This is the original two series of articles tracing Bob Dylan’s songwriting from a historical perspective
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.
A list of every Dylan song in chronological order and alphabetical order, all on one page can be found on Every Dylan Song.
At the time this series was written the site had 455 songs listed. Since then, amazingly another 138 songs have been discovered and reviewed here and as a result I am now going back over my original thoughts trying to understand in more detail how best to understand Dylan’s writing across time.
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
- Dylan songs of the 1960s
- Dylan songs of the 1970s
- Dylan songs of the 1980s
- Dylan songs of the 1990s
- Dylan songs of the 21st century
Bob Dylan year by year – the series
Each of these articles is a summary of what Dylan wrote in that year.
- Dylan in 1961: The first ventures
- Dylan in 1962: The Overview
- Dylan in 1963: the overview – Dylan the storyteller part 1
- Bob Dylan in 1964: the overview. Dylan the storyteller part 2.
- 1965: the overview – the year Dylan invented two totally new forms of music.
- Dylan in 1966 the overview: writing songs while the band patiently waits
- Dylan in 1967: A year of two, or maybe three halves.
- Bob Dylan in 1968: As his country pulls itself apart, Dylan takes a year out.
- Bob Dylan in 1969: everything is lovely
- Bob Dylan in 1970: a stuttering return to song writing.
- Bob Dylan in 1971 – taking more time out but producing two brilliant songs.
- Bob Dylan in 1972. Still not writing much, but what he wrote gave us a hint
- Bob Dylan in 1973: moving into the second round of unadulterated genius
- Bob Dylan in 1974: the genius returns, and how!
- Bob Dylan in 1975: working with Jacques Levy
- Bob Dylan in 1976: a year of pause and reflection
- Bob Dylan in 1977: the preparation work for “Not Dark Yet”
- Bob Dylan in 1978: Helena Springs and our fate is our own fault
- Bob Dylan in 1979: When He Returns
- Dylan in 1980: moving from the Christian songs into beauty and confusion.
- Dylan in 1981: the last gospel songs and the search for a new direction
- Bob Dylan’s songs of 1982/3: how to ignore a masterpiece.
- Bob Dylan in 1984: a brilliant song only once performed.
- 1985: The year of Dylan not drowning in someone else’s wine
- Bob Dylan in 1986: Experiment, experiment, experiment, genius, ignore
- Bob Dylan in 1987/8. Three different but connected triumphs
- 1989: Bob Dylan stalked by the darkness
- Bob Dylan in 1990: the end of the era
- Bob Dylan: the gap years (1991-1995)
- Bob Dylan in 1996: the master songwriter returns after five years out.
- Bob Dylan in 1997: finishing “Time out of mind” before touring again.
- Bob Dylan in 1998/9: the road to the Oscar
- Bob Dylan in 2000/1: an old approach to writing songs, and a new approach too.
- Bob Dylan: the movie years 2001/2005
- 2005/6: an interesting collection of re-worked material
- Bob Dylan’s songs of 2008/9: It’s all good, if you hear what he’s saying.
- 2011/12: the final works of Bob Dylan the master composer
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. But “Song to Woody” must get a mention for the assured delivery of the song on the LP.
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.
1984: I once knew a man Only performed once, but oh what a song! The ultimate blues.
1985: Dark Eyes, although run a very close second with the co-written Well Well Well. “I live in another world where life and death are memorized / Where the earth is strung with lovers’ pearls and all I see are dark eyes”. After that, there really is so little left to say.
1986: To fall in love with you. With any other artist this would be right up there at the top of the list of masterpieces. With Bob is was tried, half written, and abandoned. Thank goodness someone thought to keep the tape.
1987/8: What good am I? In a very real sense the final three songs of this year make a trilogy of reflections on what is wrong with the world from a personal and social point of view. This is the second of of the three – the deep personal reflective answer to “Political World” that precedes it, and “Dignity” which follows.
1989: Man in a Long Black Coat. The whole year builds up to this point as Bob Dylan shows us that the darkness makes no sense at all. Once more we all sit here stranded but we’re trying our best to deny it.
1990: Where were you last night? Bob takes the simple format of classic lost love pop and delivers a song with verve and panache that is a real swing number that can be enjoyed as much on the dance floor as in the concert hall. Which is why it is such a shame he never gave us a single live version of this masterpiece of the genre.
1991/5: The Gap Years. The never ending tour seemed to get longer and longer, some of the events seemed to get that little bit more chaotic, and above all, Bob just didn’t write any new songs.
1996: Not Dark Yet and Mississippi. The latter was not included in the subsequent album, but held back for later, but one recording of that song stands out. Not Dark Yet remains one of Dylan’s greatest ever works.
1997: Make you feel My Love & Love Sick. The two ends of the spectrum of love – that emotion that conquers, overwhelms, and won’t let us go.
1998/9: Things have changed. It was the only song Dylan composed but even if he had written 20 I suspect this would have made it as song of the year.
2000/1: Honest With Me. Love and Theft is a most apt title for the album, but its total Americanisity means that it is hard for non-Americans to be able to associate with it in full.
2001/2005: Tell Ol Bill. The utter total masterpiece that emerged from the four movie songs written in the pause between creating albums.
2005/6: Nettie Moore. At a time when Bob was, by his own admission writing random verses, this evolution of the traditional song takes us back to an earlier Bob, when he thought of men in long black coats and the like.
2008/9: It’s all good. Bob sums up everything that is wrong with the world in one song based on one chord. This really does tell it as it is, and by and large it is pretty much all over.
2011/12: Narrow Way and Long and Wasted Years. Even after all this time Bob can still come out with not just one by two radical re-inventions of the form. Both songs have unique elements in them in themselves make them songs of note – but they are both work so well as pieces of music, it is hard to find words to express what they mean.