Bob Dylan year by year; decade by decade

These two series (Year by Year and Decade by Decade) take Bob Dylan songs and consider them in the order in which they were written so that we may see how Bob developed his ideas and songwriting as time went by.

Within this site all the individual songs are reviewed one by one; these pages therefore attempt to draw things together.   You can find an index to the songs in the Decade by Decade series listed immediately below, and an alphabetical list of all the songs reviewed if you scroll down the home page.

Bob Dylan decade by decade

Bob Dylan year by year – the series

Each of these articles is a summary of what Dylan wrote in that year.

Bob Dylan – the highlight of the year (in terms of compositions)

1961: Talking Bear Mountain – Dylan took an existing format and used it in a completely new way – not a bad move for a 20 year old.

1962:  Ballad for a friend.  This little known blues song is utter perfection, using rhythm and lyrics to give the blues format a new twist and hold our attention totally throughout.

1963: When the Ship Comes In.  Part religious, part protest, this has all the vigour and vitality of change and reform that “Times they are a changing” (written soon after) doesn’t get close to with imagery that is utterly new within this type of music.

1964: It’s all right ma.   Line after line of indictment of the modern age delivered with such power and passion.  No one ever wrote a song like this before.

1965: Impossible to choose.  “Subterranean” gave beat poetry a place in pop and rock, Love Minus Zero took love songs into the world of the unsayable, “Rolling Stone” created the songs of disdain, “Desolation Row” took political protest to a totally new level and “Johanna” took music into impressionism.

1966: One of us must know.   Not most people’s choice, indeed probably no one’s choice by mine, but this song takes one of the three fundamental themes of pop (lost love – the other two are love and dance) and gives it a totally new twist. A completely new way of saying farewell.

1967: Drifter’s Escape.  It has but one line of music, but takes the impressionism of Johanna into a totally new context at yet another level.  This world is not real.  This world makes no sense.  This world offers hope to the lost: the problem is finding the door.

1968: Dylan can stop.  And stop he did.  After over 100 songs in the past seven years, at a time when it looked as if everything from the arts to politics was changing forever, Dylan just stopped.

1969: Dylan can change.   I can’t pick a song from the list of new compositions because nothing here matches what has gone before, and nothing really grabs me as original, new, or overwhelmingly beautiful.  But it was the experimentation with country music that brought Dylan back to songwriting.  Without that twist, he might never have written again.

1970: Time passes slowly.  An uncertain time in Dylan’s writing, as he tried to shake off what had happened in the previous two years.  I don’t claim this is a great song, but it successfully captured the moment, and showed perfectly where Bob was and how he was feeling.

1971: When I paint my masterpiece and Watching the river flow.  In a year of just three compositions it ought to be easy to pick the best, but I find it easy to pick the worst.   One song really doesn’t do it for me but both When I paint my masterpiece and then Watching the river flow are sublime reflections on the work of a creative artist – and in pop and rock music there are precious few of those.

1974: Tangled up in Blue.  For anyone else it would be the highlight of a total career, carved on the gravestone and mentioned in every article.  Idiot Wind comes a very very close second.

1975: “Abandoned Love”.  The last collaborations with Levy were extraordinary, but everything about this song shouts out “genius” and leaves one wondering why Dylan needed a collaborator.  Both versions that we have are so worth playing again, and again, and again.

1976: A year of a pause.  And why not, for in the last two years he had contributed more to popular music than anyone else had done in a lifetime.

1977: “Where are you tonight?”  An extraordinary poem which opens with the most evocative of lines: “There’s a long-distance train rolling through the rain  Tears on the letter I write”    And if lines such as

He took dead-centre aim but he missed just the same
She was waiting, putting flowers on the shelf
She could feel my despair as I climbed up her hair
And discovered her invisible self

don’t make you shiver, well, I don’t know what will.

1978: “I must love you too much”.   It is a tough call between this and “Slow Train Coming”  and Slow Train only loses out because of what happened next.  “I love you” is a right rollicking fun rock piece that overwhelms us with its energy and passion.  If Dylan had put any of this drive into his religious songs he might have converted more people.

1979: “When He Returns” (live version).  Not just the stand out moment of this year, but one of the stand out moments of the decade of Dylan.

1980: “Caribbean Wind” with The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Alter” and “Yonder Comes Sin.”  Three amazing songs which followed on later from “Every Grain of Sand”  What an amazing achievement.

1981: Lenny Bruce is Dead.  Not only an exquisite song but Dylan finally confronting the contradictions of the religion he had been espousing for the past three years.  He wrote two more gospel songs, but then found his heart was no longer in it.

1982/3: Blind Willie McTell.  The song bears no relationship to the music of William Samuel McTier, it came out of nowhere and left no impact on Bob’s subsequent writings.  And yet it is an utter masterpiece in its own right.