Bruce Springsteen has one of the best and most consistent catalogs of any musician, so it's easy to come up with 10 great albums out of the 17 -- or 18, if you count "The Promise" -- and not so easy to rank them.
Despite all the acclaim and the millions sold, he's been nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy only twice -- "The Rising" and "Born to Run" -- and he's never won. Fortunately, he's not the kind of guy who cares much about those things.
Not only the best Springsteen album, one of the best rock albums of all time. He slaved over this one, and it's his definitive statement, playing out almost like a rock opera -- from the morning of "Thunder Road" to the wee desperate hours of "Jungleland" -- with a breathtaking wall of sound and all the heated romantic passion of youth. The full effect is intoxicating.
Back then, three years between albums was an eternity, leading people to believe that Springsteen might be finished. He came back with "Darkness," a sequel that sets aside the romance of "BTR" and confronts the harsher realities of adulthood -- "when we found the things we loved they were crushed and died in the dirt" -- through the filter of his father's generation on songs like "Factory" and "Badlands."
Perhaps the greatest album of "demos" ever recorded. Springsteen stripped down to guitar, harmonica and some keyboards painting a dark portrait of characters pushed to the point of desperation. Asked why he and his girl went on a murder spree, the man in the title track tells the court: "Well, sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world." There's a light at the end of the tunnel, as he closes the album singing, "After every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe."
Springsteen hit his stride on this soulful, funky sophomore album that sounds like nothing before it, brilliantly depicting a thick, rich colorful cast of characters along the Jersey shore. They include Rosalita, subject of what may have been the first E Street performance to really turn heads.
Ranging from the heartbreak of "Independence Day" to the exuberance of "Crush on You," this double-LP set was like two albums ramrodded into one: one in the vein of "Darkness," one a rowdy garage-rock collection. The sprawling 20-song album doesn't make the cohesive statement of earlier efforts but is a roller coaster of misery and joy.
Will never forget my surprise at dropping the needle on this follow-up to "Born in the U.S.A." He had just conquered the world and married the model from the "Glory Days" video. This had to be his happiest, most content album, right? Far from it. The sound is somber, low-key, as he sings of two faces, brilliant disguises, how "it's easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love." A year later, the divorce papers were filed. It's the closest thing to his "Blood on the Tracks."
"The new Dylan" arrives, although Springsteen still jokes, "I didn't know there was anything wrong with the old one." The young Boss flashes Dylan's surreal poetic flair, while injecting a whole Jersey R&B groove on such keepers as "Blinded by the Light" and "Spirit in the Night."
Hard to think of this album without picturing the "Dancing in the Dark" video with Courteney Cox and those over-the-top stadium spectacles. It's the E Street Band on steroids, with a drum sound best left in the '80s. This is a U-turn out of "Nebraska," going back to some of the raucous aspects of "The River," with bookending topical songs adding weight to the proceedings. The best line came on "No Surrender": "We learned more from a 3-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school."
Springsteen hadn't released an album in seven years and hadn't recorded with the E Street Band in 18. Then, several months after 9/11, he found his muse and assembled his band of brothers for this mournful/rousing attempt at healing. It was far more nuanced than anything else about that event, as he not only documented the sadness and horror of that day, but captured the muddled emotions of the aftermath: "I want a kiss from your lips/I want an eye for an eye."
I love Bruce but don't feel the same about producer Brendan O'Brien, who has over-polished, and over-processed his latest run of albums. So, this last spot goes to the collection of outtakes from the "Darkness" sessions, which plays like a proper album -- a bridge between "Darkness" and "The River" -- that was lost in the vaults. If it had been released after "Darkness," with several deletions, it would have been hailed as a reasonable follow to "Born to Run."
Scott Mervis: email@example.com; 412-263-2576; Twitter: @scottmervis_pg. First Published October 25, 2012 4:00 AM