Rolling Stone Readers Pick Their 10 Favorite Bob Dylan Songs - Rolling Stone
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Rolling Stone Readers Pick Their 10 Favorite Bob Dylan Songs

From ‘Forever Young’ to ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ the Dylan tunes you like the most

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In the May 26th issue of Rolling Stone, a panel of experts selected their top 70 Bob Dylan songs in honor of the songwriter's 70th birthday. Last weekend we asked our readers to name their own top 10. The results weren't extremely different  though they did show a little less interest in his post-Blood On The Tracks work. We tried to pair all of these with videos of Dylan performing the tracks, but the Dylan camp has been aggressive about removing clips from YouTube, which used to be an unbelievable treasure trove of rare Dylan footage. Now it's tough to find much more than random guys in their basement playing "Mr. Tambourine Man" and a handful of clips that the Dylan police haven't yanked. When necessary, we included covers of the songs.

By Andy Greene

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10. ‘Forever Young’

Dylan recorded this ­folksy prayer twice with the Band – as a sparkling ballad version that closed side one of Planet Waves, and a stomping country-rock take that kicked off side two. Lyrics such as "May you have a strong foundation/When the winds of changes shift" are as universal and uplifting as Dylan has ever written; they also work as a blessing for a generation coming out of a post-Sixties cultural hangover. (Are those the same winds he once suggested the answer is blowin' in?) Dylan said he wrote it for his son Jesse; others see it as a nod to Neil Young, who scored a Number One hit in 1972 with "Heart of Gold."

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9. ‘Lay Lady Lay’

"Lay Lady Lay" was the biggest hit from Dylan's 1969 country rock LP Nashville Skyline. He originally wrote it for the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy. "I first heard 'Lay Lady Lay' when I was six or seven, riding around New York in the back seat of my parents’ old VW Bug, listening to WABC," Lenny Kravitz told Rolling Stone. "It was the first Bob Dylan song I remember loving… The beautiful thing about Dylan is that he is such a chameleon. He’s got so many characters inside of him, like a painter with limitless amounts of color. I love the vocal. I love the descending chord progression. I love the drum fills. It's a simple, beautiful love song, and I love the whole feel of it."

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8. ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’

The American dream, according to Dylan: "Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift." And that’s if you get lucky, kid. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" was his first electric blast, released as a single in March 1965 and crashing the top 40. Dylan delivers a proto-rap barrage of one-liners sending up America’s mixed-up confusion. "Look out, kid/You’re gonna get hit," Dylan advises, on the run from cops, teachers, the army and even meteor­ologists. (Although the radical group the Weathermen took their name from the song anyway.) “It’s not folk rock, it’s just instruments,” Dylan explained in 1965 to the Chicago Daily News. "I’ve been on too many other streets to just do that." And with "Subterranean Homesick Blues," he made America’s streets sound scarier – and more exciting – than ever.

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7. ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’

The song that first branded Dylan a prophet asks nine questions and answers none of them. A rewrite of the anti-slavery spiritual "No More Auction Block," Dylan claimed to have knocked out this meditation on humanity’s inhumanity in 10 minutes. The version of the song most people heard in 1963 wasn’t Dylan's – it was Peter, Paul and Mary's cover, which hit Number Two on the pop chart. But in any version, the words are so simple, it sounds like they'd been handed down from the sky on stone tablets. "It’s absolutely wonderful writing," says Merle Haggard. "It was timely then and is still timely today."

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6. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin”

When people describe Dylan as the "spokesman of a generation," they're thinking of the man best defined by "The Times They Are A-Changin'." And while Dylan would later bluntly reject that title, he consciously sought it with this passionate anthem. A masterpiece of political songwriting, it addresses no specific issue and prescribes no concrete action, but simply observes a world in violent upheaval. (That the song was released just months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy only lent it more power.) Dylan sings in the voice of a bard or prophet, in ­cadences that are clearly biblical – in his words, "short, concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way."

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5. ‘All Along The Watchtower’

You could say that jokes and theft are the twin poles of Dyl­an’s art, and this 12-line masterpiece about a joker (who believes he’s being robbed) and a thief (who thinks everything’s a joke) penetrates straight to the core of his work. "Watchtower" is among Dylan’s most haunting tunes: Built around an austere arrangement and Dylan's spooked croon, it starts out like a ballad that's going to go on for awhile. But as soon as the joker and the thief get their opening statements, the song ends with an ominous image – two riders approaching – leaving listeners to fill in the blanks.

Jimi Hendrix’s definitive reading of "Watchtower" is one of the few Dylan covers that has permanently affected the way Dylan himself plays the song. Hendrix started recording his cover within weeks of John Wesley Harding’s release, fleshing out the song into something stunningly intense. “He played [my songs] the way I would have done them if I was him,” Dylan later said of Hendrix.

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4. ‘Desolation Row’

The final track on Dylan's 1965 classic Highway 61 Revisited shows just how far Dylan's songwriting had progressed in just a few short years. "What’s wonderful about the lyrics is all these characters that he inveighs on our imagination," says Mick Jagger in the new Rolling Stone. "Famous people surrealistically appear, some of them mythical and some of them real. The Phantom of the Opera. Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Cinderella. Bette Davis. Cain and Abel . . . Someone said that 'Desolation Row' is Dylan’s version of 'The Waste Land.' I'm not sure if that's true, but it's a wonderful collection of imagery – a fantasy Bowery – that really gets your imagination working."

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3. ‘Visions of Johanna’

"Visions of Johanna" is a tour de force, a breakthrough not only for the writer but for the very possibilities of songwriting. An extended, impressionistic account of a woozy New York City night, rich in pictorial detail and erotic longing, the five long verses zigzag between Dylan's acute dissection of one woman, the tangible and available Louise, and his longing for an absent ideal. Johanna may not even be real – but she is an addiction. "It’s extraordinary," Bono has said of the song. "He writes this whole song seemingly about this one girl, with these remarkable descriptions of her, but this isn't the girl who's on his mind! It’s somebody else!"

Dylan's masterpiece of obsession – written, ironically, shortly after his marriage in 1965 – was a passion in itself. He debuted the song in concert in December 1965, to an audience that included ex-paramour Joan Baez and poet Allen Ginsberg, then played it every night on the 1966 world tour – notably in the solo acoustic sets. A November '65 attempt to cut an electric "Johanna" with the Hawks (under the explicitly bitter title "Seems Like a Freeze Out") had run aground after 14 takes. The Hawks were still too much of a bar band; the song’s confessional complexity required poise as well as muscle.

In contrast, Dylan nailed "Johanna" on the first take in Nashville. The local session pros, supplemented by Robbie Robertson's crying-treble guitar, brought the right unhurried empathy to Dylan's vocal mood swings – from a whisper to a howl at the moon in the same verse – and unforgettable lyric images.
"I still sing that song every once in a while," Dylan said in 1985. "It still stands up now as it did then. Maybe even more in some kind of weird way."

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2. ‘Tangled Up In Blue’

"[This song] took me 10 years to live, and two years to write," Dylan often said before playing "Tangled Up in Blue" in concert. His marriage was crumbling in 1974 as he wrote what would become the opener on Blood on the Tracks and his most personal examination of hurt and nostalgia. Dylan’s lyrical shifts in perspective, between confession and critique, and his acute references to the Sixties experience evoked a decade of both utopian and broken promise. His plaintive vocal and the fresh-air picking of the Minneapolis session players, organized by his brother, David Zimmerman, harkened to an earlier pathos: the frank heartbreak and spiritual restoration in Appalachian balladry. Dylan has played this song many different ways live but rarely strays from the perfect crossroads of this recording, where emotional truths meet the everlasting comfort of the American folk song.

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1. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’

In 2004 Rolling Stone named Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" the single greatest song of all time. The newest issue of the magazine names it the greatest song that Dylan ever wrote, and our readers agree. "The playing on this track – by the likes of guitarist Mike Bloomfield and keyboardist Al Kooper – is so alive and immediate that it’s like you’re getting to see the paint splash the canvas," Bono says in the new Rolling Stone. "The real thrill for me was that 'once upon a time' in the world, a song this radical was a hit on the radio. The world was changed by a cranky voice, a romantic spirit, somebody who cared enough about an unrequited love to write such a devastatingly caustic put-down."

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