Ahead of the release of the Boss’s latest album, Western Stars, we rate all 18 of his studio albums to date
by Michael Hann
18. High Hopes (2014)
Old songs, covers, revivals of old covers. It seemed as though, on his 18th studio album, Bruce Springsteen was, for the first time, casting around for inspiration. It’s not bad – no Springsteen album is genuinely bad – but it did seem more of a shrug than a statement.
17. Lucky Town (1992)
In 1989, Springsteen dissolved the E Street Band and moved to California to start anew. That shift took form in two simultaneous albums, neither of which were strong enough on their own. This was the rockier one, and on Leap of Faith offered Springsteen’s worst lyric: “Your legs were heaven, your breasts were the altar.”
16. Human Touch (1992)
Pipping Lucky Town because, if you squint a little, you could pretend it was made up of outtakes from the Tunnel of Love sessions: it’s synth-driven and more sombre than Lucky Town. The title track is a neglected minor classic, with a key Springsteen message: “I just want someone to talk to, and a little of that human touch.”
15. Working on a Dream (2009)
And now into the run of albums for the 2000s that, without ever touching the heights of the glory days, regularly offered startling moments. Sadly, the most startling moment on Working on a Dream is Outlaw Pete, a Western fantasy that appeared to have been cribbed, implausibly, from I Was Made For Lovin’ You by Kiss.
14. Wrecking Ball (2012)
Springsteen’s joyous live shows tend to overshadow the fact that almost all the music he has made this century has been sombre. Wrecking Ball was a furious record: We Take Care of Our Own was a statement that America had very much failed to live up to the title’s statement; Death to My Hometown was a very different version of home to My Hometown. That said, the Irish folk elements throughout sit oddly.
13. The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)
Springsteen found his way back after Lucky Town/Human Touch by stripping back and turning his gaze towards the dispossessed. Tom Joad was, if anything, even bleaker than Nebraska. Where that dealt with lives that were the focus of attention – the blue-collar dispossessed – this paid attention to the migrants who had slipped off the edges of society.
12. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)
Despite the politics implicit in covering songs associated with Pete Seeger, The Seeger Sessions was the most joyful record Springsteen had made in years, perhaps since The River: a compendium of American folk styles that sounded like an astounding house party, and played out like one in the accompanying live shows.
11. Magic (2007)
Magic, the first E Street Band album since The Rising, revisited the bar-band R&B stomp on tracks such as Livin’ in the Future, but there’s a bittersweet feeling to much of it: Girls in Their Summer Clothes isn’t just lecherousness, it’s also about ageing. The anger comes through in a triptych towards the album’s close – Magic, Last to Die and Long Walk Home – that plots how far America has travelled from life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
10. The Rising (2002)
An album that could have gone horribly wrong, but didn’t: both a reunion with the E Street Band, 18 years after their last album together, and a set of songs that reflected on 9/11 and its aftermath for the individuals caught up in it, leavened with the celebrations of Mary’s Place and Waitin’ on a Sunny Day. The dramatic, anthemic title track was a deeply moving reminder that there remained possibility, even in the wake of despair.
9. Devils and Dust (2005)
Commonly viewed as a successor to Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad – acoustic guitars, desolation – Devils and Dust was more musically diverse than either of them, and the desolation was tempered by the hope in Long Time Comin’ and Maria’s Bed. Even on something as downbeat as The Hitter, there is a picaresque quality that relates back not just to Nebraska, but to the very early Springsteen records.
8. Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ (1973)
“Madman drummers, bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat,” were the opening words of Springsteen’s debut, setting the scene for a record of shaggy-dog stories, the sound of a man wide-eyed at everything the world might have to offer him. The soon-to-be-giant sound of the E Street Band hasn’t fully grown, and charm abounds.
7. The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (1973)
A definite step on from the debut: the songs sprawl more but also seem to have become sharper, more cinematic. With Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), Springsteen crafted his first genuinely indelible song – still a setlist staple – with the single best expression of what it must be like to be young with a life in music ahead: “Tell him this is his last chance / To get his daughter a fine romance / Because the record company, Rosie, they just gave me a big advance!”
6. The River (1980)
There are two albums interwoven on The River. There’s one of throwaway rock’n’roll songs, made for playing live, but a little shrill on record. And there’s one of devastating ballads, picking at the seams of broken lives, notably the staggering title track, which writes a novel in a sentence: “Then I got Mary pregnant / And, man, that was all she wrote / And for my 19th birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat.” Still the album that is most like a Springsteen live show.
5. Nebraska (1982)
A set of demos released because the E Street Band couldn’t record them to Springsteen’s satisfaction, Nebraska displayed his growing fascination with American folk music and with diving deeper into the lives of the people he sang about, whose alienation had taken them beyond despair and outside the boundaries of society. On State Trooper, too, you heard the first evidence he had been listening closely to Suicide.
4. Born to Run (1975)
The album that changed everything – strictly, the title track that changed everything – and the album where Springsteen starts to make the transition from a musician to an idea, a representation of a set of personal and musical values. To manage not just Born to Run itself, but the astounding Thunder Road, the euphoric Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, the melancholic Backstreets, the epic Jungleland – what an extraordinary achievement.
3. Born in the USA (1984)
Misunderstood, yes, but Springsteen has to shoulder some of the blame: make an album that sounds like a state fairground on 4 July and plenty of people are going to think you are celebrating America. It’s possibly the place where Springsteenisms calcify into cliche – Darlington County, Working on the Highway, No Surrender – but it’s played with such fire, such total commitment, that it brooks no doubt.
2. Tunnel of Love (1987)
Born in the USA is the pivotal moment in Springsteen’s career: everything afterwards feels in some way like an attempt to sidestep it. That was never plainer than in its follow-up, in which for the first time Springsteen delved deep into his inner life – not his family, but himself – to reveal his fears: “Is that me, baby, or just a brilliant disguise?”
1. Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
Bruce Springsteen makes the biggest promise rock’n’roll can offer: redemption. On Darkness on the Edge of Town, though, he warns against placing too much faith in it. Don’t desire the things that can only be found in that darkness, he seems to say; remember that dreams are just lies that leave you lost and brokenhearted. Everything that is good can also destroy you, be it your quest for freedom or the simple fact of having a job (“Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes”). And on Racing in the Street, arguably his greatest song, he asked the most profound question: what defines a person?