Dylan at 70: Ten Favorite Records
A list of ten favorite records seems a trivial service to render to a man who has given us– me– so much revelation, so much wisdom and inspiration. And here’s the kicker: It’s probably not all that interesting, either, as far as blog topics go. I don’t suppose anyone would approach a list like this honestly expecting Blonde on Blonde to be missing, or Empire Burlesque to assume a position over Blood on the Tracks, nor should they. The idea of canon is one that I’m innately skeptical of, but the established Dylan canon more or less makes sense, I think.
Nevertheless. I think my list of ten favorite Dylan albums– each one a game-changer for me, really– might include a surprise or two, at least for those who aren’t already well schooled in my Dylan fixations. More to the point, I think this is actually about as heartfelt an homage as I can pay the man. Ubiquitous though he may be on every list that’s ever been made of the all-time great albums, I still wonder if his capacities as a record-maker might be a bit underappreciated, at least when compared to his gifts as a songwriter. Not that I really think either of these things could ever be understated By the way: If you need any proof of the way Dylan revolutionized what an album could be, check the very worthwhile (essential, even) mono box set that released last year and listen to those seminal first eight albums in sequence. In four years time, everything changed– including Dylan himself– forever. Astonishing.
A final note: I thought about spicing up the list a little by throwing in a curveball selection from the Bootleg series, or something like Before the Flood, but quickly realized that to trade a proper album for something ancillary would be rather scandalous when dealing with a catalog as unassailable as this one. I mean, it’s not like I was having a hard time coming up with ten revelatory albums.
10. Time Out of Mind
Its heart is wrecked by the same sense of loss that pervaded Blood on the Tracks— only here, a much older Dylan is also wrestling with the angel of mortality; its language is that of the blues, a vernacular that stretches back to the very first Bob Dylan record and pointed forward to his current, pencil-mustachioed drifter incarnation; and in the arty sheen of Daniel Lanois, the album finds a style that’s actually far more sympathetic to its subject matter than it’s ever given credit for (and much more convincing than the Dylan/Lanois match-up on Oh Mercy, I think). “Standing in the Doorway” could be his saddest song ever, but the album’s spirit is ultimately a romantic one; how else does one explain a twenty-minute finale that looks up to the Highlands?
09. Another Side of Bob Dylan
I’ll say this about it: Of his early folk albums, Freewheelin’ is a towering giant, an album on which all the sides of Bob Dylan– his romantic side, his political side, and so on– cohabitate and even seem to feed off one another. I have not found another folk album to floor me like that one, with the scope of its imagination and the way it suggested (rightly so) that its auteur was capable of anything– not in Dylan’s catalog, not anywhere else. The albums that followed it sectioned off his vision, and, as such, are a little less striking. The Times They Are A-Changin’ took the politics, but this album– which I prefer– gets Dylan the romantic, Dylan the whimsical, Dylan the surreal. And honestly, that’s the side of Bob Dylan I tend to prefer.
08. Blood on the Tracks
An album so singular it spawned its own cliche; these days, anytime an artist records a work of luxurious sadness and pervasive heartache, it’s called his or her Blood on the Tracks. Naturally, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks towers over everyone else’s. He makes some comments in Chronicles that suggest maybe this wasn’t intended to be the Divorce Album it’s always been considered, that perhaps reading it as straight autobiography is to fail in comprehending Dylan’s always-in-character sleight of hand, but I don’t think it matters. Melancholy has never been so exquisitely immersive.
07. John Wesley Harding
A curious case, this one; Dylan’s simplest, most austere album– painted in crisp black and white lines– remains his most elusive, his most inscrutable. But its sense of mystery isn’t impenetrable so much as it’s alluring– particularly since Dylan’s rustic poetry and Puritan myths not only form a sober-minded companion piece to The Basement Tapes, but also an outline he would later color in and flesh out with Love & Theft.
06. Bringing it All Back Home
Half electric and half acoustic it may be, but there’s no sense of Dylan hedging his bets here on this, the opening salvo of his hipster era; the acoustic numbers– anything but plainspoken– are, if anything, even more transcendentally absurd than the rock and roll numbers. But for all of the album’s celebrated surrealism, what continues to raise the roof for me is the personally expressiveness of these songs; it may be more imaginative than confessional but it is no less human or available because of it. There’s no need for Dylan to spell out the specifics for us to be swept up by the universal. Or to put it another way: You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
05. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
21 years old and already he was moving right down the line from the poignant philosophizing of “Blowin’ in the Wind” to the ravishing romance of “Girl from the North Country” to the bristling moral outrage of “Masters of War” and even– with a tip o’ the hat to Woody– into the cheerfully silly “Bob Dylan’s Blues.” I’ve wasted my life. This record is a cavalcade of perfect songs, one after the other, and not only are they perfect, they are bold; “Masters of War” is not an amorphous or self-congratulatory “protest song” but a song that takes a real stance and affirms truth and justice and the existence of absolute evil, and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” makes you feel heartbroken for the guy even though, in places, he’s kinda being a dick. Dylan would follow this album, just about a year later, with an album called Another Side, but this one comes about as close as any of ’em to encompassing all the sides of Bob Dylan, and I think you could make a pretty strong case for this as the best album ever recorded, period.
04. Blonde on Blonde
From the best album ever recorded to the other best album ever recorded; this one’s dark and thick and wooly, a funhouse of sound more labyrinthine than anything Dylan ever recorded. This is the gloriously oversized culmination of his electric mayhem, the natural climax of his surrealist hipster era. It’s no wonder he followed it with a retreat back to simplicity– really, what else could he have done?
03. The Basement Tapes
Another album, like Blood on the Tracks, that has essentially become its own archetype; in my vocabulary, anyway, “Basement Tapes” has become shorthand for any music (and there isn’t much of it) that even comes close to approximating the kind of spontaneous joy captured in these sessions. The official release is, perhaps, a little misleading– Robbie Robertson sequenced the thing to make it play like he and the members of The Band were Dylan’s creative equals, which isn’t really the case– but no matter. This is the sound of Dylan drawing the tall tale characters and folk heroes of his youth into the roadhouse for a raucous set of hell-raising and myth-making.
02. Highway 61 Revisited
In which our hero discovers America, invents rock and roll, and translates the blues into the language of the modernists– or is it the other way around? That’s the thing with this one: It’s a stretch of road so long and winding it’s hard to tell where the journey really begins, whether the blues gather their strangeness from Dylan’s surrealist poetry or the lyrics are given weight by the broiling grit of their setting or some unfathomable combination of the two. Anyone claiming Dylan was a folksinger who merely “went electric” has clearly never heard this one; it’s pure punk rock.
Why should I have to choose between the rowdy myth-making of The Basement Tapes and the punkish mayhem of Highway 61? Or between the romance of Another Side and the tall-tale allegory of John Wesley Harding? Dylan contains multitudes, but this is the record that retraces the most of his crossed paths, blazing more than a few new trails along the way.
And while I acknowledge, quite happily, that Dylan recorded close to a dozen albums that carry more import– more of the weight of history– than this one, I refuse to believe he ever topped this set of endlessly complicated songs, equal parts world-weary fatalism and drifter romance, fire-and-brimstone preaching and Groucho Marx jokes. Following the wise-cracking doomsday riverboat ride of “High Water” with the old-timey soft-shoe whisper of “Moonlight,” on an album that also rambles between the apocalyptic puns and nightclub swing of “Summer Days” and the downright nasty grind of “Lonesome Day Blues”? As remarkable a run, and as dizzying a display of imagination, even as the whole spectrum of Freewheelin’, I think.