Everyone has their first Dylan and their favorite Dylan. The handsome liner notes to Columbia’s latest Best of Bob Dylan features photographs of several: baby-faced Dylan, Guthrie-disciple Dylan, station-wagon daddy Dylan, Rolling Thunder Dylan, all the way up to, it must be admitted, creepy mustache Dylan. My first Dylan was witnessed as a wall of cassettes in the home of one of my father’s friends. At six years old, I was blown away by the sheer number of them, that familiar bold red Columbia font blaring on tape after tape. I had no idea who Dylan was or what he sounded like, but I knew he was important.
The Best of Bob Dylan is a collection of 16 songs, no more than one song chosen from a particular album. And while that will send some fans into fits-and makes the collection completely useless for most of them-it works perfectly for a planned one disc. Unlike many similar compilations, this one doesn’t feel as much like a cash-grab, even if it is. The album is aware of the fact that applying “Best of” to the recording career of Bob Dylan is a bit silly. Bill Flanagan’s liner notes even admit that the record is hardly definitive, but instead “a sampler for new listeners… a starting point.” Thank you Bill for finally, as you put it, calling a spade a spade.
As a starting point, the album moves swiftly and coherently, succeeding in its mission statement. Limiting the options to one song per album gives the record focus, and if you have complaints about specific choices than you probably won’t buy this record anyway. The record starts with the undeniable “Blowin’ in the Wind”, and from there travels through Dylan’s career, covering his most popular songs. It’s a fascinating, if clipped, way to experience his life’s work. Every song is informed by the one which precedes it, Dylan’s artistic progression clearly demonstrated step by step. “The Times They Are A-Changin'” builds on “Blowin’ in the Wind”, just as “Mr. Tambourine Man” builds off of it. The evolution is so assured and steady, that when you get to the gospel flavored “Gotta Serve Somebody” you’re not disoriented by its strikingly different sound. Every selection feels natural in its place.
It’s hard to listen to the Best of Bob Dylan as if I were its intended audience. Can I hear “Lay, Lady, Lay” again for the first time? And as the readership of an online culture magazine, I’ll bet it is for most of you as well. The best I can do apart from loving individual songs is experience them in a similar way to the recent No Direction Home documentary: the historical subject Dylan. If you feel like throwing your cash at a record you already own up to16 times (perhaps minus “Things Have Changed” from the soundtrack to 1999’s Wonder Boys), you might connect the threads between “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and “Summer Days”, or “Hurricane” and “Like a Rolling Stone”. Flanagan’s notes are smart and casual, recording dates and album information are given for each track to help newcomers find those albums, the artwork is attractive (is there anything better than matte finish?), and the sound is bright and crisp. If you’re reading this review and have never heard more than one or two of these songs, than you’ll be well served by starting here.