The Back Catalogue of Bob Dylan

If you’re wanting to build up a quality music collection, then there’s no two ways about it – you need some Dylan.  The problem is, where do you start? Well we’re going to tell you.

If you’re wanting to build up a quality music collection, then there’s no two ways about it – you need some Dylan.  The problem is, where do you start? Well we’re going to tell you.

Bob Dylan is a living legend.  Possibly only The Beatles are held in higher esteem by fans of 20th/21st century popular music, and the Fab Four themselves were all big Bob Dylan fans.  He’s the man who brought poetry to rock and roll and has influenced more singer/songwriters than any other man alive.  If you’re wanting to build up a quality music collection, then there’s no two ways about it – you need some Dylan.  The problem is that the man’s been making records for over 40 years, so just where do you start? 


Option 1: the compilation


Let’s be honest, most people don’t feel the need to collect an artist’s entire output.  For one thing, it’s an expensive business, and for another, only the most committed collector really feels the need to do this.  A well compiled collection which cherry picks the artist’s career highlights is often a welcome compromise. Until recently, there wasn’t a definitive Dylan compilation available.  Greatest Hits is too slight, and the 3-CD Biograph set isn’t a true ‘best of’ as it contains a cache of rarities and is confusingly sequenced.  Over the past few years though there’s been several new Dylan compilations issued, and two of these are very good indeed:-


The Essential Bob Dylan – is the more commonly available. The Very Best Of Bob Dylan – would appear to be of Swedish or German origin, but you should be able to pick it up over the internet.  (Don’t confuse this with the similarly titled The Best of Bob Dylan which is an inferior two volume set.)


Both are 2 CD sets that give an excellent overview of Bob’s career from the 1960s to the present.  There’s a little bit of everything: protest singer Bob; electric hipster Bob; family man Bob; 70s return-to-form Bob; born again Bob; and old man Bob.  The core songs are duplicated on both releases, but Essential is where you’ll find the non album cut Can You Please Crawl out Your Window?, the original version of the superb Dignity and the haunting Not Dark Yet.  On the other hand, The Very Best Of finds room for Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, the delicate She Belongs to Me and the hymn-like Every Grain of Sand.  Personally, I think that the inclusion of the latter song gives The Very Best Of the edge.



Option 2: the regular albums


The other (and ultimately more rewarding) way to get to grips with Dylan’s back catalogue is to buy the best of the ‘proper’ releases.  Many of these titles have recently been remastered using the SACD format and where available these are the versions to get.  Follow my advice and you won’t go far wrong.


The essential albums


Bringing It All Back Home (1965) – After four acoustic one-man albums, Bob decided to start shaking things up a little.  The first half of this remarkable record saw him introducing electric instruments and a rhythm section.  The second half was a return to acoustic guitar but with epic songs of lyrical dexterity the likes of which has never been attempted before. Includes Subterranean Homesick Blues, Mr Tambourine Man and It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.


Highway 61 Revisited (1965) – Bob’s first full-on rock and roll collection sees the man taking the earthy clatter of rhythm and blues and twisting it to fit his barbed and surrealistic worldview. The result is an unbelievably potent brew. Last track Desolation Row turns down the volume but may still be the wildest thing here. Also contains the era-defining Like a Rolling Stone and Ballad of a Thin Man.


Blonde on Blonde (1966) – The final chapter in rock’s greatest ever trilogy.  This takes the basic elements of Highway 61 but has a much broader musical palette.  Originally a double album, the wealth of goodies here is simply staggering.  Includes Rainy Day Women, Visions of Johanna, I Want You, Just Like a Woman and the beautiful epic Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.


Blood on the Tracks (1974/5) – After several years of underachieving (as often as not deliberately – he was raising a family), Bob recorded this, the first, and best, of his so called ‘comeback’ albums. Dylan had never sounded so honest, so naked or so vulnerable before. This was an album of heartfelt songs signaling to the world that all was not well in the Dylan marriage. Every superlative you’ve ever read about this record is true, as it remains for many of us his single greatest achievement. Includes Tangled up in Blue, Idiot Wind and Buckets of Rain.



Highly recommended


The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1962/3) – You can’t have a Dylan collection without at least one of his early acoustic ‘protest’ albums, and with a year in the making, this one stands tallest. This record, his second, saw Bob write all his own material for the first time. The accolades of ‘poet’ and ‘genius’ began here. Includes Blowin’ in the Wind, Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall and Don’t Think Twice, it’s Alright.


John Wesley Harding (1967) – The pressure of constant touring and recording finally burst when Dylan had a serious motorcycle crash in 1966. After a deafening silence that lasted a year and a half came this understated and almost biblical record at the tail end of ’67. Bob switches back to an acoustic guitar, but keeps drums and bass to produce an album light years away from what most everybody else was doing that year. In its unassuming way, this is one of his finest.  Includes All Along the Watchtower, I Pity the Poor Immigrant and I’ll be Your Baby Tonight.


Desire (1975/6) – This was the follow-up to Blood on the Tracks, and although Bob took a step back from that album’s raw honesty (with the notable exception of the song Sara), to the extent that he wrote most of the songs with input from a second lyricist, the resulting record was full of strong melodies, superlative musicianship and great singing. If anybody insists to you that Dylan always had a lousy voice, just play ’em One More Cup of Coffee! Also contains Hurricane, Oh Sister and the aforementioned Sara, Dylan’s devastatingly romantic plea to the wife he was shortly to lose.


Oh Mercy (1989) – Another decade, another ‘comeback’ and this was Bob’s best record for well over a decade. Producer Daniel Lanois knew how to make the aging Dylan sound both contemporary and timeless – a trick he repeated for 1997’s Time out of Mind. Includes Man in the Long Black Coat and the heart-wrenching Most of the Time.



Also recommended


Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) – Bob bids farewell to the ‘protest’ period in his last solo acoustic album for 28 years.


New Morning (1970) – The best of the ‘family man’ years.  Almost sounds like a Van Morrison album!


Street Legal (1978) – Much underrated.  Remastered version is a revelation.


Slow Train Coming (1979) – By far the best of Bob’s ‘born again’ gospel period.  At least here he sugared the pill with some fine songs.  People were still shocked though.  Some still haven’t got over it!


Time out of Mind (1997) – Yet another ‘comeback’.  A very bleak listening experience, so not for everyone, but does contain at least three masterpieces, Trying to Get to Heaven, Not Dark Yet and Standing in the Doorway…with an honourable mention for Highlands.  In fact, make that three and a half classics.


Love and Theft (2001) – A much more diverse and entertaining set than Time out of Mind, Dylan appears to be having something of a third golden age.


Biograph (various years) – A 3 CD set and one of the first examples of the Boxed Set as we have come to know them, i.e. it’s a compilation of greatest hits with a mouth-watering selection of rarities tossed in to tempt the fan who already has the hits. These days it’s available at a cheap price, and you’ll be able to fill some of the gaps in your expanding Dylan collection as well as getting the chance to hear about an album’s worth of first rate out-takes.


The Bootleg Series vols 1-3 (various years)  – Another 3 CD collection collecting together a fair sized scoop of the many songs Bob had left off his albums during the first 30 years of his career.  Sometimes artists make peculiar editorial decisions, so don’t go thinking that this stuff is going to be inferior to what appears on the regular records.  Despite the compilers managing to select inferior takes for a handful of these rare gems, it would still be churlish to complain at such an embarrassment of riches.  Other songwriters would give their limbs to have written the best of Bob’s out-takes.



Live albums


Most of Bob’s live albums seem to feature the man shouting inferior reworkings of his back catalogue and tend to disappoint.  The exceptions can be found in the recent "Bootleg Series" of releases.  The most essential of these is:


Bob Dylan Live 1966 – The Bootleg Series vol 4 – One disc of a very stoned sounding Dylan bewitching the audience with is voice and acoustic guitar, and one disc of Bob with The Band thundering through some of the most thrilling high octane rock and roll ever captured on tape. Quite possibly the greatest live album of all time by anyone ever. Includes Tell Me Momma and dynamite electric arrangements of I Don’t Believe You and One Too Many Mornings.



What to avoid!!


Bob’s back catalogue includes its fair share of turkeys.  Unless you plan to own everything the man ever did, you’ll be better off avoiding the following:


Self Portrait (1969/70) – Fluffy cover versions and substandard originals designed to upset a lot of people.  It worked.  Some of you may find it has a certain charm.  Others will be less forgiving.


Dylan (1969/70, released 1973) – A set of Self Portrait and New Morning  sessions barrel scrapings issued as a spoiler when Bob switched record labels.  Now out of print, so you’re not so likely to make the mistake of buying it.


Saved (1980) – Wretched, badly recorded and under prepared follow-up to Slow Train Coming.


Empire Burlesque (1985) – Weak songs + Arthur Baker’s trademark 80s production = terrible listening experience.


Knocked Out Loaded (1985/6) – Contains the epic "Brownsville Girl", but nothing else of any value whatsoever.


Down in the Groove (various years) – Collection of barrel scrapings from several different recording sessions.  Mostly cover versions.  Mostly crap.


Dylan and the Dead (1989) – Live album pairing Bob with the Grateful Dead.  Even if you were to like that idea in principle, in practice you will hate this appalling record.


That lot should keep you busy.  Happy listening!



Special mention. Bootlegs


For most artists, it’s daft to even think about investigating the murky waters of unofficial releases until you’ve bought most or all of the official catalogue. However, as I pointed out with The Bootleg Series vols 1-3, Bob doesn’t always know what his best stuff is.  Dylan has become the most bootlegged artist of all, most of the titles available being audience recordings of concerts.  Whilst these are fine for souvenirs, there are more essential treasures to be found.  (NB: Find these for free, via the internet. There are plenty of trading groups online that can provide this stuff. The artists still fail to make any money, but at least now so does the bootlegger.)


Blood on the Tapes – Bob recorded many of the songs for Blood on the Tracks twice.  The earlier takes differ greatly in mood, performance and, most notably, in lyrical content.  This CD collects together those alternate versions and adds in a couple of out-takes. Essential for fans of Bob’s 70s masterpiece.


The Genuine Bootleg Series – A series of 3 CD sets which aim to fill in the gaps that the official Bootleg Series missed. There’s some great stuff on these fan’s favourites.


The Genuine Basement Tapes – Recently remastered and collected together in a 4 CD set, this is the best way to hear Dylan and The Band’s legendary recreational sessions from the summer of ’67.  The official Basement Tapes added Band songs from later periods and tinkered with some of the Dylan tracks.  Plus it was only the tip of the iceberg.  Really, you can forget the official version – this is the real McCoy.