Not only was this past decade Bruce Springsteen's most productive decade ever, with five new studio albums released, it featured some of his best work ever. Album for album, none of them (The Rising, Devils & Dust, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Magic, Working On A Dream) were quite at the level of Springsteen's work from 1973 to 1987 (from the Wild & Innocent through Tunnel Of Love), but the following 25 songs rank favorably with the best of his work, and I'd love to know another artist who had 25 songs that are the equal of these.
1. "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" (Magic, 2007)
The sound of a weathered and bruised man trying to get out from under a whole lot of loneliness and heartbreak, stepping out and ready to love again, knowing that love is the only thing that saves, and all too aware time waits for no one, especially him. With a super-compressed 12-string acoustic guitar, a Pet Sounds influence all over the thing, and lyrics so vivid that they're worthy of the bridge of "Born To Run," this isn't just Springsteen's best song of the decade, it's one of his best songs ever. An absolutely magical recording - it's no wonder they never got it right live.
2. "Lonesome Day" (The Rising, 2001)
If you read "Portraits Of Grief," The New York Times section on the victims of 9/11, it sometimes seemed as though in each day's section, there was at least one victim who was a huge Springsteen fan. Springsteen took in the events of that day and even more importantly, the aftermath, speaking to families about what they were going through in the wake of the horror. Then he made it all personal - people with an uncertain determination to pull through betrayals private and public, with music that was like a phoenix rising from the ashes.
3. "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live" (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions [American Land Edition], 2006)
Taken from Ry Cooder who took it from Blind Alfred Reed, Springsteen kept the original first verse, and then rewrote it as an indictment of the Bush Administration's response to Hurricane Katrina. One of Springsteen's most powerful protest songs, it burned with an anger and resentment that made it one of his greatest songs ever. If there was a better protest song written and released in the wake of Katrina, I don't know what it is.
4. "Long Time Comin'" (Devils & Dust, 2005)
Debuted live in 1996, but released in 2005, "Long Time Comin'," with its pedal steel, and the swing of Steve Jordan on drums, hit the mark perfectly in the studio - the beauty of the arrangement matching the hard earned contentment of the lyrics.
5. "O Mary Don't You Weep" (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, 2006)
I was hooked on this from the moment I heard it in the spring of 2006, and the natural joy of it never ceased to thrill me after dozens and dozens of listens. Unlike the Brendan O'Brien produced material of the decade, The Seeger Sessions was recorded live and had an ease about it that hearkened back to The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. Bruce's mastery of soul and gospel shone through abundantly on this, and it makes me long even harder for a whole album of soul style originals.
6. "My City Of Ruins" (The Rising, 2002, debuted live 12/17/00)
From the moment it debuted at Springsteen's Christmas shows with the Max Weinberg 7 in Asbury Park in December of 2000, it was recognized on first listen as a special song. The Asbury crowd, despite never hearing the song before, had their fists in the air by the second chorus, singing "Rise up!" along with Bruce.
After 9/11, it was obvious that the song, despite being written for and about Asbury Park, fit the aftermath of the horror perfectly. So Springsteen opened with the 9/11 telethon with a smart and hymn-like version of it, led with acoustic guitar.
On The Rising, Springsteen found the perfect arrangement for it, with Max Weinberg's drums, sounding more modern in feel and tone than he ever had, leading the way. And anyone who has ever lost someone can relate to the final question Bruce asks, "How do I begin again?"
7. "The Rising" (The Rising, 2002)
Think about the subject matter of "The Rising" for a second, and then think about how utterly disastrous it could have been: A firefighter is called to duty, ascends into the darkness and then ultimately, his death, and then speaks to his beloved from beyond. What other rocker could write about that, and then write about it as movingly and effectively, without pathos, as Springsteen did?
On record, Springsteen found the perfect balance between the somber and the exultant - live with the E Street Band, played in a higher key, the song eventually became anthemic overkill. But Springsteen found another home for it on acoustic guitar, playing versions of it on 2005's Devils & Dust tour that were heartbreaking, and made it clear that it's one of his greatest songs.
8. "Reno" (2005, Devils & Dust)
A song that was an instant "love it or hate it" proposition for many Springsteen fans, with the majority winding up in the latter camp, "Reno" is one of Bruce's saddest songs, a song about a man debasing himself, fantasizing about his lost love while with a prostitute. On record, Springsteen missed the mark on it, but live, he found the true power of the song, turning it into something like a Hemingway short story set to music.
9. "Maria's Bed" (Devils & Dust, 2005)
Bruce introduced "Maria's Bed" in Cleveland in 2005 by saying it was about "the ecstasies of love, the pleasures of passion," and you could taste both the ecstasy and the pleasure in every note. Whether on Devils & Dust or live, the song was a moment on the peak, before the inevitable descent into the valley.
10. "You're Missing" (The Rising, 2002)
A song about the incomprehensibility of sudden death - how the mind struggles to understand loss when the physical evidence of a departed loved one's presence is still around. The genius of this song was in the details - the shirt hanging in the closet, the children asking if their parent will be back - and then an organ coda by Danny Federici that put in whatever the lyrics might have left out.
11. "Livin' In The Future" (Magic, 2007)
A rarity in Springsteen's career - a brilliant studio track that almost completely missed the mark live. On the album, it swung, and Springsteen's harmony vocals, doubled against each other along with Steve and Patti, provided moments of pure bliss for a lyric that was filled with dread for a second George W. term. Simultaneously the sound of the old Asbury boardwalk and something new, mainly due to the primacy of the guitars, this is one criminally underrated song.
12. "Eyes On The Prize" (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, 2006)
Bruce take the old spiritual and does the almost impossible - he makes it sound like he wrote it. Maybe that's because there's not much spiritual difference between "it's a town full of losers/and I'm pulling out of here to win" and "keep your eyes on the prize, hold on."
The vitality of the recording - from Soozie Tyrell's fiddle to the New Orleans feel of the horns - it astounding, a river that knows exactly where it's flowing. When Bruce cues the horns for their second solo by commanding, "Horns Go!" it's a little piece of Springsteen heaven. Hold on.
13. "You'll Be Coming Down" (Magic, 2007)
Lyrically, it's a sort of weird song, seemingly a message to a beautiful young woman, someone like Lindsay Lohan, warning her of being ground down and used up. Nothing particularly profound, but the song sounds so goddamned good that it doesn't matter. He should have played this one live a whole lot more.
14. "Empty Sky" (The Rising, 2002)
From the moment I heard its opening drum loop, I knew that Bruce made the right decision to work with Brendan O'Brien. O'Brien brought an unmistakably modern feel to the E Street Band, while still having it sound like the E Street Band. The sound of the acoustic 12-string; the natural sounding crack of Max Weinberg's drums, the perfect placement of Roy Bittan's piano in the chorus - the whole arrangement worked in a new way for Springsteen.
Filled with grief, rage and confusion, "Empty Sky" may be about the aftermath of 9/11, but it's also beyond the event, which is why the song will continue to resonate powerfully in the coming years.
15. "Leah" (Devils & Dust, 2005)
"With this hand I build/and with this I burn." In that lyric in "Leah," Springsteen posits that we, and we alone, are the genesis of both our salvation and destruction. How to avoid the destruction? Love. And you gotta work at it.
The impossibly beautiful arrangement embodies the lyric perfectly, and when a mariachi trumpet blows, it's enough to make you want cry. Had Devils & Dust had 11 songs all this good, instead of about five, it would be one of Springsteen's greatest albums.
16. "The Last Carnival" (Working On A Dream, 2009)
A tribute to E Street organist Danny Federici worthy of their 40 years together, that encapsulated the sadness of his death; the acknowledgment that the band was going to keep going on without him; and lastly, the fact that Danny made Bruce utterly crazy at times. And with a beautiful and ethereal vocal coda, it felt as though the band was trying to be with Danny one last time.
17. "All I'm Thinkin' About" (Devils & Dust, 2005)
Bruce showing off the falsetto that he developed in the mid-90's for a joyous little love song with some great steel guitar. It's one of those Springsteen songs that can slip by unnoticed, but when you dig in, you get its greatness.
18. "Let's Be Friends (Skin To Skin)" (The Rising, 2002)
This is the song that should have been the second single off of The Rising. With a great groove, gorgeous background singing and an instantly rewarding chorus, the song had me at hello, but alienated a lot of Springsteen fans for whatever reason. The song was probably a little too black for them.
19. "Code Of Silence" (The Essential Bruce Springsteen, 2003)
June 12, 2000 at Madison Square Garden was the only time I've ever been scared at a Bruce Springsteen concert. The first concert of 10 as the controversy around "American Skin (41 Shots)" became incendiary, with Fraternal Order of Police head Bob Lucente calling Springsteen a "dirtbag" and "floating fag." There were a lot of off duty cops there that night, and most of them seemed, especially the ones in the row in front of me, were drunk and pissed off.
So to start the stand, he opened with this song, a great rocker about a breakdown in communication that creates suspicion and distrust. This was his statement, and it was a great one, for all 10 nights.
As far as the cops went, they booed during all of "American Skin," and then they sang along with "The Promised Land." Then, when Bruce did an incredible acoustic version of "Born In The U.S.A.," one of them shouted, "You have no right to sing this song anymore." Three songs later, he was passed out, drunk.
20. "Long Walk Home" (Magic, 2007)
Disillusionment and the realization that in the Bush Administration we veered so far off the path of what this country is supposed to be about, that we may never get back.
21. "All The Way Home" (Devils & Dust, 2005)
Written for Southside Johnny in 1991, Bruce changed the arrangement completely, speeding it up, making it far less reflective, effectively turning it from a Sinatra-esque torch song into a cool country end-of-the-night come on. Worked for me.
22. "Devil's Arcade" (Magic, 2007)
Love, sex, death, destruction, a killer arrangement and a dramatic high point of Magic.
23. "This Life" (Working On A Dream, 2009)
A gem of a song that should have gotten a lot more attention, mainly from Bruce, who played it barely at all on the Working On A Dream tour.
24. "Gypsy Biker" (Magic, 2007)
An odd song in a way - it's characters seeming more like Vietnam Vets than veterans of Iraq, "Gypsy Biker" burned with some great lead guitar and one absolutely killer line: "To the dead it don't matter much/about who's wrong or right."
25. "American Skin (41 Shots)" (Live In New York City, 2001)
It's too long, and it's lacking a killer melody, but the power of it is undeniable, especially considering the ruckus it caused. It was never a diatribe against the police; after all, the person praying for the victim's life in the first verse is a cop who knows what a deadly error he's made.
Rather, it's a lament about an America where we've been taught to fear the other, and what happens in that climate. The fact that it's another song about the lack of communication made the controversy about it even more fitting - everyone who criticized it had absolutely no idea what the song was about.
Best Springsteen albums of the 2000's in order:
2. The Rising
3. Devils & Dust
4. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
5. Working On A Dream.