My Top Ten Dylan Albums

A link from Jabberwock to an article by Roger Ebert (kind of) talking about Bob Dylan’s life and work prompted an evening of obsessive listening to Dylan songs, so figured I might as well top it off by posting a list of my ten favourite Dylan albums. This proved to be a harder task than I’d imagined, but here goes:

1. Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

I know, I know, pretty much every Dylan fan out there is going to scream blue murder about this one – but Highway 61 Revisited is, without doubt, my favourite Dylan album. Admittedly, it’s far from being the most musical of his albums, but for my money it’s the one that best showcases his talents as a songwriter. There’s more genuine poetry in this one than there is in pretty much anything else that Dylan put together. Starting with the incredible Like a Rolling Stone, the album goes on to include such classics as the Ballad of a Thin Man (” You’ve been with the professors / And they’ve all liked your looks / With great lawyers you have / discussed lepers and crooks / You’ve been through all of / F Scott Fitzgerald’s books / You’re very well read / It’s well known // But something is happening here / And you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mr Jones?”), Tombstone Blues, Highway 61 Revisited and that greatest of all epic Dylan songs – Desolation Row. Just the names of the songs on this album are magic: It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry, Queen Jane Approximately, Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues. A truly amazing album.

2. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)

In the beginning, there was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. In many ways, this is Dylan’s first real album – the 1962 Bob Dylan album is mostly covers of other people’s songs. This is Dylan in full acoustic / folk mode, and the album includes some of his finest songs within that genre. The result is a collection of songs from a young new artist that would put to shame the ‘Best of” collections of most musicians. The album starts with my favourite Dylan song of all time – Blowin’ in the wind – and then goes through such wonders as Girl of the North Country, A Hard Rain’s a-gonna fall and Don’t think twice it’s all right; as well as the delightfully whimsical Talking World War III blues and Dylan’s rendition of Corrina, Corrina. Free-wheeling is the word.

3. The Times they are a-changin’ (1964)

You knew this was coming, didn’t you? If I had to pick one album that said why Dylan was so important to 60’s music, this would be it. But the songs I really love here are not the overtly political ones (with the exception of With God on our side which has to be the most stunning, most whimsical and most ironic history lesson ever sung) – Only a pawn in their game, The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll – these are songs I like well enough. But the songs I really love here are the incredibly gentle One too many mornings, the sparkling When the ship comes in and the achingly sad Restless Farewell. Plus, of course, there’s the title track, which is too magical a song for me to even start to speak of. The Times they are a-changin’ may well be Dylan’s most important album, and the one he’ll be the most remembered for.

4. Blood on the tracks (1975)

The early 1970’s were not the best time for Dylan. While he continued to release an album every year, his output from this period is, frankly, better measured out in songs than in albums. So we have New Morning (If Not for you), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Knockin’ on heaven’s door) and Planet Waves (Forever Young). With the exception of these songs, though, it feels like Dylan has slipped into auto pilot, either feeding off himself (as in the 1971 Greatest Hits or the 1974 Before the Flood) or just going through the motions.

Blood on the Tracks represents an incredible return to form. Some of my favourite songs from the 70’s are here, including Tangled up in Blue, Simple Twist of Fate, Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, Shelter from the Storm and (the highly underrated) You’re going to make me lonesome when you go. Blood on the Tracks is easily Dylan’s finest album from the 70’s (though some parts of the Basement Tapes are spectacular, and the live performance At Budokan has to be heard to be believed) and marked an upsurge of talent that saw him through Desire (1976), Street Legal (1978) and Slow Train Coming (1979) before he petered out into the idiocy that was Dylan in the 80’s.

5. Blonde on Blonde (1966)

If Blood on the Tracks was a start of a new era for Dylan, Blonde on Blonde was the end of one. Blonde on Blonde is, in many ways, the culmination of the Dylan’s best years; it is the last of his great albums. There are those who would argue that as such it deserves to be ranked higher in this list, and I don’t necessarily disagree – it’s just that for me Blonde on Blonde is an unbelievable album with no (or few) outstanding songs. My favourite songs here are Rainy Day Woman, Visions of Johannah and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, but the real point of this album, I think, is that every song on it is memorable (the list includes Stuck inside of Mobile, I want you, Most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine, Temporary like Achilles, Absolutely Sweet Marie and One of must know) – if anything, I suspect it’s the fact that every song is so wonderful that keeps the brilliance of any one song from shining out.

There’s a scene in the movie version of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, where Barry, the music store attendant (played by Jack Black) discovers that a customer has never heard Blonde on Blonde. In a sudden panic, Barry rushes over to a stack of records, pulls out the album and hands it over to the customer saying “Don’t worry, it’ll be okay now.” I know exactly how he feels.

6. Bringing it all back home (1965)

Another of the great albums from the early to mid 60’s. Dylan breaks away from the politics of his earlier songs here, recording three of my all time Dylan favourites: Tambourine Man, Love minus Zero and It’s all over now, Baby Blue. The album also includes one of the few Dylan songs I can’t stand – Maggie’s farm – plus the wonderful It’s all right, Ma, I’m only bleeding and the glorious She belongs to me. The reason it’s not higher up in this list is only that the other songs are far less impressive than in the earlier albums. In Blood on the Tracks, in Blonde on Blonde, in Highway 61 Revisited it’s hard to pick a song that you don’t care for, but all the other songs here (with the possible exception of Subterranean Homesick Blues) are, frankly, eminently forgettable.

7. Another side of Bob Dylan (1964)

It’s pure whim that Another Side of Bob Dylan turns out to be the last of Dylan’s great albums on this list. This is a gentle, poetic and startlingly quiet album – including such often overlooked beauties as Ramona, I don’t believe you and All I really want to do. There’s also My Back Pages (which isn’t that great a song, frankly, it’s just that that one line – “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” is inescapable) and what must be my favourite Dylan love song – It ain’t me, babe. Oh, and then there’s the hilarious Motorpsycho Nightmare and I shall be free No. 10. This is a wonderful album, and has a quaint, simple quality to it that is hard to find in much of Dylan (at least in so concentrated a form).

8. Desire (1976)

Desire is a difficult Dylan album to pin down. In many ways it represents a very different sound for Dylan – songs like Mozambique, Joey and Oh, Sister, with the chorus backing up Dylan’s voice seem strangely un-Dylanesque (if there’s such a word). The echo of the chorus is irritating, and it obscures that flat, matter-of-fact voice that is so quintessentially Dylan.

Despite that, Desire is a marvellous album. Dylan returns to politics for a moment, giving us Hurricane, then branches off through Isis and Mozambique to the glorious One more cup of coffee, before making his way through Oh, Sister and Romance in Durango to the soaring sentimentality of Sara. This is not a great album for Dylan qua Dylan – it’s place in his overall canon is problematic, I think – but if you manage to keep the Dylan of the 60’s out of your head for a little while, this is a glorious album.

9. John Wesley Harding

No listing of Dylan’s best albums would be complete without this gem. There is a lot in John Wesley Harding that is mediocre, but hold it at the right angle and you can see the full lustre of Dylan’s music shining through. By far the best song here is All along the Watchtower (one of my all time favourites), but there’s also the Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest and I’ll be your baby tonight, and all the other songs are eminently worth a listen (Dear Landlord, John Wesley Harding, Drifter’s Escape) even if they do fall short of being outstanding.

10. Slow Train Coming

This was a tough one. Because putting Slow Train Coming at number 10 means I had to leave out Nashville Skyline (Lay Lady Lay, Tonight I’ll be staying here with you), Time out of Mind (Not dark yet, Standing in the doorway) and Street Legal (Changing of the Guards, Is your love in vain). But Slow Train Coming deserves it. Starting with Gotta Serve Somebody and making its way through Precious Angel, Slow Train and When you gonna wake up? this is a kinder, more inward looking album than much of Dylan’s other work. But what makes it special for me is I believe in you – a song that highlights, more than anything else I can think of, the haunting, vulnerable quality of Dylan’s voice.

Note: I should mention that I’m not including some of the live performances here – notable among them being Dylan at Budokan (an absolute miracle of an album, all your favourite Dylan songs as you’ve never heard them sung before), The Rolling Thunder Revue tapes and the Live 1966 album (which features, as a friend once pointed out to me – a wonderful exchange between Dylan and irate fans denouncing him for switching to his more big band avatar – if you listen very carefully you can make out the f word).