How is it that the most idiosyncratic major songwriter of our lifetimes also came to be the most covered? The Bob Dylan may be full of songs that are personal, peculiar and sometimes inscrutable, but if anything, that’s made them even more of a magnet for any vocal interpreter or kindred-spirit singer-songwriter who ever saw a Dylan original that was tangled up in wordplay and saw it as a nut to crack. On paper, his material should be daunting — but on Spotify, you can find user-generated playlists of covers of Dylan tunes that actually extend to more than 4,000 recordings (a number that’s hardly inclusive of everything that’s out there).
At Variety, we went the more economical route and came up with a playlist of a mere 80 great Dylan covers… one for every year of his existence, now that May 24 finds him officially becoming an octogenarian. Doesn’t it seem like only yesterday, if you’re of a certain age, that a 50th birthday celebration was being held at Madison Square Garden, with many of the top artists in the world serenading Dylan with their versions of his songs? For his 80th, we’ll have to hold that celebration in our hearts. Here are 80 tracks dating from 1963 to just last month, from musicians with the beautiful presumption to know what was in Dylan’s always mysterious, always revelatory heart when they interpreted these tunes… or that it didn’t matter if they could make them even prettier.
One thing we can say about Dylan that we can’t about just any other songwriter: that his songs will still be getting covered, and parties still thrown in his honor, on his 800th. It’s our privilege to be enjoying them still relatively hot off the presses. —Willman