Bruce Springsteen is an all-American musical chameleon; one who can slip into any genre and make it feel like his own.
He may hail from New Jersey, but the Boss clearly knows his Americana, R&B, rock, folk, jazz and country music – not to mention his literary, religious, political and cinematic references.
He’s also someone whose music unites; I’ve seen him live in Munich with my sister, in Manchester with my brother, met old pals in huge sports stadiums, made new friends at Irish concerts, and my late mother adored seeing Springsteen and his legendary E Street Band live in concert for the saxophone solos of Clarence Clemons and guitar licks of Nils Lofgren.
Every track holds layers of memories and meaning, so it’s been hard to narrow down the Best Bruce Springsteen Songs to just 20, but here we go:
'State Trooper' is from one of Springsteen’s best collection of characters on his most stripped-down album, Nebraska.
It's also one of his most haunting ‘short story’ songs, influenced by the work of Suicide’s Alan Vega and subsequently covered by the likes of Steve Earle and Chris Cornell.
The country-ish whooping and anguished howling underpin its dark quality.
Superficially, this is a singalong, novelty cowboy song. On further examination, it’s rather more complex.
The 2009 Hyde Park live footage presents demon fiddler Soozie Tyrell, Clarence Clemons on harmonica and nice axe work from Nils Lofgren, all combining to give it even more darkness and gravitas than the studio version.
This is a boisterous version of a traditional “minstrel” song that dates way back to the 1840s.
Using an entirely acoustic and almost totally different Sessions Band for this project, you can really feel the fun and energy – the record deservedly winning a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
Admire the splendid, live banjo picking and the Dublin crowd joining in with every boastful word.
This takes inspiration from the story of John Steinbeck’s lead character in The Grapes Of Wrath – not to mention Woody Guthrie’s song about the same figure.
With just Bruce on acoustic guitar and harmonica, this live version for the History Channel film, The People, channels the novel with many dramatic lines, climaxing with “look for me, I’ll be there”.
Later re-recorded in the studio for his Wrecking Ball album, this has a rousing, thumping, fully ‘Irish Americana’ feel, inspired by Pete Seeger’s versions.
Everyone’s at the top of their game here, including pipes, brass from the Miami Horns, plus soulful backing vocals, so you really sense the joint is jumping!
The sentiments here are pure Americana couched in a rock arrangement; a blue-collar song about industry, workers and souls being crushed.
This live version from Giants Stadium dates back to 2009, some three years before the album of the same name, when the stadium was due for demolition – the theme dovetailing into Bruce’s own story of growing up in New Jersey.
Quietly powerful, this song observes the economy and small towns destroyed and abandoned, also referring back to racial “trouble times” and the textile mills closing.
I remember being at this gig one year after the London 2012 Olympics, right outside the iconic velodrome – I still get goosebumps watching this a decade later, with Londoners singing it about their own hometown.
The much-misinterpreted, political lyrics tackle disenchantment for veterans returning from the Vietnam War.
But the pounding rock framing on the album and on tour led many – including President Ronald Reagan – to appropriate the song as glorifying the nation.
However, in this stripped-down, acoustic version on Spanish TV, the lyrics come to the fore, bluesy and countrified, as he's neatly introduced as “El Boss”.
A poignant song loaded with existential lyrics about escaping from a dead-end job – its original title was ‘Dying in the Street’ – and small-town romance viewed from years hence.
Roy Bittan is on up-top piano with Danny Federici on organ, as the song evolves and spreads out into Springsteen's classic late-seventies sound. In this 1978 Houston gig, the words are slightly changed for Texas.
Like his folk and country idols, the Boss’ songs often deliver political messages, some ripped from the headlines.
This tells the tragic true story of a young man shot 41 times by the cops as he reached for his wallet, and it didn’t exactly endear the singer to the New York City police.
First played in concert in 2000, then on his 2001 album Live In New York City, it's since been covered by Mary J Blige, Jackson Browne and Living Colour.
This was originally written for the Ramones, wisely kept by the Boss for his first double album.
It’s always a standout live, here a slim and sexy Springsteen totally rocks the urban casual sports jacket and blue-collar double denim look.
It remains one of his biggest hits, and for good reason, a joyful number but with sadness just below the surface. The classic E Street Band line-up is as tight as ever.
Raw lyrics foreground a firefighter trying to climb the World Trade Centre after it’s been attacked, in the days post 9/11.
There are visions, some harnessing optimism and even resurrection, all processed via literary and religious allusions.
This version is from the classic Barcelona gig in 2013, with the E Street Band notably older and expanded.
It’s all here – jazz, folk, classical, gospel, R&B and rock – a true epic on Bruce’s sophomore album.
David Sancious played the original jazzy piano melody and was the reason behind the band’s name, as they rehearsed in his mother’s garage on E Street, New Jersey.
Roy Bittan holds that task now, as on this live 2013 Rome version, which was requested by a fan. Clarence Clemons played the soulful sax back in 1973, and four decades later, his musical heir and nephew Jake steps up to the plate. With a huge string section and gospel-style chanting, it’s a magical performance.
According to the Boss, this was heavily influenced by – or stolen from – Geordie band The Animals, especially their hit song, ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’.
This live version, from the famous ‘No Nukes’ 1979 concert, has young Steve Van Zandt at the fore, bassist Garry Tallent keeping it real and Clarence giving it loads.
In its licks and lyrics, this has a real sparse, country ballad feel.
Spingsteen sings of lost love, of nothing working, even a bird not singing – acknowledging the fact that his first marriage was over.
On backing vocals is new band member Patti Scialfa, who eventually became his second wife and musical soulmate.
If you recognise the intro, it’s because the whole section was later lifted by Mark Knopfler for Dire Straits’ hit ‘Romeo and Juliet’, a song E Streeter Roy Bittan coincidentally played on.
Also notable is the sheer verve and crackling excitement of Clarence Clemons’ iconic saxophone solo and Suki Lahav’s violin playing.
This 1975 Hammersmith Odeon clip is from the much-hyped “I’ve seen the future of rock & roll and its name is Bruce Springsteen” concert, when this song was still fresh and unfamiliar.
Feel the atmosphere – and witness the many and various hats the young band sported.
The title track of Springsteen’s landmark double album feels like an echo of many country and folk ‘shotgun marriage’ songs.
Inspired by the likes of Hank Williams, and sometimes performed with an epic intro, it apparently tells the story of his own sister and brother-in-law’s courtship.
This more straightforward version is from the Tempe 1980 concert film.
Naturally, this iconic song title came to the Boss on the road in Tennessee. While its tune was built around a guitar riff, the lyrics about leaving followed much later.
It's impossible to resist the obvious joy, breakneck speed and energy of Bruce and his merry men – here making their UK debut in Hammersmith in 1975.
Another short story – quite possibly named after the 1967 Lee Marvin movie – 'Point Blank' switches between dreams and reality, as the singer romanticises his relationship while painfully, bitterly realising that it’s over.
It features typically dramatic piano from Roy Bittan, notably in this live performance from Rome, Italy in 2016.
An operatic tale of an intense friendship unfolds over “one soft, infested summer”, lighting up lives otherwise facing defeat.
In country and blues style, the song title is both whispered and hollered, as he poses the eternal question of whether you can ever escape your fate.
If you read Springsteen’s autobiography or watch him tell his story on Broadway, you begin to understand just how much he’s plundered from his own youth.
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