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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.
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"