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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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57. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Had Dylan even visited  Mexico prior to penning this tale of a dissolute trip to Juárez? Does it really matter? Dylan’s version of the border town is a dangerous yet alluring place, rife with drugs, corruption and “hungry women” like Saint Annie and Sweet Melinda ”“ whose innocent names belie the fact that “they really make a mess outta you.” The song took on an even more sinister vibe when Dylan performed it with the Hawks on his 1966 world tour. A vicious live take from Liverpool, released as a B side to ”˜I Want You,’ was for many years the only official documentation of that historically raucous tour.

58. Percy’s Song
Biograph (1985)

Perhaps best known from Joan Baez’s scene-stealing performance in Don’t Look Back, ”˜Percy’s Song’ was originally recorded for The Times They Are A-Changin’ in 1963 but didn’t make the final track list. Even so, this mournful lament stands up beside Dylan’s finest work from that era. He sings in haunted tones of a friend who is on trial for manslaughter after a fatal car crash. “He ain’t no criminal, and his crime it is none,” the narrator protests, but his pleas to the judge for leniency are all in vain.

59. Million Dollar Bash
The Basement Tapes (1975)

”˜Million Dollar Bash’ is a theme song of sorts for The Basement Tapes: a playful string of nonsense lyrics (“And his cheeks in a chunk/With his cheese in the cash”) set to a sweet, off-kilter melody that captures the spirit of people playing music purely for the fun of it. Dylan recorded it at Big Pink in July 1967 with the Band’s Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. No one drums on the track, which partly accounts for its gleeful, teetering rhythms. Those basement sessions can themselves be thought of as a ”˜Million Dollar Bash’ ”“ a joyful, restorative break from the madness of Dylan’s increasing fame. As Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1969, “That’s really the way to do a recording ”“ in a peaceful, relaxed setting ”“ in somebody’s basement. With the windows open”¦ and a dog lying on the floor.”

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60. Buckets of Rain
Blood on the Tracks (1975)
By Cameron Crowe

One of the great gifts Bob Dylan has is to slip a grace note into an album, something that doesn’t cry out to be noticed, but is unforgettable. To me, that’s ”˜Buckets of Rain,’ the perfect grace note for Blood on the Tracks: melancholy, loping and bittersweet. It’s sly and unpretentious, but has huge power. Any room I’ve ever played it in has changed as a result. The one little thing in the corner of an album, a movie or any piece of writing can be the most important element of all. The quiet little song makes Blood on the Tracks complete, and one of his greatest albums. Dylan was in his middle period when he wrote it. I heard he went back to Minnesota and was living on a farm. He had a notebook, and the lyrics of Blood on the Tracks were honed in that period. He was going to get personal. It was going to hurt to hear, but it was going to be revelatory. It turned out to be the confessional Dylan album that people had been craving for a long time, and he hasn’t really gone back there since. He put up a lot of roadblocks and disinformation about it, but Blood on the Tracks is his Blue ”“ his confessional album about relationships. I can’t think of it without ”˜Buckets of Rain.’ Dylan’s stuff  continues to inform every generation ”“ it just lives and lives, and a song like ”˜Buckets of Rain’ breathes with a simple truth about real life. After a blistering heartache comes a soothing rain.

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61. It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry
Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

This sexy shuffle was still a hopped-up blues called ”˜Phantom Engineer’ when Dylan debuted it at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Later, it was the first song he attempted during the sessions for Highway 61 Revisited ”“ but Dylan, frustrated with the uptempo arrangement, set it aside after a few takes and cut ”˜Tombstone Blues’ instead. He spent his lunch break at the piano, working out a slower version that let him linger over the lyrics’ vintage blues tropes (“Don’t the moon look good, mama,
shinin’ through the trees”) and sly conversational asides (“I wanna be your lover, baby, I don’t wanna be your boss”). The results felt both timeless and brand-new.

62. Queen Jane Approximately
Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Joan Baez once referred to Highway 61 Revisited as a “bunch of crap.” The queen of folk may have been commenting on the album’s raucous sound; she may also have been thinking of this song, a takedown of a woman cloistered by beauty and privilege. ”˜Queen Jane’ goes from caustic (“When all the clowns that you have commissioned have died in battle or in vain”) to tender (“Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?”), and the music is some of the most elegant on Highway. Is the song about Baez? Maybe. When a journalist asked him about the Queen’s identity, Dylan shot back, “Queen Jane is a man.”

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