Very few artists in the history of rock 'n' roll have generated as many meaningful archival releases, anthologies and rarities packages as Bob Dylan. This can be attributed to a few things. To begin with, the guy is a tireless and unpredictable studio rat capable of committing hours and hours of music to tape, only to never release it officially. Or if he does, he waits years to do so.
The most overt example is the Basement Tapes. Recorded in Woodstock, N.Y., in 1967 with The Hawks (who would eventually morph into [The Band]), they contain some of Dylan's greatest tunes, from "Tears of Rage" and "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" to "Too Much of Nothing" and "Nothing Was Delivered." Yet an official version didn't emerge until 1975 (after several years of illegal bootlegs slipping into the market). And even then, a slew of tunes were conspicuously absent, two of which -- "I'm Not There" and "Sign on the Cross" -- have taken on wildly mythical status through the decades.
Another factor contributing to this singular status is Dylan's legacy as a stage performer. Not only has he delivered some of his most potent rock 'n' roll in the live setting, he has a gift for making a concert (or an entire tour, sometimes) a unique historical event. The Bootleg Series, which started appearing in the early '90s, has done an excellent job of chronicling this side of him. Vol. 4 - Bob Dylan Live 1966 is just as central to understanding his initial burst of electric folk rock as Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. In fact, it's the first thing I go to when I'm in the mood to crank the violently wild wail that was Dylan's music during 1965 and '66. The arrangements are glorious and overblown, plus the band (The Hawks once again) rocks hard. Yet another example is Vol. 5 - Bob Dylan Live 1975, a document of the star-studded Rolling Thunder Revue, quite possibly the heaviest and most emotionally harrowing tour of Dylan's storied career.
For this Cheat Sheet, I've also included several titles from Columbia-Legacy's 2010 reissue campaign of Dylan's first eight albums in mono (as well as the excellent introductory collection The Best of the Original Mono Recordings). At first blush, these might seem necessary for audiophiles only, but if you've never heard Blonde on Blonde in mono, do yourself a huge favor and check it out. It's rich and punchy and vibrant and balanced in ways the stereo mix simply is not.
And now on to Bob Dylan's best reissues, boots, anthologies and rarities.