Bruce Springsteen is both one of the most popular and one of the most misunderstood rock stars, as his accessible melodies and working-class, everyman image has been embraced by classic rock radio and blue-collar karaoke singers who frequently misunderstand Springsteen’s political messages and overlook his poetic lyrics. Springsteen is patriotic, but that doesn’t make him blind to America’s faults.
He is an energetic performer with a knack for catchy melodies, but also a songwriter dedicated to his craft. He is a talented musician but never fails to give credit to the legendary E Street Band that has backed him up for many years; he recently inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In his induction speech, per Rolling Stone, Springsteen referred to his relationship with the E Street Band as “the rare, rock and roll hybrid of solo artistry and a true rock and roll band.” In honor of that induction and the 20th anniversary of perhaps Springsteen’s most famous album, Born in the U.S.A., here’s a look at 10 of the Boss’s best songs.
1. ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’
The title track from the 1978 album of the same name explores the difficulties faced by the working class, a constant theme in Springsteen’s music. In this song, the narrator is forced to live “in the darkness on the edge of town,” while his ex-wife has faked her way into a more posh neighborhood. “Some folks are born into a good life / Other folks get it anyway, anyhow / I lost my money and I lost my wife / Them things don’t seem to matter much to me now,” Springsteen sings. Steve Van Zandt told Rolling Stone that this song represents a shift in Springsteen’s storytelling from earlier albums: “The song just sums up that record very accurately, in terms of ‘the stories now, we’re gonna not necessarily have a happy ending.’”
2. ‘Atlantic City’
1982′s Nebraska was another turning point for the Boss, as it consisted mostly of solo acoustic numbers rather than the bombastic backing of the E Street Band. According to biographer Dave Marsh, Springsteen was depressed while writing this material, which resulted in a darker, more bitter picture of American life than was previously seen in his work, although themes of the working class and life in New Jersey as a microcosm for the entire country are still prevalent.
“Well I got a job and tried to put my money away / But I got debts that no honest man can pay,” Springsteen sings. The album didn’t sell as well as his previous three, but it received great critical acclaim and is considered to be highly influential. “‘Atlantic City’ has a hook. The pop aspect to it backs up the storytelling. You find yourself humming that song all the time. And that is the connection point,” said Arcade Fire’s Win Butler to Rolling Stone.
Rolling Stone writer Greil Marcus called the piano intro to this cut from 1975′s Born to Run ”the prelude to a rock and roll version of The Illiad.” Critics aren’t positive if the song is about a former girlfriend or a close male friendship, but it certainly has a deeply personal meaning for Springsteen, as Rolling Stone noted he has a tendency to include the song in live sets after suffering losses like the deaths of his longtime assistant Terry Magovern and E Street Band organist Danny Federici. The song creates a rich setting of working-class Americana while the song’s couple deepens their relationship “hiding on the backstreets.”
4. ‘The River’
The “Mary” in this song is not a fictional creation but Springsteen’s own sister, Ginny. He narrates the song from the perspective of Ginny’s husband, who got her pregnant when she was only 18 and hurriedly married her and took a job in construction to support the family soon after. The River is a 20-song double album full of stories about various working-class characters in New Jersey, but the title track hits closest to home by being the truest. Ginny herself has come to love the song, telling biographer Peter Ames Carlin: “Every bit of it was true. And here I am, completely exposed. I didn’t like it at first — but now it’s my favorite song.”
5. ‘Racing in the Street’
Rolling Stone calls this song from Darkness on the Edge of Town ”the most quietly devastating song in Springsteen’s catalog.” The song’s characters are inspired by people from Springsteen’s native New Jersey. The song’s narrator is obsessed with cars and takes refuge in his vehicles while his girl “cries herself to sleep at night.” He believes the car can carry him and his baby to the ocean to “wash these sins off our hands,” but her clear hopelessness shows that no car can save them. Their journey to try anyway is illustrated by the song’s long instrumental passage at the end.
6. ‘Thunder Road’
“Thunder Road” became the surprise opening track on 1975′s Born to Run, as Springsteen felt the opening riff warranted it the spot as the first track on the album. The song’s narrator begs the love interest, Mary, to use love as a way to reaffirm their youth in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. “So you’re scared and you’re thinking / That maybe we ain’t that young anymore / Show a little faith there’s magic in the night,” Springsteen sings.
“The songs were written immediately after the Vietnam War, and you forget everybody felt like that then,” Springsteen said of the album to Rolling Stone. “There’s quite a sense of dread and uncertainty about the future and who you were, where you were going, where the whole country was going, so that found its way into the record.”
1978′s Darkness on the Edge of Town is considered to be a turning point in Springsteen’s career, an album that showed his maturation politically and lyrically. The record was considered his best yet, and the tour supporting it only cemented Springsteen’s status as the best touring rock and roll act around. The song explores themes of working-class life and presents rock and roll as a kind of salvation. “I believe in the faith that can save me / I believe and I hope and I pray / That someday it will raise me / Above these Badlands,” Springsteen sings.
8. ‘The Rising’
Springsteen wrote “The Rising” about the September 11th terrorist attacks, to help his fans cope with the tragedy. The album of the same name was released in the summer of 2002 and stands as some of his best recent work, gaining both popular and critical acclaim. It was the first album Springsteen released with a full band in 18 years and is seen as a comeback effort for the musician, who wasn’t very active in the 1990s. The lyrics are from the perspective of a fireman entering the Twin Towers, and the chorus is heavily gospel influenced. The song is No. 497 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
9. ‘Born in the U.S.A.’
This song, from the 1984 album of the same name, is perhaps both Springsteen’s most famous and most misunderstood. The American flag motif and the catchy, patriotic chorus have made the song a popular pro-America rock staple, though the lyrics in the verses belie a much more complicated picture. The song is actually a scathing review of the Vietnam War and the phenomenon of working-class youth with little hope for the future being pushed into military service because they have nowhere else to turn, a sentiment that’s still timely 30 years later.
“Got in a little hometown jam / So they put a rifle in my hand / Sent me off to a foreign land / To go and kill the yellow man,” Springsteen sings. The soldier returns from Vietnam to an unwelcoming society and few options for fitting back into it. When taken in the context of the versus, the chorus becomes sneering, almost punk in its sarcasm. It was famously misinterpreted by Ronald Reagan, who used it as a theme song during his 1984 presidential campaign until Springsteen told him to stop. The song is No. 280 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
10. ‘Born to Run’
The 1975 album Born to Run, along with increasing buzz surrounding his long, energetic shows with the E Street Band, launched Springsteen’s popularity. “Born to Run” is a classic rock love song about a young couple dreaming of a better place than New Jersey and using love to escape the town that “rips the bones from your back.”
The lush instrumentation of the track was influenced by producer Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” technique, and the E Street Band more than rises to the occasion of creating that wall. According to Rolling Stone, the song took three-and-a-half months to record. “I had enormous ambitions for it,” said Springsteen. “I wanted to make the greatest rock record I’d ever heard.” The song is No. 21 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
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