Greatest Dylan songs

by Chris Bertram on March 2, 2004

Head over to Normblog for “another of Norm’s polls”: , this time on Bob Dylan’s best songs. You have up to five, but no more than five votes. My own entry?

bq. Visions of Johanna
Stuck inside of Mobile
Desolation Row
It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Gates of Eden

All from just three (consecutive) albums. In my view, despite a brief return to form with _Blood on the Tracks_ , Dylan’s subsequent output has been pretty mediocre and doesn’t compare to those wonderful albums just after he discovered the ‘lectricity whose ghost howls in the bones of her face. But I know others disagree (strongly).



myko 03.02.04 at 11:36 am

I agree (strongly) is earlier stuff is the best along with BOTT, although he was in top form with the material in The Last Waltz. Cutting it down to five is random and silly so nothing can stop me now short of a server crash. I’m gonna plug the underrated To Ramona, yum.


Kieran Healy 03.02.04 at 12:14 pm

I like the one that goes

Im nh een eh bleen ern whoo
Profl nhn nhn mrini freeeln shoo
Wa mana ma pa strln fnln
Pa lala pa ma frln shnln
Imnh een eh bleen bleen bleen
Wa ma-na profhn mrini floo.


Chris Bertram 03.02.04 at 12:27 pm



Jeremy Osner 03.02.04 at 1:00 pm

My fave album is the first one, “Bob Dylan”, my fave song is “In My Time of Dyin'” — but I guess this is not really a “Dylan song’ in the commonly accepted sense of the term…

I like “Queen Jane Approximately” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” intensely but generally agree with Myko above re. silliness of this project.

Agree with you Chris as to the general quality of Dylan’s later work; but strongly recommend you check out his “Good as I been to you” from ’94 or thereabouts. Though we may be fans of different artists named “Bob Dylan” as I find “Blood on the Tracks” to be way overrated. Oh, but then again I do like Desire quite a bit.


Joe 03.02.04 at 1:30 pm

It Ain’t Me Babe
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
Love Minus Zero/No Limit
Visions of Johanna (I was trying to be different, but hey, it IS his best song)
I Want You

And did anyone else spend a good ninety seconds trying to figure out if Kieran’s gobbledygook was a real Dylan song?


John Isbell 03.02.04 at 1:33 pm

Nice thread. I have about 30 Dylan albums, and listed 5 songs:

Blind Willie McTell
It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry
Visions Of Johanna
Tangled Up In Blue

with mentions for Where Are You Tonight? and A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. But then I think 2/3 of his born again albums are good. Saved is crap. His work with the Traveling Wilburys contains the couplet
Tina was a boy scout before he went to Vietnam
And found out the hard way nobody gives a damn.


John Isbell 03.02.04 at 1:34 pm

Well, maybe not Tina. Tweeter. You run into the Kieran problem.


cs 03.02.04 at 1:41 pm

Hmm, I’d probably go pretty close to John here, although I’ll swap “Visions” for “Every Grain of Sand” (Bootleg vol 3 version, with dog) … and just maybe, with a lot of pain, “It takes a” for “Desolation Row” (unplugged version).


bob mcmanus 03.02.04 at 1:50 pm

Are we all just too sophisticated and jaded to list the standards like “Knockin on Heaven’s Door”?
I know I am tired of “Rolling Stone”, but it makes it no less a classic.

Visions of Johanna
Queen Jane Approximately
Desolation Row

And I am in the directory trying to pick from “Lay Lady Lay” and “I’ll be Your Baby Tonight” and “Shelter from the Storm” and I don’t want to do this anymore


Curtiss Leung 03.02.04 at 2:27 pm

Seconding the vote for “Desolation Row,” but shouldn’t it count as three songs by itself?


Norbizness 03.02.04 at 3:16 pm

I’m not the world’s biggest Dylan scholar, but I know what I like when I hear it (my favorite album is “Nashville Skyline”). My top 5 songs are (1) Country Pie (2) Tangled Up In Blue (3) I Threw It All Away (4) Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright and (5) Jokerman, strangely enough.


Jeremy Osner 03.02.04 at 3:55 pm

Norbizness — thanks for mentioning “I threw it all away” — I never heard Dylan sing this song (or not often enough for the memory to stick anyways), but a friend of mine has been teaching me to play it on guitar and it seems like a really nice song.


M. Scott Anderson 03.02.04 at 4:14 pm

Re: Visions of Johanna
I agree that it is the greatest. I think it’s wonderful that neither of first 3 greatest hits album. I can’t think of any other artist whose output is rich enough that could say that–although Van Morrison’s first 2 Greatest Hits albums didn’t have room for “Madame George”.

Bob Johnston is hardly a well-known name, but he produced “Highway 61” and “BonB”, as well S&G’s “Parsley, Sage” and Leonard Cohen’s “Songs from a Room”. Some of those non-Dylan arrangements sound very dated, but “Highway 61” still sounds fresh to me. He should be nominated for Rock n Roll HOF.

I put “Hard Rain” as 2nd in Dylan’s opus, and then get confused.


Jeremy Osner 03.02.04 at 4:51 pm

I think there is an argument to be made (given Dylan’s extreme proliferacy) for dividing his songs into categories and then selecting “top 5’s” or 10’s from within those categories so as not to compare apples with oranges. How ’bout:

  • Folk/blues songs — this would include all of his first album, most of his second, “Good as I been to you” and I think the album that followed it, and some miscellanea thoughout his career. I think “From a Buick 6” belongs here rather than in Cerebral Rants below.
  • Country and Western songs — “Don’t think twice”, several songs from “John Wesley Harding”, all of “Slow Train Coming” and “Nashville Skyline”, etc.
  • Extended cerebral rants — “Desolation Row” is the archetypal example — almost all of “Bringin’ it All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited”
  • Bouncy, fun songs — “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “Rainy Day Women”, etc. There is no clear demarcation between this and the previous category but I like some of these songs enough to want to ensure they get top billing in their category. Anything with accordion would probably go in this category unless it was clearly C & W, and maybe even then.
  • Rock and Roll songs — “Blood on the Tracks”, “Desire”, and I’m sure a lot of other albums from this period that I have not listened to.

Anyways… you get the idea.


Jeremy Osner 03.02.04 at 4:54 pm

And the other fun thing about this idea is that then we could spend time arguing about which song belongs in which category.


R.V. Agnos 03.02.04 at 5:15 pm

I am tempted to just list them by length.

More Dylan is better than less Dylan, so the five longest songs must be the best!


m. scott anderson 03.02.04 at 5:22 pm

Re: VofJ, I might add that Robert Christgau, I believe, once said in proof that music lyrics rarely could stand alone as poetry that the line “the ghost of ‘lectricity howls on the bones of her face” did not fare well on paper. Although I agree with his general argument, I think he’s exactly wrong in his example. That said, I’m not a “jewels and binoculars” fan myself. It’s his greatest song, but not his most perfect one.


dfc 03.02.04 at 5:32 pm

I tried to come up with a list a few weeks ago on my blog. Top five ever is a terrible thing to think about in the context of dylan so I broke it up a little more:

Top 9 Dylan Songs about love:

1. If You See Her Say Hello
2. Girl of the North Country
3. Bob Dylan’s Dream
4. Boots of Spanish Leather
5. Tangled Up In Blue
6. Simple Twist of Fate
7. She Belongs to Me
8. Shelter From the Storm
9. Just Like a Woman

Honorable Mention among others that were excluded Buckets of Rain

Top 5 Dylan Songs about friends:

1. Bob Dylan’s Dream
2. Song to Woody
3. Positively Fourth Street
4. He was a Friend of Mine
5. Forever Young

Top 5 Dylan War Songs:
anyone that says dylan did not write political songs is a moron

1. John Brown
2. Masters of War
3. Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall
4. Who Killed Davey Moore
5. With God on Our Side


Brian Weatherson 03.02.04 at 6:40 pm

People around here aren’t very good at following voting instructions, are they?! With a large dose of arbitrariness, here’s my vote:

Motorpsycho Nightmare
Like a Rolling Stone
Visions of Johanna
Tangled up in Blue
Love Sick


Mark 03.02.04 at 7:12 pm

Ballad of a Thin Man
Highway 61
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Queen Jane Approximately
Desolation Row


john 03.02.04 at 7:45 pm


Brownsville Girl
Changing of the Guard
Blind Willie McTell


John Isbell 03.02.04 at 10:27 pm

“Top 5 Dylan Songs about friends: […]
3. Positively Fourth Street”

I just had to repeat this. For those who don’t know, the song opens

You’ve got a lot of nerve
To say you are my friend

And moves on from there. I’m laughing as I type.


msg 03.02.04 at 10:31 pm

“Well, if you go where the snowflakes storm,
When the rivers freeze and summer ends,
Please see she has a coat so warm,
To keep her from the howlin’ winds”

“I pity the poor immigrant
Whose strength is spent in vain,
Whose heaven is like Ironsides,
Whose tears fall like rain,
Who eats but is not satisfied,
Who hears but does not see,
Who falls in love with wealth itself
And turns his back on me”

“Twas in another lifetime,
one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue
and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness,
a creature void of form.
Come in, she said,
I’ll give you
shelter from the storm.”

“There’s smoke on the water,
it’s been there since June,
Tree trunks uprooted,
‘neath the high crescent moon
Feel the pulse and vibration
and the rumbling force
Somebody is out there
beating on a dead horse.

She never said nothing
there was nothing she wrote,
She’s gone with the man
In the long black coat”

“The air is getting hotter
There’s a rumbling in the skies
I’ve been wading through high muddy water
With the heat
rising in my eyes
Every day your memory grows dimmer
It doesn’t haunt me like it did before
I’ve been walking through the middle of nowhere
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door”


bob mcmanus 03.02.04 at 11:19 pm

“And moves on from there. I’m laughing as I type.”

And I am laughing as I read. Yet it still might be about friends. Perhaps you have been lucky.


msg 03.02.04 at 11:38 pm

John I, Bob McM-
“…and moves on still further from there:”

“No, I do not feel that good
When I see the heartbreaks you embrace
If I was a master thief
Perhaps I’d rob them…”

Wounded friendship, but it’s still friendship.
Or love.
Your laughter, as cycnically comforting as it might have been, is now a source of mild embarrassment, or should be.


Gemma 03.03.04 at 1:47 am

1. Tangled Up in Blue
2. Shelter from the Storm
3. I Shall Be Released
4. You Ain’t Going Nowhere
5. Subterranean Homesick Blues


catfish 03.03.04 at 3:49 am

My Back Pages
Idiot Wind
Visions of Johanna
Tangled Up In Blue


John Isbell 03.03.04 at 4:16 am

Nice to see You Ain’t Going Nowhere here. Strap yourself to a tree with roots.
msg, I’m not cynical when I laugh about Positively 4th Street. As you say, it is indeed about a friend. Friendships have lots of parts, and Dylan covers more than one. Good to be reminded of that. He does that a lot with love songs. Maybe be less quick to judge.


msg 03.03.04 at 5:34 am

Point taken John.
I need monitoring at times.


coder 03.03.04 at 9:47 am

Another Motorpsycho Nightmare fan upthread, alright!

To everyone who complains about his recent work, I really would urge you to check out his latest two albums, Time Out of Mind, and Love & Theft. They are both excellent albums. I count two nominations so far on this thread for songs from TOOM. Anyway, in no particular order:

It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Ballad in Plain D
Tangled Up in Blue
Subterranein Homesick Blues
Romance in Durango


John Isbell 03.03.04 at 12:21 pm

No worries, msg. You’re always interesting.
60s Dylan is glorious, but he couldn’t write this:

If you don’t believe there’s a price
For this sweet paradise
Just remind me to show you the scars.

He was too young. Same goes for TOOM, though I found Love and Theft weak. Needs another listen.

Well my baby went to Illinois
With some bad-talking boy she could destroy
A real suicide case but there was nothing I could do to stop it.


John Isbell 03.03.04 at 12:35 pm

Listening to Like A Rolling Stone; I’m playing it for Georgie if he loses in November. How does it feel?


Jeremy Osner 03.03.04 at 1:17 pm

I guess I need to Listen to Love & Theft some more — I haven’t really figured it out yet. I bought it at the concert which was a pretty weak concert (with moments of greatness), that may be biasing me against really listening to it… John, what you say about laughing in a non-cynical way on reading the statement that Positively 4th is about friendship, captures my own reaction pretty well.

Meanwhile… I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, the songs that best capture for me the gestalt of Dylan are:

1. In My Time of Dyin’
2. From a Buick 6
3. Maggie’s Farm
4. On the Road Again
5. Ballad of Hollis Brown

Hollis Brown, he lived, on the out, side of town
Hollis Brown, he lived, on the out, side of town
With his wife and 5 children, and a cabin fallin’ down


Jeremy Osner 03.03.04 at 3:08 pm

And when I say “4. On the Road Again”, I of course mean “4. Queen Jane Approximately”.


Jeremy Osner 03.03.04 at 4:33 pm

How about this: what would really interest me is seeing people list 5 songs and explaining why they would select each one; defending their lists. Here is my effort:

1. In My Time of Dyin’
This is quite simply, one of the finest songs ever recorded by anyone. Its haunting. Guitar work is breathtaking. Lyrics hang around in your head and wake you up at night. It is not properly speaking a “Dylan song” because (a) he did not write it and (b) it is so very different from the songs that make up the majority of his oeuvre, but it works very well as the archetype of “where Dylan is coming from as he starts his career”. Jesus gonna make up my dyin’ bed.

2. From a Buick 6
Marriage of Dylan’s cerebral lyrics with hard rockin’ beat. You can dance to it! Works great as a surrealistic painting too. If I’m goin’ down dyin’, you know she, bound to put a blanket on my bed.

3. Maggie’s Farm
I like this song for similar reasons to “From a Buick 6”; but rather than a surrealistic painting, I think it is more of a naturalistic novel. They say, sing while you slave but I just get bored.

4. Queen Jane Approximately
Resentment of an ex-lover is an idee fix in Dylan’s work. (It is also a factor in “Maggie’s Farm” I think.) And this song is its fullest realization. Plus, the beat is great. Won’t you, come see me, Queen Jane?

5. Ballad of Hollis Brown
Haunting, eloquent. This song ties a lot of Dylan threads together. Somehere in the distance, there’s seven new people born.


John Isbell 03.03.04 at 6:22 pm

Nice explanations, Jeremy. I’ll just plug “Copper Kettle”, off New Morning. Beautiful. A better album than anyone says. Also, “Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar.” He does apocalypse very well.
What’s happpened to Claudette
Ain’t seen her since January
She could be respectably married
Or running a whore house in Buenos Aires.

That’s from the born again years.


Chris 03.03.04 at 10:31 pm

My Back Pages.


John Durkin 03.04.04 at 12:52 am

Visions of Johanna
Hard Rain
My Back Pages
Stuck Inside a Mobile
Idiot Wind


Jeremy Osner 03.04.04 at 2:23 am

Are “Hard Rain” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” almost the same song? I keep trying to remember one and coming up with the other.


Ragshag Bill 03.04.04 at 5:33 am

“I’m old Tom Moore
I’m a bummer, shore,
from the good old, golden, days
they call me a bummer and a lot more too
but what cares I for praise?
I’ve rambled around,
from town to town
like some old wand’ring sign
and the people all say, “There goes Old Tom
from the days of ’49.”


Mr Ripley 03.04.04 at 6:56 am

I bought Love and Theft the day it came out, but was distracted by bin Laden for a few days before listening to it; I agree with Rolling Stone that, before the release date, it was easier to see it as a flip and comical album, while afterwards, the apocalypticness (exemplified in “High Water”) came to the fore.

Asked to name a Top Five, I’d say “On what day?” All kinds of less dramatic events and moods and arguments can affect one’s Dylan preferences. After reading Dylan’s Visions of Sin, I went back to The Times They Are a-Changin’ for the first time in a dozen years and had a new appreciation of it.

Okay, how ’bout using the arbitrary constraint of no more than one per album
“Blind Willie McTell”
“Desolation Row”
“Sugar Baby”
“I’m Not There”
“Visions of Johanna” . . .
Naw, five slots doesn’t work: there’s six or seven others that hit me just as hard as those five.

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