"Anyone who wants to ignore particular periods of Bob Dylan's work is entitled to what I would consider their rather ignorant opinion." — Elvis Costello, who is well qualified to so opineFrom somebody who's spent possibly way too much time studying the evidence, a recommended playlist comprised of one lesser appreciated song from each of Bob Dylan's studio albums,* chosen not necessarily for the lyrics but for the musicianship. Because Bob Dylan, who turns 70 today, is as good as or a better singer than Frank Sinatra. Seriously.
"Play it fucking loud." — Bob Dylan, Manchester, 1966
From a purely musical perspective, his intonation and his phrasing are virtuosic. He's also seriously copyright-litigious, which is why the links are to the Wikipedia entries for the albums and not to YouTube uploads, because there aren't any and if there are, they'll be gone tomorrow.
Not that Dylan has been uniformly consistent because, speaking as a hardcore aficionado who considers Dylan one of the most important American musicians (and indeed, persons) of the last 250 years, not only has Dylan produced some of the greatest records ever but the worst ever: Dylan & The Dead. Do not even go near it. On the other hand Dylan has so far refused to release one of his best shows, from Massey Hall in April of 1980, which was professionally recorded and filmed.
The bootlegs are easily available. And yes, the show is from Dylan's so-called Born Again period, which legend has it began around the time Dylan was baptized in Pat Boone's Hollywood Hills swimming pool. You might not expect praise from this space for New Testament-infused songwriting and performing (Dylan actually delivered sermons during those Gospel tours that would make a fundamentalist preacher blush) but as Leonard Cohen** put it, although Cohen didn't concur with the sentiments expressed, those songs are among the finest of the genre.
[One record that you can listen to in its entirety online is Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan,*** a collection of covers performed by Gospel artists. Bob himself turns up on the last track to chat with Mavis Staples about the press and knockin' a few of them chickens in the yard off and fryin' 'em up before kicking some righteous ass on a revamped version of Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking.]
One thing that's truly remarkable about Bob Dylan is that he's succeeded in being among both the best and the worst musicians ever, sometimes even not only within the same song but within the same verse. He's also managed to write one of the worst lines in all of popular music: "They stamped him and they labeled him like they do with pants and shirts" — Lenny Bruce. And I'm here to tell you that probably the worst concert I ever attended was a Dylan concert, early '90s, O'Keefe Centre. Dreadful.
Something you can say for the Dylanologists: We are brutally honest.
Anyway, the deeper catalog, so go and make your iTunes playlist:
Gospel PlowAs for the Christmas album, I gotta say, it's pretty hard to take, except for Must Be Santa, which is a classic, and has some fantastic drumming on it. Speaking of drummers, Dylan has been known to hire the best, including one of my all-time favorites, Jim Keltner. If you've never heard of him, I guarantee you've heard him play a thousand times on anything from Knockin' On Heaven's Door to (the less litigious) Steely Dan's Josie.
Spanish Harlem Incident
I'll Keep It With Mine
Queen Jane Approximately
Obviously 5 Believers
I Am A Lonesome Hobo
Tell Me That It Isn't True
Gotta Travel On
Sign On The Window
Big Yellow Taxi
Meet Me In The Morning
We Better Talk This Over
Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)
The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar
Foot Of Pride
I'll Remember You
You Wanna Ramble
What Good Am I?
[None: This record is horrible]
Dirt Road Blues
Honest With Me
Shake Shake Mama
Bonus single: George Jackson (which you won't find on iTunes).
In other words a tremendously busy studio cat who said that of all the musicians he's ever played with, the only one he'd drop whatever he was doing to answer the call for is Bob Dylan, which is pretty high praise.
And since this is mostly a political blog, I'll leave you with a couple of stanzas that are hard for the liberals to deal with, from 1983's Infidels which Peter Goddard, the music critic for the Toronto Star, called "Dylan's reactionary thesis." Be that as it may, it's one of his best.
Now his holiest books have been trampled uponAnd this one:
No contract he signed was worth what was it [sic] written on
He took the crumbs of the world and he turned it into wealth
Took sickness and disease and he turned it into health
He’s the Neighborhood Bully
Well, it’s Sundown on the UnionHappy Birthday Bob, may you play it fucking loud.
And what’s made in the U.S.A.
Sure was a good idea
’Til greed got in the way
* Including a couple of outtakes. Sometimes he leaves the best songs from a recording session off the record.
** Also well qualified to engage the topic.
*** The title number actually frightened Allen Ginsberg, who considered it as embracing a fascistic "the Devil or the Lord" dichotomy.