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Bob Dylan's Bootleg series is probably bigger than some bands entire career's worth of recordings. We aren't finished yet since we have only made it halfway through his career - we still have so many bootlegs to go (I believe). Up to now, we've got 14 volumes of pure excellence - versions of similar songs that never made it to the album, demos and short clips and even some songs that are completely new and recorded in their entirety.
There are yes, 14 volumes of bootleg recordings, each with their own distinct sound, their own way of giving us some version of Bob Dylan and each of them are totally great in their own way. I actually wanted to share with you my own rankings of the Bootleg Series Albums up to the current one we have, which is More Blood, More Tracks—the bootleg for the iconic, Blood on the Tracks album.
Each of these is going to have a small commentary as to why it appears there. You may not agree with all of them but please don't be too mean to me, because I am really trying my best to make everyone happy here. But seriously, some may be a little higher than you expect (looks around shiftily in Another Self Portrait). I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Also, if you aren't aware of why we're starting at 12, it's because Volumes One through Three are normally counted together.
12. 'The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (Volume 9)'
Formally called "The Bootleg Series Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos 1962-1964", this captivating bootleg gives us a taste of early Bob Dylan. It was released in October 2010 and continues to be a respected bootleg amongst each Bobcat and Dylanologist alike.
There is an additional CD called "Live at Brandeis University—1963" which is pretty awesome to listen to, but this particular bootleg has seemingly "accidentally" made it to the bottom of my list—here's why:
In no way whatsoever does this mean it is "bad" per se. I am ranking them based on personal taste and well, my Dylan taste may be different to yours. Songs such as "Man on the Street", "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" and there's a version of "Boots of Spanish Leather" on there as well, I believe - make this album very strong. But there are a lot of things that put this at my least favourite bootleg; such as the fact that a lot of it is low quality. Even though it adds to the time that I'm listening to - I do like the album versions of the songs like "Masters of War" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" - this bootleg is fascinating but not my favourite.
Again, it is in no way bad—it is just not my favourite, and well, for some reason it made its way to the bottom amongst the other bootlegs when they were being ranked so I'm very sorry if this is your favourite or closer to the top for you. I do like the early Dylan sound, but I don't know how I feel about some of these other versions of the songs.
11. 'Live at the Philharmonic Hall: 1964 (Volume 6)'
Formally called "The Bootleg Series Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall" (that's a long title!) this bootleg was recorded on the Halloween of 1964, the day Bob Dylan played at the Philharmonic Hall (the clue's in the name, didn't think I had to write that one down for you). It was released on the 30th of March, 2004 and continues to be another well-respected bootleg for giving every Dylanologist and Bobcat alike a taste of what Dylan sounded like on the stage when he was only about 22 or 23 years' old. To some, this album is priceless. For me, well, other stuff kind of just pushed it down for some reason. Here's where I stand on this bootleg:
I like this bootleg a lot, even though it's quite far down - I do like it. I love how it opens with the performance of "The Times They Are a-Changin'" and closes with "All I Really Wanna Do"—it's a brilliantly formed album and Dylan sounds amazing. The truth is, there are strong bootlegs out there and well, for a bootleg that's so small, I was actually going to put this at the bottom. But, the Dylanologists probably would've hunted me down—so I decided to keep it as near-the-bottom thing.
Though, there are some very good live recordings on here, such as the famed "Who Killed Davey Moore?"—which is probably my favourite on the whole bootleg. But I find this bootleg a little bit unfulfilling because, not just that there are stronger ones, but also because there are bigger ones that have multiple different sounds in them.
You'll understand once we get on, there are bootlegs that are slightly stronger than this one.
10. 'The Basement Tapes Raw (Volume 11)'
Formally called "The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete", this album was released on the 4th of November, 2014. It was recorded in the summer and autumn of 1967 and continues to be a large, expansive bootleg. I am really lucky we have this actually, given the fact it was recorded at a time when Bob Dylan was rediscovering himself and finding his new sound between the key albums Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding—it makes every Bobcat feel slightly privileged to be privy to these songs. I know you're going to hate me for putting it so low on the list but seriously, this is another case of the fact that other things I like just pushed it way down.
This bootleg is mostly known for its amazing version of the song "I Shall Be Released," which has been covered far and wide. But there's also some great alternate versions of songs like "You Ain't Going Nowhere," "Don't Ya Tell Henry" and "Ain't No More Cane" plus many, many more.
I like this bootleg a lot actually, both the "raw" and the "complete" versions. I wish it could've been higher but there are so many other things I want to say about the other bootlegs that it just got pushed all the way down here. I have to say though, the version of "Folsom Prison Blues" (the cover of the Johnny Cash song) that appears on this album is a word that I will not express on this article. I have heard a better version with more of a "Nashville Skyline" twist to it, but the version o this bootleg is near on unforgivable. I am sorry, it's awful and that's probably the reason it dropped down. I really wish he included the other version my friend showed to me on Twitter.
9. 'More Blood, More Tracks (Volume 14)'
(For God's sake, I'm sorry already!)
Formally called "The Bootleg Series Vol. 14: More Blood, More Tracks", this is the bootleg of the famed magnum opus album "Blood on the Tracks"—which is usually called Bob Dylan's "divorce album" since it was released in the midst of his split from the beautiful Sara Lowndes. The bootleg has become very famous as it includes a brilliant version of the song "Idiot Wind" and the song "Meet Me in the Morning"—which are brilliant additions to it. I hope you can respect my reasoning for the placement of this album.
Even though there are very strong rehearsals and alternate takes on this album, apart from songs like "Up To Me" and "Call Letter Blues" there's nothing we haven't heard before on this particular bootleg. There are about eight different takes of "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" and though I'm not complaining about the fact (because that song is freaking awesome), I find that other bootlegs have slightly more to offer when it comes to rare and unreleased music.
I think this is showing us more of the sessions for "Blood on the Tracks" which is very exciting really and I was over the moon to finally have some more stuff on this grand album to listen to. I feel like there may be stronger bootlegs and you may not agree with me on this list, but bear in mind that we may have different opinions when we come to Bob Dylan. I mean, especially with the next one...
8. 'Another Self Portrait (Volume 10)'
*Audience begins throwing things at Annie*
(For God's sake, I said I'm sorry!)
Formally called "The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969–1971)" this bootleg was released on the 27th of August 2013 and contains some brilliant recordings, I am not going to lie to you but this is even better than the original album "Self Portrait". (I refer to the fact that I like the album "Self Portrait", you guys are just mean). The liner notes for this album were written by... Greil Marcus? Really? Okay, okay. (For those of you unaware, he previously wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine and famously wrote a review about the original album "Self Portrait" beginning with "What is this sh-?"). Let's have a look at what I think if you can stop throwing tomatoes at me for a moment... thanks.
I really do love the alternate versions of "I Threw it All Away" and "If Not For You"—they are truly great. The other versions of songs that originally made it on to "Self Portrait" have now got no overdubs so you can hear Bob Dylan's singing voice real clear and realistically are so good. Again, as with "Self Portrait" itself, my favourite songs on the album are the non-overdubbed versions of "Belle Isle" and "Copper Kettle"—don't laugh.
"Another Self Portrait" has all the vocal intonation of the "Nashville Skyline" era and it just sounds amazing. The songs are brilliant and even though they are from "Self Portrait" mostly, I still love them. Some of the great songs come from "New Morning" the alternate takes of songs from "Nashville Skyline" too—I hope you really enjoy listening to this album as much as I did and still do.
7. 'The Bootleg Series 1-3'
Formally called "The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991", this bootleg has a special place in everyone's hearts as being the first of its kind and possibly one of the longer bootlegs since it covers so many years. This album covers almost 30 years of great music and has some incredible alternate takes and tracks on there. It was initially released on the 26th of March, 1991 and has taken the whole world by storm since this album is longer than some singers' entire resume of songs. It continues to be a big seller and has made Bob Dylan famous for having so many takes for one song. But this album also offers other great songs as well; let's talk a little bit more about them.
I love "Hard Times in New York" and the version on this album is brilliant—it's a brilliant song and I like the Woody Guthrie-esque sound of it. As is the same with "Let Me Die in My Footsteps," which has been stripped down to the bone and is awesome on this album. I would also like to say how much I respect the piano version of "The Times They Are a-Changin'" and "Mr. Tambourine Man," though I think others have put a piano to "The Times They Are a-Changin'" a little better (stares in Nina Simone). The song "Mama, You Been on My Mind" is amazing and then ruined by Joan Baez with her cover of it as is the case with "Farewell Angelina." Both brilliant songs though, in their own right.
One of my favourite songs on this bootleg is the version of "Every Grain of Sand" that we get"—I love the way it has such vocality to it that we don't get to hear that much on the album version. But then again, I really do love that song, so I'm going to love the other version of it, aren't I? The song "Someone's Got a Hold of My Heart," which I assume is the alternate version to "Tight Connection to My Heart" from "Empire Burlesque" is among the fan favourites as being better than the album version. (I like "Empire Burlesque", you guys are just mean). There's the song "Lord Protect My Child," which is an amazing tribute to, I assume, Bob Dylan's children. It sounds very gospel era Dylan and has an amazing sound.
We also have the famed "Series of Dreams" which we will discuss a little later if we have time on "Tell Tale Signs" as well. It's a beautiful song which I can't imagine why it didn't make it on to an album since it appears on a "Greatest Hits" compilation.
Finally, we have the much-anticipated song that was left off the "Infidels" album—"Blind Willie McTell" is considered one of the greatest songs ever written and recorded and actually appears in the book of "1001 Songs You Must Listen to Before You Die," alongside songs like "Visions of Johanna" and "Hurricane," I believe. It is a fan favourite again and sounds absolutely incredible—it is clearly one of his greatest songs but he probably left it off the album because it was too powerful.
6. 'The Cutting Edge (Volume 12)'
Formally called "The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–1966" it lets us have a look at Bob Dylan's famed magnum opus, Blonde on Blonde. It has songs that are brand new and recorded and songs that are alternates and demos, this album is really a lot of fun to listen to. It was released on the 6th of November 2015 and is a brilliant addition to the bootleg collection. We're only going to go through the track listing on the "Best Of" edition, because otherwise, we'll be here all day and all night because seriously, this one is long.
I like the whimsical feel of this album, I want to think that Bob Dylan was having a good time, but he was probably exhausted as hell. The version of "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" is brilliant on this album, I like it a lot - even the Vol. 1-3 version is good. But let us just appreciate to alternate take to "Like a Rolling Stone" as well, we need to see he really tried to do other things with a song which is considered to be his greatest hit.
The alternate take to "Tombstone Blues" is also very good to listen to, though there are better alternate takes to this song that we'll briefly go through as well. There are also other takes of lots of the songs from Blonde on Blonde which sound really damn good, such as: "Just Like a Woman," "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," "Absolutely Sweet Marie," "Pledging My Time" and even "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again." But, my favourite alternate take of a Blonde on Blonde song on here has to be the famed pop song, "I Want You." It sounds almost better than the original because of the higher notes in the background.
I love this bootleg and I hope you do too!
5. 'Tell Tale Signs (Volume 8)'
Formally called "The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989–2006." This album was released on the 6th of October, 2008 and continues to be a big hit amongst the fans. It gives us a taste of Bob Dylan's folk rock as he gets a little older and changes it to suit the time, it also gives us a taste of Bob Dylan's jazz stage as he adds some brilliant brass instruments into his collection. Let's have a look at how I feel about all this.
You can all tell why I like this album so much and why it's higher than say, Cutting Edge. It's because it has versions of my all time favourite song (by anyone) on there: "Mississippi." My favourite song by any singer ever is "Mississippi" from the album "Love and Theft" (2001) and it is quite possibly one of the greatest songs to have alternate versions that sound so damn good and filled with jazz. The recording of "Mississippi" from the "Time Out of Mind" sessions is damn good and so is "Dreamin' of You" (from the same sessions and I had to mention it because it's awesome). I think some fan favourites include: "Born in Time" and the alternate take to "Most of the Time" which appears on the album as well. At least, they're some of my favourites.
The song "Miss the Mississippi" is an amazing song and apart from my favourite song ever, it is my favourite song on the bootleg. (I am beginning to think I like songs to do with one particular state really... Philadelphia, knew it). "Huck's Tune" and "Series of Dreams" also make a great appearance and are wonderful additions to an incredibly good album. This bootleg is near-perfect and shows another side of Bob Dylan (ha ha ha...) that we haven't seen before and we won't see for a while by the time this album had come out. We would get to see the "jazz" side to Dylan.
Now that we've seen that, I'm going to not be the first person to say that we absolutely love it.
4. 'The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (Volume 4)'
Now I think this is one we can all agree on.
Formally called "The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert," this album has been hailed as one of the greatest live albums ever released. Though, you only get the Royal Albert Hall recordings and not the Manchester Trade Hall (better known as the "Judas!" Concert) recordings as well, this is still a great bootleg. It is included in the "1001 Albums You Must Hear before you die" and was initially released on the 13th of October 1998. It continues to be revered amongst Bobcat and Dylanologist alike today as one of the great Bob Dylan recordings. Let's have a look at how I feel about this album, and I have some strong feelings so strap in.
Where do I begin? The song that opens the album is the brilliant "She Belongs to Me" and I love this version so much I cannot explain. It is so clear and so good, he sounds amazing live even though he is probably exhausted, sick and most likely about to drop dead from the amount of drugs he's on. I love the version of "4th Time Around" on this album as well, again - it is a really good song to perform live. One of my favourite songs on this album though is the live version of "Mr. Tambourine Man", which is a brilliant version of the song.
BUT—my favourite song on the album, which in my opinion is better than the album version, is "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Met)"—I freaking love this version. This song is better than the album version because it's faster, more upbeat, more 1960s Bob Dylan who wants to make everyone angry and annoy the daylights out of all the folkies.
At the end of the album, you have the brilliance of "Ballad of a Thin Man" and "Like a Rolling Stone" performed live, which sound incredible as some of the seminal songs of Bob Dylan from the period.
I am sure that soon, they'll release the "Manchester Trade Hall" Bootleg soon and then the world will end out of pure madness. Such a great era filled with awe-inspiring live recordings.
3. 'No Direction Home: The Soundtrack (Volume 7)'
Formally called "The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack," this album was released on the 30th of August 2005 and still is one of the best bootlegs out there. It has some great alternate takes and was originally made for the obscure movie "No Direction Home" in which Bob Dylan stars and Martin Scorsese directs. (I swear, if Scorsese doesn't hurry up with his Rolling Thunder Documentary, I will riot!)
This album is a fan favourite because of its great outtakes and the sheer amount of fun it is. It's one of those like "Cutting Edge", it's a fun bootleg album - we have some outtakes, some alternate takes and a lot of stuff to listen to. Let's have a look at how I feel about the album, I apologise to anyone I offend in advance.
I think the second half is better than the first. I love the alternate take to "Tombstone Blues" especially at the end where he starts talking about something and bursts out laughing. He really does sound like he's having fun and even though it's a different take on the song—it's still really good. I like the sound of the alternate take and I love to listen to this one as opposed to the album version sometimes because of its fun nature.
Let us all respect my favourite song on the bootleg, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" the alternate take. This song is brilliant and, in my opinion, better than the original on Highway 61 Revisited. (Stop throwing things at me, I apologised in advance!) I love this version because it sounds more raw and more like Bob Dylan—I feel like he really wanted the song to be this way.
Then there's "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" which is a version which always makes me laugh. Why? Well in the middle of the song for about 10 seconds, he seems to forget the words or something and just mumbles along and doesn't say anything. The first time I heard that, I thought there was something wrong with my phone, but turns out it was just Bob Dylan forgetting the words to his own song. Wow, Bob, wow. We made an effort to learn all the words, mate - and that's a bloody long song too. Bar that, it's a brilliant version of an amazing song.
"Like a Rolling Stone"—recorded at the Manchester Trade Hall (laughs in evil Bob Dylan), the famed "JUDAS!" concert, it is a specialty to listen to but why it appears on No Direction Home, as opposed to its own Manchester Trade Hall album is cheating.
2. 'Trouble No More (Volume 13)'
Sit down and stop protesting, the lot of you!
Formally called "The Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Trouble No More 1979–1981", this is one of the more enigmatic bootlegs of the collection, being as it is from a controversial time for Bob Dylan - the gospel era. Now, if you know me, you know how much I love the gospel era, also known as the "born again Christian era" (stop laughing, you guys are just mean). It was released on the 3rd of November 2017 and continues to be a well received bootleg, with many magazines having covered the release as it was coming (I have many of these magazines, including the "True Faith" album on which a gospel song by Bob Dylan, previously unreleased is included. For the life of me, I can't remember which song it is!). I think "Trouble No More" is a fine bootleg and is really cool to listen to, it has many great songs.
Well, let's begin with the first songs—we'll only be covering the Deluxe Edition with the additional discs, because you and me don't wanna be here all day. First of all, I love the live version of "Gotta Serve Somebody" from 1979, it is a brilliant version of the song to listen to, Bob Dylan's voice sounds so raw and incredible - it's awesome. The live songs on the Standard Version with two discs only has some incredible performances on there and I don't care who doesn't like the gospel era—they are brilliant.
I love the outtake we get of "Ye Shall be Changed" (though the best version is on "Vol. 1-3") and the song "Jesus is the One" is absolutely awesome even though you probably don't think it is. My favourite song on the bootleg is on the fourth disc, it's the outtake from "Making a Liar Out of Me" which I think is an incredibly soulful song. It's just brilliantly written and composed, it sounds awe-inspiring.
The Live in Toronto and London recordings on the next four discs are amazing and add to the greatness of this era. I mean, it is severely underrated and has a good reputation as being one of the worst eras of Dylan. Again, you guys are just mean—the gospel era is one of the most mind-blowing eras of any musician, ever.
1. 'Live at the Rolling Thunder Revue (Volume 5)'
You all knew this would be at the top. Or did you?
Formally called "The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue" this album was released on the 26th of November 2002 and was recorded way back in 1975. It is one of the most famed concerts in all of music history for its incredible song choices, Bob Dylan's amazing performances and a number of other musicians getting involved as well. The powerful message behind these concerts have been referenced over and over again for ages and now, there is a documentary coming out, directed by Martin Scorsese. Let's take a look at my opinion of the Rolling Thunder Revue.
I love the opening track and think, in most aspects, it is better than the original album version of the song. "Tonight, I'll Be Staying Here With You" from the Rolling Thunder Revue is the version I normally listen to instead of the Nashville Skyline version. I'm sorry if you like the album version, it's good but it's not Rolling Thunder.
The next track I like on this album is "Romance in Durango" - performed live this song sounds super good and you can really hear Bob Dylan going for it with the vocals. Then, there's the famed "I Shall Be Released" to close the first disc and that too, sounds incredible. Again, probably better than the album version for me.
"Love Minus Zero/No Limit" is amazing performed live and I wanted to show my appreciation for the Rolling Thunder version - the intro is amazing to listen to with that guitar. There's so much anticipation and with that instrument, you know which song it's going to be. When on "It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry" he says, "this is an autobiographical song" - it sends shivers down you. I feel like he's making fun of people that called "Blood on the Tracks" a divorce album or he's just generally insulting people who study his music so closely.
I love the version of "Hurricane" on this album - it really makes the Rolling Thunder Revue. I love the little commentary he does at the start, he's not even trying to disguise the intentions of the song. The version of "One More Cup of Coffee" is also one of my favourite things about this album, Scarlet Rivera's violin is just incredible. To finally finish with "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"—the version of that song was just so damn good I couldn't contain myself. I really felt that song when he performed it. (The version on MTV Unplugged in 1995 also did the same thing to me).
I love the bootleg series and even though you may not agree with where I have placed my choices, I actually based them on how many songs I listen to from each album and what the album gives me. I still apologise for putting the Witmark Demos at the bottom half of the list and if you would like to tell me your rankings then you can always contact me @3ftMonster on Twitter. I am happy to share in Bobcat listings and different opinions. To be honest, I will be quite surprised if you agree with more than 50 percent of the placings on this list. It will shock me because I have always been told I have a weird taste in Bob Dylan's music.
I hope you have had fun reading these rankings.