In 1985, Bob Dylan's Biograph established the blueprint for weighty rock & roll retrospectives, blending rare and unreleased material with classics over the course of a three-disc set that wound up being the template for rock & roll boxes for the next 20 years or so. Twenty-two years later, Dylan's second triple-disc retrospective arrived, and it's quite a different beast, bucking all the conventions that Biograph instituted. Simply called Dylan, thereby creating confusion with the 1973 rarities set Dylan that Columbia released in a pique of anger as he recorded with Asylum briefly, the set is nothing more and nothing less than a concise introduction to Bob, with all the rarities trimmed away. As befitting its companion status to Todd Haynes' impressionistic biopic I'm Not There -- where no less than six actors played the Bard, including actress Cate Blanchett -- Dylan comes in a multitude of forms, beginning with a terse single disc, then expanding out to a three-disc set, which is then offered in a variety of limited-edition sets. Although the single disc is good, it's the three-disc set that commands attention. It's truly a exceptional encapsulation of his work.
Yes, there are great, even significant, songs missing -- no other songwriter has quite as deep a catalog -- but the remarkable thing is that there is no dip in quality here, thanks to judicious selections from the '80s but also Dylan's remarkable comeback of the late '90s/2000s. It was the great third act that his great career needed, and while he is sure to make more great music, the 22 years not covered by Biograph but present here turn Dylan into a richer aural biography. It hits many, but not all, of the '60s and early-'70s highlights, soft-sells the scatteredness of the '80s albums by picking the best songs (including "Blind Willie McTell," unearthed on the first Bootleg Series; nothing can quite save those slick, cavernous productions), and in this context the '90s and 2000s work sounds even more impressive. This doesn't give you everything you should hear, but as an introduction to Dylan in his entirety, this can't be beat. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine