50. Jason Isbell – It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
Jason Isbell, one of the best, if not the best, songwriters working today, is a big enough fan that he has Bob Dylan lyrics tattooed on his left arm. (They’re from “Boots of Spanish Leather,” if you are wondering.) Originally released on Dylan’s 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home, the original “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” features only Dylan on guitar and harmonica and Bill Lee on bass (that’s Spike’s dad, BTW). It fits in with Dylan’s classic folk sound (although side one of the album was electric), although it was only a few months later that Dylan’s controversial electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival signaled his desire to put that sound behind him. After the (partially) hostile reaction to the set, Dylan eventually returned to the stage, playing two songs, ending with “Baby Blue.”
Isbell’s cover, recorded at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville at the 2016 Dylanfest, splits the difference. Isbell performs the song on fuzzy solo electric guitar, his expressive voice teasing out all of the song’s meaning. Whatever it may be. – Jordan Becker
49. The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man / My Back Pages / You Ain’t Going Nowhere
There is a school of thought, a worthy one at that, which holds that Dylan would be a whole lot less celebrated than he is were it not for McGuinn and his wingmates. Certainly, were it not for the Byrds, many would have been a good deal later to the party. My first awareness of Dylan, when I was still an innocent in short pants, was the unmistakable strident chiming guitar that opens that definitive version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” etched so deep in my consciousness that it has become my earliest memory of an earworm. The twelve-string sound, the bass and the harmonies, especially the harmonies, just hotwire the song, lifting it to the stratosphere. McGuinn’s lead vocal, higher pitched than Dylan, is sufficiently orthodox as to avoid scaring those easily alarmed by Dylan’s own voice, even then.
But they weren’t done. The band returned again and again to the Dylan songbook, applying that self-same sheen. If they “broke” Dylan, he effectively made them, a true symbiosis, four songs by him on their debut long player and two on the next. And whilst memory might have you placing this trio of songs contemporaneously, there is a spread across the years. “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “My Back Pages,” both in the classic jangle of trademark early Byrds, are actually two years apart, 1965 and 1967. The seismic shift of style into “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” with prominent steel replacing the twelve string, is actually a mere year later.
Not that the band were yet done with Dylan. His songs remained part of the glue that kept the ever-evolving line-up identifiable as the same band, with at least eleven Dylan studio recordings across their output and many more in a live setting. Indeed, three times over their history, their various record companies issued (different) compilations of their Dylan covers, confirming the band’s prominence and importance in the birthday we celebrate here. – Seuras Og
48. The Chicks – Mississippi
Where Dylan’s version of “Mississippi” sounds resigned, The Chicks’ version has more of an active “Goodbye Earl” attitude (some may say they are… “ready to run” from Mississippi). The lyrics recount regrets; Dylan’s gravelly voice reports them without bitterness and with sparse accompaniment: a simple drum beat, a low tempo bass line. The Chicks take a much more upbeat and declarative approach, borrowing some elements from the Sheryl Crow version (which actually came out well before Dylan’s own). They also double down on any whiff of a political stance from Dylan; this cover had a prominent spot in their Vote for Change tour performances leading up to the 2004 election. – Sara Stoudt
47. Janis Joplin – Dear Landlord
Janis Joplin did a wonderful job capturing the swing and slight twang true to Dylan. In her cover of “Dear Landlord,” she uses her scratchy vocals to deliver the lyrics with power and force. Her cover has a lot of energy from the first note to the last. A fun piano and electric guitar instrumental solo break up the tune, and the trumpets were a brilliant addition. – Ally McAlpine
46. The Casual Lean – Sara
As a fierce “I don’t need an h” Sara, I’m obligated to comment on this song written about Dylan’s first wife, a fellow no-h Sara. She and Dylan were on the rocks when this song was recorded in 1975, but they made it two more years before splitting for good. I do miss the wistful harmonica of the original in this cover, but The Casual Lean hint at that style with a dutifully mournful folk intro. The song then transitions to a heavier rock vibe where some parts even sound like a bar singalong. I’ve never thought much about the pronunciation of the name Sara, but both versions do take different approaches; here Sara is as in “sardonic” rather than Dylan’s Sara as in “serendipity”. – Sara Stoudt
45. Bruce Springsteen – Chimes of Freedom / I Want You
“The way Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind,” Bruce Springsteen said when inducting Dylan into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, adding, “He had the vision and the talent to expand the pop song until it could contain the whole world.” Of course, Bruce has some of that talent himself. Witness his take on “Chimes of Freedom,” the song legendary critic Paul Williams called Dylan’s Sermon on the Mount. Springsteen takes those big words and big ideas and frames them with big backing, until it’s the song and not just the lyrics that become all-encompassing.
But Springsteen knew how to dial it back, too. Thirteen years earlier, in a 1975 pre-Born to Run concert at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, PA that has since become legendary, he took on “I Want You” in such a way that all three hundred people who were there may well have felt that the words were being aimed into their heart and theirs alone. It’s an intimate performance, especially the quieter passages that open and close the song, and a key part in the show that would prime a small part of the world for his inevitable breakthrough. – Patrick Robbins
44. Rage Against The Machine – Maggie’s Farm
Rage could have tackled any number of Dylan’s folk-era protest songs. Instead, they took on something slightly less overtly political. The band significantly funks up “Maggie’s Farm,” so it isn’t really recognizable beyond the lyrics. But the lyrics still feel tailor-made for de la Rocha’s aggressive delivery, even though this isn’t one of Dylan’s talking blues. Like many of the covers on this list, Rage make it completely their own, including a trademark Morello guitar part and a minute-plus not found in the original. A really vital take. –Riley Haas
43. ‘Girl from the North Country’ Cast – Slow Train Coming/License to Kill
For everything that is often said about Bob Dylan’s voice, a credible case could be made for it being his greatest gift – a flexible instrument that has produced a remarkable variety of sounds and textures over the years, from the derisive sneer of “Ballad of a Thin Man” to the anguished howl of “Idiot Wind” all the way to the subtle croon of “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You.” But Dylan’s voice doesn’t just change from song to song: tracks like “Pay in Blood” and “Tin Angel” find him switching between a number of different narrators within a single song, to the point where it feels uncannily like watching a play unfold in front of you.
Fittingly, the Dylan inspired play Girl from the North Country picked up on this device, with songs like this medley of “Slow Train” and “License to Kill” being delivered by multiple cast members. Although there’s more than one person singing, it’s all so seamless that you can almost feel the voice of the songwriter binding them together. These songs are two of Dylan’s finest “what has the world come to” numbers, and putting them together like this was a masterstroke. – Tim Edgeworth
42. Beck – Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
Beck’s cover of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” appeared on a 2008 album, War Child: Heroes, supporting the War Child charity. The conceit of the album was that music legends chose one of their songs and then selected a younger artist to cover it. So it appears that Dylan hand-picked Beck to do this cover of his bluesy song amusingly satirizing fashion and those who care about it. While it is hard to pigeonhole Beck into a particular style, his cover is, undoubtedly, a Beck song, filled with crunchy synthesizers, squealing guitars, pounding drums, and a whole lot of fun. – Jordan Becker
41. David Bowie – Trying to Get to Heaven
David Bowie turns up the electric rock energy in his “Trying to Get to Heaven,” an intricate layering of overdriven guitar, drums, and bass ramping up to a large overture between the verses early. Bowie masterfully adds more and more energy through every verse and chorus, landing in a drama-filled anthem to finish out the tune. You can hear the push and urgency in the melody as he sings “Trying to get to heaven before they close the door.” – Ally McAlpine
The list continues on Page 8.