Bob Dylan has been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
And while that’s an incredibly specific rationale, it’s also a perfect one. Dylan’s contributions to the sonic half of the music industry — helping solidify the template of “rock music,” essentially doing away with the “factory” style of songwriting of Tin Pan Alley and popularizing the idea that musicians write the songs they perform — aside, the way he revolutionized lyrics in popular music cannot be overstated.
Prior to Dylan’s arrival on the scene, pop music lyrics were very much influenced by the Great American Songbook. If you’re using the Beatles’ discography as a mirror that reflects the larger trends of 20th century music — and why wouldn’t you — you can see how Dylan caused a shift. Look at the band’s lyrical evolution from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Nowhere Man,” which, though some people have argued would have happened anyway, has largely been ascribed to their being influenced by Dylan.
So, to that end, let’s take a look at the monumental leaps in Dylan’s own songwriting that lead to this Nobel prize. (Note: We are omitting songs that Dylan co-wrote with others — much of Desire and Together Through Life, for instance — from this list.)
1. “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1962)
Though the melody was largely lifted from the old spiritual “No More Auction Block,” this is Dylan’s watershed moment as a lyricist. Breaking from the straight ahead folk songs that had dominated his debut album, the series of rhetorical queries and metaphysical shrug of a refrain have become Dylan’s calling card.
2. “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”(1963)
“Here blooms the promised fruit of the 1950s poetry-jazz fusion of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Rexroth,” critic Robert Shelton wrote of this song. We’d just add that it’s the simple arrangement and apocalyptic proclamation of the lyrics that have made it perhaps the Dylan song.
3. “Masters of War” (1963)
“If I wrote a song like that now,” Dylan said in 1984. “I wouldn’t feel I’d have to write another one for two weeks.” But given that the targets of this song have only grown larger, we could use a few more like it.
4. “The Times They Are a-Changin'” (1964)
The track is astonishing not just for the incisiveness and pointed nature of the complicated rhymes, but for how it pretty much summed up the entire social upheaval of the 1960s before it happened.
5. “My Back Pages” (1964)
Important for its place as a transitional point in Dylan’s songwriting — he famously around the time “I don’t want to write for people anymore. You know, be a spokesman.” — but for the classic koan at its core: “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.”
6. “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965)
Dylan was on an unprecedented run by the mid-’60s: “Mr. Tambourine Man” finds him out-acid-ing the best of the decade’s acid heads with this song’s wild stretches of psychedelic imagery.
7. “It’s Alright Man (I’m Only Bleeding)” (1965)
Woof. What do you even say about this song? You could meditate on its lyrics in silence for a year and probably come away a better person.
8. “Maggie’s Farm” (1965)
Just a big middle finger to capitalism, Dylan’s fans, peers and pretty much everyone else.
9. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (1965)
Dylan has a lot of fantastic “kiss-off” songs, but they usually skew into one emotional vector — self-righteous, self-pitying, generally scabrous. “Baby Blue” is a fantastic work because of the breadth of feeling it covers and the fantastic imagery it uses to do so.
10. “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965)
Again, what do you say about this song that hasn’t already been said? How about that, considering it stems from 20 pages of lyrics and another 20 takes in the studio, it’s amazing we got this concise piece of magic at all.
11. “Ballad of a Thin Man” (1965)
“That is a nasty song, Bob,” drummer Bobby Gregg said when he heard the finished take of this track. He was right — whether the song is pointed at the legions of journalists trying to take Dylan apart to see how he worked or the establishment as a whole, it was designed to make them feel bad. It worked.
12. “Desolation Row” (1965)
In which Shakespeare, the Bible, Einstein and Ezra Pound all cram into the same stretch of the ultimate bad neighborhood.
13. “Visions of Johanna” (1966)
Again combining large-scale existential gripes (“We sit here stranded, though we’re all doing’ our best to deny it”) with small-scale finery (“We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight / ask himself if it’s him or them that’s really insane”), “Visions” is regularly cited as one of Dylan’s greatest achievements.
14. “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (1966)
Prominent Dylan critics are split on whether this song is genius or drivel. Sixty years later that divide remains one of its strongest qualities isn’t that kind of the point?
15. “All Along the Watchtower” (1967)
Probably the zenith of Dylan’s apocalyptic, Biblical incantations—at least until he got around to actual Christianity.
16. “Forever Young” (1974)
Abysmal covers and remixes aside, what better benediction could there be from a father to a child?
17. “Tangled Up in Blue” (1975)
After something of a fallow period, Blood on the Tracks saw Dylan roar back — in a pretty bad mood, but also at the peak of his powers. The Telegraph described “Tangled” as “the most dazzling lyric ever written,” and that’s not that much of an overstatement.
18. “Blind Willie McTell” (1983)
Initially left off 1983’s Infidels, “Blind Willie McTell” updates two of Dylan’s long-running obsessions — Christianity and the roots of American music — and marries them to the thorny topic of slavery. Chilling in its delivery; brave in its conception.
19. “Dark Eyes” (1985)
The lovely, shining jewel off the otherwise horrendously dated Empire Burlesque, “Dark Eyes” is a mysterious piece of philosophical verse with a number of memorable, cryptic musings and dismissals: “They tell me revenge is sweet and from where they stand, I’m sure it is.”
20. “Man in the Long Black Coat” (1989)
Heralded as another return to form, Oh Mercy contains one of the finest entries in the “mysterious badass” genre of song: “Man in the Long Black Coat.” It also happens to contain some savage condemnations: “Every man’s conscience is vile and depraved / You cannot depend on it to be your guide when it’s you who must keep it satisfied.”
21. “Not Dark Yet” (1997)
Easily one of the most downcast Dylan songs, “Not Dark Yet” was subjected to a lengthy analysis by Boston University professor Christopher Ricks, who cited it as the strongest evidence of John Keats’ influence on Dylan’s writing.
22. “Mississippi” (2001)
Rolling Stone called this 2001 song “a drifter’s love song,” but it’s unclear whether Dylan’s singing to a person or his art itself when he says “All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime / Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme.”