Thursday, May 26, 2016

Dissecting Rolling Stone's Top 100 Bob Dylan Songs

By Mike Drinan
@thesurfacenoise


Alright, so Rolling Stone put out a list where they ranked the 100 greatest Bob Dylan songs in celebration of the man’s 75th birthday, and for anyone who is suspicious of the list (because RS has put out some horrid lists) let me just say it’s not completely horrible. It’s not perfect but I only really got upset at one entry which is pretty unbelievable.

Before we dive in let me explain something. I view the rankings of songs very general. I don’t wage wars and get all moody because one song was put three spots above another. I have a range of ten spots in which I allow wiggle room for interpretation. Going to war over placements within ten spots, in my opinion, is simply splitting hairs. It doesn’t really matter. However, over ten spots then it’s fair game to bitch and moan.

Rolling Stone segmented the list with five groups of twenty songs, so I’ll give a summary of each group. Alright, let’s dive in!


100-81

The list kicks off with “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" from Street Legal. This group is made up of some pretty deep cuts. At #96 is “Farewell, Angelina”, a song that appeared on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991 and is a favorite of mine, with a great melody and very powerful, evocative imagery in the lyrics while also containing a despair for leaving the woman he loves. I think it should’ve been ranked higher but that’s my personal bias talking.

The 80s are rife with underappreciated Dylan songs. Starting at #88 with “Tombstone Blues”, followed up with “Most Of The Time” (#87), then “Meet Me In The Morning” (#86) which is one of my favorite songs off of Blood on the Tracks and ending with “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” (#82). A good collection with my only problem being “Meet Me In The Morning;" that should be in the fifties somewhere.




80-61

My eyes popped wide at “Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here With You” (#77) because it’s such a great song. I get why it’s ranked so low and I think the superior version is off the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue concert recording. Such passion and emotion in that performance. I love it. Also, the best opener to a show.

“Gates of Eden” (#76) should be higher; in my opinion it should be in the twenties somewhere. Such a great tune and the word acrobatics are just incredible to listen to, almost hypnotic.

“I’m Not There” is at #73 from The Basement Tapes and I’ve no trouble with it. It would be lower if we were holding the movie against it but I’m not a complete asshole.

There are a few Blonde on Blonde tracks in this grouping: “Absolutely Sweet Marie” (#78), “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (#72), which I expected to be ranked higher because its a pretty well known Dylan song and RS can get lazy sometimes, “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine) (#71), “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” (#67).  This is odd considering how highly regarded that album is, would’ve thought they’d be sprinkled in the top 50 somewhere.

My only issue in this group is “Shelter From The Storm” (#66). Such a great song with powerful yet sensitive emotion. It belongs somewhere in the thirties, at least in the forties.


60-41

This group kicks off with the understated “Buckets of Rain” (#60) off of Blood on the Tracks and I like it where it’s ranked. It’s also making me notice the first half of the list is mainly love songs or songs dealing with relationships which leads me to believe that RS is leaning heavily toward his protest songs and better known stuff.

“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” (#56) is another Blood on the Tracks tune that I really love. His performance on it is so well done and fluid that it makes me feel he just ripped it off the top of his head. I know that’s not true but I like that feeling. I have no quarrel with it being in the fifties.

Love that they put “Things Have Changed” at #51 and “Not Dark Yet” at #50. Dylan’s later work doesn’t get a whole ton of recognition compared to his 60s output and I get it, but there are still people who think Dylan doesn’t have “it” anymore and they just aren’t aware of the greatness that still exists in his songwriting. Glad to see some love here.

“Up to Me” (#49) is so good and nobody ever talks about it. It was left over from Blood on the Tracks and no one has any idea why. It’s the twin of “Shelter From The Storm” and the melody is perfect. Very happy it’s on the list.

Showing up at #45 is “It Ain’t Me Babe” and RS wrote the "no, no, no" apparently to parody the "yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Beatles' "She Loves You" which is something I never picked up on or even thought about. It’s a shrewd argument to make especially considering how highly Bob thought of The Beatles.


40-21

We’re starting to get to the meat of Dylan’s catalogue with this group and I haven’t seen any songs from Love And Theft which is already criminal. We have the first Dylan protest song at #39 with “Hurricane” and then at #37 is “Maggie’s Farm”. Not too mad at it being #37 but I’d like to have seen this one in the teens considering the impact it had in his career and to the folk community, ultimately.

“With God On Our Side” is at #36 and I’m glad it’s here. I love this song because it still relates to issues and our society today. Very poignant song.

“Isis” is at #34 and I still can’t get enough of that song. I first heard its live performance on the Rolling Thunder Revue bootleg release and I find it interesting not much changed with it from the studio version. A riveting story within the song.

“Girl From the North Country” is kind of high for me at #30. This must be more about Johnny Cash than anything. It’s the first significant disagreement I have with this list and it’s immediately followed up with “The Times They Are A-Changin’” at #28, way too low. This is a top ten song for me, at least top fifteen.

The only song from Love and Theft to have made the list is “Mississippi” at #21. I love that song, such a great tune. It’s not the best song on the album and I think it’s only here to have something from that album on the list, but I’ll take it.


20-1

And there it is, “Blowin’ In The Wind” at #20. Too high for me. This song I feel is a little overrated. When you first start listening to Dylan it hits the mark. It sums up his protest song era perfectly but when you get into Dylan and listen to more and more of his songs, it doesn’t hold up and since we’re ranking his songs on this list, comparing them to each other, it should be lower. It’s the only Dylan song I skip over. Should be in the fifties somewhere.

At #14 they have “Highway 61 Revisited” which I think should be in the top ten. Such a fiery song with a classic 60s Dylan snarl. I love it.

“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” at #11. I’ve always been curious about the appeal of this song. Dylan fans LOVE this song. I just think it’s alright, but must be me.


The Top 10

10. “Every Grain of Sand” - This is the only entry that really pissed me off. Seriously? You’re going to put this song in the top ten? Why? Look, its a really good song and one that I would love to have played at my funeral, but we’re talking top ten Dylan songs here, there’s no way.

9. “Visions of Johanna” - This is my all time favorite Dylan song. Very happy its in the top ten. Blonde on Blonde was the first Dylan album I ever bought, and I bought it to see what the fuss was all about with this guy. Then I heard this song and understood. I haven’t heard as much imagery in lyrics as I have with this song.

8. “Mr. Tambourine Man” - I remember reading somewhere that Hunter S. Thompson thought this song was the most perfect song ever written, which is why he had it played at his funeral. The more I think about it, the more I tend to agree. Every time I listen to this song I’m lost in it. The lyrics are perfect and descriptive and colored. The line “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand wavin’ free” is my favorite Dylan line ever. There’s joy in that line, freedom and a love of life. Maybe I’ll have this played at my funeral instead of #10 (Alright, now I’m just being an asshole). I’m not going to quibble about placement here, however it would be in my personal top five.

7. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” - Talk about provocative lyrics. Dylan rips this one off in such a haunting tone that it kind of gets a little scary. This is another song I don’t hear people talk much about so I’m pleasantly surprised of its inclusion in the top ten. Not sure it would be in my top ten but I’m not mad about it.

6. “I Shall Be Released” - This one didn’t piss me off as much as “Every Grain of Sand” but it shouldn’t be top ten. This song belongs in the twenties somewhere. Again, its a great song but not Dylan’s best.

5. “All Along The Watchtower” - Shouldn’t be in the top ten. This is more a nod to Hendrix’s version than of Bob’s original. This one should also be in the thirties or twenties at best.

4. “Just Like a Woman” - It wouldn’t be in my top ten, not to mention my top five but I do know people love this song. Rolling Stone called this Dylan’s “finest ballad” that isn’t a love song and I might agree with that statement. I’m not really mad at this placement.

3. “Tangled Up In Blue” - Definitely a top five Dylan song for me so I love its inclusion in this list. The song basically sums up the entire Blood on the Tracks album by describing the dissolution of love and marriage, and more importantly, there’s no bitterness in this track. It acknowledges the past while coming to terms with the pain. The song is fantastic on the album and even better live.

2. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” - Rolling Stone called it “the greatest protest song by the greatest protest songwriter of his time” and it’s hard to argue that point. It’s a song many attribute to the growing apocalyptic worry of the Cuban Missile Crisis but listening to the lyrics the song covers a bevy of issues, from war to racism to classism and to innocence lost and/or abandoned. For me, the song stands as Dylan’s mantra, a statement on his purpose to “know my song well before I start singin’” and to “walk to the depths of the deepest black forests/where the people are many and the hands are all empty”. It’s a song that can define his career throughout all of its permutations. It certainly belongs where it is.

1. “Like A Rolling Stone” - This is a no-brainer. It’s difficult to find another song with the impact this one had on rock and roll. In fact, its damn near impossible. The song confirmed Dylan’s change from folk hero, protest songwriter to full on rock star icon, symbolic of the changes and utter turmoil of the 60s. The combination of several musical elements conveyed an unbridled expansion within rock that seemed to be unimaginable. The song is dripping with rage, culminating in the pointed question, “How does it feel?” There’s no greater feeling than being pissed off or annoyed, driving in your car and screaming at the top of your lungs “HOW DOES IT FEEEEEEEEEL?” It challenged other rock musicians including The Beatles. Frank Zappa once said that the song almost caused him to quit making music, thinking, “If this wins and it does what it's supposed to do, I don't need to do anything else”. It famously challenged the industry convention of a time limit for singles. Of course it did, the fucker ran over six minutes! Plus, it gained so much acclaim while having dark, poetic,  lines and angry storytelling; it was an anti-love song. The song is a rager and plays with hurricane-like force and no other song, especially a Dylan song can even come close to challenge it for the #1 spot. Ever.


Beefs With This List

George Carlin famously said in his “7 Words You Can’t Say On Television” bit that “the trouble with lists is that it’s someone else’s list”, basically saying everyone will always have a problem with whatever list anyone puts out. So here’s my beef with this list.

There’s not much love for any of his more recent work like Time Out Of Mind or Love and Theft. I didn’t expect much from Modern Times but was at least expecting “Thunder On The Mountain” to show up somewhere and it never did. Also, maybe I think too much of it, but Tempest had a collection of really good songs, with only one making the list.

Here are some songs that didn’t make the list that I thought should be included:

“Blood In My Eyes” - a great track from World Gone Wrong.

“Let Me Die In My Footsteps” - This one shocked me. The list is littered with bootlegs, outtakes and this one didn’t make the cut? Come on now.

“Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” - I kind of understand why it didn’t make the list but the 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert performance of this song is so damn good. Its originally off his debut album but the live version gives it a whole new life.

“Tell Me Mama” - Speaking of the Royal Albert Hall concert performance, this song kicks off the electric half of the show and just roars. Love this one.

“Everything Is Broken” - There’s not much love in general for Dylan’s 1980s output. A lot of it seemed forced and not really genuine. This song I think is a standout though.

“Mama, You Been On My Mind” - I’ve always enjoyed this little number. I prefer the studio version over the live version.

“Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” - because fuck those people.

“Must Be Santa” - kidding kidding kidding, just kidding.

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