But that was supposed to reflect music that had influenced you the most, and yes, it sure did. “The E Street Shuffle” changed the way I thought about rock and roll. It changed what I was looking for in music.
“The E Street Shuffle,” though, wasn’t Springsteen’s best album. That would be “Born to Run,” the 1975 album that landed him on the cover of Time and Newsweek, establishing him as a star who remains productive and relevant to this day. Springsteen famously got bogged down in the studio, and I remember waiting for “Born to Run” with anxious anticipation. It turned out to be a considerable departure from “E Street” — the multiracial ensemble approach had given way to the Great White Rock Star, a move I resisted at first.
But “Born to Run” includes perhaps the best song he ever wrote (“Thunder Road”), his best recording (the shimmering “Backstreets”) and his anthem (the title track). Combine it with the glorious excesses of “Jungleland” and a few lesser but still terrific songs, and it adds up to Springsteen’s masterpiece.
Springsteen once said that he wanted “Born to Run” to sound like Bob Dylan had written it, Phil Spector had produced it and Roy Orbison had sung it. Well, he came close. After “Born to Run,” he moved into more conventional hard rock.
Now, a word about Springsteen’s career. After a so-so debut album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” (1973), he tore off five consecutive albums that are as great as any achievement in popular music during the past half-century. His growth as a lyricist from album to album is astonishing.
Take, for instance, “Racing in the Street,” from 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” It’s a fine song about coming to terms with the reality that love doesn’t conquer all. But it depends on assertion rather than storytelling. He revisits the same theme in the title track from “The River” (1980) — only this time he approaches it with more maturity, specificity and emotional investment. I’m still blown away when he sings,
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry
Springsteen finishes this five-album run with “Nebraska” (1982), stark, creepy, dangerous and beautiful. He’s never quite attained those heights since then — “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984) turned him into a megastar, and megastars rarely make great music. But he’s kept at it and maintained both his integrity and his dignity. He’s still a top-notch live performer, and his last two albums (“Western Stars,” 2019, and “Letter to You,” 2020) are better than most of his post-“U.S.A.” output.
It was “Born to Run,” though, that made Springsteen who he is. “It’s a town full of losers, and I’m pulling out of here to win” remains one of the towering statements of purpose in rock and roll — even if he spent most of the rest of his career telling us that you really can’t leave it all behind.
By the way, I see this is the first time I’ve added to the list since late October. One more to go — and I’m still trying to decide between two albums.
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