[Versus pits two of an artist’s classic albums against each other even if they’re stylistically different, because that “you can’t compare apples and oranges” bullshit is for people without balls, spines, or all those other things that separate us from the villainous jellyfish. This month, Versus is hosting a March Madness/Mortal Kombat tournament of Bruce Springsteen's 16 finest studio albums.]
- The Ghost of Tom Joad v. Tracks
Ghost of Tom Joad was Springsteen’s best album of the ’90s. A quiet return to Nebraska’s acoustic, dark storytelling after the critical and commercial failure of the Human Touch and Lucky Town pop rock records, it features such essential Bruce tunes as “Youngstown” and the title track. But it’s also got some real clunkers, like “My Best Was Never Good Enough,” which closes out the record with a Forrest Gump quote for whatever reason. Tracks, meanwhile, is a four-disc boxed set of Bruce’s best B-sides, spanning about 25 years of gold. I feel bad shutting out Joad so early on, but this one isn’t even a contest.
- Born to Run v. Darkness on the Edge of Town
Now this is a contest. Born to Run made Springsteen a household name outside of the tri-state area; Darkness proved he wasn’t a one-hit wonder. Darkness is Bruce’s heaviest album musically and possibly his darkest lyrically, aside from maybe Nebraska. His characters here have no hope, and the songs are savage in their delivery. “Adam Raised a Cain” is a dissonant shredder that out-punks punk, the title track and “Racing in the Street” jam out the blues, and “Candy’s Room” is so sexually charged it’s scorching. Oh yeah, and you get the monster hits “Badlands” and “Promised Land.” Darkness is amazing live, if you’ve seen the deluxe boxed set’s DVDs from last year. But you know what? I’m still going with Born to Run. It’s a perfect blend of pop, rock, soul, funk, and R&B. Sure, “Badlands” is beloved, but it can’t stand up to “Thunder Road,” “Born to Run,” Jungleland,” and “10th Avenue Freeze-Out.” Those songs have an epic, cinematic quality to them, and they’re essential listening if one wants to understand Bruce’s legacy. I probably could have written a couple thousand more words debating the issue, but trust me on this one: Born to Run is the better album. It’s just as emotionally charged, but with friendlier hooks that make for better casual listening.
Winner: Born to Run
- The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle v. Devils & Dust
Wild has “Rosalita.” There are other songs on there, and they’re pretty good as far as Bruce’s earlier, looser, jammier material goes. But everyone owns this record because of “Rosalita,” an epic jam about hooking up. The song is lengthy, yes, but it goes through so many catchy, rocking segments that it feels like a mini-album on to itself. Sing it with me: “You poppa says he knows that I don’t have any money.” But if you’re going with jammy Bruce, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. is the better buy. Devils & Dust, Bruce’s second attempt at reviving Nebraska, is a better record overall. Maybe it’s because I lived through the George W. Bush years, but it was really rewarding when Bruce got in on the political game with this album. Nebraska chronicles America’s tragic sprawl; Devils deals with its failures abroad. That means tackling the Iraq War (the title track), immigration policy (“Matamoros Banks”), and our messed up interpretation of Christianity (“Jesus Was an Only Son”). But the record also provides relief with sunnier fare like “All I’m Thinkin’ About.” I’m sure Wild is fun live, but Devils is a more rewarding listen. It’s more focused, hits harder, and, having seen it performed live, carries just as much weight in concert.
Winner: Devils & Dust
- Working on a Dream v. Nebraska
Working was rushed out, partially to coincide with Barack Obama’s inauguration, partially because organist Danny Federici was dying, and it sounds like it. While there’s some strong, midtempo numbers like “What Love Can Do” and “The Last Carnival,” most of the record sounds indistinct. Brendan O’Brien’s glossy overproduction does the record no favor [Side note: I can’t believe this fucking guy helmed Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire]. Nebraska is perhaps Dream’s exact opposite. A collection of 4-track demos that didn’t need further instrumentation or processing, Nebraska has better lyrics and a swirling, lo-fi haze one can get lost in. Yet as depressing as the songs get, the hooks are surprisingly strong too, as evidenced by “Atlantic City” and “Reason to Believe.” It’s a record so good that even its B-sides were huge – “Born in the U.S.A.” went on to be one of the strongest tracks on one of Springsteen’s biggest albums.
- Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. v. Human Touch
Really? Is this even up for debate? Have you heard “Blinded By the Light?”
Winner: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.
- Born in the U.S.A v. Lucky Town
As much as I love Bruce, he sucked hard in the ’90s. His Guns n Roses-styled attempt at breaking up a double album with Human Touch and Lucky Town didn’t go over well commercially or critically, although Lucky Town boasts enough solid tracks to make it only the Boss’ second worst album. Born in the U.S.A. may be a little cheesy and overproduced, but it still contains some amazing songs: “Born in the U.S.A.” “No Surrender.” “My Hometown.” “I’m on Fire.” Most of this album ended up being released as singles, and with good reason.
Winner: Born in the U.S.A.
- Magic v. Tunnel of Love
Here’s a pair of underrated Bruce albums. Neither one was his best work from their respective decades, but they’re still solid. Magic feels like a Springsteen overview: There are rockers (“Radio Nowhere,” “Last to Die”), sexual testaments (“I’ll Work For Your Love”), and even a Born to Run throwback (“Livin’ in the Future”). It also shows new directions for Bruce, like the Beach Boys-esque “Girls in Their Summer Clothes.” It’s lone crime is that it’s really, really overproduced. Tunnel of Love, meanwhile, tends to get lost when people discuss Bruce’s ’80s records, perhaps because it’s an unshowy set of love songs about falling out of love. Aside from a soggy middle, it’s a solid record and doesn’t get nearly enough love from people. Go listen to “Brilliant Disguise.” It’s with regret, then, I have to declare Magic the winner. While the production irks me, it’s filler-free.
- The River vs. The Rising
I love “The River.” I kind of hate The River. A sprawling double album that dishes out radio-ready pop rockers and tear-in-your-beer sad sack ballads. There are a lot of great songs on there (“Two Hearts,” “Ramrod,” “Out in the Street,” and “Hungry Heart,” which was originally written for The Ramones). Now, I’m not denying that The Rising has filler either (“Worlds Apart” is thoroughly mediocre), but it’s such a satisfying, up-with-people collection. Released after 9/11, the record took on an instant healing context, although songs like “The Rising,” “Mary’s Place,” “My City of Ruins,” and “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” are so good that you could apply them to whatever personal drama is going on. It probably would have been stronger cut down 12, maybe even 10 tracks, but The Rising is Bruce’s best album from 2000s, and secretly in contention for one of his best records ever. Ultimately, this battle comes down to one very specific thing: The third verse from “The River” versus the bridge from “Mary’s Place.” I choose “Mary’s Place,” by just a hair.
Winner: The Rising