'Featuring Bruce Springsteen': Ranking Bruce's top 10 guest appearances
Updated: Aug 25, 2021
Bruce Springsteen may not have been in Central Park last weekend -- given how all the post-Barry Manilow acts didn’t make it through the rain (so to speak), Bruce never got a chance to join Patti Smith onstage at the 'We Love NYC' concert as promised -- but it’s not like he’s been that tough to find.
Yes, he’s back on Broadway of course, but he’s also turning up in some places you wouldn’t expect -- or at least his vocals are. In what used to be a fairly rare occurrence, Springsteen has taken to showing up as a featured performer on other artists’ tracks, at least three this year alone. (And more to come, thanks to a much-ballyhooed guest shot on John Mellencamp’s upcoming album.)
But are all of these surprise appearances true collaborations, glorified cameos, or something in between -- and how do they hold up next to each other among the Springsteen pantheon? We’re so glad you asked.
With that question in mind, we’ve ranked what we consider the top 10 Springsteen guest appearances (on studio tracks -- we’d be here all day chronicling the places he’d dropped in live). Take a look, and a listen -- at the bottom you’ll find a Spotify playlist with these 10 plus another seven honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut. [Editor's note: Plus several recommended by readers post-publication -- see below!]
(And as always, let us know what we left out in the comments.)
10. “Highway to Hell,” Tom Morello, with Eddie Vedder (2021)
It was no doubt extremely cool when this trio tackled the AC/DC classic in Melbourne in 2014, one of several times Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (with Morello subbing for Stevie) played the song on the “High Hopes” tour. Unfortunately the studio version feels a little sterile, but Bruce does his vocal-cord-shredding best to elevate the energy level, and mostly succeeds. Eddie, meanwhile, seems mostly along for the ride, and then of course there’s Morello’s outer space guitar noodling, if that’s your thing.
9. “Chinatown,” Bleachers (2021)
This is a fine track -- catchy and impeccably produced, like most Bleachers songs -- but Bruce’s participation seems a bit like an afterthought, popping up like it does out of nowhere about halfway through. Still, his gravelly counterpoint to Jack Antonoff’s emo-smooth vocals infuses the proceedings with a suitable oomph just when they need it, and any song that ends with a fadeout of Springsteen “Yeah yeah yeahs” is always a keeper.
8. “Better to Have and Not Need,” Sam Moore (2006)
It’s no “Soul Man,” but it doesn’t have to be -- Bruce is clearly having a ball trading verses with half of Sam & Dave in this bluesy romper, and between Moore’s sermonizing intro, the cheeky female background vocals and a rambunctious blues harmonica line keeping things bouncing along, there’s no denying it’s a fun (if a tad forgettable) toe tapper.
7. “Dustland,” The Killers (2021)
It’s sort of a running joke that The Killers are basically a Springsteen tribute band, and this song (either back in 2008, when it was called “A Dustland Fairytale,” or the new, name-shortened version featuring Bruce) doesn’t really dispel that myth. There’s the slow build, the melodic piano, the mid-song crescendo -- it’s no surprise that Springsteen’s vocals feel like the perfect vehicle to pilot the song into the stratosphere, and they sound just as good against Brandon Flower’s plaintive wail as you’d expect.
6. “Disorder in the House,” Warren Zevon (2003)
There’s no denying that this is one loosey-goosey track (Bruce even cracks up at one point after blowing some between-verse banter), but that’s a big source of its appeal. Coming as it did on Zevon’s last album, “The Wind,” released two weeks before his death and recorded just after his terminal cancer diagnosis, it’s amazing -- and inspiring -- that the album is anything but a morose affair. In fact, this track exemplifies the laughing-in-the-face-of-death attitude that Zevon had displayed for years, even before he got sick -- and Bruce sounds thrilled to be there with Warren for one last ride.
5. “Better Things,” Ray Davies (2010)
There’s nothing quite like hearing Springsteen singing with his idols, and Bruce’s tough-yet-tender warbling pairs beautifully with Davies’ more matter-of-fact quaver on this reworking of a 1981 Kinks track, a hopeful and yet searingly sad breakup song that’s just as beautifully jangly as any of the band’s better-known classics.
4. “Peg of My Heart,” Dropkick Murphys (2011)
Now that’s what you call a joyful noise: The sheer raucous energy emanating off this old Irish folk song (it was written in 1913) feels more well-earned than on the equally loud but not nearly as warm “Highway to Hell” cover. Here, Bruce and Dropkicks frontman Ken Casey trade verses like pub rats taking turns hoisting pints. Just try to fit more fun into two minutes and 20 seconds, I dare you.
3. “Sea of Heartbreak,” Rosanne Cash (2009)
Bruce Springsteen doing harmonies? If this sad, lilting country track is any indication, he should do it more often. The startlingly appealing pair (who should really work together again soon, please) takes what was essentially a pleasantly cheesy Don Gibson ditty from 1961 (also well covered by Rosanne’s dad in 1996) and turns it into a soaring torch song for the ages.
2. “Jole Blon,” Gary U.S. Bonds (1981)
Springsteen’s collaboration with Bonds, coming on the heels of “The River,” was truly something to see (and hear) -- he and Steven Van Zandt cleary took great pride and joy in helping engineer a resurgence for the ’60s R&B legend, and it comes through especially in this duet on the famous traditional Cajun waltz, here blown out into an E Street-style party rave-up.
1. “It’s Been a Long Time,” Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (1991)
It’s probably best to remember this track in terms of when it was released: It had been four years since Bruce had released “Tunnel of Love,” and two years since he had dismissed the E Street Band, indefinitely if not permanently. In short, what the future held for Mr. Springsteen seemed very much uncertain, making his appearance on this song -- written by Van Zandt, and appearing on their longtime collaborator Southside Johnny’s best new album in years -- a comforting development for fans in search of signs of life. Beyond that though, it’s just a great song, nostalgic without being mawkish and perfectly delivered in rough-hewn harmonies by the Jersey trio. (And those horns!) Just try to suppress a wry smile when you hear barely-out-of-his 30s Bruce lament his lost youth, singing, “We were never gonna get old.” Thankfully they still had (have?) plenty of good years ahead.
UPDATE: Several readers brought up two tracks in particular that I had hoped to include on the playlist, but that aren't currently on Spotify: "Broken Radio" with Jesse Malin and "When Will I Be Loved" with John Fogerty -- see them from YouTube below, along to new reader suggestions added to the Spotify playlist from John Prine, Lou Reed, Nils Lofgren, Joe Ely, Graham Parker and the Matt O'Ree Band. (Plus two star-studded group tracks that you'll probably remember.)