Top Bruce Springsteen Hits of the ’80s
Among his many impressive distinctions, singer-songwriter and rock and roll legend, Bruce Springsteen must be one of pop music’s all-time successes in greatly minimizing filler songs on the album after album of a long career. After all, even top ’80s artists like Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson were sometimes guilty of diminished quality on deep album tracks. That’s why I’m dedicating two lists to the ’80s output of Springsteen, an artist whose song quality is unmatched among his peers. First, here’s a chronological look at the best Springsteen hits of the ’80s, culled from a long list of chartbusters.
Still one of Springsteen’s top singles of all time, this anthemic tune from the ambitious, stunning double album The River hinges (typically for this artist) on a deceptive shadow of darkness, and yet somehow it nevertheless made it to No. 5 on the Billboard pop charts in 1980. It also signaled Springsteen’s transition from a strictly album and arena rock performer into a pop singles threat, which would become abundantly clear a few years later when became one of the biggest pop/rock albums of all time. Here, Springsteen combines almost a peppy, uplifting musical theme with some of his pessimistic leanings of the time, and his portrait of man’s urge to flee is unforgettable.
Springsteen has never been a huge fan of American capitalism and the way it sometimes wears its subjects down to defeated nubs of humanity. Such a revolutionary attitude lurks behind this poetic, affecting tale of a young man trapped by expectations of a culture in which he has no place. Still, Springsteen seems to suggest that solace can be found in love or at least the vivid memory of it. But ultimately, he announces that “those memories come back to haunt me, they haunt me like a curse,” a statement that forces the track to finish on a decidedly downcast note. One of rock’s best thinking man’s anthems.
Throughout much of his career, Springsteen has always retained an obvious and deeply ingrained connection to his geographical and cultural roots. Even when he doesn’t set his narratives in New Jersey, there’s almost always a fairly consistent strain of East Coast, urban working-class grit to his lyrics. This track from 1982’s intimately recorded album, is one of the few songs on the record that is not unbelievably stark in terms of arrangement and mood. But that doesn’t make this tale of misplaced hope and desperation any less weighty. This remains a Springsteen favorite in concert, for good reason.
Here’s a rare example of a true, rugged American rock and roll classic, a song that has managed not to suffer from being both seriously overplayed and memorably ill-used, laughably, for political purposes. Fueled by some typically fantastic synth work from Roy Bittan, this righteously angry portrait of post-Vietnam America continues to resonate in our still war-addled times. Anthemic almost to the point of self-parody, this song perhaps understandably confused then-President Reagan, who mistook it for red, white and blue chest-thumping. Lyrical and literary, this Top 10 hit remains intense and shattering.
Though diminished somewhat by a far-too-’80s-sounding instrumental palette of synthesizer and big drums (as well as by Springsteen’s own wretched dancing in the music video), this track climbed to No. 2 and staked a claim it still holds as the singer’s highest pop chart performance. It also happens to be a really good song, another example of Springsteen’s ability to combine hope with despair and desperation with vitality in the space of just a few lines. In fact, the way he throws warring emotions and worldviews together so boldly yet delicately is one of the primary ways this song succeeds so distinctly.
Although this tune from Born in the U.S.A. enjoyed almost exactly the same level of Billboard Top 10 pop chart prominence as the record’s title track, I’ve always seen it as one of Springsteen’s top overlooked gems of the ’80s. Displaying more roots-rock twang than the singer had yet unveiled at that point of his career, the track is a fine example of the kind of romantically suspicious (even paranoid) compositions that would become more common for Springsteen later on in the decade. A wonderfully repetitive chorus and some buoyant organ help shed some fun-loving light on the song’s dark exterior.
Over the years, perhaps Springsteen has evolved more honestly and ruefully than any other rocker with an ongoing career. After all, while he expressed the idealism of a wide-eyed young man back in the ’70s, he just as willingly embraced the weary maturity of his thirties on Born in the U.S.A. And while this sing-along song with a killer groove never shies away from pure nostalgia, it also plants one foot firmly in the realm of realistic trepidation regarding the unknowable. As fleeting as the highly universal “glory days” of the title are, the uncaged joy in the E Street Band’s performance has attained immortality.
Springsteen had certainly written somber tunes of worry and regret before, but this gentle, aching ballad delivers with a gravity and maturity that’s more impressive with every listen. More than anything else, this great song plumbs social consciousness directly and poignantly, painting a stirring portrait of the dissolution of small-town, blue-collar America. This was a distinct phenomenon of the ’80s, prior to the urban revitalization efforts of the ’90s: “Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores, seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more.” ’80s musical activism at its finest.
More than 15 years into an already legendary career, Springsteen finally took the plunge and began to write explicitly about the perils of romantic love on 1987’s. And oh, did he do so with fierce and complete honesty, as both the title track and this lovely tune seem quite eerie in light of the impending collapse of the singer’s marriage to actress Julianne Phillips. Poised at a critical personal crossroads, Springsteen did what all great artists do: he transformed the fodder of everyday living into gripping and relevant pop music. Of the few serious songs about love, even fewer are this good.
If there was one unified theme that tied together Springsteen’s output during the ’80s, it had to be a cautious and world-weary pessimism, a belief that no matter how much we wish things were different, the world is in many ways growing worse instead of better. As a songwriter, Springsteen applied that attitude in different ways, but this song’s central “one step up, two steps back” refrain does so most directly. And even though the song deals specifically with romantic relationships, it’s easy to imagine any one of us “giving each other some hard lessons lately, and we ain’t learning.” An appropriate ’80s swan song.