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The 11 best songs by Bruce Springsteen

Why have a Top 10 when you can have one more? Here are our 11 favourite Bruce Springsteen songs, ranked

How do you distill 50 years into 11 songs? With an artist like Bruce Springsteen, it’s hard to even know where to start. There are no bad albums, that much is true. Sure, there are lesser albums, but even those offer up at least two songs that would end up on a lot of shortlists. And so many people have such deep, personal connections with Bruce’s music that you could canvas 50 people and get 50 different lists.

So, before you come at anyone (specifically me) over this list, keep all the above in mind. There are songs we wish we could have included (‘Rosalita’, ‘My Hometown’, ‘My City Of Ruins’ and ‘I’m On Fire’ were painful omissions) and entire albums that deserved better than to go unrepresented. Caveats and agonising complete, here’s our stab at the 11 best Bruce Springsteen songs.

11. Atlantic City

(Nebraska, 1982)
One of Bruce’s supreme gifts is his opening lines. The great man has a knack of dropping you right into his world with a single sentence, and ‘Atlantic City’ is maybe the finest example of that. “Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night”. Who’s the chicken man? Who blew him up? Why? We don’t ever find out and it doesn’t matter. It thrusts you right into the violent, unforgiving world of Nebraska in the company of a narrator who seems destined to find a route out, right up until he meets a guy and decides to “do a little favour for him”. It’s bleak, insistent and utterly brilliant.

10. Lost In The Flood

(Live In New York City, 2001)
‘Lost In The Flood’ has grown exponentially in impact over the years. The version on Greetings From Asbury Park N.J. has all those mad, impressionistic visions that make it such a bizarre fever dream of a song, but it’s the live version from the 2001 Madison Square Garden shows that summons up the dynamic power the song deserves. “Nuns run bald through Vatican halls, pregnant, pleading immaculate conception” is Bruce at his most Dylanesque. The roar that greets the first line is utterly thrilling.

9. Badlands

(Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978)
After Bruce’s Queen Elizabeth Park show in 2013, what felt like thousands of us were stuck in the underpass at Stratford station, waiting for a train home. Someone up the front started bellowing the refrain from ‘Badlands’ and suddenly the entire station had joined in, turning tired frustration back into the joyous community of an hour earlier. It says so much about the song, which dives headlong into the pitch-black despair of Bruce’s fourth album with fury, resilience and a determination to stare unblinking in the face of injustice. As calls to arms go, it’s tough to beat.

8. Brilliant Disguise

(Tunnel Of Love, 1987)
If the man you’d just married wrote a song like ‘Brilliant Disguise’, you’d be straight on the phone to either a marriage counsellor or a really good lawyer. Another notable Bruce talent is his middle-eights and ‘Brilliant Disguise’ is his best ever, his mumbled drawl rising to a desperate roar: “Now look at me baby, struggling to do everything right”. “I wanna know if it’s you I don’t trust, cos I damn sure don’t trust myself” is a heart-stopping line, the kind of confused, lost statement that leaves absolutely no room for hope.

7. Darkness On The Edge Of Town

(Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978)
Darkness On The Edge Of Town offers up some of Bruce’s most despondent songs but they’re sandwiched between two stunning moments of energised frustration: ‘Badlands’ and the title track. Roy Bittan’s piano, Max Weinberg’s drums and Garry Tallent’s bass seems to be all a single instrument on that outstanding intro, while Bruce screams himself hoarse on the choruses. Never has giving in to your darkest self sounded so damn triumphant.

6. The River

(The River, 1980)
A genuine masterpiece. No harmonica in history has ever sounded so forlorn. Even Roy Bittan’s piano seems to be genuinely crying. ‘The River’ isn’t so much a cautionary tale about teenage pregnancy as a cautionary tale about ever getting your hopes up about anything. Where the narrator and Mary’s love offered a glimpse of a better life outside of their suffocating existence, it instead becomes a weight that drags them under with its taunting visions of what might have been.

5. Downbound Train

(Born In The U.S.A., 1984)
Born In The U.S.A. has an embarrassment of hits, but its standout track wasn’t even chosen as a single. ‘Downbound Train’ is at odds with the gleaming, major-key rock ‘n’ roll that makes up most of the album. Instead, it’s a taut, tense rocker with the loneliest sounding synths in music history, acting as a precursor for the direction Bruce would take on Tunnel Of Love.

4. The Ghost Of Tom Joad

(The Ghost Of Tom Joad, 1995)
Bruce immersed himself in John Steinbeck’s Depression-era writing in the run up to The Ghost Of Tom Joad, finding painful parallels between migrant workers in 90s America and the nomadic Joad family from The Grapes Of Wrath. The album is a woefully underrated entry in the Springsteen cannon, not least its superb title track, which again deposits you in the midst of bleak desperation with a single line: “Men walking along the railroad tracks, going some place and there’s no going back”. Anyone who accuses Bruce of empty platitudes about girls, cars and blue-collar America needs to sit and absorb the raw pain that runs through this haunting paean to being despised just for wanting a better life. It’s never felt more appropriate.

3. Thunder Road

(Born To Run, 1975)
“A screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways.” Once more, it just takes one line and you’re in mid-70s small town America, waiting by the curb for the only person who means anything to you. That harmonica and piano intro feels like a curtain rising on two lovers, boxed in by a town and a life with nothing to offer. But this is wide-eyed Bruce, the Bruce that believed four wheels and an unshakeable love could carry you anywhere. When the band kicks in and he hollers “Roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair”, he sounds like someone you’d follow into battle.

2. Tougher Than The Rest

(Tunnel Of Love, 1987)
Buried among Tunnel Of Love’s brutal tales of heartbreak is Bruce’s best love song. Maybe it’s the rest of the album bleeding through its boundaries, but ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ reads like a love song written by someone who’s had all the innocence and idealism driven out of them. But its hard-nosed cynicism just add to the romanticism, like two weary pugilists picking each other up to go one more round: “Well there’s another dance / All you gotta do is say yes / And if you’re rough and ready for love, honey I’m tougher than the rest”.

1. Born To Run

(Born To Run, 1975)
Some songs are written, others feel carved out of mountains. ‘Born To Run’ has always just been there, a monumental piece of work that moves like a machine. In the midst of that glorious wall of sound, Bruce’s guitar revs like it’s about to disappear into the distance, while his voice seems to swell with bravado. He’s a man on a mission, boasting to his beloved about being “sprung from cages” to ride through “mansions of glory”. He’d almost sound ridiculous, if it wasn’t for his romantic vulnerability when he admits he’s “just a scared and lonely rider” but still promises he’ll “guard your dreams and visions”. Believing is the only option, primarily because of how fervently he believes in himself. Live, the song becomes a communal experience like no other, so exhilarating it should be illegal.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band return to UK stadiums in 2024. Find tickets here