Best Bruce Springsteen Songs of the 1980’s

Bruce Springsteen Songs 1980's

Photo : By Andrea Sartorati (http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomjoad/2292009118) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Best Bruce Springsteen Songs of the 1980’s could in no way be limited to just 10 songs like most of our Top 10 articles. Here’s why…. Bruce Springsteen opened up the 1980’s with the release of a brilliant two record set called The River. A few years later he would release a masterpiece solo acoustic album entitled Nebraska. Two years after that he released an album in which seven songs off that one record alone were issued as singles. The Born in the U.S.A. album would catapult Springsteen  to a level of fame that no one in his camp had ever expected. Springsteen was so popular in 1984 that USA Today National daily newspaper ran a headline on their front page asking if Springsteen was more popular than Elvis.

Three years later in 1987, Springsteen looked to extinguish the mass hysteria by releasing a laid back album of tales of heartbreak entitled Tunnel of Love. The album was a critical success and remains one of Springsteen’s most cherished albums by his fans. So in the end picking only ten songs for a Best Bruce Springsteen Songs of the 1980’s list is just downright impossible. So, we went with twenty which was still very difficult.

# 20 – Tunnel of Love

Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love album was the most highly anticipated album of his career. It’s hard to believe that after the immense anticipation for the follow-up to Born to Run that Springsteen would develop an even larger following a decade later for the follow-up to Born in the U.S.A. But after the incredible success of the Born in the U.S.A album, Bruce was more popular that he had ever been in his entire career. So the wait had begun for the new Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band album. Yes, there was the five record set live album released in 1985, but Springsteen fans wanted new music. In 1987, Springsteen surprised everyone by releasing an album that amounted to basically a solo album that only sparingly used the members of the E Street Band. What is even more amazing is that fact that the E Street Band would not record another album with Bruce until 2002’s The Rising.  No Springsteen fan in the year 1984 would have ever believed that they would have to wait another eighteen years before Springsteen released an entire album of new material with the E Street Band.

No matter how many fans might have been disappointed by Springsteen’s decision to not utilize the E Street Band full-time on Tunnel Of Love, there were more fans and critics that recognized the brilliant new album that he had just released. Springsteen was standing at the top of the world and could have easily recorded another full-blown E Street Band album that would have sold like the Born in the U.S.A album. However, Springsteen was an artist of integrity and one who has always moved forward.  To start out this Best Springsteen Songs of the 1980’s list , we have chosen the title track to the Tunnel of Love album. The song “Tunnel of Love,” was probably the most heavily produced song on the record. However, its opening guitar riff that melted into that beautiful string line just carried you away into the amusement park ride of your dreams. The song opened every show on the Tunnel Of Love Tour in 1987. It was a memory in the making. One that we have never forgotten.

# 19 – Seeds

“Seed’s” was released on the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Live album 1975-1985 that was released in 1985. Springsteen mania had actually caused fans to wait in lines at record stores the day it was released. I know that for a fact because I waited outside Crazy Eddie’s Appliance store for about an hour behind at least 100 people to buy that box set  For so many new Springsteen fans who had just came aboard the E Street express in 1984, the live album served as an introduction to pre-Born in the U.S.A. Springsteen.  For us old time fans it was at first a disappointment because we were hoping for a full concert instead of a collection of live recordings. But in the end, it was an amazing collection that quickly won us over.

There were so many highlights on the box set, but there was not any new original Springsteen material except for the track “Seeds.” And it was a good one. A powerful song with an aggressive vocal matched by a dynamic horn section and a hard rocking E Street band.  Sadly, Springsteen has not played “Seeds,” too often in concert over the past twenty years. We are not sure why, but it don’t matter because it will always be one of his best 1980’s songs.

# 18 – Be True

There is nothing better than a great Springsteen B side. During the 1970’s, Columbia records always released album tracks as the B sides to the Springsteen singles. For example, the B side to “Born to Run,” was “Meeting Across the River.” But that all changed with the 1980’s album singles. So many of the B sides were so great that fans just scratched their heads in amazement how those songs never made the original album lineups. If you read on, you will see on this list just how serious we are about that statement.

Released as the B side to “Fade Away,” “Be True,” opened up with that iconic late 70’s early 80’s Springsteen signature sound. Roy Bittan”s piano arpeggios and metallic keyboard sounds beautifully danced all over Springsteen rhythmic opening guitar riff.  Springsteen has always been given credit for writing deep emotionally charged lyrics, but he also had a brilliant talent for writing 1960’s inspired melodies. “Be True,” is a shining example of  his gift for melody carried aboard his penchant for all out rock and roll grooves. How could Bruce Springsteen have not released this song on an album?   We would ask continue to ask that question as B side after B sides of amazing tracks would continued to be released throughout his entire career.

# 17 – Sherry Darling

The River album was known as the record that defined Bruce Springsteen’s stage persona. Just an all out party time experience.  However that argument only defined part of the record as songs like “The River, Point Blank, Stolen Car and Wreck on the Highway,” were certainly not party songs. Yet there was at least an albums full of party material on the fabulous two record set.  Springsteen’s “Sherry Darling,” is the odds on choice as the preeminent Springsteen party song. The music’s uplifting dance groove had frat house written all over it. Lyrically, it joyously echoed the spirit of Ralph Kramden and that’s all I am going to say about that before my biggggggg mouth gets me in trouble……

# 16 – No Surrender

Opening up side two of the Born In the U.S.A. album, “No Surrender,” was vintage Springsteen on every musical avenue he had ever explored. You could hear right away on first listen how the song would become a concert favorite. However, Springsteen opened the song with one of his greatest and most rebellious lyrics of his career. In many interviews over the years, Springsteen had always commented on how the teachers had ignored him in school How because he was a rather odd-looking quite fellow, no one took notice of him. Well, it seemed he was referencing those years in “No Surrender,” while making a rather important point.

“Well we busted out of class, had to get away from those fools

We learned more from a three-minute record, than we ever learned in school.”

# 15 – Spare Parts

One of Springsteen’s talents was his ability to write personal stories that were felt and understood on a universal level.  The personal stories were not about Springsteen but rather characters who experienced pain and trauma. The story of “Spare Parts,” was a common one. Boy meets girls, boy gets girl pregnant, boy runs away. Springsteen paints the picture clearly. Yet when all seems dark, the heroine of the story hocks her wedding ring, and moves forward. Beauty, despair, darkness, hope redemption and so on……..  All brilliantly tied in to the thematic Tunnel of Love album.

# 14 – I’m On Fire

Well if you didn’t get the point of the song from the lyrics, the video clearly spells it out for you. It’s a masterpiece on all levels. Just listen and watch, nothing else needs to be written about this one.

# 13 – One Step Up

Another brilliant track from the Tunnel of Love album was Bruce Springsteen’s “One Step Up.”  The song was released as the third single from the album on February 28th 1988. The 45 rpm single issue of “One Step Up,” featured the B side “Roulette.” Many feel that was Springsteen’s greatest B side ever released. We agree 100 percent on that one.

But back to “One Step Up.” Some of Springsteen greatest compositions spoke to every man and woman on very personal levels. We all have dealt with setbacks after triumphs. It’s the way of life. Springsteen’s sparse arrangement defines the song’s haunting melody line and lyrical ideas in such a personal way that it seemed like we were singing the song ourselves, or at least living in the world that Springsteen so realistically described.

# 12 – Fade Away

Some of Springsteen’s greatest compositions paid tribute to the 1960’s Stax record’s sound. Springsteen has always been praised as one of the greatest rock and roll singers of all time. However, at times he could stand side by side with some of the best soul singers in history. Great soul singing is not about hitting the high notes; it’s all about phrasing.

On the recording of “Fade Way,”fans have always loved the great ending in which Springsteen’s lead vocal faded away in the mix. It was a brilliant ending to one of the greatest songs on The River album.

# 11 – Highway Patrolman

Well you know there has to be something very special about a song when one of America’s greatest actors decides to make a motion picture based on the song’s story and characters. Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman,” was released on the Nebraska album in the Fall of 1982. The song centered around the lives of two brothers during the 1960’s. Both brothers are trying to survive the turmoil of the 1960’s. They both take separate roads in dealing wither their own demons which eventually led into conflict with each other. Sean Penn’s screenplay for his directorial debut was based on the song’s characters of Joe and Frankie Roberts. The motion picture entitled Indian Runner was released in 1991. Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman,” was rock/folk music storytelling at its finest. It was one of the standout tracks on his magnificent Nebraska album.

# 10 – Brilliant Disguise

And into the Top 10 of the Best Springsteen Songs of the 1980’s we go. The first single released from Springsteen’s highly anticipated follow-up album to Born in the U.S.A was a complete surprise to fans. The single “Brilliant Disguise,” was released alone before the album was issued. Fans waiting for another full-blown Born in the U.S.A. production were shocked when they first heard “Brilliant Disguise.” The sound of the song echoed more of The Drifters than the powerhouse E Street Band. And quite simply, it was wonderful. Bruce had closed the chapter on the Born in the U.S.A. era and took a daring leap forward artistically and emotionally.

The Tunnel of Love album lyrically addressed in both a direct and indirect way, the failed marriage of Bruce Springsteen to model/actress Julianne Philips. You can hear it in the lyrics to “Brilliant Disguise,” when Bruce Springsteen sang ” We Stood at the altar, the gypsy swore our future was bright. But come the wee hours, well maybe baby the gypsy lied.”

Springsteen’s vocals on “Brilliant Disguise,” were one of the highlights of the album. Springsteen was singing at the top of his register in full voice without straining or screaming. The harmonies and arrangement clearly depicted the Stax/Drifters sound that Springsteen had only flirted with earlier in his career. In “Brilliant Disguise,” you could also hear the influences of Ben E King, Sam Cooke and Ronnie Spector. The Born in the U.S.A era was over and the E street Band would not return for a long time.

# 9 – Glory Days

“Glory Days,” was the fifth single out of seven total singles released from the Born in the U.S.A album. The song fit right in with the American life tales theme of the record. Bruce took on the great American pastime with the memorable great opening line. “Well I had a friend who was big baseball player, back in high school. He could throw that speed ball by you, make you look like a fool.”

Like so many of Springsteen’s greatest songs, Bruce sometimes defined the land of lost hopes and dreams by way of recognizing the good old days that simply passed you by. However , “the good old days may had not been as good as they seemed.” To quote Billy Joel. But beyond the lyrical theme of the song “Glory Days,” lay a great crowd pleasing sing along chorus that was always a highlight of the Born in the U.S.A concert shows. And around the world, bar bands have played it into the ground, because it always gets the crowds going nuts.

 

# 8 – Point Blank

Even though the song “Point Blank,” was released in 1980 on The River album, most Bruce fans knew this song from the 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town Tour.  However, “Point Blank,” was not the only song from the Darkness tour that made its studio debut on The River album. Springsteen had also performed “Independence Day,” on the 78 tour.

Point Blank defined the stark contrast found on The River album between songs of pain and lost hope and the party atmosphere of tracks like Sherry Darling and Two Hearts. Roy Bittan’s minor key chords perfectly reflected Springsteen’s somber tone. It was one of the most haunting songs Springsteen ever wrote.

# 7 – Atlantic City

“Atlantic City,” was the first single released from Springsteen’s 1982 Nebraska album. It’s incredible that what at first was meant to be a demo version for the E Street Band turned out to be the preferred version to be officially released. A little over ten years later in 1992, Springsteen released a full band version of the songs on his unplugged album. That album which is now out of print actually featured an x over the prefix of unplugged defining that album as electric instead of acoustic therefore breaking the MTV Unplugged format. It was an album that featured the 92 touring band that featured only Roy Bittan as the only E Street Band member. The rest of the band featured many unknown musicians to the general public with the exception of Shayne Fontayne who had previously been a member of Lone Justice.

It’s interesting to compare both versions of “Atlantic City,” as they are dramatically different. The song has been  also performed by the E Street band in its electrified version over the years. However, the simple original guitar vocal recording from Nebraska seems to stand as the preferred choice for many Bruce fans.

# 6 – Hungry Heart

“Hungry Heart,” was released as a single before The River album hit the stores. It was a shock to hear Bruce singing in a voice that we had never heard before. He was singing higher and cleaner than the Bruce Springsteen that we all knew. Well, it turns out that they had actually sped up the recording a bit which led to the unidentifiable sound that we first encountered. But in the end, none of what they did in the studio mattered, because Springsteen had just released the most radio friendly song of his career. The addition of Flo and Eddie on backing vocals was a brilliant decision that elevated an already remarkable song into legendary status.

# 5 – Roulette

Bruce Springsteen’s “Roulette,” is the greatest B side Springsteen has ever released in his career. But let’s put the B sides label away for a second and take a look at the song on its own. Bruce Springsteen’s “Roulette,” is one of the most exciting, action packed, rock and roll,new wave, rock classics ever released. If we were ever to create a top 10 Springsteen Songs list of his entire career, Roulette would be there.(we will never do it, it can’t be done)

The song was released as the B side to “Fade Away,” which itself was a masterpiece. But “Roulette,” wow! When we first put together this list of the Best Bruce Springsteen Songs of the 1980’s we had “Roulette,” at No.1. However, after careful consideration of the impact the last four songs had on Springsteen’s career we moved it down a bit. But it’s our personal favorite.

Springsteen has mentioned in interviews that he had made a mistake not including “Roulette,” on The River album. In the late 1970’s there was great anguish over the failure of nuclear power plants to provide the safe power that they had promised. The accident at the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania created a No Nuke movement that culminated in as series of concerts designed to increase awareness of the dangers of nuclear power. Bruce Springsteen joined forces with Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and a host of other rock stars in the late 1970’s in protesting nuclear power plants. The song “Roulette,” was a story written about a family facing the dangers of a nuclear meltdown and the consequences that nuclear accidents would have on life itself.

# 4 – Nebraska

Many critics have considered Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen’s finest album.  There has always been the saying if the songs sounds great on just a piano then its a great song. Well the same holds true for folk songs. The Nebraska album is a collection of some of the most stunning folk rock songs ever written. Recorded with just an acoustic guitar,a microphone and a cassette 4 track recorder, the final results pay glorious tribute to the art of songwriting. No string lines, no bass, no drums and thankfully no auto tune, Nebraska worked so well because of the organic nature of the recording.

The album contained an abundance of soon to be classic Springsteen songs. The album’s opening number, “Nebraska,” painted a stark picture of a teenage killer facing the death penalty. Sung in the first person, Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” was based on the true story of Charles Starkweather’s killing spree in Nebraska and Wyoming between 1957 and 1958. The chilling harmonica lines that Springsteen wrote somehow seemed to define the continued spree in such an eerie fashion. It’s the most haunting song Springsteen has ever written.

# 3 – Born in the U.S.A.

The ultimate Vietnam era protest song fooled so many people including an American President into thinking it was a roaring pro U.S.A. Patriotic anthem. It clearly was an example of people not paying any attention to lyrics. The booming fist in the air chant of “Born in the U.S.A,” was a plea for help rather than a scream of nationalism. In 1984, it had really only been ten years since the Vietnam War had ended. Springsteen’s song was a protest song about the mistreatment of Vietnam Veterans after they had returned home. Springsteen was screaming about the ignorance of the Veterans and the poor treatment many of them experienced. Many of the veterans experienced trouble finding work when they returned home, and the Veterans Administration seemed to offer little help.

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man said “son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “son, don’t you understand”

Bruce Springsteen had grown up during the Vietnam War and was well aware of the draft process especially early in the conflict when mostly poor minorities were drafted as college bound men and woman were initially offered deferments. (That would later change as the conflict continued and there was a need for more manpower. One of the most powerful lyrical statements Springsteen made in “Born in the U.S.A.” was his reference to the fall of Saigon. How the United States had entered into  a war that they would eventually lose . How so many American lives were lost, yet the country they fought against to stop the spread of communism was still there.

I had a brother at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” was the strongest political statement Springsteen had ever made in his career. Up to that point in 1984 when the album was released , Springsteen had already been a huge rock and roll star that consistently sold out arenas worldwide. The success of “Born in the U.S.A,” transcended Springsteen’s fame towards the status of an Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and The Beatles. But beyond the success of the music was the misinterpretation of who Bruce Springsteen really was.  As so many people in the United States were wrapped up in the age of Ronald Reagan and all the bravado and cowboy hoopla that the President embodied, Springsteen was incorrectly associated with all the go U.S.A chanting. It’s a topic that is far too deep to go into on a best songs list, but nonetheless could not be ignored completely when writing about the song “Born in the U.S.A.”

# 2 – The River

While Bruce Springsteen’s song “The River,” may not have been the career political statement that “Born in the U.S.A,” was four years later, it was clearly a statement on the economy and the strain it placed on marriage. At first Brice Springsteen had dedicated the song to his sister and brother-in-law. Springsteen has said in early interviews when the song was released that his sister and brother-in-law had inspired him to write the song. But as the economy of the late 1970’s soured, many men and women found themselves in desperate times.

“I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company                                                                    But lately there ain’t been much work, on account of the economy.”

The song was first introduced to fans during the No Nukes tour. After the Darkness on the Edge of Town Tour had ended, fans would not see Bruce again until his appearance at the No Nukes tour. While Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played on,y a small set on the No Nukes tour, it was the debut of the song “The River,” that turned everyone’s heads.

In a career lasting close to 45 years, Springsteen had delivered his share of groundbreaking compositions and recordings. If critics and fans were forced to choose the most essential Bruce songs of Springsteen’s 20th century career, it would be hard to argue against, ‘Born to Run, Born in the U.S.A, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River.” Those are the four cornerstone songs of Bruce Springsteen’s unparalleled career.Each of those four songs defined a time period and an extreme emotional connection to the social issues of the day they were written.

# 1 – Bobby Jean

When the Born in the U.S.A. album was first released in 1984, the song longtime Springsteen fans all choose as their favorite off the album was “Bobby Jean.” At the time, no one expected the impact the entire album would have on pop music culture. For Bruce fans, it was Springsteen’s new record,that’s it. Most old-time fans were not crazy about the lead off single “Dancing in the Dark.” The video was even more shocking, as a very cleaned up Springsteen pulled then unknown actress Courtney Cox onto the set stage to dance along to the song. None of it felt right to Bruce Springsteen fans. But in retrospect, they were clever moves by whoever orchestrated them,  because Bruce Springsteen became a household name with the album Born in the U.S.A. In 1984, Grandma, Grandpa, little sister, and Aunt Belle all knew who Bruce Springsteen was.

The core value that Springsteen has consistently written about throughout his career is the simple concept of friendship. The song “Bobby Jean,” was perhaps Bruce Springsteen’s greatest ode to the ideas of friendship. For many, the song Bobby Jean was interpreted as a farewell to Springsteen’s longtime friend and band mate, Steven Van Zandt. The two musicians had been working together in bands since they were teenagers. The brilliance of using the name Bobby Jean was Springsteen was still able to create an air of ambiguity in the song. Regardless of whether it was written about  Steven Van Zandt or not, the song presented an incredibly warm farewell to a dear friend. It was a piece of music that resonated with the lives of so many of his fans. Between the emotional lyrics, the  heavy-hearted soaring melodic line, joyous chord changes; “Bobby Jean,” was simply the best Bruce Springsteen song of the 1980’s.

 

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