A shimmering piece of Bobdacity

April 18, 2007

I’ve learned today that Bob Dylan will be coming to town again in July. I saw him when he last rolled through town, and will almost certainly try to see him again. Naturally, my enthusiasm at the news spilled out during lunch and, incredibly, one of my colleagues professed near total ignorance of Bob’s music. At this I was seized with an evangelical zeal and vowed to compile for him a list of the best Bob Dylan songs. This ‘best’ business is a tricky one, of course, for there’s no telling how to strictly decide the matter, but nevertheless I don’t think I’m totally at sea.

Initially he asked for a list of two or three songs, which I denounced as a shameful and wholly impossible demand, offering instead to draw up a ‘Top 10’ list. Now, trying to shoehorn Dylan’s vast and rich body of work into such a small space is either a shimmering piece of audacity or a fool’s errand. After trying it, I see it is the latter.

In the end I’ve compiled two lists of nine. The first contains what I would consider to be his most popular songs. In no particular order, they are:

Like a Rolling Stone [Highway 61 Revisited, 1965]
The Times They Are A-Changin’ [The Times They are A-Changin’, 1964]
Blowin’ in the Wind [The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963]
Mr. Tambourine Man [Bringing It All Back Home, 1965]
Tangled up in Blue [Blood on the Tracks, 1975]
Subterranean Homesick Blues [Bringing It All Back Home, 1965]
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
[The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963]
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall [The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963]
Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35 [Blonde on Blonde, 1966]

The second is a list of my personal favourites. These are the songs that I think best illustrate his humour, lyrical brilliance, or just sheer songsmithery.

Visions of Johanna [Blonde on Blonde, 1966]
Desolation Row [Highway 61 Revisited, 1965]
Love Minus Zero / No Limit [Bringing It All Back Home, 1965]
Girl from the North Country [The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963]
Fourth Time Around [Blonde on Blonde, 1966]
To Ramona [Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964]
Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues [Bootleg Series Vol. 1, 1963-ish]
Blind Willie McTell [Bootleg Series, Vol. 3, 1989?]
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue [Bringing It All Back Home, 1965]

From these lists one might conclude that my favourite of Dylan’s albums are The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Bringing It All Back Home, and I think that is a fair assessment. My other favourites are John Wesley Harding, though none of its songs appear here, and Blood on the Tracks.

You don’t have to tell me that I’ve left off a boat-load of gems: All Along the Watchtower, I Want You, Not Dark Yet, Idiot Wind, Tomorrow is a Long Time, Ballad of a Thin Man, and on and on. But if you think I’ve really unjustly overlooked something, or that I’ve included an unworthy, or have any other comments, leave one below.

4 Responses to “A shimmering piece of Bobdacity”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    Don’t you like his more recent stuff? All but two of the songs you chose are from the sixties.

  2. cburrell Says:

    If I had been compiling a “Top 50” list then his more recent material would have begun to appear. The problem is that in those anni mirabili between 1963 and 1967 he wrote so many wonderful songs that the later stuff, as good as it is, has a hard time breaking in to the “hit parade”.

    In truth, the 1970s and 1980s were pretty bad times for Bob Dylan. With the notable exceptions of Blood on the Tracks (1975) and Oh Mercy (1989), his records during those years range from uneven to dreadful. This began to change with Time Out of Mind (1992), which was superb, and he has continued on the upward way with Love and Theft (1997) and the recent Modern Times (2006).

    And so, as I said, on a longer list songs from these years would begin to pop up: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Forever Young, I and I, and Hurricane (not to mention the rest of the songs on Blood on the Tracks) from the 1970s, Every Grain of Sand, Ring Them Bells, and Shooting Star from the 1980s, and Series of Dreams, Tryin’ to Get to Heaven, Love Sick, Highlands, and High Water from the 1990s. These are all great songs, and in the catalogue of almost any other songwriter they would be the cream of the crop. But Dylan is different, and they didn’t make the cut this time.

  3. Doug Says:

    Bob Dylan played a smaller, club, venue in Stockholm recently, his first such ever. I unfortunately couldn’t make it. A long time ago in Edmonton I borrowed Craig’s CD copy of Bootleg, Vol. 1. and put it on tape. It became the defining album of those couple years after university. Those songs kept me company on the long hot drive to the Cascades, WA, where I spent a couple of summers up at a groovy Christian retreat centre. I even sang an embarrased version of Walkin’ Down the Line at the weekly coffee house talent show deal they had up there. I would add Song to Woody on the top ten list.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Doug does a good service by bringing up the first volume of The Bootleg Series. That is a really marvellous collection of songs, and would certainly rank in my Top 5 of Dylan’s records. It’s got some of his funniest songs: “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” and “Talkin’ Have Negeliah Blues”, but also some of his most sobering: “No More Auction Block” comes to mind especially. Add “Let me Die in my Footsteps” is one of his best songs.

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