"Best of" Bruce Springsteen?

On April 19th, Bruce Springsteen will release a new greatest hits compilation titled Best of Bruce Springsteen. but is it?

"Best of" Bruce Springsteen?

On April 19th, Bruce Springsteen will release a new greatest hits compilation titled Best of Bruce SpringsteenBest of… is touted as “staples of Bruce’s live shows, best-selling breakouts, and recent releases together in one set for the first time,” (emphasis mine) while the sticker on the album’s front cover declaims that the release is, “A CAREER-SPANNING HITS COLLECTION” “featuring 19 Classic Tracks.” 

It is 2024, and the entirety of recorded music – definitely the entirety of Bruce Springsteen’s officially-released material – is available to anyone with an internet connection. Even if you believe that music fans, especially folks who are newer to E Street, are open to the kind of direction and guidance provided by a greatest hits compilation, this release does not provide it. What it actually is is a hodge-podge of 18 Springsteen originals that lack the gravitas of the original greatest hits (or even the successive ones), and will confuse anyone trying to use this release as a starting point or reference guide. Shall we take a look?

The best thing I can say about this is that it is presented chronologically and by that I mean that one does not have to strain oneself to determine why these songs are in the order that they are in. The problem is that it's unclear from this tracklisting what story is being presented with this release. If we go back to the marketing copy, what’s supposed to be remarkable about this release is that it is a combination of 1) live staples 2) “best-selling breakouts” (I don’t even know what that means and I worked in the record industry for a decade) 3) recent releases (nothing from OTSS is on here and that is the most recent release last time I checked) 4) all of these particular songs are together on one record. 

Literally no one ever thought "I wish I owned an album that had 'Secret Garden’ on one side and 'Streets of Philadelphia' on the other,” except for Bruce Springsteen and Jon Landau. Bruce is very proud of "Secret Garden" for some reason that goes beyond its placement in Jerry Maguire. He’s referred to it as “darkly erotic” and I refer to it as “trying way too hard for a guy who literally doesn’t have to try hard at all.” “Secret Garden” has been performed in concert just five times; it went gold, so one could put it into the “best-selling” bucket, but I would have rather seen “American Land” or “Waiting on a Sunny Day” on this record in place of “Secret Garden.” It is incredibly dated, but both Bruce and Mr. Landau were absolutely convinced that “Secret Garden” would have been a gigantic hit. Clearly, someone still feels that way, because it is 2024 and here it is again.

This tracklist feels like it was compiled by throwing an axe at Bruce's catalog and where it hit is what got chosen. You’ve got the mega super enormous hits next to “Badlands,” which absolutely wins the “staples of Bruce’s live shows” award. But then there’s “Atlantic City,” which was on the 1995 OG Greatest Hits, but the last time you could reliably call it a staple of the live show was back on the Born in the USA tour. “Human Touch” is a staple of the live show in my dreams (showing up once in 2024 does not make it a staple, trainspotters), but regrettably it has only been performed 20-some times since 2000 across multiple tours. “Brilliant Disguise,” from 1988’s Tunnel of Love, has had better luck, with 42 appearances within that same time frame, but which of the three categories above is it supposed to fit into?

If you took a poll of every fifth person at a current Springsteen concert, I don’t think that half of them could tell you what record “Hello Sunshine” was on. It was not a best-seller and Springsteen has stated that he has no intention of performing any of the songs from Western Stars live because the instrumentation is too complex to replicate in concert, which is a funny statement from a man currently touring with a 18/19 member ensemble, but for the sake of argument we’ll stipulate his point that the lush orchestral arrangements would be challenging in a live setting.

(When Best of was announced, I confess that for about five seconds I confused it with “Hey Blue Eyes” from the American Beauty EP, and that thought was incredibly exciting. It still is. It will never happen, and will remain hidden under the rock Bruce stuck it under for all eternity. #231 on the list, if you care.)

What story is this record trying to tell? Or am I giving it too much credit?

Programming vinyl is tough! And when one is programming for the 22-minutes-per-side of a vinyl record, there are understandable constraints involved. You have to pick what songs will fit without leaving too much empty space on each side. Album sequencing was an art. Even if you were comfortable with the energy and the pace and the emotional arc, all of which take considerable time and vision and imagination, you are then faced with whether or not your desired song order is 22 minutes long. If you’ve been to any of the Rock Hall exhibits or spent any time thumbing through the extensive liner notes of the River or Darkness box sets, you’ve seen how many pages are devoted to working this out (and of course we’re only seeing what they’re showing us; there are absolutely more of them). 

Here are some other things that make no sense.

  • The CD has the same tracklisting as the LP. You could have gone to a second CD! 
  • There is a “digital” version of this release, billed as “an expanded 31-song digital deluxe version.” I am embarrassed on behalf of the person who had to come up with how to give some kind of special billing for a playlist. I could go make this playlist right now – anyone could! Why is this not the CD version? I still think the stated theme of this release is questionable / embarrassing / flimsy but at least I look at the "digital deluxe" tracklist and can see a story there. It is an above-average representation of his career. I don’t understand why “Jungleland” or “Backstreets” aren’t on this list (especially if we’re throwing around the “live staples” definition) but if someone knew nothing about Bruce Springsteen and they found the playlist, they would come out of it with a decent understanding of the breadth of the man’s career. But you can’t present a list of songs on a web page as “a digital deluxe version.” 
  • There is only one alternative colorway of the album being offered. A 2023 study established that 50% of the people who buy vinyl don’t own a turntable, but that fans are buying LP's as a collectible, as a way of identifying as a fan of an artist. It’s aspirational, it’s tangible, unlike a playlist. It’s also a way to appreciate the artwork in a size that is more comfortable to look at and even display, and a record’s artwork has always been part of the entire story behind a release.  This is the reasoning behind the multiple special editions and various colorways from everyone from Adele to Taylor Swift to Pearl Jam. If Best of had had 10 different colorways I'd be bitching about that too as a blatant money grab, but at least it would be a strategy that made sense.

Even if the intention is to offer this record in the spirit of giving fans something they can buy to represent their fandom, what they've given them is ugly. They decided to sully Eric Meola’s gorgeous photography from the Born to Run cover session with a bad version of what’s supposed to be Bruce Springsteen’s handwriting. What’s worse is that they’ve used two completely different fonts, one for the title and tracklisting and another for what’s supposed to be his signature, and even the worst fake signatures on eBay look better than what’s on this album cover. Maybe this is really his handwriting, maybe he wrote it out specially for this album release. It still looks absolutely terrible. It looks like the counterfeit CDs you used to buy at swap meets.

It does not look like anything that’s supposed to represent an updated career retrospective from one of rock and roll’s greatest musicians. Is this supposed to be more welcoming to a younger demographic? It feels very “how do you do, fellow kids.” No one is going to hang this on their wall or display it when you can just display the Born to Run album, or even Greatest Hits, which also took its imagery from the Meola BTR sessions. This is the same man who drove to the printing plant for the Darkness album to make sure he liked how the cover slicks were coming off of the presses. (On the other hand, this is also the same man who releases the ugliest t-shirts in rock and roll, so maybe it's intentional.)

Greatest hits albums used to come out after an artist had released about four albums. By that time, the artist would have had a sufficient body of work to draw on, and if your record contract was for five albums, you’d release a greatest hits to close out the contract and give you time to renegotiate or write some more material. Bruce never stopped writing in the early days, and as we all know, he almost didn’t get to make his fourth album, and so it was not a time for sitting on one's laurels. The record that actually served the purpose of a greatest hits record is Live 1975-1985, which, for all the flaws the diehards moaned about, was summational and celebratory and reminded all the people who got on the bus at the time of Born in the USA that yes, this man is one of the best live performers in rock and roll, and he has earned every accolade he has recently acquired, and this is how he got there. 

In 2016, Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote a great piece for Pitchfork where he discussed how the greatest hits album is dead. He said, “Repurposing old tunes for new product is no longer part of the industry,” but also spoke to their importance as “a common point of reference.” Unlike a playlist, a greatest hits album exists forever, and the existence of the physical product not only establishes a baseline, it also helps new fans process and coalesce for themselves the entirety of an artist’s body of work. That’s the vision I see when I look at the original 1995 Greatest Hits. I don’t see any vision on Best of. The goal of this release is unclear, and its impact will be negligible. That is not a word that should ever be used when talking about Bruce fucking Springsteen.

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