Earlier this week, Columbia released the latest installment of Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series: The Basement Tapes Complete. It’s 138 tracks from one of the most legendary recording sessions of all-time, officially captured in its near-entirety for the first time. That’s a lot of music, too much actually, for even the biggest Dylan and/or the Band fan. No one needs three takes of “Open the Door, Homer.” But if you do feel like dipping into The Basement Tapes Complete (which you should!), here are the five songs, none of which appear on the original release from 1975, you should start with. Unfortunately, Dylan is even more of a stickler for his songs being on YouTube than Prince, so you’ll have to trust me.
1. “Sign on the Cross”
The crown jewel of The Basement Tapes and one of Dylan’s greatest recordings, period. It’s a crime that this longing, lovely gospel song, led by Garth Hudson’s mournful organ, wasn’t on the original collection. I blame Robbie Robertson. I always blame Robbie Robertson.
2. “See You Later Allen Ginsberg (Take 2)”
Coming in at under 60 seconds, this throwaway is what it sounds like when some of rock’s most brilliant minds smoke a ton of weed and turn on the recording equipment. It’s by no means a great song, just an amusing snippet of what it must have been like to be in Big Pink in 1967.
3. “Waltzing with Sin”
Nearly half the songs on The Basement Tapes Complete are covers, with Dylan and the Band paying homage to a wide breath of artists, including John Lee Hooker, Johnny Cash, and the Impressions. Sonny Burns’ sinister “Waltzing with Sin” is no “You Win Again,” and it’s the last song you’d want to hear at the world’s saddest honky tonk, but Dylan’s voice sounds so warm here that you feel for the poor guy who’s (almost literally) dancing with the devil.
4. “Blowin’ In the Wind”
When Bob Dylan dies, “Blowin’ In the Wind” is the first song that’s going to be mentioned in the majority of his obituaries. That’s a shame. You get the sense that Dylan was bored with it (and the scene that used it as their rallying cry) five seconds after he set it to tape, yet it’s become his most recognizable achievement. Clearly, I’m not a fan, but I love the bluesy version that appears on The Basement Tapes Complete. It’s looser, freed by the restrictions of a studio setting; Dylan’s feeling his way through it, improvising with the Band the way a comedian would a joke. If only there was a version of “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” I also didn’t hate…
5. “Wild Wolf”
If “Idiot Wind” is the most vicious song Dylan ever wrote, “Wild Wolf” might be the most menacing. Led by a looming, yet never attacking bass, it sounds like something that could only emerge from a dark basement either very early in the morning or very late at night. It’s a little tough to make out what Dylan’s singing, which only adds to its apocalyptic appeal. A must listen.