The ten greatest Dylan songs of all time: 6 different points of view

by Tony Attwood

Picking the best Dylan songs is a strange game – and not one I am particularly good at playing.  I can put a list together, but then think – oh no, I’ve missed this or that one out and so the list never ends.  Also I can get fed up with certain songs I have heard too often – I am sure that is a failing in me, but that’s how it goes.  So I leave them alone for a while, and then come back and realise just how good they are.

Anyway, lots of magazines and newspapers have played the game of the top 10 or top 20 or (in one case I found, top 350) Dylan songs.  I have just chosen a few and compared them (below).

And then just for fun did something else: I compared them with the 10 songs, the reviews of which on this site, have been looked at the most, in the past year.  There’s an interesting difference.  I don’t know what it tells us, but somehow it does seem interesting.

So here we go.  Dylan’s 10 best compositions according to…

Rolling Stone

  1. Like a rolling stone
  2. Hard rain’s a gonna fall
  3. Tangled up in blue
  4. Just like a woman
  5. All along the watch tower
  6. I shall be released
  7. It’s alright ma
  8. Mr Tambourine Man
  9. Visions of Johanna
  10. Every grain of sand

Billboard

  1. Blowing in the wind
  2. Like a rolling stone
  3. It’s alright ma
  4. Tangled up in Blue
  5. Hard Rain’s a gonna fall
  6. Visions of Johanna
  7. Subterranean Homesick Blues
  8. All along the watch tower
  9. Every grain of sand
  10. Not dark yet

Now already we can see certain patterns emerging, so I thought for the next one I would try an English (rather than American) publication, and found a listing in the Daily Telegraph.  This is a right wing newspaper, but which does make more of a serious attempt to stay with the facts than many, and is not averse to doing some valuable investigative journalism.  Its readership tends to be aged 50 plus.

Daily Telegraph

  1. Tangled up in blue
  2. Blowing in the Wind
  3. A hard rain’s a gonna fall
  4. Jokerman
  5. Simple twist of Fate
  6. Like a rolling stone
  7. Visions of Johanna
  8. Hurricane
  9. Ballad of a Thin man
  10. Knockin on heaven’s door

So some songs not included in either of the first two selections.  “Jokerman”, “Simple Twist of Fate” I can understand, but the last three – I wouldn’t have them in the top ten.

Having seen that list I then went for an American newspaper…

USA Today

  1. Mississippi
  2. Visions of Johanna
  3. Like a Rolling Stone
  4. Abandoned Love
  5. Not dark yet
  6. Times they are a changing
  7. Shelter from the storm
  8. Desolation Row
  9. Just like a woman
  10. Tangled up in blue

Interesting that USA Today put in a song at number one that no one else listed – and again at number four.  I put in a link just in case you’d forgotten “Abandoned Love”.  Anyway those were the four lists I found – there are of course thousands more – and then I made a list of the songs that appeared in more than one of the four lists, noting the number of listings each got.  Not special reason – it just seemed fun.

Total number of listings in the publications excluding those with just one vote.

  1. Like a Rolling Stone: 4
  2. Tangled up in blue: 4
  3. Visions of Johanna: 4
  4. Hard Rain: 3
  5. Blowing in the wind: 2
  6. Just like a woman: 2
  7. It’s alright ma: 2
  8. All along the watchtower: 2
  9. Every grain of sand: 2

I am not sure any of these is particularly unexpected.  But then I thought I would have a look at the ten songs whose reviews have been accessed the most number of times in the past year on this site…

Readership of Untold Dylan reviews

  1. Hard Rain’s a gonna fall (3 magazine votes)
  2. To fall in love with you
  3. Make you feel my love
  4. Tangled up in blue (4 magazine votes)
  5. Times they are a changing (1 magazine vote)
  6. Jokerman (1 magazine vote)
  7. Visions of Johanna (4 magazine votes)
  8. Blowing in the wind (2 magazine votes)
  9. I shall be released (1 magazine vote)
  10. Only a pawn in their game

So three of the songs on our list of most accessed posts don’t make it at all into the magazine lists.  “Make you feel my love” is interesting, in that Rolling Stone called it “a spare ballad undermined by greetingcard lyrics”.  I personally love the song – but then I like all types of songs – and was surprised by the negativity it got.  And then surprised that so many people want to read our review of it.

“To fall in love with you” is perhaps a little more understandable in that my review called it “The greatest of all the lost Dylan masterpieces” and we’re helped by the fact that if you type the title of the song, we come top of the list on page one of Google (apart from a link to a recording of the song, which they generally put top when there is one).

“Only a pawn” is the other song on our most accessed list that doesn’t feature in the four top tens.  Not sure why that song is so popular with our readers, but the readers are always right.

I can’t really finish this little ramble without my personal list.  It includes a few like Tell Ol Bill that no one else rates at all.  I’ve put a couple of links in to those oddball selections, just in case you wonder why I rate them so highly.

  1. Tell Ol’ Bill
  2. Visions of Johanna
  3. When He returns (live version)
  4. Ballad for a friend
  5. Mississippi
  6. To fall in love with you
  7. Things have changed
  8. Desolation Row
  9. Tangled up in blue
  10. Not Dark Yet

You can find an alphabetical index of all the songs on this site on the home page – just scroll down.


 

 

 

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25 Responses to The ten greatest Dylan songs of all time: 6 different points of view

  1. mathematticus says:

    best by a mile is mama you been on my mind.

  2. Don says:

    Wiggle wiggle

  3. Don says:

    Seriously, from the top of my head, in no particular order

    Only a pawn in their game
    Hollis Brown
    Cold iron bound
    Ballad of a thin man
    Just like a woman
    Precious angel
    I dreamed I saw Saint Augustine
    Idiot wind
    In the garden
    It’s alright ma, I’m only bleeding.

  4. Adrian Everitt says:

    Hard to believe that ‘Blind Willie McTell’ is absent from all those lists.

  5. jzsnake says:

    Only the right wing press has a problem with facts. LOL!

  6. joe says:

    Cross the Green Mountain
    Born in Time
    Ring Them Bells
    Simple Twist of Fate
    Sign on the Window
    Jokerman
    Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
    Every grain of sand
    My Back Pages
    Shelter From the Storm

  7. John says:

    And its hard to beat “Brownsville Girl”

  8. pete says:

    I suspect some of the page hits come from folks like me saying, “Will I like this song better after reading about it?” And I definitely second the idea that “Blind Willie McTell” should be up there; I suppose you could argue that the performance elevates the song, but that’s true of a bunch of them, and anyway The Band did a great version.

  9. David Lawson says:

    What no “it takes a lot to laugh..” Sad Eyed Lady…” Desolation Row” “The lonesome D’eath of Hattie Carroll “ or a hundred others. It’s when you look at a task like naming Bob’s ten best songs you realise that maybe the Nobel Prize judges had a point!

  10. Misko says:

    My personal list:

    Covenant Woman
    Like A Rolling Stone
    Trying To Get To Heaven
    Not Dark Yet
    Mr Tambourine Man
    Hazel
    Ballad Of A Thin Man
    Po’ Boy
    Workingman’s Blues #2
    Jokerman

  11. Phil says:

    Why does everyone forget ” Don’t think twice” ?

  12. Steven says:

    I like your list better than any of the others posted. Yours shows breadth and depth. I can’t understand how anyone could stick mostly to the sixties. Also appreciate “When He Returns” showing up so high. I’ve been listening to and watching the Trouble No More cuts of that somg and it is very moving. And I also have gotten into seriously repetitive listening to “Tell Ol’ Bill.”
    Mine, off the top of my head:
    Tambourine Man
    Mississippi
    Not Dark Yet
    It’s Alright, Ma
    Sara
    Went to See the Gypsy
    Where are You Tonight? (Journey through Dark Heat)
    Slow Train
    Idiot Wind
    I Threw it All Away

  13. Misko says:

    I have to add no. 11 Caribbean Wind (the rehearsal version from Bootleg Series 13)

  14. Rob says:

    I’m a bit surprised “Chimes of Freedom” doesn’t appear anywhere.

  15. Rob says:

    These are my go tos;

    Visions of Johanna
    Chimes of Freedom
    Hard Rains a Gonna Fall
    Don’t Think Twice
    Where Are You Tonight
    Love Minus Zero/no limit
    Positively 4th Street
    Shelter from the Storm
    It Aint Me Babe
    Mississippi

  16. Ronald Perz says:

    red river shore
    desolation row
    gone going gone
    chimes of freedom
    vision of johanna
    hazel
    simple twist of fate
    subterrenean homesick blues
    its alright ma
    its all over now baby blue
    and dozens and dozens more

  17. Brady says:

    This is a near impossible task. But here is my present “top” ten Bob songs.

    1. Abandoned Love (Live version w/ alternate verse)
    2. Mississippi
    3. Visions of Johanna
    4. Ballad in Plain D
    5. It Takes a lot of Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry
    6. Black Diamond Bay
    7. Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through the Dark Heat)
    8. Tangled Up in Blue
    9. You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go
    10. Shelter From the Storm

    This is likely to change the next time I put another record on. However, “When He Returns” almost always brings tears to my eyes.

  18. Rob Schecter says:

    I’m not sure why a lot of my choices haven’t shown up, but that’s how it goes with Bob. Therefore, in no particular order:

    Señor
    Blind Willie McTell
    Every Grain Of Sand
    You’re A Big Girl Now
    When The Ship Comes In
    Visions Of Johanna
    In The Garden
    Mississippi
    (Sooner Or Later) One Of Us Must Know
    Masters Of War

    Come back tomorrow and I guarantee you that some of these songs will have been replaced with others, but again… that’s how it goes with Bob.

  19. Jake says:

    It’s easy for me to pick my top 2, but after that it’s hard to distinguish between 3-10.

    1. Abandoned Love
    2. Every Grain of Sand
    3. To Fall in Love with You
    4. Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
    5. Buckets of Rain
    6. Mr. Tambourine Man
    7. Ring Them Bells
    8. Like a Rolling Stone
    9. Tangled Up In Blue
    10. Jokerman

  20. Ted Feigenbaum says:

    Very difficult to pick 10 favorites but “Like a Rolling Stone” is a song I can listen to anytime and anywhere. I think some of the upbeat/uptempo songs like “If Not For You” and “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere “ deserve to be recognized along with the Bob’s more serious endeavors. As the first rap song, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is a masterpiece. “Not Dark Yet” and “What Was It You Wanted” are songs I can’t easily get out of my head after hearing them. IMO, every studio album has at least one great song on it. “Positively 4th Street “ is classic angry and honest Bob. So many choices and genres , this exercise reinforces to me that Bob is a musical and lyrical genius even though we already knew that.

  21. Derrick Goulet says:

    I like a lot of these songs, but I would say my top ten would definitely include:

    Sweetheart Like You
    Boots Of Spanish Leather
    You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go

    I gravitate to Blood On The Tracks more than anything…

  22. Alan Moore says:

    It really is difficult picking ten Dylan songs which by human nature will change almost daily depending on your mood…I’m surprised Masters Of War figures nowhere on any list nor Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream. Girl From The North Country likewise, Leopardskin Pillbox Hat is a riot of a song and the compressed western from Blood On The Tracks, Lily, Rosemary and the Queen Of Hearts trounces Tangled Up In Blue. But all lists are subjective so merely opening any discussion on what his ten best are is in itself an education….

  23. Pat Sludden says:

    Top 10 albums change everyday day never mind single tracks. Anyway todays list includes:
    Hard Rain
    Don’t Think Twice
    Tomorrow Is A Long Time
    I’ll Keep It With Mine
    Sooner Or Later
    Dear Landlord
    I Shall Be Released
    Big Girl Now
    I Believe In You
    Most Of The Time
    Mississippi

  24. Graham says:

    This is tough. Across the many decades, this is my current list (that is always subject to change I discover more as this site has helped me do so).

    1. Stuck Inside Of Mobile- Musically, this is a peerless song to me. The organ and guitar work is simply sublime and makes me so genuinely happy. I love Dylan’s voice and the enigmatic nature of the short stories presented here.

    2. Mississippi (Tell Tale Signs Disc One Version)

    This is an acoustic masterpiece that I have a fonder appreciation of after reading Tony’s analysis recently. The lyrics are unbelievably poignant. Particularly the “My ship’s been split to splinters, it’s sinking fast… bit. When I first discovered this song, my mouth hung open at the end of every stanza. This has everything I love about Dylan in this song. Simple, but catchy tune, perfect lyrics that rely on really digging into the subtext and making you think long after it’s over. I adore this piece and it constantly challenges Stuck Inside of Mobile for the top spot, but today I put it at number two.

    3. Up To Me- A cut track from my favorite Dylan album, Blood on The Tracks. I think this would have been the best song on the album. A repeating pattern here in my favorite Dylan tracks are contained short stories that tie back into a larger narrative or idea and this song is no exception. The heartbreak of this song and the lyrics still rock my world to this day. It cuts to the bone each time I hear it and has particular resonance for me in the sense that it got me through (what I perceived at the time to be) a major break up. I still cannot believe it didn’t end up on the final release of BOT.

    4. Mr. Tambourine Man (Rolling Thunder Reveue Version) I adore the original, but this one elevates it to a level I didn’t think possible. It’s much more somber, reflective, and moving. It gives it a different context. The original is far more hopeful and whimsical while this one is far more reserved. I love when Dylan rearranges his songs for live performance and this version of Mr. Tambourine is the definitive trip through the smoke rings of his mind to me.

    5. Not Dark Yet- She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind. She put down in writing what was in her mind. I don’t see why I should even care. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

    Another lyrical tour de force by Bob and the definitive song on dying and depression. This has brought me to tears repeatedly for its insight on these matters. The music is also otherworldly here. It has this sense of a smidge of hope to me (although that’s subjective) that adds this juxtaposition that I can’t get enough of.

    6. Desolation Row- The best epic Dylan song. I’m listening to it now actually. A wonderful depiction of all these characters and people we know coming together in this disturbing insane asylum. Lyrically, it’s one of his most creative and vivid pieces where storytelling is king.

    7. It’s Alright, Ma- Love the guitar and the lyrics. It’s another song where all time stops and you can’t help but get wrapped up in his majestic ability to pain such evocative images in your mind through song.

    8. Shelter From The Storm (Hard Rain Version/Studio version)- No song rocks harder than the electric Shelter. Another brilliant reimagining of an already perfect song.

    The studio version ties here for me. Its thoughtfulness on having beauty and always trying to get back to it creates a brilliant game of tug of war.

    9. Like A Rolling Stone- Yes the one everyone puts on their lists, but I have to include it. While I overplayed the heck out of this at an early age, I still love the anger and venom in this song as well as the incredible organ and musical arrangement.

    10. If You See Her Say Hello- One of the best songs about being in the middle of heartbreak ever conceived. The music is appropriately desperate as well as the lyrics and remorse Dylan feels are perfectly rendered into a solemn expression of sorrow.

    Honorable Mentions:

    Tangled Up In Blue
    You’re A Big Girl Now
    Girl From The North Country (Nashville Skyline Version)
    Hurricane
    Changing Of The Guards
    Tombstone Blues
    Simple Twist Of Fate
    Just Like A Woman
    The Man In Me
    Mr. Tambourine Man (Studio version)
    To Fall In Love With You (This may get into the top 10. Thank You, Tony, for introducing this classic to me.)
    Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You (Rolling Thunder Revue Version)
    Subterranean Homesick Blues
    You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere

  25. Filip says:

    A week ago, I was asked to list my all-time Bob Dylan album, 5 songs per side. It required certain work as for sequencing. Ah, and I had to compose it out of the songs I translated into Polish because then I had to read the lyrics in public to show the audience the stylistic and thematic range of Dylan’s poetic world. So it’s not an “all-song” selection but the one limited by my own output.
    Thus, my last-week album of top BD’s gems was:
    1. Subterranean Homesick Blues
    2. A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall
    3. Blind Willie McTell
    4. Man with the Long Black Coat
    5. Black Diamond Bay
    6. Visions of Johanna
    7. Tangled Up in Blue
    8. Love Sick
    9. Ain’t Talkin’
    10. Every Grain of Sand

    Just as good as any other 🙂

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