In the liner notes to his volume of Columbia's The Essential series, Bruce Springsteen immediately lays out the problem with hits collections: "In any body of work there are obvious high points. The rest depends on who's doing the listening. Where you were, when it was, who you were with when a particular song or album cut the deepest." All artists have this problem, but Springsteen has it more than most, since he not only has a deep and varied body of work, but he has a passionate, dedicated fan base. Within that following, there are listeners who prefer his big-hearted, sprawling early work, those who love the cinematic grandeur of Born to Run, those who love his stark, intimate acoustic ballads, and those who adore his pile-driving rockers. He's had hits in all of these styles, and he's had concert and album rock radio staples in all those styles -- all of these tunes for his basic canon, the "obvious high points" -- but he's such a strong songwriter and record-maker that this leaves behind songs that many other artists would be thrilled to call their best work, whether it's the epic street poetry of "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" or the old-time rock & roll throwaway of "Pink Cadillac." Neither of those tunes are on the double-disc, 30-track Essential Bruce Springsteen, but any two-disc set can't hold all of Springsteen's great songs. It can only offer a representative sampling, which means there will be lots of terrific tracks and fan favorites absent -- Springsteen admits this, citing "Growin' Up," "Racing in the Street," "Backstreets," and "My City of Ruins" as MIA, while others could make just as convincing an argument for "My Hometown," "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," "Fade Away," "I'm on Fire," "Prove It All Night," "Adam Raised a Cain," and the list goes on. The strength of The Essential is that you never notice these songs are missing. Unlike the previous Bruce compilation, the misguided, haphazardly selected Greatest Hits, The Essential contains all the big songs -- not just the obvious hits of "Hungry Heart," "Born to Run," "Born in the U.S.A.," and "Glory Days," but selections from his first two albums that were ignored completely the previous time out -- and it also contains just the right amount of latter-day material from the acclaimed The Rising, plus "American Skin (41 Shots)" and "Land of Hope and Dreams," two songs previously only available on Live in New York City. It adds up to an ideal introduction to Springsteen's music, capturing all sides of his musical output while being a hell of a good listen.
While the two main discs are for neophytes and casual fans, the third "bonus" disc is for the hardcore -- the kind of fans who will argue about the song selection on the previous two discs, and would be more interested in unreleased material than hits. This third disc is a clearing-house for items that should have made it to his previous rarities collection, Tracks, but didn't. This includes previously unreleased cuts, B-sides, contributions to soundtracks and benefit albums, covers, and an alternate, "country-blues" acoustic version of "Countin' on a Miracle" from The Rising. The disc follows a roughly chronological sequence and basically divides into early-'80s material and mid-'90s material. The '80s material has the edge due to the variety and strength of the material: the rampaging rocker "From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)," a song Bruce gave to Dave Edmunds and has never released before now; the spare, tough "The Big Payback," a B-side; the searching "None but the Brave," cut during the Born in the U.S.A. sessions; the evocative "County Fair," cut after Nebraska; a cover of Jimmy Cliff's "Trapped," cut on the River tour; a wonderfully raucous live "Held Up Without a Gun," a variation on "You Can Look but You Better Not Touch" with topical lyrics previously released as a B-side. These are fantastic performances, and while there are also very good cuts of a more recent vintage -- such as the Joe Grushecky collaboration "Code of Silence," his title song from Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking, and a fun version of "Viva Las Vegas" -- these '80s songs are the heart of the collection. It's an unexpected gift to have them officially released as a bonus disc to a hits collection, and for the hardcore, it's worth buying two discs of songs you already have just get these rarities. And it helps make The Essential Bruce Springsteen really live up to its title. [Columbia's Limited Edition 3.0 appeared in 2008 and included a bonus CD -- in addition to the original, two-CD set.]