On January 1, 2022, I started Listening to every vinyl LP in my collection. Aye to Zee. When December 31 rolled around, I had almost finished up to the end of the letter D. In fact, only one artist was remaining, Bob Dylan. I am not a completest; although I have the entire album collection of a few artists, Bob Dylan is not one of those rare birds. I have 18 slabs of vinyl out of his humongous output on vinyl. I decided to do something different in my listening to Bob Dylan; I included the CDs I have, 10 of them, to make a total of 28 recordings. Not a complete discography; I think Dylan has 38 studio albums and then the live and best of’s, but a pretty deep listen, just the same.
Some of Dylan‘s albums were overdue for a listen, while others have been in fairly regular rotation. For example, in 2020, I listened to four of his albums, Dylan, his debut, Nashville Skyline, Live at Budokan and Rough and Rowdy Ways, released that year.
In 2021 I played Desire, a favourite of mine and The Best of Bob Dylan. In 2022 I only listened to one of his albums, The Best of Bob Dylan, again. The only surprise is how few of his albums I played over those three years and that I only played Desire once.
Back to the present, I am up to Hard Rain, the 17th album, and Bob Dylan is starting to be a hard listen. I think I have overdosed. Regardless, I will press on with a few diversions for blogs from my friends in PR. I will briefly summarize my listening experience up to this point.
A good chunk of my favourite Dylan recordings is in his early recordings. I enjoyed his eponymous debut, but I gravitate towards Freewheelin’, The Times They Are A Changin’, Bring It All Back Home, and Highway 61 Revisited. By the Time Blonde on Blonde rolled around, I felt he was losing the energy and edge that his early recordings displayed.
I didn’t connect with John Wesley Harding and felt Nashville Skyline was weak despite a couple of solid songs and a duet with Johnny Cash. Self Portrait is the favourite whipping post of many music journalists, which I can only agree with 50/50. It’s not his best work, and I think his ego got the best of him on this album, but it has its moments. Planet Waves isn’t a contender, either.
I like the energy of the live album, Before the Flood; it’s a tough act to follow when Dylan and The Band get their groove going. Blood on the Tracks is an odd duck. He doesn’t use The Band for this studio album which baffles me because they work so well together. Blood On The Tracks would be a great album if he re-recorded it with The Band.
And now we are up to The Basement Tapes. When this album came out, I fell head over heels for it and wore out a needle on my turntable just listening to it repeatedly. It held that emotional connection with me for a long time, and then it got shelved while Bob and I went through our Christian phases. That didn’t last forever for either one of us. I have re-listened to The Basement Tapes several times, and it has kept most of its appeal. I like a good jam session, and this album feels like a real barn burner.
On the heels of The Basement Tapes comes my favourite Dylan album, Desire. I have listened to this consistently since it came out, and it still holds a special place in my listening room. I find myself singing along with it and not realizing I am; it is etched into my brain. That was a sweet listening session, The Basement Tapes and Desire, back to back.
Next up is Hard Rain, which is a live album. Not many artists can pull off a great live album; including Dylan, and Hard Rain isn’t one of them. Hard Rain is a weak effort and feels much like his never-ending tour. It should have ended. I don’t know what it is with so many musicians bombing on live albums. I don’t know what it is with Dylan bombing on live shows. I saw him live; it was just him and some good musicians going through the motions. There was no connection with the crowd. There was no energy. I could barely discern which song he was mumbling because they all sounded the same and just melted together. The other bone I had to pick was his lack of picking; he hid behind a grand piano for the show. Please give it up, Bob; make another gate; your best days as a live performer are behind you. You may have a studio album in you, but it would have to be a Herculean effort. I have held much of your recorded material in high esteem, don’t disappoint me with a half-assed recording session at this stage of the game.
Continuing this conversation, we have another live album from Mr. Dylan. Bob Dylan at Budokan did not sit well with the press when it arrived in 1978. I like this quote lifted from Wikipedia: “In a sarcastic review published in his “Consumer Guide” column, Robert Christgau gave the album a C+ rating, writing “I believe this double LP was made available so our hero could boast of being outclassed by Cheap Trick, who had the self-control to release but a single disc from this location.” I give Bob Dylan at Budokan a mixed review, and I did like some of the reworked arrangements that provide a new gait to some old horses. The recording is of excellent quality, which may give the album some saving grace, plus it is a greatest hits album. I hummed along to the hits, and it’s not all bad. I will probably listen to this again further down the road and see if it can lodge in my earworm.
Slow Train Coming is from Bob Dylan‘s brief Christian phase. I think this is the best from the trilogy of his gospel-infused albums. It isn’t the most potent album in his catalogue; still, a couple of solid songs save it. Gotta Serve Somebody is the best, in my opinion. Slow Train Coming still has the Dylan sound with a strong band and excellent backing singers. Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame plays lead guitar and adds something fresh to the Bob Dylan sound pallet.
Beyond Slow Train, Bob Dylan’s creativity derailed. I plowed through Infidels, Knocked Out Loaded, Down In The Groove and Under The Red Sky, which was on cassette, and all of that listening session did nothing other than provide me with Muzak while I worked; it was background noise.
And then, I got to what I will call the revival period in Bob Dylan‘s musical career. He got his groove back on Time Out of Mind, hailed as one of Bob Dylan‘s best albums, winning three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year in 1998. It was also ranked 410 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums list. I won’t go as far as the best, but it is much better than the struggle that came immediately before it. Time Out of Mind is the first of a string of albums that ushered in the twilight of his recording career, much as he started it, standing on solid ground while writing and recording some excellent music. I don’t know what happened to him through the 1980s, but the wheels fell off his recording career. I wish he had put the bus in storage because his live shows suck, but his last five albums are all quite good. Please, Bob, stay in the big pink house and focus on writing music, building gates, and recording with some of the best musicians.
Love and Theft followed Time Out of Mind, and then we have Modern Times, Together Through Life, Tempest and last but not least, Rough and Rowdy Ways. Tempest was a Christmas gift for me, a double album on 180 vinyl, and it was Dylan’s last album to feature original material until his 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways.
As of today, February 2, 2023, Dylan hasn’t recorded any original material since Rough and Rowdy Way, but he has put out a trio of albums that feature him covering other musicians’ songs.
Finished! That was a lot of Dylan. It worked out to 26 albums, a couple of doubles that counted as one and some CDs to supplement the vinyl, along with one cassette. And that just scratched the surface of what he as put out. Bob Dylan has recorded thirty-nine studio albums, 95 singles, 18 notable extended plays, 54 music videos, 15 live albums, 17 volumes comprising The Bootleg Series, 29 compilation albums, 22 box sets, seven soundtracks as main contributor, thirteen music home videos and two non-music home videos. Bob Dylan has enjoyed a long and storied career in music. Not many artists could pull off what he has done. I’m not sure how many people could sit down and listen to 26 Dylan albums in one month. I did. And I still like his music, some of it anyhow.
Another reason that I enjoy physical copies, especially slabs of vinyl, is the cover art, inserts and occasionally lyrics and bonus information. Vinyl is superior because I don’t need a magnifying glass to read it, such as with CDs. I know that for digital files I could go on Discogs and find the artwork there and zoom it up as far as I need to read it. But it’s not the same as holding the sleeve in my hands and reading it as the album plays. Digital will never replace physical copies, they do supplement them and fill in gaps in my collection when I don’t have the physical copies. Nothing wrong there.
I was tempted to add notes about the covers of each album featured above. That isn’t going to happen in this blog, I would encourage you to research them for yourself on Wikipedia. Some of the covers are stories in and of themselves. The album artwork for Bringing It All Back Home fills up a page of type on it’s own.
Yeah, go check them out for yourself if you are inclined to listen to any of these albums on Apple Music or elsewhere, the artwork is part of the mystic of many albums and many of Dylan’s covers have stories to tell that extend beyond the music. Some day in the future I may expand on this and explore some of the albums including the stories of the cover art.