When Bruce Springsteen was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1999, he reigned as one of the most influential and successful musicians ever. With a roster of enormous and lasting hits under his belt, Springsteen could have retired or died in the late ’80s and still gone down in the annals of rock ’n’ roll history.
But instead of retiring or dying, Springsteen continued to make music, not nearly as commercially or critically successful as his previous output. Springsteen wasn’t interested in trying to repeat earlier successes with earlier sounds; successive projects saw him firmly reject the arena-friendly rock that had made him an icon. For the casual fan of Springsteen’s energetic, restless hits, he fell off the radar sometime in the late ’80s or ’90s, when his characters evolved from outrunning their hometowns to settling down and grappling with adult responsibility. Some of his greatest songs are found on the footnote albums of Human Touch and Lucky Town, and The Ghost Of Tom Joad found Springsteen once more excising his demons, returning to his political roots with fiery songs about lost souls.
After The Ghost Of Tom Joad, it seemed Springsteen was finally retiring after a long and fruitful career. The E Street Band was scattered, Springsteen’s feistiness had mellowed with age, and his 1999 induction to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame signaled the respect due to a paragon of American rock. That same year he reunited with the E Street Band for a reunion tour; he had entered into the phase of feel-good oldie. That tour included sold-out shows across much of Europe, with the jaw-dropping 15-show run at New Jersey’s Continental Airlines Arena kicking off the U.S. portion that included a 10-show run at Madison Square Garden. The final two shows there were recorded by HBO and packaged into Live In NYC.
And though the reunion tour was mostly reprising his numerous hits with his well-loved band, Live In NYC showed Springsteen wasn’t done writing. Newly written “Land Of Hope And Dreams” closed out most shows of the tour, and the explicitly political “American Skin (41 Shots)” addressed the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea whom four NYPD officers shot at 41 times after he pulled out a wallet to ID himself. A year later, 9/11 galvanized Springsteen to make The Rising, the first album backed by the E Street Band in 18 years.
There are some misses but more hits in Springsteen’s post-2000 catalog, a fruitful period often overlooked due to his insanely successful early output. While none of his albums this side of the turn of the millennium have the staying power of Born In The U.S.A., there’s more than enough to recommend in them. It’s great fun to discover the motifs running through—a lyric from 2012’s “Wrecking Ball” echoes “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and Mary returns in The Rising, for example—and that’s just one way to say that taking Springsteen’s output as a whole is better than ignoring the past 20 years. But considering his post-2000 albums as a distinct period reveals something else: This body of work stands on its own. Had Springsteen’s career started in 2000 he’d still have a roster of impressive rock ’n’ roll. Comparing later albums to Born To Run isn’t a productive way to evaluate anything—after all, most albums compared to Born To Run come out inferior. But in honor of Springsteen’s new Born To Run memoir, here’s a look at his more recent output: Taken on its own terms, this is a body of work well worth listening to.
1. “Land Of Hope And Dreams,” Live In NYC (2001)
Recorded on Springsteen and the E Street Band’s reunion tour, the epic-length train song “Land Of Hope And Dreams” was an appropriate new release with the old band. Sonically of a piece with Born To Run or Darkness On The Edge Of Town, its lyrics are befitting Springsteen’s late period of introspection and preoccupation with death. Running nearly 10 minutes, it’s also demonstrative of a Springsteen concert, where songs are stretched to rousing, energetic effect. Clarence Clemons’ saxophone is as soulful as ever, and Springsteen sings with his signature earnestness, as though he can will something into existence by singing it hard enough.
2. “American Skin (41 Shots),” Live In NYC (2001)
Springsteen has always been a political songwriter, be it Vietnam protest in “Born In The U.S.A.” or working class angst in “Badlands.” But those were couched in catchy hooks and written poetically enough that people who didn’t want to hear the political message could choose not to. “American Skin (41 Shots),” on the other hand, is explicitly about police brutality, and in the live recording Springsteen calls for a respectful quiet before embarking on it. What follows is a chilling condemnation of racial inequality, as told through the shooting of Amadou Diallo by plain-clothed officers in New York City. It caused some controversy; Mayor Rudy Giuliani and some police criticized the song, which also received scattered boos from concert attenders at Madison Square Garden. More than a decade before the Black Lives Matter movement brought the attention of police brutality to affluent white Americans, Springsteen’s powerful anthem highlighted the disastrous results of the entrenched racism of America’s powerful institutions (the four police officers were acquitted). The best of Springsteen’s songs are timeless; this one, sadly, is just as applicable today, when “Is it a gun, is it a knife / Is it a wallet, this is your life” and “you get killed just for living in your American skin” continue to encapsulate police racism. This song made a resurgence in 2012, when Springsteen sang it in response to the Trayvon Martin shooting by police, and it’s been on his set lists again this year. As far as Springsteen’s political songs go, this one is the best.
3. “The Rising,” The Rising (2002)
The Rising was the first album Springsteen recorded with the E Street Band since Born In The U.S.A., and it shows. Highlighting the churchy organs and making effective use of Soozie Tyrell’s violin, The Rising found Springsteen with renewed energy and focus. It’s classic Springsteen that’s a little more grown up, a little more polished. The majority of the album was written in response to 9/11, and even songs written previously—“My City Of Ruins” is about decaying Asbury Park—fit the themes of death, rebirth, transformation, and hope. Unlike some of the albums to come, every single song on The Rising is great. “The Rising” is a summation of the rest of the album, a return to rock ’n’ roll updated through gospel and a galvanized Springsteen.
4. “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day,” The Rising (2002)
Not all of The Rising was shadowed in post-9/11 contemplation or odes to rusting hometowns. “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day” showed Springsteen could still bring the crowd-pleasing, light-hearted sing-alongs. Indeed, the consummate performer seems to have written much of The Rising with his live shows in mind, working in lyrics and breaks perfectly suited to a call-and-response from a live audience. Previously providing backing vocals, Tyrell brought a new sound to the E Street band with her violin work, propelling the familiar E Street sound into brighter, lighter territory. The Rising was the first album that felt like it belonged just as much to a younger generation of Springsteen fans as to their parents; “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day,” especially, was a song for the new crop of fans.
5. “My City Of Ruins,” The Rising (2002)
Melancholy, full of church organs, and with the E Street Band singing together like a choir, “My City Of Ruins” is full of the strong biblical themes running through the rest of The Rising. Written about Asbury Park, where Springsteen spent formative years as a young singer-songwriter, “My City Of Ruins” doubles well as a vision of 9/11 as seen through the lens of Springsteen-ian spirituality and weary optimism. A prayer interlude is among the most moving, inspiring sounds he’s ever coaxed into life. It’s religion through a Springsteen song.
6. “Devils & Dust,” Devils & Dust (2005)
As Springsteen captured the feeling of the days following 9/11 with big themes of resilience and unity, he also captured the disastrous results of where those feelings led the U.S. in the coming years. Devils & Dust kept the E Street Band, along with the focus and the intensity from The Rising, but went to quieter and more pointed places. Unfairly dismissed as a downer of an album, Devils & Dust writhes with muted frustration and anger that, absurdly, is still applicable over 10 years later to the same war. “Devils & Dust” is Springsteen’s protest song for the 9/11 age, following a soldier with good intentions as he’s broken by war. The narrower focus on individuals buffeted by the whims of their government returned Springsteen to his character story origins, and “Devils & Dust” was both timely and classic Springsteen.
7. “Jesus Was An Only Son,” Devils & Dust (2005)
Devils & Dust has its sweet moments (“Long Time Comin’” and “All I’m Thinkin’ About” both hit romantic notes), but this is an album concerned with johns and prostitutes (“Reno”), losing family (“Silver Palomino”), and the twisted realities of achieving a childhood dream (“Black Cowboys”). In “Jesus Was An Only Son,” Springsteen mostly puts away the sparse, Western-tinged aura of the rest of the album for a return to the gospel influence seen on The Rising. Told from the point of view of Mary, “Jesus Was An Only Son” uses the Crucifixion as an allegory for any parents who lose a child, though couched as it is in an album about the Iraq War, it makes most sense as a metaphor of the parents whose children died fighting overseas. Springsteen’s put out a lot of heart-rending songs in his time; this one’s most grief-stricken of the lot.
8. “American Land,” Live In Dublin (2007)
Never afraid to try something new, Springsteen threw his image to the Oklahoma wind in 2006 with We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. Picking 13 folk songs from Pete Seeger’s repertoire, Springsteen and a pack of session musicians reinterpreted them as a wild jamboree: all horns, twangs, and strings. It’s a big, free-wheeling, rambunctious album that sounds like Springsteen is just having fun, and it’s hard not to have fun with him. But Live In Dublin improves The Seeger Sessions, the live show bringing even more energy to the posse of musicians. The whole thing is a hootenanny. Live In Dublin also contains “American Land,” a Springsteen and “Session Band” original that infuses Seeger’s influence into a rollicking immigrant story.
9. “Long Walk Home,” Magic (2007)
Magic, like The Rising, is an album that’s hard to find fault with—and for fans who just want more of Born In The U.S.A., Magic even sounds like it’s been spirited from that era, updated with an older, wiser, warmer Springsteen. If he sometimes slips into platitudes, well, he’s just showing his age. It’s a plaintive and wistful album, with “Long Walk Home” the most wistful of all. But there’s also a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction running through much of Magic, with poppy hooks belying foreboding, almost eerie stories. “Long Walk Home” finds the narrator walking through familiar territory turned strange and haunted by the passage of time. Like the rest of Magic, it’s a sweet-sounding song that’s resignedly melancholy.
10. “Girls In Their Summer Clothes,” Magic (2007)
Dreamy and breezy, “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” is the most light-hearted song on the album, and it’s pure pop perfection. Once again, Tyrell’s violin shimmers through to lift the song to a bright place, and Springsteen’s penchant for mise en scène paints a pretty picture of a warm, sleepy evening. Whereas the rest of Magic broods on rusted Americana and lost homes, “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” is firmly rooted in the setting of a friendly, familiar place. It’s as though all those haunted characters from early Springsteen songs have found home at last.
11. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Working On A Dream (2009)
Working On A Dream as an album doesn’t hit the same genius as The Rising and Magic, but most of its songs are packed full of smart pop hooks and strong instrumentals. Where Working On A Dream stumbles lyrically it makes up for in its gorgeous, lush sounds, with “Tomorrow Never Knows” notable by provenance of its sweet, effortless charm. In a rhythm that defines his long career, Working On A Dream showed once again that Springsteen just doesn’t care to repeat himself, preferring to reinvent or reinvigorate his music with every new album.
12. “Wrecking Ball,” Wrecking Ball (2012)
2012’s Wrecking Ball closes out this post-2000 playlist, though another album, High Hopes, was released in 2014. The latter is an odd assortment of covers and old re-worked material that never coheres into a polished product. As it’s been plenty critiqued elsewhere, its absence on this playlist should indicate to fans looking to explore Springsteen’s newer music it’s one 21st-century album that can be completely skipped. Wrecking Ball, on the other hand, is a bombastic record where Springsteen once again marries political discontent and sharp critique to inspired rock. “We Take Care Of Our Own” is both a classically sounding Springsteen and a fantastic return to his emphasis of working class poor who can’t get ahead, no matter how hard they work. Instead of character-driven stories about young pregnancies and drafts, this album is a broad call to take care of everyone. E Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011, can be heard in “Wrecking Ball,” which is also a song that, through its propulsive forward movement, is the rare studio-recorded track that contains the raw pure energy usually only found in Springsteen’s legendary live performances. In both sound and content, it’s a “Badlands” for the 21st century. And maybe better than any other song on this list, it shows that Springsteen is still Springsteen.