Bob Dylan celebrated his 74th birthday last weekend, hopefully by dining on some Turkish Marvin. Just like with David Bowie, we've decided to honor the occasion by putting together a ranking of all 36 of his studio albums (that means no live albums, no Bootleg Series, no compilations).
This time, everything has been placed into five groupings based on the rankings of the most valuable precious stones (because...diamonds in the rough?). Outside of the bottom three or four, every Dylan album has some sort of redeeming quality to it (or at least something that makes it interesting).
This is of course ridiculous and subjective, so feel free to argue—or respectfully tell me to go fuck myself—in the comments below!
36. Saved (1980): The perfect storm: fervent proselytizing, boring songwriting, and the worst production of his career. Most unforgivably, it has really bad lyrics. This was probably the real "Judas!" moment for long-time fans (Especially ironic since Dylan is basically calling everyone else in the world a "Judas" on this record). This is Dylan's nadir (but I maybe have a soft spot for "Solid Rock," or at least the live versions of it).
35. Dylan (1973): No approval from Dylan for release. No Dylan originals. Outtakes from New Morning & Self Portrait—and not even the GOOD outtakes. This is the red-headed stepchild of Dylan's studio discography. This album hates you. It hates you so much, it ends with the shitty version of "Spanish Is The Loving Tongue" (the solo piano version is heavenly though). Fuck this album.
And yet, it's still better than Saved. Dylan meant to release Saved. This proves once and for all that literally anything is better than Saved.
34. Down In The Groove (1988): People overestimate how bad the '80s were on Dylan. The Bootleg Series has revealed just how many good songs he was recording throughout the decade. But he struggled badly, and not behind-the-scenes like in the early '70s. He was either preaching Christianity, reaching for the MTV audience, or starring in unloveable movies with Rupert Everett.
This album is the sound of him scraping the bottom of the barrel. In the words of Jarvis Cocker, this is the sound of someone losing the plot. It's an album of outtakes and rejects from the previous five years of half-hearted starts and stops. "Silvio," a paint-by-numbers blues trifle, was considered its best song at the time. Even with a few hidden, um, not-terrible-songs ("Death Is Not The End," "Rank Strangers To Me"), this is as minor as minor gets.
33. Christmas In The Heart (2009):Christmas In The Heart isn't a weird album. Its purpose is clear, whether you like the constant droning hum of freakishly festive jingle bells or not: it's a straightforward record of traditional Christmas songs (in the vein of Bing Crosby). It shares the same band as Together Through Life and it sounds fucking great; it is arguably Dylan's best production work (this automatically puts it above Saved). It is, of course, infinitely weird that Bob Dylan decided to make this record in the first place, but Dylan has very complicated feelings about the holidays.
Having said that, it's only an album of really well-known Christmas songs. I don't ever really want to listen to this. Wouldn't you rather listen to Phil Spector's Christmas album or Mariah Carey or something? But hey, the video for "Must Be Santa" is hilarious, and it was all for charity, so I've almost convinced myself to move it to SAPPHIRE. Almost.
32. Knocked Out Loaded (1986):Knocked Out Loaded is when the myth of Dylan deflated. It has one towering song, "Brownsville Girl," that is worth the price of admission (it was co-written by playwright Sam Shepard, and is hilarious and cinematic and a little too long and pure Dylan). "Got My Mind Made Up" and "Under Your Spell" are underrated as well. Nothing else is worth talking about from this one.
31. Empire Burlesque (1985): This is a bad Dylan album with some very hilariously '80s production touches, but it has one thing that elevates it above its contemporaries (Knocked Out Loaded & Down In The Groove): "Dark Eyes." This song is one of Dylan's gifts to the world. It gives me chills. You can read about its origins here: "Late that night I sat at a window overlooking Central Park and wrote the song ‘Dark Eyes.’ I recorded it the next night with only an acoustic guitar and it was the right thing to do. It did complete the album."
Also, "Emotionally Yours" was about Dylan's crush on Elizabeth Taylor, and "Tight Connection To My Heart" has a Star Trek reference (from "The Squire of Gothos"). Please watch this perfectly '80s music video.
30. The Times They Are a-Changin' (1964): Wait, don't jump down to the comments to yell at me just yet, let me explain (this is where my personal biases really get pronounced): if I want to listen to austere protest music, I'll put on Freewheelin' before this any day of the week.
I know how absurd this sounds: this album has the immaculate title track, "Boots of Spanish Leather," "When The Ship Comes In," "One Too Many Mornings," and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." I love all these tunes, and that's HALF the record. But as an album, it still feels like a misstep, and a slog to get through. It's lacking that je ne sais Zimmerman: the fun, the surreal, the witty, the surprises. These songs are all reportorial and stern. Almost every one is based around a repetitive traditional melody (this approach really works for Dylan sometimes—just not here).
It's as black and white as the cover photo. It's the album Dylan thought he had to make, then immediately rejected. It's not bad, it's just not great.
29. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973): It's a credit to how pleasant the music is that only four songs have real vocals, and three of them are titled "Billy." There are certain songs in life that feel so ubiquitous, so big, that you fear you could never really hear them again—definitely not like when you were 13 or 14. "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" has that quality (an endless stream of covers and appearances in movies doesn't help), but the original recording is still so human. How can a tune that's just two and a half minutes long feel like the culmination of a lifetime?
28. Shadows In The Night (2015): Overall, this contains some of Dylan's best vocal performances of his life. It's very clear how important these songs were to him (especially "Lucky Old Sun"). But an album of Sinatra standards and deep cuts—no original tunes—means that it will always fall a little behind his original work at the end of the day. But it's a shame that only subscribers to AARP Magazine seemed to really respond to it.
27. Bob Dylan (1962): The first thing that strikes me about the debut is how much Dylan was copping from Dave Van Ronk ("Baby Let Me Follow You Down," "Talkin' New York," "House Of The Rising Sun"). The second thing is how exciting it is to hear his raw, developing voice bounce up and down on the boisterous, bluesy songs ("She's No Good," "In My Time Of Dying," "Fixing To Die Blues"). The third thing is that hot damn, it is ALL there on "Song To Woody."
26. Street Legal (1978): This was a transitionary album, somewhere between E-Street and Christianity Avenue. It's perpetually overlooked, with only a few well-known tunes: I adore "Changing Of The Guard" with its fire & brimstone vocals, and the mysterious "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)" (the closest thing to Desire here), and "Baby Stop Crying" really does grow on you (once you get past the very repetitious chorus).
The other gems of this one are "No Time To Think," the downright filthy "New Pony" (later turned even nastier by Dead Weather), and "Where Are You Tonight," which is the kind of rousing ballad Dylan tried in vain to recreate throughout the '80s. Not a masterpiece, but plenty of charm, especially if you like the slightly bombastic arrangements (which I mostly do).
25. Under The Red Sky (1990): There are a lot of contenders for "weirdest" Dylan album, but the obvious ones aren't it (see: Christmas In The Heat). But Under The Red Sky takes the cake. It makes ZERO sense.
Dylan had released the masterful Oh Mercy the year before. He had gotten back in touch with his muse in New Orleans, and he and Daniel Lanois had hit upon a reverb-drenched sound that brought out the best in his ever-coarsening voice. Critics were gaga. It was his best selling album in a decade. He even had a few fantastic songs ("Born In Time," "God Knows") leftover from Mercy to get the ball rolling on a new album.
And then came... this. All the fog is clear, and Dylan's voice suddenly sounds thin as a twig. An all-star crew of mismatched, marquee musicians were recruited to play repetitive nursery rhymes disguised as blues songs (or maybe that is the other way around). You can't make this up: David Crosby, George Harrison, Elton John, Randy Jackson (yes, THAT Randy Jackson), Al Kooper, Slash, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimmy Vaughn, Bruce Hornsby, David Lindley, Kenny Aronoff, Waddy Watchel, and even more were involved! And they're jamming on songs like "Wiggle Wiggle" and "2 X 2." "Handy Dandy" is NOT "Like A Rolling Stone," no matter what Kooper plays on organ.
And yet, I find myself returning to it every few years, discovering something new to like about it. Like the fact that Dylan convinced a bunch of bloated rock veterans into playing on a children's album (the record is dedicated to "Gabby Goo Goo," a nickname for Dylan's then-four-year-old daughter). Even with the notably blander production, both "Born In Time" and "God Knows" are wonderful. "Cat's In The Well" has deservedly become a mainstay of his live set. And the title track is utterly charming (Harrison's slide guitar doesn't hurt).
Managing your expectations really adds to this one. Think about it as a dry-run for later masterpiece Love And Theft. I don't know, maybe I just really love the idea of Slash slapping an acoustic guitar on a song with the lyrics, "wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a bowl of soup." Regardless, this is the weirdest album of Dylan's career.
24. Together Through Life (2009): This is Dylan's Horny Old Man record—"Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" but my hand unzipping your skirt, in essence. He makes the accordion (special credit to the brilliant David Hidalgo) sound raunchy.
Even if it is a marked step down from his other late-period albums—it's definitely a lightweight album—it's got an early June mood that keeps me coming back. Maybe it was just nice that after three consecutive dense records that sounded like they could have been capstones on a brilliant career, Dylan finally released Just Another Album. No real statements (unless you count "It's All Good," which would be one of the more, er, underwhelming message songs of his career), just a unity of style. In that sense, this is the true spiritual successor to Under The Red Sky. And you know how I feel about that record.
The 12-bar-blues and rockabilly-leaning are just a tad bit too repetitious at times ("Jolene," "Shake Shake Mama," "It's All Good") for this to be great. Still, things really come together for "I Feel A Change Comin' On" and "My Wife's Hometown," and "Life Is Hard" deserves recognition as one of his loveliest attempts at writing a modern standard.
23. Slow Train Coming (1979): If all of Dylan's Christian songs were as addictive and well-recorded as "Precious Angel," maybe the public wouldn't have been so freaked out when Dylan turned into a traveling preacher for a couple years. Then again, once you pick up on the fact that Dylan is singing, "Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief/ and there ain’t no neutral ground," it's hard to hear that song, or any of these songs, the same way. Dylan does not shine in such absolutes.
Slow Train Coming, the first and most tolerated of his Christian albums, has the sparkling production of the legendary Jerry Wexler, lead guitar work of Dire Straits' frontman Mark Knopfler, the added musical backing of the brilliant players from Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, and a shit ton of finger wagging. It all sounds really polished and well-balanced, enough that you can ignore the words for a little while. Then at some point you realize "Gotta Serve Somebody" is an evangelical, bizarro version of a caustic Dylan kiss-off classic (see: "Positively 4th Street"). But it's also so catchy! And it was used in a great Sopranos episode!
22. Infidels (1983): In an alternate universe, Infidels is Dylan's greatest album of the '80s (and no one would think of that as a backhanded compliment). Dylan recorded something like 7,000 songs for this record, and he threw away at least 10 great ones (if you are interested, "Rough Cuts/The Infidels Sessions" is a good place to start). Most egregiously, he cut two—TWO—of his all-time greatest songs, "Blind Willie McTell" and "Foot Of Pride," at the last minute for "Union God Damn Showdown." Bob Dylan was basically his own Cecilia Giménez. The album feels woefully incomplete, and I never get through it without turning to the Bootleg Series tracks in addendum.
"Jokerman" is gold though.
21. Good As I Been To You (1992): A transitionary record that helped Dylan reconnect with his muse. This album and its superior companion (World Gone Wrong) hold the blueprint to Dylan's late-period renaissance: good artists copy, great artists steal, and Bob Dylan isn't afraid to show you exactly what he's stealing.
Dylan was exhausted in the early '90s. He had lost his way again. He was desperate to do something simple. Good as I Been to You started as contractual filler—there were some shelved sessions with long-time associate David Bromberg that have mostly remained mysteriously out of reach—but turned into a chance for Dylan to go back to his roots. An all-acoustic album filled with traditional songs recorded in his own garage. Just the man, his guitar and a harmonica.
He's still refining his voice, which is one thing that holds the album back a tiny bit (he figured it all out on the next record). Still, there are highlights galore, including "Blackjack Davey," "Hard Times," "You're Gonna Quit Me," and "Tomorrow Night."
20. Modern Times (2006): Dylan was apparently reading a lot of Ovid around this time period. It's probably the bleakest of all his post-Time Out Of Mind records. The apocalypse has got him down; even thinking about Alicia Keys gets him down. And yet, it's the tender songs—"Spirit on The Water," "When The Deal Goes Down," "Beyond The Horizon," "Workingman's Blues #2"—that I think will stand the test of time. Or maybe I just really love that room sound. I can just about hear the busboy in the corner starting to sweep up as the band finishes their final set of the evening.
19. Tempest (2012): Dylan has a serious case of phlegm-throat on this album, his most recent collection of original songs (well, original is a loaded word when it comes to Dylan these days). But if he's going method with it, it's really working: "Pay In Blood" is appropriately vicious, "Tin Angel" uses grinding repetition to wring horror out of monotony, and "Soon After Midnight" captures all the twilight romanticism that its title implies.
It's incredible that even with a 14 minute epic about the sinking of the Titanic, the song that most carries a sense of finality is "Roll On John," Dylan's tribute to John Lennon some 30 years after his death. It is filled with awkward Beatles references ("Down in the quarry with the Quarry men"), Dylan's voice seems to be coming apart at the seams as it goes along, and yet, it has lingered with me more than any other song from this record in the years since. Maybe it's the invocation of William Blake—these are Dylan's own "Songs of Experience."
18. Shot Of Love (1981): And here we come to Dylan's most underrated album. A lot of people are scared away because it's considered the third part of his Christian trilogy, but that's nonsense. And while there are still remnants of that period in the imagery, it's like he was hit on the head by a coconut and suddenly remembered, "Oh right, I'm Bob Fucking Dylan, and the world is still complicated as hell."
So now he can flirt with Christian iconography and pull out "Every Grain Of Sand," one of his all-time most beautiful songs (I know, the list of beautiful songs he's written is longer than an endless highway, but this is still up there). "Heart Of Mine" (Ringo on the drums!) is a personal favorite; the title track and "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar" are more rock 'n roll than anything since Planet Waves; "Lenny Bruce" is a secular hymn to the deceased comedian; and "Property Of Jesus" proved Dylan could pound out a religious song that didn't sound like mud.
And then there's "In The Summertime." The resignation of the tempo, the tossed-off melody, the bright harmonica blasts that are like sun beams breaking through clouds. It's a break up song with God, with his entire Christian period. Was Dylan in His presence for an hour or so, a day, or a few years? What matters is the Christian period happened, Dylan 'lost his mind,' and he may have turned the page, but he's still carrying His gift. It's all in the past tense: "In the summertime/ when you were with me." I bet they can still be friends.
17. New Morning (1970): Domestic bliss is well and good, but can you write an interesting song about it? What about an album? You can hear Dylan struggling with this question all over this fine, warm album. It all comes to a head in the final verse of highlight "Sign On The Window:" "Build me a cabin in Utah/ Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout/ Have a bunch of kids who call me 'Pa'/ That must be what it’s all about." There's only one person he's trying to convince of that.
I guess this is considered a minor album because these are humble songs, with no grandiosity or political appeal (and also because it's a really short album). It's kind of like spending a long weekend with some good friends: you can take it for granted in the moment, but it's the memory that sticks with you years later. "So happy just to be alive/ Underneath the sky of blue/ On this new morning." Survival is hope.
16. Nashville Skyline (1969): Whether or not it is, this feels like Dylan's shortest album. It definitely is his breeziest album (there are few albums that are more pleasant to play on a Sunday morning than this). It's got a barely-together duet with Johnny Cash (Dylan covering himself!), one instrumental, and eight incredibly chipper, somewhat dashed-off country-rock tunes. There are no lyrical concerns that even approach the cozy ennui of New Morning.
The things that really stick out here: Dylan quit smoking and started hitting the notes. His voice reminds me of Buddy Holly at times (Dylan's voice had never sounded like this before, and never would sound like it again). Then there's his complete embrace of country (hinted at on John Wesley Harding closer "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight")—in a way, this is Dylan doing his own version of Cash's Orange Blossom Special, which had included three Dylan compositions.
Most of all, this is Dylan's Horny Young Man record. Sex is all over this album, whether he's wooing Peggy Day or eating country pie. He wants to be alone with you, he wants one more night together, he promises that no matter what the dawn brings, tonight he's staying here with you.
And then there's "Lay Lady Lay," Dylan's greatest seduction song. What else are you supposed to do in a big brass bed?
15. Planet Waves (1974): This is Dylan's only studio album with The Band (not counting The Basement Tapes, which technically wasn't recorded in a studio, except for those misguided Robbie Robertson overdubs, but more on that LATER). Like Shot Of Love or Street Legal, it's often overlooked in his discography, with only "Forever Young" becoming an all-time fan favorite. And that's stupid, because nobody could invigorate Dylan like the artists formerly known as The Hawks.
Everyone involved was at a crossroads at the time: The Band members were a mess of drugs and dependency and had begun migrating from Big Pink to California, and Dylan was at the tail end of his songwriting drought of the early '70s (see: "Watching The River Flow"). They made a plan to go on a world tour (Dylan's first since his motorcycle accident in 1966), and the whole process jarred Dylan out of his lethargy and into writing again.
So Waves is an album of divine deep cuts, one in which Dylan takes full advantage of The Band's understated musical alchemy. "Something There Is About You" is driven by that majestic Garth Hudson organ sound, and "On A Night Like This" sounds like the kind of hoedown that only buckets of moonshine could inspire. Sure, there were devotional tunes like "Hazel" and "Wedding Song," which sounded like a man trying to convince himself he was in love. But there was also the eerie "Going Going Gone," one of Dylan's most haunting songs of the era.
In addition to "Going," there's my other two favorites toward the end. "You Angel You" and "Never Say Goodbye," some of Dylan's best pop songs despite the melancholy undertones of the latter: "Twilight on the frozen lake/ North wind about to break/ On footprints in the snow/ Silence down below."
14. Self-Portrait (1970): When it was released, Greil Marcus asked pointedly, "What is this shit?" Regardless of whether this was or was not the birth of music criticism as we know it, it's a fair question. It's the first album of Dylan's career where the original songs are much weaker than the covers. This is...unsettling, to say the least.
So why do I love it so much when it breaks every rule of what a great Dylan album should be? I see it as a window into the real Dylan, not the guy who chased folk stardom or filled his body up with so many uppers that even his hair was reaching toward the sky. This was Dylan embracing the role he has long since inhabited: a song interpreter on the never-ending tour of life. Dylan never saw himself as the voice of a generation—he was just another singer passing through history.
And this is his most sprawling album, consisting of various Nashville session songs, some very tossed off originals (in the case of "Wigwam," beautifully tossed off), a couple muddy-sounding live tracks, and a set of exquisitely delivered covers. I really like country music, and this contains his most authentic takes on the genre, particularly the jolly "Little Sadie" and gorgeous "I Forget More Than You'll Ever Know." This is another album that shines first thing in the morning, especially the sleepy groove of "Early Mornin Rain," the mellow '50s throwback "Let It Be Me," and the bluesy "It Hurts Me Too."
Even with the syrupy strings and backup singers, nothing can take away from my two favorites, "Belle Isle" and "Copper Kettle," which both deserve entry into your ears and your hearts.
To hammer this all home—even Marcus has come around on the understated, unusual brilliance of this Frankenstein album, writing the liner notes for The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (which is essential listening if you enjoy this period).
13. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963): What's left to say about an album which contains five of the best known songs in popular music, which single-handedly sparked the folk/protest movement, which took Dylan from whippersnapper to wunderkind? It's beyond remarkable that Dylan was 22 when he wrote "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Don't Think Twice It's Alright." It's supernatural. It is literally some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature. That's the definition of supernatural. That was Dylan in 1963.
If you like the sound of a guy with a guitar who isn't just singing about the 'moon in June,' this is indispensable. (The only problem is, so is every other album on the list from here down!)
12. Oh Mercy (1989): While there were plenty of great songs spread out throughout the '80s, this is the only album where everything—the songwriting, the production, the singing, the lyrical themes—all snapped into place for 38 glorious, swampy minutes. The secret is the reverb—don't mask Dylan's voice, accentuate it. Put it front and center. Lean into the rasp, which was just starting to emerge as the defining sonic feature of his late period.
Besides the production, besides Dylan's clarity of voice, besides the fact Dylan was able to put 10 great all-original tunes together in a row for the first time in over a decade, the thing I love most about it are the slow songs. "Man In The Long Black Coat" sounds like a murderer tip-toeing through a swamp, "Where Teardrops Fall" swings with the grace of a country standard, and tunes like "What Good Am I," "Most Of The Time," and "Shooting Star" are filled with regret, longing, and the enveloping self-questioning of Dylan's most mature work.
11. Another Side Of Bob Dylan (1964): Fourteen songs were recorded for this album over the course of one session which lasted until about 1:30 a.m. According to biographer Clinton Heylin, it was all done "while polishing off a couple of bottles of Beaujolais." Eleven were chosen for the record; "Mr. Tambourine Man" was one of the tunes rejected. Think about that for a second.
It's the last time Dylan even slightly resembled a folk artist, and it's far too funny and personal to be considered that kind of folk. Really, it's his Rubber Soul. It has "My Back Pages," "Chimes Of Freedom," "I Don't Believe You," "It Ain't Me Babe," and "Spanish Harlem Incident." It has "To Ramona." It was released on my birthday.
And it was all recorded during one wine drunk evening.
10. World Gone Wrong (1993): This is the album to put on at 3 a.m. to poke through the quiet, when you've been up too long trying to get to the heart of something. Just some songs that feel like they've always existed.
"Blood In My Eyes" comes on, and it's like he's sitting right across from you. You could be staring at him, he could be avoiding your gaze. "Bob Dylan is definitely in this room," you think when he suddenly taps on his guitar in "Broke Down Engine." "Where did he come from?" Your ears perk up when he says, "all the friends I ever had are gone," and you sink.
There's something here that pierces his armor. This is the closest we've come to getting
Bob, the guy Norm Macdonald described meeting: "When Bob Dylan speaks, his words seem chosen long ago, his sentences are spare, and he looks right at you, and his countenance is stone...I noticed when looking at his face while listening to his words that it was like looking at an impressionistic painting."
Or maybe this is just how Dylan wants us to remember him.
9. Time Out Of Mind (1997): Bob Dylan almost died in 1997. He saw it coming—he wrote around 15 songs obsessed with death and decay during the winter of 1996 at his farm in Minnesota. During the recordings for TOOM, he took the introspective, swampy sound of Oh, Mercy and pushed it through the aural spectrum until he sounded like a ghost in a hollowed-out electric guitar, kicking up dirt roads and getting yelled at by his neighbors to turn down the Neil Young.
After the double dose of Good as I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, Dylan remembered what he loved to sing about the most: the ends of things, whether matters of romance, armageddon, or imminent personal loss. It's just a coincidence that Dylan almost died a few months later. And it just happens that the circumstances around his illness can only be described as Dylanesque. He explained to Guitar World a few years later:
It was something called histoplasmosis that came from just accidentally inhaling a bunch of stuff that was out on one of the rivers by where I live. Maybe one month, or two to three days out of the year, the banks around the river get all mucky, and then the wind blows and a bunch of swirling mess is in the air. I happened to inhale a bunch of that. That's what made me sick. It went into my heart area, but it wasn't anything really attacking my heart.
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there. (Also: Soy Bomb. That's really spooky.)
8. Desire (1976): Speaking of mystical coincidences: the story of how Dylan met violinist Scarlet Rivera, whose wild playing would define this wonderful album, sounds like something out of a Hal Ashby film. This is their meet-cute:
In 1975, Dylan was in New York City driving by in an unassuming car when he spotted Rivera with her violin case and according to an article in People Magazine, Scarlet said, “Then this car comes up and cuts me off. Some ugly green car. The guy driving asked me if I really knew how to play the violin.” And then Rivera heard the immortal words that changed her life forever when Dylan himself asked her to— “Come downtown and rehearse with me.” And the rest was music history.
Rivera later said she had "been touched by destiny." Thankfully, this doesn't end with a suicide and a Cat Stevens song, but rather with "Sara," Dylan's desperate final plea to his soon-to-be ex-wife.
(Note: switch the lumbering "Joey" for the aching "Abandoned Love," and this is a top three Dylan album.)
7. "Love and Theft" (2001): It's blasphemy to put this one over the dour renaissance of TOOM, but I think it's okay to give in to whimsy. TOOM is a grizzled old man huddled under a blanket in the middle of a snowstorm in the midwest; "Love & Theft" is a tipsy BBQ in late August followed by some dancing at the boat basin. Maybe topped off by counting some fireflies.
The album is filled with American roots music through and through, a melange of swing, blues, jazz chords, and loads and loads of borrowed texts. It all works remarkably, creating a multi-layered text that encourages deconstruction across the 20th century. As Perfect Sound Forever put it, "Dylan does not "reinvent" himself like he had done so many times before. What he warps is not so much his identity, but time itself."
And it's by far the funniest album of Dylan's career (and the guy could always be pretty surreal and silly when he wanted to be, wiggle wiggle wiggle). You try incorporating Shakespeare couplets, knock-knock jokes, and Don Pasqualli makin' a 2 a.m. booty call into the same songs!
It might not be revolutionary, but it allows for hope, which is a big thing for Dylan. That's especially true on "Mississippi," which goes in the Dylan hall of fame on the first ballot.
Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinkin' fast I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free I’ve got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me
6. Bringing It All Back Home (1965): You know how many bands have covered "It's All Over Now Baby Blue?" Everyone. Literally everyone has covered it. You've probably covered it at your local Cafe. If not, you will. One day you'll be drinking tea or petting your cat and suddenly there'll be an acoustic guitar around your neck and a wet harmonica between your lips and your hair will be frizzy and this is just how these things go.
And it'll be a good cover, because they've all been good covers, because you can't fuck up that song. (In case you're wondering: these are some of my favorite covers of it; this is the worst one I know and it's still fine.)
I know there are 10 other songs on this album, and some of them are pretty good (this is the part where I'd list the highlights, except every single one of these songs is amazing, even "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream," fuck you if you don't like demented retellings of Moby Dick), but "Baby Blue" just kills me. "Strike another match, go start anew"—where's the line between tender and cruel?
5. John Wesley Harding (1967): If Bowie is the adventurer, invested in exploring new musical landscapes regardless of popular trends (except the '80s, damnit), then Dylan is the drifter. He is always good (besides Saved), he is often exceptional, and he is completely elusive. Maybe Dylan is actually The Road Warrior.
After his motorcycle crash and rehabilitation at Big Pink with The Band (see below), Dylan recorded his most elusive album with some of the best Nashville players around. The band is discreet, all the better to focus on the lyrics. "What I'm trying to do now is not use too many words," Dylan said in a 1968 interview. "There's no line that you can stick your finger through, there's no hole in any of the stanzas. There's no blank filler. Each line has something." Spend some time with this one.
4. Blood On The Tracks (1975): Does Dylan ever really finish writing a song? This album was re-recorded at least two times before it was released, all because Dylan's brother said something dumb when he heard the brilliant first version.
But hey, Dylan constantly rejiggers arrangements live—its become the hallmark (or achilles heel) of The Neverending Tour. Thanks to shifted verses both new and old, there really have never been two of the same performances of "Tangled Up In Blue." Whatever performance you prefer, holy moly: this is a film within a film. He actually writes in flashbacks! The whole album is his most cinematic, from the expressive storytelling in "Simple Twist of Fate" to the damp atmospherics of "Shelter From The Storm." The way he twists 'idiot' into 'eee-A-diot.' Every harmonica blast in "You're Gonna Leave Me Lonesome When You Go."
Anyway, this is his There Will Be Blood. (Nashville Skyline/New Morning was Punch-Drunk Love.)
3. The Basement Tapes (1967/1975): Some people have a therapist; other people have The Band. Dylan entered Big Pink a broken speed freak, and he exited the beguiling and unapologetic troubadour we all know and love. These are the songs that brought him back to the world.
And on top of that, this is his most fun album, a perfect reflection of its cover. I love that there is no concept, just a bunch of empathic musicians who speak the same language. I love the haunted organ on "Tears Of Rage." I love that the tunes were bootlegged for years ("Great White Wonder" was the first bootleg!) before Dylan finally consented to releasing it. I love the messy dynamic in "Lo and Behold." I love that The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete adds another 120 songs (including the essential "I Shall Be Released," "Santa Fe," "Quinn The Eskimo" and so many more) from the sessions to the mix. I love that "Open The Door, Homer" is actually sung to Richard [Manuel], the piano player. I love that it all sounds like it was recorded on a cassette tape by a loyal hanger-on. I love every vocal dive in "Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread." And I love "Goin' To Acapulco" most of all.
2. Highway 61 Revisited (1965): This is the coolest album not titled London Calling, Enter The Wu-Tang, or Lulu. That's partially because Mike Bloomfield is the coolest freelance lead guitarist ever. That's partially because of Nina Simone's cover of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." That's it.
1. Blonde On Blonde (1966): Ever heard it? It's pretty good. It's got the "everybody get stoned" song. Good stuff.