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Magical Mixtapes of Wonder: Bob Dylan

March 11, 2011

After the all day endeavor of dressing up like David Byrne and taking pictures of myself, I figured today we’d go with something a little more low-key.

I love when I see people hoping to learn more about pop culture.  Sharing my passions for music, literature and film is one of the things I love to do most in this world.  So, when I found out that one of my cousins was starting to get into Bob Dylan, I jumped at the chance to share one of my favorite artists of all time with him.  Then, I figured, why just share it with him when I can share it with all of you, too?

This sign and I do not agree

While compiling this collection, I tried to avoid the songs available on greatest hits compilations and instead dig a little deeper, and hopefully open the gate to enjoying Dylan’s career outside of the handful of songs that are so deeply woven into modern culture. Here are 19 lesser-known tracks that I consider essential songs in Dylan’s oeuvre.  It pained me to pare this down to just over an hour, but I think that it will serve as a solid introduction for any of you hoping to explore.

Click on the album cover to hear the song!

1) Sally Gal (1962)- Let’s begin at the logical starting point, the beginning.  This track, available on the  No Direction Home compilation, is a perfect example of the upbeat side of his early folk styling.  The first minute is a rousing acoustic guitar and harmonica vamp, which leads into a simple folk tune, which Dylan infuses with a playful vocal and some lonesome train harp sounds.


2) When the Ship Comes In (1964)- Another tune with just Dylan and his guitar and harp, but this one falls into the “voice of a generation” category.  With a series of nautical metaphors, Dylan summons laughing fish, smiling seagulls, and proud rocks welcoming the ship into the bay.  I still get a chill when I hear, “they’ll raise their hands, saying, ‘we’ll meet all your demands.'” If only, Bob, if only….


3) Ballad of the Gliding Swan (1963)- Only available on bootlegs these days, this one comes from a rarely seen appearance in the BBC television play “Madhouse on Castle Street.”  Musically, it’s just another version of “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance,” but the darkly humorous listing of maladies earns it a place on my list.


4) Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window? (1965)- A stand-alone single recorded with the Band at an early session for what would eventually become Blonde on Blonde (1966).  It’s lyrics like “Trying to peel the moon and expose it/with his businesslike anger and bloodhounds that kneel” that got the folkies upset, which Dylan would answer two years later on another stand-alone single “Positively 4th Street.”


5) Queen Jane Approximately (1965)- The opener of Highway 61 Revisited‘s Side Two, this track bears many lyrical similarities to “Like A Rolling Stone,” but replaces the driving force of the former with a lilting sense of wistfulness.  It opens with a pregnant electric guitar strum and keeps the tension going with droning organ and intermittent piano runs.  A fantastic track on an absolute classic of a record.


6) Days of ’49 (1970)- One of Dylan’s few covers, this track appears on the oft-maligned Self Portrait. While I personally enjoy the record (the subject of a future post here, I’m sure), even those who write it off have to give credit to this reading.  The mellower vocal style that Dylan adopted during this era perfectly suits this gold rush tale.


7) One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) (1966)- This is possibly the best break-up song ever written.  The verses alternate between trying to explain the speaker’s actions and understanding those of another, while the chorus gives away a wistful view of a failed connection and the need to move on.  This is backed up by a great arrangement including an almost evangelical organ and one of my favorite vocals from Dylan.


8) Dear Landlord (1968)- John Wesley Harding is often considered a retreat by Dylan, and is mostly remembered for the original recording of “All Along the Watchtower,” but this is truly a hidden gem.  Over a walking bassline, chorded piano and a shuffle drum beat, a tenant’s plea against eviction takes on a universal air.  I can’t put my finger on what it is about this track that cuts so deep, but it sure does.


9) George Jackson (Acoustic Version) (1971)- Released during the mostly fallow period between New Morning (1970) and the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack (1973), this song hearkens back to Dylan’s early career with just a an acoustic guitar, harmonica, and single voice crying out on behalf of the murdered inmate and Black Panther.  It originally appeared as the B-Side to a slightly inferior “Big Band Version”.


10) Sarah Jane (1973)- From the loathed and forgotten Dylan record of outtakes released in the aftermath of the artist’s (temporary) move to Asylum Records, this is an upbeat take on the traditional tune.  It would be easy to write this off as a silly outtake, but it’s a great example of Dylan’s playful side.  Like “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” before it, he really just sounds like he’s having fun on this one.


11) Goin’ to Acupolco (recorded ’67; released ’75)- Culled from the legendary “Basement Tapes” recorded with the Band in the basement of Big Pink.  The music and lyrics both foreshadow the movement towards Americana that popular music would take in the early ’70s.  My favorite part of this record has to be either Garth Hudson’s absolutely horrorshow organ or the anguished group vocals.


12) You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (1975)- Blood on the Tracks will always have a special place in my heart as the first Dylan record I fell in love with (as my battered CD copy will attest), and I’ve always had a deep love for this song. I feel I get a slightly different reaction every time I hear it, and how can you not love a line like, “Relationships have all been bad/Mine have been like Verlaine and Rimbaud”?


13) Something There is About You (1974)- Finally, a positive love song. From Planet Waves, the LP that reunited Dylan with the Band, both are on the top of their game on this track.  Instead of the snarling noise that they conjured on the ’66 tour, this track is far mellower.  It’s the sound of those young Turks settling down and enjoying what all of their hard work has earned them.  Laid-back, but definitely not slouching off.


14) The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll [Live] (1975)- Recorded during the Rolling Thunder Revue, this version takes all of the vitrol of the studio version (from The Times They Are A-Changin’) and finally gives it the arrangement to match.  While the stark reading of the original comes off as a mournful ode, the strong beat, fluid guitar, and backing vocals turn it into the anthem that it was always meant to be.


15) You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (recorded ’67; released ’75)- Another track from the “Basement,” both musically and lyrically, this is the polar opposite of “Goin’ to Acupolco”.  The upbeat country swing augments surreal lyrics detailing the arrival of the singer’s bride.  Though I consider this a stronger version, the 1971 recording from Greatest Hits II and recorded with Happy Traum on banjo is also worth seeking out.


16) Oh, Sister (1976)- Though often overlooked in favor of “Hurricane” and “Joey,” this is one of the best tracks from Desire.  Though Dylan and Jacques Levy’s lyrics are good, it is the work of two women on this track that make it great.  The violin of Scarlet Riviera and the duet vocals of Emmylou Harris are absolutely phenomenal.  Dylan and Harris possess two of my favorite voices and it’s great to hear them together.


17) Mama, You Been On My Mind [Live] (1975)- Never officially released until 1991, there are several versions of this song floating around (Live 1964 and Bootleg Series 1-3 spring to mind), but this is the best by leaps and bounds.  Another great Rolling Thunder arrangement, including a hot slide guitar solo, and the duet vocals of Joan Baez take this one into the stratosphere. Honestly, just pick up Live 1975, it’s amazing.


18) Señor (Tales of Yankee Power) (1978)- Street-Legal was the last record Dylan recorded before becoming a born-again Christian and, for a time, switching to  music.  Critically panned upon release and plauged with muddy production (which the CD reissue has alleviated), it is often forgotten.  This is a shame seeing as it includes gems such as this.  The swampy music and claustrophobic lyrics are a perfect match.


19) Father of Night (1970)- I can’t think of a better closer for this mix than the final track from “my Dylan record,” New Morning.  A short, piano and choral driven number, if I ever founded a church this would be a hymn sung at every service.  Regardless of your religious convictions, you can’t not appreciate that great flowing chord progression.


There it is folks, if you haven’t ever listened to him, I hope this serves as your introduction to the amazing work of Bob Dylan.  If you are a Dylan fan, I hope that you saw a few of your favorites above, and maybe found a few new favorites.  Have I won Dylan any new fans?  Did I leave out any essential introductory tunes? Let me know what you think in the comments ↓ below ↓


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