Readers’ Poll: The Best Bob Dylan Albums of All Time
Bob Dylan's 35th album, Tempest, landed in stores this week – a record in which, he claims, "Anything goes and you just gotta believe it will make sense." He's been on an incredible creative roll since the release of his 1997 comeback LP, Time Out of Mind, and we figured this was a good time to poll our readers on their favorite Dylan albums. Votes poured in for everything from his 1962 self-titled album through Tempest; here are the results.
10. ‘John Wesley Harding’
A little over a year after a motorcycle accident removed Bob Dylan from the public eye, the singer-songwriter headed down to Nashville to record his long-awaited follow-up to Blonde on Blonde. It was 1967, the year of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Summer of Love and the Monterey Pop Festival. Psychedelic music was everywhere and many expected Dylan to further stretch his boundaries with his next release.
As usual, Dylan completely defied expectations. John Wesley Harding is a low-key folk-rock album cut with a tiny crew of Nashville pros. It was recorded during the course of three relatively quick sessions spread over a month. Dylan did virtually nothing to promote the disc and it didn't spawn any hits, though the following year, Jimi Hendrix released a cover of "All Along the Watchtower" that became a smash all over the world. It's since been covered by countless artists, and Dylan himself has performed it over 2,000 times – more than any other song in his catalog.
9. ‘Oh Mercy’
By 1989, many Bob Dylan fans were convinced that Dylan had completely lost his songwriting muse. His last two albums, Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove, were arguably the two worst works of his career. In what seemed to be an ominous sign, most of the songs on those discs were either covers or tunes he wrote with others.
Thankfully, Dylan realized he needed to completely rethink his career. In 1988, he began his Never Ending Tour (which is still going), and he took advice from Bono and teamed up with producer Daniel Lanois for a new album. They spent months working on the record in New Orleans, carefully crafting each song and often radically reworking the material until it was just right. For the first time in years, Dylan seemed to truly care about the quality of his work. The result was his strongest album in nearly a decade – though in a typical Dylan move, he jettisoned two of the best tracks ("Born in Time" and "Series of Dreams") to make work for a couple of clearly subpar songs. Regardless, Oh Mercy is a landmark album.
Dylan's 2004 autobiography, Chronicles Volume 1, devotes an extremely long chapter to the making of the LP, though many Dylan experts have questioned the validity of some of the anecdotes.
8. ‘Time Out of Mind’
Bob Dylan took a long break from recording new material after the release of 1990's rather subpar LP Under the Red Sky. During that time, he toured at a relentless pace and released two discs of acoustic folk covers, but nothing new emerged. "I was disillusioned with the whole process of it," he told the New York Times in 1997. "I found myself spending more and more time in the studio doing less and less. There wasn't any gratification in it… It's not like we lack any songs to play onstage."
However, in late 1996, Dylan suddenly found inspiration and began penning a dark series of songs about love, loss and death. He was only 56 at the time, though many of the songs seem like the words of a man looking at his imminent death. (Dylan denies that any of the songs were personal.) He once again teamed up with producer Daniel Lanois, though this time around, the sessions weren't so smooth: they couldn't even agree on where to record the disc, let alone who should play on it or what it should sound like.
Though Dylan has repeatedly voiced dissatisfaction with the final product, fans and critics hailed it as a stunning return to form. It even won a Grammy for Album of the Year. In the years since its release, Dylan has released stripped-down versions of many of the songs, and he produced his last four albums by himself.
7. ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’
Even the handful of people who bought Bob Dylan's 1962 self-titled debut LP probably didn't see The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan coming. The debut was mainly folk covers, with two rather unmemorable originals. But in the months after the record hit shelves, a flood of songs began pouring out of Dylan. His girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, also helped him take an active interest in the Civil Rights struggle.
The result was an absolutely staggering collection of songs that included "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War," "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" and "Girl From the North Country." The disc landed in May 1963 and wasn't an immediate hit but around that time, Joan Baez (then at the peak of her fame) began bringing Dylan onstage during her solo concerts. Peter, Paul and Mary also scored a huge hit with their cover of "Blowin' in the Wind" that summer. All the attention caused countless young people across the country to pick up The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and it created the indelible image of Dylan as the lone folk troubador singing songs about injustice and war. It would prove to be a hard image to shake.
6. ‘Nashville Skyline’
In 1969, rock & roll was starting to get harder and heavier. New groups like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Blind Faith were experimenting with an aggressive, raw sound that delighted a new generation of fans. Bob Dylan, as usual, was on a very different trip. He went back down to Nashville to cut a simple country record. If that wasn't enough of a change, he was suddenly singing in a completely different voice; even some longtime fans didn't initially recognize they were listening to a Dylan song when "Lay Lady Lay" came on the radio.
Dylan recorded many songs with Johnny Cash during these sessions, but only a duet on "Girl From the North Country" made the album. While the record puzzled some Dylan fans, most people found it extremely warm and charming. "Lay Lady Lay" became a huge hit, and Dylan even made a rare television appearance to promote the album on The Johnny Cash Show. It would be a long five years before Dylan released another widely praised work.
Bob Dylan's 1974 album, Blood on the Tracks, reminded the world that Dylan was a songwriter without peer. On his next album, he decided to experiment by taking on a co-writer, theater director Jacques Levy. While the songs on Blood on the Tracks were highly personal, these new songs were largely about characters, both real and imagined. "Joey" is an 11-minute tribute to the New York mobster Joey Gallo, while "Hurricane" passionately argues that the boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was falsely convicted of murder. The influence of Levy is quite apparent on "Hurricane," which begins with actual stage directions: "Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night/ Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall." It's an enormously complicated story that Dylan and Levy crammed into a seven-minute pop song, and even though they got some of the facts a little wrong, it brought renewed attention to the plight of the imprisoned boxer.
The album ends with "Sara," an extremely moving tribute to Dylan's long-suffering wife. According to multiple accounts, she watched him record the song and then agreed to a reconciliation; she filed for divorce months later. The album is also notable for the work of violinist Scarlet Rivera. It's hard to imagine what the album would sound like without her playing, yet she was only invited to the sessions when Dylan spotted her walking down the street with a violin case. He invited her into his car and the rest is history.
4. ‘Bringing It All Back Home’
Bringing It All Back Home captured Bob Dylan during a period of tremendous transformation. One side of the LP is just Bob Dylan and an acoustic guitar, while the other side finds him playing with an electric band. The disc kicks off with "Subterranean Homesick Blues," a wild stream-of-consciousness rock song that sounded unlike anything else Dylan had released. The folk purists howled but everybody else ate it up, and the song became his first Top 40 hit.
The timing was right for such a move. New folk-rock groups like the Byrds were breaking onto the scene, and Dylan would have seemed passè had he kept knocking out songs like "Masters of War." To grow, he had to shed some of his old audience, though with songs like "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Gates of Eden," the folkies had much to celebrate on Bringing It All Back Home. Their patience would be further tested over the next few years, though a giant mainstream audience was beginning to come around to Dylan that more than made up for any defections by the old guard.
3. ‘Highway 61 Revisited’
By the summer of 1965, Bob Dylan had absolutely no interest in writing folk songs, and the success of the "Subterranean Homesick Blues" single earlier in the year proved to him that fans were willing to follow him down new paths. On June 15th, he went into a New York recording studio with guitarist Mike Bloomfield and cut "Like a Rolling Stone." The following month, they performed it at the Newport Folk Festival.
About 10 trillion words have been written about exactly what happened that day, not least about how Dylan seemed to walk away convinced the crowd had booed him. Undeterred, he went back into the studio just four days later to finish recording Highway 61 Revisited. This time, the songs were bluesy and the lyrics were more surreal. Fueled by the massive success of "Like a Rolling Stone," the record flew off shelves and established Dylan as a true rock god.
2. ‘Blonde on Blonde’
In a 1978 interview with Playboy, Bob Dylan was asked if he hears songs in his head before he records them. "The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album," he said. "It's that thin, that wild mercury sound. It's metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up. That's my particular sound. I haven't been able to succeed in getting it all the time."
In 1966, Dylan was succeeding in nearly everything that he tried. He was playing some of the most amazing shows of his career, and songs were flooding out of him almost faster than he could record them. This all culminated in Blonde on Blonde, a double LP he cut largely in Nashville with Robbie Robertson, Al Kooper and a bunch of Nashville pros. The songs veer from surreal epics like "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" to sublime love songs like "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." The latter takes up the entirety of side four and is an 11-minute tribute to his then-wife Sara Lownds. The musicians at the session claim they cut it all in a single take at 4 a.m. The album hit stores just weeks before Dylan's motorcycle crash.
1. ‘Blood on the Tracks’
By 1975, many people had written off Bob Dylan as a Sixties wash-out. He had reunited with the Band the previous year for an extremely lucrative reunion tour, but it was a decidedly nostalgic affair. Dylan had scored hits in the early 1970s with "Forever Young" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," but his albums were pretty half-assed affairs.
Then came Blood on the Tracks, a gut-wrenching account of the dissolution of his marriage. Dylan, of course, denies the songs are personal, but it's impossible not to hear his pain on tracks like "You're a Big Girl Now" and "If You See Her, Say Hello." "Simple Twist of Fate" is a nostalgic look back at his early 1960s romance with Suze Rotolo, while "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" was inspired by his brief affair with Columbia A&R rep Ellen Bernstein. The common thread through all the songs is the pain that comes when love dies.
While Dylan has made the wild claim that the songs were inspired by Chekhov short stories, Jakob Dylan knows the truth. "The songs are my parents talking," he said in one interview.