Ranking Bruce Springsteen’s 5 Best Album-Openers

Fans love Bruce Springsteen‘s catalog for many reasons. His ability to tie his albums together thematically stands out as one of the big ones. None of that would be possible if he didn’t choose the perfect songs for the crucial Side One, Track One position.

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Many wonderful Springsteen album-openers missed the cut for this list. When you see how great the five songs we did choose are, you’ll understand. Or at least we hope you will.

5. “The Ghost of Tom Joad” from The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)

The songs on this list are, for the most part, uptempo rockers, which makes sense considering the albums they adorn. The Ghost of Tom Joad, however, was a hushed record, at least in terms of its music, even as its lyrical content spoke volumes. That’s why the title song makes such sense as a tone-setter. Springsteen looked out at America circa 1995 and saw similarities to the Depression. Why not bring back that fictional Dust Bowl rabble-rouser Tom Joad to stand as an inspiration for the oppressed-but-not-defeated segment of the population that pop up again and again on the album?

4. “We Take Care of Our Own” from Wrecking Ball (2012)

Springsteen also made this track the lead single from Wrecking Ball, which was a shrewd move. Musically, it’s just enough like a classic Springsteen rocker that it likely drew folks into a record that found him getting quite experimental in the way he presented his songs. The lyrics of “We Take Care of Our Own” are very much in keeping with what’s to come on the album, however. Springsteen writes a lot about resilience, but he makes sure on this album, and on this song, to express his anger at the circumstances and powers that be that force the need for resilience in the first place.

3. “Born in the U.S.A.” from Born in the U.S.A. (1984)

We’ve lived with this song long enough to know that it’s a protest song hiding in the garb of an anthem. But when folks first popped that record on the turntable (or cassette in the box), it’s likely they noticed the charge of adrenaline well before the undercurrent of angst. But then again, that can be said about much of this record. Big hits and evergreens like “Dancing in the Dark,” “Glory Days,” and “Bobby Jean” all shine sonically, despite a melancholic streak. With “Born in the U.S.A.” starting off the album, The Boss was letting folks know he might be putting a sheen on his message, but he wasn’t going to sugarcoat it.

2. “Thunder Road” from Born to Run (1975)

If ever opening lines evoked all that was to come on an album, they surely have to belong to “Thunder Road.” (And that’s the truth whether you believe Mary’s dress is swaying or waving.) Born to Run is the album that sent all Springsteen’s characters flying off into the unforgiving night trying to find love, a quick score, forgiveness, and redemption (not always in that order). The narrator of “Thunder Road” is as eloquent about describing his circumstances as he is dumbfounded about how to escape them. But if Mary gets in that car, at least he’ll have a co-pilot who can soften some of the blows that will inevitably come even after that town full of losers is well out of reach of his rearview.

1. “Badlands” from Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)

Darkness on the Edge of Town was the first album where Springsteen’s protagonists felt less like metaphorical constructs and more like living, breathing human beings. (Not that the metaphorical constructs weren’t fun, mind you.) When the narrator of “Badlands” describes the hopelessness of his scenario, surrounded by the toughness of the music surrounding him, it’s done so in such a way that you genuinely doubt he’ll be able to win the day. When he spits in disgust and defiance, you feel like the wind will blow it back at him. But Springsteen makes it clear it’s the effort to overcome and rise above that ultimately matters most.

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