Albums that Matter—- by Bob Dylan

Albums that Matter—- by Bob Dylan June 18, 2021

Whilst reading the book depicted above, a very interesting and scholarly treatment of Bob Dylan’s musical artistry (on which see the later post on the book itself), I began to formalize a list of Bob Dylan records which have had enormous influence on popular music since the 1960s, ranging from country, to blues, to gospel, to rock, to folk, and back again.  Among other things, Bob Dylan is not only one of the most prolific musical genius’ and poets of the modern era, he is one of the few who can comfortably move from one genre of music to another, and inhabit each one convincingly. When I finally got to see Bob some 13 years into his musical career in January 1974 with the Band in Oven’s Auditorium in Charlotte N.C. his ouevre and impact was already enormous and incredibly varied. And that concert was an amazing amalgam of the Band as a one of kind opening act, and the Band as a back up band for Bob, and then some straight folk Bob almost solo, in the end. It was an embarrassment of riches and I still have the framed photo of the concert that my fellow employee of the Record Bar in Charlotte, Tom, gave me after the fact.

I am simply here listing these albums in chronological order, not in order of preference, and frankly I could list many more, but this must do as a starter kit for those not yet inducted into ‘all things Dylan’.

The Freewheelin Bob Dylan (1963). This includes classics like Blowin in the Wind, Masters of War, and a Hard Rain is Gonna Fall.  Interestingly, when Ed Sullivan invited Bob to play on his show, Bob turned it down because Sullivan wanted to censor some of the lyrics from these songs.   This is perhaps the apex of his folk period (and note that it was Peter, Paul and Mary who made a big hit out of Blowin in the Wind, but then Bob was not all that concerned about hit singles.  He is one of the most covered artists of all time, even by people ranging from Frank Sinatra to Adele!

While Highway 61 Revisited (1965) deserves mention as the real beginning of Bob’s electric period it was the double album Blonde on Blonde (1966) that was to have the biggest impact from that period.  Bob would withdraw from touring for a good while after his motorcycle accident in 1966.  At the time he was living in Woodstock N.Y., yes that Woodstock (and later he would turn down the offer to play at the famous Woodstock festival a few years later).

By 1969, people had gotten used to Bob’s distinctive vocal styles, and so the album Nashville Skyline came as a total shock.  Who knew Bob could sing like that, with the help of Johnny Cash among others.  It is a truly great country rock sort of album, which helped kick country music into the broader pop music zone where it still lives. Indeed, many would say that Nashville is where rock music has gone to die, or be transformed into a country twang by all sorts of artists.

The reviews of Bob’s albums have been quite varied, to say the least, much like the content of these albums has varied.  And in each case it needs to be remembered that Bob was not producing ‘concept or themed albums’ like say The Who’s rock opera Tommy.  He was simply creating a mood and an ambience with a collection of individual songs he wrote.   Certainly one of the very best of the 1970s albums was Blood on the Tracks (1975), in some ways my favorite of Bob’s earlier albums.

Just when you might have thought Bob couldn’t take another surprising left turn, there came three ‘Christian’ albums in a row after he had come under the influence of an Evangelical teacher from the Vineyard Fellowship. For what it’s worth, the book depicted above has an essay which draws the conclusion that Bob still believes what he embraced more overtly in that period, including believing the Bible’s eschatology that ‘a change is gonna come’ even though it’s A Slow Train Coming (1979).  That lp includes several classic tracks, often covered there after, especially ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’.  Believe it or not that song and its composer won a Grammy for Best Male Vocalist.

One of the things that characterized the late 70s through the 90s was numerous tours. If not with the Band, then with an all star cast (Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn), or with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, or the Grateful Dead.  After all that anything seemed possible. Note that Bob did not succumb to the synthesizer craze of the 80s.

Special mention needs to be made of Tom Petty putting together an all star band called the Traveling Wilburys, whose first album in 1988 was especially excellent– involving Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, George Harrison,  and Jeff Lynne of ELO fame.  What this shows of course, like the tours just mentioned, was that Bob was perfectly comfortable playing with a group of other world class musicians who had achieved their own fame in various groups or as solo artists.  This was a marriage that worked well, and produced some excellent tunes.

In 1994, Bob Dylan appeared at the 25th anniversary of Woodstock festival and this may have helped to spark some new creativity,   as he produces one of his late classics thereafter— Time Out of Mind (1997). He also had a near fatal heart infection the same year, but bounced back to keep touring… and even performed for Pope John Paul II.  Even the Beatles and Stones never did that.  The tour of 1998 was with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell and the album won album of the year in 1998.

Remarkably, at age 65 in 2007, Bob’s new album Modern Times hits the top of the Billboard charts (for the first time in 30 years), and he became the oldest artist to ever have that happen.

After winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016, one might expect him to rest on his laurels, but no….. he produces another stellar and interesting album in 2020, in which his usually scratchy sounding voice sounds much better— the title is Rough and Rowdy Ways,(2020) and it really swings! Another album that hits high on the Billboard charts— No. 2 in fact.  Along with this album comes a separate single about the Kennedy assassination entitled ‘I Contain Multitudes’, a very long song, and his first new one in some eight years.  This songs returns to some of his more prophetic themes of the earlier folk period.

For those needing a round number…. the tenth album that should be in one’s collection is John Wesley Harding(1967), how could I not recommend that one dealing with a person named after my Methodist forefather.  What is interesting about that one is it reflects the real beginning of collaboration with Nashville musicians including Johnny Cash, and that good ole boy from Wilmington N.C.  Charlie Daniels who was a session musician in Nashville long before ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’ made him a star.  





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