The Essential Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

Columbia Records, 2003

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


After the botched Greatest Hits album, Bruce Springsteen fans had to wonder if their man was ever going to be graced with a decent best-of collection. And while some might argue his two official live albums with the E Street Band -- Live 1975-85 and Live In New York City -- function as pretty fair assemblages of his best work played in its most effective environment, traditionalists like me still tend to think an artist of Springsteen's caliber deserves a best-of done right.

In that respect, The Essential Bruce Springsteen is a most welcome addition. Instead of trying to shoehorn the man's best work onto a single disc, Essential wisely allots two discs and throws in a third bonus disc of rarities and unreleased cuts.

The two best-of discs are well-executed in almost every respect. The sequencing is chronological -- almost mandatory when dealing with an artist who has evolved as much as musically Springsteen has over time -- and the song choices are almost uniformly excellent. In contrast to Greatest Hits, which cut straight to "Born To Run," Essential includes no less than five tracks from Springsteen's first two discs, including the truly essential "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)."

Better yet, it augments chart hits like "Hungry Heart," "Dancing In The Dark," "Tunnel Of Love" and "Streets Of Philadelphia" with important album tracks such as "Jungleland," "The Promised Land," "Nebraska" and "Living Proof." As always, fans could -- as Springsteen himself ruefully acknowledges in his amusing liner notes -- second-guess any number of picks here. Why "For You" instead of "Growin' Up"? How can you include "Human Touch" and "Mary's Place" when you couldn't find room for "Racing In The Streets" or "Backstreets"? Etc., etc.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The bottom line is, discs one and two do capture most of Springsteen's best work and faithfully represent each of his albums. In that respect, they constitute the best collection of his studio work issued to date.

The bonus disc is more problematic, and the main issue seems to be one of timing. A rarities disc is usually a great idea for an artist as prolific and neurotic about his output as Springsteen has historically been. Thing is, by the time this album came out, he'd already opened up the vaults and issued Tracks. So what we're left with for this "essential" collection's bonus disc is a bunch of songs that didn't make it onto a four-disc rarities box set!

And they are a truly oddball bunch. Arguably the highlight is the first track "From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)," a rollicking story-song Springsteen cut for The River but ended up giving to Dave Edmunds instead. Second on my chart would be the River-era E Street Band's smoldering, explosive live version of Jimmy Cliff's "Trapped," a cut fans have heard many times but which has never made it onto an official recording until now. Third would have to be The Boss's romp through the Elvis classic "Viva Las Vegas," which is a hoot and a half, not to mention a wink and a nod to one of his greatest influences.

The remainder of the bonus disc consists mainly of a mix of interesting experiments and slightly moldy leftovers. Among the experiments are two tracks cut for films, the eerie, loop-heavy "Missing" and the frankly bizarre "Lift Me Up," which Springsteen sings entirely in a falsetto that renders his voice almost unrecognizable. The leftovers are cuts from the vault that didn't even make it onto Tracks, and for good reason. "None But The Brave," "The Big Payback" and "County Fair" are pale shadows of the albums they were recorded for ( Born In The USA and Nebraska).

And this is where the "essential" label betrays this album. It's pretty hard to argue that songs not good enough to make the cut for Tracks are more essential than "Backstreets." Be that as it may, The Essential Bruce Springsteen does feature on discs one and two the most complete existing collection of the man's best work. If you keep your expectations for the bonus disc low, you'll be fine.

Rating: B+

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© 2005 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.