RANKING BOB DYLAN
Bob Dylan has been releasing albums for 50 years now. Between studio albums, live albums, compilations and greatest hits and the much coveted bootlegs there are 72 albums in all. His place in the most select pantheon of popular music is rock solid along with the The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and no one else. The amount of space Dylan takes up on my shelf is larger than Sinatra's and that's saying a lot. For the sake of this discussion I'm going to leave the live albums, compilations and bootlegs out. This is just about the studio albums from 1962-2012. 35 albums in all.
There have been long periods where Dylan could do no wrong, releasing one monumental document after another, interrupted by the occasional klunker and there have been some real klunkers. Even with that, the worst Bob Dylan albums always had something on them I found to be a diamond in the rough. The much chastized 1973 album Dylan had some good outtakes and a cool song called "Lily of the West" which I put on almost every Dylan mix tape for years. Even Self Portrait, considered by Dylanologists-in-the-know to be the low point of a stellar career had a countrified version of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer" which I still find tolerable. Those two albums were separated by New Morning and the soundtrack to Pat Garret and Billy the Kid which are both full of memorable moments. Enough of that. Let's move on to ranking Bob Dylan's catalog and feel free to comment, chide or mumble under your breath.
1. Blood on the Tracks (1975) - I often debate whether or not Blood on the Tracks ranks higher than Desire and it really depends on the mood. Today, I rank it higher. Check with me next week. Song for song it's the best album in a career full of noteworthy material.
2. Desire (1976) - Desire was released one year and one day after Blood on the Tracks representing perhaps the greatest two year period in Dylan's illustrious career. The nine songs on Desire are absolutely flawless! If it had had "Tangled Up in Blue" on it it would surely rank as his greatest moment. It didn't, Blood on the Tracks did, hence, number two.
3. Highway 61 Revisited (1965) - "Like A Rolling Stone" was Dylan's highest charting single of his career, reaching Number 2 on Billboard's Hot 100 in 1965. Rolling Stone magazine called it the greatest rock and roll song of all time. That album also contained "Desolation Row" and "Ballad of a Thin Man." Nothing more need be said.
4. Infidels (1983) - After the "born-again" nonesense of Shot of Love and Saved, Infidels was a breath of fresh air for those of us who thought Dylan had lost it. The production on Infidels, courtesy of Mark Knopfler, was flawless. Having Mick Taylor, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespear in the band didn't hurt either. Songs about geo-politics, the environment and overall social commentary had returned to the guy who invented it.
5. Time Out of Mind (1997) - I'm not much on the significance of Grammy Awards but Time Out of Mind won 3 of them including Album of the Year in 1998 which almost redeemed the institution for me. Time Out of Mind could easily be at the top of this list. Producer Daniel Lanois along with session players Jim Keltner, Augie Meyers and Duke Robillard created atmospherics not heard before or since in the Dylan collection.
6. Blonde on Blonde (1966) - Songs "Just Like a Woman", "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35", "I Want You", and "Visions of Johanna" aren't enough? Try having Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm in the band. Add the entire fourth side of one of rock and roll's first double albums, "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" and you've made music history.
7. The Freewheelin Bob Dylan (1963) - You want a folk movement? You want social change? You want somebody to stand up and say the things everyone is thinking but can't find the words or a platform? This is it. "Masters of War", "A Hard Rains Gonna Fall", "Blowin in the Wind", all timeless anthems that still taste great today. Not to mention "Girl From the North Country" and "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright."
8. Oh Mercy (1989) - It's been said that Dylan wandered aimlessly in the 1980's. The three albums between Infidels in 1983 and Oh Mercy in 1989 might support such a theory but if you can bookend a decade on those two albums it's a stretch to call the decade lost. Oh Mercy contained some of Dylan's best work including "Political World", "Ring Them Bells", "Everything is Broken" and "What Was it You Wanted." Most writers would take that and call it a career.
9. Modern Times (2006) - Part of a trilogy of albums that returned Dylan to prominence along with Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, Modern Times was Dylan's first number one album since Desire and the album actually entered the Billboard 200 Chart at number one. The album continued Dylan's journey into American Roots music traditions both in style and substance. Those three albums together would stand alone as a brilliant career if they were someone else's.
10. Tempest (2012) - His voice is getting on and his live performances are just a shell of what they once were but this is as strong as Dylan has been in a while. It peaked at #3 on the Billboard chart, no small feat 50 years into a career. It also had conspiracy critics claiming it was his last album based on a theory that Shakespear's last play was called The Tempest but Tempest has some of darkest most poignent lyrics we've heard from Dylan in a decade. It also followed a dreadful Christmas album which may explain the critical sigh of relief that Dylan still has gas in the tank.
11. Love and Theft (2001) - Love and Theft sort of picks up where Time Out of Mind left off (at least sonically) and while it was propbably received more enthusiastically by the critics it was surrounded by some controversy including allegations of plagiarism. Bollocks. The album ranks as one of the best Roots albums of the last half century and made Rolling Stone's list of the 500 best albums of all time. Some of the criticism sparked some of Bob Dylan's harshest critique of journalists and "Dylan experts" ever.
12. World Gone Wrong (1993) - Although it's an album of cover songs, the selection makes the collection stand alone. Like it's predecessor Good As I Been to You, it was a return to Dylan's folk roots and it was good enough to win the Grammy for Traditional Folk Album 1n 1994. Bob Dylan paying tribute to The Mississippi Shieks, Blind Willie McTell, Willie Brown and Doc Watson is pretty fucking cool.
13. The Times They Are a-Changin (1964) - While Beatlemania and the British Invasion were soaking up the limited airspace in 1964, Bob Dylan released his third album The Times They Are a-Changin to little fanfare. It was panned by critics and struggled commercially. Looking back however, it contained some pretty important music aside from the title track. "The Ballad of Hollis Brown", "With God on Our Side", "One Too Many Mornings" and "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" are significant songs that stand the test of the times we live in today. "Seven people dead on a South Dakota farm..." can you say gun-control?
14. Bringin It All Back Home (1965) - One side acoustic, one side rock may have confused a lot of people and pissed off the folk-nazi's but the acoustic side contained "Mr. Tambourine Man", "Gates of Eden" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and the rock side contained "Subterranean Homesick Blues", "Maggies Farm" and "Love Minus Zero, No Limit." That would place it in the top three on just about everyone else's catalog.
15. Together Through Life (2009) - The second successive Bob Dylan album to debut at number one on the Billboard 200, Together Through Life was a departure from the previous, Modern Times relying on dark, mischievous lyrics and bluesy overtones. It's one of a handful of co-written Dylan albums most of the songs written by Dylan and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. "Beyond Here Lies Nothin" is the albums highlight.
16. Nashville Skyline (1969) - A duet with Johnny Cash on "Girl From the North Country" and "Lay Lady Lay" made Nashville Skyline a commercial success. It also concluded Bob Dylan's dip in the country music pool he started with John Wesley Harding in 1967. The outtakes of Dylan and Cash doing "Ring of Fire" and "I Walk the Line" should have been included however.
17. Slow Train Coming (1979) - While it signified the onset of the "born-again" Christian period, Slow Train Coming wasn't nearly as horrific as the follow ups Saved and Shot of Love. "Gotta Serve Somebody" was a pseudo hit and actually garnered Dylan a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance in 1980 and Slow Train Coming is listed among the 100 Greatest Christian Albums according to the Contemporary Christian Music book. They would know. I, surely, would not. Dylan converted back to his Jewish roots before the release of Infidels in 1989.
18. The Basement Tapes (1975) - This album would certainly rank much higher on the list but for the circumstances surrounding the release and production of the album. It was taken from a collection of songs recorded by Dylan and The Band following Dylan's motorcycle accident and subsequent convalesence. Dylan's vocals were recorded in 1967, eight years prior to the album's release and the overdubs that were added along with tracks by The Band, while monumental in style and influence, make it suspect when calling it an album by Dylan and The Band.
19. Under The Red Sky (1990) - This album wasn't really all that bad but it contained "Wiggle, Wiggle" which ruined the rest of it and caused me to always stop listening at that point. Suffice to say I am a fan of Don Was as a producer, just not that much as Bob Dylan's producer. Was assembled a who's who of contemporary music at the time including Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Elton John, George Harrison, Bruce Hornsby, Waddy Wacthel and Paulinho DaCosta and you would hope they could have done more lasting material. The title track stands out but not much else is memorable.
20. Planet Waves (1974) - During a brief stint on Asylum Records Dylan released two albums, Planet Waves and a live album Before the Flood. This is actually the better studio recording with Dylan and The Band although it rarely gets mentioned as the "true" collaboration it was. "Forever Young", "Tough Mama", Going, Going Gone" and "You Angel You" all rank high on my list of notable achievements during the Dylan/Band era.
21. Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) - For those who preferred the finger pointing, in your face Bob Dylan that appeared on his previous albums, this wasn't it. Shy of "Chimes of Freedom" it was an album of somewhat candy coated love songs. A lot of the best songs appeared in later years, especially live, with a bit more bite to them. "It Ain't Me Babe" and"I Don't Believe You, She Acts Like We Never Have Met" are among them.
22. Good As I Been To You (1992) - The predecessor to World Gone Wrong, Good As I Been To You was the first all acoustic record Dylan had recorded since Another Side of Bob Dylan in 1964. Like World Gone Wrong it was comprised entirely of folk/blues covers and included outstanding renditions of "Sittin On Top of the World", "Froggy Went a-Courtin", and "Hard Times."
23. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) - The first soundtrack and the acting debut for Dylan as the knife-throwing Alias in the Sam Peckinpah film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the album was mostly instrumental but debuted the classic "Knockin on Heaven's Door". The musicians included Booker T. and Roger McGuinn. It's a good album for a rainy Sunday morning.
24. Bob Dylan (1962) - Only a career this monumental would put your debut album at number 24 on the list but compared to the body of work it just stands up as a good album. "Song to Woody", and "Talkin New York" are the only originals surrounded by folk standards. "Pretty Peggy-O" is pretty hip though.
25. New Morning (1970) - New Morning followed the release of the dreaded Self Portrait so it stands to reason it got some much needed critical relief. The album is solid and contains some Dylan standards including "If Not for You" and "Went to See the Gypsy" but all in all it's a good album for most and an OK album for Bob Dylan.
26. Empire Burlesque (1985) - In spite of the stellar cast of musicians assembled at different periods during the recording of the songs for Empire Burlesque the album is largely uninspired. The best songs on the album "Tight Connection to My Heart", "Clean Cut Kid", were originally set for the album Infidels. Even Roy Bittan, Steve Van Zandt, Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell, Howie Epstein and Lone Justice couldn't make the album any more than over produced 80's schmaltz.
27. Street Legal (1978) - While I actually like this album it ranks as the point where the catalog begins to slide downward. It also marks as the turning point that started Dylan on the Christianity slide. Religion had appeared throughout Dylan's writing but the apocalyptic overtones on Street Legal were different and certainly less subtle than previous inclusions. "Changing of the Guard", "Where Are You Tonight" and "Is Your Love in Vain" are the highlights for me and I can still listen to them fairly loud.
28. John Wesley Harding (1967) - The beginning of a brief and somewhat commercially fruitful foray into country music at least in terms of singing and playing but Bob Dylan isn't a country music writer now and wasn't then either. The music on both John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, with some exceptions, sound contrived. "All Along the Watchtower", "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" and "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" are the highlights.
29. Christmas in the Heart (2009) - As Christmas albums go this will never get any airplay during my holiday season.
30. Dylan (1973) - "Lily of the West" and not much else.
31. Saved (1980) - Awful
32. Shot of Love (1981) - Even more awful than Saved but at least it was the last of the born again albums...forever.
33. Self Portrait (1970) - Best summed up by Greil Marcus, the great Rolling Stone writer, in the opening sentence of his review, "What is this shit?"
34. Knocked Out Loaded (1986) - Dylan must have been either knocked out, loaded or both.
35. Down in the Groove (1988) - Most of us pleaded for Dylan to "make it stop" after three pretty horrific efforts in the 1980's...a year later Oh Mercy came out. It stopped, Bob listened and he's been back ever since.