Most people agree that few singer/songwriters have been more influential over the past 50 years than Bob Dylan. Now it is possible to own all of Dylan’s collected studio works in one package. Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Vol. 1 covers his 35 studio albums and six live albums, plus a two-CD collection of non-album singles, songs from films and off of compilations. One album was never before released in North America (1973’s Dylan) and 14 have been remastered for the collection.
The 14 remastered albums are:
1. Self Portrait
3. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid
4. Hard Rain
5. Street Legal
6. Live at Budokan
8. Real Live
9. Empire Burlesque
10. Knocked Out Loaded
11. Down in the Groove
12. Under the Red Sky
13. Good as I Been to You
14. World Gone Wrong
While it is not possible to discuss all 42 discs/albums in a short article, we can use the occasion for a look back at Dylan’s musical career.
Dylan began as a traditional folk singer playing the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village in New York. His popularity was enough to get him signed to Columbia Records where, in two days in 1962, he recorded Bob Dylan. Even at this early date there was a glimpse of the songwriting genius to come in his original “Song to Woody,” for his hero Woody Guthrie.
The traditional folk era of Dylan’s music continued through The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan. These albums established Dylan as an important voice for social change and a romantic poet-singer with songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the aggressive “The Times They Are a-Changin'” as well as ” Girl from the North Country” and “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.”
Dylan was established as the darling of the folk scene but then came the revolution. Until this point, Dylan had adhered to folk tradition and been purely acoustic. But in 1965, on Bringing It All Back Home, he went electric on half the songs. Many folk purists were angered by this. They felt betrayed.
But the harder edge of rock added fire to the music and ignited Dylan’s poetry. Suddenly the imagery became darker and more vivid and the lyrics more mysterious. Dylan had discovered folk rock and with that discovery, his place in American music history was assured. Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited introduced Dylan to the rock world.
Songs from these two albums include “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Maggie’s Farm,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden,” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” “Queen Jane Approximately” and “Like a Rolling Stone” also helped create the sound that most people think of when they think of Dylan.
Next, Dylan shook things up again by discovering Nashville and Southern musicians with Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, and Nashville Skyline. These sessions produced songs about outsiders like “John Wesley Harding” and “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” and gave us “All Along the Watchtower,” “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “Lay, Lady, Lay.”
For the ’70s, Dylan got controversial again by doing a double album of mostly covers called Self Portrait. He followed it up with the only moderately successful New Morning and the soundtrack for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which, while mostly forgettable like the movie itself, at least gave us “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
Things were definitely uneven at this point and Dylan seemed a bit lost as to what he wanted to do, but then The Band came along. The first official CD Dylan recorded with them was Planet Waves, followed by Before the Flood, his first official live album, with songs recorded from a show at Madison Square Garden in 1974. It established Dylan’s tradition of completely reworking his songs live in concert.
The next album, Blood on the Tracks, was full of brilliant Dylan originals such as “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Idiot Wind.” It was vivid, intensely personal and very emotional. It was the Dylan fans expected.
Following Blood on the Tracks, Capitol decided to release an official version of a bootleg that had been around for years. The music was from 1967, when Dylan was recovering from a legendary motorcycle accident and practicing with The Band at a house called Big Pink. The bootleg was so popular that Capitol felt they should be profiting from the songs, which included some that had already been hits for other people, like “The Mighty Quinn” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” as well as fan favorites like “Nothing Was Delivered.”
Desire was the next Dylan original and was a superb record which featured background vocals from Emmylou Harris and haunting work from gypsy violinist Scarlet Rivera. It brought back social justice issues with “Hurricane” and “Joey” as well as searingly emotional and personal songs like “Sara.”
Less successful ventures followed, such as Hard Rain, the under-appreciated Street Legal, which suffered from production issues that will hopefully be corrected in the remastered version and Bob Dylan at Budokan, a live album originally only released in Japan, where it was recorded.
Dylan seemed to have lost direction, but then he found it. The Jewish Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, took to conservative Christianity in all its fire-and-brimstone fervor in the ’70s and created several albums full of vivid Biblical imagery and evangelical sermonizing. Great songs came out of Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love, including “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Every Grain of Sand.”
The ’80s and ’90s were a mixed bag for Dylan. He produced a number of albums, beginning with Infidels, that got very mixed results from the buying public. These also included Real Live, Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, and Down in the Groove.
Then came an interesting, if not completely successful album with the Grateful Dead, Dylan and the Dead, consisting of seven standards including “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “Slow Train Coming,” and “Queen Jane Approximately” as some of the best adaptations.
To end the ’80s, Dylan surprised everyone by releasing the superb Oh Mercy! in 1989, which Rolling Stone named one of the top albums of the ’80s. The ’90s continued the trend of the ’80s with the underrated Under the Red Sky and Good as I Been to You.
The third 1990s album in the collection, World Gone Wrong, is especially worth listening to, as Dylan tackles folk and rural blues with great versions of “Delia” and “Stack-A-Lee” as well as Blind WIllie McTell’s “Broke Down Engine” and the traditional hymn, “Lone Pilgrim.”
In 1992, Dylan appeared on MTV’s Unplugged, to make sure the MTV generation would be aware of Dylan’s influence on rock. The resulting album features energetic versions of classics including “All Along the Watchtower,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
Then in 1997, Dylan released his first album of original songs in seven years, Time Out of Mind. Even though he ended up in the hospital seriously ill before he was completely satisfied with it, the album won a Grammy for Album of the Year. In 2001, Dylan returned to the archetypal material he loved interpreting with Love and Theft. These albums were Dylan recording for Dylan and not worrying too much about commercial appeal. Hopefully the collection will give more recognition to just how well he interpreted these songs.
Dylan then proved he could still deliver really popular albums with the release of Modern Times in 2006, which became his first #1 since 1976’s Desire and which sold four million copies worldwide. It wasn’t that he had changed, but that the audience was ready to rediscover him.
2009’s Together Through Life started as a soundtrack for a French movie called My Own Love Songs. The movie did not succeed but Dylan’s album did, The album topped the charts in the U.S. and in Europe.
In 2009 Dylan also recorded Christmas in the Heart. Many fans were amazed and somewhat dumbfounded but after all, Dylan started out and has remained a folk singer and these songs are folk songs in the truest sense. In addition to being fun to listen to, the proceeds from the album are in perpetuity being given to a charity that provides Christmas dinner to needy families, just like Pretty Boy Floyd used to do according to folk song and legend.
The last album in the collection is from 2012, Tempest. Among its virtues is a return to Dylan the storyteller with “Scarlet Town,” “Roll on John,” “Tin Angel” and “Titanic.” Of these, “Roll on John,” a tribute to John Lennon, and “Tin Angel,” a modern traditional murder ballad, are completely original.
Going through all of these albums and tracing Dylan’s whole career is bound to be a worthwhile adventure for those who get the set. There will be old favorites and new discoveries and many overlooked treasures. If you can only own one complete collection by any artist, there are many reasons why it should be this one.