDIT: In looking back at this post I discovered that I had listed Gypsy Biker twice (a result of careless Copy and Pasting).
This is Jim’s fault. Specifically Jim at Music Enthusiast who recently, in what seems like one of those blog tags, ran up a list of his own twenty favourite Springsteen songs. It’s good list (and a blog well worth reading) and I think we share a few – it got me to then try and whittle down my own version. Then I looked at it and edited it. Then I looked at it again and edited again….
I did decide to limit myself to a maximum of two tracks from any one album and have omitted cuts from Tracks etc (I could easily put together a list of best non-album tracks). I don’t think this list is necessarily order-specific or concrete as it’s been adjusted a few times. But, right now….
Youngstown – Some of Bruce’s best works have a real sense of both time and location and they don’t get more specific than the “Here in north east Ohio, bank in eighteen-o-three” of Youngstown, the best track on The Ghost of Thom Joad and one that Nils Lofgren would set alight live come the reunion tour.
New York City Serenade – There were so many characters and street scenes thrown into Bruce’s first two albums that it’s hard to pick one stand-out but the sheer ambition of this track and its instrumentation, for anyone let alone a singer-songwriter on his second album, leaves my mouth open.
Worlds Apart – Another strong cut from The Rising, I love the blending of Middle Eastern vibes, Qawwali singers and the E-Street at full power, the thickness of the guitars under Brendan O’Brien’s production and the urgency of it all.
Gypsy Biker – I’ve written about this one before – and it’s call back to Shut Out The Light– but there’s something about this that, to me, means that of all Bruce’s later tracks enthused with anger at Bush etc this is the stand-out.
Downbound Train – Born In The USA is an odd album. It’s not Bruce’s best but then it does contain some of his best songs. Rubbing shoulders with I’m On Fire and No Surrender is this one. Bruce has many down-on-their-luck songs but this is one of my favourites.
Tunnel Of Love – Limiting choices from Tunnel of Love is as tough as limiting choices from Darkness On The Edge of Town. Both 5 Star albums. There’ll be some in honourable mentions but I’m a sucker for the line “Fat man sitting on a little stool”. As befitting a title track this one kinda contains the themes that run through the album as Bruce wrestled with the reality of his first marriage – “you me and all that stuff we’re so scared of” – and had the audacity to use it to power some of his most evocative songs. The gifted bastard.
Bobby Jean – One of the last songs written for Born In The USA – supposedly about his friendship with Steve Van Zandt, who was leaving the band… ” just to say I miss you baby, good luck goodbye”.
State Trooper – In 1999 I went and bought my second Springsteen album (after Greatest Hits had sat un-listened to for some time) – Nebraska. I’d just heard State Trooper play out over the credits of an episode of The Sopranos. It opened me up to what I’d missed about Springsteen the first time around and I’ve been hooked since.
Point Blank – Completed in ’78 and the first song Springsteen wrote after Darkness On The Edge of Town, Point Blank has been brilliantly described as “a song of shadows, of lives going nowhere, of broken relationships, and broken promises” and I can’t improve on that description.
Magic – The album, Magic, was a very strong late-career one for Bruce and a great follow up to The Rising. If only he and Brendan O’Brien had finished here. It was loaded with anger and barely-veiled hostility to the George W Bush era. This, then, is such a beautiful, slight and simple tune as to almost seem out of place. I’m also a sucker for Van Zandt’s mandolin on this.
Candy’s Room – One tricky part of this list was not going for every track on Darkness On The Edge of Town. Leaving aside the title track and Badlands, I love the tempo, the menace and the guitar on this track.
Jungleland – Was this Bruce’s last story song? I’ve got a suspicion that future such sagas would be written from a more personal perspective. Either way it’s arguably the best if only for the Big Man – especially when you imagine the agony of getting that take ‘just’ so.
Paradise – Bruce has a way of being able to evoke a real sense of pain and yearning. I don’t think it was there in his earlier work, as his voice changes he’s finding more ways of using it I guess. Thinking around this tracks like The Wall and Danny Federici tribute The Last Carnival come to mind. Paradise is so evocative of that yearning that I couldn’t listen to it for a while as I’d been misinformed as to just what it was about (somehow I’d been given the idea that it was specific to a man grieving for a drowned son) A song on the theme of loss – “I thought, ‘What do you miss?’ You miss the physicalness and the ability to touch somebody” – against the barest of backdrops serves to make this a late-career gem.
Lost In The Flood – The first in what I think of as a continual development on a theme that begins here, develops further with New York City Serenade and concludes with Jungleland.
American Skin (41 Shots) – The caveat here being that it has to be the version from Live In NYC album, complete with Bruce’s “we need some quiet” when its message was painfully fresh and cutting and before Tom Morello got his hands on it and cut the tracks balls off.
One Step Up – That melody. That naggingly simple and catchy melody. “Mmm she ain’t lookin too married, and me well honey I’m pretending”. The best track on The Tunnel Of Love.
Born To Run – Because without this song or the album its from I doubt anybody would be compiling Best Of Bruce lists. That and the line “The amusement park rises bold and stark” is just ridiculously good.
Racing In The Street – “Some guys they just give up living, and start dying little by little, piece by piece. Some guys come home from work and wash up and go racing in the street”… I mean fuck that’s a lyric and a half there. Back that with the heavy, haunting melodrama of that piano and this one is unimpeachable. The ’78 version that graced The Promise is not only a belter in its own right but also serves to show just how much craft went into this track.
The River – Even before I went back to Nebraska and it all ‘clicked’ into place I loved The River. It’s just one of those songs that will always appear at the higher echelons of Springsteen lists.
Blood Brothers – In the early nineties Springsteen’s stock wasn’t at its highest; Human Touch and Lucky Town and the ‘other band’ tours hadn’t gone down as favourably as he’do hoped. There’s a mythical whole album that was recorded and scrapped. Then in 1994 he won an Oscar for Streets of Philadelphia and figured it was as good as time as any for a Greatest Hits album and got the E-Street Band back together to work up some older songs for it and a couple of new songs. Though fans would have to wait a few more years for a proper reunion and tour the sessions did yield two great news songs in Secret Garden and my favourite Springsteen track – Blood Brothers.
I was always a bit bemused by Bruce’s take on it in the linear notes: “It was good to see the guys”
Honourable Mentions: This Hard Land, Spare Parts, Thunder Road, She’s The One, Radio Nowhere, For You, Fade Away, I’m On Fire, With Every Wish.