Happy 80th Birthday, Bob!
Updated: May 27, 2021
In celebration of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, I have compiled a list of my 80 favourite songs of his and released a cover of ‘I Want You’, available on SoundCloud.
The list is in no particular order other than I attempted to sequence them for a pleasurable listening experience on Spotify:
I have written a little about each song below and what it means to me, which has helped me reflect on the impact Dylan’s music has had on my life.
I have been a fan since my school friend Andrew introduced me to his music when I was sixteen years old. I was listening to Iron Maiden’s Live After Death on my portable cassette player in the sixth form common room one day when Andrew handed me a compilation tape he had made and instructed me to play it. I can still remember my reaction when I first heard ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. I had no idea that popular music could be like that – sonically austere yet lyrically so powerful; pretty much the polar opposite of the NWOBHM! I was immediately aware that this was music as art or poetry. Everyone talks about Dylan’s voice and how it can be off-putting but I never felt that. I could hear what he was singing and that was what was important. Later on I learned that he isn’t considered to be a very good harp player, either, but on first listening it was clear that the guy used the instrument to express himself in much the same way as he used his voice. I was hooked.
The first Dylan album I owned was the double LP More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits. I played those orange-labelled Columbia records to death. Many of my 80 choices appear on that album. It was a great introduction to his work. I was lucky enough to follow that up with the Biograph LP set and then The Bootleg Series 1-3 on CD. There is enough on those two compilations alone to warrant a lifetime of exploration; the equivalent of the Picasso museum in Barcelona where you can wander around for days and barely scratch the surface.
In terms of ‘proper’ albums, again I was lucky to discover Blood on the Tracks and Desire early on. Also, Oh Mercy, which came out just as I was getting seriously into him. A friend of mine in the village where I lived had the Slow Train Coming and Infidels LPs and I loved both of those from the outset. Curiously, it took a while for me to get hold of Freewheelin’ but I think I heard Blonde On Blonde next via a friend’s cassette copy and possibly Masterpieces. It’s all a bit hazy now. I didn’t hear Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait or New Morning until years later. In fact, I think I got Another Self Portrait before I owned any of these records, which was perhaps another stroke of luck!
Dylan is vast and contains multitudes, as he acknowledges on Rough and Rowdy Ways, quoting Whitman, and some people would choose an entirely different list of favourites from his vast back pages. Some might find the omission of certain songs heretical. However, this is not what I consider to be Dylan’s 80 greatest songs, simply the ones I like the most. I like all Dylan’s stuff and, along with George Harrison, I like the stuff you’re not even supposed to like, such as Self Portrait. In fact, some of the stuff you’re supposed to like I find doesn't necessarily move me as much as other songs, even though I can appreciate it as art. I’ve no doubt that as I continue to listen, and continue to age and change, this list will alter again.
So happy 80th birthday Bob Dylan, thank you for enriching my life.
80. Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window
I heard Jimi Hendrix's version first, performed live at the BBC, which is incredibly faithful to Bob’s original recording with The Band (then known as The Hawks) in 1965. It’s a brilliant uplifting song with great energy from his thin, wild mercury sound period. I have absolutely no idea what it’s about.
79. What Can I Do For You
I’ve never been offended by Bob’s ‘Gospel phase’ but then I’ve never had issues with George Harrison’s religious songs or Bob Marley’s. What’s wrong with a bit of sincere devotion? Regardless of the lyrics, this performance is incredibly heartfelt and captures probably Dylan’s greatest harmonica playing in a studio.
78. To Be Alone With You – Take 1
I adore this version of the song. The shuffle beat and the bass playing are so infectious, I can’t believe this wasn’t the version issued on Nashville Skyline. Dylan’s “homegrown” phase, like McCartney’s and Van Morrison’s in the early 70s, exhibits a delight in simple pleasures and celebrates the profundity of domestic life. He was in a happy place and that spilled over into his songwriting. The problem was that this was not what people expected of him. Dylan, as he's demonstrated time and time again, doesn’t really care about other people’s expectations.
77. Simple Twist of Fate
OK, so happiness doesn’t always last and relationships go wrong. No big deal says Bob, I can channel that kind of pain just as eloquently. “I’m going out of my mind / Oh with a pain that stops and starts / Like a corkscrew to my heart / Ever since we’ve been apart.” I had my heart broken in two once and this album, this song and those particular lines articulated it perfectly. It was a great comfort.
76. Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine
I became familiar with the live version of this via Biograph, which I owned before Blonde on Blonde, and so is the version I prefer.
75. Tomorrow Is a Long Time
An achingly beautiful song. This is a live performance from 1963 featured on 1971’s More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits. Unfathomably, it was previously unreleased in any form.
74. Abandoned Love
Another song that you can’t believe that Dylan left off an album, in this case 1975’s Desire. The live solo acoustic performance from The Other End club is hailed by fans as the definitive version, but I think Dylan and his band captured the song just fine in the studio.
73. Time Passes Slowly #1
As I mentioned, I heard Another Self Portrait (1969-1971), The Bootleg Series Vol.10, which contains this earlier ultimately discarded performance of Time Passes Slowly, before I heard the New Morning LP. This take seems head and shoulders over the released version to my ears.
72. Absolutely Sweet Marie
While Bob’s trademark Beat influenced stream of consciousness lyrics from the period skewer another unsuspecting female protagonist, the song’s soundtrack is pure joy. By Blonde on Blonde, Bob was crafting perfectly constructed pop songs and writing fantastic middle eights. Contains a brilliant harmonica solo to boot.
71. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
I first heard this song on Biograph and, much like the first time I heard ‘A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall’, this one stopped me in my tracks. I read somewhere recently that it is the greatest Civil Rights song ever written and that’s hard to argue with. It’s the specificity of the narrative that gives it its power and humanity, in a way that a song dealing in abstracts, like ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, can’t achieve. Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin thinks that the real life ‘Zantzinger’ was hard done by. Tell that to Hattie Carroll. In 1991 Zantzinger was convicted of collecting rent from black families living in shanty accommodation he did not own. This time he was given an 18 month sentence but spent only a few nights in prison.
70. Down Along The Cove
It was Davy Graham’s cover that I was familiar with before I heard Bob’s original of this song. I just love the vibe of it. Four instruments and a vocal. Rock n roll.
69. I’ll Keep It With Mine
It’s a bit disappointing that there isn’t a definitive studio recording of this song. This run through included on The Bootleg Series 1-3 is the nearest thing. Again, the fact that he doesn’t even bother recording it properly – a song that most songwriters could only dream of writing – demonstrates that at this point he really did have “a head full of ideas that [were] driving [him] insane”.
This could be in contention for being my favourite Dylan song. I think it’s phenomenal. “I met Prince Phillip at the home of the blues / Said he’d give me information if his name wasn’t used / He wanted money up front, said he was abused / By dignity” Mysterious, enigmatic, funny and mischievous. An apt description of the man himself. Of course, he perversely left it off Oh Mercy.
67. Girl from the North Country
When I finally managed to get round to buying Freewheelin’, I was immediately knocked out by this gorgeous song. Purportedly about his former girlfriend, Bonnie Beecher.
66. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat (Live at Manchester Free Trade Hall)
From the ‘Royal Albert Hall’ live bootleg which I seem to recall hearing before the release of The Bootleg Series Vol. 4. The whole concert is incredible. I love the lyrics to this song and it’s a blast to play live.
65. Mama, You Been On My Mind
Why wasn’t this included on Another Side of Bob Dylan??!! Who can afford to discard a song this good??
64. Positively 4th Street
Another candidate for my favourite Dylan song, this one is again tied up with my heartbreak story of the early nineties: “You’d know what a drag it is to see you.” It said everything for me at the time.
63. When I Paint My Masterpiece
Dylan, by his own admission, was floundering creatively towards the end of the sixties and in the early seventies. Of course, his creative dip didn’t mean that he was no longer capable of churning out timeless classics, including this one which actually addresses the problem, obliquely. Three years later he would write Blood On The Tracks.
62. If You Gotta Go, Go Now
Another brilliant slice of mid-sixties pop made famous by Manfred Mann’s cover version.
61. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Stemming from apocalyptic visions of nuclear fall-out, the wonderful imagery employed evokes myriad worlds of suffering and injustice rendered more powerful by the conviction of the performance and the ambiguity of its meaning. Is Dylan prophesying his future role: “I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it / And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it”? One for the ages.
60. Tell Me That It Isn’t True – Take 2
In contrast, a love song pure and simple, perfectly crafted. Superior to the released version on Nashville Skyline, imo.
59. Blind Willie McTell
One of Dylan’s greatest songs that was famously left off Infidels. Many of Dylan’s post Time Out of Mind albums seem to address themes encapsulated so wonderfully here – the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, blues singers, Christ/God. It’s a fantastic example of the concise diction he often chooses to employ (as opposed to the surreal, stream of consciousness writing which characterises much of his mid-sixties work) which, in this instance, brings the listener closer to the mood he is conveying through marvellous sensual imagery: the hoot-owl is heard singing, he watches the stars above the barren trees, sees the plantations burning, hears the cracking of the whips and the undertaker's bell and smells the sweet magnolia blooming. He mixes time and place and yet calls you into the immediacy of particular surroundings, a technique that he attributes to his study of painting with Norman Raeben prior to composing Blood on the Tracks, but which is also present, albeit unconsciously, on earlier works such as ‘A Hard Rain…’. It’s another mysterious and moving masterpiece.
58. Walkin’ Down The Line
Another unreleased song featured on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3. This 1962 composition sees Dylan in Woody Guthrie mode fantasising about the hard life of a hobo. It’s so earnest and compelling it almost makes you believe that this was Dylan’s real back story, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth for the middle class boy from Duluth.
57. Mr Tambourine Man
Never gets old for me, this. I actually prefer the Manchester Free Trade Hall live performance for the incredible sparkling harmonica playing, but the studio recording remains the definitive version. “Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky / With one hand waving free / Silhouetted by the sea / Circled by the circus sands / With all memory and fate / Driven deep within the waves / Let me forget about today until tomorrow” Has that moment of ultimate human joy and transcendence ever been better expressed?
56. Tangled Up in Blue
Blood On The Tracks is Dylan’s masterpiece. Everyone knows it really. (Check this essay out if you're not convinced.) It’s not my favourite album of his though. It can be hard to listen to at times because of all the pain and loss. 'Tangled Up In Blue', however, despite adhering to the break-up theme, somehow manages to be joyous at the same time. It’s nearly six minutes long but the narrative is so compelling that it flies by; so much so that you sometimes forget how amazing the lyrics you are singing along to are.
55. The Times They Are A-Changin’ – MTV Unplugged
The anthem that perhaps more than any other earned Dylan the unwanted “voice of a generation” label, was the unofficial manifesto for change for the Civil Rights and youth movements of the early 1960s. Composed just prior to Kennedy’s assassination, an event in US history still reverberating to this day in the American psyche and in Dylan’s consciousness, he credits the influence of Scottish and Irish folk ballads on the song whose cultural impact would cast a long shadow; one which Dylan would desperately try and run away from soon afterwards. I enjoy the MTV Unplugged version because that is how I perform the song live with my band.
54. Watching the River Flow
Recorded at the same session as ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’, both songs were released as a single in 1971 with this as the A side. As the opening track of the first Bob Dylan album I ever owned, it plays a disproportionately larger part in my Dylan consciousness than it perhaps should. Saying that, I think it’s a barnstormer of a track and contains the same lyrical theme as the B side: “What’s the matter with me / I don’t have much to say”. It’s OK Bob, you’re in your Zen period.
53. Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
This follows on from ‘Watching the River Flow’ on More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits, which is where I first heard it. It struck me immediately as a work of genius. The guitar picking on it is so good that some people don’t believe that Bob played it. Dylan brain Eyolf Olstrem has fortunately provided the evidence that he did here: http://dylanchords.com/node/1801 Dylan was 21 years old when he wrote and recorded this song. How is that even possible?
52. Tell Me Momma – Live at Manchester Free Trade Hall
This is how you kick off a concert; such an incendiary performance. Audiences must have been shell-shocked in 1966. Small wonder there were protests and shouts of “Judas!” from the folk purists. The acoustic troubadour was shape-shifting again.
51. Lay, Lady, Lay
Bob in conservative crooner mode was nearly as shocking as his transformation from folkie to rock icon. What is undisputable is the quality of the craftsmanship in this piece of songwriting. Possibly the greatest middle eight ever written.
50. Apple Suckling Tree
We laud Dylan, quite rightly, for his lyricism, but what is often overlooked is that he is also quite capable of producing great tracks with nonsense words. This song sums up the playfulness of the Basement Tapes era like no other. Dylan’s first love was rock n roll, and his first instrument the piano. When asked about his ambitions in his high school yearbook, he wrote, “To join Little Richard.”
49. Only a Hobo
Dylan, whatever his real personality is like, is capable of great empathy in his songwriting and he often celebrates the outcast and downtrodden. He returns to the theme of the hobo here in this 1963 recording, which remained unreleased until The Bootleg Series 1-3, drawing on the folk song ‘Only a Miner Killed’. Re-cycling and re-interpreting songs is standard practice in the folk tradition, but this has resulted in claims of plagiarism against Dylan when he has applied the same principle in some of his later works.
48. She Belongs To Me
Dylan introduced a new kind of songwriting on Bringing It All Back Home, combining the aforementioned Beat poetry influenced lyrics with an amplified backing band and song structures indebted to blues as much as folk. The opening salvo of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and ‘She Belongs To Me’ left many earnest folkies in no doubt that Bobby had sold out to ‘pop’. In reality, he had created a new genre, Folk-Rock. This surrealistic love song may have been written for Joan Baez.
47. Series of Dreams
Another Dylan classic inexplicably left off an album, in this case 1989’s Oh Mercy again. This album could be my favourite record by Bob and it definitely would be had he added ‘Dignity’ and ‘Series of Dreams’. Oh Mercy was a brilliant return to form after some disappointing album releases in the mid to late eighties. This track gives us a glimpse into Dylan’s subconscious where “everything stays down where it’s wounded”, “where nothing comes up to the top”. He declares he’s not “making any great connections”, simply thinking about “dreams where… the cards are no good that you’re holding / Unless they’re from another world”. Interesting to me is the boxing metaphor, “I’d already gone the distance”. In yet another example of Dylan’s multitudinous (and contradictory) nature, as well as being an accomplished painter and sculptor (he works in iron – “I’ve been around iron all my life” – he grew up in Hibbing, a community of the Mesabi Iron Range, rich in iron ore, with the largest open pit iron mine in the world), and amateur film-maker, Dylan loves sports and has said that he would have liked to have been either a baseball or basketball star or a champion boxer. He even owns a boxing gym in Santa Monica attached to his coffee shop. He works out in one and chain smokes in the other.
46. I Want You
A number 16 UK hit in 1966, ‘I Want You’ is another fantastic piece of pop songwriting with a great middle eight. I recorded my cover of it above using my best Bob impersonation voice.
45. Man in the Long Black Coat
Daniel Lanois’ production certainly added some interesting atmospherics to Oh Mercy and this song is no exception. The album was recorded in New Orleans and apparently the sound of the crickets on this track is a field recording made near the studio. More lyrical ambiguity: who is the man in the long black coat? Jesus? The devil? Dylan at his mysterious best with yet another tremendous middle eight.
44. It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry
Nothing too deep about this one (a sexually frustrated lad hopping trains), but a great groove and chord progression from the Highway 61 Revisited LP.
43. Romance in Durango
Desire, Dylan’s follow-up to Blood on the Tracks did not disappoint. Teaming up with theatre director (and clinical psychologist) Jacques Levy, who co-writes the majority of the tracks, lent the lyrics their story-telling and scene setting impetus. Any number of them could be made into movies, not least this tale of Mexican lovers on the run.
42. Black Diamond Bay
As on the album, I have sequenced ‘Romance in Durango’ to cross-fade into this song. We now find ourselves on a fictional Caribbean island among some characters at a hotel who are about to lose their lives as a volcano erupts. The song ends with a change of narrator at the end, presumably meant to be an American, who hears about the disaster on the evening news but sees no relevance to his life and switches off the TV to get a beer. Not your average pop song.
41. Love Minus Zero/No Limit
A beautiful and timeless song from Bringing It All Back Home. The title completely bemused me when I first saw it but now it makes complete sense.
40. Idiot Wind
Some would argue that this is Dylan’s best song. It certainly masters the art of the acerbic put down – “You’re an idiot, babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” – although by the end of the song the singer acknowledges his own idiocy; his anger really a disguise for his grief.
39. Highway 61 Revisited
Highway 61 runs from Dylan’s birthplace, Duluth, Minnesota, to New Orleans and clearly represented freedom to him. He was sixteen when On the Road was published and he said, “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s”. Literary critic Mark Polizzotti suggests that Dylan based his persona on that of the book’s protagonist, Dean Moriarty, the ‘holy goof’. At a press conference in 1965 when asked whether he considered himself primarily a singer or a poet, Dylan replied, “Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know.” Everyone thought he was joking, but was he? Listening to the lyrics of Highway 61 Revisited, is it all absurdity or is there a deeper meaning? Does it matter? In his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance address, Dylan said: “The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert, or on record, or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says ‘Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.’” Interestingly, ‘Georgia Sam’ , mentioned in the second verse, was a recording pseudonym for Blind Willie McTell.
This song always had a tight connection to my heart. It’s about Dylan’s first wife, Sara Lownds (“sweet love of my life”), and at the time Desire was being made they were breaking up. The story goes that Sara visited the studio as this song was about to be recorded and heard Bob say from the other side of the glass, “this one’s for you.”
37. Baby Let Me Follow You Down – Live at Manchester Free Trade Hall
I heard the live version of this really early on in my Bob listening journey and began to play it in the first band I formed at school. For some reason, I always thought it was on Before The Flood. I still perform it regularly now.
36. Every Grain of Sand
This one ends Shot Of Love, an album Dylan thought deserved higher critical praise. (It probably would have if he hadn’t left off ‘Caribbean Wind’ and ‘The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar’!) This song, however, is an acknowledged masterpiece.
I love this song and its sunny feel-good vibe. I didn’t know whether to feel disappointed or impressed when I read that Dylan has never been to Mozambique and the song came about as a challenge to write a song that rhymed with the word.
34. You’re a Big Girl Now – Take 2
Dylan recorded Blood on the Tracks in New York in 1974 and took the tapes home that Christmas to play to his family in Minnesota. He became dissatisfied with the recordings and his brother David suggested that he re-record them with some local musicians. The finished album is a mixture of the two sessions and Eyolf Olstrem in this essay argues convincingly that the best album got released. Perhaps except for this one track, however, where the version recorded in Minneapolis is, to most people’s ears, inferior to the New York one heard here.
33. Masters of War
The sad truth is that this song is as topical now as when it was recorded in 1963 and will be until violence, greed and power are no longer the way of the world. When will that be? The answer, my friend…
32. Subterranean Homesick Blues
My school friend James who owned Slow Train Coming and Infidels could recite the lyrics to this song which always impressed me no end. Now that I perform it live I’ve nearly remembered them! Over-familiarity can breed contempt, but this song must have been a sensation in 1965.
31. Hard Times in New York Town
Dylan re-wrote the 1920s folk song ‘Down on Penny’s Farm’ about rural poverty to highlight urban poverty in the big city. This 1961 recording kicks off The Bootleg Series 1-3.
30. Oh Sister
Another song we played in my first school band with my Dylan mentor Andrew singing and playing guitar and harmonica. I was on drums. Can I mention the fantastic middle eight?
29. If Not For You
I prefer the original arrangement of this song recorded with George Harrison but it’s still another example of less is more songwriting. A simple but beautiful love song.
28. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
Another mysterious song where it’s unclear who Dylan is singing to/about. What is undeniable is that it’s a powerful lyric with a tremendous melody. In the film of Dylan’s 1965 UK tour, Don’t Look Back, Dylan and Donovan are trading songs in a hotel room. Donovan sings his sweet song ‘To Sing for You’ first and Dylan says, “that’s a good song, man.” He then performs this and the contest is over. I am not knocking Donovan by the way, I am a huge fan, it’s just that Dylan was operating on another level.
27. Queen Jane Approximately
One of my favourites from Blonde on Blonde despite Dylan’s completely out of tune guitar. Why didn’t Bob Johnston tell him??
26. All Along The Watchtower
Hendrix’s version, which Dylan adores, upped the ante for this song. Would it be as recognisable today without Jimi tu