Bob Dylan’s 40 best songs

As chosen by famous fans, Dylan associates and Uncut writers

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28 Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid OST (1973)

KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: l was there when he wrote it, but l didn’t hear it until I saw the film, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. When he came in on that scene of Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado, it blew me away. I remembered Bob watching the rushes in Mexico. When we first screened that, it was one of the reels that came back from the lab fucked-up. The picture was getting dark. And I know that he put the line there: “Getting dark, too dark to see.” But the result – the spirit soared. I know that Sam [Peckinpah] never liked it. It wasn’t in his version. The composer Sam used before, Jerry Fielding, didn’t like it either. Thought it was too literal. Biggest bunch of shit I’ve ever heard. He had no understanding of the life of the music Bob did. Even that damn jangle when Garrett’s walking down to arrest the kid. And the song about Billy: “Billy they don’t like you to be so free.” God, Sam loved that song.


JAMES JOHNSTON: I remember seeing the film before I’d heard the song. I saw it years ago on a family holiday when I stayed up late to watch it. Oddly, I haven’t seen it since. But there’s that bit where Slim Pickens dies and that music comes in. I think it’s just the ambience of the recording, it’s like a country requiem. There’s huge reverb and that very church-like feel to it, with incredibly simple lyrics which really give it that air of tragedy. There’s a bootleg available where you can hear him running through it, getting the harmonium cranked up. Listening to it, you wonder if they can tell that they’re about to capture this absolutely perfect piece of music. Judging by what you can hear, probably not, as the session sounds like a complete shambles.

LYNDON MORGANS: Which came first, this or Neil Young’s “Helpless”? Whichever, two magnificent songs for the price of one chord sequence. I think Dylan’s song has the edge – just. It evokes the film, obviously, romantic and elegiac.

GERARD LANGLEY: Even people who don’t like Dylan like this and it’s partly to do with the sound, and the clangingness of a lot of it. If you make a tape and start it with this, everyone usually really likes it. Dylan is seen as a writer, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that he’s a great performer. And this track illustrates this. With Roger McGuinn on guitar and Booker T on Hammond, this has a great sound, which is why it’s stood the test of time.


27 Every Grain Of Sand
From Shot of Love (August 1981)


HOWE GELB: A perfect track, as brilliant as it gets here on this planet. Most writers would like to come up with a song that could stand the test of time, grateful for its playability over a 20- or 30-year span. Meanwhile, this man comes up with one that could have been sung 2000 or 3000 years ago, and will most likely last way beyond any given horizon. When I saw him play 10 years or so back (with GE Smith), he busted a string at the beginning of this song and continued to play it all the way through even though his Stratocaster was completely out of tune. It just didn’t matter, unless it mattered even more. OK, what I really think I know is this. Some time back, around a decade or so, I met a fellow in a Texas bar named Peter Buck. We talked about a bunch of shit for most of the night. It was a good hang, but the thing that seemed to stir us the most was the bet we made on a lyric from “Every Grain Of Sand”. I won. Next time we hooked up, we went on and on about how great that song was again. Then some time way later when I heard “Everybody Hurts”, I realised that Peter must have been noodling with those two repetitive first chords of “Every Grain Of Sand” when his jamming buddies piled in and figured it for some healthy new strumming to hang some lyrics on. Fair enough. I could be wrong, but I bet that’s what happened.

LEE RANALDO: Another song from the amazing wealth of the Bootleg Series 1-3 that is an absolute knockout. Recorded ‘down home’ in Bob’s house as a demo of sorts, this recording leaves room for the dogs outside barking and the screen door slamming, and is one of the most moving of his ‘Christian period’ songs. This song, and all of the best of his spiritual music, is about something much deeper than religion. The Zen questions/answers of existence. The equally great “Blind Willie McTell”, from around the same time, is a secular take on the same theme.


26 Gates Of Eden
From Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965)

IAN MacDONALD: So close to the preposterous does this grand guignol incantation veer that it’s almost impossible to believe in it. The stanza structure, with its focusing notion of Eden as a place of truth beyond the limitations of the unenlightened life, lends the long-breathed flow of Dylan’s verse a credibility which perhaps it doesn’t deserve – but what governs the experience of hearing this performance is its iron self-belief. It’s difficult to reject the song because what’s clear and impressive about its lyric is delivered with such scathing conviction. That one is here continually torn between abandoning Dylan as a charlatan and accepting him as an oracle is a tribute to his skill as a raconteur, never letting things get too pretentious without pulling them together with a pithy aphorism.


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