You may already know about Bob Dylan.
Maybe you’ve heard one or two of his songs already and wonder what all the fuss is about. Maybe you haven’t a clue who the dude is.
Either way, in order to have the faintest idea about modern music you need to have an appreciation of him. There’s no way around it (and this means more than being able to strum the chords to Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door).
(Any by the way, let’s not beat about the bush. If you want the authentic experience, to submerge yourself in Dylan - you have to listen to the guy on Vinyl. CDs and digital downloads are convenient and everything, but they cut out a lot of the subtleties that make his music so great.)
So what makes Dylan so special?
Bob Dylan is the hardest working musician alive today. No exaggeration. With a juggernaut sized back catalogue, the man has rarely stopped recording and gigging over his 50 year career. Nobody really comes close to the sheer volume and influence the man has had.
Dylan is an artist. He’s not a pop star. Like other singer-songwriter heavyweights, notably Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Paul Simon and Van Morrison, Dylan takes his craft very seriously. He doesn’t make music to appease his audience and pander to the masses. He let’s the muse carry him where-ever it wishes to. As a result he’s made some absolute turkeys along the way, but also created songs that have shaped a generation.
Some of his stand out achievements:
- Invented rap, way before rap existed, with his track Subterranean Homesick Blues.
- Popularised the Black Civil Rights movement with the anthemic protest song Blowin’ In The Wind.
- Turned the whole folk movement on its axis at the height of his folk game by going electric (meaning he started playing electric guitar). Causing fans to call him ‘Judas’ and pull funny faces at him.
- Was a major influence to all the big 60s bands - The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young, the list goes on.
- Awarded the Noble Peace Prize for Literature in 2016 - Dylan is the great bard (Shakespeare) of our times.
So which albums are essential listening in Bob Dylan’s repertoire? Let’s take a look at his 10 best albums. This isn’t a top 10 list - each album I selected is equally brilliant and unique - and I’m not including live albums, or any of the many bootleg albums that exist. Here they are in chronological order. Get stuck in...
10 Best Bob Dylan Albums To Own On Vinyl
1. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was his second album (after a self titled album of mainly covers) and was made up of 100% his own material - quite unheard of back in 1963. The album has a strong protest feel about it, opening up with Blowin’ In The Wind and including Masters Of War, Talkin’ World War III Blues, among others. Dylan also demonstrates his love of blues and country on classic ‘Corinna, Corinna’.
If you had to get no other Bob Dylan album, get this one. Freewheelin’ is the album you’d give an inquisitive extra-terrestrial wanting to know more about this man Bob Dylan.
Here's one of the tracks from the album, the beautiful Corrina, Corrina
2. Blonde On Blonde
Coming from the folk tradition, brought up on a diet of Woody Guthrie and Blind Lemon Jefferson, many thought that Dylan was a one trick pony - decent at protest songs but not much else. His next album Blonde on Blonde put paid to that notion. This double album was an altogether different animal. Gone were the protest folky songs, and in their place came a more intellectual mash up of blues, folk and country infused with poetic overtones. In place of the 3 minute ditties from Freewheelin’ came the longer, epic tracks ‘Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowland’ and ‘Visions Of Johanna’.
Here's a live version of Visions Of Johanna...
3. Times They Are A Changin’
Dylan shot to fame. In under 2 years the man was heralded as some kind of poster boy for what is honest and true. Here was a guy who was shot to fame in very tumultuous times with world events like Cuban Missile Crisis, Shooting of JFK, Martin Luther King and Black Civil Right Movement happening. Within’ a couple of years this beanstalk twenty year old, obsessed with the music of Woody Guthrie, became a household name. This all acoustic affair, kicks off with the title song itself and features poignant, thoughtful songs (Ballad of Hattie Carroll), angry righteous songs (Hollis Brown) along with gorgeous ballads (Boots of Spanish Leather). It belongs in any Dylan collection, period.
Here's one of the tracks from the album, the superb Restless Farewell (live version)
4. Bringing It All Back Home
Bringing It Back Home was groundbreaking for a few reasons. It kicks off with what has widely been hailed as the precursor to rap, Subterranean Homesick Blues, a rollicking protest song, spoken rather than sung, and full to the brim with labyrinthine rhyme schemes, anti-authority philosophy, pop-culture obsessions and street-level turns-of-slang. Other stand out tracks are the ethereal Mr Tambourine Man and It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding. The closer, It's All Over Now, Baby Blue, seals the deal nicely. A must have Dylan album.
Here's a live version of 'It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)' that I couldn't resist including, just too good to leave out >>
5. Highway 61 Revisited
Highway 61 Revisited is Dylan’s arguably his most iconic record, largely due to the fact this was his seen as first ‘electric record’. All the songs are recording with a band, with a coarser rock sound throughout most of the songs, with Dylan preferring the electric guitar to the acoustic. Like Bringing It All Back Home, the first track (Like A Rolling Stone) signals that what’s to follow is going to be different.
Other standout tracks are Desolation Row and my personal favourite Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues (below is a laid back alternative version).
6. Nashville Skyline
The late 60s was a funny period for Dylan. Exhausted after his prolific period (the albums above), along with a motorcycle accident where he allegedly broke his neck, his output was quite sporadic. Albums ‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan’ and ‘John Wesley Harding’ had a couple of decent songs on each, but nothing to write home about. Yes, we had the Basement Tapes recorded with his mates from The Band. I’ll be honest with you, I’d always dismissed Nashville Skyline as another late 60s Dylan ropey album. I’ve since realised it’s a belter. Ok, it’s still light in comparison to his earlier stuff, but it’s still an important addition to your Dylan collection. To Be Alone With You, Tell Me That isn’t True, I Threw It All Away, and the one that always shows up on greatest hits albums Lay Lady Lay, it’s pretty awesome.
Here's a version of I Threw It All Away with no other than George Harrison (didn't think you mind me throwing that one in 🙂
For the seventies I’d pick out two albums. Dylan did some great live albums in the 1970s (Bob Dylan at Budokan, and Live 1975: Rolling Thunder Revue) but in terms of original album material, it was patchy at best. Desire was a big return to form. Starting out with the 12 minute ragging protest song Hurricane, attacking the injustice of the wrongly imprisoned Boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter , it’s essential listening. It also includes one of the best songs about coffee ever released (One More Cup Of Coffee Before I Go).
Here's a live version of Dylan playing the epic Hurricane (this video perfectly demonstrates Dylan's unique form of expression and master story-telling).
8. Blood On The Tracks
The album that has allegedly helped people through depression, this album that is more like a therapy session is a wonderful piece of Dylan wizardry. Stand out tracks are Tangled Up In Blue, Idiot Wind and Buckets Of Rain but like all these albums, they work as a single piece of work so it’s relatively silly to pull out single songs. Personally, I prefer his solo acoustic versions of the aforementioned songs on Bootleg Vol 1 - 3, much rawer and less produced than what appear on the album.
Dylan paired up with no other than Mark Knopfler to work on this record. Along with Mick Taylor, the lead guitarist for The Rolling Stones in the late 60s / early 70s, Dylan had an assured guitar line up. Like that wasnt enough, he always brought along reggae rhythm section Sly & Robbie to the party. The result: pretty great. The song Jokerman alone makes it worth dropping money on this.
License To Kill is great too, listen to this performance >>
10. Oh Mercy!
At this point, Dylan knew all about bringing the best producers to the party. He didnt fail with Oh Mercy!, enlisting Daniel Lanois to produce the work. Dylan too was enjoying a creative resurgence too, with a return to form on tracks ‘Political World’ and ‘Ring Them Bells’. After the success of Oh Mercy!, Dylan hired Daniel Lanois again to work on Time Out Of Mind, another good late period album. While it doesn’t capture the power and mood of Oh Mercy, it’s definitely worth adding to your Dylan collection.
So there you have it. My 10 best Bob Dylan Albums. Like all these things, a list is highly subjective and you may well profoundly disagree with my choice! There are plenty of other albums that nearly made the list, such as Street Legal or John Wesley Harding, and of course a stack of Bootleg albums that have great stuff on them.
Among his many skills Bob Dylan also has a gargantuan knowledge of popular music from the first half of the 20th century - you should check out his radio show he recorded a few years ago.
At a Glance: 10 Best Bob Dylan Albums To Own On Vinyl
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Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.