To me, being asked to “Name your favorite 10 Bob Dylan albums” is akin to being asked “Hey, which breaths of fresh air have you found most enjoyable the past 60 years?”
For those of us who got hooked on Dylan at a young age, they’re practically inseparable. That’s the impact his words and music have had on our lives.
Put it this way: There are only a handful of musical acts in the history of the planet that have recorded 10 truly memorable (and universally known) songs. With Dylan, you skip right past the songs and try to come up with a manageable number of “favorite albums” out of the 39 he’s released to date.
These are mine. Of course, in the case of Bob, I might have 10 other favorites tomorrow because even if we feel the same, we just might end up seein’ it from a different point of view:
1. “Blood on the Tracks”
This got me through many a long, lonely night back in my late-teen days and it sounds as fresh and original today as it did the day of its 1974 release. In addition to some of the most other-wordly poetry to ever be set to music, it features Dylan in perhaps the best voice of his career (his explanation? He quit smoking). Many of the songs were written about the separation of Dylan and his wife Sara — “If You See Her, Say Hello” being the most powerful. I still can’t believe no one has made a movie out of either “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” because to me, the imagery in both songs is so thick, they ARE movies.
2. “Blonde on Blonde”
More great songs on one double album than any artist should hope to have in a long career, and that is not an exaggeration. “Visions of Johanna” features his best singing, pre- “Nashville Skyline.”
3. “Highway 61 Revisited”
Speaking of movies … “Desolation Row.” And Bruce Springsteen perfectly described the opening number, “Like A Rolling Stone,” by saying “That snare shot sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.”
4. “Time Out of Mind”
A comeback of sorts halted a (by Dylan standards) long dry spell in 1997, although I’m not sure how many times the same guy can be said to have a “comeback.” I remember the first time I listened to it all the way through, I thought “Every song on that album is better than the one before.” I still think that. And how many Dylan albums have a song (“Make You Feel My Love”) that got turned into a hit by Garth Brooks?
5. “Modern Times”
“Thunder on the Mountain.” “Working Man Blues #2.” The whole album has an aura of Bob pullin’ into a roadhouse honky-tonk and blasting out some rockabilly under an assumed name to an unsuspecting crowd. Great stuff.
6. “Good As I Been to You”
All-acoustic album of covers and it ends with him singing the children’s song “Froggy Went A’Courtin'” which is worth it all by itself.
7. “Slow Train Coming”
Lots of Dylan fans hated it. I loved it. Still do. Fantastic songs, some of his best singing (“When He Returns”) and some rocking moments. Saying it’s a “Christian rock” album made too many people miss all the great music — and the fact so many Dylan fans criticized him for “this new direction” proved that even Dylan fans missed the point that writing and recording these songs may have been the most Dylan-like move of all time.
Another one I loved that wasn’t universally embraced. If “Slow Train Coming” stunned many of his fans, right-leaning songs like “Neighborhood Bully” and “Union Sundown” probably shoved them right off the cliff. “Jokerman” was a video that actually got played on MTV.
9. “Bringing It All Back Home”
Love songs, protest songs, rock songs, folk songs, they all intersect here and set the table for so much that was still to come.
What, I only get to pick one more? I got like 30 to go! But if you’re going to force it out of me, I’m saying “Desire.” And if you’ve never heard Bob sing “Sara,” a song about his ex-wife that includes a reference to another song he’d written about his ex-wife years earlier — how many artists can make that claim? — you’re missing out on a whole lot of Bob. “Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel, writin’ ‘Sad Eyed-Lady of the Lowlands for You.’ “
That’s my list. For today. And if tomorrow wasn’t such a long time …
-Mike Wolcott is a semi-regular contributor to Tahoe Onstage, unless he’s strumming his dad’s 1959 Les Paul Junior at his Chico Enterprise-Record editor’s desk.