I Believe In The Promised Land
Bruce Springsteen Albums Ranked Best To Worst
This is a big one, in more ways than one. In addition to being one of the most significant figures of the rock era, and one of my favorite artists of all time, Bruce Springsteen has a substantial catalog to cover, and one that has been written about extensively over the years. In addition to revisiting some old friends, while developing this column I also found myself thinking often about the tendency for the best-known tunes on these albums—both singles and long-popular album tracks—to overshadow less well-known songs on each release. As a result, I’ve added notes to each capsule review that follows, suggesting cuts on the album that are worth checking out beyond the obvious ones.
1. Born To Run (1975)
Was there ever any question? (No.) I can only refer you back to my original description of this album: “A rock and roll fever dream… the single most evangelical sermon ever preached in the Holy Church of Rock as Redemption.” In a body of work that’s rich with highlights, this album still stands head and shoulders about the rest; its expansive tone, masterful arrangements and adrenalized performances simply never let up. It’s that rare iconic album that lives up to the adjective. Worth Checking Out: All eight tracks are superb, but among the less-ubiquitous ones, I’m partial to the raucous, recklessly romantic “She’s The One.”
2. Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978)
It took three years and a pitched legal battle with ex-manager Mike Appel before Springsteen could release the follow-up to Born To Run. Darker, more claustrophobic, and more personal than its cinematic predecessor, it nonetheless contains some of the most powerful songs and performances of the man’s career. Worth Checking Out: Another album full of familiar favorites, among the (relative) sleepers my votes go to the stately “Something In The Night” and the fervent “Candy’s Room.”
3. The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle (1973)
One of the great mysteries of the early 1970s is how this album managed to slip almost entirely under the radar until after Born To Run hit. Looser and more exuberant but every bit as charismatic as its sequel, The Wild makes a compelling case for rock and roll as a storytelling form that could combine street smarts and broader insights in genuinely compelling ways. Worth Checking Out: “Incident On 57th Street” and “New York City Serenade” are basically dress rehearsals for the expansive narratives and arrangements of “Backstreets” and “Jungleland,” less meticulous in their arrangements but still full of remarkable moments.
4. Tunnel Of Love (1987)
Never mind Blood On The Tracks; for my money, this is the most consistently captivating break-up album ever recorded. From the self-mocking overture “I Ain’t Got You” to the understated kiss-off “When You’re Alone,” Tunnel delivers brutal honesty in a stark, minimalist package that relies on the craft of Springsteen’s lyrics and the emotion in his delivery, exposing in wrenching detail every misstep, regret, suspicion, and moment of resignation that led up to Springsteen’s divorce from first wife Julianne Phillips. “One Step Up” and “Brilliant Disguise” are two of the most devastatingly insightful examples of confessional songwriting in the history of the genre. Worth Checking Out: “Cautious Man” is a classic among Springsteen ballads, using captivating imagery to narrate the tale of a man trapped inside a cage made of his own fears.
5. Lucky Town (1992)
(I hope no one literally spit coffee on their monitors when they saw this one was next—but if you did, I admit no liability.) The accepted conventional wisdom is that both of the E Street Band-less albums Springsteen released in 1992—Human Touch and Lucky Town—were misfires. The conventional wisdom is half right. Lucky Town might not have been the return to Darkness On The Edge Of Town glory that some fans were clamoring for, but it was then and remains now the most underrated album of the man’s career, a rich and insightful look at subjects rarely given much attention by rock and roll artists: the primal joys of marriage and fatherhood, the merciless march toward middle age, and the modicum of peace that hard-earned self-knowledge can bring. Worth Checking Out: The winking rocker “Local Hero,” the stunning ballad “If I Should Fall Behind,” the fatherhood anthem “Living Proof,” and the surreal, gorgeous coda “My Beautiful Reward.”
6. Born In The USA (1984)
Like a lot of fans, I find this one runs hot and cold with me over time. The hits from this album have been played to death by radio, and the album suffers at times from simply trying too hard to achieve what it ultimately did—a dramatically larger mainstream audience. That said, there’s no denying the magnetic drive and emotion fueling anthems like the title track and “No Surrender,” and even secondary tunes like “I’m On Fire” and “I’m Going Down” achieved well-deserved success. Worth Checking Out: There aren’t really any overlooked tracks on an album that was this big, but I’ll take this opportunity to put in my vote for “Darlington County” for some of the best “sha la las” ever.
7. The River (1980)
A couple of iPhone models ago, when space issues forced me to brutally edit the volume of music I kept on my phone, I shaved the 20-track double-LP The River down to nine tracks. The keepers were mostly the upbeat tracks on this moody, deeply divided album, ’60s-flavored rockers like “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” “Ramrod” and the ubiquitous single “Hungry Heart.” The ringing “Two Hearts” was there, too, of course, along with a pair of ballads: “Independence Day” and the title track, one of Springsteen’s sharpest, most penetrating looks at the hard choices that shape most people’s lives. The darker, quieter songs that dominate this album, especially toward the end of the second disc, point inexorably toward what came next: Nebraska. Worth Checking Out: “Out In The Street” is one of The Boss’ more exuberant rave-ups, an anthem to resilience and appreciating the smaller pleasures of a hard-working life.
8. Nebraska (1982)
Recorded as demos on a four-track machine that left room only for voice, acoustic guitar, harmonica and occasional percussion, Nebraska is as bleak and desolate as the wide-open spaces its characters inhabit. This is the darkest album of Springsteen’s career and far from an easy listen, but it rewards you with a master class in songwriting and performance, as Springsteen thoroughly inhabits the world created by his words. Worth Checking Out: This album is full of memorable lines and verses, but one of my favorites is the final line of “Highway Patrolman,” about a cop faced with a choice between loyalty and duty: “Man turns his back on his family, well he just ain't no good.”
9. The Rising (2002)
Springsteen’s output over the past two decades has been spotty; The Rising was the last time he really nailed it, an album written and recorded as a response to the events of 9/11. Even if its visceral impact in the moment has been dulled a bit by the passage of time, and even if it only produced one truly great song—the rousing hymn to heroism and personal sacrifice that is the title track—this album remains, taken as a whole, one of the more powerful artistic statements of a career ripe with them. Worth Checking Out: The quiet, affecting “You’re Missing” and the driving, jubilant “Mary’s Place” feel like two sides of the same emotional coin. And the gospel-flavored refrain of “Into The Fire” is simply devastating: “May your strength give us strength / May your faith give us faith / May your hope give us hope / May your love give us love.”
10. The Ghost Of Tom Joad (1995)
A lot of people figured after Springsteen reconvened the E Street Band for the four new songs added to 1995’s Greatest Hits collection, his next step would be to record a new studio album with them. Instead, nine months later this album emerged, a sort of ’90s sequel to Nebraska, a Woody Guthrie- and John Steinbeck-influenced set of haunted, novelistic story-songs set to spare folk-blues arrangements. The subjects are similar to Nebraska—marginalized, at times morally ambiguous characters struggling to survive in a cold and uncaring world—but the stories are more explicitly political in the way they address issues like poverty and immigration, as well as the policies and attitudes that shape common people’s lives and fates. Worth Checking Out: “Highway 29” and “Sinaloa Cowboys” are terrific, but my favorite is “The Line,” a fable about a Border Patrol agent that tests its characters’ moral codes in much the same way as “Highway Patrolman.”
11. Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (1972)
Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, Untethered. Shaggy, undisciplined, and at times absurdly verbose, Greetings is nonetheless a stunning debut from an untested street rat fresh from busking on the Asbury Park boardwalk. These are the seeds from which the trio of classic albums that followed would grow: memorable characters, emotionally fraught narratives, uncertain fates. It’s a rough listen in places, but with the elemental fervor of a budding artist searching for, and beginning to find his voice. Worth Checking Out: Beyond the songs everyone knows by heart, “Lost In The Flood” is a standout for the richness of its images, as well as David Sancious’ dynamic organ work.
12. Magic (2007)
Arguably the full-band sequel to the disappointing solo album Devils & Dust, this album is in fact better than that might sound. Channeling his sense of outrage over the senseless carnage of an unprovoked war, Springsteen crafts a rock and roll protest album that includes a searing, nihilistic anthem (“Radio Nowhere”), a tribute to damaged veterans coming home (“Long Walk Home”), and tightly wound, angry screeds against war itself (“Last To Die”) and the charlatans who draw us into them (“Magic”). Not a great album, but fierce, and solid. Worth Checking Out: “Gypsy Biker,” another song about a returning soldier and the damage done, offers tremendous drive and empathy, a sort of latter-day cousin to “Born In The USA.”
13. Wrecking Ball (2012)
This one and Magic are basically tied; it’s another late-era Bruce album that’s great when it’s great and not when it’s not. Channeling the protest-song spirit of We Shall Overcome and turning it into an album of purposeful rock and roll, it delivers a pair of strong anthems in “We Take Care Of Our Own” and the thumping, resilient title track. The dense, intense “Shackled And Drawn” and Celtic-flavored “Death To My Hometown” are also notable, along with an overdue studio recording of longtime concert favorite “Land Of Hope And Dreams.” Worth Checking Out: “Rocky Ground” is an out-of-left-field melding of gospel and modern electro-soul, featuring a startling, stirring late-song rap from background vocalist Michelle Moore.
14. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)
Confession time: I never bought this one. I'm glad Bruce had a good time making it, but I just wasn’t ready for an album full of traditional folk protest songs cut with an E-Street-less ensemble that sounds a little like an over-amped jug band fresh from a 1957 hootenanny. Still don’t feel like I’m ready. But Jeff Clutterbuck says this is a great album, and it did win over a lot of fans, so I’m putting it right here at #14. Worth Checking Out: Yeah… you’re on your own with this one.
15. High Hopes (2014)
Latter-day Springsteen albums are hit and miss. This one hits more than it misses, thanks mostly to the ferocious guitar work of special guest Tom Morello, but it’s still a hodgepodge of hurriedly recorded new material mixed with slightly moldy leftovers. The bright spots—including the title track and “Just Like Fire Would,” both covers, are bright indeed, but the original songs are more forgettable than usual. Worth Checking Out: “Frankie Fell In Love” is Nostalgic Bruce at his best, penning an upbeat, retrophile guitar-pop nugget that reminds me of many of the “lost singles” cuts that ended up collected on Tracks.
16. Human Touch (1992)
For your average rock and roll artist, this would be a pretty average album—a few solid rockers, some moderately predictable filler, a handful of experiments with varying results, and a couple of duds. However, Bruce Springsteen is not your average rock and roll artist—meaning this album came as a shocking disappointment. Worth Checking Out: “Roll Of The Dice” is fun and “I Wish I Were Blind” is a solid love song. Plus the title track is pretty good.
17. Devils & Dust (2005)
Springsteen has issued a trio of albums of mostly acoustic tunes in his career. At their best they have felt like the unexpected revelations of a gifted songwriter. At their worst they have felt like the fussy, self-conscious noodlings of a guy who’d become fixated on Being Taken Seriously. This is the least impressive of his acoustic trilogy; nuff said. Worth Checking Out: “Reno” and “Silver Palomino” show flashes of the kind of sharp storytelling we’ve come to take for granted. And hey, once again, the title track is pretty good.
18. Working On A Dream (2009)
Even on this, the least consequential recording of his long career, Springsteen manages to craft a few memorable moments. Unfortunately, the album is dominated by nostalgia and self-indulgence over songcraft. Worth Checking Out: “Your Lucky Day” has a great hook and, unsurprisingly by now, the title track is pretty good. But that’s about it.