On October 13, 2016, Sara Danils, Secretary of the Swedish Academy, informed a room full of expectant reporters that,“The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 is awarded to Bob Dylan for creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” That day, Dylan’s official Twitter feed gestured toward the award with a retweet. That night, he opened for The Rolling Stones in the California desert, but he elected not to say a word about it.
Social media, meanwhile, was ablaze with opinions about whether Dylan’s songwriting should count as “literature.” His lyrics don’t stand on their own as poetry, many claimed, and granting the award to a pop musician is another nail in the coffin of book culture. Besides, why recognize another old white guy when the privilege deficit is already so enormous?
Others took the stance that songs preexisted writing, that ancient poetry was always meant to be sung. Therefore music flows through our bones, and songwriters forward and influence the collective body of writing as well as anyone.
Everyone waited to hear what Dylan would say.
In the coming days it came out that the Nobel committee couldn’t get ahold of him. A week went by before Per Wastberg, chair of the Nobel Committee for Literature 2016, said on Swedish TV that Dylan was “rude and arrogant” for not returning their phone calls.
Days after the announcement, Dylan’s website had briefly featured a “Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature” banner, which was quickly taken down. Wastberg said this deletion was “hardly surprising. He seems to be a very grumpy and reluctant man.”
Quickly walking back Wastberg’s public complaint, Sara Danils released a statement that said, “The Swedish Academy has never held a view on a prize winner’s decision in this context, neither will it now. … This is Mr. Wastberg’s private opinion.”
Even so, the implications couldn’t be ignored. Bob Dylan was ghosting the Swedish Academy. “I think his manners suck,” Dylan’s folk comrade Joan Baez told an interviewer, “and his words deserve the Nobel Prize.”
Would Dylan accept? Refuse? Ignore the matter completely? His dubious relationship to honors, prizes, and awards was well known. When the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee gave him the Tom Paine Award in 1963, his acceptance speech so rankled the crowd he was booed off the stage. Dylan recounted the incident to the New Yorker in 1964: “I saw a lot of myself in Oswald, I said, and I saw in him a lot of the times we’re all living in. And, you know, they started booing.” Dylan claims he wasn’t praising Kennedy’s assassination, but using Oswald as an example of the nation’s unease.
While Dylan’s words, in that instance, were clunky at best, when he won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991, he gave a brief speech that quoted the bible and sang “Masters of War,” an anti-establishment song if there ever was one.
In 2012, when Dylan accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he neither smiled nor removed his sunglasses when Barack Obama draped the award around his neck. Dylan simply patted the president on the arm and returned to his seat.
But finally, in an interview arranged with The Telegraph months earlier to discuss a gallery opening of Dylan’s artwork in London, Dylan broke his silence on the Nobel Prize: “It’s hard to believe … amazing, incredible. Whoever dreams about something like that?”
Would he be attending the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Stockholm on December 10? “Absolutely,” he said. “If it’s at all possible.”
Another cryptic answer from America’s greatest poet-songwriter.
Now Dylan has informed the Swedish Academy that, while he’s honored by the award, “pre-existing commitments” will prevent him from travelling to Stockholm to accept it in person. Still, accepting the prize at all requires the recipient to deliver a lecture within six months of the ceremony. Will Dylan address the songwriting-as-literature controversy, or the death of his longtime friend Leonard Cohen, or the U.S. presidential election? Time will tell, but until then, it’s worth getting a handle on Dylan’s career in two ways: a complete album ranking and a selected track list.
The album ranking—like all attempts to quantify and categorize art—is admittedly fallible and subjective, but hopefully it helps spur conversations about where exactly Dylan’s greatness lies. It sorts some 27 Dylan studio albums (the ones that contain a majority of original songs) through a holistic measure of sheer excellence in album making. Breaking these albums into four flights (A through D) should help delineate the levels of excellence in Dylan’s recording career, while the “Also Rans” recognize Dylan’s cover and soundtrack efforts.
The selected Spotify playlist picks the best 2 – 5 songs from nearly all of these albums, (plus two tracks total from the Traveling Wilburys and the single “Things Have Changed”; Spotify doesn’t have available the single “Positively Fourth Street” or the latest album, Fallen Angels) and sorts them chronologically. What that means is the 110 songs here, totaling almost nine hours, aren’t necessarily the “best,” because that list would include practically all of, for example, Blonde on Blonde and none of, say, Knocked Out Loaded. But these tracks, whether listened to chronically or on shuffle, traces the entirety of Dylan’s career. By the end, listeners should feel qualified to make their own judgements about Dylan as literature, or at least to have a say in the conversation. In any case, reading up on a national hero who garners international acclaim can only be an edifying experience.
Listen to the playlist here: https://open.spotify.com/…/…/playlist/3wLRVSrLLfKbETYmpQN20H.
Ranking Bob Dylan’s Albums: Fifty-Plus Years in the Musical (and Literary) Limelight
A FLIGHT – These are the world-beaters, the Nobel Prize winners, the albums that transcend music and help shape the cultural ethos.
1. Blonde on Blonde (1966) – Dylan recruited studio musicians from Nashville and let them loose on some of the most soulful, expressive, poetic songs—“I Want You,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”—in American music. The result is a double album that most closely achieves “that thin, that wild mercury sound” Dylan claims to hear in his mind.
2. Highway 61 Revisited (1965) – This album presents a surrealistic dreamscape colored in by studio musicians given a license to improvise, weaving a propulsive backdrop to Dylan’s biting vocals. With tracks such as “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Desolation Row,” Highway 61 is no less than a rock-and-roll landmark.
3. Freewheelin’ (1962) – The album that launched Dylan onto the music scene: “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” The fusion here of textured acoustic picking, superlative folk songwriting, and youthful performance make this one of the greatest albums, well, ever.
4. Blood on the Tracks (1975) – Dylan denies that this album found its inspiration in his marital separation at the time; but with the plaintive tales of longing, heartache, and resentment floating through songs like “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Idiot Wind,” and “Shelter From the Storm,” the biographical influence is hard to deny. The lead track, “Tangled Up in Blue,” is simply a tour de force of lyrical storytelling.
5. Time Out of Mind (1997) – Hailed as Dylan’s comeback album, and earning him a Grammy for Album of the Year, Time Out of Mind patiently traces the nature of time and aging, heartbreak and a yearning that never seems to fade. Dylan’s late-life growl punches through this atmospheric soundscape on tracks like “Lovesick” and “Cold Irons Bound,” proving just how much fight the song-slinger has left in him.
B FLIGHT – These albums are brilliant in their own right, exerting a lasting effect on music and culture.
6. Bringing It All Back Home (1965) – Dylan goes electric, at least for side one, and the results are spectacular. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” harnesses Beat poetry and becomes an anthem; “She Belongs to Me” is as endearing a love song as you’ll find; “Maggie’s Farm” lifts a rock-and-roll middle finger to the folk establishment. And that’s just the first three songs. Side two expands the possibilities of lyricism and acoustic songwriting.
7. Love and Theft (2001) – Continuing his late-career renaissance, Dylan here pulls readers through a bevy of American song traditions—rock-and-roll with “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,” folk ballad with “Mississippi,” jump blues with “Summer Days.” Throughout the album, each song recaptures and renews a sub-genre that influenced Dylan’s career.
8. Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) – For the first time here Dylan begins to recoil from the early-60s protest movement that co-opted him. “All I Really Wanna Do” begins the album, while “It Ain’t Me Babe” ends it; both seem in conversation with those who try to box him in. The folk singer here is joyous, spinning lyrics brimming with playfulness and depth.
9. The Times They Are a-Changin’ (1964) – A darkness flows through these songs, a consciousness of social injustice and global atrocity. While Dylan could simply do no wrong musically in the early – mid 60s, the fact that this album relies so heavily on social unrest gives it a niche categorization that prevents it from climbing higher on this list.
10. Desire (1976) – Co-written with Jacques Levy, the songs here travel the world, from the Little Italy of “Joey,” to “Mozambique,” to the “pyramids all embedded in ice” of “Isis.” Thanks to the Denzel Washington film, “Hurricane” is the best known song from this dynamic album which also features Emmylou Harris on background vocals.
C FLIGHT – For any other artist, three or four of these albums alone would make a Hall of Fame Career.
11. Infidels (1983) – Emerging from his gospel albums, Dylan paints a world of shadows and corruption, especially compelling on “Jokerman” and “I and I.” Mark Knopfler produces this distinctly 80s-sounding release.
12. John Wesley Harding (1967) – Dylan’s first album after his motorcycle accident and subsequent reclusion to rural New York contains pared-down arrangements and spare tales of folk heroes and royalty, hobos and drifters alike.
13. New Morning (1970) – While this album contains some of Dylan’s strongest and most effusive work—“New Morning,” “The Man in Me”—it’s a bit uneven, dropping it down into the C flight.
14. The Basement Tapes (1975) – A classic release with The Band, in which Dylan shares the spotlight and gets absorbed into… the band.
15. Street-Legal (1978) – When this album cooks, it cooks: “Changing of the Guards,” “Senior (Tales of Yankee Power).” But it contains an arena-rock gleam, with high-charged horns and backup vocals, that can feel forced at times for Dylan.
16. Modern Times (2006) – This much-acclaimed mid-2000s release, much like its predecessor Love and Theft, repackages American modes and reinterprets them for a modern day. At times, though, it’s tough to tell the difference between where Dylan borrows, invents, or flat out steals.
17. Together Through Life (2009) – With a heavy-hitting cast of musicians and songwriters like Robert Hunter, David Hidalgo, and Mike Campbell, this album had high expectations. Songs like “If You Ever Go to Houston,” and “I Feel a Change Coming On” deliver, but again, this album is more erratic than Dylan’s best.
18. Oh Mercy (1989) – This album, too, was hailed as a comeback at the end of a long, musically difficult decade for Dylan. It also marks the first pairing with producer Daniel Lanois, who would steer 1997’s Time Out of Mind to greatness.
19. Planet Waves (1974) – With The Band as the backing musicians, Planet Waves settles into a bluesy Americana rhythm right from the first track and never lets it go. Songs like “Going, Going, Gone” and “Forever Young” became classics, but Dylan’s songwriting is still working to break from that post-crash sparseness. He’ll bring this style to fruition in his next release, Blood on the Tracks.
20. Tempest (2012) – This album casts Dylan’s long-form lyrical poetics through the persona he’s developed for himself as a country-western rambler grown long in the tooth.
21. Nashville Skyline (1969) – That Nashville Skyline is Dylan’s twentieth best album helps put this man’s career in perspective. It’s still a very good album, but it contains a Nashville-style clean sheen that begs for more of Dylan’s ad-hoc recording practices to messy things up.
D-FLIGHT – Dylan had his down years, too, and apparently they all came in and around the 1980s.
22. Slow Train Coming (1979) – The first of Dylan’s gospel albums contains two classics: “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Slow Train Coming.” The rest is, well, gospel.
23. Empire Burlesque (1985) – A funky, avant-garde mid-80s release whose highlight is the soulful love song, “Emotionally Yours,” later nailed by the O’Jays at the 30th Anniversary Celebration Concert.
24. Shot of Love (1981) – Half gospel, half over-the-hill rock-and-roll, Dylan had just turned 40 when he released Shot of Love.
25. Saved (1980) – An all-out Christian album. As far as evangelical music goes, it’s not so bad.
26. Knocked Out Loaded (1986) – Dylan claimed he mailed-in, or even sabotaged, some albums in the 80s. This might be one of those.
27. Under the Red Sky (1990) – Say what you will, but there is not one Nobel-worthy lyric on this entire album.
28. Down in the Groove (1988) – Not only does this album seem to lack inspiration, tracks like “When Did You Leave Heaven” and “Ninety Miles an Hour (Down a Dead-End Road)” seem to actively assault the ear drums.
Bob Dylan (1962) – Dylan’s first album, mostly of folk standards learned from the Greenwich folk scene, contains only two originals—“Talkin’ New York” and “Song for Woody.” The album shows great promise, but sold few copies.
Self Portrait (1970) – “What is this shit?” wrote Greil Marcus when Dylan put out this double album in 1970. This release contains a small fraction of originals alongside many covers and live recordings. Dylan also claimed to have released albums in the early 70s with the sole purpose of appeasing his creditors…
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) – A soundtrack album to a western film. “Billy #1” is a gem, and this project also features “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
Good As I Been to You (1992) – The first of two solo acoustic releases in the early 90s. Dylan spits out a roster of folk tunes.
World Gone Wrong (1993) – The second solo acoustic release in a row. The songs here turn dark, retreading the outlaw days of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Christmas in the Heart (2009) – Dylan recorded a Christmas album. Nothing screams Christmas like Dylan croaking out, “Here comes Santa Claus.”
Shadows in the Night (2015) – Apparently Dylan has lately been really into Frank Sinatra. His scratchy-throat renditions of these Rat Pack standards give them a dark edge.
Fallen Angels (2016) – Another homage to Sinatra. What’s next—Dylan covers Mariah Carey? (Don’t be surprised.)