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Best Ever Lists Features

The 70 Greatest Dylan Songs

To celebrate Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday on May 24, we asked the world’s foremost
Dylan experts to pick his best songs. Plus: Appreciations by Bono, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jim James, Lucinda Williams, Lenny Kravitz, Chris Martin and many more

Rolling Stone May 31, 2011
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51. Things Have Changed
Wonder Boys (Soundtrack) (2000)

When Dylan accepted his 2001 Oscar for this contribution to the Wonder Boys soundtrack, he thanked “the members of the Academy who were bold enough to give me this award for”¦ a song that doesn’t pussyfoot around nor turn a blind eye to human nature.” That’s one way of putting it: ”˜Things Have Changed’ is one of the bitterest songs he’s ever written. And a harsh riposte to some of his own earlier political songs, with their longing for justice and progress; “I used to care,” he sings with unmistakable intent. “But things have changed.” As the title suggests, it’s basically the evil twin of ”˜The Times They Are A-Changin’.’

52. Tears of Rage
The Basement Tapes (1975)

This mesmerising ballad first came to the world’s attention as the opening track on the Band’s 1968 masterpiece, Music From Big Pink. There it is sung with agonising grace by keyboardist Richard Manuel, who co-wrote the song with Dylan during the 1967 sessions at Big Pink. When The Basement Tapes officially came out in 1975, a version with Dylan singing lead came to light. Like so many of the songs Dylan wrote at Big Pink, ”˜Tears of Rage’ is elliptical, a string of casually surreal images that draw on the Bible and, in this case, Shakespeare’s King Lear. Its tale of generational strife, tone of betrayal and opening reference to Independence Day suggest that the culture wars over Vietnam and civil rights were also on Dylan’s mind. The song’s repeated reminders that “life is brief” rise above cliché to a desperate moral calling, an insistence that, whatever our differences, our shared mortality must make for compassion.

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53. When I Paint My Masterpiece
Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II (1971)

Probably the least irritating song ever written about the life of a superstar on the road, Dylan’s studio version surfaced in late 1971 among the unreleased material on Greatest Hits Vol. II. Produced by Leon Russell, the track lays gospel piano chords under a lament about awaiting inspiration in between gigs, aimless wandering, fame-related hassles and “a date with Botticelli’s niece.” The definitive version was recorded live with the Band on New Year’s Eve 1971 and released on the Band’s Rock of Ages. “Sailin’ round the world in a dirty gondola,” he hollered, “oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola!” wringing more emotion out of a brand name than anyone before or since.

54. 4th Time Around
Blonde on Blonde (1966)

What exactly inspired ”˜4th Time Around’ is one of the great Bob Dylan mysteries. The melody and story line are a direct takeoff of the 1965 Beatles song ”˜Norwegian Wood’ ”“ among the band’s first songs with a clear Dylan influence. Was the line “I never asked for your crutch, now don’t ask for mine” a warning to stop ripping him off? Dylan has never said, but three months after he recorded ”˜4th Time Around,’ he went on a famously stoned-out limo ride with John Lennon around London and didn’t seem to be harbouring any malice. The next year he released John Wesley Harding, which has what appears to be an upside-down image of the Beatles hidden in a tree on the cover ”“ but that’s another mystery.

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55. If Not for You
New Morning (1970)

After the conceptual and critical disaster that was Self-Portrait (Rolling Stone review: “What is this shit?”), fans wondered if Dylan had lost it. They didn’t have to wonder long ”“ New Morning, released four months later, opened with this swift, lovely little country-rock tune. “I wrote the song thinking about my wife,” Dylan said, and its lyrics are all about domestic bliss and gratitude. Hearing the cockiest songwriter alive showing a little humility for a change is a treat.

56. You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go
Blood on the Tracks (1975)
By Jim James

”˜Blood on the Tracks’ has always been one of my favourite Dylan records ”“ it’s the classic tough-love album to turn to when you’re feeling kind of alone. This song might win my repeat-listening award. I don’t know if it’s just the acoustic guitar and the bass, the way they work together rhythmically, but when I hear the song, it’s just the essence of love. He’s describing everything so viscerally. I can almost smell the trees and different people I’ve known over the years, the flowers, the sunlight ”“ the way things look when you’re falling in love and how that turns in on itself when you have to leave or move on or life changes you or changes the other person. He’s reflecting on it in such a beautiful way, saying that person will always be a part of him. He’ll see her everywhere.

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