If Elvis has claimed the highest position as The King, then ‘The Boss’ has surely earned a seat close by at the rock and roll table of greats. We’re talking about Bruce Springsteen, New Jersey’s proudest son, who has been blowing the minds of anyone lucky enough to see him live since the ‘70s. Strapped with a Telecaster and backed by the legendary E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen can comfortably lay claim to being one of America’s greatest rockers.
Combining a blue-collar, working-class ethos that echoes throughout the characters in his songs, Springsteen’s back catalog is a vast collection of gutsy pop classics, socially conscious anthems, and intimate, stripped-back folk numbers.
Now in his seventies, he continues to pack out arenas and take names to this day. From a career spanning 50 years, we’ve picked ten of The Boss’ finest songs.
10. Secret Garden
This offcut from 1992’s Human Touch shows just how versatile The Boss is when it comes to writing heartbreakers. Led by sparse keys, it’s a sound he’d later build on for 2002’s The Rising. Rarely played live, the song gathered momentum when it became a single on 1995’s Greatest Hits, and then featured on the Jerry Maguire soundtrack. A liner note claims it’s about ‘men and women’ and ‘the big man sweeter than ever.’ The late Clarence Clemons is the man in question, given the back half of the tune to serenade us with his sax. Lyrically, it’s about love, secrets, and mysteries kept hidden.
9. Thunder Road
It’s a testament to the scale of Springsteen’s catalog when our list only includes one tune from 1975’s Born To Run. His breakthrough third record, this song (inspired by a Robert Mitchum movie), is all the reasons he’s worshipped in one place. ‘Thunder Road’ is a tale of reckless abandon in pursuit of opportunity. It’s masterful storytelling about two people in a town full of losers ‘pulling out of here to win.’ Roy Orbison gets a mention, along with burned-out Chevrolets, promised lands, and Springsteen’s custom Telecaster as he sings, “I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk.” Searching harmonica over Roy Bittan’s chiming piano starts things off before it launches into a thumping E Street Band groove. Expect this old classic to get busted out during every live set.
8. The River
Like all good storytelling, occasionally, things need to veer into somber territory. That’s exactly where a run of three albums (1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1980’s The River, and 1982’s Nebraska) took Springsteen. The title track from The Boss’ fifth album walks in the shoes of a man facing the realities of recession and a struggling marriage, haunted by the romance of his youth. Inspired by New Jersey’s construction industry crash in the ‘70s, the lyrics are a rumination on the American dream. Harmonica and piano meet up again, but it’s the layered guitar and haunting lyrics carrying this mournful tune. Inspired by a Hank Williams earworm that ate away at Springsteen in his hotel room, he penned this bleak country vision as soon as he got home.
7. Hungry Heart
Another number from The River, this song starts with an iconic tom-snare-tom fill that’s unmistakably Max Weinberg, the E Street Band’s powerhouse drummer. In the midst of writing albums full of working-class ballads, Springsteen occasionally wrote tunes that (in his own words) “bled across the lines.” Driven by Clarence’s (baritone this time) saxophone, it’s another song about the strains of marriage but with a welcome feel of optimism. If it’s simplistic, bouncy chorus sounds more like The Ramones should be singing it, that’s because they nearly did. It was originally written for the NYC punk rockers before The Boss decided to keep it. A wise choice — Hungry Heart was his first top 10 hit.
6. Glory Days
If you need evidence of the seismic scale of the E Street Band’s live shows, look no further than the 2009 Super Bowl halftime show. A back and forth between Bruce and regular right-hand-man guitarist Stevie Van Zandt closes out a raucous version of Glory Days, with the frontman asking his bandmate for the time. The response, of course: “it’s Boss Time!” In a way only Springsteen could, this tune captures the duality of reflecting on the good old days. While ‘boring’, wistful reminiscing about past glories seems hopeless, it’s also getting some of these characters through the day. As much a nod to fleeting youth as it is an ode to getting older, it’s a boppy, bluesy anthem that’s a set mainstay.
5. Streets of Philadelphia
Jonathon Demme asked both Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young to write songs for his 1993 film Philadelphia, adding, “I want it to play in the malls.” With an instantly recognizable drum beat intro, Springsteen penned a tune unlike any of his others to open the film. It perfectly captures the loneliness of Tom Hank’s Andrew Beckett, wrongfully fired after it’s discovered he has AIDS. It won The Boss an Oscar, and for good reason. It’s a spare, sorrowful track, moved along by haunting synths and gospel-like vocal harmonies. No slouch when it comes to making videos, Springsteen recorded the vocals live to an instrumental track while he walked. It gives the video the sincerity it deserves.
4. Born to Run
When Christopher Moltisanti finally gets to his mob meeting late, he offers some lyrics from Born To Run to an unimpressed Tony Soprano as his excuse: “the highway was jammed with local heroes on a last chance power drive”. The other person in the room? Silvio, aka Stevie Van Zandt. So steeped in New Jersey culture is The Boss’s output it figures that one of his bandmates starred throughout the hit HBO series set in his backyard. There was even a movement to make it the official song of the state. Putting this driving, powerhouse, heartland rocker at number 4 wasn’t easy — it’s a song that refuses to give up. The opening drum fill, matched by one of rock n’ roll’s simplest yet greatest lead guitar licks, catapults the song into a heartland rock tale about young lovers on the run.
3. Born in the U.S.A.
We’re into the top three, and they’re all from 1984’s world-dominating masterpiece. The title track, with a working title of ‘Vietnam’, is Springsteen’s voice at its loudest, both figuratively and literally. It’s a rocker, it’s political, and it’s one of Bruce’s most accessible tunes. He describes it as a “complex picture of the country.” On first listen, it sounds like unabashed patriotism, but really it’s anything but. It’s really about war veterans betrayed by the country they love. Repeatedly misused by conservative politicians, it’s an unforgettable fist-pumper carried by an unmistakable Yamaha Cs80 synth line (an instrument that might get another mention shortly).
2. I’m On Fire
Originally recorded as a three-piece of Bruce, pianist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg, our number 2 pick is another display of The Boss’ ability to mix it up. A radio-friendly hit single, I’m On Fire is a lusty, tense affair with lyrics about yearning, longing, and feelings that seem unrequited. Beneath the minimalist synths is a Johnny Cash-inspired rhythmic guitar loop. The Man In Black returned the favor by covering it on ‘Badlands: A tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.’
1. Dancing In the Dark
Topping our list is Dancing In The Dark. The reasons to justify why this song is still played and listened to daily the world over are many, but we’ll start with that synth riff. It’s the Yamaha again, and it’s The Boss arriving at the sound that still defines him. A dance floor classic, it’s a song that’s got it all — a driving rock n’ roll tempo, a poppy hook, Americana-soaked lyrics, and a Brian De Palma directed video starring Courtney Cox as an adoring fan. It even finds room for the Big Man’s sax solo. With lyrics about being frustrated about your lot in life but taking action in spite of it, our number one pick is another Bruce song that sneaks gritty, melancholic words into a great, melodic tune.