Ranked: Bruce Springsteen Albums from Worst to Best 

For the Boss's new album, Wrecking Ball, we're looking at the discography that made New Jersey famous.

by Randy Abramson

When I hear people talk about Bruce Springsteen, positively or negatively, I always wonder which Bruce Springsteen they are talking about. The youthful street poet? The acoustic balladeer? Or the up-tempo bar-band leader? Was the muscle-bound Bruce of the Born in the U.S.A. era too much for you? Bruce is a prolific chameleon, and anyone who's been to his live show has seen him effortlessly switch characters, voice, and style. That diversity carries over to his albums and is what makes ranking them such a great challenge. 

17. Human Touch (1992)

By this point in his career, Springsteen had broken up the E Street Band and abandoned New Jersey to move out to California. Fans were already pissed, and this stylistic grab-bag wasn't making them any happier. He tried to fill the void left by his NJ comrades with the vocal power of Bobby King, who shines on "Man's Job," and the legendary Sam Moore, who sings backup on "Roll of the Dice" and "Real World." But fans weren't swayed ― they wanted the E Street Band, and nothing else would do.

Listen: "Human Touch"

 

16. Devils and Dust (2005)

It kills me to rank this album so low, because I truly believe that the title track is one of Springsteen's strongest songs. Amidst two endless wars, the post-9/11 patriotic surge began to fade in America, and Springsteen rose to the occasion, writing about the conflicted ideals in the hearts of soldiers, American citizens, and himself. "Devils and Dust" is a mind-blowing opener, but the album falls off from there. "Long Time Comin'" is sweet, "Reno" is racy, but both are ultimately forgettable. More songs even half as good as the title track would have made this album a winner. 

Listen: "Devils and Dust"

 

15. Working on A Dream (2009)

There are a bunch of well-produced songs on this album, complete with swelling harmonies and lush arrangements, but when anyone less than a die-hard fan reaches for a Springsteen record, I'd wager that this one gets played once out of 100 times (I'm probably being conservative here). Songs like "Surprise, Surprise" and "Tomorrow Never Knows" are catchy as hell, but lyrically, they go nowhere. "The Wrestler," a bonus track, is heartbreaking but borrows a bit too much from Springsteen's own "The Hitter." And the weak songs are, well, very weak; "Outlaw Pete" (which has a melody that eerily resembles a Kiss song) loses its luster after a couple of plays, and "Queen Of The Supermarket" should never have made the final cut.

Listen: "Surprise, Surprise"

 

14. Lucky Town (1992)

Lucky Town had the unfortunate fate of being lumped in with Human Touch, the other album that Bruce released on the same date. There were two other strikes against this record: one, except for Roy Bittan, there were no E Street Band members present, and two, this album included mostly "happy" songs. (Springsteen would laugh off the record's bad reputation years later, saying "I tried it [writing happy songs] in the early '90s and it didn't work; the public didn't like it."). But there's some great songwriting here: "If I Should Fall Behind" is a gorgeous song; "The Big Muddy" is about confronting your imperfections; "Local Hero" has Bruce knocking on his own righteous image. So go ahead, take a break from rye whiskey and Nebraska and listen. It won't hurt, I promise.

Listen: "Local Hero"

 

13. The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)

Tom Joad's low placement is less a reflection on its quality and more a reminder of how many great records Springsteen has put out. It won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album and, for me, the classification alone is part of the problem. Nebraska was never labeled "contemporary folk." The stripped-down nature of Nebraska's songs helped propel the stories and made the characters sound that much more alone. But on this album, the arrangements are quiet and the plots of the songs are more complex. "Sinaloa Cowboys" and "Balboa Park" might make for good short stories, but it's easy to lose the plot thread in Springsteen's hushed vocals. One shining exception here is "Straight Time," which sounds like a Nebraska outtake.

Listen: "Straight Time"

 

12. Wrecking Ball (2012)

Bruce has spoken about lifting parts of songs and slapping them into other tunes, using the analogy of interchanging car parts. Well, the master mechanic is back on this record, and this time The Boss is borrowing characters, styles, personnel, and even album structure from his past. Structurally, Wrecking Ball feels a lot like The Rising, kicking off with a killer anthem but really setting you up for serious storytelling. This record is focused on financial hard times; as on The Rising, after the big opener, the songs go micro and tell the stories of the individuals affected by a crisis (this time, we're talking about financial hardship). The album sounds fantastic, modern even, thanks to new producer Ron Aniello, but we've met some of these characters (and songs) before.

11. The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (1973)

The wordy street poetry of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. continues on Bruce's second record. The epic "Rosalita" packs almost as much excitement on record as it does in his live show, and helps lift this album to near-mythic status. But revisiting these songs, you may nod off during the way-too-serious "Wild Billy's Circus Story" and the over-earnest "New York City Serenade." On the other hand, "Sandy" is a classic that showcases Springsteen's romantic side.

Listen: "Rosalita"

 

10. We Shall Overcove: The Seeger Sessions (2006)

Audiences did not respond favorably to this album or tour, and that's a shame. These reworkings of Pete Seeger's songs are a hoot, and Springsteen was clearly having a great time directing the non-E Street assembly of accomplished musicians on the record. After Hurrican Katrina, songs like "My Oklahoma Home" sounded perfectly appropriate and the deluxe edition of the album featured "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?," a song Springsteen rewrote to include another jab at George W. Bush. The tour for the album was a complete blast, featuring a full horn section, strings, old-timey piano, and rejiggerings of old cuts like Nebraska's "Open All Night."

Listen: "My Oklahoma Home"

 

9. Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.  (1973)

Springsteen's debut album opens with "Blinded By the Light," a rhyme-fest that showcased his energy, playfulness, and imagination. That wide-eyed vibe continues throughout this rookie effort as he looks askance at his youthful adventures on "Growin' Up" and croons about being on the prowl in "For You." The arrangements are loose, improvisatory, and wild. Springsteen was trying to get your attention with the kitchen sink approach, and for the most part, it works. We also get a glimpse of Bruce's future edge in the album closer, "It's Hard to Be a Saint In the City."

Listen: "Growin' Up"

 

Commentarium (39 Comments)

Mar 05 12 - 6:58am
abloob

I'd rate The Wild, The Innocent and The E-Street Shuffle as a top 5 Springsteen album, quite possibly at the exclusion of Born in the USA. I also was shocked when Springsteen didn't have a single song in the greatest love songs of all time lists. Thunder Road in particular is probably the greatest "run away with me tomorrow" song of all time, trumping even the song that the quote is from. Not a bad list however, and I highly agree with the top 5.

Mar 05 12 - 10:30am
PeterSmith

Actually, "She's The One" was on the '70s list. But we felt most of his songs from that era were more about escape than about love, really--"Mary" in Thunder Road is just another part of the picture (along with the burned-out Chevrolets, Roy Orbison on the radio, etc).

Mar 05 12 - 10:09am
Mid-70's NYC

I remember when "The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle" came out. At the time I thought it was truly amazing. For that time, it had a very edgy raw quality that I've never heard before and for that reason, I would have put it in the top three.

Mar 23 12 - 1:52am
anna

i completely agree, wild the innocent and the e street shuffle is in my top five for sure, i have listened to the entire album so many times just driving around

Mar 05 12 - 10:37am
Mitch B

I loved Magic. "Radio Nowhere" always makes me want to jump onto the closest table and start headbanging. "Girls with Their Summer Clothes" is utterly exquisite. I love the comparison to Roy Orbison above for that track...very apt. I was just watching the Kennedy Center Honors for The Boss the other day on YouTube. I recommend it. The prez and Mrs. Obama were loving every minute of the tribute performances. Bypass the awful Mellencamp rendition of "Born in the USA," though. What a hack that guy is.

Mar 07 12 - 9:23am
Randy Abramson

Yeah, Mitch B...the Kennedy Center show is so great. The Jennifer Nettles & Ben Harper duet on I'm On Fire is simply amazing. And, yeah, Mellencamp bombed it.

Mar 05 12 - 10:40am
Yanqui

I guess some later efforts do push them down the list, but I have great fondness for the first two records, for the great storytelling on "The Wild, The Innocent" and for hte "Dylan with Van Morrison's back-up band" feel of "Greetings" which so obviously heralded the arrival of an audacious talent.

Mar 05 12 - 11:49am
z

This list is completely arbitrary

Mar 07 12 - 3:43am
McKingford

That just, like, you're opinion man.

Mar 07 12 - 3:45am
McKingford

Or, you know, *your* opinion, but whatever...Dude out!

Mar 07 12 - 9:29am
Randy Abramson

You see what happens, Larry?

Mar 05 12 - 12:02pm
Jill

Great live performer...but hasn't put out a great collection of new music in 25 years...

Mar 05 12 - 12:34pm
aa

I went to a Springsteen concert on a whim, just because they were in town for 'Magic' and I figured Bruce with the E Street Band was something I should see (since two of the members have now passed, I made the right decision). I only knew a smattering of his biggest hits when I went and I came out of that show totally, unexpectedly ,blown away. I had to listen to everything he had made immediately and I can't believe I had the wrong idea about him after all these years. I agree with the position of your first 5 albums, I find Born to Run and The River very intense, emotionally. I can't listen to them too often, they hit that nerve.

Mar 05 12 - 1:31pm
Mean Mr. Mustard

Not a huge Springsteen fan, but I can always listen to Nebraska. What an amazing collection of songs. I remember my older brother buying the album when it came out in 1982. It was so different from everything else I was listening to at the time. Thirty years later and it still blows me away.

Mar 05 12 - 1:33pm
J

Boy is this list wrong. It seems like the author ranked it based on sales, rather than the quality of the album. Devils and Dust and The Ghost of Tom Joad and the Seeger Sessions are all amazing. The Rising and Magic and Wrecking Ball and all the other reformed E-Street band albums are forgettable.

Mar 05 12 - 2:19pm
Hampton

I do remember the extreme hype for "The Rising" and then being extremely disappointed in it. It's not as good as any of his first six albums.

Mar 09 12 - 10:15pm
Jim

Few things are as good as those albums.

Mar 05 12 - 2:21pm
Jordan

My top three: Darkness, BTR, Tunnel of Love. You're way overrating The River, methinks.

Mar 05 12 - 2:30pm
ed newman

I guess it says a lot about Bruce that my list is considerably different. My only criteria being which albums I look forward to listening to most:
1. Born to Run
2. Tunnel of Love
3. Darkness
4. Devils and Dust
5. Nebraska
6. Born in the USA
7. The River
8. Magic
9. The Rising

Drop Off

10. Greetings
11. Wild and Innocent

Big Drop Off

12. Human Touch
13. Lucky Town
14. Working for a Dream
15. Tom Joad
16. We Shall Overcome

I recognize the quality in Tom Joad and We Shall Overcome, but they just aren't my thing. I always said that Bruce never made a disappointing album with the E Street Band. Then Working for a Dream came out and I had to withdraw that statement.

Mar 06 12 - 2:09am
Randy Abramson

Hi Ed,
I think our lists are actually similar, but I have a soft spot for The River and I clearly don't enjoy Devils and Dust as much as you do. Thanks so much for posting your list. Good stuff!

Mar 05 12 - 3:13pm
EJ Dickson

Switch "Tunnel of Love" with "Wild and Innocent" and you got yourself a list.

Mar 05 12 - 10:01pm
RN

I was hoping listen to "Thunder Road," but it gives you "She's the One" instead. :(

Mar 06 12 - 9:33pm
HSM

The Wild, the Innocent was the Springsteen album I grew up listening to and am therefore biased, but.... It is a great collection of effortless storytelling that is still unique. And the album contains the bonafide great song Rosalita. My list has it in the top three (1. Nebraska, 2. Born to Run).

Mar 07 12 - 12:34am
dirtydozen

Dropping "Wild & Innocent..." so low and sticking "We Shall Overcome" so high is an invitation to a necktie party thrown by Bruce fanatics. Don't open any e-mails with the words "Backstreets" or "Greasy Lake" in the title line for the next few days.

P.S.: Bruce's most underrated song is "Fade Away." A pop killer.

Mar 08 12 - 4:58pm
JimmyC

I may be the only Springsteen fan who LIKED Human Touch. Darkness rates as my favorite. See you in Tampa!

Mar 09 12 - 4:40am
Greg D from Calif.

WHAT ABOUT TRACKS??? The first three records of that long lost treasure trove have about 20 songs as great as anything he put on the actual albums. Rendevous, Loose Ends, Roulette, Seaside Bar Song, So Young and in Love, Mary Lou, Doll House, This Hard Land, Where the Bands are, etc. That was the release that was the catalyst of them reforming. I would go:
Darkness, River, Born to Run, Greetings, Tracks, Rising...AND LIVE 1975-85

Mar 09 12 - 5:03am
Kieron

The Wild, the Innocent etc is in my opinion, the last decent album Bruce ever made. The rest is painting by numbers. He's worked out a formula for how rock songs should sound, and he's good at the formula, and at faking emotion. Bit like Whitney Houston: all technique and no soul.

Mar 09 12 - 10:09am
Jack Sparrow

This comment is simply not accurate. Springsteen has changed his mucsical style several times over his career, he has tried new things, switched up his band, done accoustic, updated themes to fit the current events, and taken chances with his music. you may not like his music or what he sings about - but it is simply wrong to say he discovered a formula on his second album (in 1973) and stck with it for 40 years.

Mar 09 12 - 2:13pm
Kieron

The comment is 100% accurate, in that it perfectly reflects my opinion. You just happen to disagree with me, which is fine.

Mar 10 12 - 11:19am
This is that

This is funny. From 1975 forward there's no evidence of soul in Springsteen's songwriting; the sound is simply a matter of a formula he's worked out as a result of the 16 songs he wrote as a 23/24-year-old on his first two albums. Brilliant thesis. I'm going to go back through his catalogue and see if I can't spot the ingredients of that formula over the ensuing 300/400 songs. Surely it will become apparent after only a dozen or so. Strange that more people haven't examined his career in this light.

Mar 09 12 - 4:16pm
JM

1. Run
2. Nebraska
3. Darkness
4. River
5. Wild
6. Tunnel
7. USA
8. Ball
9. Magic
10. Rising
11. Greetings
12. Joad
13. Dust
The Rest

Jul 21 12 - 8:24am
Jod

You pretty much nailed it for me there.
For me the top 3 is the only part of the list that's completely set in stone.
1. Born to Run
2. Nebraska
3. Darkness

I also love The River, Tunnel of Love, Born in the USA, and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, but I don't consider them in the same league as the top 3.
I also think Wrecking Ball is the best of his new work, closely followed by Magic and The Rising.

So, yeah... Great job.

Mar 10 12 - 10:58am
Newt Gingrich

"Bruce's lower-register vocals can sound a bit too serious at times...."

Seriously? In a one-paragraph recap of one of the best rock albums of the last four decades, this is a detail you choose to devote a line to?

Mar 10 12 - 3:50pm
"Ratty" Arbuckle

I've never cared for Springsteen's music, except for "Dancing in the Dark" and "Murder, Incorporated".

Mar 18 12 - 11:40pm
Rick

Meeting Across the River is such a microcosm of his genre. Born To Run is the best coordination of this genre. I like Darkness and the Promise compilation. He thrives in dark subjects, American Skin, Point Blank and State Police being prime examples. Roulette was never relased on an album, too controversial. Great art has been his production. We are better for listening to all of it.

Apr 17 12 - 3:41pm
Gary UK

So what about The Promise? It's an astonishing album, not just a selection of outtakes. I rate it just ahead of Tunnel of Love and The River and behind DOTEOT and BTR.

May 05 12 - 12:21am
Beth

I agree with most of your list, and have been a loyal Bruce fan for years. However, I disagree on your review of Wrecking Ball, which I think is one of his best. Maybe this is because I saw him perform most of the songs live in concert in Atlanta recently, but I just can't seem to stay away from this one. Easy Money is a favorite. And, Man's Job on Human Touch is always a highlight for me. I love Surprise, Surprise and
Tomorrow Never Knows from Working on a Dream. These are the only 2 songs I listen to from this album, and absolutely love I'll Work for your Love from Magic. However, Thunder Road is Bruce's best song in my opinion. Was always my college anthem!

Jun 03 12 - 7:27am
colin

interesting discussion. i'll just give my top 4, which of course can change @ anytime depending on the mood.
1. darkness-great songs & great playing.
2 ghost of- great stories, the view from the outside, reminds me of how circumstance plays such a huge part in people's lives. and the version of youngstown on live in new york is just a killer.
3. born to run-because it is.
4. nebraska-just a great record for a certain space.

i like a lot of the other stuff too but these are the records that really do it for me.
thanks bruce

Jul 29 12 - 5:52am
Ken

His music is so personal and each person relates to it in their own way. Therefore, I cannot find fault with anyone else's observations if they differ from mine. I do remember, and will never forget, my first girlfriend and listening to Jungleland during right after a rainstorm. She's long gone and I've moved to California, coincidentally where she was from originally. I bought my first album in 1979, Darkness on the Edge of Town. I saw him in concert in Tacoma and Calgary years ago.