Looking back at the figure of Bob Dylan it is hard not to burn one’s retinas in the almighty glow of one of the music world’s brightest stars. He may have started out as your run of the mill folkie, equipped with a pack of Woody Guthrie songs and a rag-tag guitar slung over his shoulder but soon enough, Dylan became an outright musical hero, championing through his music the stories of the entire universe. It was Dylan’s ability to tell these stories, some far-flung, others close to the bone, that made him the icon he is today.
While individual songs for Dylan are as intrinsic as anything else he creates, it’s hard not to appreciate his devotion to ‘the album’. A dying art form, the LP was something that Dylan created with a flourish, changing his scope and his point of attack on almost every different release—and there’s been a lot of them. In fact, there have been 39 studio albums and 15 bootleg records from the freewheelin’ troubadour across his nearly 60-year career. When you add that to the fact that the quality of Dylan’s work is some of the most prestigious pop records ever made, and you will find yourself having a hard time picking your ten favourites. That is, however, exactly what we’ve done.
Below there are ten albums from Bob Dylan which are the pinnacle of his creation. The ten records which define him as a singer-songwriter and a pivotal figure in the world of music and pop culture at large. While it’s quite clear from the selections that Dylan’s greatness transcended his decades in the music business, it’s also clear that the eighties and nineties were not kind to the great man, spending much of his time chasing the fame that once came so naturally to him, the two decades have no selections in this list.
The reality of the list is that it will anger some people. Not least of all because Bob Dylan has far more than ten great albums, in fact, we could double this and still deliver twenty records we’re sure would top most other artists’ own pile of work, but largely because Bob Dylan connected people. When he began singing during the early sixties he became a generational voice, when he continued throughout the decades he offered first a crude rock star view, then an outsider’s glance and then a sage-like vision of the past, present and future. Simply put, there’s a good chance that every single Bob Dylan fan would have a different top ten and, for that reason alone, it’s worth revisiting the best of Bob.
Below, we do just that with ten of Bob Dylan’s greatest albums of all time.
Bob Dylan’s 10 best albums:
10. Modern Times (2006)
It’s easy to relegate Bob Dylan to the expressive explosion of the sixties or even the Tequila Sunset seventies, but some of his most pressing work arrived in the 21st century. Modern Times sees Dylan dig deep into his canon and look back at the roots music which influenced him so greatly.
The LP, therefore, works as a homage to Americana and its music in all forms. Not bound by genre or style, Dylan digs through a plethora of blues, country and rock songs, offering his audience the chance to hear the indigenous stories behind the music. Dylan spins the songs into a thread far more modern but is still able to weave them into the tapestry of the country nevertheless.
9. Nashville Skyline (1969)
By the time the end of the sixties was approaching, Dylan had spent the majority of the decade in the limelight. He had become a pastiche protest folk singer and the need for the artist to remove those shackles was growing by the day. He did a good job of breaking free with his country-rock inspired record Nashville Skyline.
The previous album John Wesley Harding (an unlucky contestant in this list), had set a new tone for Dylan but it was on this LP, recorded in Nashville, in which he finally cut himself away from the folkie image for good. Dylan was now a fully-fledged artist and with his album including both a classic Johnny Cash duet and one of his best songs in ‘Lay Lady Lay’, you know this album is clearly one of his best, even if his vocal was a little strange.
8. Desire (1976)
After Bob returned from one of the most impressive tours of all time, AKA The Rolling Thunder Revue, he hit the studio with a renewed vigour. It’s the exact thing that can be heard on his 1976 record Desire. Musically, the LP is as robust as any of Dylan’s creations and he was also still providing lyrical narratives worthy of their own publication with perhaps his greatest opening the record.
‘Hurricane’, a sprawling eight-and-a-half minute track about the boxer Rubin Carter, an athlete who was incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit, is one of the most legendary songs in Dylan’s canon. It’s just one of many tracks on the record that is energised and alive with the singer’s newfound verve for performing and recording. It may not be one of the most well-known albums of Dylan’s repertoire but it’s certainly worth its position.
7. Love and Theft (2001)
Sometimes albums can pop out of nowhere and redefine an artist many once thought to be indefinable, Love and Theft is one of those records. Having followed on from Time Out of Mind, an album which reintroduced Dylan to a new audience, the singer-songwriter was beginning to look back on his long journey.
The previous record had seen Dylan accept his fate as a legacy act and emphatically shrug at the prospect of his career’s and his life’s mortality. However, on this album, Dylan turns into a historian and showcases the music which moves him. It is another rootsy affair and one which feels capable of stirring up the ghosts of music past all on its own.
6. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
Forget the Nobel, this album’s position in our list is perhaps the crowning achievement of Bob Dylan’s career. Arguably one of the most defining albums of the decade, Dylan’s sophomore effort is regarded by many as the peak of his talent. For us though, it ranks below some other notable LPs. It was, however, the first album to properly ascertain Dylan as a wondrous talent.
The record does possess a few covers, as many records of the time did, but it was Dylan’s own wry songwriting that confirms this as one of his greatest records. Original songs such as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ confirmed that the songwriter was in a league of his own as he demonstrated not only a witty pen, sharp tongue and quizzical eye but a deft touch too.
5. The Basement Tapes (1975)
There’s one thing that we haven’t properly considered for this list and that is bootlegs. During the sixties, bootlegging recordings or live performances was not only an often rabidly achieved feat but also a mark of an artist’s growing fame. In many instances, in fact, those bootlegs can go on to define an artist better than their albums. If you’re a smart cookie like Dylan, you realise this and turn them into a record.
The Basement Tapes is, without doubt, one of the finest bootlegs of all time and we’re thankful that Dylan turned it into an LP. The story goes that the sessions came about following Dylan’s motorcycle accident, a crash which then led him to disappear into upstate New York with the Band and just jammed through the pain—The Basement Tapes is the result and one we’re more than happy to hear again and again.
4. Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
It is at this point of the list where we really start to hit the glut of gold that Dylan possesses in his canon of records. The sixties were a time of creative ingenuity and expression but one decision almost derailed Dylan’s entire career—going electric. When he decided to ditch the acoustic and plug in an electric guitar he was labelled a “judas” by the folk scene and may have questioned whether it would all pay off in the end. Luckily, we were blessed with Highway 61 Revisited and everyone simply forgot about the folkies.
Not many people can achieve a complete artistic overhaul like Bob Dylan does on this record. A rollicking performance showed he wasn’t concerned with his folk image but the lyrics, influences and sonic structures compounded in the album proved that he was still as keen as ever to write great music. It ranks high as one of the best albums of the sixties but, then again, most of Dylan’s do.
3. Blood on the Tracks (1975)
Bob Dylan has had quite a few comebacks in his long and varied career. It seems as quickly as the singer was championed as one of the voices of his generation he was cast to the scrap heap of history too. Blood on the Tracks from 1975 acts as one of the singer’s first required comebacks and it lands with the weight of a champion boxer’s knuckles on your jaw.
The sixties were a great time for Dylan but, on this record, he kicks back at all he had helped to add weight to and instead delivers a snarling piece of music capable of burning the very record player it is played on. It was one of Dylan’s most personal albums and sees the singer kicking back at the industry, the audience and just about anyone else who would hear it. It’s one of the singer’s feisty pieces of work and is imbued with all the energy and effervescence of old, just this time with a devilish glint in his eye.
2. Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
While Highway 61 Revisited was the record which saw Dylan finally cut away from his folkie image, it was on Bringing It All Back Home that he made the first move. An album split down the middle as half acoustic and half electric was bound to divide his audience. The fact that he was not only unafraid to do so but welcomed the division is why Dylan is considered such a forthright and uncompromising artist.
Songs like ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ suggested that Dylan was about to hit his prime. So effortlessly were they constructed, that when played they exude an iconic sonic structure that feels both comforting and fresh event to this day some 55 years later. The bridge between Bob Dylan’s different lives acts as one of the most satisfying crossovers we’ve ever heard.
1. Blonde on Blonde (1966)
To deny Blonde on Blonde as the pinnacle of Bob Dylan’s discography is to deny sound reasoning and champion personal preference above all else. While doing so certainly has its place, Blonde on Blonde, Dylan’s superlative 1966 double LP, was the final instalment of a whirlwind 15 months in which Dylan delivered Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, and is rightly at the top of this triangle.
There’s everything you need to make yourself a perfect figure of Bob Dylan in this LP as it offers a distillation of his character both past and present. There are elements of folk, pop, rock and soul all carefully threaded together in this LP that suggest that Dylan was by far the best artist of the decade. While The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were gathering screaming girls, Dylan was welcoming the music world to his door. Those fans flocked to the Fab Four because of the hysteria while Dylan got his fans from pure songwriting.
Songs on the record include classics like ‘I Want You’, ‘Visions of Johanna’, ‘Just Like A Woman’, ‘Fourth Time Around and countless others which all add up to one of most brilliant albums of the 20th century. If there was one album which encapsulated everything that is good about Bob Dylan then it is this one and there’s no better reason for it topping our list.