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Bruce Springsteen is hardly an artist in need of a career renaissance, but 2016 was one of the biggest years of Springsteen’s post-2000 output, even without him putting out a record. Despite the lack of new music, The Boss managed to put out a new memoir, a massive tour playing the entirety of The River and some emotional cover songs. Springsteen’s continued appeal lies in the fact that he never really went away in the first place. His albums have been consistent and high quality while his live show remains as legendary as ever, with most nights eclipsing the three hour mark. The New Jersey native’s style has endured for the past 40 years with The Boss still electing to wear tight denim jeans, leather jackets and solid black tees.
What is great about owning Bruce Springsteen on vinyl is that he is one of the few artists that is readily available at record stores and thrift stores across the globe, who has also put out a lot of great music (sorry Barry Manilow). Much of Springsteen’s '70s and '80s output can be found used at a relatively affordable price tag due to the sheer quantity of these records that were produced at the time. Amassing a respectable Springsteen collection can be done quickly without breaking the bank. These are the 10 best Bruce Springsteen records to own on vinyl.
As far as Greatest Hits compilations go, this one is pretty satisfying. This collection of tracks displays the many sides of Springsteen including his folky acoustic ballads, anthemic stadium shout-alongs and his unique narrative storytelling song structures. In terms of scratching the surface of who Bruce Springsteen is and why he is lauded across generations, this Greatest Hits set is a nice introduction to begin uncovering who this folk hero is. The compilation is unique in that it contains tracks like “This Hard Land” and “Murder Incorporated” that were unused tracks from the Born To Run era. For Springsteen’s first compilation album, he decided to re-record these tracks in 1995 and release them as part of the Greatest Hits compilation, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek. The greatest takeaway from this compilation is how romantically and politically Springsteen portrays himself, a quality that has endeared Springsteen to many and remains his greatest attribute.
In 1973, Bruce Springsteen released his debut Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ which found Springsteen channeling his hero Bob Dylan to create a record that sounded a bit too close to its influences. The follow up that same year found Springsteen feeling savvy enough to begin taking risks. The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle finds Springsteen merely dipping his toes into the elements of R&B and jazz he would later become more comfortable around. On the cusp of fully fleshing out his maximal sound but still holding onto some of the folk roots he began with, Springsteen and the E Street Band prove they’re beginning to carve out a more ambitious sound. The scope of Springsteen’s songs and characters show an astonishing amount of growth when considering the time that passed between the first two records. The Wild’s greatest gift is “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” a '70s Romeo and Juliet ballad that clocks in at just over seven minutes. The track serves as a live Springsteen mainstay and endures as one of his best tales of pursuing a lover. The Boss coherently translates the common feeling of wanting the unobtainable in a remarkably relatable way. “Rosalita” remains Springsteen fan’s most sought after live performance. Often overheard just before Bruce takes the stage, his fans will ask each other, “Do you think Rosie is coming out tonight?”
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Born to Run was Bruce Springsteen’s last chance at mainstream success. Given an enormous budget for production, studio time and promotion, Columbia forced Springsteen to create a chart topper. The pressure caused Springsteen to spend six months on the album’s eponymous track alone-but boy was it worth it. Springsteen’s commercial breakthrough was also his most successful album due to massive romanticized takes on the American experience with tracks like “Thunder Road,” “Born To Run” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” The iconic album cover shot by Eric Meloa has been imitated relentlessly. The black, white and grey color scheme of the cover undersells an album that is bursting with color on every track. Born to Run marked a transition from Springsteen the folk artist to Springsteen the rock icon. Owning a vinyl sized copy of this album featuring The Boss’s gleeful smirk is a must for any music fan.
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One theme Bruce Springsteen never seemed to tackle head on in any large way is the “coming of age” tale. Darkness on the Edge of Town is Springsteen’s indirect stab at that idea because it marks a dramatic turn and improvement in his songwriting. Although Darkness failed to produce any chart topping singles, the album displays a creative songwriter and storyteller finally mastering his craft of merging those two roles. This collection of tracks is as poignant as Springsteen had ever been before and displays more mature attitudes toward relationships, anger and disillusionment. The opening track “Badlands” became a live phenomenon for Springsteen, and has served as the closer for numerous Springsteen shows. Darkness has also carved out a niche as many other musicians’ favorite Springsteen record, with some artists wearing that influence fairly obviously. If anyone questions how Springsteen became synonymous with cool, it would be helpful to have a copy of this record on hand because all the convincing lies on the cover of this record.
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The River is Bruce’s only double album. The 2016 tour playing The River in its entirety has given the album a bit of a rejuvenation in popularity that it absolutely deserves. While prior records like Born to Run and Darkness of The Edge of Town have a clear theme, The River is certainly more scatterbrained. The album’s twenty tracks feature numerous blue-collar characters who express just about every possible human emotion there is. Springsteen himself has said that the album was supposed to be, “a record that felt like a show…there were character studies.” The album’s characters create a Joycean ensemble that functions as the vehicle for Springsteen’s most straightforward rock record. This collection of tracks exudes the idea of what classic rock is in every way while still holding onto that humble charm that other rockers of similar stature forgot, but Bruce Springsteen manage to hold on to. The River is The Boss’s most candid mess, but rock is not always pretty. Springsteen makes the disjointedness a fun part of the ride.
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The Boss has never come off as more fragile or vulnerable than on Nebraska. In fact, this was the first time Springsteen had come off as anything less than a larger than life savior since the first record. Even by 1982 Springsteen was a figure that inspired hope, but Nebraska is an album whose characters wallow in despair and do not escape. Springsteen originally recorded these tracks on a cassette at home as demos to be recorded with the E Street Band. After recording the tracks with the full band, they felt the rough demos gave the lyrical themes a more appropriate mood (Springsteen nerds are still hoping these tracks recorded with the E Street Band surface one day). This is an incredibly haunting record that fit more on Red Star Records than Columbia and has become a favorite among many younger Springsteen fans. This alienating album was heavily influenced by one of Springsteen’s favorite acts, Suicide and specifically the song “Frankie Teardrop.” Similar to “Frankie,” Springsteen does an excellent job building dreary tension on tracks like “State Trooper” and “Johnny 99” that will keep the hair on the back of your neck standing. The LP comes in a sleeve featuring a black and white photo of an isolated Bruce staring at the camera under a chandelier with a shadow hiding his facial features. Spinning Nebraska on vinyl tends to silence the room in a way that makes any audible disturbance from the outside world more exaggerated because the sounds create tension in a way that demands undivided attention.
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Born in the USA is Springsteen at his pop-oriented and anthemic best. With seven of these tracks going on to be hit singles for Springsteen, his seventh studio album cemented The Boss as a bona fide international superstar. This is an iconic record to own on vinyl not just for the music, but for the epochal album cover shot by rock photographer Annie Liebovitz. Her shot of Springsteen’s butt in tight jeans with the American Flag backdrop turned Springsteen into a popular 80s heartthrob. It may have helped that Springsteen began lifting weights around this time. Springsteen himself will acknowledge Born in the USA changed his life by presenting him with a wider audience than ever, but expresses some regret about the quality of the song-writing. While the lyrics to tracks like “Glory Days” and “Dancing in the Dark” may be shallow to Springsteen aficionados, these tracks’ vice grips on classic rock radio and baseball stadium playlists across America cannot be denied. The Boss still delivers some introspective songwriting on tracks like “Cover Me” and “My Hometown” that should satisfy fans craving Springsteen’s personal introspective side, while fans looking to dance and sing gravitate toward this release commonly.
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A Springsteen collection is not complete without owning a live album. There are numerous official and bootleg options, but this collection of live cuts is the best starting point. Live/1975-85 is a compilation of different concerts Springsteen played throughout those years and runs through all of Springsteen’s most recognizable material from that time. What’s great about this 5 LP set is that it can be found at most record stores used for about eighteen bucks. The boxset comes with record sleeves featuring great photos of Springsteen during this time period and a large booklet with lyrics and photos on thick high quality paper. The booklet contains a gorgeous wide lens shot of the full E Street band spread across two pages with Bruce and his telecaster center sage and an American flag backdrop. That photo alone is worth double checking that the box contains the booklet before purchasing. If you’re looking for a specific era of Springsteen jams or want one concert in full look elsewhere, but the art that accompanies this boxset alone makes it worth owning. The eleven minute version of “The River” is a textbook example of Springsteen’s ability to exhilarate audiences with improvisation and crowd interaction.
On March 31st, 1992 Bruce Springsteen released two records, Human Touch and Lucky Town, but chose to package the albums separately. This was a good decision because Lucky Town was far better than Human Touch, which most Springsteen fans try to forget ever happened in the first place. Both records were Springsteen’s attempt at a happier pop style and while the former came off as generic, Lucky Town was far more stripped back and in line with Springsteen’s early 70s records. “Local Hero” finds Springsteen coming to grips with being Bruce Springsteen while “If I Should Fall Behind” is one of Springsteen’s most honest tracks about how he has failed past lovers in their relationships. Other than “If I Should Fall Behind,” many of these tracks rarely make it into Springsteen set lists due to their reserved nature. This gentler side of Bruce Springsteen likely came off as too gentle for many of his fans, but from a lyrical standpoint Lucky Town does an excellent job sticking to a coherent theme. This is one of Springsteen’s most underrated records and can be had on vinyl fairly cheaply.
The Rising was an exciting return to form for Springsteen, who was then three decades into his career. This was his first album with the E Street Band in 18 years and finds Springsteen at one of his most introspective periods. His songwriting is dark with themes of calamity, relationship struggles and hope within despair. The lush instrumentation the E Street Band provides on this record make for a dramatic juxtaposition with the album’s themes. The Rising’s critics called the record overly-patriotic, but the record never comes off as disingenuous. During the 9/11 aftermath, Springsteen used his platform to encourage resilience, desire for better time and reflection on the human experience. These themes which already permeated through most of his career are especially apparent on tracks like “The Rising” and “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” that quickly became fan favorites for their bombastic choruses and uplifting messages. Unfortunately this record only saw one pressing and has becoming increasingly difficult to track down at a reasonable price on vinyl. It’s probably worth it to settle for a CD copy of this one for now, but keep an open eye out for it.
TJ Kliebhan is a writer from Chicago, Illinois. He really likes Boris. He also met Bruce Springsteen once. Along with Vinyl Me, Please, his work has appeared on Noisey, The A.V. Club, Chicago Reader, and others.
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