October 7, 2004

Best Dylan Songs 1967-1976

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Ask any college student for their favorite Dylan song and they will surely answer, “I like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind” and ‘Hurricane.'” Well, I have bad news: You’re all completely wrong. Luckily, Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume I has just come out, and “uncultivated” fans can finally learn that the best Dylan material came out between his motorcycle accident in 1966 and The Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975.

1. I Threw It All Away (Nashville Skyline)

The most heartrending song of all time is also the most limpid and lovely. In just its first two bars alone, “I Threw It All Away” would make entire mountain ranges and metropolises collapse out of pity. The general sensation of delicacy and devastation is perfectly paired with Dylan’s notorious “’50s rock” croon that merges comfort, sorrow, and theatricality into one unrelenting mass. If you’re listening properly, you should look like you’ve just been sobbing uncontrollably for the last decade. You will hate your emotions, your actions, your ethics, your relationships, and your life. And it all happens in just over two minutes.

2. Isis (Desire)

Dylan’s strangest song (on one of his strangest albums), “Isis” is simultaneously utterly inscrutable, irritatingly simplistic, confusedly allegorical, deeply personal, and ominously majestic. Caterwauling violin and hypnotic piano arch over a fable of cowboys, jewel thieves, corpse robbers, snowstorms, Egyptian mythology, and love or fate or something. Even the stupidest lyrics (“We came to the pyramids all embedded in ice,” “Isis, you mystical child”) take on a biblical fury and resonance, conflating the sardonic surrealism of Dylan’s mid-’60s songs with the sincerity and regret of his ’70s albums.

3. Too Much of Nothing (The Basement Tapes)

“Too Much of Nothing” previews Dylan’s recent excursions into vaporous, blues-soaked grit and backwater existentialism, but it also stretches back to Dylan’s political satire, describing power structures in an eccentric vernacular that reaches through American country and British folk. Despite this reigning nihilism and latent aggression, the chorus (sung by The Band) breaks out with the sunny elation of a Beach Boys song. Well, if the Beach Boys wrote songs about “waters of oblivion.”

4. Tangled Up in Blue (Blood on the Tracks)

“Tangled Up in Blue” has been the bane of all singers/songwriters for this simple reason: If you’ve ever written a good song, it’s probably just because you’re ripping off part of “Tangled Up in Blue.” Hitting some sort of literary trifecta, the song is a rollicking, picaresque tale, a subtle bildungsroman, and an extremely personal narrative. Wandering through a kitchen in “the great north woods,” a shipyard “outside of Delacroix,” a stripclub, and the revolutionary bedrooms on Montague Street, it seems less like a song and more like the summation of an entire country. But rather than merely evoking this environment, Dylan eschews clich