15. The Rising (2002)
Runtime: 72:52, 15 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: Springsteen has plenty of mediocre cover photos in his later career, but we’ll also chalk up the traits of this one — blocky letters, over-reliance on shutter speed — to the overblown aesthetic of the early 2000s. Lots of album art looked like this around the time of The Rising.
Over the Rise: Is it fair to call “You’re Missing” a deep cut? Springsteen did play it solo on SNL as an era-defining eulogy for those who lost their lives on 9/11. But it’s also popped up only once in concert in the past 15 years. And I’d argue that it gets overshadowed by the more anthemic tracks from The Rising. Remember, “My City of Ruins” was the DNC theme song just two months ago. So, yes, given the cornier nature of so many of album’s true deep cuts (more on that in a bit), we’ll go with “You’re Missing”.
I’m a Rocker: So many of The Rising’s best hooks rely on Soozie Tyrell’s violin, and that’s truest of opener “Lonesome Day”. As soon as you hear that intro punctuated by a single snare hit from Max Weinberg, the song becomes damn-near irresistible, especially in concert.
The Line: I mean, you read what I said about the DNC, right? So sing it with me: “Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!”
All I’m Thinking About: Alright, I recognize that cry of “This album’s too long!” has become a lazy talking point in the world of music criticism. But this album really is too long! And I love a long Springsteen album. The River absolutely needs to be as long as it is. Western Stars absolutely needs to be as long as it is. Hell, even Magic isn’t exactly short. But for as much as The Rising’s best songs really were a desperately needed balm in the wake of September 11th, there’s a lot of filler here that’s rife with generic sentimentality or, even worse, a generic malaise that was written about before the attacks. The Rising is at its best when it meets the political moment from which it was born. So, with that in mind, let’s scrap “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”, “Nothing Man”, “Countin’ on a Miracle”, “Worlds Apart”, “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)”, “Further On (Up the Road)”, and “The Fuse”. Then you have a perfect album and one that’s still 39 and a half minutes long!
14. Wrecking Ball (2012)
Runtime: 51:40, 11 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: Bold, freehand-painted font lets you know exactly what you’re getting as Springsteen holds up his guitar. Given the lyrical content on this one, those letters might as well read “This Machine Kills Fascists.” This is the enraged resilience record written about the 2008 financial crisis, and Bruce is taking aim at the fat cats with his six-string.
Over the Rise: The only reason “Jack of All Trades” wasn’t a single is because Wrecking Ball was supposed to be an angry Boss experimenting with new textures and tools. This track is a piano ballad with a mournful Tom Morello guitar solo and an orchestral backing track. Though it doesn’t fit the album’s sonic themes, the lyrical ones are prominent here. Whereas the rest of the record addresses the financial before the turn of the decade with rage, “Jack of All Trades” settles in on the desperation of it all (“The banker man grows fat, the working man grows thin/ It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again”). But like all of Wrecking Ball, there’s always hope that “darling, we’ll be alright.”
I’m a Rocker: While there’s definitely something special about hearing the title track performed in New Jersey or New York venues, “Land of Hope and Dreams” was built to be a live standout. Literally — Springsteen wrote it for the E Street Band’s 1999 reunion tour, and for over a decade it only lived as a recorded track on 2001’s Live in New York City. All big rallying calls for American perseverance, there’s plenty of runway for the E Street members to go ripping off into the night, including one of Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons’ final sax solos. Now that it’s his nephew, Jake, blowing those massive notes, they hit even harder.
The Line: “We take care of our own/ Wherever this flag’s flown.” It seems so simply, sickly patriotic that it should actually be kind of awful. However, like so many of Springsteen’s lyrics, “We Take Care of Our Own” is a critique of false-flag patriotism, not a blind ra-ra celebration. It’s in fact a biting indictment, one that Barack Obama spun again by using it during his 2012 presidential campaign, a promise to actually take care of those who felt abandoned by their country. We’ll let you debate about promises fulfilled, but at least it was a better political use than continually misinterpreting “Born in the U.S.A.”
All I’m Thinking About: There’s a lot of playfully weird stuff going on in Wrecking Ball, from those whoops in “Easy Money” to the rap break in “Rocky Ground”. Not all of it really coalesced to make the effort one of Springsteen’s best, but as a complete artistic statement, it still holds as a success. It leans into Celtic and folk sounds to brighten truly bitter lyrics, often couching things that should be utterly demoralizing in arena-sized celebrations. That allows it all to elevate out of the fury at its core to a plane of hopefulness — even if that’s the hope that we can burn it all down and start anew.
13. The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)
Runtime: 50:16, 12 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: If we had to issue a grade for the cover of The Ghost of Tom Joad, it would have to be the average of two scores: the Eric Dinyer artwork gets a 100% for effectively evoking the Dust Bowl tribulation of Steinbeck’s titular character while the font choice (House Industry’s instantly dated Crackhouse) gets a 0% for being better suited to an ICP demo tape than an album of dark, desperate folk songs. So. 50% it is, then.
Over the Rise: While The Ghost of Tom Joad spends its runtime stripping the cheap gold paint off of the NAFTA-flavored economic exceptionalism that marked the Clinton Administration, the record’s most effective deflation might also be its shortest. On closer “My Best Was Never Good Enough”, Springsteen addresses an unnamed woman (maybe the country herself), listing off the empty aphorisms that often power dreams of bootstrapping up to the American Dream, before reaching the only possibly conclusion: this is all a bunch of horseshit, isn’t it?
I’m a Rocker: Opening with a harmonica peal pulled, page and all, from the Dylan playbook, the haunted title track of The Ghost of Tom Joad lands like a whispered ghost story whose ending you probably don’t want to know. Springsteen’s own hushed takes on the song are obviously good, but Rage Against the Machine’s version (seen here a few years later at Woodstock ’99) lets the terror that Springsteen hinted at finally boil over.
The Line: “I got a cold mind to go tripping across that thin line/ I’m sick of doing straight time” — “Straight Time”
All I’m Thinking About: In his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, Bruce Springsteen reflected on the twin failures of Human Touch and Lucky Town by admitting that cheeriness just doesn’t suit him. “I tried [writing happy songs] in the early ’90s,” he said, “and it didn’t work; the public didn’t like it.” That’s how we wound up with The Ghost of Tom Joad, Springsteen’s desolate 1995 folk album. In lesser hands, this spiritual sequel to Nebraska and its acoustic tales of Rust Belt entropy (“Youngstown”), the Vietnam War’s racist aftermath (“Galveston Bay”), and the doomed orbit of the Mexican border (“Sinaloa Cowboys”, “Across the Border”, “Balboa Park”, “The Line”) might feel like an overcorrection. With Springsteen at the helm, they turn into murky, despairing songs in the classical folk tradition, ones that manage humanity-filled sketches of the American fringes that mostly overcome the Boss’ sometimes heavy-handed delivery.
12. Letter to You (2020)
Runtime: 58:17, 12 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: For his 20th studio release, Bruce Springsteen offers up an album cover befitting the first music of his seventies and the late-in-life reconvening of the E Street Band that helped produce it. Bundled up for the snow that swirls around him, Springsteen wears a look of anticipation; he has a message to share, and it’s more personal and hard-earned than usual. It’s such a fitting image that we can almost overlook yet another dismal font choice; aside from Bruce’s signature, we’re left with pre-distressed text treatment that offers all the gravitas of a faux vintage t-shirt on your nearest Target clearance rack. Ah, well. Some things never change.
Over the Rise: Three of the songs on Letter to You qualify for deepest cut status. Springsteen rescued “If I Was the Priest”, “Janey Needs a Shooter”, and “Song for Orphans” from pre-debut recordings for reimagining here. Of the three, “If I Was the Priest” probably benefits the most from this unintentional aging process; now, the gonzo recasting of Wild West Catholicism comes along with the longing and weariness that hits harder at 71 than it ever would’ve at 23 or 24.
I’m a Rocker: Given the realities of COVID-19 and the challenges of staging live shows in a pandemic, it might be awhile before we find out which of the songs on Letter to You really rip on stage; current projections have the record’s postponed tour starting some time in 2022. Until then, let’s say this: your favorite track on the record? That’s gonna be the best live song, too.
The Line: “Ghosts runnin’ through the night/ Our spirits filled with light/ I need, need you by my side/ Your love and I’m alive” — “Ghosts”
All I’m Thinking About: When you give The Boss five days to record an album, he’ll probably only need four. That was the case with Letter to You, which found Springsteen and the rest of the E Street Band knocking out overdub-free live studio takes with the kind of effortless precision reserved for only the most disciplined veterans. The result? An open-hearted meditation on aging (“I’ll See You in My Dreams”), loss (“One Minute You’re Here”), legacy (“Last Man Standing”), and what it means to dedicate your life to music. Figures from Springsteen’s past haunt the record, with songs calling to mind everyone from ex-Castilles bandmate George Theiss (“Ghosts” and “Last Man Standing”) to Warren Zevon (who famously borrowed the title of “Janey Needs a Shooter” for his own 1980 composition). Far from falling under the weight of memory, Springsteen instead uses his time on the record to memorialize through forward motion, absorbing the powers of these fallen friends to add urgency to the message he still needs to send. We have no indication that this will be Springsteen’s final record, but if it were? Well, it’d make for a damned fine closing argument.
11. Western Stars (2019)
Runtime: 51:00, 13 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: Featuring an image of a horse, the album cover for Western Stars is one of the few throughout Springsteen’s career where he is not pictured on it.
Over the Rise: With its vivid descriptions of dandelions growing through cracks in concrete, a shallow swimming pool, a rusted fence, and a neglected beer, “Moonlight Motel” stands out for being the kind of song that the listener feels like they can step inside of. As the song progresses against a gentle acoustic riff, these descriptions allow the Moonlight Motel to spring to life in the listener’s imagination, just like those dandelions sprung through the cracks in the concrete. This makes the Moonlight Motel more than just a song title; it’s a place that Springsteen helps us build and explore.
I’m a Rocker: The album’s title track is far from its flashiest, yet is filled with little details that carry true gravity when heard live. Electric guitar notes ripple through the track’s acoustic foreground like a stone thrown in a still pond, and the string section colors the track with a morose, western tinge. Sonic subtleties like these build up “Western Stars” into what it is, and especially when performed live, they shine just as brightly as the stars Springsteen sings about.
The Line: “I’m hitch hikin’ all day long/ Got what I can carry and my song/ I’m a rolling stone just rolling on/ Catch me now, ‘cause tomorrow I’ll be gone” — “Hitch Hikin'”
All I’m Thinking About: While Western Stars has the potential to alienate listeners who don’t cast the same warm glow of nostalgia onto old world Americana that Springsteen does on each track, it nonetheless showcases what he does best: create raw and soulful songs that are filled to the brim with heart.