Ranking the 5 Best Bruce Springsteen Songs of the ’80s

Bruce Springsteen somehow elevated his game in the ’80s. After a body of work in the ’70s that saw him dominate the critical conversation but lag a bit in sales, he managed to catch up in the latter department in a massive way. And he did it without sacrificing any of his artistic ambitions.

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Springsteen released four albums in the decade, and each one is a stunner in its own way. Good luck picking the best five songs out of that lot. But wait, that’s just what we’re going to do here.

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

We all know the title track to Springsteen’s gajillion-selling album has been misinterpreted by many over the years. But let’s put that aside to admire the degree of difficulty here. Not only do you get a trenchant look at post-Vietnam injustices, but you also get it within a thrilling musical package. Springsteen knew what he was doing with this juxtaposition. It forces us to pay close attention to the lyrics to not miss the meaning, lest we fall into the same trap of those who feel that patriotism means ignoring when their country missteps.

4. “Highway Patrolman” from Nebraska (1982)

On Nebraska, Springsteen kept it simple musically (only after some convincing) so he could get his lyrical points across without any obfuscation. That approach served the story songs the best, as it allowed him to include telling details and storytelling techniques that won’t get lost in the shuffle. “Highway Patrolman” deviates somewhat from other songs on the album in that it’s not quite as issue-oriented. But it connects with the other tracks in that it’s about the impossible choices that sometimes crop up in even the most seemingly routine existences.

3. “The River” from The River (1980)

Springsteen allowed thematic concerns to drift by the wayside a bit on The River, instead throwing everything he had in an all-encompassing, tasty rock and roll stew. That meant there was room for quiet folk contemplation, such as what can be heard on the title track. But don’t confuse quiet with trivial. “The River” dwells on an unplanned pregnancy, not the kind of subject matter you might expect from a rock hero. Springsteen renders the story with understanding and empathy without ever sugar-coating the realities, which is the kind of dignified treatment people undergoing similar situations deserve.

2. “Brilliant Disguise” from Tunnel of Love (1987)

Few artists could pull off what Springsteen did with “Brilliant Disguise,” in that he takes lyrics that are, in their way, unrelentingly dark and serves it up in a package that’s ripe for mass consumption. He had expertly honed his craft as a singles-maker by that time, filtering the musical trademarks of artists like Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison (in this case) through his own sensibilities for a tight, suspenseful package. As for the lyrics, they speak fearlessly about the damage that can be done when people are hiding in plain sight from their significant others.

1. “Bobby Jean” from Born in the U.S.A. (1984)

Like all great songwriters, Springsteen has always sounded authentic when putting himself in other shoes. But “Bobby Jean” is one of those songs that digs a little bit deeper because it feels like he lived through it, even if he changed the names to throw people off the scent. He was inspired by Steven Van Zandt’s decision to leave the E Street Band, an event that sparked in him a reflection on whether a youthful friendship is somehow diminished when the parties grow up and move on. (His verdict: It’s not.) Bonus points here because the song contains one of Clarence Clemons’ most haunting sax solos.

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