Bob Dylan needs no introduction – he’s one of the key figures in rock music. He helped to define the genre as it matured, especially as a lyricist. He broadened the scope of rock lyrics, utilising both social issues and surreal poetry.
Through the 1960s, Dylan never stood still, initially transitioning from coffee-house folk to protest songs. After four solo, acoustic albums with mostly just his guitar and harmonica for accompaniment, he abandoned acoustic folk, started using full bands, and produced acclaimed, inspired albums of electric beatnik poetry. After a mysterious motorcycle accident, Dylan retreated from the limelight and embraced family life, producing a pair of very different acoustic albums to close out the decade.
Bob Dylan was frighteningly prolific in the 1960s – I haven’t included The Basement Tapes, recorded with The Band in 1967 but not released until 1975. Dylan also released non-album singles like ‘Positively Fourth Street’ and ‘Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?’, and a ton of outtakes later surfaced on archival releases.
Here are my rankings of Dylan’s albums from a decade during which he never stood still:
#9: The Times They Are A-Changin‘
Songs like ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and ‘Masters of War’ had established Dylan as a protest singer, and he followed them up with a dour, humourless record that’s a tough listen. There are strong songs like ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ and ‘When The Ship Comes In’, but it’s tough to sit through lengthy diatribes like ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’.
#8: Nashville Skyline
Dylan’s final album of the 1960s was a light-hearted country collection. It’s notable for Dylan’s different voice – he’d stopped smoking temporarily, and utilises a deeper country croon. There are a couple of strong songs here – ‘I Threw It All Away’ is a strong single that’s now half forgotten, while ‘Lay Lady Lay’ is the best known piece – but a lot of Nashville Skyline is tuneful, but not among Dylan’s best work.
#7: Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan’s debut album is almost entirely made of covers, and it’s a good sampler of the Greenwich Village folk clubs in New York. The young Bob Dylan’s provides enough charisma to add life to these well worn folk songs. He also slips in a couple of originals that hint as his potential as a writer – ‘Song For Woody’, dedicated to role-model Woody Guthrie, is a surprisingly honest moment from an often cryptic man.
#6: Another Side of Bob Dylan
Another Side is Dylan’s last completely solo album. The more complex songs often sound like they would have benefited from full band arrangements, and his vocal limitations are exposed as he navigates through more expansive melodies. But there are lots of great songs here; pieces like ‘All I Really Want To Do’ and ‘My Back Pages’ would later be covered by The Byrds. The eight minutes of ‘Ballad of Plain D’, on the other hand, is the most excruciating song from Dylan’s 1960s studio albums.
#5: Bringing It All Back Home
We’re only halfway through the list, and we’re already into the heavy hitters. Dylan’s first electric album still features a largely acoustic second side, with ‘It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ and ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, while the first side has highlights like ‘Maggie’s Farm’, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, and ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’. Bringing It All Back Home is an excellent record, but Dylan made four even better albums during the decade.
#4: Highway 61 Revisited
There’s a strong case that Dylan’s first fully electric album has the strongest bookends of any record in popular music – it opens with the sneering put-downs of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and closes with the austere, literary desperation of ‘Desolation Row’. It’s not bad in between either, with the silliness of ‘Tombstone Blues’, the strange and sinister ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, and ‘Just Like Tom Thumb Blues’ backed by great musicians like Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield.
#3: John Wesley Harding
When Dylan re-emerged into the public eye after his motorcycle accident, he was less of a strung out beatnik, and more of a backwoods preacher. Dylan cut an album of mystical, low key pieces in Nashville, with a simple three piece band. It doesn’t sound pre-possessing, but it’s one of his finest albums, full of economical and enticing story telling. The most famous song is ‘All Along The Watchtower’ – Dylan’s version wasn’t a hit, but Jimi Hendrix electrified it, both figuratively and literally.
#2: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
At his second turn at bat, Dylan turned in a batch of terrific songs that hold attention even with his simple guitar, harmonica and vocal presentation. Early Dylan is best characterised by the protest folk of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, and ‘Masters of War’; has there even been a nastier, yet more justified line than “even Jesus would never forgive what you do?” But there’s also the English folk inspired ‘Girl From The North Country’ and the perfectly weighted kiss off of ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’. “I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul.”
#1: Blonde on Blonde
Rock’s first double album is also one of the only double albums to be almost devoid of filler. There are fun blues songs, like ‘Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat’ and ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’, with great backing bands, including Robbie Robertson’s searing guitar. But at the heart of the album are the intricately developed acoustic pieces, ‘Visions of Johanna’ and the beautiful closer ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, my pick for the best song in an illustrious career.
Dylan certainly had his moments after the 1960s, especially in the mid 1970s with Blood on the Tracks and Desire. My favourite Dylan album, however, is the archival release of his 1966 “Royal Albert Hall” concert.
Do you have a favourite Dylan record?