The 8 Ball 09.17.12: The Top 8 Bob Dylan Songs
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 09.17.2012
From "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" to "Hurricane," "Like a Rolling Stone" and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas concludes his long at the top 16 Bob Dylan songs with #8 - #1!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Last week we started off the list of the Top 16 Bob Dylan songs, and so this week would obviously be the conclusion. Not much else to say about that, so let's just get right into it, shall we?
Caveat: I don't think this needs any explanation. However, one thing I must say is that even with sixteen songs, I had to leave many songs off the list that I really love and consider iconic. That'll happen when you're working with one of the greatest songwriters of all-time.
16: "All Along the Watchtower" (1968)
15: "I Want You" (1966)
14: "Blowin' in the Wind" (1963)
13: "Desolation Row" (1965)
12: "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" (1965)
11: "Just Like A Woman" (1966)
10: "Not Dark Yet" (1998)
9: "Most of the Time" (1989)
#8: "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (1973)
Many of Bob Dylan's songs are iconic to the point that they have been extensively covered. Some of them, like "All Along the Watchtower," found someone else topping Dylan to provide a new definitive version. "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" is not one of those tracks. Despite being covered by such acts as Eric Clapton, the Grateful Dead, Guns N' Roses and Warren Zevon, none have been able to supplant Dylan's original. And that's no slam against the covers, which all have their own stylistic takes and stand strong in their own right. But the original, recorded by Dylan for the soundtrack of 1973's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, is heads and tails over them all. Dylan is considered one of the elder statesmen of rock today and rightly so; we got a look at that elder statesman status with this song about a deputy who is tired and dying, lamenting that he can no longer continue his life's work. In last week's column, a reader commented on my saying that Dylan's voice not being great by noting how innovative he was in his vocal work. I absolutely agree with that, and I think what also separated Dylan's voice from those of many of his contemporaries was that he sold his songs on emotion and feeling over tone quality. This is a great example of that; there is a weariness in Dylan's vocals throughout this song that sell it far better than technical vocal skill could do. Dylan was only thirty-one when he first recorded this song, but he sounds much older. And as he's aged, his performances have only gotten better as he grows into the song. It's one of my favorite vocal performances in his extensive and storied catalogue.
#7: "Visions of Johanna" (1966)
"Visions of Johanna" is the greatest song on what is one of the greatest albums of all-time. The track is the third off of Dylan's watershed album Blonde on Blonde and is a landmark in songwriting. The song, which was notoriously difficult for Dylan to record until he managed it in one take in Nashville, was written in 1965 in New York while Dylan was living in a hotel with his new wife Sara. The identity of the song's subject has been, like many of Dylan's songs, a subject of much debate and has never been nailed down. But it doesn't honestly matter who it is; what matters is that she (if there even is a real she) inspired Dylan to create one of the most subtly and masterfully-written songs of all-time. The lyrics contain a level of depth and allusion that every songwriter should aspire to, but few should ever hope to achieve. And yet, while many songs as well-written as this lose feeling in the place of literary skill, this one has all of the feeling of some of the truly great songs of all-time. Dylan never lets the song get away from him and manages to make it both ephemeral and substantive, which is a tricky feat to manage. Dylan makes it look easy.
#6: "Ain't Talkin'" (2006)
The newest Dylan track on my top 16 is also one of the creepiest songs of his career. Appearing as the last track on 2006's Modern Times, this song is a sort of blues-meets-noir song; a sprawling, nearly-nine minute-long track about a man who makes his way on a long walk from his garden to the city and on through the world, wanting to be a good man but often failing to do so. It's a song with imagery full of decay and dark hearts, of plagued cities and dying fires. If you didn't know better and weren't paying attention, it would be easy to confuse this for a Nick Cave song but there's another level above what Cave does. (And this is coming from a big Nick Cave fan.) Dylan's aging voice lends the weight of the world to the song and a hint of malice underneath. Ultimately it's a song about being lonely in a morally-corrupt world and fighting the temptation to abandon one's moral code to join in the monstrosity of the masses; if these lyrics are any indication, Dylan doesn't think that a particularly easy task. It's as great a gothic epic as anything the goth rock genre has put out, just without the lack of subtlety that goth rock can often display.
#5: "The Times They Are a-Changin'" (1964)
No one song encapsulated the 1960s like "The Times They Are a-Changin'" did. On first pass, the title sounds like understatement to the point of ludicrousness, the taking of the phrase "stating the obvious" to a new level. But get past that and you have a song that, if not quite as poetic as some of Dylan's other songs is definitely one of his most powerful. Dylan was, it almost goes without saying, a master of the protest song. And as I said last week with "Blowin' in the Wind," one of the reasons he was so good at it was his ability to be purposeful in his messages without hammering it into our heads. This song doesn't zero in on an issue and throw it in our face so that it's impossible to ignore, and that's a good thing; the era was turbulent to the point that lasering in on any issue ignored the forest for the trees. Instead it takes a more encompassing view and lays out the social landscape of the time. Dylan himself maintained that he didn't intend it as a statement; as he said once in discussing the song, "It's a feeling." And that's exactly what it needed to be; it covers the era and how people were feeling about it in a perfect way to unite them. Again, it's not his most multilayered song but it is certainly one of his most effective.
#4: "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" (1963)
Leave it to Bob Dylan to make something as infuriating as a passive-aggressive attitude sound brilliant. And that is the mood of this song, make no mistake; it is unrepentantly, gloriously passive-aggressive. I've heard this song described as incredibly sarcastic, and that the title line should be viewed as such but that's never been the way I've seen it. I've always seen it more as the words of a man who was at the end of his rope and wasn't trying to take shots in his parting words; that's just the way they naturally come out in an attempt to be conciliatory. That probably reveals more about me that I care to admit, but that's how I see it. The lyrics are accompanied by Dylan doing some masterful finger-picking on the guitar, some well-placed harmonica work and not much else. The song was written after his girlfriend Suze Rotolo, the girl on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, headed to Italy in what was a very rocky period of their relationship, and you can definitely understand exactly where Dylan was emotionally in that point of time just by putting this one on.
#3: "Hurricane" (1975)
This one is very nearly my favorite protest song of Dylan's, which also makes it one of my favorite protest songs of all time by default. Where many of Dylan's songs spoke in a much more generalized fashion about the social issues of the day, "Hurricane" was a very pointed and direct reference to the imprisonment of professional boxer and wrongfully accused man Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. This is one of the most striking examples of how Dylan can put a pen to paper and, when his sights are leveled properly, can make as undeniable an argument as any lawyer. Carter was one of two men accused of a triple murder following a robbery of a bar and grill in Patterson, New Jersey in 1966. Carter always maintained his innocence and continued to fight for his freedom even after the Supreme Court upheld his sentence; Carter was eventually freed due to prosecutorial misconduct in the trial. With this song, one of his few protest songs from the 1970s, Dylan puts his considerable storytelling skills to work and painted a picture of a falsely-accused man, strung up due to racism. The song won popular support for Carter and while some accused it of taking excessive poetic license (and it does take some), it is an undeniably effective song and Dylan's best overtly-aimed song.
#2: "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" (1963)
Of all of Dylan's protest songs, this is his best. The song, off The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, is one of those great examples of what Dylan does best. It takes all of these mythical and ominous images of nature, combining them together to paint a portrait of a looming cataclysm if we continue. This is one of those songs that can appeal to all people of all stripes; you don't need a literary degree to understand the references of what's being said, but at the same time it doesn't condescend or lower its own intelligence. Few men have the ability to write such a universal message song, but Dylan is one of those men. The symbolism of such phrases as "I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world" is so evocative and yet so easy to get. And while the song is incredibly poetic and beautiful, it is also uncompromising in its message and imagery: a looming apocalypse depicted through blood-dripping trees, infants left for the wolves to feast on, dried-up oceans and weapon-wielding children. It's not exactly a future for the faint of heart. And the arrangement of the song is very simple; in a typically Dylanesque way, it's stripped down to just the man and his guitar. It's over seven minutes long but somehow, it feels very short because of all the imagery packed inside. Something this good should last longer, but in Dylan's case it didn't need to.
#1: "Like a Rolling Stone" (1965)
"Like a Rolling Stone" is, flat out, one of my favorite rock songs of all-time. It's Dylan at his absolute finest. Written at a time when he was completely disillusioned with the music scene and actively considering quitting, it is filled with sarcasm and contempt for the targets of the song--the posers and hypocrites, the pretentious "pretty folk" who think that everyone but them has it easy. This song reinvigorated Dylan and sent him on a new rock-oriented direction, which would alienate folk purists but make him a better musician for it. Never before and never since has someone so eloquently told a generation to fuck off. But what makes it even better is that it's not just vitriol; even at Dylan's most jaded here, he still seems to have some compassion for Miss Lonely at the end, noting that it isn't all bad because now she has nothing to lose and no secrets left to conceal. It's Dylan's most powerful and effective song in his long, storied career. Whole books have been written about this song, and deservedly so, but instead of repeating what they've said in as many words, I'll just put it simply: this is the song every other rock lyricist wishes they could have written. It's also the best song Dylan ever did.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
As you can see above, this one narrowly missed my top 16 but I still wanted to get it in because I have a special appreciation for it. Written as a big middle finger and condemnation of those two turned on him when he went electric, "Positively 4th Street" is as effective a diss track as anything else you'll find, with the exception of the #1 choice above.
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.