20. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)
Brilliant Disguise (Album Art): The album cover for We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions was photographed by Danny Clinch, who recently reunited with Springsteen when he photographed the cover of Letter to You.
Over the Rise (Best Deep Cut): “Jesse James (Just Ask)” gets points for pizazz on an album that’s otherwise slowly paced. While its style may not appeal to the typical Springsteen fan, the track plays a key role in breathing a sense of life into We Shall Overcome that it otherwise tends to lack.
I’m a Rocker (Best Live Song): The gossamer-like beauty of “Shenandoah” translates notably well live, and this is thanks to the lush harmonies of the background vocalists, smooth guitar strumming, and the slow ease of the string section making the nuances of the song feel incredibly tangible — almost like something that leaps off of the stage and can be held in the listener’s hands forever.
The Line (Essential Lyric): “Freedom’s name is mighty sweet/ And soon we’re going to meet/ Keep your eyes on the prize/ Hold on” — “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”
All I’m Thinking About (Verdict): We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions isn’t devoid of merit entirely, of course. However, as indicated by the title, the album is not purely Springsteen’s own work but rather his interpretations of songs popularized by folk artist Pete Seeger. In this case, this means that the album is largely absent of the charm and heart that makes a Springsteen album, well, feel like Springsteen. Because of this (and its heavy dose of yee-haw energy), We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions was likely more difficult for listeners to welcome into his discography than his previous releases.
19. Human Touch (1992)
Runtime: 58:49, 14 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: First, a note for all you font heads out there: the font on Human Touch (and its co-release, Lucky Town) appears to be Copperplate Gothic Bold, a font originally released by the American Type Founders in 1901. Designed with late Victorian dignity in mind, the font is asked to be a little too dominant here; despite being a record ostensibly devoted to the search for love and connection, the only piece of a person we see here is Springsteen’s hand gripping a guitar like he’s trying to hide it from the principal. The Springsteen catalog is known for its surprisingly high share of clunker-grade album covers, and this is one of them.
Over the Rise: Speaking of the 1910s, if you’re searching for a bit of unheralded glory on Human Touch, you could do worse than closer “Pony Boy”. Written in 1909 (the same year it appeared in the musical Miss Innocence), the Western staple turns melancholy in Springsteen’s hands, gaining a sepia-toned nostalgia not found in the slightly meager source material. If you liked Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue collaborations, you’ll like this one, too.
I’m a Rocker: As you might guess from its position on this list, Human Touch didn’t really manage to produce a live show staple. The title track comes closest: it last appeared during select dates of Springsteen’s 2016 tour, where it benefitted from the increased oomph provided by the E Street Band.
The Line: “I’ve stumbled and I know I made my mistakes/ But tonight I’m gonna be playin’ for all of the stakes” — “Roll of the Dice”
All I’m Thinking About: Released the same day as Lucky Town in 1992, Bruce Springsteen’s first attempt at an album without the E Street Band was the product of a famously tortuous development cycle. After beginning work in 1989 (with replacement-level session musicians derisively referred to by fans as “The Other Band”), Springsteen eventually shelved the material before revisiting it for tweaks over the years. He never did quite get the formula right; when it was finally released, Human Touch arrived with a dire blend of soft-rock inessentials and dime-store Americana ready to answer unasked questions like “What would a rejected .38 Special song even sound like?” (“All or Nothin’ at All”), “What if Chris Isaak got really into gender roles?” (“Man’s Job”), or “What if ‘Money for Nothing’ by Dire Straits was actually bad?” (“57 Channels (And Nothing’s On)”).
18. High Hopes (2014)
Brilliant Disguise: The album cover for High Hopes marked another collaboration between Springsteen and Danny Clinch.
Over the Rise: The bluesy, energetic underbelly of “Harry’s Place” makes it one of the album’s most memorable tracks. Like a Tarantino film, it’s permeated with a subtle sense of danger that one cannot peel themselves away from. Particularly given that the remainder of High Hopes is filled with sleepier, Western- inspired tracks, “Harry’s Place” stands out as something of the cool older sibling of the album.
I’m a Rocker: Harkening back to The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, “High Hopes” acts as a tour de force showcase for the E Street Band. Explosive elements that stem from the brass section, layered drumming, and electric guitar work that firmly crosses the threshold of cool becomes magnified and all-consuming in a live setting, creating an avenue for each note, beat, and rhythm to find its way into the bones of the listener.
The Line: “I wake to find my city’s gone to black/They days just keep on falling/The voices just keep on calling/The voice just keeps on calling/I’m going to dig right here until I get you back”
All I’m Thinking About: High Hopes is another album that cements the Western pivot that Springsteen has taken in recent years. It serves him well in the sense that he has always been able to thrive in creating the type of understated, nuanced soundscapes that the genre lends itself to, but at the same time, it doesn’t quite hold a candle to the glory of his previous releases.
17. Working on a Dream (2009)
Runtime: 51:20, 13 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: A lot of people understandably hate the water-colored Boss that graces the cover of Working on a Dream. But in terms of capturing the music within, it’s kind of perfect. Working on a Dream is unabashedly romantic in its exploration of lush ’60s pop, and love it or hate it, the moon, stars, phthalo blue sky, and, of course, Springsteen’s wry smile, perfectly nail the aesthetic. Also, am I crazy in thinking it kind of looks like Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book?
Over the Rise: Springsteen had already covered the more orchestral era of Tom Waits with his rendition of “Jersey Girl” on Live/1975–85. And while “Good Eye” isn’t a proper cover, its ominous imagery and electronically mangled vocals make a case for it being a long lost B-Side of Waits macabre Bone Machine. It’s a fascinating curiosity on an album that otherwise has its head in the clouds.
I’m a Rocker: This one’s tough. While Springsteen has never shied away from playing cuts off his newest albums, Working on a Dream has been strangely underrepresented since its release. Even on its own tour, only a handful of songs were played with any kind of regularity. Of those, the epic scope of “Outlaw Pete” was always pretty thrilling, even if Springsteen donning a cowboy hat at the song’s end while Nils Lofgren rushed to drop a pair of boots next to the drum platform was a bit cheesy.
The Line: I’ve admittedly never cottoned to the maudlin string arrangement in “Kingdom of Days,” but I can also appreciate its meditation on aging: “We laughed beneath the covers and count the wrinkles and the grays” feels emblematic of latter-day Springsteen, as it finds him accepting the inevitable forces of time.
All I’m Thinking About: There’s no denying that Working on a Dream accomplishes its mission: it’s light, it’s romantic, it’s sappy. Which is exactly why so many Springsteen fans hate it. But if you can meet the album on its own terms and get past the gooeyness, there are some fascinating gems here, including “Good Eye” and “The Last Carnival”, a lovely ode to E Street organist/accordionist/glockenspieler/lifer Danny Federici, who died the year before Working on a Dream was released. So, one’s opinion of the record comes down to how much sentimentality they can take. Does a wall-of-sound track about The Boss’ heaven-pleading love for a supermarket cashier sound interesting? Then boy, do I have an album for you…
16. Lucky Town (1992)
Runtime: 39:38, 10 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: Produced in complimentary style with co-release Human Touch, the cover of Lucky Town is equally dominated by the red Copperplate Gothic Bold lettering; in this case, the stretched-out album credits surround The Boss like the bars of a nervous jail. Untucked and clad in sunglasses, hands jammed firmly into pockets, Springsteen seems more focused on hiding in plain sight than he does on plotting any kind of escape.
Over the Rise: Arriving just after Springsteen’s divorce from Julianne Phillips and marriage to longtime E Street Band member Patti Scialfa, Lucky Town takes the time to consider the inherent fraughtness that comes with loving other people. That’s what makes the tender “Book of Dreams” so sweet. Commemorating his second marriage, the song finds Springsteen confronting the difficulties of interpersonal relationships with openness and gratitude for even getting the chance to do the work. Like the equally lovely “If I Should Fall Behind”, it’s among the better love songs in the Springsteen catalog.
I’m a Rocker: Much like Human Touch, Lucky Town failed to muster a song with the kind of built-in longevity needed to elbow its way into Springsteen’s always-stacked setlists. The tender-hearted “If I Should Fall Behind” is probably the closest contender; the best of the record’s handful of love songs, the song discovers added depth in a live setting as a duet between Springsteen and Scialfa.
The Line: “These days I’m feeling all right/ ‘Cept I can’t tell my courage from my desperation” — “Local Hero”
All I’m Thinking About: If nothing else, Lucky Town is the best Bruce Springsteen record released on March 31, 1992. Shorter and less overworked than its co-release, Human Touch, Bruce Springsteen’s tenth studio album found the Boss searching for a middle-age reset in the sounds of stripped-down roots rock. Some of the record’s charms come down to the relative spontaneity of the recording process; instead of waffling over the merits of the material for years and years (as was the case with the songs on Human Touch), Springsteen recorded Lucky Town in a single burst of inspiration. The result is a surprisingly autobiographical collection where the hits (the hopeful “Better Days”, the post-divorce shake-off “Lucky Town”) outweigh the misses (the humblebraggy “Local Hero”, ham-handed “Ode to the Departed”). Sometimes, that’s all you can ask, even of The Boss.