Recapping 15-11: 15. Tracks 14. Hammersmith Odeon ’75 13. Tunnel of Love 12. The Rising 11. Live in New York City
10. The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)
When this album was released it had been eight years since the last Springsteen album with the East Street Band, and over three years since his last release of any sort. Given that the interim two albums were the questionable same-day twin releases with that “other” band, fans were hungry for a “real” Bruce album. (To play the “what if?’ game, I feel that Human Touch and Lucky Town could’ve been pared down to a very good single E Street Band album.) The Ghost of Tom Joad, while not an E Street Band record, went a long way toward satisfying that hunger and was rewarded with the 1997 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Bruce channeled Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie for this batch of mostly quiet, acoustic songs which shed a light on the human element of race, immigration, and the every day struggle in a way only Springsteen can. To me, a true testament to how good these tracks are is how songs such as Youngstown and the title track are transformed into something just as good if not better as rock versions in a live setting, giving guitarists Nils Lofgren and Tom Morello, respectively, a chance to really shine.
9. Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
The first album of Bruce’s I listened to, this one is the Godzilla smash hit of his catalog. Besides great songs, its success was fueled by relentless touring as well as MTV. Everybody was aware of this record, including non-fans. Even my older sister saw him on this tour, and I doubt she could name one song of his then or now (yeah, I’m kind of bitter that she saw him in ’85 but I was still too young to go to a concert). It’s an album I don’t listen to much anymore; I simply grew tired of it. But it’s still deserving of a top-10 spot.
8. The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973)
Song for song, this is a top-3 album that is probably way too overlooked by fans. The reason it isn’t rated higher here is because of the way it was recorded, but it’s difficult for me to put my finger on as I don’t consider myself an audiophile. I do feel it sounds a bit rushed even though it took months to record. But again, these songs! Bruce really started to embrace more of a rock sound compared to his debut, also from 1973, and the vignettes he created about life in the city included songs that have remained concert staples.
This is the E.S.B. pre-Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg, and Steven Van Zandt. David Sancious is on piano and keyboards, and Vini Lopez plays drums. These songs performed live are right up there with his best work, and hopefully one of their shows from this period will become available as part of Bruce’s live archives series. Personal favorites include 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy), Kitty’s Back, Wild Billy’s Circus Story, and of course the show stopper Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).
7. Magic (2007)
Magic, the most recent Springsteen studio album in my ranking, was the first one with the E Street Band since 2002’s The Rising. In my mind, it’s a continuation of the stories told in The Rising from the points of view of people that we all seem to know. Only now he’s moved on from grief and the hope for healing and redemption – something that very briefly brought Americans together after 9/11 – to the disillusionment of the individual and national consequences of endless war and reawakened societal divisions that resulted from it. It’s an angry album which perfectly captures the feelings of dread that many of us felt in those years which, for some of us, haven’t fully dissipated.
Standouts for me are You’ll Be Comin’ Down, Your Own Worst Enemy, Gypsy Biker, Magic, Last to Die, and Long Walk Home. Girls in Their Summer Clothes provides a nice mid-album respite, and it reminds me of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys. At the end of this high energy roller coaster of an album, Terry’s Song is a sad but very touching tribute to Bruce’s long-time friend and assistant, Terry Magovern. Also, Bruce looks like a complete badass on the cover photo. Yeah, yeah, I’m a fanboy.
6. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band: Live/1975-85 (1986)
As I mentioned in my intro to this series, this box set kick-started my Springsteen fandom in the mid-1980’s. From the solo piano version of Thunder Road (my favorite rendition) recorded at the Roxy in ’75 which opens the box set to the arena-anthemic, Tom Waits-written serenade to Jersey Girls that closes it out, this release was a true revelation to me. The energy in these performances never fails to rev me up, including Side 6, a.k.a. the solo acoustic Nebraska set.
I vividly remember calling my mom into my basement room to listen to his heartfelt stories which lead into The River and War because I thought (and still think) they were great and I wanted her to “get it.” I don’t know that she did. I also recall listening to Seeds for the first time, and in my sheltered 15-year-old mind thinking, “Do people actually live that way?” I learned they do. I also learned that Fire was a Springsteen song and not the Pointer Sisters. And all those tracks from the first six albums – what an introduction! I was beginning to form what I later recognized as personal convictions and a worldview, and this was an early soundtrack for it.
You can probably predict what the final five will be, but can you guess the order?