In the summer of 2000, I was out of college and in a panic – sleeping in my childhood bedroom, bombing interviews and praying my girlfriend would stick with me. It was also the summer I finally “got” Bob Dylan. I made a tape of my dad’s copy of Highway 61 Revisited and wore it out, driving around town with my cheap tie and thin resumé. The music was so urgent and alive, the words pouring out like lava. It made me feel like anything could happen. Which was exactly how I needed to feel.
As you know, a few years later I developed the alter ego Franz List, who has to make pop culture lists even though they’re pointless clickbait that goes against the very idea of art being subjective. He made me share my 10 favorite Beatles songs a while back. And now he’s making me do the same to my professional life coach of yore. Here are my top ten Bob Dylan songs of all time, in the universe, forever:
10. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” (1965, Bringing It All Back Home)
Both hyper-literate and head-over-heels, this endlessly compelling love song has zero to do with how its subject looks. It’s about her keen intelligence, her zen-like confidence, her easy authenticity in a world of quote-spewing bullshitters. “She knows too much to argue or to judge,” he sings, a self-centered man in awe of his opposite.
9. “From A Buick 6” (1965, Highway 61 Revisited)
Dylan’s band takes a cookie-cutter 12-bar-blues and injects it with cheetah blood, playing so fast and loose as to court chaos. Harvey Brooks’s bass line, steady and life-affirming, keeps it all together until Dylan can bring it home with a locomotive whistle of a harmonica solo. And then, like a child, we yell “Again!”
8. “Buckets of Rain” (1975, Blood on the Tracks)
Two of the biggest stereotypical gripes about Dylan – that he’s a grating singer and limited guitarist – are refuted on this, the graceful coda to his mid-’70s comeback album. His soothing, open-tuned acoustic waltzes gracefully with Tony Brown’s bass, and his voice is deep, gentle and flecked with regret. It’s no wonder he went full-on Sinatra 40 years later.
7. “Positively 4th Street” (1965, single)
Dylan had a lotta nerve to release this as a single. Because despite its sunny folk-rock chords and frolicsome organ runs, “Positively 4th Street” is one of the bitterest songs in pop history. Yet this alchemy of hooks and burns proved to be irresistible – it was a hit, and deservedly so. If you’ve ever had a shitty friend, get ready for a candy-coated catharsis.
6. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” (1969, Nashville Skyline)
Sometimes love can stop you in your tracks so hard that you’re giving away your train ticket. Dylan uses this bulletproof sentiment to close out his sweet, underrated country gentleman album, wooing his crush like a Tennessee Romeo.
5. “Most of the Time” (recorded in 1989, released on 2008’s The Bootleg Series, Vol 8: Tell Tale Signs)
Dylan pulls the same trick that Hoagy Carmichael did with “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” bragging about how he’s over someone while proving just the opposite. I prefer this stripped down alternate take to the glossier version that ended up on Oh Mercy. It’s as stark as a December oak.
4. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (1963, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan)
Take a look at the lyrics to this timeless breakup song, and its songwriter seems like a bit of a dick. A more accurate title would be “It’s All Your Fault, But Don’t Freak Out or Anything.” But pair these words with the cascading finger-picked guitar of a 22-year-old Bob Dylan, and have them sung in his wise-beyond-its-years tenor, and this lack of empathy is exposed as a thin tough-guy facade. Behind it is heartbreak, pure and true.
3. “Like A Rolling Stone” (1965, Highway 61 Revisited)
“How does it feel?” Dylan asks on his most iconic song. He likely meant it in a cutting way, as a “get a load of me now” dig at an ex. But the music says otherwise. The rising major scale of the verses, the swirling organ of the choruses – it’s utterly, vibrantly optimistic. Enough that the artist deserves a straight answer. How does it feel? It feels like an acid trip in a botanical garden. It feels like waking up in Oz. It feels like discovering electricity.
2. “Not Dark Yet” (1997, Time Out of Mind)
Dylan wrote this song on a Minnesota farm in the wintertime. It had been seven years since he’d recorded anything of note, decades since his last masterpiece. Whether it was creative frustration, bruised ego, or just the weather, he was in an uncharacteristically confessional mood. “Not Dark Yet” is an admission of frailty, striking in its simplicity, stunning in its beauty. “I feel like my soul has turned into steam,” he shares, guitars and keyboards drifting around him like ghosts. Ironically, it was irrefutable evidence that he had so much more to give.
1. “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” (1966, Blonde On Blonde)
This is the apex of Bob Dylan’s artistic maturation, his transformation from strident folkie to impenetrable rock enigma. A seven-minute carnival ride through thickets of metaphors, “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” is both impossible to parse and instantly mesmerizing – its circular blues groove, peppered with organ and harmonica, could go on for an hour without losing its power. While the verses make us consider Shakespeare, dead grandpas and vampiric railroad workers, the chorus is a plea so basic, it could’ve come from a child: “Mama, is this really the end?” In a way, it was. Two months after Blonde On Blonde was released, Dylan got in a motorcycle accident and receded from the public eye. Subsequent albums looked backward at the Americana that inspired him. He’d release incredible music in the decades to come (he still is), but nothing so exhilarating, so tapped into the magnetic and frightening possibilities of American life. At any point during Dylan’s peak, the music sounded like it could go off the rails. It’s the sound of risks paying off, of taking chances that get you places. He may have felt like he was stuck in Mobile, but he was teaching us how to get the hell out and live.