“Hey, Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me, I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to…” – Bob Dylan.
Just as a penchant for pink trousers is a prerequisite for the upper classes, you can’t make good music without an inherent love of the artform; like Tom without Jerry, one simply cannot exist without the other. Over the year’s Bob Dylan has celebrated music in a very meta sense. With tracks like ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘A Murder Most Foul’, he has crafted some of the most poetic odes to music and its essential place in our lives that have ever been written.
Paradoxically, however, he has often been guarded about heaping praise on specific songs and records. The Beatles might have called him an “idol” and a “hero”, but he did not openly return the favour. Instead, he reservedly kept his admiration close to his chest so as not to cause a big love-in and only retrospectively remarked: “I just kept it to myself that I really dug them.”
Fortunately, he has occasionally let his mask of reticence slip and celebrated a song or two in the most perfunctory sense. Below we’re looking at the tracks that he has openly lauded in his own sacred words, and we’ve compiled them in a playlist to boot. Naturally, it’s not all that easy to scrape all of his wayfaring commendations together in one fell swoop, so thankfully, there is always scope for a part II when it comes to the chronicles of Dylan’s unfurling musical eulogy.
Bob Dylan’s favourite songs:
The song Bob Dylan called “the greatest ever written.”
Glen Campbell (Jimmy Webb) – ‘Wichita Lineman’
Not many songs can garner an entire book’s worth of analysis in the same way that Dylan Jones managed to milk a novel from the rich reserves of ‘Wichita Lineman’. On the cover of his sprawling ode, Bob Dylan lends a simple, concise, and hallowed testimony: “The greatest song ever written.”
The track is a monolithic epic that follows in the cognizant footsteps of Dylan himself, capturing the ways of American society on a spiritual whim. He hasn’t mentioned it much elsewhere, and nor has he ever braved himself to perform a cover, but if anything, that only imbues his five-word worship with even more reverence.
The song Bob Dylan called “the finest instrumental ever.”
Link Wray – ‘Rumble’
Bob Dylan is far from the only one to heap praise on Link Wray’s Promethean proto-everything song ‘Rumble’ from 1958; he joins a long list that includes Iggy Pop, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Mark E Smith, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend… in lauding the only instrumental ever to be banned.
Dylan not only dubbed the song the “finest instrumental ever”, but he also opened all five of his London shows in 2005, shortly after the death of Link Wray, with his own rousing interpretation of the song that heavied a generation towards the heavier side of music.
The song Bob Dylan called “one of the best songs ever.”
The Eagles – ‘Pretty Maids in a Row’
While discussing his latest record with Douglas Brinkley of The New York Times, Dylan was dissecting the influences that he croons out in the final dirge of ‘A Murder Most Foul’. When asked for his favourite Eagles track, he replied simply: “’New Kid in Town’, ‘Life in the Fast Lane’,” before pausing and adding with a huge mark of commendation, “’Pretty Maids All in a Row’, that could be one of the best songs ever.”
Songwriter Joe Walsh revealed the importance of the song to the band when he remarked: “To make the Eagles really valid as a band, it was important that we co-write things and share things. ‘Pretty Maids’ is kind of a melancholy reflection on my life so far, and I think we tried to represent it as a statement that would be valid for people from our generation on life so far.”
The song Bob Dylan called his favourite Beatles track:
The Beatles – ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’
Bob Dylan and The Beatles are forces that you can’t imagine pop culture without. During the birth of modern music, they were two of the main rearing hands. While the influence of Dylan on the Fab Four is patently obvious, the reverse was somewhat subtler, but nevertheless profound.
When discussing the Beatles anthem, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, Dylan turned into a fanboy for the first time on record, proclaiming: “They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid… I knew they were pointing the direction of where music had to go.”
The song Bob Dylan called his favourite Bob Dylan cover:
Johnny Rivers – ‘Positively 4th Street’
In his memoir, Chronicles One, the folk forefather takes a moment of pause to pour some praise on one particular cover of his work, and it isn’t a big star back-pat, a drop of the hat to a celebrity friend or the common artistic trait of finding a way to celebrate one of your lesser-known/loved outings either.
It is Johnny Rivers and his version of ‘Positively 4th Street’ that receives Dylan’s seal of approval. “Of all the versions of my recorded songs,” Dylan begins. “The Johnny Rivers one was my favourite. It was obvious that we were from the same side of town, had been read the same citations, came from the same musical family and were cut from the same cloth.”
He then goes on to say that he actually liked his version better, writing: “Most of the cover versions of my songs seemed to take them out into left field somewhere, but Rivers’s version had the mandate down – the attitude, the melodic sense to complete and surpass even the feeling that I had put into it.”
The songs Bob Dylan said, “doesn’t get any better than.”
Randy Newman – ‘Sail Away’, ‘Burn Down the Cornfield’ and ‘Louisiana’
Randy Newman is widely accepted among artists to be one of the greatest songwriters ever to try his hand at the craft. However, this sadly hasn’t led to widespread acclaim with the uninitiated masses. Thankfully Dylan was more than happy to shine an illuminating light on his work in an interview with Paul Zollo in 1991.
Dylan declared: “Now Randy might not go out on stage and knock you out, or knock your socks off. And he’s not going to get people thrilled in the front row. He ain’t gonna do that. But he’s gonna write a better song than most people who can do it. You know, he’s got that down to an art. Now Randy knows music. He knows music. But it doesn’t get any better than ‘Louisiana’ or [‘Sail Away’]. It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s like a classically heroic anthem theme. He did it. There’s quite a few people who did it. Not that many people in Randy’s class.”
Dylan has even pointed out his favourite Newman period in the past, stating: “I like his early songs, ‘Sail Away,’ ‘Burn Down the Cornfield’, ‘Louisiana’, where he kept it simple. Bordello songs. I think of him as the Crown Prince, the heir apparent to Jelly Roll Morton. His style is deceiving. He’s so laid back that you kind of forget he’s saying important things. Randy’s sort of tied to a different era like I am.”
The songs Bob Dylan called his favourite to dance to:
- ‘Dancing in the Street’ – Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
- ‘Let’s Go Dancing’ – Roy Hogsed and his Rainbow Riders
- ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ – Ramones
- ‘Let Her Dance’ – Bobby Fuller Four
- ‘Ten Cents a Dance’ – Anita O’Day
- ‘My Baby Don’t Dance to Nothin’ But Ernest Tubb’ – Junior Brown
- ‘Dance the Slurp’ – 7-11
- ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ – The Lebron Brothers
- ‘When You Dance’ – The Turbans
- ‘Dancing Mood’ – Delroy Wilson
- ‘The Girl Can’t Dance’ – Bunker Hill
- ‘I Won’t Dance’ – Fred Astaire
- ‘I Can’t Dance (I’ve Got Ants In My Pants)’ – Roy Newman
- ‘Let’s Dance’ – Chris Montez
- ‘Dancing to the Rhythm’ – Eddie Seacrest & The Rolling Rockets
- ‘Dance Dance Dance’ – Bill Parsons
- ‘I Can’t Stop Dancing’ – Archie Bell and the Drells
- ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ – Buck Owens and the Buckaroos
The idea of Bob Dylan doing the funky chicken at a wedding or moonwalking by the jukebox is a similar sort of mental experiment to trying to imagine a new colour. Nevertheless, on his radio show, he compiled a rather specific list of tracks, each with the word ‘Dance’ in the title.
During the segment, he singled out two tracks for particularly glowing praise. Dylan picked out the Ramones song ‘Do You Wanna Dance’. Dylan’s a noted fan of the band, and the band are fans of his, even covering his songs on occasion. Still, it may have come as a shock to hear Dylan speak so fondly of the group when making his selection: “Joey Ramone, along with Johnny, Tommy and Deedee, all brothers from different mothers, they were an influential early punk band, and some people say they invented the form of pop-punk.“
Similarly, he lauded Martha Reeves and the Vandellas classic’ Dancing in the Street’, about which Dylan remarked: “Only one song we could start with.”
The songs Bob Dylan called his favourite Leonard Cohen songs:
- ‘The Law’
- ‘Sisters of Mercy’
- ‘Going Home’
- ‘Show Me The Place’
When speaking to The New York Times in 2016, Dylan revelled in the songwriting brilliance of fellow folk troubadour Leonard Cohen. Dylan offered up this golden appraisal of his work: “When people talk about Leonard. They fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius. Even the counterpoint lines—they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs.”
He then proceeded to offer his opinions on six of his favourite Cohen tracks. Eulogising ‘Sisters of Mercy’ with the following analysis: “It just comes in and states a fact. And after that, anything can happen, and it does, and Leonard allows it to happen.”
And dropping his hat to one of the greatest love songs ever written, with the following critique of ‘Hallelujah’: “It’s a beautifully constructed melody that steps up, evolves, and slips back, all in quick time. But this song has a connective chorus, which, when it comes in, has a power all of its own. The ‘secret chord’ and the point-blank I-know-you-better-than-you-know-yourself aspect of the song has plenty of resonance for me.”
The songs Bob Dylan called his favourite about the devil:
- ‘Me and The Devil Blues’ – Robert Johnson
- ‘Satan Is Real’ – The Louvin Brothers
- ‘Friend of the Devil’ – The Grateful Dead
- ‘Devil In Disguise’ – Elvis Presley
- ‘The Devil Ain’t Lazy’ – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys
- ‘The Devil In Disguise’ – The Flying Burrito Brothers
- ‘Suzanne Beware of the Devil’ – Dandy Livingstone
- ‘Devil In His Heart’ – The Donays
- ‘Must Have Been The Devil’ – Otis Spann
- ‘Devil’s Hot Rod’ – Johnny Tyler
- ‘Devil Got My Woman’ – Skip James
- ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ – Count Basie
- ‘Devil With A Blue Dress On’ – Shorty Long
- ‘Devil’s Haircut’ – Beck
- ‘Race With the Devil’ – Gene Vincent
- ‘Way Down in the Hole’ – Tom Waits
Once again, Dylan used his radio show to compile a favoured collection of a specific form of song – devil’s music in a very literal sense. He introduced the show by announcing: “This is Theme Time Radio Hour, and there’s Hell to pay” and proceeded to rally through a curated clutch of tracks all marginally better than his introductory pun.
As a big Skip James fan, it was no surprise to see him make Dylan’s list. The troubadour reserved the following praise for his satanic sonic rapture: “Here’s another barn burner. This is my man, Skip James. Skip had a style that was celestially divine, sounded like it was coming from beyond the veil. Magic in the grooves. He had a style that was ghostly and otherworldly, rare and unusual, mysterious and vague. You won’t believe what you’ll hear.”
The song Bob Dylan called his favourite by Joan Baez:
Joan Baez – ‘Diamonds and Rust’
The folk revival scene in New York’s Greenwich Village was far from a fairy tale. Although the zeitgeist was abuzz on the things that money can’t buy, chief among them was poverty. However, within this hodgepodge stronghold of artistry was the blossoming romance of the king and queen of folk music – Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
Although the relationship and break-up may have spawned a thousand songs in a nebulous sense, it was Joan Baez’s 1974 reflection, ‘Diamonds and Rust’, that seemed to deal with the end of folks most dazzling couple head-on. This wasn’t lost on Dylan, and he was, in fact, delighted to have been part of the pastures from which the song flowered, no matter if it was nettlesome. “I love that song ‘Diamonds and Rust’, to be included in something that Joaney had written, I mean to this day, it still impresses me.”
The songs Bob Dylan called his favourite about drinking:
- ‘Ain’t Got no Money to Pay for this Drink’ – George Zimmerman and the Thrills
- ‘Wine, Wine, Wine’ – The Electric Flag
- ‘Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ – Loretta Lynn
- ‘Daddy and the Wine’ – Porter Wagoner & The Wagonmasters
- ‘I Drink’ – Mary Gauthier
- ‘I Drink’ – Charles Aznavour
- ‘Sloppy Drunk’ – Jimmy Rogers
- ‘I Ain’t Drunk’ – Lonnie The Cat
- ‘It Ain’t Far to the Bar’ – Johnny Tyler and His Riders of the Rio Grande
- ‘What’s On The Bar’ – Hank Williams Jr
- ‘One Mint Julep’ – The Clovers
- ‘Rum and Coca-Cola’ – The Andrews Sisters
- ‘One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer’ – John Lee Hooker
- ‘Who Will Buy the Wine’ – Charlie Walker
- ‘Buddy Stay Off That Wine’ – Betty Hall Jones
- ‘Whiskey You’re The Devil’ – Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem
The last of his radio show lists seems a befitting point to end. All of Dylan’s praise often recognises the fact that music never stands alone, it transcends itself and becomes a thread in the fabric of our everyday lives. With ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, his most obvious meta celebration of music, he treats the artform as a sort of benevolent fuel behind a heaven-sent evening that remains exultant even when the sun comes back around.
This is something that most of us can attest to because neither drinking nor music are better without each other’s company. Or as Dylan says himself: “Two or three [Mint Juleps] and anything sounds good!”