Tuesday, August 23, 2011

HoG25 Addendum: The Top 25 Bob Dylan Studio Albums Preview

A couple of years ago, when this blog was manned by The Iron Triangle, we started a project called the HoG 25. It was a series of posts in which we reviewed a dozen categories – some sports, some not – in a best-25-of-the-last-25 fashion. It was a ton of work and a good deal of fun. A couple of months ago, the three of us were gathered in Durango, and amidst a discussion of music, the topic of Bob Dylan arose. A key portion of said discussion involved me stating that Desire had been Dylan’s best studio effort, and this statement garnered looks of shame from both of my friends.

It was a humbling moment, as I realized that perhaps I was not as well-versed on the entire Dylan discography as once thought. I decided then and there that I would assemble the first HoG25 addendum and rank each Dylan album, ultimately to decide what the top 25 were. That way, I could have a definitive feel for quantifying his records, and tie it in with the aforementioned project. It became my labor of love for the summer, a project addendum that has spanned about two months worth of immersion, totaling a little over 4,000 minutes of listening and research.

In short, it’s a bit of a foolish endeavor in that it’s opinion-based and entirely unworthy of being labeled as news, or maybe even interesting to anybody but me, but it’s been a blast and I don’t regret it for a minute. The project was not constructed with the intent of criticizing Dylan and it should be understood that the artist and the bulk of his discography is pedestaled, in my mind, with an eminent sense of fandom.

His body of work is not without fault, nor does it not deserve negative attention in spots, spaces, and chunks. This, though, is an exercise in attempting to rank the best works of one of the best music figures in history. The ranking is about relationships with/appreciation of songs and song craftsmanship. It’s not an attempt to be biographical or to quote/unquote understand the artist, and with that said, it’s important to point out some (perhaps obvious) flaws with the project:

• Many writers are/have been Dylan biographers. I make no such claim, and whether or not a biographical stance (or a claim to not have one) impacts the results of such a project is to be determined by the individual reader.

• Considerable use of various Wikipedia pages occurred during the “research” portion of this addendum.

• Take or leave what Rolling Stone magazine does and writes. If you put any stock in the publication, feel free to compare where various Dylan albums landed in their "Top 500 Albums of All Time" article. If you happen to be one of the other two Iron Triangle legs, you will be pleased, I imagine.

• There’s an irony to such a project in which trying to appreciate each album and era for themselves is hardly possible when pitting said albums and eras against one another.

• The conversation that gave birth to this project served two purposes: 1) It’s a good exercise to revisit something anchored in personal certainty, and 2) It’s fascinating to think about expectations and what they do to you in music and in life, i.e. thinking ahead of time that the Bob Dylan albums of the of the ‘80s would reveal a dip in quality has negative potential in terms of negative bias, but in the end, it can refresh the mind in that it’s-okay-to-be-right-sometimes sense.

• It would’ve been fantastic to avoid the first person entirely, to have this project free of “I” phrases, but that wound up being a grandiose hope.

• I, then, will seldom find good adjectives and synonyms for beauty, or nice, or down-home, or soothing, or riff, or cut, or track, or feel*, so if that’s a turn-off you may want to avoid reading the ranks.

*The last of which may appear with such high frequency that an airsick bag may be required for you to enjoy your travels.

• There are certainly other flaws -– like the overuse of the verb “to be” –- operating here, and it’s possible too many exist to list. The purpose of the project, though, was to examine the entire studio catalog, and to enjoy the notion of ranking them, which, challenging as it was, I did.

Somebody said on the Twitters the other week that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” A few folks thought that was funny, and a few days later, someone tweeted this follow-up: “Dancing about architecture is like fencing around landscaping.” The initial part of that quote was, around the time that this was circulating, attributed to Frank Zappa, Thelonius Monk, Laurie Anderson, and, to a lesser degree, David Bowie. #TeamFollowBack tried to take credit for it. If you Google it, names like Martin Mull, Elvis Costello, Steve Martin, Miles Davis, pop up, and I’m sure other search engines and perusals of the stacks in your local library would generate a few other curious ones as well.

Forget that quote. If writing about music makes your tea kettle whistle, then get after it.

Assuming, though, that you can muffle the cackles of those so important to deem a topic unwriteable, how, then, do you write something about Bob Dylan and not feel like a complete stooge in starting, mid-process, and after? Impossible.

Okay. Maybe it’s just a challenge. After all, Amazon has a “The 20 Best Bob Dylan books” list, leading one to believe that at least some two dozen authors have taken the plunge.

This is not about Bob Dylan. It’s not about his music. Well, it is about his music, just not all of it. A couple smacks of the abacus will tell you that 67 Dylan releases have graced music-store shelves and MP3 libraries, and that doesn’t even include the 58 singles. It does include projects with other artists, releases of the greatest-hits variety, live recordings, and of course, studios.

It’s the latter that’s of interest for this piece, and some of the research done for it began by accident some 15 years ago, courtesy of a little thing called the cassette tape. Maybe you’ve heard of it. That's where I started, though: with the 23 (of 34 total) studio albums I already owned. I started with his 1962 self-titled release and worked my way through the collection, giving each album I knew well one listen, those I did not three. As far as those I didn't own, I acquired them on a limited budget via e-bay, Amazon, and inter-library loans. I stayed as chronologically close to release order as possible, but three albums in particular -- The Times They Are a-Changin', Dylan, and Empire Burlesque -- remained out of reach for some time due to either availability or cost. Once they arrived, some backtracking was required, but rest assured that each album got its due diligence.

Where to begin about the music of Bob Dylan, though.

Dozens of writers, music critics, and historians have invested countless months and years trying to summarize, analyze, and categorize this monstrosity of an American icon. If you spend a few minutes searching, you will discover no shortage of Web sites devoted to things like general Dylan information, album reviews, tour updates and concert information, just to name a few. The purpose of this exercise is not to either trump any of those efforts or be considered above or below them. Instead, it’s a bit of a tribute, and perhaps a fruitless effort whose end seeks no means other than an opportunity to get neck-deep in the BD discography for a couple of months. When clicking around within the myriad of Dylan-devoted Web projects, a thought came across: Is he the biggest solo figure in the annals of American music? Consider that for a moment and create a mental list of those with whom he’d be in the running.

Those of the generation before mine are all but guaranteed to insist it was Elvis. This is an assertion with which I whole-heartedly disagree. That’s not a knock on the king. Dude was huge. Massive and global and unforgettable. But his body of work, without digging around is a fleck on the lens of this scope. The thought wasn’t one that wanted to insist this to be a truth. Rather it was an exercise that wondered how many people out there grasp the volume of the cultural contribution Dylan has made and continues to make.

I’d bet that some segments of the population would suggest Madonna. And I would guess that legions would argue for Michael Jackson. My answer to either or both is no. Madonna was amazing. She recorded a ton of great songs, blew up the MTVs, and pushed the women-in-music envelope clear across the table. Maybe even off of it. Michael Jackson was, at one time, the biggest music-and-entertainment icon in the world. Trying to quantify what he did for music is an impossible feat. Bob Dylan, though, trumps them all.

Like I said, this is all a matter of opinion, but as we begin to move through the selections, here’re two interesting things to perhaps monitor: the quantity of tracks recorded by Dylan and made famous by another artist, and the list of notable -– they’re all notable, some more familiar than others -- musicians that have worked with him across 47 years of recording sessions.

So drop back by tomorrow for a list of the nine that didn't make the cut, and later this week for the Top 25 itself.