By Maureen Lee Lenker
September 23, 2019 at 06:34 PM EDT
Ebet Roberts/Redferns

There’s a reason Bruce Springsteen is The Boss.

To millions of fans around the world, the rock star’s songs are the soundtrack to their lives — there for them when they need to pump themselves up, wallow in their sorrow, or just show a little faith. Even for those who aren’t Springsteen lovers, tracks like “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” and “Dancing in the Dark” are an inescapable part of the American soundscape.

But for every rock anthem that we know every word to, there are even more great tracks that live in relative anonymity. Diehard Springsteen fans know them all, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean they’re not underrated in their own way.

It’s hard to think of a rock star as anything but ageless, but Sept. 23, 2019 heralds Springsteen’s eighth decade on Earth. So for Bruce’s 70th, we’ve rounded up 12 under-appreciated tracks for you to turn the radio up loud and listen to as you take that last chance power drive as you’re pullin’ out of here to win.

“If I Should Fall Behind” from Lucky Town

Off of 1992 album Lucky Town, “If I Should Fall Behind” is arguably the greatest love song Bruce has ever written. The song tells the story of two lovers who swore they’d travel “side by side” — but because we all have such different strides, they will wait for each other if one or the other happens to fall behind. It’s a lilting, lushly romantic song that speaks to the secret behind finding “love lasting and true”: equal, patient partnership and being there for each other no matter what. Springsteen hasn’t written many wedding songs, but this one tells a tale of a type of love every bride and groom should aspire to.

“American Skin (41 Shots)” from High Hopes

This powerful song is a parable for the dangers of simply living in one’s American skin. Springsteen originally wrote it as a response to the police shooting death of Amadou Diallo and debuted it at Madison Square Garden in 2000 as part of the E Street Band reunion tour. However, its stark tale of a mother teaching her son to always be polite and its somber refrain — “You get killed just for living in your American skin” — has only grown more relevant. Springsteen finally included it on a studio album with 2014’s High Hopes by which time he’d started performing it in concert in response to Trayvon Martin’s death. Bruce has never shied away from political statements in his music, and this is a simple, effective melody that proves how much a song can say.

“You’re Missing” from The Rising

Springsteen is a master of writing about loss, and this lyrical ballad perfectly captures the hollow numbness of grief as life continues on around you. He originally wrote the song in 1994, but it found its ideal home on 2002’s The Rising as a response to the events of 9/11, with the lyrics evoking the lives lost on that day. “Everything is everything, but you’re missing,” he intones. Perhaps more than any other Springsteen track, this one can bring tears to your eyes in just a few bars — while also standing as a solace in its reminder of the shared experience of mourning.

“Out in the Street” from The River

What? You thought this was going to be all sad songs? A Springsteen list of any kind wouldn’t be complete without at least a few booty-shaking jams. The River was Springsteen’s only double album and his first to hit the Billboard 200 when it was released in 1980. Its length means its bursting with under-appreciated gems, like this unabashed celebration of the joys of the end of the work day. We all know the glee of what it is to come home, take off your work clothes, and get ready to go out in the street (or crash on the couch).

“Fire” from The Promise

This song f–ks. That’s all there is to it. And it makes sense since Bruce wrote it for his own idol, Elvis Presley, who died before ever even receiving the demo. It reached success on the charts as recorded by the Pointer Sisters, but it’s long been a Springsteen concert staple. It finally made it on to 2010’s The Promise, a box set of previously unreleased songs from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions. The deep-throated tribute to the promise of something more in the “fire” of a kiss is sex musicalized, with its languid beat and low tones hinting at something deeply erotic and pulsing. When it comes to Springsteen and fire as a metaphor, he sure knows how to make it sexy.

“My Father’s House” from Nebraska

Springsteen’s relationship with his father has provided untold amounts of fodder for his songwriting. On The River, he probed their strained relationship on “Independence Day,” but this sparser track off 1982’s Nebraska is perhaps an even more heartbreaking look at the unfinished business between them. It’s such a spare, precise examination of all the things in that father-son relationship that haunt Bruce that he used it in Springsteen on Broadway as a storytelling anchor around the ways his father’s depression, working class life (and uniform), and withholding of love shaped his life and his music.

“Leap of Faith” from Lucky Town

Springsteen writes about faith a lot (those Catholic roots are strong) — it’s in “Thunder Road,” “Backstreets,” “Badlands,” “The Promised Land,” and more. This song taps into a Biblical metaphor to stress the importance of faith in one’s life, whether it be in relationships, a career, or something more intangible. Springsteen understands the power of faith, but if you’re teetering on the edge of a big decision, this twangy, rocking reminder of taking that leap might just help tip your hand. The song may not be as poetic as much of his music, but it’s his most straightforward assessment of one of his most common themes.

“I Wanna Marry You” from The River

Another track off The River, “I Wanna Marry You” hits the sweet spot on the album between banging party blowouts and more somber, character-driven pieces. This tale of a man watching a working-girl mom down on her luck walk her babies around the block and wanting to marry her is pure fantasy, but it’s rare we get something so romantic and idealistic from the Boss. It’s a simple proposal, but he infuses it with such warmth and charm that it becomes a working-class fairy-tale.

“Ain’t Good Enough For You” from The Promise

This is another previously unreleased track off The Promise, and it honestly sounds more like a Billy Joel song than Springsteen. It also feel like it came from a different time, with its bright, buzzy melody line and enthusiastic party sounds throughout. Bruce has perfected the art of writing a song about a deteriorating relationship (see: “I’m Going Down” on Born in the U.S.A. or all of Tunnel of Love), but this more earnest take on feeling like you’re never good enough in your partner’s eyes is a fizzy, fun listen that taps into something inherently youthful and breezy.

“Frankie Fell in Love” from High Hopes

This celebratory romp about two roommates whose life is upended when their female roommate gets engaged is pure, playful Springsteen. He purposely wrote it to evoke his days living with bandmate Steven Van Zandt in Asbury Park, and there’s something delightful in imagining Stevie and Bruce struggling to cook themselves dinner when their roommate moves out, leaving them high and dry. It’s a fun, unabashedly joyous track.

“Mary’s Place” from The Rising

“Meet me at Mary’s place, we’re gonna have a party,” proclaims the chorus of this ode to having a good time. The Rising is Springsteen’s post-9/11 album, and many of the songs are tinged with deep loss. This track stands out as a joyous interlude that is perhaps less spiritual than the title track and in less frequent rotation than “Waitin’ On a Sunny Day.” It deserves just as much attention as those songs for the way it turns the notion of Mary’s place into a vibrantly musical space of joy and salvation. Listening to it is as good a time as the party he describes in the lyrics.

“Tougher than the Rest” from Tunnel of Love

Springsteen has written about love in all its forms — its crushing disappointments, its breathless hope, its solid reassurance. “Tougher than the Rest” pulses with an optimism shaded by the song’s admittance that love requires someone who is “rough and ready” for it. He regularly sings it on tour (and did every night on Broadway) with wife Patti Scialfa, so it clearly speaks to something innate in their connection. Sometimes you need a lushly romantic love song, but other times, you need one that understands that love is about hard work and showing up even when it’s tough. Springsteen’s music has always reveled in its stories of the working-class, and this is a blue-collar, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty love song if there ever was one.

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