Why Bruce Springsteen’s Never Released A Real “Greatest Hits” Album

Bruce Springsteen in the mid-70s.

Bruce Springsteen is coming back to New Zealand for the first time in just over a decade so I thought I’d use this opportunity to sort out my hero’s track-list for a compilation which has oddly never been released.

Throughout a 40 year recording career which has given him critical and commercial acclaim of the highest order (120 million albums sold, 20 Grammy awards, songwriter of 16 different US or UK top 10 hits), Bruce has never released a definitive greatest hits album.

There have been compilations and indeed, two of those were even called Greatest Hits (1995 and 2009 – the latter only collecting E Street Band songs), but both left off some of his biggest hits like I’m On Fire and Cover Me in order to give a more balanced career overview.

The same has happened with other best-ofs like The Essential Bruce Springsteen (2003) and the recent Collection: 1973-2012. All are full of outstanding music, most comprehensively The Essential Bruce Springsteen which gathered 30 of his finest songs from not just across his career, but from each of his albums (with an added disk of rarities).

As an artist, Bruce has never been just about the hits and is still creating song collections with emotional, passionate, spiritual, lighthearted, political, sociological, uplifting and angry works. These LPs are frequently home to songs which imbed themselves into the lives of his fans and even into pop culture without being actual hits. Of course this isn’t entirely unique – Led Zeppelin were never a top 40 band but people still know their songs.

But what is relatively unique is that Bruce is simultaneously a serious albums artists who happened to have more than two dozen US or UK top 40 hits. Fans love that his mammoth (as in three hours plus) concerts have wildly fluid set-lists, often influenced by handmade signs held aloft in the crowd. Seemingly there is no emphasis put on “playing the hits,” though nor does Bruce appear embarrassed by his not-infrequent mainstream dalliances.

More-so, he gives the impression of an artist who judges his own work irrespective of its commercial success which is probably a huge part of his live appeal (at least for his legions of diehard fans). That and his irrepressible rock ‘n’ soul showmanship mixed with the musical chops and individual personality of the E Street Band members and you justifiably have a live act many critics still regard as the best in world. It also shouldn’t be underestimated the joy of watching musicians onstage who have been genuine friends for 40 years who look like they love what they do. The E Street Band present themselves as good people, real people and people their fans would probably like to have as friends of their own.

What this boils down to is that in a live setting, fans won’t mind that Bruce is just as likely to play your favourite album cut The Promised Land (Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978) as he is to play your favourite hit Dancing In The Dark (Born In The USA, 1984). It also means he might give you the rare treat of the epic Jungleland (Born To Run, 1975) just as a live version of the 1980 US top 5 Hungry Heart (The River, 1980) is hardly a certainty.

Like fellow Bruce followers, many of my personal favourites were never hits, let alone singles, but in way that feels verging on the tragically hip to say. I unashamedly love chart smashes like I’m Going Down, I’m On Fire and Streets Of Philadelphia. But there’s also The Fever, New York City Serenade, Backstreets, Racing In The Street, Independence Day, Downbound Train, Valentine’s Day, Two Faces, Sad Eyes, If I Should Fall Behind, Land Of Hope And Dreams, My City Of Ruins, Nothing Man, Magic, Devil’s Arcade, The Wrestler, Death To My Hometown – a shortlist of not just some of the Bruce Springsteen songs that mean the most to me, but of some of my favourite songs by any artist ever.

And in concert, you know you could get anything from that massive, magnificent catalogue. But why has this philosophy been exclusively applied to his compilations? 1995’s Greatest Hits omitted three of Born In The USA’s top 10 hits, 2009’s Greatest Hits dropped four and 2012’s Collection removed five, but those are some of his greatest hits! Who cares if they were from the same album? In fact, with Born In The USA that is the point: it is one of only three albums in the entire history of music to place seven songs in the US top 10 (the others being Michael Jackson’s Thriller and sister Janet’s Rhythm Nation). That doesn’t need celebrating in concert, but on a Greatest Hits, why not?

The same pattern of leaving out big hits in order to have a more even selection of songs from a larger number of LPs means there has never been a proper Bruce Springsteen Greatest Hits. If it ever does appear, I’ve done the hard work free of charge and compiled the songs. Presented below in chronological order (forgive me if there are small errors in the order) and with the highest chart position in the US or the UK is my Bruce Springsteen Definitive Greatest Hits.

Included are four hit songs Bruce wrote for other artists, but with the Bruce versions. My two-CD package contains 30 songs in total, 25 of them US or UK top 40 hits. The only top 40 hits left out are the minor early 90s entries 57 Channels And Nothing On and Better Days, plus the 1981 US #11 Gary U.S. Bonds hit Bruce wrote called This Little Girl. And to round out the package to the 30 tracks, the following four songs are added due to their substantial radio play (even if they weren’t “hits”) and their importance to the albums they’re from: The Rising, Radio Nowhere, Girls In Their Summer Clothes and We Take Care Of Our Own.

Your math(s) is correct, that only makes 29. So to come full circle and to admittedly concede even more ground to the ethos of previous Bruce compilations, the final song was not a hit but is almost as significant to the Bruce Springsteen story as Born To Run. Thunder Road is track 30.

1: Blinded By The Light (US #1 Manfred Mann’s Earth Band)
2: Born To Run (US #23)
3: Fire (live) (US #2 Pointer Sisters)
4: Because The Night (live) (UK #5 Patti Smith)
5: Prove It All Night (US #33) or The Promised Land*
6: Hungry Heart (US #5)
7: The River (UK #35)
8: Fade Away (US #20) or Atlantic City**
9: Pink Cadillac (US #5 Natalie Cole)
10: Dancing In The Dark (US #2)
11: Cover Me (US #7)
12: Born In The USA (UK #5)
13: I’m On Fire (US #6)
14: Glory Days (US #5)
15: I’m Going Down (US #9)

16: My Hometown (US #6)
17: War (live) (US #8)
18: Brilliant Disguise (US #5)
19: Tunnel Of Love (US #9)
20: One Step Up (US #13)
21: Tougher Than The Rest (UK #13)
22: Human Touch (UK #11)
23: Streets Of Philadelphia (UK #2)
24: Secret Garden (US #17)
25: The Ghost Of Tom Joad (UK #26)
26: The Rising
27: Radio Nowhere
28: Girls In Their Summer Clothes
29: We Take Care Of Our Own
30: Thunder Road

*Just to only semi-contradict this entire blog entry is the confession I really can’t bear to have Prove It All Night included over The Promised Land – one of Bruce’s most rousing, inspirational songs from the 70s and arguably a better choice of single. I don’t know how many Bruce fans prefer Prove It All Night (both songs were from 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town), so maybe a switcheroo with those two songs would be the way to go.

**The same could also be said for Fade Away versus Atlantic City. Fade Away (from 1980’s The River) hit the top 20, but has like its name, faded away. Contrast that with the non-hit (but more important) Atlantic City which has only grown in popularity since its original release on the Nebraska album more than 30 years ago.

In closing, here is my all-time favourite Bruce Springsteen song – a song never released as a single and therefore not a contender for this double CD if I’ve already brought in The Promised Land and Atlantic City. As a studio track it was beautiful, but the live version as found on the 1985 box set Live 1975-85 is on a whole other level. The last three minutes of instrumental are sad and enthralling in equal measure. Here is the monumental Racing In The Street:

Tickets for Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band at Mt Smart Stadium Saturday March 1st go on sale on August 26th.

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