As you would expect from a guy who writes for a music blog for free when he has the time to spare, I listen to a ridiculous amount of music. Thanks to my tendency to live by the phrase “There’s no such thing as too much of a good thing” (hint: there is) I listen to more music than even the most obsessed. “Music is my life” is a common phase many people say without grasping its full meaning, but for me it truly is.
Ever since I was introduced to Bob Dylan the summer after my freshman year of college, he’s swallowed up my life to become my favorite artist. I think a more appropriate phrase would be “hero” or “idol”. Everybody has that one person they look up to and compare themselves against. For many, it’s their parents or a favorite teacher. For me, it’s Bob Dylan. I do just about everything short of waking up early to worship him every Sunday morning. No matter where my musical tastes may lie at any given moment, I constantly find myself coming back to binge on his discography again and again.
So for my first installment of Clay’s Countdown I’ve decided to make a list of Bob Dylan’s 10 greatest songs. I was tempted to list my ten favorite Dylan songs, but that would be a huge disservice to both Dylan and his art. I’ve done my absolute best to leave personal bias out of the equation. Instead I judged his songs based on lyrical content, vocal performance, instrumental arrangement, and cultural influence. It was a near impossible task boiling down one of the greatest discographies in music history to a mere ten songs, but I believe I’ve come as close as humanly possible to doing just that. So without further ado, let’s kick things off with number ten.
10. Mr. Tambourine Man
Despite Dylan being an artist humanity celebrates along the lines of Shakespeare and Picasso, only a very small, select group of my friends voluntarily listens to and appreciates his music. Usually when trying to introduce my friends to Dylan the first song I play for them is “Mr. Tambourine Man”. Sure it isn’t his best song, but Dylan’s vocals are easy on the ears. As far as anyone knows he could be singing about drugs, dreams, or the human imagination.
Although Dylan was the pastor that preached to the hippie congregation, he was notoriously anti-psychedelic. “Mr. Tambourine Man” is the closest Dylan has ever gotten to writing a psychedelic song. Reportedly about Dylan’s first LSD trip, according to sources it was actually inspired by a huge tambourine a friend of his had. Dylan, who’s a huge fan of surrealism, decided to write a surrealist piece of pop-folk worthy of Dali himself. It stands as a testament to “Mr. Tambourine Man”’s strength that when influential rock band The Byrds recorded a tighter, shorter cover it would go on to become their breakout hit.
9. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
Unlike most singer-songwriters, Bob Dylan isn’t very personal. Songwriting requires you to take your most painful moments and share them with your audience. Like what Anthony Burgess did with A Clockwork Orange, Dylan hides those troubled memories in his words. It’s so easy to get caught up in his impressive wordplay many times I forget he’s singing about something personal. This is doubly true for his love songs.
"Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right" is a bold exception to the Dylan status quo. His acoustic guitar lines are complex, while his lyrics paint such a vivid picture of the failed relationship they do everything except say who Dylan is kissing off. What solidifies "Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right" head and shoulders above his other break-up songs are the vocals. Dylan’s vocal delivery is usually glue sticky, sandpaper rough, and emotionally sparse. Instead Dylan sounds like he’s about to collaspse into a mess of tears. His vocals sound downright pretty and evoke nostalgia, longing, bitterness, and spite. Dylan’s trademark sloppy but passionate harmonica playing keeps everything feeling familar.
While "Blowin’ In The Wind" went on to become the breakout song on Freewheelin’, "Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right" reminded everyone after he became larger than life, behind the rock ‘n’ roll star facade he was just as vulnerable to emotional scarring as the rest of us.
8. Desolation Row
During his induction into the rock and roll hall of fame, Bruce Springsteen described the opening of Highway 61 Revisited as “A snare shot that sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind.” From there the album continues to astound with the ambitious “Ballad Of A Thin Man” and the fast paced title track. However, the most impressive track on Highway 61 Revisited is album closer “Desolation Row”.
While folk songs have been known to run six or seven minutes, very rarely do they run longer than ten. Besides its length, what makes “Desolation Row” so impressive is its lack of choruses. Through its ten verses and one harmonica break, “Desolation Row” takes you on a journey similar to a great short story or magazine article. Dylan uses his love of surrealism to paint a jarring metaphorical portrait of society. From sailors getting their nails done to Einstein huffing gasoline to cheery postcards depicting public executions.
For Dylan to end his loudest, fastest album with a prog-rock length acoustic song was a daring gambit on an album that was already pushing the envelope, but it paid off. To this day, none of Dylan’s other album closers have quite the same impact as “Desolation Row”.
While Dylan didn’t stop writing protest songs after Bringing It All Back Home, he stopped writing overt protest songs. “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is the last time Dylan points his finger and yells “Fuck you!”. While “It’s Alright Ma” didn’t have the cultural impact of “Blowin’ In The Wind” or “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, it’s not just his most masterfully composed protest song, but also one of the tightest, slickest songs he’s ever written. Every line rhymes and has an almost Shakespearean rhythm. Dylan sing-speaks the lyrics at such a rapid fire pace it’s almost impossible to digest them without a lyrics sheet. Before Bringing It All Back Home he mainly got by on his cultural impact, but with “It’s Alright, Ma” Dylan started cementing himself as a songwriting force to be reckoned with.
6. The Times They Are A Changin’
Despite the popularity of “Girl From The North Country” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” fans clamored for more protest songs. So in an ironic twist, that’s exactly what Bob Dylan gave them on his third LP The Times They Are A Changin’. Besides the protest songs, The Times They Are A Changin’ deals with racism, poverty, and the social class divide.
Although the title track borrows melodies from Scottish and Irish folk ballads “Come All Ye Bold Hearted Men” and “Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens”, it isn’t quite as blatant a rip off as “Blowin’ In The Wind”. During an interview Tony Glover recalls that when he asked Dylan why he wrote “The Times They Are A Changin’”, Dylan replied, “Well, you know, it seems to be what the people want to hear.” What separates “The Times They Are A Changin” from “Blowin’ In The Wind” is that while “Blowin’ In The Wind” became the anthem of the hippie movement, “The Times They Are A Changin’” became the anthem of everything from the civil rights movement to Vietnam protesters. Although “Blowin’ In The Wind” would go on to be more famous, “The Times They Are A Changin’” would become Dylan’s most effective protest song, uniting people of all races, religions, and social class.
5. Blowin’ In The Wind
1963 was one of America’s most politically tumultuous years. The Cold War was beginning to escalate and the civil rights moment was gaining momentum. The nation was divided. The youth were growing out their hair and the adults were trimming their crew cuts. The hippies were beginning to band together, but they needed something to unite their anarchy. “Blowin’ In The Wind” became the bond they were looking for, perfectly summarizing what the hippie movement was all about. Behind his guitar and harmonica Bob Dylan cried out for the world to empty their cannons and open their eyes. That love and sympathy, not violence, was the answer. It was a call to arms that fought with flowers instead of bullets, peace signs instead of war cries.
While no other song in Dylan’s discography has the titanic cultural impact of "Blowin’ In The Wind", it’s by far his laziest attempt at songwriting. The melody is stolen nearly note for note from traditional folk song “No More Auction Block For Me”. Dylan merely replaced the old lyrics with lyrics of his own, all in a mere ten minutes. It’s a song that, while hastily put together, went on to become more than the sum of its parts. It’s a song that reminds us, no matter what we’re facing, if we just sit down and really listen, we can hear the answer to our problems blowin’ in the wind.
4. Tangled Up In Blue
After 1969s Nashville Skyline Dylan would release a string of five abysmal albums, Self Portrait, New Morning, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, Dylan, and Planet Waves. By the time 1975 rolled around, fans and critics were convinced Dylan had lost his touch. Fortunately, Blood On The Tracks would go on to become one of his most critically acclaimed albums, and is considered to be the confessional singer-songwriter album all others are judged against.
Heavily inspired by the Cubism of Pablo Picasso, “Tangled Up In Blue” took two years to write, and was literally revised up until the last minute. The song is both very personal and multi-faceted. It’s the lyrical equivalent of the post-modernist literary movement. Is he singing about the same girl or multiple mistresses? What order do the verses go in? According to Dylan all interpretations are valid. Sadly Blood On The Tracks was Dylan’s last legendary album. Although Dylan would make a late career comeback with 1997s Time Out Of Mind, Blood On The Tracks stands as a testament to the virtuostic talents of the Dylan who survived that infamous motorcycle crash.
3. Visions Of Johanna
Have you ever been a room, alone, when someone else enters the room and suddenly you feel more alone than when you were actually alone? Because it’s impossible to understand what it’s like to be anyone but us, it is therefore impossible for anyone else to understand what it’s like to be you. This dilemma is called “existential loneliness”. Simply put, it’s the pain of existing. It’s why people constantly crave romantic relationships.
Like fellow Blonde On Blonde track “Stuck Inside A Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again”, “Visions Of Johanna” is all about the pain of existing. Bob Dylan is dreaming about a woman he’s never met and he’s never going to met. “Johanna” is that elusive “other half” everybody always seems to be searching for that’s constantly advertised on dating sites. It’s got to be awfully lonely, being the voice of your generation, endlessly touring. Who can blame Dylan for wanting to settle down?
As for the song itself, it pushes the seven minute mark but doesn’t feel overly long. The acoustic backing is your standard folk fare, but the harmonica solo is the mouth harp equivalent of Jimi Hendrix playing the national anthem. Bob Dylan’s been quoted saying “Visions Of Johanna” is his favorite Blonde On Blonde track, and rightfully so. Full of speedy, beat poetry and memorable moments, it stands out as the strongest track on one of the best double albums ever released.
2. Subterranean Homesick Blues
When 1965 rolled around folk music was no longer a scene, it was a way of life. Being a folk singer meant that you weren’t just an artist, you were a role model. It was about being a part of something bigger than yourself, and like any movement it was loaded with symbols. To the folkies, the electric guitar symbolized everything they were against. The electric guitar was commercial, it was modern, it was the atom bomb, it was World War III. To call yourself a folk musician and wield the electric axe was to spit in the face of everything the movement held dear.
So you can only imagine how upset Bob Dylan’s fans were when they first heard "Subterranean Homesick Blues", Bringing It All Back Home’s first track. Dylan was playing an electric guitar with a backing band! The fans cried Judas. They were outraged. They were not going to stand for this.
But something strange happened. The song ended and the fans calmed down, realizing how genius it was. In two minutes and twenty one seconds Dylan had painted a picture of modern day America more perfect than anyone who had come before him. It’s a portrait filled with drug dealers, disillusioned authority, vagrant speed freaks, LSD-crazed hippies, thiefs, vandals, and soldiers. So what if Bob Dylan spat in the face of all that was holy? He was still the king, and that’s what mattered.
1. Like A Rolling Stone
The first time Pete Townshend saw Jimi Hendrix play live, after the gig was over a journalist asked him to comment on his thoughts. Townshend replied “I don’t know why I even bother.”
Folk musicians across America shared Pete’s reaction when they first heard “Like A Rolling Stone” in August 1965. Dylan had already revolutionized the folk community with “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, but the backing band on Bringing It All Back Home had been a mere whisper accentuating Dylan’s voice. On Highway 61 Revisited Dylan’s backing band is in your face and cranked up to eleven. “Like A Rolling Stone” was recorded during a grueling 14 hour recording session, the lyrics cut out of a 20 page sheet of “word vomit” Dylan had scrawled after a messy breakup. You can hear not just venom and revenge in his voice, but longing and a pleading sense of desperation too. At six minutes and nine seconds it was too long to be a single, yet it went on to become just that. It’s the song that not only revolutionized folk but rock music in general. “Blowin’ In The Wind” secured Dylan as the voice of a generation, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cemented him as the king of folk, but “Like A Rolling Stone” is what transformed Dylan into the king of rock ‘n’ roll, leaving us with only one question. Now that you’re on top of it all, how does it feel?