Releasing compilations for artists of substantial fame and notoriety has gone from being reserved for only those most deserving to anyone with two or more hit singles. In all my years of album hunting, I’ve stumbled across many of these “Greatest Hits" albums in the search for that elusive ‘Terminal Spirit Disease’ or ‘Bringing It All Back Home’; many not worth the price it took to make the cd the music was printed on alone. ‘20th Century Masters: The Best of Cream’, ‘ABBA’s Greatest Hits’, hell I’ve even found a Dexter’s Laboratory hip-hop album, all of which wound me up, and pissed me off. I confess myself disappointed. Then one day while searching for ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, I stumbled across yet another compilation entitled ‘The Essential Bob Dylan’. Intrigued, I looked over the two-disc collections’ track listing and found myself salivating. I hastily purchased it and popped it in to my headphones; thus vanquishing any sense of shame I felt for purchasing that which I detest.
The main problem I’ve encountered with the numerous ‘Greatest Hits’ out there is that they don’t deliver what they promised on the title. Something is always missing, the album is too short (20th Century Masters), etc. Immediately it was obvious that this would contain far more than it missed, and also promised to be exceedingly long in length. As ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ made way for ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, some of my more persistent anxieties vanished in the gentle storm that was Mr. Dylan’s sublime finger picking. As the tracks came by early in this the first disc, the compilation seemed flawless. Not only had it managed to capture multiple superb songs, but had also presented them in a fluid order, making the experience all the more delectable. I could almost hear the gunshots at Kent State during the renowned “Mr. Tambourine Man", and could certainly feel the tension of a Cold War turning hot in “Maggie’s Farm". Pondering the flow of the album, I realized that this compilation may very well do what it and so many others had set out to accomplish. This revelation was timed perfectly with the intro to “Subterranean Homesick Blues", so naturally I haven’t questioned it since.
After sifting through a few lesser numbers (“Rainy Day Women #12 and 35"; and even “Like A Rolling Stone"), my instant delight with what I was sure to be a quality compilation faded to what I had previously assumed to be a contradiction in terms. Put bluntly, the second half of the first disc contained many songs that I felt weren’t worthy of sharing space with the holiness that was the first half of the album. As I was settling in for a gloomy experience, “All Along the Watchtower" jolted my ass right back to where I started. While many of you, the precious readers, may prefer the Hendrix cover, I must say, there is nothing that Hendrix could have done to emulate the deadly and forlorn calm in Bob’s singing on this classic track. And yet, my already traumatized euphoria was about to take another beating. Making my way into the second disc, I had many emotions circulating in my head. As curious as I was to see which one would triumph and co-exist with the second disc, I was sure I already knew the answer.
I was wrong. I found myself disappointed in the majority of the second disc; suffice to say that as the times were a-changin’, so was my opinion. Realizing how difficult it is to create a greatest hits for Bob Dylan while covering more than just his reign in the 60’s, I was led into sympathy for those who undertook this task, which was one that could cause a Nuclear Physicist to spurt into fits of panic. Nevertheless, I couldn’t disguise my remorse for the vast majority of songs on the second disc, with a few notable exceptions.
“The Hurricane" is a stunning song that speaks out against racism, a cause for which Dylan had been crusading since his concert at the famous “I have a dream" rally, to which the folk star showed up inebriated and shouted obscenities towards officials. Fight the power. Perhaps it is also worth mentioning the dropping of the “N" bomb in this powerful tune? "Shelter from the Storm" also proved itself a gem, illustrating that just because the war in ‘Nam had ended didn’t mean that legit protesting had to. The single greatest thing about these later works is that it seemed Dylan had found middle ground between the folk heroics of his earliest days and the “Judas" electric Dylan of the mid-60’s.
Naturally, there couldn’t be a Bob Dylan essential compilation without the grossly over-covered but nonetheless delightful “Knockin’ On Heavens Door". I have a confession to make. I heard the Guns N’ Roses version of “Knockin’ On Heavens Door" before the original. And after hearing the original, I reached the conclusion that Axl Rose is a moron. The song itself has an almost country feel to it, which is fitting considering it was recorded for the soundtrack for the 1972 movie ‘Pat Garret and Billy the Kid’.
“Ma, take this badge off of me.
I can’t use it anymore.
It’s getting dark, too dark to see.
Feels like I’m knocking on Heaven’s door."
The vast majority of the songs on the second disc are around 5 minutes in length, and therefore may be somewhat challenging to sit through at first. And while it’s true many of the songs lack the appeal of the first disc, there are also quite a few standout tracks, some of which weren’t mentioned. A lot of the songs have gospel undertones, thanks to the addition of a chorus of female back-up vocals that make themselves heard on tracks like “The Hurricane" and “Gotta Serve Somebody". For the die-hard Bob Dylan fan, this is about as vital as ‘The Blue Album’ by The Beatles or ‘Early Days and Latter Days’ by Led Zeppelin, but for the fresh Dylan fan wanting to wet your feet in a good and relatively inexpensive collection, this may very well be what your looking for.
Many great, memorable tunes.
Balanced collection throughout Dylan’s career.
Second disc is somewhat lackluster.
Harmonica can become annoying.