Bruce Springsteen’s 40 greatest songs

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

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32 Badlands
Darkness On The Edge Of Town album track, 1978

PETER CASE: What’s amazing about Springsteen is the songwriter’s work ethic he displays. I hear he used to write 52 songs a year, no matter what. He sticks to his message too, which seems to be: the desperate and heroic struggle of trying to keep the spirit alive in a world that’s soul dead and doesn’t give a fuck… something like that. It’s what all his songs are about: defiance. On “Badlands”, he wants to “spit in the face… of these badlands.” You don’t hear people talk about that much any more, how bleak BS is… which is why he was so powerful with kids, cause they knew it was true.
ADAM SWEETING: Thanks to a gruelling lawsuit between Springsteen and his first manager Mike Appel, Darkness… was Bruce’s first album since 1975’s Born To Run. From the purposeful opening drum beat, this was clearly a different Springsteen, battered by the biz and making harder-boiled music as a result. Gone were the rhetorical curlicues and picaresque constructions of his early work. Instead, the new songs were tough and sinewy, with lyrics about struggle, stoicism and the sheer cost of living. “Badlands” was the perfect curtain-raiser, The E Street Band terse and streamlined around Springsteen’s vocal and fiery lead guitar.
RUSSELL SIMINS: “Badlands” is a very important song to me because it was the first song I ever got laid to. Decades on, I still think it’s one of The Boss’ best songs because he sounds so raw and dishevelled. The music is really dark and stripped down, and the lyrics are really reflective. When Darkness On The Edge Of Town first came out everyone expected it to be Born To Run Part II, but of course it’s nothing like that record.

31 Stolen Car
The River album track, 1980


TOM McRAE: I’ve never been wild about the slower stuff with the E Street Band, but they nail this one. Springsteen has made a career writing about cars and highways – I’m not sure he’s written a single song that doesn’t feature one or the other – but no car advert ever made me want to get out there and just drive the way a Bruce song does.
JESSE MALIN: When you have nothing and you’ve broken up with somebody or lose a job or break up a band and you get into situations where you really feel like cashing it in – that’s when you just wanna drive. It’s a very God’s Lonely Man, very Travis Bickle-type of feeling. Being out there and thinking about something you once had with somebody or some people and thinking that you’re never gonna get back to that place. You just want to keep driving through the night. And it’s a very haunting song. Just listening to that in the middle of the night gives me the creeps. It’s super eerie. The sound and the way the electric guitar sounds in the background, it’s like The Velvet Underground.
ADAM SWEETING: Fascinating psychological study of a man trapped in a disintegrating marriage and reduced to an existential shadow of his former self, “driving a stolen car/On a pitch-black night” and waiting to “get caught” by agencies unknown. It’s what Springsteen leaves out – which is almost everything, other than mocking references to old love-letters and “a little house out on the edge of town” – that makes the piece resonate with such chilling emptiness. The character’s terror that “in this darkness I will disappear” elevates it to a kind of mystical film-noir, written by Kafka and shot by Polanski. The prototype, perhaps, of the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There.
NICK JOHNSTONE One of the gentlest songs in Springsteen’s repertoire. One lo-fi guitar, that drum, his dolorous delivery. It makes me think of Galaxie 500. I bet they took a lot from this song. It also makes me think of Sean Penn’s film The Indian Runner. I always imagine Viggo Mortensen driving the stolen car. It’s a song about thrill-seeking, a song about trying to feel alive when you feel numb inside.

30 Incident On 57th Street
The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle album track, 1973

DAMON GOUGH: The breakdown in the middle – where it just goes to him and the bass – is amazing, with the imagery of the fire escape and the street. Incredibly poetic.
ADAM DURITZ: “Incident On 57th Street”, “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”, “New York City Serenade”…I could easily have picked the entire second album. I stuck these three songs together because, although they are separate songs, they are connected on the album, running one into the other and forming one continuous suite on side two. It’s much like the second side of Abbey Road in that sense. At least they always seem alike to me so I think of it as one long song. It’s simply my favourite period in his work. It’s not that he didn’t become a better songwriter later and it’s not that the band didn’t get better as well. I think both things are true. There’s just magic in the subject matter here and everyone really rises to the occasion. It’s just my favourit­e period by one of my favourite artists.
RUSSELL SIMINS: You might not be able to tell when you listen to a Blues Explosion record, but I picked up a lot of drumming techniques from listening to Vinny “Mad Dog” Lopez on “Incident On 57th Street”. He had this way of working the kick drum with his right foot that was just beautiful, and I used to listen to the song over and over again trying to perfect it.
CHRIS ROBERTS: The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle pulls you bang into the humming, hustling hubbub of its own mythology: West Side Story updated and up-ended in a storm of symbol-boys and metaphor-girls. Everyone’s chasing love or sex or a dollar in a small town that imagines it has big significance: if Bruce was into lit-crit, he’d acknowledge this is a classic case of the specific echoing the universal. It’s the soundtrack to John Dos Passos or Nelson Algren, with every line going for it and eminently quote-worthy. Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane are the star-crossed lovers, while the narcissistic (verging on homoerotic) poet in Young Bruce is eager to praise the local boys’ sharp dress sense. The way he sings, “You can leave me tonight, but just don’t leave me alone,” oozes blatant almost-smug pride – man, he’s pleased with that one. The storyteller, camera-like, even pans back from intimate bedroom scenes to a wide-shot, as if this is a test run for “Jungleland”. When Springsteen wrote about Asbury Park, he was full of fire. When he went on to write about America – the big subject, rather than the place – did he sacrifice something? Did he become a sensible, considered spokesman instead of a spouting, reckless seer?
TOM McRAE: At times he sounds like a cross between Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, which alone would be enough to make this great, but the story of Spanish Johnny and Jane will be a musical someday, and this will be the big production number. Cheesy, yes, but brilliant.


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