Music appreciation, thankfully, is subjective. There is no way to make a firm decree that the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Stevie Wonder or Bob Dylan is the greatest popular music act of all time. Still, if you take a broad view and consider all factors involved, one can make a very strong case that Bruce Springsteen is in the process of fashioning the single most satisfying career in pop music history.
This topic is relevant today for two main reasons. The first is Springsteen's new CD, "Magic," which has prompted yet another avalanche of rave reviews for the Boss, including a rare "5-star" rating from Rolling Stone magazine. The second is the 58-year-old rocker's current tour with the E Street Band, which once again has proven to be one of the hottest tickets of the concert season. The first local date for the tour -- Friday at the Oracle Arena in Oakland -- sold out in an hour. A second Oracle show has been added for Thursday.
Of course, Springsteen isn't the only star who has recorded a critically acclaimed album and posted a sell-out tour. So why pick the Boss over, say, Neil Young or Prince?
The answer, in a nutshell, is that no other act in the business has managed to achieve on so many different levels, for such a sustained period of time, as Springsteen.
Since the baseball playoffs are on, I'll use Willie Mays as my reference. During Mays' reign, other players had seasons where they hit more home runs or batted for a higher average than the Giants slugger. But nobody was more a complete player. Mays had it all -- defense, offense, speed, power. Springsteen is like that, a multi-tool man -- a fine vocalist, excellent songwriter and solid musician. He excels equally in the studio and onstage. Plus, he has proven adept at so many different styles of music over the years.
Other musicians have surpassed the Boss, especially in the studio, at various times over the decades. But can you name one who has continued to achieve at Springsteen's high level for more than 35 years?
Dylan and Young seem the most obvious challengers, but both have had periods where their recorded output was lackluster at best. And if you've listened to "Steel Wheels," "Bridges to Babylon" or any other Rolling Stones album since 1978's "Some Girls," you know not to even bring up Mick, Keith and the boys when it comes to recent studio work.
All of those acts, and many others, can topple Springsteen in one regard or another. The Boss certainly hasn't written as many iconic rock standards, songs that will be covered by other musicians for decades to come, as Dylan and Young. Yet he's written more than his share. The Stones can outdraw Springsteen on tour, but not by that much. The Beatles have more all-time classic studio albums, but Bruce isn't too far behind them.
Conversely, none of those acts can match the Boss when it comes to being an all-around sensation. As mentioned, the Stones stopped putting out worthwhile albums nearly 30 years ago. The Beatles could never have matched the Boss on the concert stage, and their output was unfortunately confined to a relatively short period of time.
Dylan had an extended period of mediocrity, from the tail end of the '70s until 1997's "Time Out of Mind." Since that point, however, it's been all aces for the master.
Young's career, while as defiantly individual as any in the business, has had hits and misses. Some of the "misses" have been extremely interesting oddities -- "Greendale," anyone? -- yet still basically ignored by the public.
Meanwhile, Springsteen has continued to put out records that, for the most part, have been hailed by critics and greedily consumed by fans.
A look back
Long Branch, N.J., where Springsteen was born, is a beach resort town that was once an East Coast oasis for theater and performing arts. It didn't take long for Springsteen to catch the spark. His mom bought him a guitar when he was 16 and, not long after that, he was putting on shows and making people think he was destined to be a star.
The ascent began in earnest with 1973's "Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.," an amazingly accomplished major-label debut that some still rank among the Boss' finest albums. The highly influential album, among the first to fuse singer-songwriter material with rowdy rock-R&B sounds, set the bar high.
He followed with "The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle," the excellent 1973 effort that furthered his lore in Jersey, but failed to break him nationally. But he hit the big time with 1975's "Born to Run." The anthem-filled rocker, which ran on James Dean-like charisma, proved to be such a big story that both Time and Newsweek put Springsteen on their covers in the very same week.
Speaking of covers, other artists soon looked to Springsteen for material. Manfred Mann, the Pointer Sisters and Patti Smith all achieved Top 20 hits with Springsteen-penned material in the late '70s.
At this point, Springsteen appeared to have the whole star vehicle thing figured out. All he needed to do was keep putting gas in the tank. Instead, he went the other direction and, starting with the release of 1978's "Darkness on the Edge of Town," embarked down a road of consistent musical exploration. While not completely turning his back on barroom rockers, Springsteen focused on darker material with 1980's "The River," and especially on 1982's "Nebraska." And fans found he could handle the downer songs as well as the party anthems.
Blockbuster in the U.S.A.
In 1984, as President Ronald Reagan was seeking his second term in office, Springsteen released the stadium-size blockbuster "Born in the U.S.A." The album sold some 15 million copies in the United States alone, charted seven Top 10 singles and put the Boss on equal footing with Michael Jackson as one of the nation's biggest pop stars.
"Tunnel of Love," from 1987, followed the same course as "U.S.A.," mixing fun rockers with introspective meditations, and was another big hit. But the tank was approaching empty by 1992's "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town," two simultaneously released discs that mostly sound as if they were compiled from the editing room floor of the "Tunnel of Love" sessions. The two albums have fine moments, but are deservedly ranked by fans at the bottom of the Boss' barrel.
Springsteen rebounded with 1995's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," an intimate batch of songs reminiscent of "Nebraska," and then returned to full-blown glory with the 9/11-inspired "The Rising."
When thinking back on "The Rising," the question comes to mind: Can music heal?
Well, perhaps not completely -- especially with wounds as great as those from the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Yet "The Rising" proved that music can provide some degree of comfort during even the darkest of hours. Argue all you want about which of Springsteen's albums is his best, but not about which is his most important. "The Rising" was the rare work that transcended the usual boundaries of art.
It also kicked off what has to be the most incredible four-CD run in recent rock history (just a notch or two below what the Beatles did in the '60s or Pink Floyd accomplished in the '70s). What is most impressive about this run is its diversity, moving from the arena anthems of "The Rising" to the somber songwriting of 2005's "Devils & Dust" to 2006's old-timey hoedown "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" and now back to full-on E Street shuffle with "Magic."
As David Fricke notes in his review of "Magic" in Rolling Stone, the album shows "how a firm beat, some Telecaster sting and the robust peal of Clarence Clemons' saxophone can still tell you more about the human condition than a thousand op-ed words."
What other artist has provided so much magic, so consistently, for so many years? In that regard, Bruce Springsteen simply stands alone.
Reach Jim Harrington at email@example.com.