The complete selected track list: https://open.spotify.com/user/paul_haney-us/playlist/3wLRVSrLLfKbETYmpQN20H
In the week since the Swedish Academy awarded Bob Dylan the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, they haven’t been able to get ahold of the famously withdrawn musician. Dylan’s official Twitter page gestured toward the award with a retweet, and his website briefly featured a “Nobel Prize Winner” banner, which was quickly taken down. I imagine that in these times Dylan, notoriously dubious about prizes and honors and the earth-bound institutions that award them, is a hard man to work for. I imagine his handlers would love nothing more than to shout hallelujah from the rooftops, but that Bob himself is refusing to talk about it. “You play with my world / Like it’s your little toy,” he sang in “Masters of War,” a song he performed after winning his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. To Dylan, these honors seem more like impositions.
Meanwhile social media has been ablaze with opinions about whether Dylan’s songwriting should count as “literature.” His lyrics don’t stand on their own as poetry, they’ve said, 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 have reminded us that songs preexisted writing, that ancient poetry was always meant to be sung. Music flows through our bones, and songwriters forward and influence our collective body of writing as well as anyone.
I’m not here to argue one way or another. Arguments for inclusivity within, or exclusion from, artistic categories are never definitive. To be sure, the generic boundaries of art, music, literature, and more are elastic, pliable, porous. I just think it’s an incredible honor, one that really sank in when I realized the last American to win was Toni Morrison in 1993. Dylan is the first American to win the prize in 23 years. And I’ve had a blast reading the flurry of articles and arguments and talking with friends about what prizes mean, the neutering effect of bringing progressive artists into the mainstream (for Dylan this happened decades ago), and following Dylan’s non-response.
In any case, if we hope to get a handle on Dylan’s career, to argue definitions about his music, we ought to listen to it–to “read” it–thoroughly and comprehensively. So now that, over the past six months, I’ve listened to every studio track released and then some, I’ve put together a complete selected track list. It totals 110 tracks, and comes in at just under nine hours. I welcome you all to tune in and draw your own conclusions. At the least, you’ll be well read in the artist the Nobel committee said “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
This list recognizes excellence–the best songs along the way. But it also represents the fullness of Dylan’s catalogue. I’ve included at least two songs from each of 35 solo studio albums (plus two 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”). I’ve capped the track total from any single album at five. What this means is that the 110 songs here aren’t necessarily the 110 “best,” because that list would include practically all of, say, Blonde on Blonde and none of Knocked Out Loaded. But these tracks, when listened in full chronically or on random, traces the entirety of Dylan’s career. By the end, you should feel qualified to make your own judgement on Dylan as literature, or at least to have a say in the conversation. In any case, reading up on a national hero who brings us international acclaim can only ever be an edifying experience. Enjoy!