We all have our special Bob Dylan lists of various “favorites.” One of my pet peeves is that people tend to neglect so many of his wonderful recordings.
Here, then, is my list of his most overlooked gems, taking two from each of Dylan’s decades:
1960s: “When the Ship Comes In” & “I Threw It All Away:” One acoustic, one with a band backing and each absolutely brilliant in its own way. Dylan wrote “When the Ship Comes In” after an innkeeper wouldn’t give him a hotel room because he was seemingly dressed like some sort of a ragamuffin — prompting a classic Dylan revenge-on-the-world lyric. “I Threw It All Away” is Dylan at his most effective in his late ’60s, country phase: simple, concise and soulful.
1970s: “Black Diamond Bay” & “When You Gonna Wake Up?:” I LOVE “Black Diamond Bay.” It always makes me smile. This is a happy record, and the witty, world-weary final verse makes me laugh as well. Pretty fair harmonica sound throughout, too, eh? “When You Gonna Wake Up?” is Dylan preaching, pure and simple. It’s saved from the ranks of tedium because he sings the song so well and convincingly. He believes every word, and doesn’t seem to care much whether you and I do at all.
1980s: “Lenny Bruce” & “Dirty World:” How great would it be, or would it have been, if Dylan recorded an entire album with him playing the piano and singing, to very little accompaniment. He is an arresting piano player, as his fans have noticed in recent years during the man’s worldwide tours. “Lenny Bruce” is so stark and powerful. Dylan wisely arranged it so his piano would dominate the song. Yes, yes, “Dirty World” is technically a Traveling Wilburys production, but I’ll give Dylan the nod here because he sings it so memorably, following George Harrison’s rather serious vocal on the album’s first song, “Handle with Care.” Here, Harrison comes across as sounding as dignified as all get-out — and then Dylan comes charging through the gate, full of life, while singing humorously about “your sexy body” and “your dirty mind.” His funniest song in years, at that point.
1990s: “You’re Gonna Quit Me” & “Blood in My Eyes:” These two terrific performances basically speak for themselves. Dylan might as well have been intent on creating another batch of basement-type songs, stuff he was doing for his own amusement and entertainment and not worrying much if it got out or ever reached the Top Ten. He must have hundreds of these kinds of private recordings stashed away somewhere. I hope he lets us hear them all eventually.
2000s: “Po’ Boy” & “Workingman’s Blues #2:” “Po’ Boy” might have fit neatly on the “John Wesley Harding” album because of its laconic power and lovely easy-rolling guitar sound. “Workingman’s Blues #2″ is one of the greatest songs that Dylan has ever recorded. It has power, majesty and beauty. Isn’t that what Dylan at his best is all about?
A bonus track: “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue,” recorded in the early 1970s, with Dylan appearing solo at the piano. Trust me. You won’t hear a more gorgeous vocal by Dylan, anywhere, and in any decade.