I’ve been mulling this over for a while. If you were to start a Bob Dylan musical library, how would you do it? There are over forty albums, plus all sorts of illegal bootlegs. Rather than just say “start with these twenty,” I wanted to deal with a more manageable number. After weeks of consideration, mostly while I was driving, this is what I came up with. It’s “one per decade plus another for the Sixties.”
There are many variations on this and some might complain that I’ve skipped important eras such as the late Seventies/early Eighties Christian era. All things in their time. Once I’ve established this initial list, we’ll branch out from here, looking at albums that are either close in time to these or else not otherwise represented.
This list does not include all the albums that I would consider masterpieces, but it’s a start. If you don’t have any of these, I would recommend you get them in the chronological order listed. Things to which you should pay attention: lyrics (always), simplicity or complexity of musical arrangement, quality of voice, and overall album consistency. I’ve included some free form comments after each album.
Thanks to my daughter Katie, the best Dylanologist I know, for her input on this, though any errors and opinions are mine alone.
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
Second album, first masterpiece. All songs are now classic but particularly note “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” and that’s just half way through the album. That’s Suze Rotolo on the cover with Dylan in Greenwich Village in New York City.
Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
Yet another masterpiece, perhaps the best of them, and only two years after Freewheelin’. Rolling Stone magazine named the song “Like a Rolling Stone” its number one song of all time. This album features the electric blues guitar of Mike Bloomfield. Dylan has said that he regrets that he couldn’t get Bloomfield for later albums. He also jokingly suggested that “Desolation Row” should be the new national anthem.
The album is squarely in the middle of the whole acoustic-folk-to-electric-rock controversial period for Dylan that is documented in the video No Direction Home.
Blood on the Tracks (1975)
For many people, this was Dylan’s first “hit album” since Blonde on Blonde in 1966, but that’s skipping over a lot of excellent work that I’ll get to in future entries in this series. If you don’t own the album, you have probably at least heard the opener “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Shelter from the Storm,” as well as Joan Baez’ cover of “Simple Twist of Faith.”
The song “Idiot Wind” stands out as one of the best put-down songs (perhaps mutual), along with Dylan’s single “Positively 4th Street” that’s on Biograph, a collection from 1985. (4th Street is in New York City in Greenwich Village.)
Much of this album was recorded twice, once in New York City and then again in Minneapolis, with the final album primarily from the latter sessions. I’m told that the bootleg album Blood on the Tapes contains some of the earlier versions.
Oh Mercy (1989)
With this album we jump forward fifteen years and almost out of the Eighties. It was produced by Daniel Lanois and was, according to Dylan’s Chronicles rather difficult at times to construct and record. The first song, “Political World,” really sets the tone and feel for the album and is unlike anything I had heard previously from Dylan.
You may have heard the song “Man in the Long Black Coat” on Joan Osbourne’s album Relish. For another Lanois-produced album with a similar musical atmosphere, see Emmy Lou Harris’ album Wrecking Ball. She covers an earlier Dylan song, “Every Grain of Sand,” from the Dylan Gospel-era album Shot of Love.
Time Out of Mind (1997)
Many people think of Dylan’s career as being anchored in a series of album trilogies and, if this has any basis in fact, this might be the first album in the latest trilogy. (As with all such statements, this is denied by Dylan, according to Wikipedia.) It was the second album produced by Daniel Lanois and it won the Grammy for Album of the Year. It is strong from start to finish.
If “Dirt Road Blues” doesn’t get you moving, I don’t know what will.
Dylan is back in full poetic form on this album, as in “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”:
People on the platforms
Waiting for the trains
I can hear their hearts a-beatin’
Like pendulums swinging on chains
When you think that you lost everything
You find out you can always lose a little more
I’m just going down the road feeling bad
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door
The blues live.
Modern Times (2006)
As I write this entry, this album is the latest by Dylan and returns in full force to the quality of Time Out of Mind. Unlike that album but like the intermediate “Love and Theft”, Dylan self-produced this under the pseudonym “Jack Frost.” I can’t recall seeing one bad review of this album, and I concur.
The kickoff song, “Thunder on the Mountain,” is notable for many reasons, including his interesting rhyme for “orphanages,” which I suspect is a first. When Katie and I saw Dylan in Boston in late 2006, this was the first song in the encore.
I think the most poignant song here is “Workingman’s Blues #2”, and recalls, in my mind, some of Dylan’s early influences such as Woody Guthrie.