There are songwriters, there are legends, and then there is Dylan. Born Robert Allen Zimmerman, the man best known as Bob Dylan is inarguably one of the greatest songwriters of all time. He has so expanded the form that, in many ways, he is more accurately described as a poet. In fact, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Nobel committee said he “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” He is still the only musician to ever receive the honor.
And while Nobel Prizes, Pulitzers and Presidential Medals of Freedom are all nice, what makes Dylan special is the enduring legacy of his music. He has songs written to speak to the civil rights movement that still resonate today. His hallmark is timeless messages that appeal across generations. It’s the kind of music that feels like it belongs to everyone and speaks to everything. So in a career that now spans 60 years, it can be hard to identify the “best” anything, but that is what we are going to try to do. What is the very best Bob Dylan song?
One trope Dylan was fond of is songs that tell true stories. On the page, these read like news articles or play-by-plays. His song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (1964) chronicles the murder of a maid by her boss. Dylan conveys the injustice in a witty format that asks the listener to withhold their tears until he has revealed the full scope of the travesty. Once the topical 5:48 song winds down, it is clear why Dylan found this to be a story worth telling.
In “Hurricane” (1976), Dylan rips another story from the headlines to show the continued struggles face by African-Americans. This time, he uses the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter to opine on the oppression created by the criminal justice system. The lyrics are vivid and raw, building to a crescendo that asks the listener not to accept what Dylan considers an outrage.
Another motif Dylan commonly worked in involved more vague notions of injustice. He frequently called on young people to think about their place in the world and how to make things right. He has dozens of songs in this lane, but a few stand out above the rest. Dylan allegedly wrote “Blowin’ In the Wind” (1963) in ten minutes. The steady pacing and poetic form made it an instant classic. Its inspiring lyrics made it an anthem.
In a similar vein, “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (1964) is an eternally relevant commentary on societal challenges. It channels the angst of the mid-60s in a way that has remained germane more than 50 years later. “The battle outside ragin’; Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls; For the times they are a-changin’” As long as there are people in power, this song will likely be fueling a desire for change.
More loosely, “Like A Rolling Stone” (1965) asks its audience to feel a certain unification in rebellion. The euphoria of its chorus–“How does it feel? How does it feel?/ To be on your own, with no direction home; Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone”–has asked countless listeners to consider their place in the world. Dylan calls everything into question. He is frustrated with a time defined by consumerism and the vanity that allows it to continue. It is widely considered one of the greatest songs of all time, and for good reason. It looked its audience square in the face and punched them.
But if “Like A Rolling Stone” was a punch, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (1965) is a session on the speed-bag. Some have joked that it is the first hip-hop song–as Dylan weaves together a rhyme scheme even Kendrick Lamar would envy. The song takes on familiar themes of consumerism and corruption, but its seven and a half minute runtime makes it feel like a marathon. Dylan has said he has no idea how he wrote the song. He said, “[t]ry to sit down and write something like that. I did it once, and I can do other things now. But I can’t do that.”
Other favorites from the start of Dylan’s career include “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” (1963), “Visions of Johanna” (1966), “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965) and “Positively 4th Street” (1965). In fact, most of Dylan’s most well-known work is from the 1960s, but he has enjoyed a career renaissance in recent years. His albums “Time Out of Mind” (1997), “Love and Theft” (2001), “Modern Times” (2006) are all considered genuinely great and contain some of the best songs of his career. Some of the standout tracks include “Love Sick” (1997), “Mississippi” (2001) and “Moonlight” (2001). Though his voice has changed, the power of his words has not. But we would love to hear from you!