There is no real place to start or stop with an artist like Bob Dylan. A hummingbird of the mind, he has flitted from style to style over the years and chances are that you could fall entirely in love with one or two of his albums. If he is hard to quite pin down, Dylan is nevertheless a perennially easy conversation topic. Nearly everyone has heard at least one song of his, namely the glorious “Like a Rolling Stone” rolling off just knowing greatness in all of its youth. Some friend most likely owns his rainy-day epic Blonde on Blonde (1966), perhaps rock music’s sole claim to a perfect album. The joy to really digging into Dylan’s catalog, however, is finding all the little gems that never quite get a lot of attention. With so prolific and diverse an artist, it is more than easy to find that one song you make your own. From folk and electric rock to country and pop, Dylan swam in every direction and got there at once. And there is always somewhere new to go along with him.
In this spirit, we would like to suggest some of our own personal favorites that also dodge the “well-known” label. That is quite a mighty bar to set, so we hope you find something new here (and listen to “Visions of Johanna” immediately). Most of these songs have been test-run in the Princeton rain or the spontaneous sing-a-long during the spontaneous run-to-get-to-McCosh-on-time. Without giving away too much, one or two might have even played a part in a relationship. So, to skip over any further ado …
Bob Dylan (1962):
“Fixin’ to Die” – Time takes no sides here, a vicious folk tune pulled across guitar strings. Dylan puts his throat on the line in a song where even the refrain comes up hard on itself.
“House of the Rising Sun” – From the Delta to Derek Burdon, this song has been passed down as the nearest thing to an American subconscious. Dylan sings the song for all its worth, a young man singing like he is going to die as soon as the morning comes around.
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
“Oxford Town” – Deadly lyrics set to a cheerful tune, this piece captures all the energy of the protest movement and the very flavor of change.
“Corrina, Corrina” – Simple and elegant: take a guitar running loops around young love, add a bird that sings, and you’ll figure out how life without a Corrina don’t mean a thing.
The Times They Are A’Changin’ (1964)
“Boots of Spanish Leather” – A tender ballad from afar, a love-letter to distance and distances.
Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) [highlight album]
“Black Crow Blues” – A song like a crippled kid running for all he’s worth, a piano rhythm set at a slant, a white man dancing a white-man-dance full steam ahead. The perfect song for any morning.
“Spanish Harlem Incident” – Lyrics falling right out of a cul-de-sac heat wave, “Your temperature’s too hot for taming, / Your flaming feet burn up the street…”
“Motopsycho Nitemare” – Flying out from one of Dylan’s lightning-lit dreamscapes, what can you say to song lyrics like “And then in comes his daughter whose name was Rita, / She looked like she stepped out of La Dolce Vita” (and imagine a back spin lust to those last words, too)?
Bringing it All Back Home (1965)
“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” – When Dylan cracks up before a song even starts, you know something is about to go down. A comic epic of America’s rediscovery, the 115th is a surreal road-trip shooting ahead like a cannonball.
Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
“It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” – All the urgency of a noonday nap, set to the irresistible, lazy rollick of a delicate piano. A train ride of a song, and one of Dylan’s best pieces on one of his best albums.
Blonde on Blonde (1966)
“Obviously 5 Believers” – Does every song need to make sense? Obviously not, with Dylan having more fun than is healthy for himself or probably even for us.
Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1 (1967)
“Positively 4th Street” – A single for his groundbreaking Highway 61 Revisited, “4th Street” takes all the fun of taunting people right to their face and twirls it to an organ.
John Wesley Harding (1967)
“As I Went Out One Morning” – No mystery ever floated so easy, no pastoral ever felt so haunted, no Dylan song promises so much and drifts by so quick – a gust of wind with a touch of fire.
“I Am A Lonesome Hobo” – Regret hits you in the teeth, and this song knocks you there with every self-driven rhythm of confession or guilt you could name … a sparse, hard song that could brand your heel to the bone.
Nashville Skyline (1969)
“Girl from the North Country (with Johnny Cash)” – Two old hands trade steps across a memory of winter, all in a duet of nearly more feeling than one lifetime could hold.
“To Be Alone with You” – ‘Is it rolling Bob?’ our singer asks himself, a piano answers, and the night takes off like a firecracker.
“Tonight I’ll Staying Here with You” – Dylan, sounding sly, clever and handsome (no, really, I’m serious), assures his little lady right into the night. As the restless, neurotic world “moves in appetency on its metalled ways,” he at least will be making an extended rest-stop with her.
“Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” – One of the best party songs of all time. This hard-driving stew of nonsense is absolutely inevitable: of course it’s Quinn, of course he’s an Eskimo, and there is not a thing you can do about it (except maybe dance).
New Morning (1970)
“Day of the Locusts” – Despite the silly wall quote at Frist, you should really hear this song about Princeton and its sillier pretensions. The absolute joy of floating over it all erupts in a chorus of laughter, freedom, and knowing that you may just be onto something larger than yourself.
“New Morning” – Imagine waking up with not a care in the world and everything opening up before you, a guitar for your feet and an organ pointing the way to everything you ever wanted to do.
“The Man in Me” – The unironically sugar-coated (but unmistakably Dylan) distillation of deliciously corny romance. Deploy it carefully, gentlemen, and it will win you at least a long hug and a kiss.
“Father of Night” – Dylan’s take on an ancient Jewish prayer, and a hymn turned on itself: the song puts conviction rippling over a piano tense enough to hold up an entire chorus on its very own.
Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (1971)
“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” – Ever seen a banjo dance with a guitar? Can Dylan pull us over the bridge of pride and sunshine? There’s only once answer: “Oh, oh, are we gonna fly! / Down into the easy chair!”
Planet Waves (1974)
“Dirge” – The triumph of finishing, bone-tired and stripped to the core. An absolutely searing duel with the past, the song offers a farewell to all the confusion that ever held itself back.
“Wedding Song” – One of the fiercest love songs you may ever hear. Period.
Blood on the Tracks (1974)
“Meet Me in the Morning” – What happens on the corner of 56 and Wabasha? Someone tells promises even he could not quite fall for, and a guitar blisters out to all the fun of going through the motions. Blues likes you probably never heard before.
The Basement Tapes (1975)
“Apple Suckling Tree” – With the Band in tow, Dylan offers a warped take on what has to be hell’s version of line dancing. Don’t worry if you cannot quite catch the slurred lyrics, the important part is the manic rush of music threatening to pull apart at the seams and just maybe get itself arrested for indecent exposure.
“Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread” – Where on earth can one go from the opening line “Well, the comic book and me, just us, we caught the bus?” Hold tight to Uncle Bob, because this is surrealist territory only he can navigate.
“Jokerman” – This represents the refinement of Dylan’s work in a prophetic register: it is a bizarre biographical portrait, soaked in apocalyptic, relentlessly driven forward by internal rhyme and stuffed full of some of Dylan’s most plum-perfect, arresting lyrics.
The Bootleg Series (1991)
“Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues” – The title says it all.
“Talkin’ Hava Negeilah Blues” – See above; add yodel.
“Moonshiner” – From Dylan’s early years, the song sets a younger man’s voice on the currents of an acoustic guitar, with soaring self-discoveries all the more convincing for how far they could ever be from Dylan. It is astounding that someone could believe in these lyrics so fully, and that belief alone will take you along the river here.
Love and Theft (2001)
“High Water” – ‘Love and Theft’ was released on the eleventh of September 2001, so this explicitly catastrophist vision got particular critical attention. The song’s images of sweeping catastrophe are indeed chilling and, in a loose way, ‘topical’, but Dylan’s spice of wry humor and the lively, matter-of-fact banjos that underpin the song are reassuring. They suggest that – no matter what – toothless, banjo-wielding, mildly cynical hill-people will survive, and Dylan with them.
“Moonlight” – Gentlemen, this greeting-card-sappy song awash in lovely imagery just might get you a harem.
“Lonesome Day Blues” – This is jaunty, world-weary, intelligent and, subtly humorous. The very essence of the blues combined with rollicking, aggressive rock guitars.
Several readers have written in regarding the song “To Be Alone with You,” claiming that the opening statement of “Is is rolling, Bob?” is directed towards producer Bob Johnston & not Dylan himself. The writers of this article disagree. Standing by their original statement, they would prefer to impute a razor wit via double entendre to Mr. Dylan’s mischievous & altogether delicate understandings of post-modern discourse.