B&V’s Best of 2020: New LPs And Live/Vault/Archival Releases, Bad Year/Good Music

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I can’t believe 2020 is almost over. Most years I blink and the year is gone. I can’t really say that about this year. In a matter of two days I’ll be scribbling a “1” over the “0” in the date column on my checks… “Oh it’s 2021 not 2020, sorry.” Yes, I still use checks… you kids and your “apps.” At least this year, in Christmas cards, I didn’t have to read everybody’s not-so-humble bragging about what they did in 2020. This year we’re all just glad we survived. While 2020 was a long slow slog in most areas, it was actually quite a nice year for music. I find myself, in my prior year end retrospectives quoting Don Henley, “It was a pretty good year for fashion, a lousy year for rock n roll.” I certainly can’t say that this year. I will say there is one glaring exception to my 2020 rosy music view: concerts. I miss live music so much I can’t stand it. I’m hopeful, like I never was at the beginning of 2020 about anything, that in 2021 I will be standing in a darkened room in front of a band with my hands in the air, screaming wildly. If Springsteen and the E Street Band’s SNL performance is any indication… I think these musicians are ready to go and are going to come out firing once “the coast is clear” as they say.

It was, if I may say so, a great year at BourbonAndVinyl. I want to say a big Thank You to all the readers, commenters, and followers out there – both those joined us this year and to all of you have been around a while as well. I started this thing with a dialogue with fellow music (and bourbon) lovers in mind and this year that concept came to fruition. With musicians off the road this year, so many acts chose to put out new music or cull through their archives. I found myself writing a lot more than in previous years… sorry if that was a little overwhelming… I get excited about music and I have to share. If you’ve enjoyed B&V this year – tell a friend. All music lovers are welcome. Hopefully I’ve turned you on to something you might have missed which is our goal here at B&V.

There were huge losses this year in rock n roll, too many to enumerate. I was saddened to see Bill Withers pass away this year. “Ain’t No Sunshine” is still one of my favorite tracks. I’ve been hearing “Lovely Day” a lot on commercials lately. Glad to see Bill get some recognition. I was rocked this year by the loss of two titans of rock n roll in the B&V universe. Losing drummer/lyricist Neil Peart of Rush really rocked me. I can still remember the first time I air-drummed to 2112 in junior high school. Rush was so huge here in the heartland, Peart’s loss reverberated through everybody. Making things worse, this year we lost one of the greatest guitarists to ever strap on the instrument, Eddie Van Halen. That one left a mark. Van Halen’s music is such an integral part of my listening as young man it’s almost a part of who I am. Hard, edgy and yet funny at the same time. I loved that band from Van Halen to Fair Warning to 1984 to For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Eddie’s guitar playing was always the price of admission for me. He redefined the instrument and that doesn’t happen much, perhaps once every generation or so. His presence, warmth and smile will be missed.

So plentiful was music in 2020 it’s hard to think of an artist who didn’t put out something new or something from the archives. I barely scratched the surface this year. Elton John put out a box set entitled Jewel Box that was a 10 hour journey through demo’s, deep album tracks and rarities. It was great, albeit mellow, but I felt it was for fans only so I didn’t write about it. The King, Elvis Presley put out a 4-disc box Elvis In Nashville (clearly a play on the title his big LP Elvis In Memphis) that collected all of the country/country rock tracks that Elvis recorded over the course of 3 days in Nashville in 1970. Those songs made up the bulk of three albums including the wonderful Elvis Country. The first two discs had all the actual songs, without any studio sweetening but with the second two discs being demo’s – I love the studio chatter of Elvis hanging with musicians – it felt like a fans only kinda thing. It’s a rare year where I can pick/choose the stuff I write about… skipping Elton and Elvis, wow what a year.

There were some fun singles too. The Black Crowes re-released their Christmas classic “Dirty Santa.” I can only hope the brothers Robinson will record a new album in 2021. B&V favs Starcrawler released their cover of Petty’s “I Need To Know” with Heartbreaker Mike Campbell joining in. Greta Van Fleet released their first single “My Way, Now” from their upcoming album… All this is points toward a good 2021!

Here are my favorites from 2020. The first list is new music, stuff that musicians newly recorded. Below, I’ll furnish my list of vault/archive/live albums – where artists either went back and dug out previously recorded material or compilations and also any live albums that caught my attention. I wrote about a lot more than I’m listing here, these are just my favorites. They aren’t in any particular ranked order, it’s pretty random. Enjoy!

B&V’s Favorite New Albums of 2020

  1. Ozzy Osbourne, Ordinary Man – Ozzy returned after a decade’s absence with a great new record. With producer/guitar whizz Andrew Watt helming the project and RHCP’s Chad Smith on drums, GnR bassist Duff McKagan on bass as the backing band, you knew this would be great. Cameos by Slash and Elton John were icing on the cake, Review: Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Ordinary Man’ – A Simply Extraordinary Album!.
  2. Pearl Jam, Gigaton – Like Ozzy, it had been a long time since these guys had released anything (7 years). I was a touch lukewarm on this record when it came out. It is definitely a “grower.” The more I listen to it the more I like it. The second half of the record gets a little mellow but those are some of my favorite songs. I’d love to see these guys live again, it’s been years, Review: Pearl Jam’s First LP In 7 Years, ‘Gigaton’ – My Conflicted Thoughts.
  3. Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters – It had been 8 years since genius Fiona Apple had released an album – I’m seeing a trend here in 2020 – but Fetch The Bolt Cutters was worth the wait. I think it may be the perfect “lockdown” album, thematically at least, Review: Fiona Apple, ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ – Genius Unleashed.
  4. Bob Dylan, Rough And Rowdy Ways – Another artist with a huge gap since his last studio record – 8 years. Dylan had been releasing Sinatra cover LPs for much of that time so it was nice to hear self-penned stuff again. It was preceded by the mesmerizing 18 minute long “Murder Most Foul.” Great, late-period Dylan, Review: The White Stripes ‘Greatest Hits’ – A Lovingly Curated Romp Through Their Career.
  5. Pretenders, Hate For Sale – Original drummer Martin Chambers returns and he and Chrissie Hynde deliver the goods on this punchy, rocking album, LP Review: Pretenders ‘Hate For Sale’ – A Late Career Classic With Attitude!.
  6. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Letter To You – Bruce contemplates his own mortality, inspired by the death of the last surviving member of his first band, the Castiles. I loved Western Stars, his 70s southern California noir but it’s great to hear him back with the E Street Band, Review: Springsteen’s ‘Letter To You’ – Contemplating Mortality On E Street.
  7. AC/DC, Power Up – I would have never thought Angus would be able to pull Brian Johnson, Phil Rudd, and Cliff Williams back into the fold and record another spectacular album. Power Up may be my pick for album of the year – if I still picked albums of the year… Review: AC/DC’s Spectacular Return, ‘Power Up’.
  8. The Dirty Knobs, Wreckless Abandon – Former Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ guitarist and “co-captain” and current member of Fleetwood Mac, Mike Campbell’s side project finally releases their debut album. There are a lot of echos of Petty here but make no mistake, this is a guitar album. It’s a lot of fun, Review: Mike Campbell’s New Band The Dirty Knobs, ‘Wreckless Abandon”.
  9. Chris Cornell, Nobody Sings Like You Anymore, Vol 1 – I was tempted to put this in the “vault” list but this is all unreleased stuff that was recorded and sequenced by Cornell. He obviously planned to release it but alas didn’t live to do so. All well chosen covers, this LP underscores what a tragedy it was when his voice was silenced, Review: Chris Cornell Posthumous Release, ‘No One Sings Like You Anymore, Vol. 1’ – A Nice Surprise From An Old Friend.
  10. Paul McCartney, McCartney III – A homespun gem more in the manner of McCartney than McCartney II. This felt like a really welcome Christmas gift, Review: ‘McCartney III,’ A Homespun Gem.

B&V’s Favorite Vault/Archive/Live Albums of 2020 

  1. Neil Young, Homegrown – Another brilliant 70s era “forgotten” album from Neil. This guy has more unreleased classic albums than most artists have actual albums. This is included in the upcoming (for general release, it’s already been released to collectors) box set Archives II. If you can’t spring for the whole box set, this is worth picking up on its own, Review: Neil Young’s ‘Homegrown’ – The Lost Masterpiece, In The Vaults 45 Years.
  2. Liam Gallagher, Unplugged – The former lead singer of one of the Rock Chick’s all time favorite bands Oasis, Liam Gallagher finally redeems himself in the Unplugged genre with a great little live album, Review: Liam Gallagher, ‘MTV Unplugged (Live At Hull City Hall)’ – Unplugged Redemption?.
  3. The Rolling Stones, Goats Head Soup Deluxe – The Stones revisit one of their sleazy-rock 70s classics. Light on bonus studio stuff it contains the great live concert recording Brussels Affair, a must for Stones fans, especially you Mick Taylor-era nuts out there, Review: The Rolling Stones, ‘Goats Head Soup Deluxe’ Box Set.
  4. Tom Petty, Wildflowers…and All The Rest – Petty’s vision of Wildflowers as a double LP finally realized. Some lovely stuff was left in the can, Tom Petty: ‘Wildflowers & All The Rest – Deluxe Edition (4 CDs)’ – A Petty Masterpiece Lovingly Revisited.
  5. Prince, Sign O The Times Deluxe – Prince’s creative peak? Maybe… There are so many great tunes that never saw the light of day in this box, it’s perhaps his last masterpiece, Review: Prince, ‘Sign O’ The Times – Deluxe Edition’ – An Embarrassment of Riches.
  6. Ozzy Osbourne, Blizzard of Ozz, 40th Anniversary – In my review I quibbled about the lack of unreleased studio tracks (really just one new track) and disjointed live stuff, but this is such a landmark album, everyone should check this out. Leave it to Ozzy to appear on both these lists in 2020, Review: Ozzy’s ‘Blizzard of Ozz, 40th Anniversary Expanded’ – Is It Worth It?.
  7. Lou Reed, New York – One of Lou Reed’s true masterworks. If you don’t have the album, you need this. If you do, you need this for the live tracks – the entire album played live, Review: Lou Reed ‘New York: Deluxe Edition’.
  8. U2, All You Can’t Leave Behind 20th Anniversary Box – An album with special meaning for the Rock Chick and I… I already had the bonus tracks but if you don’t they’re definitely worth a listen. The concert included from the tour, in Boston is incendiary, Review: U2, ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind (20th Anniversary Edition)’.
  9. Pearl Jam, MTV Unplugged – Only 7 songs long but soooo worth it. I’ve waited and hoped for years that Pearl Jam would finally release this spectacular performance, recorded shortly after their debut album. This is such a legendary performance…Review: Pearl Jam Release ‘MTV Unplugged’ (Finally!).
  10. Keith Richards, Live At the Hollywood Palladium – Keef takes his wonderful backing band, The X-Pensive Winos out on the road. This expanded edition gives us three additional tracks recorded that night. It’s just a great, live album, Review: Keith Richards + The X-Pensive Winos, ‘Live At the Hollywood Palladium’ Box Set.

If there is an album I missed on these list in your opinion, please share in the comments. I’m always open to new music and I do hate to think I missed something…

I hope everybody held it together during this rough and tumble 2020. Hopefully our little B&V corner of the rock n roll universe helped keep you moving down the road this year. I wish everyone a happy, safe New Year. I don’t think we’re out of the dark yet, but I think there is light at the end of the tunnel… and with any luck, it’s not an oncoming train.

It’s a dark ride, take care of each other out there. I’m certainly looking forward to a better 2021.

Review: Springsteen’s ‘Letter To You’ – Contemplating Mortality On E Street

Many fans of Bruce Springsteen got on the bandwagon in the ’80s when Born In The U.S.A. came out. Most of his diehard fans had already been on the bandwagon since Born To Run came out a decade earlier. I didn’t get into Springsteen until The River came out when I was in high school. Along with Pink Floyd’s The Wall it was one of my first double-album purchases. I steadily started buying every Springsteen record that came out prior to The River. However, it wasn’t until I was a junior in high school before I purchased Born To Run, after someone played that album at a “Senior Skip Day” party I had crashed to meet a girl… The meeting with the girl sadly didn’t pan out but I went out the next day and bought the album. It’s the circle of life. When God closes a pretty window he opens a rock n roll door. 

When I was a freshman in college, I came home for winter break to discover Springsteen had released his follow-up to The River, the rather bleak Nebraska. I don’t think an album has ever shocked me the way Nebraska shocked me. I expected to hear the full E Street Band burst out of the speakers like they did on “The Ties That Bind” and instead it was the muted, acoustic track “Nebraska.” I was floored. “What, pray tell, is this?” I remember thinking. I kept hoping the band would kick in… Nebraska was Springsteen’s first “solo” album where he eschewed the accompaniment of his mates in the E Street Band. At the time I thought it was a one-off project. The darker material in those songs fit that style of playing so he kept the stark demos. It actually set the template for the rest of Bruce’s career. He’d do band albums and then go off on his own to do a solo project. After Nebraska he did Born In the U.S.A. and then back to solo on Tunnel Of Love albeit with cameos from the E Street Band. 

After the tour for Tunnel Of Love, Springsteen shocked the world and disbanded the E Street Band, much to my and Clarence Clemons’ dismay. They are a legendary backing band: Roy Bittan, piano; Clarence Clemons sax; Gary Tallent, bass; Steve Van Zandt and later Nils Lofgren, guitar; Patti Scialfa, backing vocals; Danny Federici, organ; and Max Weinberg, drums. That was in roughly 1990 and for the next decade, other than brief reunions, Springsteen did his own thing. He recorded two LPs and released them on the same day, Human Touch and Lucky Town. He did the stark Ghost of Tom Joad. He finally got the E Street Band back together in 1999. I didn’t know it at the time, but he said that he wasn’t sure he could rock and roll any more. He didn’t know if he could still write songs for the band. 

All of that changed on 9/11. It was then that Springsteen reunited the mighty E Street Band in the studio to record one of his strongest set of songs. The Rising was simply brilliant. It remains to me the definitive 9/11 artistic statement. There was none of that ham-fisted, dumb-ass Toby Keith stuff. It was thoughtful and it rocked. That was one of the best tours of Springsteen’s that I’d ever seen. The E Street Band is the most sympathetic backing band for his vision. It’s like Dylan and the Band. They compliment each other so well. However, since 2002 Springsteen has bounced back and forth between solo projects and E Street Band albums. 

While the E Street Band was credited as playing on 2014’s High Hopes most of those songs had been written and recorded in the decade prior. I was shocked to see that the last actual E Street Band project was eleven years ago(!) in 2009 – the underrated Working On A Dream which was a set of hopeful songs at the dawn of the Obama administration. It followed Magic from 2007 which was a dire assessment of the Bush (W) administration. Springsteen has been busy in the interim. He wrote his widely acclaimed autobiography and then staged a one-man Broadway play based upon it (Review: Netflix’s ‘Springsteen On Broadway’ – The Artist’s Dialogue With Fans Comes to the Great White Way). Just last year he did the sepia-toned, lush Western Stars that we loved down here at B&V, LP Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Western Stars’ – Born To Bacharach?

I loved all of that stuff but I couldn’t help but think, when will he record with the E Street Band again. I only recently discovered Springsteen has been suffering from a bit of writer’s block. He hadn’t really written any new rock songs since around 2010. It’s probably not a coincidence that toward the end of that decade – as is pointed out to Bruce in his excellent ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine interview – that was about the time saxophonist Clarence Clemons and organist Danny Federici both passed away. About a year ago, another friend of Bruce’s passed away, George Theiss. George was in one of Bruce’s early bands, The Castiles. I think they had a couple of singles but never amounted to much more. When Bruce realize he was the last member of the Castiles left, inspiration struck for the first time in a long time and he wrote an album’s worth of new material. 

I will admit up front, I was blown away by Letter To You, Bruce and the E Street Band’s new album. First and foremost, this is the most “E Street” sounding album Bruce has done in decades. There are glockenspiels, harmonicas, piano introductions to the tracks and sax solos (only now from Jake Clemons nephew of the late Clarence Clemons). There’s nothing like hearing Bruce play with the mighty E Street Band. Prior to recording he met with Roy Bittan who asked him not to demo the songs, he didn’t want Bruce to get locked into any arrangements. They did those live in the studio. Thematically, I thought this might end up being a political commentary on the current failed administration but as Bruce says in ‘Rolling Stone,’ that’d be the most “boring album ever.” Instead, on Letter To You Bruce confronts his own mortality and by doing so, helps us all confront our own. This album isn’t dark like Dylan’s Time Out of Mind or cheerful like McCartney’s Dance Tonight which both covered the same terrain.  

The album starts off quietly and somewhat surprisingly, with a ballad, “One Minute You’re Here” that might be one of Bruce’s most beautiful ballads ever. Coincidentally he ends with another strong track, “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” that may be about Clarence. It’s a wonderful track that finds Bruce singing, “For death is not the end.” The title track, which I covered on an earlier post New Single: Springsteen’s “Letter To You,” The 1st Track From New LP & A Look At His 1st Singles ’80-’20, is one of his best songs ever. “Ghosts,” the second single is a soaring rock track with a great sax solo and certainly a favorite. “Last Man Standing” is a great rocking homage to the Castiles. In the middle of the LP is the very E Street “Power of Prayer,” a really nice love song. It’s followed up with “House of A Thousand Guitars” which I’ll admit is the only track on this album that left me slightly cold. I just expected, well, more guitar. Speaking of guitar, there are two big rockers here – “Rainmaker” and the rollin’ thunder of “Burining Train.” The latter has the best guitar work on the album. 

In the process of recording this album – which was done live in the studio by the whole band, a method of recording these guys haven’t done since the 70s – Springsteen dug out three old tracks that he’d written but never released. I don’t know if they were short on material or Bruce felt revisiting these old tracks fit in the theme of looking back as you reach the end of the road. Regardless, I’m delighted to say that the three tracks penned in the 70s are absolute highlights on this album. They rank amongst my favorite Springsteen tracks of all time. “Janey Needs A Shooter” which inspired Warren Zevon (with Bruce’s permission) to write “Jeanne Needs a Shooter,” is an epic rock song. I heard this while I was driving thru the main drag of a little neighborhood near me with the windows down and I almost crashed the car I was rocking so hard. “If I Was A Priest” is an awesome song that would have fit on The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle. Its Bruce at his most hilarious and his most Catholic. It reminds me a little of “The Ballad of Jesse James” a great deep track you should hear. “If I Were a Priest” imagines Jesus as a western cowboy hero… It’s hard to explain. “Song For An Orphan” rounds out the trio and is another epic, great track. I’d buy this album just for these three songs. 

I don’t know what the future holds for Bruce and the E Street Band. I hope this isn’t their last album together. In the liner notes on the record, the way Bruce thanks everybody it sounds like a farewell. Who knows if the inspiration will hit him again? The communion of this band coming together to play and their sense of brotherhood and loyalty is just such a pure and wonderful thing I hope it continues. They probably won’t be able to play live until 2022 but I certainly can’t wait to hear this stuff brought to life. This is yet another important album by one of our most important artists, Bruce Springsteen. This, without a doubt, will be on the B&V “best of” list this year. Everyone should hear this, especially with all the craziness in the world today. 

Be safe out there. Be good to each other. Music is salve, but it can’t cure everything. It can be a long dark ride… we have to decide what kind of people we want to be “cause there’s too many outlaws tryin’ to work the same line…” 

 

New Single: Springsteen’s “Letter To You,” The 1st Track From New LP & A Look At His 1st Singles ’80-’20

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As I’ve often documented in these pages, before I heard the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls the only time I turned on the radio was to hear a Royals’ baseball game. Then I heard “Miss You,” and later “Shattered” and then “Beast of Burden” and suddenly I wanted a stereo for Christmas. I consider that moment when I first heard the Stones on the car radio, riding with my mother no less, as my rock and roll awakening. It was late 1978 when all this happened and by then rock and roll was a good 20 years along. When you step into the middle of something, it’s really hard to catch up. 

Most of the rock and roll acts I dig (by 1978) were deep into their careers. There had been a lot of great music released in the previous 10 years, let alone the previous 20 years. I was newly into my teens and on a weekly allowance of $10 it’s really hard to purchase the entire back catalogs of rock bands/artists (especially with the constant refrain of, “You didn’t clean your room son, no allowance this week…”). In high school, my fledgling vinyl collection – and I was all vinyl, don’t give me those 8-tracks or cassettes – consisted of the albums that were being released at the time, the current stuff. My first Who album was Face Dances. My first Zeppelin album was In Through the Out Door. And while many of you rock aficionados may hold your nose for those records, they will always have a place in my heart (B&V’s True Confessions: The Dirty Dozen – 12 Albums That Only I Love… Time to Re-Evaluate?). 

While Springsteen’s landmark album Darkness On The Edge Of Town also came out in 1978, some how I missed it. I lived in Kansas City and it was never a huge Springsteen town. I did hear “Prove It All Night” and “Badlands” on the radio but I’m not sure I even knew they were both by Springsteen. There was just so much to absorb it was hard to keep track. All of that changed in late 1980 with the release of The River. I remember the first single “Hungry Heart” caught my attention. It was pure ear candy. Bruce had originally written it for the Ramones but his manager told him he best keep that one. I didn’t rush out and buy The River however because its was a double-album. Twice the music but alas, at twice the price. That was a major financial commitment on my allowance. I hadn’t even bought The Wall yet due to similar financial constraints and it had been out a year by then… Plus I didn’t know much about Springsteen… was he cool? did he rock? You had to be sure you didn’t buy any lame artists and I was always cautious. I had seen too many of my friends buy Kiss albums and I considered them suspect at the time. I feared history would not treat them well… naturally I was wrong. I was 13, what did I know?

Luckily, the local rock radio station started playing more deep cuts from the album. After hearing the title track, “Point Blank” and “Out In the Street” I knew Springsteen delivered the goods. He was a special kind of artist. I plunked down the hard earned dough and bought it. I nervously dropped the needle on side 1 of the first album not knowing what to expect. I can still remember the rush I felt when “The Ties That Bind” burst out of the speakers. It hit me in my lower-brain stem and I knew I wanted more rock and roll… nay, I knew I needed more rock and roll. It was that moment I knew I was bonded with this artist. Sadly, he came to KC in February ’80 and played Kemper Arena. They say more people slept out in line for tickets than had seen him on the Darkness tour but how would they measure that?The Kansas City Star described it as “the concert of the year” and again… it was only February. My dear friend Brewster had also secretly gotten into Springsteen and assuming I wouldn’t like him, after buying two tickets… took someone else. After all these years… yes, I have forgiven him… I haven’t forgotten… some wounds don’t heal completely. 

Even though I was a newly minted Springsteen fan, I didn’t go crashing through his back catalog. I’d heard “Born To Run,” “Jungleland,” and “Rosalita” – those were about the only older tracks they played in KC – but I didn’t even know what albums to look for. I thought “Blinded By The Light” was a Manfred Mann tune. About a year after I bought The River a friend of mine and I met two older, senior girls in our Study Hall. Somehow these fetching young women ended up sitting with us and on the surface, seemed to enjoy our geeky-ness. They invited my friend and I to meet them at that year’s Senior Skip Day party. It was where all the seniors blew off school and someone had a keg of beer, insanity ensued. We weren’t seniors but oh yes, we were in. I remember drinking a beer and talking to one of these beautiful girls and it was going great, at least I think it was… when I heard over the speakers propped up on the back deck…”The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves…” I was mesmerized…”Is this Springsteen?” Nothing happened with the girls and it may have been my utter distraction from hearing the masterpiece Born To Run for the first time. I was gobsmacked. I bought that record the next day. Who thought Springsteen could “cock block” me?

I’ve been a big Springsteen fan ever since. I’ve followed him from big, anthemic albums with the E-Street band to acoustic, introspective solo records to detours like Western Stars (LP Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Western Stars’ – Born To Bacharach?). I have live albums and official live bootlegs. I’ve seen him a number of times in concert. I’ve even gotten the Rock Chick slightly into him…she’ll never be counted amongst the converted but she does have a ‘Bruce’ playlist she likes to crank up. I was thrilled to hear during this awful year, that Springsteen had a brand new album coming out. God, how we need new music! I was even more thrilled to hear the E Street Band would be on the album. I figured the new LP, Letter To You, would probably come out around Christmas. Thankfully I was wrong. I was pumped to see that the first single dropped last Friday with the album coming October 23rd.

I have to admit to you, and this will be no surprise, I really like “Letter To You.” The E Street Band is such a sympathetic medium for Springsteen to bring his songs to life. The song finds Springsteen looking back and writing a letter to his first band, the Castiles. Living in isolation, who doesn’t welcome a letter or an email from an old friend. After all these years, the sound of Bruce and the E Street band still gives me chills. It’s like an unexpected call from someone you’d like hear from but haven’t. It’s an upbeat track but I might call it mid tempo. Springsteen’s vocal is particularly inspired. The entire album was recorded live in the studio over five days, supposedly without any overdubs. This is their classic sound, dripping with earnestness and strength. When the band kicks in during the early part of the song, goose bumps, baby. It only lacks a sax solo from the Big Man’s nephew, Jake Clemons. The song is catchy and it sticks with me. It’s not a big anthemic thing like “Born To Run” or “Dancing In the Dark” but it will seep into your brain. 

I reflected on what this might mean for the new album. As I did I found my mind wandering back to 1980 and “Hungry Heart.” Eventually I found myself mulling over every Springsteen first single since The River in an effort to predict what the new LP might be like. I thought I’d share my thoughts on this music travelogue through those singles and my experiences with them… what it means for the new album – probably nothing but it was a fun thing to keep me occupied in mind-numbing times…I skipped the Pete Seeger thing because I despise Pete Seeger and struggle to even acknowledge that Bruce recorded that thing. 

  • The River, “Hungry Heart” – One of Bruce’s signature songs. It was very pop oriented but it heralded one of his greatest albums ever. It’s still a fun sing-a-long at concerts if you’re into that sort of thing. 
  • Nebraska, “Atlantic City” – I was home for Christmas break during my very awful freshman year of college. I was walking past the record store when I spotted a display with Nebraska albums stacked up to the ceiling. I left my then girlfriend standing there and went lunging into the store. I didn’t even know Springsteen had a new album out. I bought it and went home immediately. I was stunned at the difference between the sound of this dour album compared to The River. It’s one of the most grim listens ever (B&V’s 10 Favorite Grim And Sad Albums). Even the video for “Atlantic City,” which does not feature Bruce is grainy and black and white. No sunshine to be found here… However, the single, “Atlantic City” will always be one of my favorite Bruce tracks. The Band did a nice little cover of it as well. 
  • Born In The U.S.A., “Dancing In the Dark” – The song that made Springsteen a superstar. I can still remember how starved, after the grim Nebraska, we all were for a new rock album from Bruce. We were all so thrilled that we might get to see an actual concert vs listening to bootlegs. I remember partying all night and sitting  up at dawn just to see the video. 
  • Tunnel of Love, “Brilliant Disguise” – By this time I was living in Ft Smith, Arkansas. I can remember the first time I heard this track, driving into the office on a cold, winter morning. I knew he’d gone back to the more introspective Nebraska style. This album featured more instrumentation and remains a favorite of mine. One of his greatest songs. 
  • Human Touch/Lucky Town, “Human Touch”/”Better Days” – Two Springsteen albums released on the same day. We’d been waiting for what seemed like forever. He’d disbanded the E Street Band and we didn’t know what to expect. “Human Touch,” at six and a half minutes is a big epic track. It’s much maligned but I still like it. “Better Days” is grittier, more immediate. It remains a favorite from a rather discounted period of Bruce’s career. 
  • The Ghost of Tom Joad, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” – Another from Springsteen’s grim solo projects. This is my least favorite Springsteen album but the title track remains one of my favorites of his. Rage Against the Machine have redone this track as well. It’s a perfect song even today. 
  • The Rising, “The Rising” – The title track from the 911-centric album that saw the return of the E Street Band. I got tears in my eyes the first time I heard this epic title track. It ranks up there with “This Land Is Your Land” as a populist anthem. This song and the album it came from are American treasures. 
  • Devils And Dust, “Devils And Dust” – I’ve noticed that Springsteen likes to release the title track as the first single of most of his albums. Good marketing if you think about it. This album is ripped from the headlines. It sounds like an update from the front lines. One of Springsteen’s best solo tracks and albums. 
  • Magic, “Radio Nowhere” – One of the more rocking first singles of Springsteen’s career. I really liked Magic but I think many critics were divided on it. It’s a great, late-period E Street album. And who could argue with the theme on this song of radio slowly dying (Playlist: Memories of and A Requiem For Rock And Roll Radio). 
  • Working On A Dream, “Working On A Dream” – Another title track! This song has an irresistible melody. It’s as catchy as the old Motown singles. While the album itself was uneven, this single ranks amongst Bruce’s best. 
  • Wrecking Ball, “We Take Care of Our Own” – Another great rocking song with a spectacular message. Springsteen is the quintessential American artist. I remember he played this song on the Grammys. That night I had an old friend who I’ll call, “The Bat Cat” who had dropped by with his family. His daughter wanted to watch the Grammys. When Springsteen came on, Bat Cat paused and said, “Hey, I like that, it sounds like Darkness. Indeed it does. Classic Springsteen. 
  • High Hopes, “High Hopes” – The only cover song Springsteen has released as a single. He’d done it once before on an EP but I like this version best. High Hopes was a reimagining of songs Springsteen had previously written for earlier projects. I think critics discounted it for that reason but there are great songs on this album and I include the title track in that number. 
  • Western Stars, “Hello Sunshine” – The rare ballad as a first single. It was a true harbinger of what the album was like. This beautiful song quickly became one of my all time favorites (LP Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Western Stars’ – Born To Bacharach?). 

What does this tell us about the new Bruce album? “Letter To You” is another title track as first single for Bruce, but other than that, we’ll just have to anxiously await late October. 

Be safe out there! 

 

Album Lookback: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’ June 4, 1984

BruceBorn1984

There aren’t many exact dates in my life where I can tell you where I was. Hell, I’m not sure where I was last Tuesday, let alone a random day in the 80s. When I was a kid I can remember my mom telling me she could remember where she was the day John Kennedy was shot… for the record, she was pregnant with me, ironing in her living room and watching ‘Days Of Our Lives’ when the network broke in to announce the sad news. I don’t have any of those momentous geopolitical days in my life where I remember where I was… I do vaguely remember I got up late and came downstairs to find that the Challenger had exploded…but I don’t remember much other than that. All that said, I know exactly where I was on June 4th, 1984.

It was summer time and I was home on break from college. In the summer, us folks who grew up in “olden times” had to find a summer job. I did a lot of different jobs, from temp work to bus boy to light construction. The summer of ’84 was a happier summer for me than the summer of ’83. In ’83 I’d gone through an embarrassing breakup and spent the summer as a man of leisure or more appropriately a man about town…the ladies of Kansas City were helping me grieve, with my eternal gratitude. By ’84 I was well past all that heartbreak and was desperately in need of money to fuel my beer and vinyl habits. My oldest and dearest friend Doug had a line on work… his father owned a small company that installed scoreboards and more importantly, built tennis courts. I was hired to help on the tennis court construction. Utterly difficult, filthy work in the hot sun, but it was an honest day’s work, unlike what I do now, and at the end of the day you didn’t really worry about the job, again unlike what I do now… Like the Cure, I submitted my unanswered prayers for rain every day… Every night after work I had to soak in hot tub to get all the grainy, hardened tennis court surface to slowly melt from the hair on my legs… it was that or pull out all of the hair on my leg with the tennis court goop. I’m a guy so I found that too painful… hats off to you ladies who pluck, shave and otherwise eradicate hair… but I digress. I was, in all senses of the word, a working stiff.

But on Monday, June 4th in 1984, and I don’t recall why, we weren’t out on a job. For some reason our foreman, I’ll call him Norman, had us working in the warehouse yard. We were moving large 55 gallon barrels of sludge around so they looked to be in some semblance of order. For some reason Norman put me in the giant one-ton truck and had me go pick up sand at a local quarry. I was instructed to hurry back and then he’d let me go to lunch. I can remember being in the cab of the one-ton, driving down Pflumm, headed back to the warehouse when the DJ on our local radio station, KY102 came on and said, “We just got the new Springsteen album and we’re going to put it on now…” This was huge to me… I’d been anticipating this record for weeks, since the single “Dancing In The Dark” had come out… I knew somewhere in Wichita, my college roomie Drew was equally anticipating this moment. When the first song “Born In The USA” came over the tinny speakers in that truck I got goose bumps and tears welled up in my eyes. The anguished cries of a Vietnam vet, who never turned his back on his country, although it seemed his country had turned its back on him, was one of those, music-hits-my-lower-brain-stem moments that bring me back to the turntable. After work, as filthy as I was, I drove straight to the nearest record store and bought the album. It was a big day.

The album by the same name, Born In The U.S.A was Springsteen’s biggest selling album. It’s the record where everything changed. The album spun off at least 7 singles, and sold a kajillion copies. This was where those of us who were in the relatively small (especially in Kansas) clique of people who liked Springsteen had to share him with the rest of the world. This album was Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau’s greatest dream. Making Springsteen a name that was uttered along with Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. Me, I liked Springsteen already, this was just gravy. Springsteen managed to merge a modern sound, complete with synths, into his core sound seamlessly, a thing a lot of 70s acts had struggled with. Many believe that’s why the album was as popular as it was. Naturally I have a different theory. To understand why this album was so popular, you have to step back and look at Springsteen’s career up to that point.

When Springsteen released Born To Run he was christened the new Dylan, the savior or the “future of rock and roll.” He was on the cover of both ‘Time’ and ‘Newsweek’ the same week. The hype was almost too much. But then he ended up in a legal battle with his manager Mike Appel that drug on and on. He toured incessantly through 1976 and 1977 on tours dubbed “The Chicken Scratch Tour” and “The Paying the Rent Tour.” One has to wonder why there wasn’t a “Paying the Legal Fees” tour but I wasn’t there to consult with. Finally Springsteen made what was considered a come back in 1978 with Darkness On The Edge of Town an album that had harnessed his anger and frustration about his legal battles with the energy and feel of punk rock to great success. It had very little to do sonically with Born To Run, but it succeeded.

In order to publicize his return in 78, Springsteen allowed several radio stations in LA, NY, San Fran, and elsewhere to broadcast his concerts over the radio. These concerts were widely bootlegged and helped build Springsteen’s legend as a live act. Springsteen returned relatively quickly in 1980 with a double album, The River, which while uneven, to me was always the rightful successor of Born To Run. With all the hype of the bootlegged 78 concerts, they say that more people slept out for tickets on The River tour than actually saw him in 78. My friend Brewster was apparently on the bandwagon and bought 2 tickets but never asked me to go… It’s my belief that Shakespearean betrayal  is what caused his family to move to Houston, in shame. It was the only honorable thing to do short of cutting off a finger. By the time The River tour concluded Springsteen was huge… he was on the cusp of superstardom. So what’s he do… he releases, in 1982, the spartan, demo-sounding, acoustic record Nebraska. There might be more dour, depressing music out there, but one would have to go to some hippy coffee shop to find it. It was a shock. I get it, it’s a masterpiece, but it’s not an album you put on at a party.

If you take Nebraska out of the equation, it was actually a full 4 years between studio albums for Springsteen, much like the lapse between Born To Run and Darkness. The reason Born In The U.S.A. was such a smash, was the simplest reason – pent up demand. Yes, it’s a kick ass album, but the guy had been away for four-fucking years. That was an eternity back then. Especially for guys my age, who were too young to see the Darkness tour, we just had to settle for the bootlegs. Some of us had sadly missed The River tour – thanks Brewster. We were dying for new music from the Boss… we were dying to actually see this myth, this legend in concert. Which, we all did on this tour, I might add.

The album itself is amazing. Although I will admit I’ve always had a problem with the sequencing. The title track, which starts the record, is one of the greatest things Bruce has ever recorded. Max Weinberg’s drumming is monumental. He keeps the whole thing together. That leads us into another single, the great “Cover Me.” The next two songs, however, “Darlington County” and “Working On The Highway” both tell the same story. Both are about a guy working construction who gets busted for messing with underage girls. Although “Working On the Highway” was a great rockabilly song vs “Darlington County”‘s anthemic approach. The first ballad, and the second best song on the album, “Down Bound Train” also ends with the protagonist in jail. The 80s were a dark time… But again, the next song, which concluded side one is another ballad, ‘I’m On Fire.” Spread it out Bruce….

Side two starts with two songs about Little Steven. The recording of Born In The U.S.A. was fraught with it’s own Shakespearean drama… Springsteen’s side kick, Little Steven who always advocated for the music was pitted against, Iago, er I mean Landau who was advocating for a big, commercial record. Eventually Little Steven split for a solo career. Springsteen obviously wrote “No Surrender” and the next track, “Bobby Jean” about his dearest friend, Little Steven, who had left the band. The rest of the side 2, is a little better sequenced, finally ending on the beautiful ballad “My Hometown.”

Born In The U.S.A ended up being the titanic album that Landau and, it would appear, Springsteen wanted. The enormous fame and attention dwarfed anything Springsteen had experienced before… one might argue the success changed the trajectory of his career… but for this working stiff, on a hot June Monday, it was a game changer, so much so, I know where I was that day. It really is one of the greatest albums of all time.

Cheers!