Compiling a list of 20 favorite songs from most artists would be no problem, and many barely deliver enough choices. Bruce Springsteen is something else entirely for me. Tracks might rank below the top 50 yet still are favorites that I can’t wait to hear. Popular singles like Hungry Heart and Radio Nowhere didn’t make it, and even such thrilling deep cuts as Thundercrack and Back in Your Arms fell short. Where could they fit in such a short list? It’s difficult for me to separate studio versions from the live performances, so these picks are impacted by how they play on stage. That’s where Springsteen really shines and finds new ways to enhance familiar tunes. Despite the challenges in formulating this list, it was a blast to give a close listen to so many classics while preparing it.
20. The Rising
Come on up for the rising
Despite having great success with the reunion tour, Springsteen hadn’t released a true studio album with the E Street Band since Born in the USA. This song was a signifier that he wasn’t planning to ride the wave and just play the hits on tour. I grew a bit weary of all the 9/11 connections after the album arrived in every news story, but the title track remains one of the more powerful songs from his latter career.
19. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny
One of Springsteen’s early live scorchers, Rosalita still packs quite a punch in the live setting. It’s a classic party song that captures the essence of what made their ‘70s shows so incredible. Clarence Clemons’ saxophone joins the guitars to take the journey towards greatness in love, or at least with the record company. If hearing this tune doesn’t make you want to dance, you have no soul.
18. Incident on 57th Street
We may find it out on the street tonight, now, baby
On a different note, this ballad is another epic from 1973 with great emotional depth to it. There’s an intense sadness to the story, yet the characters retain hope that something better can happen. They’re heading out in the streets to figure it out, one way or another.
My sweet Jenny I’m sinking down, here darlin’ in Youngstown
Beyond having lyrics with the name “Danny Heaton”, this song makes the list because it works so well in its very different studio and live forms. The original from The Ghost of Tom Joad is spare in the vein of that album, but it comes alive on stage. It was a staple of the reunion tour, and the blistering solo at the end is always a highlight.
16. Because the Night
They can’t hurt you now, they can’t hurt you now
This pick is totally about the live performance, which brings such ferocity to a song that came to prominence in a different variation by the 10,000 Maniacs. The piano opening sets up the rousing chorus that remains one of Springsteen’s most emotionally charged songs. It also includes yet another killer solo, which gives Nils Lofgren a chance to really shine.
15. Drive All Night
I’d drive all night again just to buy you some shoes
This is one of Springsteen’s most melancholy songs about a guy who’s lost his love. The character’s willing to do anything to get back with his girl, and the imagery conveys that desperation. Another great Clemons solo supports this mood and delivers quite a gem.
14. Tenth Avenue Freeze Out
From the coastline to the city, all the little pretties raised their hands
Easily one of the most quintessential E Street Band songs, Tenth Avenue Freeze Out is a straight-up dance song that gives everyone a chance to shine. It gained added relevance after Clemons’ death and allowed Springsteen (and us) to come to terms with this loss.
13. Kitty's Back
Ooh, what can I do, ooh, what can I do?
I’m filling the back half with epics from The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle. While I wouldn’t list it as a favorite album, its highs are way up there. Kitty’s Back is a great slow burn tune that ends in a crescendo of excitement. Seeing it live is quite a treat.
12. Racing in the Street
I wanna blow ‘em all out of their seats
Following Born to Run's success, Springsteen was embroiled in a lawsuit with his former manager and wasn’t able to record. The effects of this experience permeate through Darkness on the Edge of Town, and there’s a real sadness to the material. A prime example is Racing in the Street, which offers a gloomy look at a guy struggling to stay afloat.
11. No Surrender
We made a promise we swore we’d always remember
Despite only placing one song in this main list, my appreciation for the Born in the USA album has grown considerably over the past few years. It’s such a great pop album filled with anthems that incorporate Bruce’s rare talents. My favorite track is No Surrender, which nearly didn’t make the final cut. It’s a rousing sing-along that’s a nearly perfect driving song.
10. The Promised Land
Mister, I a’int a boy, no, I’m a man
We’re rolling through the classics at this point, and few rouse up the crowd more than this choice. The harmonica fits perfectly with this mid-tempo tune, which describes the frustrations of a working class hero. The imagery is some of Springsteen’s best, and the character stays upbeat despite the challenges.
Stranded in the park and forced to confess to hiding on the backstreets
While the attention goes to the hits from Born to Run, the secret weapon of that album is Backstreets. The fourth track comes right before the title song and delivers a less promising take on the future. The narrator describes exciting times in the dark of the night, yet there’s sadness in every line. The piano melody and Springsteen’s emotional vocals say all we need to know about where this story is heading.
8. The River
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?
Inspired by the life of Bruce’s sister, this somber tune feels so personal. The intimate story of a teen couple whose lives are changed by a pregnancy is brutally honest. When family takes over and the economy goes bad, the excitement of youth is just a fond memory.
7. Out in the Street
Baby out in the street, I just feel all right
One of the most inspiring performances of the Live in New York City special was seeing the entire Madison Square Garden crowd pumping their fists and singing along to this upbeat song. Few things are more fun than joining a mass of strangers to shout “when I’m out in the street!” at the top of our lungs. No matter what’s happening during the work week, we’ll all be stars once the weekend arrives.
6. The Promise
Every day it just gets harder to live, the dream you're believing in
There are many versions of this gem floating around, including the full band song on the Darkness set. My choice is the solo piano song on 18 Tracks. Written during Springsteen’s legal battles in the ‘70s, The Promise is filled with disappointment. It references the more hopeful Thunder Road, yet there’s little sense that good things are on the way.
5. Atlantic City
Everything dies baby that’s a fact
Many fans believe Nebraska is Springsteen’s best work, and it’s hard to argue too strongly against that idea. Even so, only a few individual songs rank up high for me. Atlantic City is an exception and works brilliantly in the full-band format. The raw feelings of the original recording are still there, but they spring to life with the wider instrumentation beyond it.
4. Born to Run
Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run!
What more can I say about Born to Run? I’ve seen it performed in concert so many times, yet I still pump my fist and sing along like it’s the first time. Springsteen took his shot at greatness and made it, and this song was his ticket to the big time. Watching him tinker with producing it in the documentary Wings Over Wheels is fascinating and shows how much he realized its importance. The result is one of the greatest rock songs of all time.
3. Thunder Road
It’s a town full of losers, and I’m pulling out here to win!
Here’s another song that embodies what makes him legendary. It uses his classic imagery of cars, young lovers, and the hopes that life will get better. The harmonica opens this tale and bring a classic feel that eventually gives way to a full-band crescendo of greatness.
I want to find one place, I want to spit in the face of these badlands!
This Darkness opener comes alive in the live setting. Springsteen plays it at nearly every show, and it can crank up the energy at the start or bring the house down at the end. It remains one of his most engaging anthems despite the hardships in it. No matter what obstacles he faces, the narrator is going to push until he take charge of his life once again.
The hungry and the hunted explode into rock'n'roll bands, that face off against each other out in the street, down in Jungleland
Born to Run remains my favorite Springsteen album, and it closes with an epic tale that contains everything that I love about his music. Its ambitions are off the charts, yet it hits right at the heart and doesn’t feel pretentious. When Clemons’ solo takes over and leads us into the final verse and chorus, it’s such a rousing finish to a record that is essentially perfect. This song is number one by a mile.
Here are 10 other worthy contenders that just missed the cut from his massive catalog:
Adam Raised a Cain
Born in the USA
Dancing in the Dark
Prove It All Night
Reason to Believe
She's the One
Streets of Philadelphia
What are your favorite Springsteen songs? Where did I miss with this list?