While the rest of his peers rioted at the 1968 DNC, marched on Washington, and experimented with drugs, a domesticated Dylan went to Nashville and immersed himself completely in country music. He recorded with Johnny Cash and dropped the nasal snarl of previous records in favor of a smooth country croon. Some say this album birthed country-rock, though that honor really goes to Gram Parsons and The Byrds
a year earlierwhich, lo and behold, was indebted to the then-unreleased Basement Tapes. No, the circle wont be broken.
Essential track(s): Lay Lady Lay, Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You, and I Threw It All Away.
Released four months after
Self Portrait but recorded before it, New Morning was, indeed, a new morning for Dylan. Critics hailed the blissed-out songwriting and the return of Dylans wry howl. The tumultuous sessions, which included appearances from George Harrison, also produced one of Dylans most lasting love songs, If Not for You, a sentimental treat that gleams with joy.
With rumbling rockabilly, coming-off-the-rails blues, and grungy use of jazz chords, Dylan packs a wallop here, sounding feisty and ready to kick some ass. The lyrics borrow heavily from classic poetry, folk traditionals, and 40s balladryspawning allegations of
plagiarismand Dylan comes off sounding like a prophetic soothsayer with a low, inaudible rumble of doom throughout the record. Bonus points for the head-scratching lyrical shout-out to Alicia Keys.
Essential track(s): Thunder on the Mountain, Someday Baby, Aint Talkin, and the Crosby-esque When the Deal Goes Down, which had a Kodachrome music video featuring the lovely Scarlett Johansson.
Dylans return to secular music was via this dizzying, hard-rocking album, in which the bard careens between themes of the apocalypse, environmentalism, Zionism, and protectionism over post-punk sonic textures (with the occasional reggae funk sprinkled in). The only thing holding back this record from masterpiece status is the puzzling omission of Foot of Pride and, more notably,
Blind Willie McTell, widely considered one of his greatest songs.
Essential track(s): Jokerman, License to Kill, and Man of Peace.
11. Love and Theft (2001)
The second album of his latter-day renaissance period buzzes with the sounds of the South, leaning heavily on Harry Smiths
famed folklore, Delta blues mythology, the ambience of a sweaty juke joint, and a Fogerty-like appreciation of all things swampy. Dylan draws from the regions cultural heritage to tell tales of death, racism, and twisted love; or to just show off his wicked sense of humor.
Essential tracks: High Water (For Charley Patton), Lonesome Day Blues, and Mississippi.
This is the album that served as the basis for Dylans ramshackle Rolling Thunder Revue tour, during which he donned white face-paint and a large fedora and set out on the road with a caravan of like-minded collaborators. Scarlet Riveras piercing gypsy-folk violin, a hefty dose of tambourine-and-snare snaps, and Dylans melismatic vocals accompany towering allegories, epic adventures, and some (
misguided) historical revisionism for what weve described as his sloppiest masterpiece.
Essential track(s): Isis, Hurricane, Oh, Sister.
9. Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)
In a single overnight recording session, Dylan emptied several bottles of Beaujolais and laid down this entire record. Or so the legend goes. His first post-protest music album,
Another Side indeed showcases another side of the musicianone that was annoyed by the preening protest-folk movement and more concerned with existential crises. Here the world was introduced to Dylan as a symbolist poet of the road, a Rimbaud-meets-Kerouac, if you will. The cover might as well have featured Dylan on a motorcycle.
Essential track(s): Chimes of Freedom, My Back Pages, It Aint Me Babe.
After a string of severe disappointments, Dylan teamed up with legendary producer Daniel Lanois, at the behest of Bono, to create this atmospheric, deeply emotive, and triumphant comeback. Alternating between despair and great hope, its the perfect album for a late-night drive on a pitch-black highwayespecially after some undescribed biblical event. With the exception of the following years record (
Under the Red Sky), the wandering bard has been on a hot streak ever since.
Essential track(s): Ring Them Bells, Man in the Long Black Coat, and Shooting Star.
7. The Freewheelin Bob Dylan (1963)
Half a century later, this album remains a truly staggering achievement. After being introduced to the civil rights movement by girlfriend Suze Rotolo (pictured on the cover with him), Dylan incorporated the language of social change into his sardonic songwriting, cementing his early-60s legacy as the quintessential folk troubadour and voice of a generationwhether or not he liked it.
Essential tracks: A Hard Rains a-Gonna Fall, Dont Think Twice, Its All Right, Girl from the North Country, and Masters of War.
6. John Wesley Harding (1967)
One might argue that thisnot
Sweetheart of the Rodeo or Nashville Skylineis the beginning of alt-country music. While his peers turned to psychedelia, Dylan defiantly turned to rustic, pastoral imagery, relaying allegories and tales seemingly ripped out of Western pulps and outlaw fan-fiction. The songwriting is crisp and the instrumentation is tight, with Dylan employing a startlingly efficient economy of wordsevery line means something and isnt just poetic stream-of-consciousness. He barely promoted the album upon its release, perhaps contributing to its underappreciated status, but make no mistake: This is a folk-rock masterpiece.
Essential tracks: I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine, All Along the Watchtower, The Wicked Messenger.
Youve heard the clich a million times: This is where Dylan went electric. And, yes, this is where he went electric. But lost in that stock phrase is that he did so in an incredibly dramatic fashion. One minute he was an acoustic folk icon, the next he was churning out fiery rock n roll with stream-of-consciousness lyrics about the futility of politics and the absurdities of the protest movement that previously (and erroneously) thought it owned him. This sounded unlike anything Dylan had ever made, even the second-disc acoustic half with its surrealist paranoia.
Essential tracks: Subterranean Homesick Blues, Maggies Farm, and Its Alright, Ma (Im Only Bleeding).
4. Time Out of Mind (1997)
A reminder that Dylans best output isnt limited to the 1960s. This late-90s tour de force kicked off his so-called renaissance period with a world-weary, plaintive look at mortality and lost love. Dylan reunited with Lanois here for a bleary blues sound, heavy on organs, pedal steel, and echo-drenched vocalsand the result was a Grammy-winning comeback that will likely be remembered as the defining record of Dylans late career.
Essential tracks: Love Sick, Not Dark Yet, Cold Irons Bound, and the oft-covered love song Make You Feel My Love.
3. Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Visionary in countless waysamong them: one of the first double albums in rock history; epic in length and emotional scope at a time when classic rock was first learning to walk; and an explosive combo of precise Nashville studio-musician instrumentation and Dylans bohemian Greenwich Village sensibilities. Our hero uses words as music, twisting and turning them into juggernaut phrases, while the rock n roll backing sizzles with energy heor countless othershas yet to match again.
Essential tracks: Visions of Johanna, Just Like a Woman, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, and Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.
2. Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
It opens with a snare shot that sounded like somebodyd kicked open the door to your mind, as Bruce Springsteen described it. And for many other music lovers throughout the last 50 years, that eye-opening rock n roll baptism has occurred in similar fashion. No song has had as significant an impact on rock music as Like a Rolling Stoneand thats just the first track on the album. Its breathtaking, really, how many post-apocalyptic landmarks Dylan crammed into one album (see below). He hisses and scowls like a wild animal, his poetry is combustible and unpredictable. Clichs be damned, this is the sound of Dylan becoming the deity of rock.
Essential tracks: Like a Rolling Stone, Ballad of a Thin Man, Highway 61 Revisited, and Desolation Row.
1. Blood on the Tracks (1975)
For the first 15 years of his career, Dylan hid his pain behind verbose sarcasm, surrealist poetry, and folksy tall tales and allegories. And then came the collapse of his nine-year marriage to Sara Lowndsthe catalyst for a record of anguished, soul-baring tunes that practically invented the modern confessional singer-songwriter.
Dylan didnt quite understand why the album resonated so deeply with his fansA lot of people tell me they enjoy that album, he once said. Its hard for me to relate to that, you know? I mean, people enjoying that type of pain. But its apparent upon just one listen that by mixing scathing indignation, tenderness, and wistfulness, Dylan perfected the art of looking back on love gone wrong from every possible vantage point.
Yes, Bob, human beings can relate to that.
Whats even more astounding: Dylan essentially recorded the entire album twiceonce in New York and then, at the behest of his brother, again in Minneapolis. The finished product took all five Minnesota renditions along with five of the NYC takes. But as its own widely bootlegged product, the entire New York acetate version of
Blood on the Tracks (hear a sample below) stands alongside the official release as one of Dylans crowning achievements.
Essential track(s): Idiot Wind, Tangled Up in Blue, Shelter from the Storm, and Simple Twist of Fate.