So, you’re just digging into Bruce Springsteen’s catalog now? First off, what the hell is wrong with you?
Well fear not; even though “The Boss” has released 18 studio albums and has been producing them at a particularly torrid pace since the turn of the millennium, one can become acquainted with the music of Jersey’s most cherished resident fairly easily. Here’s a quick guide to Bruce that’ll have people thinking you grew up in the swamps of Jersey, listening to this music since the day you were born, like a true Garden State local.
- Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (1973) and The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle (1973)
I’ve included Bruce’s first two albums together here because they are essentially one in the same. Released only months apart in 1973, they are extremely similar albums thematically, and while both were critically acclaimed, neither were commercially successful. Nonetheless, both albums are full of Bruce classics that you simply must know if you want to be a fan of The Boss.
“Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” is the most common closing number you’ll here at a Bruce concert, and “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” is one of the most unique, descriptive, and unusual love songs to ever be released as single.
You’ll also find on these Bruce’s first single, “Blinded by the Light,” (an excellent example of stellar wordplay for wordplay’s sake) which was made globally famous when Manfred Mann’s Earth Band covered in 1977.
With only 16 songs combined on both these records, you’d be doing yourself a disservice to not listen to them and hear the man before he became The Boss.
- Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
If you’ve never gone out of your way to listen to Bruce before in your life, you’ve still most certainly heard at least three of the tracks on this record. After years of moderate success and critical acclaim, Bruce embraced more mainstream production on this record. Combined with a worldwide tour, a more muscular physique, and some very tight-fitting blue jeans, Bruce became a superstar.
Thematically, however, this album of stadium rock gems is actually rife with cynicism and disgust at America. The eponymous title track is a highly critical reaction to the Vietnam War and the treatment of veterans when they returned. “Glory Days,” often played as a feel good tune at summer BBQs, is an undeniably sad track about a man who has seen his best days pass him by. The spooky, romantic ballad “I’m On Fire” is about the narrator—presumably Bruce himself—sleeping with a married woman while her husband isn’t home.
But despite the dark undertones, this record is a loud rocker that propelled Bruce to superstardom, and listening to it end to end is absolutely required.
- The Rising (2002)
If you only listen to one Bruce album in your lifetime, it should be 2002’s The Rising. Every one of us remembers the tragic events of 9/11 and most of us can recall where we were when we got the news that America was under attack. Like many New Jersey residents, 9/11 hit Bruce very close to home, and this album was largely a reaction, a way to vent the immense cocktail of anger, sadness, and confusion that he, like so many other Americans, was feeling at the time.
“Nothing Man” is an absolute tearjerker, and in my humble opinion, one of the strongest songs Bruce has ever penned. Written from the perspective of an everyman who perished on 9/11, the narrator looks down as the world recovers from the terrorist attacks without him. From reading about himself in the paper to seeing his family and friends move on and move forward “like nothing’s changed,” I recommend spinning this track a few times in a row to really pick up on everything that is being said.
But as is evidenced by the title, The Rising is certainly not a depressing album. In fact, it is one of Bruce’s more optimistic records. Tracks like “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day” and Countin’ On A Miracle” sent a message to everyone that “we were beaten, but we will prevail.” A comeback album for Bruce after years of subpar releases and inconsistent touring, he became one of the most relevant over-50 artists in history, and the worldwide tour he launched with the E Street Band in support of The Rising is essentially still going on today—15 years later.
- Born to Run (1975)
Born to Run was essentially Bruce’s breakthrough. After his first two releases in 1973 did not sell well, Bruce entered the studio—frustrated—and penned Born to Run, which was of course buoyed by the triumphant eponymous title track. The song was deeply personal, and was written about Bruce’s desire to get out of New Jersey, become nationally known, and make something of himself besides just being a local musician.
While it wasn’t until Born in the U.S.A. that Bruce became the global king of stadium rock, Born to Run was an absolutely crucial step in his career path and provided Bruce with his first commercial success. It also features “Thunder Road,” which many Bruce-heads will tell you is his best song ever. Listen, and you can be the judge of that.
- Darkness On the Edge of Town (1978)
Without question, Darkness On the Edge of Town is Bruce’s most underrated record, as it suffers from being sandwiched between Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A. While not as game changing for Springsteen as either of those two releases, Darkness is nonetheless a quintessential sampling that sheds light on the man Springsteen is.
The album was recorded amidst legal troubles with his record label following Born to Run, and fitting to its somewhat forgetful reputation, was recorded at a time where Bruce was, yet again, at a crossroads in his career. With “Born to Run” he had broke through from critical darling to reasonably notable artist, yet he was still far away from the zenith he had envisioned for himself.
The tracks on Darkness are notably aimless, representative of how, perhaps, Bruce felt at the time. Thematically, the record talks about finding love and trouble, but he doesn’t seem to be taking any of it too seriously. Like all of us have to do a number of times throughout life, Bruce was figuring it all out; as we all know, this doesn’t happen overnight.
– Joe R.