I was at Starbucks the other day and saw a Dylan greatest hits type collection which seemed to be mostly a compilation of eighteen songs from the Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits Vol. 2 records, along with a few more recent tracks like Hurricane.
For some artists, the Greatest Hits are pretty much the only songs you would ever want to listen to. In fact, for many bands, even the Greatest Hits would only “hit” your turntable, or i-Pod, around 2 or 3 times out of 10.
But for our favorite artists, with deeper catalogues, the Greatest Hits never seem to include a few of the best songs – or at least your favorites. Most notably, for example, Van Morrison’s Purple Heather. As well as U2’s Elvis Presley and America or One Tree Hill or even Bad (which I guess could be considered one of their “greatest” over time but was not a “hit” when released, at least in America), The Rolling Stones’ Jigsaw Puzzle, Led Zeppelin’s That’s the Way or The Rain Song, and Bruce Springsteen’s Livin Proof, Billy Runs Off to Join the Circus, or New York Serenade.
I started thinking about the connotation of “Greatest Hits” and what that means. “Hits” seems to imply commercial success. Hitting the charts. Wide recognition in mass popular culture. “Greatest” too seems to carry an element of success. It seems somehow more subjective, and tied to renown or acceptance. As opposed to “best”. The word “good”, (as slightly distinguished from “great”), seems to speak to a quality that is somehow innate or inherent.
Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 in this sense would surely qualify as one of Dylan’s “Greatest Hits” but I don’t think anyone familiar with his work would say that it’s one of his “best”.
So I was thinking about what Bob Dylan’s “Best Songs” would be – as distinguished from his “Greatest Hits”.
Of course, sometimes it’s in the arrangement. The At Budokan Live version of “I Want You” is a very good song; but I’m not so sure if the standard studio pseudo-country version is. Same with Just Like a Woman. Or Visions of Johanna. The studio versions seems somehow fanciful. It is only when they are stripped down, acoustic, live, that the whimsy or satire turns into elegy, and derives its power, from anger, or longing.
But if you say “Best Arrangements” or “Best Recordings”, then it sounds like you might be including or comparing various artists’ cover versions of Dylan songs, like Jimi Hendrix or Joe Cocker or the Byrds. That the songs themselves are pre-determined. You are just looking for the best versions. “Best Recordings” in particular sounds like a Grateful Deadhead type effort to go through a bunch of bootlegs and attempt to determine whether the January 26, 1967 recording at Alberta Hall is better than the March 15, 1966 recording at Madison Square Garden.
So let’s just go with “Best Songs”.
You would start, of course, with side two of Bringing It All Back Home, which has probably the best four songs ever put together on a single album. Then I would go to Blood on the Tracks. “Idiot Wind” of course. My own personal favorite is “Simple Twist of Fate” I think; but “Shelter from the Storm” is likely the better song. Like a Rolling Stone seems to fall into both the greatest hits and best songs categories, but the old staples are a little more difficult. Is Blowin’ in the Wind really as good as you once thought? Have you just heard it too many times? Isn’t it too simple? Or does the genius lie in its simplicity? Isn’t Boots of Spanish Leather a “better” song than The Times They Are A-Changin, even though the latter seems to say so much more? Isn’t it, and Lay Down Your Weary Tune and Forever Young and Restless Farewell a little too “on the nose”, even though they seem to say so much about just about everything? Then, of course, you have the long masterpiece anthems like Desolation Row. But what do you do with the songs that mostly just hum along, but have those one or two lines that are devastating? (Ballad in Plain D, The Death of Emmett Till, Hurricane) Or the more recent epics, like Brownsville Girl and Jokerman and Every Grain of Sand. One wonders about the personal favorites, (Love Minus Zero, When the Ship Comes In); are they really “good”? Or is it just a matter of taste? Do they remind you of a time or a place? Do you just, for some reason, happen to like them?
Anyway, in no particular order, here goes:
1. Gates of Eden
2. Tambourine Man
3. It’s Alright Ma
4. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
5. Simple Twist of Fate
6. Idiot Wind
7. Shelter From the Storm
8. Like a Rolling Stone
9. Desolation Row
10. Visions of Johanna
11. Chimes of Freedom
12. When the Ship Comes In
13. Boots of Spanish Leather
14. The Times They Are A-Changing
15. One Too Many Mornings
16. Just Like A Woman
17. As I Went Out One Morning
18. Blowing in the Wind
(Overlap with the new Dylan greatest hits album: 5 out of 18.)
In May of 2011, Rolling Stone published their list of The 70 Greatest Dylan Songs. Their top eighteen were:
1. Like a Rolling Stone
2. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
3. Tangled Up in Blue
4. Just Like a Woman
5. All Along the Watchtower
6. I Shall Be Released
7. It’s Alright, Ma
8. Mr. Tambourine Man
9. Visions of Johanna
10. Every Grain of Sand
11. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
12. Desolation Row
13. Subterranean Homesick Blues
14. Highway 61 Revisited
15. Simple Twist of Fate
16. Positively 4th Street
17. This Wheel’s on Fire
18. Ballad of a Thin Man
(Overlap with my list: 8 out of 18.)