Today is Bob Dylan’s 76th birthday. To celebrate, Jim and I sat around and each thought of our five favorite Dylan songs. Since we both acknowledge the magic of “Mississippi” we’re left with only 9 songs instead of 10. Here is a playlist and our lukewarm takes.
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1962)
Joe: It culminates in my absolute favorite Dylan lyric, “I ain’t saying you treated me unkind/You could’ve done better but I don’t mind/You just kinda wasted my precious time/But don’t think twice, it’s all right.” Such a wonderful “fuck you” to end a song on.
Jim: Pretty much a perfect song. Lends itself really well to country (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Mike Ness) and rock (that dude from the Strokes who had an album a few years ago) covers that are also pretty good. I don’t really do folk Dylan, besides “Masters of War,” but I like this one a lot.
She Belongs to Me (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)
Jim: I picked this song out. Possibly the strongest praise it can receive is that it was one of only three tracks from before 1997 that Dylan played last year on tour (pre-Oldchella), with an arrangement and delivery largely intact compared to its original incarnation.
Joe: One of Dylan’s prettiest songs both in terms of the lyrics and the musical arrangement. People have different interpretations, but to me this song is about how he completely worships a woman who does her own thing and totally runs the show. Beautiful track.
Outlaw Blues (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)
Joe: People were appalled by Dylan succumbing to the power of rock and roll in 1965, but it gave us this three-minute firecracker. The one thing I always loved about this song is the vocals. For somebody with a reputation for not being able to sing, he has one of the strongest and coolest rock and roll voices.
Jim: A lot of the rockers on this album are chock full of witty, oddball lyrics (see: “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”). This tune has my personal favorite Dylan lyrical passage: “I may look like Robert Ford/But I feel just like Jesse James.” And for context, this song was out the same year as the Stones released “Satisfaction.” “Outlaw Blues” is a far more raucous and developed than what most of his ‘rock band’ contemporaries were up to at the time.
Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine) (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
Jim: Every Axl Rose song on relationships was about a bitch that done him wrong. Dylan’s pre-”Blood on the Tracks” break-up tunes were similar, but considerably more clever. This is the most clever of those songs, and it’s a really fun listen to boot.
Joe: Dylan throws it down at his woman who is a pain in the ass and cheating. Groovy track, especially with that horn and harmonica intro.
Isis (Desire, 1976)
Joe: Dylan the Storyteller at his best. I hear this song and picture some sort of grimy, Deadwood-style scenery as he rides into town then embarks on a treasure hunt. Great chord progression, and I love that there’s no chorus, just the band rocking it out between verses. The narrator’s conversation with Isis at the end when he realizes he loves her is vintage Dylan.
Jim: The violin line in this song reminds me of the guitar on “Willie the Pimp” by Frank Zappa. “Hurricane” gets the most love on this album, but I think “Isis” is a far more compelling tune and the story it tells is fantastic.
Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love) (Empire Burlesque, 1985)
Jim: My brother is wack. This song is ok, in that 1980s kind of way. I don’t mind it, but it’s certainly an oddity to me in the Dylan oeuvre. I don’t even really know what to say beyond that hahaha.
Joe: A hidden gem. Dylan with glossy ‘80s production, a bunch of backup singers, and hitting high notes in the outro sounds ridiculous, but somehow it all gives the song character. Working Humphrey Bogart dialogue into lyrics is genius. So is the bizarre music video, in which Dylan resolving a love triangle by taking both women may be the least weird thing that happens.
Mississippi (Love and Theft, 2001)
Joe: “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way,” Dylan sings on this masterpiece released during his turn-of-the-century resurgence. Had me fooled. He again shows why he is the greatest songwriter ever, with a tale he once described as “knifelike lyrics about majesty and heroism.” The listener goes on a journey about the perils of staying in Mississippi a day too long, imagery painted by Dylan’s wit and possible nods to Henry Rollins.
Jim: This song is unimpeachable. Even the other versions on Bootleg Series Vol. 8 are great. Somehow we added two songs Dylan wrote and recorded after this one, but it’s probably the last truly magnificent tune of his. It’s essentially an updated “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” but it’s not a retread. So well written that even Sheryl Crow’s version of it is passable.
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ (Together Through Life, 2009)
Jim: Seeing Dylan play this live last year was an all-time favorite concert moment. Not because it’s the greatest song, but the performance of it and seeing Dylan rollicking while banging out big chunky piano chords during it was unforgettable. It’s got this grimy blues-cum-tango groove to it that I love and his ragged voice suits it perfectly. Just a really well done song.
Joe: A blast of blues rock brilliance and an awesome way to open a record. Nice love song about how everything is shit except the love he’s found. He was all kinds of into this song when he played it live, making the studio version even more fun to listen to since you know he really likes it.
Pay in Blood (Tempest, 2012)
Joe: The absolute fucking gnarliest vocal performance I have ever heard from a human being who isn’t Tom Waits. Dylan is pissed about something, invoking religious imagery as he spits fire. He may be offering a stern rebuke of politicians, telling the story of Jesus, or something else is going on here. Either way, an inspired and spiteful Dylan makes for an instant classic.
Jim: The highlight of the “Tempest” album. Weird mixture of both humor and bleak worldview. His voice is beyond ravaged on this, and depending on how you feel about that would definitely color how you feel about this song.