Vulture’s “All 314 Bruce Springsteen Songs, Ranked From Worst to Best”
Late last year, an editor I was working with at Vulture asked me if I was interested in taking on the assignment of ranking and rating all of Bruce Springsteen’s songs, similar to other major ranking projects they have on their site. I immediately said “yes.” I like hard assignments that take me out of my comfort zone and give me a chance to go deep.
We deliberated a bit on what made the list — no covers, only officially released songs — and I went to work.
This isn’t a list of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs. If you’ve read anything on this site you know that. Personal lists are also ever-changing, and that’s how it should be. I wanted to create a strong list based on objective criteria and then I had the job of backing that up in writing, on a song-by-song basis. You can’t just say “This song sucks.”
The criteria always has to be the lyrics and the music. It can’t be anything else for this kind of list. I allowed for the song’s live performance to provide a bump or a bonus when I wasn’t sure, but it couldn’t be the governing factor — but equally, it couldn’t be ignored, either.
Even with the parameters, I still went back and forth on ‘No covers.’ How can I write this list without “Trapped”? What about “Jersey Girl”? But it soon became clear that they didn’t fit the notion of the exercise, especially once I established criteria for ranking. He hasn’t written the lyrics for the cover, and not every cover has been rearranged, so then you’re ranking an opinion of an interpretation and that’s a different exercise. The covers were out. (This also eliminated Seeger Sessions, which could be its own project.)
There is no website that has all of the songs. I had to get this from a friend who keeps these kind of lists. (Thank you.) To formulate the initial ranking, I wrote every song on an index card, and then I went to a hotel for a long weekend so I could spread everything out. I took some initial photos of this process:
This is because I am An Old, and I’m still tactile. I needed to see the songs in order to sort them.
Once I had an initial order I was happy with, I re-ordered the master Google sheet I had with all of the songs. The Google sheet would then let me sort by range, so I could sort each album within the ranking: “Is this really the best song on ‘Born To Run’?” The ranking had to make sense that way, for sure, and I definitely moved some things around based on the results of that exercise. That presented a challenge when it came to Tracks, as it’s not constructed as an album, but with Tracks, you have to remember that some songs didn’t make the records for very good reasons.
I had every song on a portable hard drive–I don’t have everything on my phone, I like too much other music–so there was obviously a lot of listening. Even when I was sure I knew what I was talking about, I went back and re-checked it. I listened with headphones, I listened with speakers. There were songs I remembered as better than they actually were. There were songs that had great personal meaning to me, but once I spent time with the lyrics and the music, realized they did not actually rank that highly as per the criteria.
The songs that were the hardest were the ones that ranked lower down. It took me almost an entire day to research “American Land” sufficiently in order to be able to adequately express why I do not believe this to be a good song.
I had a few trusted friends look at the list, sworn to secrecy. I picked people whose Springsteen opinions I respect, but that do not mirror mine exactly–I am interested in how they think about him but did not expect them to agree. I wanted to hear what they thought was missing, what they thought was wrong, what they didn’t agree with but thought “Bold choice, I could respect that there.” They did not read the descriptions, just looked at the raw list. They asked some good questions and basically confirmed that I was on the right track, and I did get some indirect encouragement to move some songs I had been uncertain about further up and down the list. (I’m being deliberately vague.)
The writing went on for some time. This is a piece that’s going to hang around for a while so I wanted to make sure it was tight. It was fact-checked by my own personal fact-checker, who also fact-checks Backstreets. (My favorite correction: “It was the Whole Foods in Middletown, not Red Bank” – this about “Queen of the Supermarket”.) I edited the heck out of this piece, writing and rewriting and checking and rechecking, before finally filing back in April (the original deadline, based on the fact that the tour was supposed to end in April back when I got the assignment).
I didn’t expect this to be 20,000 words but I write large easily–concision is what stymies me most. I love large projects that let me dig deep into history and allow me to do tons of research. I love large projects that are out of my comfort zone. I love the excuse to reflect and think and challenge my own preconceived thoughts and notions. This assignment did all of those things, and I’m thrilled to have my byline on it.
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