Ranking the Top 5 Bob Dylan Songs of the ’80s

If you were to aggregate the critical reactions to Bob Dylan‘s work in the 1980s, the consensus would probably give him a thumbs-down for the decade. But there’s a small but vocal group of fans and critics who think Dylan’s work in that 10-year stretch is much better than the reputation suggests.

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We think that the five songs collected here will give a pretty strong argument for the latter view. Here are our choices for Bob Dylan’s finest songs of the ’80s. (Note: We’re only counting the stuff that made it onto studio albums, so no lost classics like “Blind Willie McTell” in this discussion.)

5. “Dark Eyes” from Empire Burlesque (1985)

Let’s set the record straight: Empire Burlesque is way better than you remember it. Yes, the production is quite slick, but the songs are strong and feature Dylan coming at audiences at bit more directly than in the past on ballads like “I’ll Remember You” and “Emotionally Yours.” But if you’re a Dylan purist, “Dark Eyes” is the song on that album that will scratch your itch. It’s just Dylan and his acoustic guitar and harmonica, playing softly and sweetly to send the album off. The music’s quietude is offset by the stark admissions in the lyrics of his feelings of disillusionment and otherness.

4. “Brownsville Girl” from Knocked Out Loaded (1986)

They really ought to officially change the name of Dylan’s 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded to The One You’d Forget Existed Were It Not for “Brownsville Girl.” The 11-minute rambler ranks as one of the funniest songs in the Dylan catalog, at least in terms of the one-liners sprinkled within its nooks and crannies. And yet there’s an undertow of sorrow and regret that makes you feel for the narrator every time you’re about ready to write him off. Actor/playwright Sam Shepard wrote this one with Dylan, which is odd because its emotional depths are matched only by its narrative incoherence.

3. “Most of the Time” from Oh Mercy (1989)

Get ready for back-to-back beauties from Oh Mercy, Dylan’s finest album of the decade. “Most of the Time” goes down as one of his most devastating songs about heartbreak, in large part because of the way he structures it. The narrator keeps telling us all the ways in which he’s moved on from his ex. Yet he does so every time with the qualifier most of the time, which implies he’s locked in a never-ending cycle of making tentative progress and then getting rocketed back to square one. Pretty accurate in its depiction of post-breakup existence.

2. “Ring Them Bells” from Oh Mercy (1989)

One of the biggest criticisms of Dylan’s so-called “Born Again” period at the end of the ’70s and start of the ’80s was there was an “I’m right, you’re wrong” feel to many of the religious songs. Had he approached all that material with the same sense of empathy that permeates “Ring Them Bells,” there likely wouldn’t have been nearly as many qualms. Before you even get to the lyrics, you have to marvel at the beauty of the music, with Dylan’s tender piano work at the center of it all. That sets the tone for the aching at the heart of the lyrics, as the narrator calls for a higher power to protect those who need it most.

1. “Every Grain of Sand” from Shot of Love (1981)

Also known as the song to most likely leave people in puddles when played at funerals. “Every Grain of Sand” has always felt like a kind of gentle explanation by Dylan as to why his music had taken a religious turn in the previous years. His narrator tries to make sense of something as vast as a higher power, deciding finally the proof of it can only be found in the micro. That is, if he can find the proof at all, as Dylan admits in the final verse there are hard times when he loses the plot. It’s a touching song that can be applied to the mysteries and wonders attached to all religions.

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