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.
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.
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"
8. The Rising (2002)
After 9/11, the art world found itself in limbo, unsure of how to react: senses were raw from relentless coverage of burning buildings and hobbled families, and many in entertainment were still treading lightly, unsure of how to proceed. Springsteen took it all in, did his research (in some cases, calling the family members of victims) and went to work. The Rising tells the stories of the event from different perspectives and on different scales, from the firefighter featured in the title track to the individual who finds himself being touted as a hero ("Nothing Man"). In "Mary's Place," a victim's family member tries to find comfort by having a party. The character struggles to move past the tragedy and asks, "How do we get this thing started?" but when Bruce belts out "Meet me at Mary's place, we're gonna have a party!" in the chorus, you can't help but wipe away the tears and smile.
Listen: "Mary's Place"
7. Magic (2007)
Easily the best album of the "Springsteen 2.0" era (anything post-1992, when he originally broke with the E Street Band), this collection finds Springsteen re-energized by his collaboration with producer Brendan O'Brien. Musically, he's genre-hopping, laying on a thick, poppy guitar hook on "Radio Nowhere," delivering his take on a Roy Orbison vocal on "Girls In Their Summer Clothes," and even referencing his own sax-laden cuts on "Living In the Future." Many of the songs direct some bitterness at the Bush administration, but most still manage to sound playful and inventive. "I'll Work For Your Love" is a real standout, built on joy, admiration, and a healthy dose of the spiritual.
Listen: "I'll Work For Your Love"
6. Tunnel of Love (1987)
This collection of songs about Springsteen's failed marriage to actress Julianne Phillips gave the world a close look at his fears, desires, and heartbreak. Springsteen had always been open about his personal struggles with his father, but he always kept personal romantic matters quiet, until now. Songs like "One Step Up" and "Brilliant Disguise" sound simple, but they have lyrical depth revealed with every play. "Walk Like a Man" is a bit of a curveball here ― it focuses less on the breakup and more on Springsteen's personal growth, but it's still as powerful and nuanced as anything else on the record.
Listen: "Brilliant Disguise"
5. Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
I know how many copies this album sold (over fifteen million) and its number of Top Ten singles (seven, tying Michael Jackson for the most ever from a single album), but this record never fully grabbed me. The goal with the record was to reach as big an audience possible — mission accomplished! — but the glossy production sucked out some of the urgency found on Bruce's previous records. The angry lyrics of the title track get lost in the made-for-stadium-sing-alongs synths, and "Dancing In The Dark" never felt like a real Bruce song to me until the keyboards were hushed a bit and it became a staple encore years later in his live show. Still, "Glory Days" and "I'm Going Down" are pure fun, and "I'm On Fire" and "Cover Me" introduced Bruce as a serious sex symbol. That album cover didn't hurt either.
Listen: "I'm Goin' Down"
4. Nebraska (1982)
In 1982, MTV was beginning to take shape as a powerful music tastemaker, and musicians, for the most part, responded accordingly. Michael Jackson delivered Thriller, with all of its cinematic glory. Prince made sure he was TV-ready with his glammed up 1999. Bruce Springsteen? He put out a collection of sparse songs recorded on a simple four-track machine in his house, accompanied by a stark, black-and-white video that he didn't appear in. The story goes that Steve Van Zandt convinced Springsteen to put the demos out "as is," which at the time was unheard-of for an artist of his stature. There's a strong Dylan influence in the storytelling style, but the delivery is more personal and isolated. You feel like you may be the only one who knows that these people exist, as you listen to their quietly desperate tales.
Listen: "Atlantic City"
3. Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
After Born To Run, Springsteen was tied up in a legal battle with former manager Mike Appel. During that time, he recorded tons of music, much of it up-tempo and playful (like "Because the Night," which he gave to Patti Smith, and "Fire," which he gave to the Pointer Sisters). But for his next release, Springsteen wanted to put out a record that was "a reckoning with the adult world." Darkness is a bleak, driving sequel to the optimistic Born To Run. These are the characters who ran off with their girlfriends on a high of giddy rebellion, only to have to face the crushing low that followed. The songs range in style from the defiant guitar attack of "Badlands" to the tear-wrenching piano plinking on "Racing in the Streets," but the message is the same: "You're down and out and you're not going anywhere." Thankfully, The Boss injects two searing blasts of optimism in "Promised Land" and "Prove It All Night."
2. The River (1980)
You've read countless tales of Bruce showing up at The Stone Pony, Wonder Bar or some other local club and wowing the crowd for hours (and, if you believe Ben Stiller, refilling the ketchup bottles while he's at it). I know if I saw Bruce in a club, I'd want to see him perform the barnburning songs from this album. Straightforward rockers like "The Ties That Bind," "Two Hearts," "Out in the Street" and "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)" are relentless barrages, glued together with clanging guitars and some of Bruce's best vocal performances. But there's a "downer" side to this record ― downtempo songs that force your to drop your beer and bear witness to lean times, cracked relationships, and desperate loners. Check out "Stolen Car," which Springsteen has identified as a turning point in the development of his writing style.
Listen: "The Ties That Bind"
1. Born to Run (1975)
The definitive album about "getting out" has been written about to death, but that's for good reason. Born to Run's street stories and enormous arrangements are energizing, heartbreaking, and most of all, honest. Springsteen was at a make-or-break point in his career, so he doubled down and delivered an album so ambitious that I'm not sure even he's capable of matching its scope and emotion again. Bruce's lower-register vocals can sound a bit too serious at times, but that's a minor flaw on what is otherwise a flawless work. From the dusky beauty of "Thunder Road" to the defiant roar of "Born to Run" all the way through to the haunting worldless vocals of "Jungleland," the album is a snapshot of a day in the life of any twenty-something trying to get somewhere better than where they are now.
Listen: "Thunder Road"
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Randy Abramson was lucky enough to be removed from his own birthday party at the age of ten to see Bruce open what was then the Brendan Byrne Arena in NJ. Since then, he created the New Jersey Online Springsteen Celebrity Shrine and has written about Bruce for Newsweek.com and MSNBC.com. He now runs Rocktorch.com, a site dedicated to publishing music recommendations from people who know music best ― the artists themselves.