Bob Dylan, undoubtedly one of, if not the best songwriters of all time, has built his career on not only creating work of eye-opening literary genius, but writing songs that are alarmingly profound and human—songs that speak to your heart and tell you a story. With that being said, let’s explore some of the legend’s top ten greatest and most essential tracks.
1. Tangled Up In Blue
Of course “Tangled Up In Blue” is going to make the top ten list—and undoubtedly so will many others from the fearlessly honest account of love and loss that is Blood On The Tracks. “Tangled Up In Blue” is the first song that kicks off the legendary album, and right off the bat, it illustrates us a story of separation. A separation of two former lovers dealing with the weight of their lost love—that in spite of their separate roads traveled, one is never far from the others mind. It is speculated that the entirety of Blood On The Tracks lays as an honest confession from Dylan to his estranged wife Sara. Despite Dylan’s constant denials, the honesty and truth within the writing cannot be denied. This song, and many of the others, speak to all of us, digging up lost loves from somewhere in the back of our minds, it seizes us.
2. Simple Twist of Fate
“Simple Twist of Fate” is sometimes a song that is too honest to bear. There have been many times where I’ve had to skip it, the lyrics feeling as though they were exposing me. Bob Dylan somehow managed to craft a song with such astounding truth that there is simply no way that it could not affect you. “Simple Twist of Fate” is another song that is featured on Blood On The Tracks, and it plays like a goodbye letter—Dylan yearning for a woman, the one that got away, and he blames it all on the inevitable force of fate. Singing, “I still believe she was my twin/ But I lost the ring/ She was born in spring/ But I was born too late/ Blame it on a simple twist of fate”, he expertly comes to the conclusion that fate has its reasons for spoiling and destroying, a force completely out of our control.
3. Visions of Johanna
Moving away from the addicting downer that is Blood On The Tracks, and toward the legendary and admittedly strange Blonde on Blonde album, “Visions of Johanna” is widely applauded by many as Dylan’s greatest literary work. The lyrics within the song remain unclear and jumbled at times, but the imagery that we are lent as a result is extraordinarily unique and vivid. Dylan is an expert storyteller, with the ability to create endless landscapes through words, his songs are a story you never tire in picking up again. From his descriptions of women within the song as “jelly-faced”, to his illustration of electricity howling through the bones of someone’s face, he ties the hallucinatory-heavy song together with the issue of an unquenchable longing for perfection—or in this case Johanna.
4. Most of the Time
Making our way into Dylan’s later years, “Most of the Time” is a track that appears on Dylan’s 1989 album, Oh Mercy. Talk about wanting to rip your heart out—”Most of the Time” plays as an upfront confession of the continuous mental and emotional conflict of moving on from someone, the good days and the bad. Dylan sings, “I don’t compromise/ And I don’t pretend/ I don’t even care/ If I ever see her again/ Most of the time”. The song’s premise is very simple, yet beautifully and cleverly written, it’s astounding that Bob Dylan can continuously manage to zero-in on such specific human struggles, especially the one’s concerning matters of the heart, with such eye-opening truth. This song will leave you with the impression of just having completed your first therapy session, with suppressed emotions you had not previously known lay dormant.
Moving on toward the iconic, “Sara”, featured on Dylan’s 1976 album, Desire, it is no mystery as to who this song is about. “Sara” is an unraveling of Bob’s marriage, an homage to his estranged wife—one pierced with clear remorse. “Sara” is a track that affects listeners on such an extraordinary level because there is no cloud of mystery Dylan hides behind, no lyrics to decipher, it is blunt and painful. This song easily makes the cut as one of Dylan’s greatest because it gives listeners a rare insight into the mysterious man behind the dark sunglasses—one that is relatable and unifying.
6. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
An all-time favorite of mine, as well as a notable classic, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” earns its place within my top 10 list, and is a song that is continuously featured on many of Dylan’s “Greatest Hits” compilations. If you are a beginner Bob Dylan fan, and most likely unaccustomed to his later and more eccentric work, you will most likely find yourself wearing this track out until you are ready to make the inevitable leap. It is a song that marks a pivotal time within Dylan’s career, featured on the legendary The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, it lays among songs that deal with heavy political and social issues within our country—songs that affirmed Dylan and his credibility as an undeniable force within songwriting.
7. Lay Lady Lay
“Lay Lady Lay”, appearing on Dylan’s 1969 album, Nashville Skyline, plays as a subtle, yet slightly suggestive track within Bob’s venture into country. Nashville Skyline, in my opinion is one of Dylan’s greatest albums, his fearless dive into creating an all country album produced excellence. After all, he did have the great Johnny Cash featured on a song; there was no way Bob Dylan could be steered wrong. Nashville Skyline gifts us with an entirely new sound from Dylan, in terms of genre, as well as vocals—credited by his decision to finally quit smoking, Dylan’s voice as a result plays as a smooth country croon, as opposed to the high-pitched nasally whine that he is so famous for. “Lay Lady Lay” became instantly popular and was covered by countless and highly respected artists such as, The Byrds and Buddy Guy.
8. All Along the Watchtower
“All Along the Watchtower”, another instant classic within Dylan’s body of work, appears on the 1976 album John Wesley Harding. While another widely covered song, the more famous and recognized version of it is actually done by the great Jimi Hendrix, recorded for his Electric Ladyland album.
9. Shelter From the Storm
Yet again, another Blood On The Tracks song manages to weasel its way into my list. “Shelter From the Storm” closes out the album and I couldn’t think of a more perfect song for the job. The lyrics that Dylan write, paint listeners vivid imagery of various characters and places—from old men with broken teeth to hilltop villages. The song takes us on a journey centered around a character who is without a doubt down on some kind of luck, but eventually, and continually offered sheltered by an unknown source—a source only referenced as “she”. Some of my favorite Bob Dylan lyrics are in this very song, the scenarios he creates are impossibly original—“Suddenly I turned around and she was standing there/ With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair/ She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns/ Come in, she said/ I’ll give ya shelter from the storm”. Yet again, another masterfully written song by the legend himself.
I know I will get hate on including such an easily overlooked song in my top ten list, but it feels necessary. “Isis” is a song that is featured on Bob’s 1976 album, Desire. Dylan sings a tale of a man marrying his lover Isis, with eventually a separation seeming to occur between the two. The writing is some of Dylan’s most unique and imaginative, leading us on a journey between a man and a stranger, traveling through snow and howling winds, toward an icy pyramid. The men carry out the other’s plan to recover a body, the lyrics creating scenes so vivid one only has to close their eyes, “I was thinkin’ about turquoise/ I was thinkin’ about gold/ I was thinkin about diamonds and the world’s biggest necklace/ As we rode through the canyons, through the devilish cold/ I was thinkin’ about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless.” In Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue documentary, Bob performs a legendary version of the song, shouting the lyrics through his painted face with such bold expressiveness, he commands the screen like only Dylan can.