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Happy 80th Birthday Bob: My Favorite Dylan Albums

May 23, 2021

One of my favorite music writers, Steven Hyden, posted his ranking of Dylan’s studio albums to celebrate Dylan becoming an octogenarian. That inspired me to write a less ambitious post: my favorite Dylan albums. These are not in order – I can’t do that as my feelings change like the weather about each of these. Thus, I have listed them chronologically. I am not saying these are Dylan’s greatest albums, merely my favorites.

Bringing It All Back Home (1965)

I fully appreciate Dylan’s folk era, but when he went electric that was something special – next level shit. This is part one, of the greatest hat trick in pop/rock history. This is when Bob Dylan became BOB DYLAN!

Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

If someone had never listened to Dylan before, asked for a one album recommendation, this would be the one. If they could only listen to only one song it should be “Like a Rolling Stone” from this album. Number two, on the way to the hat trick.

Blonde on Blonde (1966)

There are days I would say this is my favorite Dylan album. The final piece of the trifecta. Bob headed to Nashville with keyboardist Al Kooper and guitarist Robbie Robertson, got the Nashville A-Team stoned and made his psychedelic masterpiece before promptly checking out.

Nashville Skyline (1969)

And at the height of the psychedelic/rock/hippie/Woodstock era what does he do? Makes a blatantly country album. It was so unhip, that it was hip. And that voice – it doesn’t even sound like Dylan at first, but the more you listen, it does (Dylan claims the voice is due to the fact he had quit smoking). Extra special to me is that my wife and I used “Lay Lady Lay” as our first dance at our wedding. Bonus points: Dylan’s most delightful album cover.

Planet Waves (1974)

Dylan temporarily left Columbia to join artist friendly David Geffen at Asylum. Dylan is supported on the album by longtime collaborators The Band, with whom he embarked on a major reunion tour following its release. With a successful tour and a host of publicity, Planet Waves was a hit, enjoying a brief stay at No. 1 on the charts – a first for Dylan. As close and as important as the Dylan and The Band relationship is, there is not much released studio material and this is the only proper studio album of this configuration.

Blood on the Tracks (1975)

On the days that Blonde on Blonde is not my favorite album this one is. The songs have been linked to tensions in Dylan’s personal life, including his estrangement from his then-wife Sara. One of their children, Jakob Dylan, has described the songs as “my parents talking.” It is considered a masterpiece of confessional singer-songwriter craft – although Dylan denies it is autobiographical. Recorded in NYC and Minneapolis it is sonically, one of Dylan’s best sounding albums.

Desire (1976)

The foundation album for the Rolling Thunder Revue. I love that many of the songs feature backing vocals by Emmylou Harris and Ronee Blakley. Most of the album was co-written by Jacques Levy and is composed of lengthy story-songs. Scarlet Rivera’s violin is a prominent feature.

Street-Legal (1978)

This is the first Dylan album I purchased in real time. I bought it in the summer of 1978 in Alaska. At first I was disappointed, it did not seem to match the greatness of his back catalog. But over time I have learned to love it. The album was a departure for Dylan, who uses a large pop-rock band including female backing vocalists. It was a nice set up for what comes next.

Bob Dylan at Budokan (1979)

This album is decried as Dylan’s Vegas act, I love it. Brilliant arrangements of a cross section of the Dylan catalog. Like Street Legal it features a large pop-rock band including female backing vocalists.

Slow Train Coming (1979)

Of all the changes in Bob’s career, the most outrageous was becoming a born-again Christian. But he did it with such panache that I forgave him. The album is the funkiest of Dylan’s albums thanks to recording in Muscle Shoals with Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett producing. Mark Knopfler’s guitar is a key component.

Saved (1980)

Dylan doubled down on his follow up to Slow Train Coming. The cover art lets you know what you are in for – this is a blatantly evangelical Christian music. Jesus brought out the best in Bob: it is the most passionate vocals of his career.

Infidels (1983)

After three Christian albums, this was Dylan’s return to secular music and critics and fans collectively sighed “thank God!” Instrumentally the album sounds great. It was produced by Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, the second guitarist was former Stone Mick Taylor and the rhythm section is reggae’s Sly & Robbie. Famously one of Dylan’s greatest songs was left off the album: “Blind Willie McTell” which was later released on The Bootleg Series Vol 1-3 (1991)

Empire Burlesque (1985)

This album has a strong 80s aesthetic, but don’t let that scare you away. Self-produced and accompanied by studio musicians and Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers this is a great album. Strong songwriting, an impassioned Dylan vocal performance and I dig the 80s arrangements. My only complaint is that on some songs the 80s drum effects are eye-rollers. I experienced my first Dylan show after this album in the summer of 1986 – that show will get its own blog post someday.

Oh Mercy (1989)

Daniel Lanois was on a roll in the 80s: U2, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson, and the Neville Brothers all had hits with him. His brand of Cajun/Arcadian atmospheric ambient soul was the perfect match for Dylan.

Time Out of Mind (1997)

Although Dylan hated working with Lanois, they got together again to create this masterpiece. Dylan had been given up for dead after a dreadful 90s and he had lost his muse – forced to get by on a couple of albums of folk and Delta blues covers. This was a comeback of epic proportions. Yet another Dylan album that on any given day would be my favorite. In my original review I said: “On Time Out Of Mind Dylan sings the blues. It is Dylan’s unique take on the blues: weary and regretful. When Dylan presented Lanois with songs, Dylan said the songs were about “the dread realities of life.” Lanois recently recalled the songs “had regret and hope, beauty and optimism. A lot of life experience. They were so complex.”

Love and Theft (2001)

I distinctly recall this album’s release day: 9/11/01. It was solace in a crazy time. It was a worthy follow up to Time Out of Mind and proof Dylan was back.

The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989–2006 (2008)

I played this album on an endless loop on a college visit road trip with my daughter. We drove from Minneapolis to Cincinnati (12 hours) and she slept most of the way – so I had plenty of time to soak up this 38 track album. The album spans the recording sessions for Oh Mercy, World Gone Wrong, Time Out of Mind, and Modern Times as well as several soundtrack contributions and previously unreleased live tracks from 1989 through 2006. I love the Dylan/Lanois partnership (Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind) and there is plenty of material from those sessions to enjoy on the album.

The Bootleg Series Vol. 13: Trouble No More 1979–1981 (2017)

The legend of the Christian phase was that Dylan was performing the most impassioned live gigs of his career. Unfortunately, I never saw him during this period. In my review I said: “Trouble No More takes a deep dive over eight CDs and one DVD of the Christian era. Six CDs of live material and two of unreleased and rare material. As much as I have loved Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love, it is otherworldly to hear that material live. And like most eras of Dylan’s career, he left amazing material off the albums. Bootleg Vol. 13 is a treasure chest of previously hidden gold (unreleased songs and live cuts) from his Christian period.”

Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020)

If Dylan never records again, this will be a great finish. When the first singles came out early in the pandemic it was a similar gift as Love and Theft on 9/11. In my original review I said: “At 79 Bob Dylan remains relevant as ever on his 39th studio album. After an 8-year dalliance with the Sinatra songbook, he returns with an inspiring collection of new original material. It is yet another masterpiece in his catalog – an amazing feat.”

Well, there you go, my favorite Dylan albums. If you have not figured it out by now I am a huge Dylan fan – so much so that our son’s middle name is Dylan. If pressed to give you just five it would be (in no order – as stated earlier my favorite Dylan album depends on my mood and the day of the week):

  • Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
  • Blonde on Blonde (1966)
  • Blood on the Tracks (1975)
  • Time Out of Mind (1997)
  • Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020)
5 Comments
  1. John Wesley Harding would stroll into my top 5. New Morning from 1970 is my pick for most overlooked – lots of very good songs that are overlooked in his quality catalogue.

    • It was interesting limiting myself. Felt most guilty about leaving off the early folk stuff like Freewheelin

      • My top 5 would have the New York version of Blood on the Tracks too – the bassline on the official version of Lily , Rosemary… drives me crazy.

  2. Patrick Welby permalink

    Love and Theft is labeled 2011 instead of 2001

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