CK Retro Review: Ranking Bruce Springsteen’s Albums

One of my readers did this for me with Dylan when I did Retro Reviews on his albums, and I thought it would be a neat idea to sort of wrap up what I’ve been doing the past several weeks with Springsteen. The basic idea is to take the star ratings for each of the songs, add them up, and divide them by the number of songs on each album, thus yielding a sort of rating for each album. And here’s how it turned out, from best to worst:

1. Born To Run-4.5

2. Nebraska-4.3

3. Darkness On The Edge Of Town-4.2

4. Born In The U.S.A.-4.16

5. The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle-4.14

6. Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ-4.00

7. The River-3.8

8. Tunnel Of Love-3.73

9. Magic-3.58

10. Wrecking Ball-3.55

11. Working On A Dream-3.54

12. The Ghost Of Tom Joad-3.33

13. Lucky Town-3.3

14. The Seeger Sessions-3.23

15. The Rising-3.13

T16. Devils & Dust-3

T16. High Hopes-3

18. Human Touch-2.71

A few observations:

– I find it interesting that Greetings is ranked so well. I always talk about it as being uneven, and I still think it is, but I find the songwriting fascinating even when the songs themselves are flawed on that album. And the songs that cohere on that album are stellar. So I guess I just hold a soft spot in my heart for those early days when Springsteen just threw everything he had at every song, as opposed to being the tough editor he eventually became.

Wrecking Ball nips Working On A Dream, but I think if I could take only one of them to a desert island right now, it would probably be the latter. That could be because I’ve heard Wrecking Ball more often due to its being more recent and oft-played (especially on E Street Radio), but I still think the numbers betray my true feelings a bit here.

– Interesting how Lucky Town outstrips some albums that probably have a better reputation, but I feel like the ranking is accurate. Had Springsteen only released that album and shelved Human Touch, I think Lucky Town would certainly have a better standing among the faithful. It gets bogged down by its association with the weakest album in the Bruce canon.

Nebraska at #2: I can live with that because of its stunning consistency, and the way that Bruce makes an album of acoustic songs still sound so varied. Maybe that’s why The Ghost Of Tom Joad suffers a little bit; where Nebraska zips by, Joad can feel like a bit of a drag when taken all in one sitting.

Overall, this little mathematical exercise was enlightening. Obviously, trying to quantify music is somewhat foolhardy; as much of a sabermetric fan as I might be, I can’t make the leap that you can render a piece of words and music as a set of data in the same way you can a baseball player’s performance.

Yet I think that anyone can do this kind of thing, using their opinions as the basis, and it can provide a pretty good overview of the quality of an artist’s work over time. The old adage that says numbers don’t lie doesn’t completely apply in this case, but I think it’s fair to say that they are somewhere in the vicinity of the truth.

Stay tuned next week for excerpts from my new book Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, now available at all online booksellers.


9 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Ranking Bruce Springsteen’s Albums”

  1. Ralf says:

    Actually a very good ranking although I’d place The E Street Shuffle and especially Greetings a bit lower and Lucky Town / Human Touch a bit higher. I’d say Tunnel of Love deserves a higher position as well, but since they are ranked by how each individual song was rated, I guess it’s fair. Tunnel of Love is one of those albums where the whole is better than the sum of its parts.

  2. Baggy says:

    I’m not a fan of the statistical approach, but i do think the list comes out pretty well and is a good summary of your excellent reviews over the last several weeks CK.

    I would have Lucky Town higher, but the top of the list looks very strong. For me Nebraska does lack light and shade (a polite way of saying it all sounds the same….) and would drop down below most of those in the first half of the list, but i’ll accept that as a matter of personal taste..

  3. […] CK Retro Review: Ranking Bruce Springsteen's Albums […]

  4. Luis says:

    I await eagerly your exercise for the Dylan songs in compilations and bootleg series. So much to work with. As you did with Bruce,s Tracks. Thanks for this.

  5. Huck Elroyberry says:

    An album is not simply the sum of its tracks. A great album is about the selection of songs, sequencing, etc. Unfortunately today’s reality is reflected in your analysis – albums don’t really exist anymore. So what’s the point of this analysis? It won’t help me find the best album; just the best collection of songs. Did the greatest hits collections beat out the rest?

    • Ralf says:

      The quality of each individual song still matters to a degree…

    • countdownkid says:

      I don’t disagree at all, Huck. I even admit as much by saying that I like WOAD better than Wrecking Ball even though the latter gets a better “mathematical” ranking. And you’re absolutely right about sequencing and song selection and the like. For instance, even though “She’s The One” and “Night” are, in my opinion, far weaker than the songs around them on BTR, I think they serve an important purpose as breathers from all the consciously epic stuff around them.

      But I do think there’s something to taking them apart piece by piece to sort of quantify how great these albums are. I just found the exercise, though by no means definitive enlightening, and I love stats, so I couldn’t resist. But your points are definitely on the money.

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