The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (1973)
After a folk-rockish debut album that bubbled with ideas and dense lyrical play, this is where Springsteen began to find his voice as a rocker and as a songwriter. The prisoner-of-love romanticism of "Rosalita" and "Incident on 57th Street" hinted at what was coming, and this early version of the E Street Band--jazzier and more spare than later versions, thanks largely to David Sancious's piano--sounds great, if a little ragged, these many years later.
Born to Run (1975) and Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
These two records, which belong on any compilation of the top 100 rock albums of all time, sketched the themes that he would spend his whole career chasing, and defined the expectations fans would bring to his records ever after. The first chords of "Born to Run" sounded like freedom itself the first time I heard them on the radio, and the album lived up to them. "Thunder Road" is still the greatest rock & roll love song anyone's ever written. The record sounded so big and impassioned and propulsive it was easy to miss the dread running underneath it. Darkness... put the dread front and center. There are more of his best songs here than anywhere else, even if the sound is muddy and leaden at times.
After The River (the best record that didn't make this list) and the ensuing tour answered his rock & roll prayers--he was a big star now, not just a perennial critics' favorite--Springsteen holed up in a rented house on the Jersey shore, where he wrote these songs and sang them into a four-track recorder in his living room. The tape was supposed to be a demo for the band, but after several false tries he concluded that the tape he'd been carrying around in his pocket was the record. Quiet and bleak, Nebraska nonetheless grabbed you by the collar and made you listen as surely as his rock & roll records ever had.
Tunnel of Love (1987)
The glare and hubbub surrounding the Born in the USA tour (the tour was great--the record itself overrated) made him pull back again, this time to write a cycle of songs about love and fear and self-doubt. After this, Springsteen's first marriage broke up, and he started a family with Patti Scialfa, disappearing for the better part of 10 years, notwithstanding the pair of not bad, just disappointing albums he released in 1992, Human Touch and Lucky Town.
The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)
Some call it Nebraska II, but his second acoustic album was not a repeat of his first--the characters and settings had changed, and their circumstances were more expressly desperate, and social--though it did share the same interest in what happens to people whose isolation or marginal status renders them invisible.
The Rising (2002)
Everybody--including Springsteen himself--seemed to think it was a record about 9/11, but the subject was broader: death and loss as seen from more than halfway down life's road. Dave Marsh nailed it: "A middle-aged man confronts death and chooses life." Brendan O'Brien's production sounds great.