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”.