ABOLUTELY NECESSARY: Bob Dylan

This new weekly series will feature the ten most essential tracks from a notable musician. Your favorite isn't included? Share it in the comments!



With a career spanning over five decades, and still going strong, Bob Dylan could easily be called the greatest contemporary American songwriter. Teetering between political, religious, philosophical, and social elements in his songwriting, Dylan proves his musicianship through his failure to completely fit in a box. While his folk-inspired songs of the 1960s brought him his early, and most significant, fame, he's spent his entire career trying new things and allowing his personal convictions and life experiences shape his outlook. One to never be afraid to be vulnerable, Dylan has sold over 100 million albums. He's also the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 11 Grammys and 1 Academy Award, along with being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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1. LIKE A ROLLING STONE, Highway 61 Revisited
Dylan wrote this seminal song in the summer of 1965 after returning from a tour in England. Unique, at the time, for its mixture of musical styles, this is the song that separated underground folk singer Bob Dylan and rock star Bob Dylan. The song doesn't follow traditional pop song structures, setting it apart from every other hit song at the time. Pointed and all together cynical, many have wondered who or what could have inspired Dylan to write such biting lyrics. While the subject has only be eluded to, this is no doubt the first major scornful song of its type to ever be released. The song has been covered by many of the greats, including Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Cher, Green Day, and the Rolling Stones, though no one's version has the cold-cut heart of Dylan's original masterpiece.

2. THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN', The Time They Are A-Changin'
A bigger hit in Britain before it crossed over to the States, this almost-depressing ode to life's expected changes can be interpreted as Dylan's commentary on an early-1960's world. Subtle and gentle in its delivery, many view the song as the ultimate protest song, sharing a pointed worldview of powering through the present towards the future change. Perhaps reading too far into the lyrics, the overall arc of Dylan's words trend more towards an inevitable change in life, relationship, and being, rather than outright political protest. Musically, the instrumentation is basic, allowing the lyrics to do all of the work. The most famous cover of the song is by American rock band The Byrds, though Simon and Garfunkel, Nina Simone, The Beach Boys, and even Flogging Molly have turned in version of the song.

3. ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER, John Wesley Harding
While Jimi Hendrix's version of the song is more biting and musically delicious, Dylan's original sets the stage for a melodic and twisting verse with religious themes, hinting at his first foray into spiritual context. Written after Dylan suffered injury from a motorcycle accident, the song follows an unconventional narrative and song structure, which has become a norm of Dylan's music. While, again, Hendrix's version packs a punch, listening to Dylan's honest performance is an emotional ride through a pained and longing man.

4. BLOWIN' IN THE WIND, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Another Dylan track generally regarded as a mid-century protest song, the lyrical ambiguity seemed timeless and fitting. Recorded in 1962, the depth of the song comes in the idea that life is full of a lot of ideas and talking, but lacks substance when it counts. Critics pegged it as the anthem to the civil rights movement; shining light on the struggles and frustrations of the oppressed. Music legend Sam Cooke wrote the classic "A Change Is Gonna Come" as a response to Dylan's song. Peter, Paul, and Mart recorded a chart-topping cover. And, the opening lyric is included as life's greatest question in the book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

5. HOUSE OF THE RISIN' SUN, Bob Dylan
This classic American folk song is over a century old, heralding from the early Appalachian mining days. Covered by a plethora of artists over the years, most notably by British rockers The Animals, Dylan's version on his self-titled album suits his voice and style like a glove, acting almost like an original work, despite the lyrics being so well known. Giving a clever, stripped down musical feel, Dylan drives with the lyrics, showing his best attribute is delivering a biting verse and playful melody.

6. IT AIN'T ME BABE, Another Side of Bob Dylan
With an aptly titled album, this upbeat tune follows Dylan's new direction of relying on and exploring personal life experiences, most specifically honest love. The lyrics serve as a sort-of goodbye, with a unique self-deprecating twist. Dylan clearly wrote the song during a break up. Showcasing his signature harmonica and unstructured narrative, the song would later become another popular cover song, being recorded by the like of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, The Turtles, and Joan Baez. Most recently, Kesha performed the song live at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards as her official return to the limelight after years of legal troubles.

7. MR. TAMBOURINE MAN, Bringing It All Back Home
Famously covered by The Byrds as a chart-topping single, the folk-rock ballad was written after Dylan and a group of friends returned from a trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The song's trippy lyrics demanding the titular character to lead him through the day's tasks have led many to believe the song may be a tribute to the use of drugs. The lyrics are very abstract and surreal, relying on verse after verse of picturesque phrases and surrealistic imagery. Other famous versions of the song include ones by William Shatner, The Four Seasons, and Jack's Mannequin.

8. A HARD RAIN'S A-GONNA FALL, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Another lyrical narrative built around an untraditional structure, this is one of Dylan's most clear commentaries on the political sphere of the time. Dylan has confirmed that he wrote the song using lyrics to songs he never finished, giving the song a question-and-answer beat and overall build toward an uncertain world of unanswered, but preventable, questions. Where other works use colorful language as a way to paint a picture, Dylan's scope of lyrical images here are more affecting and thought-out than it originally seems; offering a foreboding warning to everyone before and after him. A host of performers have since covered the song, including Jason Mraz, Faust, Widespread Panic, and Robert Plant.

9. FOREVER YOUNG, Planet Waves
A salute to youth and the idea of staying present even in age, this may be one of Dylan's more recognized tunes. Dylan originally wrote the song in 1966 as a lullaby for his son, as a call to strength and bravery in the face of growing up. The song has more of a groove than many of Dylan's other works, especially his ballads, with a quiet build of drums and bass to carry the melody. Lyrically, Dylan uses influences from the Old Testament in his phrasing. Once the chorus hits, the song clearly fits into the more rock-infused Bob Dylan than the folk singer image he'd followed previously. Joan Baez, The Pretenders, The Band, and Johnny Cash are just some of the musicians who've covered the song over the years. It also features prominently in the documentary Young@Heart, which features a New England chorus of senior citizens performing modern rock songs, including Dylan's hit.

10. EVERY GRAIN OF SAND, Shot of Love
Written and recorded after Dylan became a self-described born-again Christian, the lyrics have clear allusions to spirituality and faith, remarking on the Master and His work. It's lyrically beautiful, structured in a flowery pace that allows for each of his metaphors to stick emotionally, rather than cheesy or uninfluenced. The introspective commentary on a person's worth, especially in the eyes of his Creator, is both haunting and incredibly touching. It may serve as Dylan's most affective collection of lyrics. A beautiful musical break halfway through the song gives precedent to the song's overall feel. The Blind Boys of Alabama most recently covered the song with Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), giving the song a gospel tinge, to great result.

Is your favorite Bob Dylan song missing? Share it in the comments below!

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