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The 10 essential Dylan discs

Thursday, May 24, 2001

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

It isn't easy narrowing the revolutionary output of a man who, even after all these years, remains the most significant American rock 'n' roll icon of the post-Chuck Berry era (with apologies to Britney Spears) to 10 essential albums. Many favorites -- from "The Times They Are A-Changin' " to his latest effort -- barely missed the cut. And I could list a second 10 whose weakest link would be enough to shame the greatest work of all but a handful of artists (the Beatles, the Kinks, etc.), which, in fact, I'll gladly do for anyone who contacts me at emasley@post-gazette.com.

But for now, the list:

1. "BLONDE ON BLONDE" (1966): When I paint my masterpiece? I hate to tell you, Bob, but "Blonde on Blonde" is it. And then some. Every note and word and laugh and tear and middle finger flying through the air is perfect on this rare two-record masterpiece -- the marching band weaving all over the road on "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35"; the blues harp and hobo who got high and came to you, naturally, on "Pledging My Time"; the breathtaking beauty and epic Motown stoner vibe of "Visions of Johanna"; the chill in the air on the chorus of "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)"; the effortless beauty and grace of "I Want You"; the ragman drawing circles up and down the block while stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again in what remains your most imaginative set of lyrics South of "Like a Rolling Stone"; the barbed-wire humor and stinging guitar lines of "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," especially "I saw you making love with him/You forgot to close the garage door"; the way the instruments support your every word through fog, amphetamine and pearls in "Just Like a Woman"; the horn and harmonica intro of "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine," a song that somehow just gets more enjoyable from there; the sleepless nights and dragging heels of "Temporary Like Achilles"; the beat and then, of course, the Beat of "Absolutely Sweet Marie"; the awkward attempts at seduction in "4th Time Around," in which you gallantly hand her your very last piece of gum; the drum and vocal breaks in "Obviously 5 Believers"; and bringing it all back home, the only song I'd care to spend an album side with, "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." Rock 'n' roll has never felt so psychedelic and so rooted in tradition in the same amazing breath.

2. "HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED" (1965): The road to "Blonde on Blonde" finds Dylan putting bleachers in the sun for a rock 'n' roll circus whose freak show is stocked with an endless assortment of colorful characters -- from Jezebel the nun, who violently knits a bald wig for Jack the Ripper, who sits at the head of the Chamber of Commerce to Napoleon in rags. And who but Dylan could have played the book of Genesis for such endearing laughs? The singing and playing are brilliant, with Al Kooper standing out on organ and Mike Bloomfield on guitar. And "Like a Rolling Stone" remains his greatest hit, from its anthemic chorus to those awe-inspiring verses.

3. "Bringing It All Back Home" (1965): Dylan goes electric, swaggering in on a rock 'n' roll riddle that, even after all these years, still sounds as if someone put some mixed-up medicine in Mr. Berry's drink. On "Maggie's Farm," he rocks out in a way that is definitively Dylanesque. On "Mr. Tambourine Man," the words leave you wondering what possessed the Byrds to leave some out. And long before the album winds its way around through songs both playful and intense to the bleary-eyed soul of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," he's rewritten the book of love in a handful of beautiful ballads while the words spill out like so much magic, surreal and hilarious. Not even Dylan can keep from laughing on "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream." And then, he turns around and hits you with "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)."

4. "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" (1963): Dylan at his pre-electric best, from hilarious talking blues to protest-folk both philosophical and outraged. "Blowin' in the Wind" finds Dylan pouring everything he's learned from Woody Guthrie into a questioning anthem, while on "Masters of War" he seethes with righteous indignation, demanding "I hope that you die and your death will come soon." It's also got the gorgeous breakup-folk of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." And what's not to love in an album that ends with a can of black paint falling on the singer's head in 1963 as a set-up for the punch line, "I went down to scrub and rub/But I had to sit in back of the tub"?

5. "Planet Waves" (1974): It's odd that he should have a work as underrated as this reunion with the Band, a band that knew exactly what his music needs, from Robbie Robertson's aching guitar to the strolling accordion player on the punch-drunk "On a Night Like This." From "Dirge," an intensely emotional portrait of love in decay, to cuts as sweet as "Wedding Song," "You Angel You" and, best of all, "Forever Young," this underrated treasure is by far the most compelling of his post-surreal, personal albums.

6. "Greatest Hits" (1967) and "Greatest Hits, Vol. 2" (1971): For those who don't count greatest hits, I think it was Abraham Lincoln who said, "You go your way and I'll go mine." Not only do these albums paint a surprisingly vivid portrait of the artist in his prime -- from hits to albums cuts -- they throw in a number of classic songs that never made it to an album, from the singer wishing you could stand inside his shoes to find out what a drag it is to see you to the rollicking garage-rock kicks of "Quinn, the Eskimo."

7. "Blood on the Tracks" (1975): An understated gem inspired by the breakup of his marriage, this musical diary finds the singer lashing out with an anger that's almost embarrassing in the chorus of "Idiot Wind." But the overall mood is reflective as Dylan walks you through his broken home while sending shivers down the spine in "You're a Big Girl Now" and "Tangled Up in Blue."

8. "Another Side of Bob Dylan" (1964): There's not much blood on Dylan's tracks at this point, but it is the most revealing of his pre-electric efforts, with a noticeable shift from protest songs to songs that draw on Dylan's own back pages, featuring such classic tunes as "My Back Pages," "All I Really Want to Do" and "It Ain't Me Babe."

9. "John Wesley Harding" (1968): Drawing on sinners and saints for inspiration in this clear retreat from "Blonde on Blonde" to simpler folk traditions, Dylan goes acoustic with a number of his most enduring songs, including a version of "All Along the Watchtower" that doesn't even hint at what Jimi Hendrix is about to do.

10. "The Basement Tapes" (1975): Showcasing Dylan at play with the Band in Woodstock while recovering from his "motorcycle accident" of 1966, this onetime bootleg holds up like no table scraps you've ever heard, from "Tears of Rage" to classic throwaways as downright goofy as the one in which the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll is moved to sing, "I looked at my watch/I looked at my wrist/I punched myself in the face with my fist."



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