As the year, and the decade, finish up, a great many Top Ten lists have been published, some trying to capture the highlights of the ‘Aughts, such as there were. We here at Tulip Frenzy World HQ have resisted the urge to compile a top ten list of the decade’s music because we’ve found that while it’s possible to list a given year’s best records, it’s a perilous task to say what the best collection of songs was in a given ten-year span you’re just now winding up. You need to get about halfway through the next one to really decide what were the keepers, the albums you’re still listening to. For example, a decade ago, we listed Whiskeytown’s Stranger’s Almanac the best album of the ’90s, and it is a great album. But was it better than Luna’s Penthouse, or Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, or even U2′s Achtung Baby? From the hindsight of a decade, the answer is no.
It’s easier to name a single figure who was the Artist of the Decade, and we noted with curiosity and respect that Uncut had given that honor to Jack White. Now we like Jack White, so much that we even bought, sound unheard, The Dead Weathers. (Won’t make that mistake again.) Artist of the Decade? He may have been the most protean and energetic man in rock in the ‘Aughts. But Artist of the Decade? Not even close.
When you go to see Bob Dylan, the announcer reads off the same embarrassing, sleazy parody each time as the band comes onto the stage. You hear the same rap about him as the Conscience of the ’60s, lost in drugs and religion in the ’70s, etc. The funniest thing is, I believe this has been Dylan’s greatest decade. And I believe he is, without question, the decade’s greatest musical artist.
He came plowing into the ‘Aughts with all the momentum of a crafty running back hitting the line, powered by his late ’90s revival album, Time Out of Mind. But that album was a glimpse of twilight, of Dylan facing mortality, and what he’s done since has further assured his immortality. It was the soundtrack to the film Wonder Boys that livened things up with “Things Have Changed,” which won him an Oscar. But if the shape of our times was set by the events of September 11, 2001, then surely we should acknowledge that an album released that very day, Dylan’s Love and Theft, was from that moment on a contender for the best album of the coming, dreadful decade. Love and Theft showed Dylan was not easing into that good night, but had hit upon a bluesy attack with a killer band, funny, poignant, and making the most of his diminished voice.
By 2003, when the soundtrack to Masked and Anonymous was released with it’s live versions of “Down In The Flood” and “Cold Irons Bound,” we got a better sense of what was going on. I think I played “Down In The Flood” more than any other song during the whole decade; Dylan’s band was the tightest combo since the ’69 Stones, and his voice rode roughshod over the whole ensemble, light and quick, given its gravel bed anchorage. The Never Ending Tour went on and on, by now avoiding the big arenas and playing minor league ballparks across the land. By the time Modern Times came out, Dylan had proved that he was every bit as vital in his 60s as he had been in the ’60s. His albums were hits. He was hipper than ever. In some ways, he was better than ever.
Tell Tale Signs was a further revelation, with stronger, alternative versions of songs, some first recorded in the late ’80s, all the way to better takes of cuts from Modern Times. I was disappointed that Together Through Life seemed to have settled into a formula — rewriting Willie Dixon songs and bashing them out with the great George Recife on drums — and it was the first Dylan album of the decade not to be honored by the annual Tulip Frenzy Top Ten List designation. It was also the first Dylan album ever to debut at the top of the charts. But all was forgiven; Dylan’s allowed an off album. Let’s face it, none of his peers ‘cept maybe Willie Nelson have put out an album that really mattered since at least the late ’70s, and Dylan’s maybe just beginning to coast a little.
Jack White’s music may stand the test of time. We’ll see. But as we look back on this decade years from now, I know that it was the work of a man in his 60s that will have held up, I suspect better than anyone else’s. Bob Dylan: Artist of the ‘Aughts.