In honor of Bob Dylan‘s birthday today, Something Else! Reviews presents 7 for 70 — our list of top recordings from across the 70-year-old’s lengthy career. We were careful to select at least one project from each of his five decades in music, stretching between 1963 and 2009, but didn’t order them in any particular way. The list is necessarily subjective. But like all birthday presents, it’s the thought that counts …
BOB DYLAN (1963): In the beginning, Dylan had an affinity for folk songs stirred vigorously with the syncopations of a blues — and that’s best experienced here, and on the early 1990s compilation The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. In fact, the original liner notes to this, his debut album, call Dylan “one of the most compelling white blues singers ever recorded.” That only goes so far, though. “Talkin’ New York” shows where he’ll actually go, and boldly: toward a roughly hewn folk pentameter that shambles to the very thick of meaning.
Nick’s Pick: OK, we love the blues here, anyway — particularly, Dylan’s cover of the old Blind Lemon Jefferson tune, “See That My Grave is Kept Clean.” Oh, and “Man of Constant Sorrow,” decades before it showed up on the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack.
OH MERCY (1989): Maybe it was the clinging New Orleans nights, or the burgeoning talents of producer Daniel Lanois (who was at the same time working on a very fine solo debut and perhaps the Neville Brothers‘ most realized studio effort, Yellow Moon). But Dylan’s bitter introspection sounds refreshingly in focus here, in what could be called his Second Comeback. Dylan’s biblical and lore-laden turns of phrase get a punching up from the Nevilles’ rhythm section — and the spherical keyboard and guitar musings of both Lanois and Malcolm Burn. Even the outtakes from this album, “Dignity” and “Series of Dreams” (both later included on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. 3), were gems.
Nick’s Picks: For all of the atmospherics, we still go for the spit-shined harmonica joys of the only two bonafide rockers on “Oh Mercy” — “Political World” and the minor hit “Everything is Broken.” “Series of Dreams” lifts off as if strapped to a rocket pack.
BLONDE ON BLONDE (1966): The third of three folk-bending electric albums may be Bob Dylan’s finest release ever. “Spin” magazine said: “He’d make simplier records, more beautiful records, but he’d never made a better record.” Begins with one of Dylan’s more misunderstood tracks: Turns out “Everybody must get stoned,” well, it actually refers to … rocks. Heh.
Nick’s Picks: “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” written for his wife Sara in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel. Nick’s Nit Pick: Finding out “Just Like a Woman” was written for Edie Sedgwick, who torched a room at the same hotel in 1967.
TIME OUT OF MIND (1997): Seemed somewhat overcelebrated in its moment after a health scare for Dylan, as this one was ranked No. 408 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest records of all time in 2003. But it’s held up well as one of Dylan’s better album-length efforts. He seems to realize, during his first original songs since 1990′s Under the Red Sky, that the clock is ticking. In a larger sense, he’s a guy, in keeping with the title, who is out of time. Dylan is both misunderstood by a new generation, and also moving into the last third of his life. Lucky for us, he isn’t going quietly. Call it his Third Comeback.
Nick’s Pick: “Not Dark Yet,” the best thing Dylan has done in ages, this perfect enigma from a guy who’s made a career of such sleights of hand. An edgy post-modern lament downshifted into quiet Civil War balladry, “Not Dark Yet,” remains a riddle — and maybe that’s the very definition of good art: It’s something that you never quite figure out.
BLOOD ON THE TRACKS (1974): His most upfront, emotional recording, this album marked Dylan’s First Comeback. “Blood on the Tracks,” Rolling Stone said, “was roundly greeted as Dylan’s return to the poetic force of his classic LPs ‘Blonde on Blonde’ and ‘John Wesley Harding.’” It also feels like a backhanded farewell to the 1960s and its heralded idealism.
Nick’s Picks: “Tangled Up in Blue,” of course — and these lyrics: “Either I’m too sensitive, or I’m getting soft.”
TOGETHER THROUGH LIFE (2009): Dylan, commissioned to do some soundtrack work, kept recording with the assembled group — ultimately producing a powerfully personal result. This was a revelation in its stubborn unwillingness to move into the realm of Statements. Of Big Records. Of Career-Defining Blah Blah Blah. Dylan wants to make a small, good thing — focusing inward, mostly, talking about relationships with both honesty and a ragged sense of humor — and he brilliantly succeeds.
Nick’s Pick: “My Wife’s Hometown,” which sounds like a shambling leftover from Dylan’s late-1980s sessions in New Orleans with Lanois — complete with surprising synocations, biting guitar and fun, braying vocals: “One of these days,” Dylan sings, with a sly wink, “I’ll end up on the run. I’m pretty sure she’ll make me kill someone.” Only later do we learn that his spouse resides in Hell.
HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED (1965): Dylan’s second electric album solidified what many folkies had feared: Bob’s gone crazy. But in the best of ways. A tremendous effort. He also debunked what had initially been an overblown connection drawn between his music and the blues. Through you could infer that this title relates to the famous highway running through the blues-rich Mississippi Delta, it was during these sessions that Dylan laid down the law for guitarist Mike Bloomfield: “I don’t want any of that B.B. King sh–t.”
Nick’s Pick: The opening stanza on “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan agrees. In 1984, he said: “The first two lines, which rhymed ‘kiddin’ you’ with ‘didn’t you,’ just about knocked me out.” Us, too.