By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

My Dylan top five

I’m ready with my final list of Bob Dylan’s top five songs. How can I resist? I’ve tried to rank them in some kind of order, but it’s hard to do.

Mind you, I’m not saying these are his best or most important songs. I think most of us would agree that “Like a Rolling Stone,” from “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965), is both, but it’s been so overplayed that I usually change the station. (But I’ll listen to the “Royal Albert Hall” version from 1966 anytime, with Zimmy’s barely audible “Play fucking loud!” admonition at the beginning.) Rather, these are the Dylan songs I most like to listen to right now. That could change.

With that caveat, here we go.

1. “Tombstone Blues.” (From “Highway 61.”) Dylan at the absolute top of his form. From start to finish, “Highway 61” features the best singing of his career. You may not like his voice, but he’s got a sense of timing that Miles Davis and Charlie Parker — not to mention Snoop Dogg — could appreciate. On “Tombstone Blues,” Mike Bloomfield’s howling guitar and Al Kooper’s zonked-out organ compete for attention. Similar to “Rolling Stone,” but more unhinged. “The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken” anticipates Robert Duvall in “Apocalypse Now” by 14 years.

2. “Not Dark Yet.” (From “Time Out of Mind,” 1997.) Not a merely a sentimental pick. I’ve found Dylan’s latter-years revival to be as enjoyable as any period of his career. Someone — I think it was in the New Yorker — once described “Not Dark Yet” as the first great rock song of old age, and he was right. The somewhat clichéd lyrics mask a depth and sadness that emerges only after repeated listens. And the instrumental passage, though it may be more Daniel Lanois’ doings than Dylan’s, is as moving as anything that’s ever appeared on a Dylan album. Distant drums, signaling that the Reaper is at hand.

3. “Chimes of Freedom.” (From “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” 1964.) I somewhat reluctantly dropped “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” to make room for my only choice from Dylan’s acoustic period. I don’t like Dylan’s early message songs, including “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” (Sorry, Esther.) “Chimes” seems like a message song, but it’s actually as poetically obscure as anything he’s ever written — like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but more evocative. “Mad mystic hammering” and “the wild cathedral evening” indeed. Chills, thrills.

4. “Idiot Wind.” (From “Blood on the Tracks,” 1975.) Maybe not the most accomplished song on this, his best album (along with “Highway 61”). But “Tangled Up in Blue” has been overplayed, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” is overly mannered and “You’re a Big Girl Now,” wonderful as it is, is just a bit too polite. “Idiot Wind” is a howl of anger and anguish. And the media critic in me can’t help but fall for the opening line: “Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press.”

5. “Thunder on the Mountain.” (From “Modern Times,” 2006.) Dylan the wordsmith is all the way back here, growling over a Chuck Berry beat about everything from Alicia Keys to “suck[ing] the milk out of a thousand cows.” As biting as “Tombstone Blues,” but with a sense of humanity and humor, too. Not exactly linear, but there are some amazing lines that stick with you. One could serve as an epitaph for his career: “Gonna sleep over there, that’s where the music’s coming from/ I don’t need any guide, I already know the way.”

What? Nothing from “Blonde on Blonde” (1966)? Sadly, no. A great album, but I’m going to have to give it a pass. (“Visions of Johanna” tempts me, though.) But let’s face it — I could compile Dylan top fives for a month, and come up with something different every time.

Heck, I could do a top five just from songs he never put on proper albums: “Series of Dreams,” “Blind Willie McTell,” “Positively Fourth Street,” “Up to Me” and “I Shall Be Released.” How’s that? For most people, those five outtakes would add up to a brilliant career.

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  1. michael

    You must not have heard the news: this fall Bob Dylan will be performing, in concert, at Foxwoods. I heard the ad on the radio driving home last night and I almost had to pull over.This is light years creepier than when Elvis turned to Vegas. It can’t be Dylan. Dylan must be dead and this an imposter.

  2. Dan Kennedy

    Michael: Well, Dylan did play one of the military academies, and he made that Victoria’s Secret ad, too. And he tried to go Vegas himself just before he found Jesus.I would pay much to hear Dylan sing, “Spin the wheel, round and round she goes!”

  3. Esther

    I just think that “Blowin in the Wind” is the Dylan song that people will still be singing in 50 years.It’s not as dated as “The Times They Are A Changin.” It’s not lyrically complex, but I like the simplicity. It’s compelling and it has a great message and kids as well as adults can enjoy it. I just think it’s a perfect little song, one that captured the emotion of the time in which it was written but really is timeless in its appeal.

  4. dfresh

    It's hard to argue with the choice of "Idiot Wind," but reading your critique of the other songs makes me think you absolutely need to hear the "original" version of the album. If you can lay your hands on the boot titled "Blood On The Tracks: New York Sessions," I think you'll find that Dylan in fact tossed an even *better* version of the album. Cuts from the original sessions have trickled out over the years (there are a few on the Bootleg Series Vol. 1), but listening to the album as originally conceived is revelatory. The original version of "Lilly, Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts" could well make it your favorite song on the album – it's become mine!

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Dfresh: The New York version of “You’re a Big Girl Now” is on “Biograph,” and it just lays there like some dead thing. To me, it demonstrated why he went running home to Minnesota to re-record much of it. But I will admit I’m not much into bootlegs, and I’d be curious to hear another version of “Idiot Wind.”BTW, the version of “Idiot Wind” on “Hard Rain” I find almost unlistenable.

  6. dfresh

    Ouch! Maybe the original version *isn’t* for you. Still, I suspect your take on “You’re A Big Girl Now” might be revised, if only slightly, if you heard it in its original context. It’s true that the album’s first take is one seriously somber listen – “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” is the closest thing to “upbeat” (the NY take was used for the release, as ). I can fully appreciate why Dylan decided to toss several tracks and “punch them up,” but what was left behind is a stunning piece of work, even if you end up preferring the full-band replacement tracks.I hear you on the bootlegs. The reason I recommend the “NY Sessions” boot even for non-boot fans is that it’s a copy of the acetate test pressing – it was very nearly released as you hear it on the bootleg, which makes it an extremely unique look at the creative process of one of the most creative American artists ever. Hearing select tracks, out of context, doesn’t do justice to them – like Dylan’s best work, the original BOTT is more than the sum of its parts. (After all this yapping, I suppose I should back it up – if you want a copy, drop me a mailing address at my handle @gmail and I’ll burn you a copy.)

  7. Mac

    “Forever Young,” for Pete’s sake, “Foever Young.” Even if he never did get the tune right. Listen to the Joan Baez version for that.

  8. Dan Kennedy

    Mac: Actually, he got “Forever Young” damn near perfect in the rough cut that’s included on “Biograph.” A lovely song. I agree that the two versions on “Planet Waves” are pretty grim.

  9. Cody

    Hi DK:I've written my own version of the Top 5 Dylan meme. Here are my results:“Bob Dylan’s Dream” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan“You’re a Big Girl Now” from Blood on the Tracks“Shooting Star” from Oh Mercy“Standing in the Doorway” from Time out of Mind“Po’ Boy” from “Love & Theft”(p.s. I did it by decade)If you'd like to read the whole thing, please feel free to visit my site

  10. Dan Kennedy

    Cody: “Shooting Star.” Now that’s an unconventional choice. It wouldn’t be mine, but I like it. “Listen to the engine, listen to the bell, as the last fire truck from hell/ Goes rolling by, all good people are praying.” Whoo!

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