Bob Dylan opened the '80s as a born-again Christian and closed the decade with Oh Mercy, a critical comeback that rejuvenated his career. In between came a decade in the wilderness, where he found religion and lost it, went with the flow of MTV, hit the road with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and the Grateful Dead, anchored the Traveling Wilburys supergroup, and released seven studio albums while he banked a bunch of unreleased material that had drifted out over the years. Dylan had some hits along the way -- 1983's Infidels and 1985's Empire Burlesque both went gold -- but this is generally considered an unfocused era of excess. Produced by Jesse Lauter and Sean O'Brien, the 2014 tribute Bob Dylan in the '80s: Vol. 1 attempts to kick-start conversations by offering 17 covers from this neglected decade by a bunch of modern indie artists (the expanded digital and vinly versions contain another seven songs). Apart from Infidels, Dylan's '80s singles are avoided, as are several '80s songs that are often covered ("Emotionally Yours," selections from 1989's acclaimed Oh Mercy, which is strangely and deliberately side-stepped), and 1990's Under the Red Sky is grandfathered in, likely because it's the last collection of original tunes Dylan would produce until 1997 (his time in the wilderness lasted much longer than a decade, but the early '90s were devoted to folk covers and live albums). This doesn't mean the album isn't anchored by relatively familiar songs: Craig Finn of the Hold Steady does a straightforward "Sweetheart Like You," Built to Spill appealingly lurch their way through "Jokerman," Dawn Landes & Bonnie "Prince" Billy sweetly sing "Dark Eyes," and Yellowbirds pay effective homage to the ethereal "Series of Dreams." Although Aaron Freeman's "Wiggle Wiggle" winks at the bad taste that peppered these '80s albums -- he arranges it as an early Ween tune, then has the sense of humor to bring in Slash for a cameo, just like Bob did on the original -- this is an earnest bunch of covers, dedicated to bringing these songs back into the Dylan canon. Most versions pull off the nifty trick of being faithful to Dylan's and their act's own sound. Glen Hansard turns "Pressing On" into something that'd fit on the Once soundtrack; Lucius gives "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky" a new wave grandeur; Langhorne Slim & the Law kick up dust on "Got My Mind Made Up"; Blitzen Trapper split the difference between past and present on "Unbelievable"; Deer Tick amble through a calypso on "Night After Night," and Tea Leaf Green thread in polyrhythms throughout "Waiting to Get Beat." Some of these versions work better than others, but they're all imaginative and worthy and, best of all, they prove the producers' thesis that there is a lot to discover within Dylan's '80s catalog.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine