I know how it is, you just don’t “get” what some people like about Bob Dylan. And even if you were inclined to to try, how would you know where to start? A (virtual) trip to the iTunes store reveals 40-some albums, and that’s just counting the proper releases, never mind greatest hits, live albums and other detritus.
Allow me to make a few suggestions.
THERE USED TO BE A LALA PLAYLIST HERE. I MISS LALA.
A Simple Twist of Fate
from Blood on the Tracks, 1975
A slowly breaking heart, that’s all. This is Dylan at his finest, sketching simple but potent scenes full of emotion and erudition. More than any other, this is the song on the list that makes me think, “How could anyone be unmoved by this?”
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963
This time Bobby’s leaving, not left, but the themes are similar. And the song is really direct, just a guitar, mouth harp, and Dylan’s young, strong voice. “Goodbye’s too good a word, gal. So I’ll just say fare thee well.”
One of Us Must Know
from Blonde on Blonde, 1966
Another broken-hearted ballad, poor guy. Blonde on Blonde is the Kind of Blue of Dylan-ography. (If you don’t know what I mean by that, skip this post for now and go get Kind of Blue.) This song isn’t downbeat, though. It’s got some great gospel grooves, slick organ voicings, charging piano chords, and a repeating build that makes majesty out of our downtrodden lover’s lonely attempts at vindication.
from Desire, 1976
Who says Dylan never rocks? Have you heard this one? It’s amazing how low-key this one starts. Dylan didn’t write as many overtly political songs as his reputation would suggest. This one is eight and a half minutes of eyewitness journalism on wax and it’s thrilling to hear him so angry and unafraid. This song is so powerful Dylan got sued over it.
Most of the Time
from Oh, Mercy, 1989
Another man trying to heal his heart. This guy’s almost alright, but we catch him here in a moment of strange reflection. Notably, this is from Dylan’s first album with super-producer Daniel Lanois. It’s a moody track, to be sure, but with a strong, slow groove under-pinning it, and Dylan sounds determined, like he’s singing through gritting teeth. The effect is enhanced by his deteriorating vocal power, and if you squint your ears, it’s not hard to imagine this song is about aging as much as anything else.
Girl from the North Country (with Johnny Cash)
from Nashville Skyline, 1969
I know, you were just starting to get used to his weird voice, and now this. Well, Dylan kinda went country for a couple of albums, and he changed his voice to go better with the style of the songs. This track is from a day that Dylan and Johnny Cash spent recording duets. A little sad, but it’s really gorgeous, and they sound fantastic together.
Visions of Johanna
from Blonde on Blonde, 1966
This contains maybe my favorite Dylan one-liner, “We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it.” And the song gets a heck of a lot more metaphoric than that. Fans have spent years trying to decipher this tangle of allusions and what we presume are memories. It’s a pretty easy-going song though, and despite the lyrical density, it’s not difficult to fall into the swing of it.
from Planet Waves, 1974
The Band plays backup here, and their contribution is considerable as they elevate the recording above the realm of the more “standard” Dylan ballads of the 70s. It’s a blessing from a father to a child, and Dylan’s lyrics and performance are appropriately tender and passionate. If you think you’ve heard it, that’s because Rod Stewart “accidentally” covered the song years later.
Positively 4th Street
(originally released as a single)
from Greatest Hits, 1967
Dylan wrote a lot of great “kiss-offs” in the form of some catchy songs. This is one of them. If you’ve had a run-in with a supposed friend who you just know isn’t really loyal, this song is for you. I recommend it here because it so well epitomizes a particular mini-genre of Dylanography, but is also straightforward enough to be appreciated the first time around by any listener.
from Modern Times, 2006
FORTY YEARS LATER, and he’s still making 9 minute songs on serious themes. Bobby D. is positively weary on this track, and that certainly doesn’t sound like a good way to start such a long opus, but trust me, he works through it. He may be weary, but as he sings, his heart’s burnin’ and he’s still yearnin’.
Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again
from Blonde On Blonde, 1966
Sometimes though, Bob Dylan just wants to have fun. I suspect he’s being obscure just for the hell of it on this one, and I don’t really mind, the song is full of great hooks and twisty phrases that get stuck in your head for days.
All I Really Wanna Do
from Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964
We had one of our favorite couples read these lyrics at our wedding. It’s a really friendly song about agape, and it has just enough little Dylan-isms to distinguish it from could otherwise by a really childish exercise. His sometimes howling, sometimes giggling performance really puts it over the top. This song is just so darned likable.
Gotta Serve Somebody
from Slow Train Coming, 1979
Low down, bluesy, with some gospel feel in the background. The secret here is that this was Dylan’s first statement as a born-again Christian, and it was also his last hit single. It’s a great place to check on the progress of Dylan’s voice, and it’s a really different aspect of him, that you won’t hear about too often. He’s “enlightened” here, sure, but he’s really angry again. The lyrics are focused and the sentiment is almost bitter.
Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
from Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, 1973
So you’ve heard the Guns n Roses version, right? And the Eric Clapton version, maybe even a reggae version or two and a bootleg of U2’s version. Have heard the original though? It’ll change your perception of the song, I think. It’s short, and surprisingly resigned and reverent.
Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You
from Live 1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 5, 2002
1975: Dylan hits the road with a misfit crew of fantastic musicians, artists, poets, and personalities and calls it the Rolling Thunder Revue. This is the lead-off track from the “official bootleg,” (one of my Top 3 Dylan releases) and it’s … well, it’s a real humdinger. Dylan & co. transform this Nashville Skyline ditty into a unexpectedly massive epic. Just skip to 2:30 and listen for 30 seconds to hear how passionately invested Dylan was.
Make You Feel My Love
from Time Out of Mind, 1997
There’s no denying this album was a comeback for Bobby. Most folks considered this his first “great” album in fifteen years, if not twenty. Billy Joel recorded a fine cover of this song, but I think the original is even more touching in all its ragged glory. Dylan could still write, no doubt about it.
Like a Rolling Stone
from The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3, 1991
This is kind of a bonus track for the list. If you’ve made it this far, here’s the gravy, or the frosting. “Like a Rolling Stone,” the version we all know, is perhaps the greatest, most influential rock recording of all time. This “3/4 waltz,” the 4th take recorded the day before, is a treasure in its own right, and a stark illustration of how ephemeral even the most epochal moments of great art can be. What if Dylan had stopped there, instead of going all the way to take 20? (Actually, it was take 8 that was finally released, but you get my point.)
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Bob Dylan dot com is a really great site, where you can thoroughly explore Dylan’s music, listening to samples of just about everything, and reading the lyrics to damn near every song he’s released.
Here’s a picture of Bob Dylan that I like.