If you love The Boss, and have enjoyed his music for decades, then you know he has an immense back catalog full of excellent music. But what are the absolute essential 80s Bruce Springsteen songs? Well, in this article, we’re going to answer that question, as we explore the best music that Springsteen made during the entire decade of the 1980s.
Best 80s Bruce Springsteen Songs
Let’s begin with the song that actually came towards the end of the decade: “Tougher Than the Rest.”
1. Tougher Than The Rest (1987)
At the end of the 1980s, “Tougher Than The Rest” conveyed a message about Bruce Springsteen’s staying power, commitment to his music and fans, and triumph as one of the world’s biggest music stars. The combined power of these layers makes it into his best song of the decade.
The song is one of the all-time greatest examples of Springsteen’s talent for using a romantic narrative to make a bold statement about himself, his feelings for the people in his professional and personal life, and his place in the world at large. For millions of fans, “Tougher Than The Rest” communicated a sense of confident security: one of their favorite musical artists was here to stay.
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2. I’m on Fire (1984)
“I’m on Fire” personified Bruce Springsteen’s successful embrace of his own mainstream sex appeal, after having spent the early part of his career presenting himself as more of a scruffy, lovable underdog. The song itself was minimalist, direct and warm. Wistful synthesizer waves wash over the franticly pulsing guitar and drums accompaniment.
Bruce’s vocal part expresses intense romantic longing while remaining totally calm. “I’m on Fire” was paired with a video that showed Springsteen winning a woman’s heart by fixing her car in his shop; a Springsteen metaphor if there ever was one.
3. The River (1980)
“The River” opened a new chapter in bleak realism for Bruce Springsteen’s music, painting a picture of a couple united by uncompromising twists of fate. Inspired by Springsteen’s own sister and brother-in-law, “The River” tells a tale of teenage pregnancy that grounds a young couple in their hometown with a newborn baby and difficult job prospects.
While songs on the 70s Bruce Springsteen album Darkness on the Edge of Town had shown Born to Run’s youthful heroes reaching the end of their line and running out of gas, “The River” painted a heartbreaking picture of young Americans who had never even gotten a chance to run in the first place.
As the economic crises of the 1970s and early 80s wore on, many of Springsteen’s most economically downtrodden fans found this song to be a reflection of their everyday struggles.
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4. Dancing in the Dark (1984)
Even when compared to other tracks on the groundbreaking Born in the USA album, the exuberant vocals and production on “Dancing in the Dark” was unmatched when it came to commercial appeal and contagious pop energy.
The song’s narrative, however, was 100% classic Bruce: an American everyman fighting to maintain a sense of youthful inspiration, both creative and sexual, as the walls of adulthood close in around him. The music video even featured a starring role by young Courteney Cox, who would later take American television by storm in her role as Monica Geller on the sitcom Friends.
5. Atlantic City (1982)
While the haunting, almost entirely acoustic Nebraska was about as far from pop music as Springsteen ever got, “Atlantic City” became one of the album’s most enduringly popular songs and proved that he had the skills to write a catchy anthem without sacrificing a single degree of the darkness that characterizes the album.
Like “Nebraska”, “Atlantic City” told a tale of romantic escape that was neither rosy nor exciting. The narrator is in way over his head in the world of organized crime, and once his girlfriend gets to their meeting place on the Jersey Shore, they’ll be running for their lives.
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6. Hungry Heart (1980)
“Hungry Heart,” which Springsteen had originally offered as recording material to punk rockers The Ramones out of admiration for their talents for keeping things simple, is one of The Boss’s greatest bubble-gum pop songs.
In homage to the cartoonishly romantic chart-toppers of the early 1960s, Bruce sings in a freewheeling high register that at first listen sounds like a different singer entirely. The song’s message is as straightforward as can be: “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.”
7. Glory Days (1984)
“Glory Days” became an anthem for ageing baby boomers who were dedicated to getting their last kicks out in the newly digitized world of the 1980s. The stubborn, gritty blues guitar riff that opens the song is quickly pushed to the background by bright, shimmering synthesizer lines.
These two emblems of different musical eras end up working together to form a fun, playful tone, perfectly complementing the Boss’s message that you’re never too old to have fun.
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8. Reason to Believe (1982)
“Reason to Believe” offers a warm, glimmering ember of hope and inner peace at the end of a crushingly negative album. Like every other song on Nebraska, the characters in “Reason to Believe” are struck by tragedy – dead dogs, dead children, and of course, broken hearts – but unlike their predecessors, these characters find peace in embracing the spirit of endurance.
This song is a quiet anthem for Springsteen fans who feel like they have lost everything but are determined to survive.
9. Bobby Jean (1984)
While “Bobby Jean” at first glance appears to be about a young teenage romance fading into the sunset, any Springsteen fan knows that it was a metaphor for Bruce’s creative and working relationship with E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt.
By the time Born in the USA was released, it was clear that the Boss was ready to put his band on leave and tackle a few albums as a solo artist. “Bobby Jean” made it clear that he was parting ways on a high note and would never forget the ride that he and the E Street Band had taken each other on.
This song emphasizes commitment to friendship, even as life takes old friends in different directions.
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10. Highway Patrolman (1982)
No Springsteen song better captures the frustrating complexity of family bonds like “Highway Patrolman,” in which a police officer allows his trouble-making brother to escape across the Canadian border after he attacks a man at a bar.
“Highway Patrolman” brought home the tragic personal conflicts that can arise from protecting family at all costs. Like many songs on Nebraska, it took place in the Midwest, expanding the geographic setting far beyond New Jersey and the greater Northeast, where most of Springsteen’s previous material had taken place.
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11. Nebraska (1982)
While around half of the songs on The River presented a new era of cynical realism for Springsteen’s music, Nebraska represented a complete immersion in American hopelessness. The opening title track tells the story of serial murderer Charles Starkweather, written in the first person.
Never before had a Springsteen song taken the perspective of a cold-blooded, senseless murderer. “Nebraska” was an uncompromisingly dark interpretation of the vehicle-based romantic escapism Springsteen had been channeling since the breakout success of Born to Run.
12. Born in the USA (1984)
“Born in the USA” delivers a conflicted narrative unlike any other song in Springsteen’s catalog. The powerful, driving rhythm and production represents a dedicated patriotism. Relentless, full-blast drums and synthesizers conjure images of waving flags and military marches.
However, these All-American overtones are directly juxtaposed against bleak, jaded lyrics about a traumatized veteran returning home from Vietnam to a country that feels like a post-apocalyptic shell. While Ronald Reagan was quick to try and utilize the song in his 1984 re-election campaign after taking it at face value, Springsteen pulled the plug: the president was missing the point.
13. State Trooper (1982)
“State Trooper” is one of Springsteen’s most minimalist songs. As the lyrics describe an outlaw making a precarious drive on the New Jersey Turnpike in the middle of the night, Springsteen’s vocals dramatically charge up the simple, monotonous structure with overwhelming tension and suspense.
The tension is punctuated by bloodcurdling shrieks, which Springsteen modeled on performances by the goth rock band Suicide that he witnessed while exploring New York City’s explosive punk rock community at the legendary bar CBGB’s.
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Let’s add one more awesome song to this left, which is Independence Day.
Independence Day (1980)
“Independence Day” created a metaphor for the acceptance of change and determination to survive in the face of that change. In the lyrics, a father makes it clear to his son that the life they have been living simply can’t continue, as the world is transforming before their very eyes. The weary vocals are set against a droning, downtempo instrumental background that characterizes the winds of change blowing old times off into the distance.
As factories closed around the United States in the late 1970s and on into the 1980s, “Independence Day” crafted a narrative centered around meeting new beginnings in stride.
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A list of the greatest 80s Bruce Springsteen songs could easily contain twice as many entries as this one, but no Springsteen fan would argue with the timeless vitality of those listed here. Whether he was topping the charts with speaker-blowing, synthesizer-powered anthems or lurking in the shadowy early morning with acoustic murder ballads, Bruce Springsteen was at his best on each of his full-length releases during the 1980s. By the decade’s end, he was a bona-fide global superstar, and everyone knew he had put in the work to deserve it.
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