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Happy Birthday, Bob

The ten best songs by Dylan, and the ten best songs not by Dylan.


by James Leroy Wilson
May 24, 2001

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Happy Birthday, Bob_James Leroy Wilson-The ten best songs by Dylan, and the ten best songs not by Dylan. Bob Dylan turns sixty today. All can agree that Bob Dylan has a place in American music history. What that place is, is debatable. He never dominated the pop charts but was indeed popular for a while. You could say his fame has been greater than his popularity.

His quality as a singer is a bone of contention. On the one hand, it seems that most of the time, he wouldn't or couldn't even carry the tune. On the other hand, it is virtually impossible to imagine anyone else performing "Like a Rolling Stone" or "Positively 4th Street" any better. His net influence has probably been neither positive nor negative but somewhat even. Because of him, a fellow like Mark Knopfler didn't see the need to hire a singer for his band Dire Straits, doing the chore himself. Robbie Robertson (of The Band) decided he could do solo work, and Keith Richards sang a few Rolling Stone tracks. Such efforts weren't bad, but could have been better. I still can't listen to Tom Waits' voice. Yet many others with not-so-great vocals have gone on to make great records, encouraged by Dylan's example. Most notably, while his invention of the indecipherable lyric served as a handicap for himself because of he's such a great wordsmith, it was a great help for rock music generally by concealing, in great records of other artists, their own dumb lyrics.

Whatever his handicap as a singer, there's little denying, the greatness of his songs. I don't know how long they will last; today they compete for air time on classic rock radio, and are not as heard as frequently as Eric Clapton's work, let alone that of the Beatles, Stones, or Led Zeppelin. And I wouldn't be surprised if, hundreds of years from now, John Denver's "Country Roads" and Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville" will be the only songs from our era that people will know. (ABBA's "Dancing Queen" and the Village People's "YMCA" are equally legitimate candidates - based on the logic that whatever gets girls on the dance floor is good for guys with courage).

Regardless, what we do acknowledge in our day is that as a composer Dylan is a master of melody. And as far as lyrics go, the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot put it best: "After Dylan, no serious rock songwriter could stoop to boy-meets-girl narratives and moon-June rhyme schemes and hope to have a credible career." Kot could have said that before Dylan, there weren't any serious rock songwriters. Dylan made rock artistically respectable, and thereby inspired other rockers to be as ambitious creatively as commercially.

That's a tricky issue in itself. How seriously should we take rock songwriting? What some rock devolved to, perhaps influenced by Dylan but not inspired by him, is the "cutting edge," the "hip" and the "avant garde," particularly if the output is atonal and some contains some form of specific political protest. That is when rock can get ridiculous and embarrassing. But I would suggest that Dylan's seriousness should be judged on a different plane. His contribution is that he brought his passion and his soul to rock; he treated rock as country, blues, and folk singer-songwriters treated their own genres. You come to entertain, definitely. But if you want to be really good, you have to do more - you have to bring yourself, your whole personality and world-view. If you were talented enough and creative enough, you brought an attractive, original melody. And just as importantly, if you were smart enough and passionate enough, you brought an original insight that helped explain the human condition.

Bob Dylan could do both. Arguably, he was the first rocker to do it, and again arguably, he was the best rocker to do it.

So as a tribute to Dylan and his influence, I will submit here a list of the ten best songs Dylan wrote, with the name of an album on which you could hear the song, followed by the ten best songs he didn't write - that is, songs that though not written by Dylan, might never have been written had he never picked up a guitar and exerted an influence.

Best Dylan songs:

10. "Wanted Man," on The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-83 (box set): the most formulaic Dylan gets still provides a highlight on this vast collection.

9. "The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)" on any Manfred Mann compilation: Giddy fun - I don't understand the lyrics or their meaning, but this is 60's pop at its best.

8. "I Want You" on Dylan's Greatest Hits vol 1: The lead guitar accompaniment plays the catchiest sixteen bars in pop-rock history.

7. "Just Like A Woman" on GH vol 1: "But she breaks just like a little girl." Ouch.

6. "Tomorrow is a Long Time" on Rod Stewart's Every Picture Tells a Story: Stewart's career would have been better served had he sang more Bob Dylan ballads like this. His own rough, emotional voice is perfect.

5. "Make You Feel My Love" on Dylan's Time Out of Mind: This old-fashioned love song could have been taken to #1 by any popular singer, and probably will someday.

4. "Like A Rolling Stone" on GH vol.1: I have nothing to add to what's already been said about this song.

3. "Don't Think Twice It's All Right," on The Best of Peter, Paul & Mary: You know that when someone says they're not bitter, they're bitter. "You just sort of wasted my precious time, but don't think twice it's all right."

2. "Positively 4th Street" on GH vol 1: Repeating the same eight bars over and over, his remarks against old folk-scene friends contains one of my favorite lines in rock. "I know you're dissatisfied with your position and your place - don't you understand, it's not my problem." There hasn't been a song like it, (except one, below).

1. Blowin' In the Wind - GH v.1 or Best of Peter, Paul & Mary. The best answer to the problem of evil that the human mind can conceive on its own.

And now for the best that Dylan didn't write:

10. "Wrote a Song for Everyone" by John Fogerty on Creedence Clearwater Revival's Chronicle Vol 2: "Wrote a song for everyone, but I couldn't even talk to you."

9. "Good Morning, Good Morning" by Lennon/McCartney on the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: "I've got nothing to say but it's okay. Good morning, good morning."

8. "The Shape I'm In" by Robbie Robertson on Best of the Band. "I just spent sixteen days in the jailhouse for the crime of having no dough, now here I am back on the street for the crime of having nowhere to go."

7. "Change the Locks" by Lucinda Williams on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' She's the One: "And you can't say those things to me that make me fall down on my knees - I changed the number on my phone."

6. "Street Fighting Man" by Jagger/Richards on the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet. It's a better record than Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" which was written by Dylan.

5. "Sunday Morning Coming Down" by Kris Kristofferson on Essential Johnny Cash 1955-83: "there's something in a Sunday, that makes a body feel alone." Again, ouch.

4. "Sights and Sounds of London Town" by Richard Thompson on his Mock Tudor: It's about complete unknowns with no direction home.

3. "Friend of the Devil" by Garcia/Dawson/Hunter on the Grateful Dead's Skeletons from the Closet: About a guy who's even more "tangled up in blue" than the guy in Dylan's song of the same name.

2. "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot on Gord's Gold Vol 2. A melodic structure like "Positively 4th Street" but this one's a tribute to honest working men and to the powers of mother nature, not a bitter tirade against whiny pretentious wanna-bes.

1. "She's the One" by Bruce Springsteen on his Born to Run. "With her soft french cream/standing in the doorway like a dream/I wish she'd just leave me alone." This also happens to be the greatest record not produced by Phil Spector and the greatest performance not sung by Roy Orbison. With the greatest hand-jive beat not driving a Bo Diddley song. All of Sprinsteen's ambitions were realized - it's a shame this has not gone down as his best song and as the greatest single recording in the history of rock.

There wouldn't have been a Boss if there wasn't a Bob. So happy Birthday, Bob. Every fan of popular music owes a debt to you whether they know it or not. This one does. Keep those songs coming.

Comments (2)


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Tony Lama from St. Paul writes:
May 23, 2001
OK. But let's also consider these Dylan songs: Song to Woody (Guthrie) from his first album BOB DYLAN, Gotta Serve Somebody, Slow Train, and Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others) from SLOW TRAIN COMING, and In the Garden on SAVED. These songs are just as worthy as 7 of the 10 you listed.

Music Lover from Chicago writes:
May 24, 2001
Where's Rainy Day Women #12 & #35? What about Subterranean Homesick Blues? And none of the songs the Byrds made famous?

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