Bruce Springsteen’s two biggest and best-known albums are his Borns. Born to Run came out in 1975 as Bruce’s third album and catapulted him to superstardom. Born in the USA came out nine years later as Bruce’s seventh album. Both were massive successes critically and commercially.
The themes of the albums tie together quite well. Born in the USA serves as a twenty-years-later sequel to Born to Run. Both consider small town traps and the American dream.
In Born to Run, Bruce emphatically rejects complacency. His subjects are kids and young adults who have no interest in dreaming big or loving deeply.
Born in the U.S.A. shows a softer and more grown up side of Springsteen. His subject is older Americans whose chance at breaking free are long past. But he now depicts a pride and sentiment in staying loyal to humble roots.
What the albums have in common is that they are two of Bruce’s best and most accessible albums. Their thematic and nominal links make them natural partners.
I’ve been listening to them a lot recently, and I started wondering what a comparison might look like stacking up the twenty tracks on the two albums (8 on Run, 12 on USA) next to each other.
I decided, as a thought exercise, to rank each track, from #20 to #1. Neither album has a bad track, and both have very high peaks.
Here is my ranking:
20. Working on the Highway
Highway isn’t a bad song, it just doesn’t stand out. The melody never really escalates into anything special and the themes are mostly retreads of ones from better songs elsewhere on the album.
19. Meeting Across the River
I want to like Meeting Across the River, appreciate its street opera of a petty thief, and enjoy its subtle jazz influences. But it’s so low energy compared to the rest of Born to Run that its three-minute run time feels twice as long.
18. Bobby Jean
Of all the nostalgia-themed songs on Born in the USA, Bobby Jean is among the saddest (which is saying something). Unfortunately, the song never builds to a particularly interesting hook.
17. Downbound Train
Its melody is inert compared to the other songs on Born in the USA. It gets a slight boost because its lyrics hit you in the chest like a bag of bricks.
Night makes good use of a Spector-esque wall of sound. The fact that it comes across as inessential is a testament the strength of the surrounding material.
15. I’m Goin’ Down
Now we’re starting to talk! While #s 20-16 are good but inconsequential tracks, #s 15-9 are great tracks that have to stand in the shadows of giants. I’m Goin’ Down depicts a spiraling marriage with a chanted refrain of “going down, down, down…” and a few solid pop hooks.
14. Darlington County
Credit Bruce for making Darlington County a fun, radio-blasting party anthem without betraying the album’s dark themes: lying to yourself and ignoring the pain of stagnant, unaccomplished life.
13. She’s the One
Writers are supposed to improve their craft over time, which is why it’s so baffling that She’s the One’s starry-eyed portrait of a lover is orders of magnitude less compelling than For You and Rosalita off his first two albums. On the other hand, you have to admire and enjoy the song’s sonic blast. It’s catchy and punchy. Still, I can’t help but think that She’s the One is a missed opportunity.
12. I’m on Fire
I’m on Fire is a brooding ballad about an affair. Springsteen combines an understated performance, the most spare arrangement on Born in the USA, and a series of double entendres to make a great track. You can feel Bruce’s desire bubbling to the surface.
11. Born in the USA
Born in the USA is a better protest song than a rock song. The stomping guitar and fierce vocals have energy, but the melody never coalesces into any superior hooks. Bruce’s story of a vet who slips through America’s cracks is searing, but most days I prefer his more contemplative tunes.
10. My Hometown
Throughout Born to Run, Bruce dismisses the small folk who get stuck in their hometowns as failures. In My Hometown, the moving finale of Born in the USA, he finally recognizes the pride in sticking with your community through thick and thin.
9. Tenth-Avenue Freezeout
Bruce chronicles the rise of his E-Street Band in this fan favorite. Uptempo and catchy, Freezeout is a winner even if it lacks the depth of some of Springsteen’s other classics.
8. Cover Me
#s 1-8 on this list were somewhat challenging to rank: all of them would be the best tracks on most lesser albums, even other Bruce albums. They’re all classics and some of my favorite Springsteen songs.
Bruce’s paranoia in Cover Me is provocative, but what elevates the song to classic status is its pop composition and muscular production. This is a performance with edge but filled with hooks, making it a pleasure every time you listen.
7. No Surrender
Bruce gives No Surrender his Born to Run treatment, crafting a heavily dubbed wall of sound and an electric pop melody. The battle cry refrain (“no retreat, baby, no surrender”) and James Dean opening lines (“we learned more from a three minute record, baby / than we ever learned in school”) mask the doubt and lost dreams of the later verses.
One of Springsteen’s grandest tragedies and most stunning vocal performances. He considers a loss of youthful romance and the inevitable showdown we all face with the cruel world’s “backstreets.” It’s a heart breaker.
5. Glory Days
Bruce sweetens his venom with nostalgia, always an American favorite. The stomping tune is so infectious, and Bruce’s affection for his glory days is so apparent, that the song works just as well as a sing-a-long drinking anthem as it does a reflection on lost youth.
4. Dancing in the Dark
Springsteen’s reflection that he’s “just tired and bored with myself” is one of the quintessential Generation X lyrics. Bruce tempers his resignation with romance in this fantastic song with his search for a “spark” with an anonymous woman.
The Boss and his band conclude Born to Run with their most ambitious track ever. The nine and a half minute epic is a panorama of youth losing its way, of “soft refusal and then surrender.” Jungleand’s melody is so perfect, and its climax so moving, that it’s hard to think two songs could edge it. Yet here we are.
2. Born to Run
Bruce explodes out of the gate with the most important and memorable American rock track of the decade. He upholds a tradition of dense, Spectorian American pop and injects his sound with fiery passion. This track is a response to anyone who worried that romance and energy had disappeared from American rock. It’s also a great protest song. Springsteen’s lament of a “highway jammed with broken heroes” is a biting critique of a broken American dream. Born to Run is more relevant today than ever.
1. Thunder Road
I’ve listened to Thunder Road at least 50-100 times every year since I first got a copy of Born to Run in 2006. Its heroic stand against the path of least resistance feels personal to me, but I’m far from alone in that regard. It’s the perfect opening track: It captures the essence of Bruce’s poetic vision even better than Born to Run‘s title track. The closing sax riff captures a thousand emotions. In other words: It’s about as perfect and moving a rock song as you’ll ever hear.
How do the albums compare?
This, I suppose, is the thrust I’ve why I was even wondering about the songs. Recently I’ve been wondering if USA had passed Run as my second favorite Bruce album. (The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle is definitely my favorite by him.)
When you put it side by side, the picture is pretty clear: Born in the USA is great, rock-solid, and consistent. It’s a long album. much longer album than Born to Run, which makes it all the more impressive that there are no tracks worse than “very good.”
Born to Run, though, reaches transcendent peaks that Born in the USA doesn’t. If you take my ranking, assign 20 points to the #1 song, 19 points to the #2 song, etc. down to 0 points for the #20 song, Born to Run gets 91 points and Born in the USA gets 99. So it’s not a blowout — Born in the USA holds it own. But USA only barely beats Run despite having one and a half times as many songs.
Born in the USA‘s songs received an average rank of 11.75 in my list while Born to Run’s songs received an average rank of 8.625 — on average, I prefer Born to Run.
It’s kind of a silly argument, though, because both albums are so obviously 5-star classics. Across the two Borns there are plenty of gems and even a few masterpieces.