When Bob Dylan swapped his acoustic guitar for an electric one at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, it could have been the end of him. His army of folk fans certainly thought it would be. But Bob Dylan was never a simple folk singer to start with. He may have written songs for the protest movement, but he was never a part of it. In his own, ever sardonic words, he was a song and dance man, a song and dance man that didn’t just anticipate new musical trends, but who pioneered them. He was, is, and quite possibly always will be, one of the most legendary and influential artists of all time. That doesn’t necessarily excuse his Christian rock period (what could?) but it does mean you don’t have to dig too deep or search too hard to find the gems. Here are the 10 best Bob Dylan albums, ranked.
10. Nashville Skyline
Whenever Bob Dylan finds a groove, he does whatever he can to dig his way out of it. Within just seven years of bursting onto the scene as a fresh-faced folk singer in a beat-up leather jacket and a busted guitar, he’d gone from the new Woody Guthrie to an electric rock god. In 1969, he gave us Bob Dylan Mark III, a laid-back country singer with enough spit and polish to shine a truck. As Phoenix New Times notes, his vocals were already on the fritz by this point, but the simple arrangements and the soulful lyrics of tracks like “Lay, Lady, Lay” and the Johnny Cash duet “Girl From the North Country” are enough to save the day.
9. John Wesley Harding
In 1966, a motorcycle accident took Bob Dylan out of the public eye and gave him some much-needed breathing space. Some Dylantologists claim it was engineered for that exact purpose. Who knows? All we do know is that the Bob Dylan who emerged from that year-long hiatus was a very different Bob Dylan to the one who’d gone into it. The first album he released following his sojourn was “John Wesley Harding,” an understated folk-rock album a world away from what was happening elsewhere on the music scene. While Janis Joplin was screeching about balls and chains at Monterey and the Beatles were fixin’ a hole with Sgt. Pepper, Dylan was rapping about watchtowers with a tiny band of Nashville’s finest. Surprisingly, it worked.
Dylan’s hugely ambitious Rolling Thunder Revue roadshow may have inspired one of the worst movies ever (“Renaldo and Clara” – if you haven’t seen it already, don’t watch it now), but it also inspired one of the best albums of Dylan’s career. “Desire” gives us Dylan at his most furious, his most passionate, and his most personal. “Hurricane”, an eight-minute rant about the false imprisonment of boxer Rubin Carter, was as close to a protest song as Dylan had got in years. “Sara,” written about his wife and their slowly disintegrating marriage, is sublime.
7. Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan hasn’t lasted this long in the industry thanks to his singing talents. It was his songwriting that set him apart from his peers in the early days, and it’s his songwriting that defines him to this day. Making his debut with an album almost entirely made of covers wasn’t the most natural or best way to introduce himself to the world, then. But somehow, he still made it work, taking old folk standards and giving them an all-new, youthful spin. By the time he sang the first line of the self-penned “Talkin’ New York,” we already suspected he was something special. By the time he’d finished, we knew it.
6. Blood on the Tracks
After a relatively poor showing on “Self Portrait” and “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid,” Dylan made a spectacular return on 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks.” After kicking things off with the elaborate “Tangled up in Blue,” the album works its way through song after song of caustic rage, pseudo-biblical babble, and seething commentaries on love. Even on an album that rarely puts a foot wrong, “Idiot Wind” with its lines “Idiot wind/Blowing every time you move your teeth,” and “You’re an idiot, babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” stands out. As kiss-off songs go, you couldn’t ask for better.
5. Time Out of Mind
Most people lost interest in Bob Dylan in the late ’70s, regained it briefly after 1989’s “Oh Mercy,” then shelved him as a lost cause after 1990’s dismal “Under the Red Sky.” But he was far from done. After a few years away from the recording studio, Dylan returned in 1997 with “Time out of Mind.” With songs that dealt with love, loss, and death, it was a stunning return to form. Despite writing like a man staring death in the face, Dylan hadn’t sounded more alive in years.
4. Another Side Of Bob Dylan
As Rolling Stone writes, 1964’s “Another Side of Bob Dylan” marked Dylan’s departure from the protest song. There were still elements of it on “Chimes of Freedom,” but his mind was clearly somewhere else. And that was no bad thing. Despite being primarily concerned with broken hearts and desperation, there’s enough light relief in the form of comical little numbers like “Motorpsycho Nightmare” to keep things grooving.
3. Bringing It All Back Home
As ultimateclassicrock.com writes, “Bringing It All Back Home” kicked off Dylan’s most fruitful and prolific era. Over the course of 15 months, he’d release three albums that, in their own way, would redefine rock music. The first was “Bringing It All Back Home.” With one side devoted to acoustic songs and the other to electric, the album bridged the gap between the folk singer we knew and the hyped-up, pot-fueled rock star we soon would. From the opening groove of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to the closing refrain of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” it’s a masterpiece.
2. Highway 61 Revisited
By 1965, Dylan had quit trying to placate the old folk guard. He was plugged in, jacked up, and ready to rock and roll his way to fame, fortune, and quite a lot of glory. On “Highway 61 Revisited,” he sticks up two fingers to anyone dumb enough to call him “Judas” and crashes headlong into one of the most caustic, funny, and downright lyrical albums ever made. In 1965, it was groundbreaking; over half a century later, it still is.
1. Blonde on Blonde
In 1966, Dylan released “Blonde on Blonde.” It came at the end of a 15 month period that had also included the release of “Bringing it All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” Choosing between three albums of that standard isn’t easy, but one of them has to win. On this occasion, top prize goes to “Blonde on Blonde,” an album of such ambition and scope, it’s almost impossible to define. Is it pop? Rock? Soul? Or maybe a new form of folk? Whatever it is, it’s glorious.