10 Best Bob Dylan Albums
No matter who you are, where you're from, how old you are or what you dig, there's a Bob Dylan for you. From unplugged protest singer to hopped-up electric rock 'n' roll game-changer, reclusive Woodstock folkie to confessional balladeer, and born-again Christian zealot to resurgent genius, Dylan has done it all, and because he's been going nonstop since the early '60s, he's done it all first. Given that Columbia recently released 'The Complete Albums Collection, Vol. One,' a mammoth 41-disc box set comprising all of his official studio and live recordings, we thought it time for a Dylan deep dive. After binging on Bob for weeks and revisiting discs we've spun our entire lives, we created this list of the 10 Best Bob Dylan albums. It could have easily been 20, if not 30, and since Bob's still dropping ace LPs, our list is destined to keep changing, just like the man himself.
A laid-back, unassuming record cut as Dylan and the Band prepared for their first tour since 1966, 'Waves' doesn't get a whole lot of notice. Nor should it: The songs are rootsy and pleasant and not meant to shake the world, though Dylan manages one moment of profundity. Two, actually, as standout 'Forever Young' appears as both side one's closer and side two's opener. Stick to the first, a lovely list of well wishes from a father to his kids.
Still riding a late-career high, Dylan benefits here from an infusion of new blood. He wrote all but one of the tunes with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, and he added to his usual band lineup Tom Petty guitarist Mike Campbell and Los Lobos multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo, whose accordion peppers many of the best tracks. Opener and single 'Beyond Here Lies Nothin'' has a cool '50s rock 'n' roll edge, while the bluesy 'My Wife's Hometown' find Bob having a wicked laugh about his old lady.
'Bringing It All Back Home,' No. 8 on our list of the Best Bob Dylan Albums, is the flicker before the inferno, a half-acoustic, half-electric indication of where this striver was headed. His next two records, 'Highway 61 Revisited' and 'Blonde on Blonde,' get the credit for reshaping rock, but this one's opener, 'Subterranean Homesick Blues,' still sounds way, way gone, what with the pumping beat, free-association proto-rap lyrics and generally subversive feel. On the deceptively earnest 'Mr. Tambourine Man,' he examines the relationship between fans and musicians, perhaps thumbing his nose at the messianic-rocker thing, and on 'Bob Dylan's 115th Dream,' he tells an alternate history of Columbus' discovery of America. The bomb-bay doors were opening, and Bob was getting ready to nuke the culture.
On his second studio effort, Dylan hadn't yet shucked the protest-singer tag -- check out the seething 'Masters of War' and anthemic opener 'Blowin' In the Wind' -- but he was starting to write with startling insight about more personal matters. 'Girl From the North Country' hits like a boulder to the chest, and the all-time classic 'Don't Think Twice' is either a nasty kissoff or a gentle "oh well" shrug and wave goodbye, depending on your mood.
Pressed to pick two words to describe Dylan's career, one could do worse than "love" and "theft." From his early days lifting folk records from friends' apartments, Bob has been a keen student of music and literature -- one who knows nothing is created in a vacuum. He plucks from the past and mangles bits of what he digs, and here, he as spins rambling American folktales ('Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum'), lets loose on rockabilly ragers ('Summer Days') and plays the "song and dance man" he claimed to be in one hilarious '60s interview ('Bye and Bye'), he borrows ideas and even lines from a variety of sources. Dylan has rarely sounded sprier or more inspired.
So begins Dylan's late-life comeback. Arriving at the tail end of a less-than-fruitful decade, this one's got it all: peppy topical numbers ('Political World,' 'Everything's Broken'), terrific love ballads ('Where Teardrops Fall,' 'Most of the Time') and questioning religious songs ('Ring Them Bells'). Daniel Lanois' production harks back to classic rock 'n' roll without sounding anachronistic, and the record has a deep, timeless quality. It must resonate with Bob, too, since he writes extensively about the making of the album in his memoir, 'Chronicles: Volume One.'
To many fans, 'Blonde on Blonde' is Bob Dylan's best album, a richer, smarter version of 'Highway 61 Revisited,' the revolutionary LP he released a year earlier. It's certainly longer, and while most of the material is excellent, the bluesy likes of 'Pledging My Time' and 'Temporary Like Achilles' drag some, distracting from the truly genius moments. Speaking of, it's here we find 'Visions of Johanna,' 'I Want You' and 'Just Like a Woman,' and those alone land this one in the top five.
Often described as Dylan's "death record," this Grammy-winning effort -- No. 3 on our list of the 10 Best Bob Dylan Albums -- is full of life. Working once again with Lanois, Dylan makes every cut feel like it was recorded at 3AM. He's not sleepy, and there ain't no place he's going to, and that leaves him free to rock out ('Dirt Road Blues'), ramble on ('Highlands'), get down on clattering hobo dub ('Cold Irons Bound') and set his never-creakier voice to some of the most moving ballads of his career ('Standing In the Doorway,' 'Make You Feel My Love').
Arriving five months after 'Bringing It All Back Home,' 'Highway 61' signaled a whole new era -- not just for Dylan, but for rock 'n' roll, literature, film and pop culture in general. He knew some folks wouldn't get it (see: 'Ballad of a Thin Man') but 50 years later, no one wishes he'd stayed an acoustic troubadour. And in true anti-pop fashion, the two longest songs are also the best: 11-minute closer 'Desolation Row' and that six-minute tune that opens the disc, a funny little number called 'Like a Rolling Stone.'
Topping our list of the 10 Best Bob Dylan Albums is one the man himself doesn't especially like. "It's hard for me to relate to people enjoying that type of pain," he's said of the record, written in 1974 amid the dissolution of his marriage to first wife Sara Lownds. It's the pain that makes 'Blood' so great, and perhaps more so than on any other album, the jester casts off his mask and shows his true self. And yet for all its straightforward emotion, 'Blood' isn't blunt or obvious; Dylan is still into myth-making and embellishing, and landing 10 years after 'Highway 61,' it proved he could still go flip-mode style and surprise everyone. In 1975, it was essential to his moving forward. Now, it's just essential.