Bruce Springsteen’s 40 greatest songs

An all-star cast pick The Boss' best moments…

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4 Streets Of Philadelphia
Oscar-winning song from soundtrack to Philadelphia, 1994

DAMON GOUGH: I chose this just because it was a brilliant comeback. As a fan, it was such a refreshing tune to hear him do, and I think it also helped a lot of other people get into him, too. I remember I was in New York at the time and it was being played everywhere while I was wandering around. A massive airplay hit. I think it showed his capabilities again and showed how flexible he could be. The video, too, had him do a live vocal as he was walking around. It’s just a really well-phrased tune and redefined what a great artist he is. A lot of people remember that.
RENNIE SPARKS: It was so exciting when this song came out. It was a return to the Bruce of great and tender songwriting. A welcome respite from looking at his ass in tight jeans. A heartfelt understanding of the AIDS crisis and the need for compassion at a time when a lot of people weren’t being very sympathetic to those who were sick.
HEATHER NOVA: It’s an understated but emotionally powerful song, despite being practically whispered. His talent as a songwriter is to extract the magic from the everyday. He is known more for his extrovert songs – but what is more extraordinary about him is his quieter material. The integrity and realness and honesty of his songwriting is a huge inspiration for me.
CHRIS ROBERTS: An atypical Bruce song, what with the subtle rhythm track and moody synth-drone, and all that Oscar prestige stuff, but – like “Candy’s Room” years before – it’s rendered all the more outstanding by its differentness. Years on, we can separate it from the slightly queasy gosh-some-gay-people-can-be-as-likeable-as-Tom-Hanks movie that it decorated. As a piece of music, it’s even better than the splendid effort Neil Young contributed to the same soundtrack. Supremely understated and melancholy, it’s tempting to think of this track as the road not taken by Springsteen. Sure, he’s made his ‘quiet’ records, but this is sung as if in a nostalgic and narcotic haze, as simultaneously warm/reassuring and chilling/ unnerving as a Rothko.
TIM BURGESS: I like this song because the arrangement of the lyrics and melody are in complete unison – the song makes me think of strength and awareness of one’s soul, from the outside looking inwards to find the real truth. The song captures the drama that unfolds in the film so purely and adds a real sentiment for the characters, the families and for those of us watching the film. After all, Philly is the city of brotherly love, and the film and the song work hand in hand to show the hypocrisy and prejudice that sometimes does, and will probably always, occur in the world.
HOLLY JOHNSON: I like this one. It’s a very, very melancholy and low-key track. It’s “let’s-put-a-breakbeat-in-and-sound-modern”. The fact that it’s so atypical for Bruce is what’s so good about it. It was great that he could still surprise everyone, after being a middle-aged rocker for so long. I turned 40 not long ago, and, having pondered on Joni Mitchell’s pronouncement that the music industry is a repugnant cesspool, I’m going to concentrate on my paintings. Pop music is for the young. I’d rather hang up my ruby slippers, do something a bit more dignified than drag my arse around.
TOM McRAE: Proof that talent can outshine a dodgy drum machine and a bland keyboard pad and still triumph. This song aches, and when he sings that ridiculously high backing vocal (“I walked a thousand miles just to slip this skin”), you forget Tom Hanks’ terrible Oscar speech.
RICHARD WARREN: When you listen to certain Springsteen songs, you can tell he really laboured over them or tried to get the whole ‘wall of sound’ Phil Spector perfected, but “Streets Of Philadelphia” is just a really simple song with a drum loop, a synth line and some vocals. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times over the years and it still makes me cry every time.
JESSE MALIN: Not many mainstream figures would tackle a song about Aids. It’s a tough topic to get into without coming off corny or heavy-handed. And it’s ⌦a heartbreaking song. The melody is hypnotic, that hook, the vocal chanting – it’s so beautiful – and the line: “Don’t leave me alone like this/On the streets of Philadelphia.” It’s the idea where somebody ends it with you at a time when you’re so down. Every time I hear it, that song brings tears to my eyes. I just think it’s really special. It’s also a very important track for me because, as a fan, he redeemed himself in my eyes after those two records – Lucky Town and Human Touch – which were pretty awful. Lyrically, the songwriting… I really wasn’t happy at that period. But then he came back with “Streets Of Philadelphia” – it brought him back to writing songs that were real special on every level musically. It was also him adjusting with the time and sounding real cool.
NICK JOHNSTONE: The first time I heard this, I was – rather appropriately for a Springsteen epiphany – out driving late one night. That drum beat came pounding from the radio. And then that incredibly moving synth motif. And I just thought, “What the fuck is this?” All the hairs on the back of my neck were rising one by one. It sounded like something mournful you’d hear in a Catholic church. Except it was set to this stripped-down hip hop beat. The lightness of the music, the weightlessness of it struck me next. This was a Springsteen I’d never heard before. It was all understatement and grace. I had to pull over and sit in a lay-by. I remember closing my eyes and a giant lump blooming in my throat and then the tears coming. No matter how many times I’ve heard the song since, the lyrics stay beautiful. It’s one of his finest pieces of writing. And those multi-tracked backing vocals make me think of Gregorian chants or the sound of a church choir in full voice. It’s a holy song, really. There’s something sacred going on.
LYNDON MORGANS: A mediocre picture like Philadelphia and it gets two beautiful tunes to its name – this and Neil Young’s effort. Both songs deserved the Academy Award – they should’ve awarded it jointly. But this song aches, it just kills me every time…
BEN HARPER: A lot of people might be surprised that I’m choosing a song out of a movie. But the only time I’ve ever seen a film and then gone straight out and bought the soundtrack was with “Philadelphia”. I just love that song. It was used so movingly in the movie. I went straight from the movie house to the Virgin Megastore and bought it.
BARNEY HOSKYNS: Wherever you stood on Tom Hanks’ unctuously worthy performance in the movie, director Jonathan Demme did at least obtain goosebump soundtrack contributions out of Springsteen and Neil Young. Over a stripped-down urban R&B groove, Bruce sang spine-tinglingly of loss and life wasting away, of friends gone and death closing in. And how about this contender for the greatest lines da Boss ever wrote: “At night I could hear the blood in my veins/Black and whispering as the rain/On the streets of Philadelphia…”


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