Bob Dylan's top 10 albums

By Sergio Ariza

Bob Dylan is turning 79 years old and from Guitars Exchange we want to celebrate it in style by talking about our 10 favorite albums of his career, 10 masterpieces from the man who states (with humor, but also seriously) in his last song, False Prophet, "I'm first among equals, Second to none, The last of the best, You can bury the rest".Here are 10 albums that should not be missing from any collection. 

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)

This was the second album of his career and his first masterpiece. This essential album of his period as a folk troubadour is an incredible collection of songs in which Dylan became the spokesman for an entire generation (a role he would vehemently reject in the future), but which is much more than his wonderful lyrics, as each song here is a complete treasure, lyrically and melodically. Dylan comes out of the shadow of Woody Guthrie (though he is still the ultimate influence, as you can hear in Talking World War III Blues) and, with his 40s Gibson J-50, gives the world a generous handful of glorious hymns that capture like few others the zeitgeist of his time. Any artist or band that throughout their career was lucky enough to record songs like Blowin' in the Wind, Girl from the North Country, Masters of War, A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall or Don't Think Twice, It's All Right would be among the greatest. Imagine them all appearing together on the same album released by a kid who just turned 22...

Bringing It All Back Home (1965)

Like other Americans, Dylan was no stranger to the Beatles' impact. In August 1964 he met them in a hotel in New York and they shared a good number of spliffs between them. The effect they would have on each other would be immediate. Dylan began to think about hiring a band and returning to the music that he was passionate about as a teenager, rock & roll. Shortly afterwards, a friend of his, John P. Hammond, began recording an electric blues album with several members of a Canadian band that went by the name of The Hawks, including Robbie Robertson. Dylan was delighted and decided to change his acoustic for a Telecaster, (although in the recording sessions of this album he also appears with a 1962 Jaguar). When he entered the studio in January 1965 his songs were transforming at the same time as his music: they were no longer "protests", but surreal parables. He had grown tired of being a pawn on the board of folk purists, he was not going to play on Maggie's farm no more. Bringing It All Back Home has an all-electric first side and a flip side that is acoustic - even though Bruce Langhorne accompanies him with his electric on some of them - and is one of the greatest treasures of his career. It opens with a wink to Chuck Berry, with the iconic Subterranean Homesick Blues, and closes with the timeless It's All Over Now, Baby Blue, possibly featuring his 1930s Gibson Nick Lucas Special. In between, there are nine monuments made into songs with which Dylan enters his golden years, and beginning the seminal trilogy of his career.

Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Highway 61 Revisited
was the point of no return for Dylan, his masterpiece in many ways and the moment when rock music reached its ultimate maturity. Dylan - in full creative fever - mixes blues, rock and folk, in a free combination without restrictions and with some of the most incredible lyrics in history, not to mention his most perfect songs. Here we have murders on Highway 61, Mr. Joneses who don't know what’s going on, rolling stones with nothing to lose, and fascinating walks on desolation row with guests like Cinderella, Einstein and the Phantom of the Opera. Add a few wonderful musicians, like Al Kooper or, above all, a Mike Bloomfield who lends his '63 Telecaster to colour Dylan's lyrical flow and you have the best album of all time. An album that opens like a fairy tale ("Once upon a time...") and closes with this bitter confession, "Right now, I can't read very well, don't send me no more letters, not unless you mail them from Desolation Row". Like A Rolling Stone and Desolation Row, the explosive electricity and acoustic beauty, two of the best songs of all time that frame a unique and unforgettable work.

Blonde On Blonde (1966)

The closing of the most important trilogy in rock music, Blonde On Blonde was the first double album in history, but it took a lot of minutes to lock in Dylan's creative avalanche from 65 to 66. Even so, there is not a single second wasted in this masterpiece, the album in which, in Dylan's own words, is closer to the sound dreamt of by the artist himself, that mercurial sound represented by songs like Visions of Johanna, One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later), I Want You, Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, Just Like a Woman, Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine, Absolutely Sweet Marie or the epic closing with Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands; a song that warned us that Dylan had found love at Sara Lownds' side and was going to leave to start a family. Recorded in Nashville with wonderful session musicians, plus his right-hand man at the time, Robbie Robertson, Dylan plays with multiple genres and sounds, putting an unbelieveable end to his most creative period.

Blood On The Tracks (1975)

The post-Blonde On Blonde Dylan continued to deliver great songs and albums, returning to the roots of American music and leading new genres such as country rock, but it wasn't until 1975, in the midst of his separation with Sara Lownds, that he delivered the only album that can be considered to live up to the famous trilogy. Blood On The Tracks is to break-up records what the Gioconda is to portraits in painting, the work in which all the others look at themselves. Dylan examines his love affair with Lownds in the most honest way possible, moving from romanticism to bitterness, without leaving out hard and sharp darts: "Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth, you're an idiot babe, It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe". Musically it is one of his most spartan records, with light touches to accompany his voice and his Martin 00-21; of course the songs are so good that they don't need much to show his greatness.

The Basement Tapes (1975)

Released in 1975, but recorded eight years earlier, The Basement Tapes is one of the most important albums in rock history, opening the way for a return to the roots that would take over rock after the excesses of psychedelia. The roots of this album are to be found in the motorcycle accident that Dylan suffered on July 29, 1966; one could say that the Dylan who walked once more after the serious consequences of the accident was another man altogether. He cut his hair and went to Woodstock to live a quiet family life. It was here that he invited several members of the Hawks (who would end up becoming The Band in the huge pink house in which they lived) and took up music again in the summer of 1967, but while the music world was going crazy with the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, Dylan and The Band returned to the essence of American music, Hank Williams' country, the rockabilly of the first Johnny Cash, and the blues of John Lee Hooker. It was in the basement of that pink house that Dylan began doing covers of those songs, and little by little he began to write again. The surrealist diatribes of his previous phase gave way to much simpler verses and songs that were more down to earth, but little by little the members of The Band began to show that they were not weak either when it came to composing, with Richard Manuel and Rick Danko setting music to two of Dylan's best set of lyrics, Tears Of Rage and This Wheel's On Fire. These are not the only classics from an album that features Too Much of Nothing, Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood), You Ain't Goin' Nowhere and Nothing Was Delivered, not to mention that in these same sessions Dylan also composed I Shall Be Released and Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn). It was a tremendous explosion of creativity that gave a new focus to popular music at a time when Dylan’s spartan way of recording was the opposite of the baroque style of the time. It all came to an end when Dylan went to Nashville to record John Wesley Harding. However, the legend about these sessions was growing, and many of his songs began to appear in the works of other artists (the Byrds took two for their Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and The Band played others in the outstanding Music From The Big Pink); something that increased when in 1969 The Great Big Wonder appeared, the first pirate album in history in which several songs from the basement of the pink house appeared. Finally, after his successful return to the stage with The Band in 1974, this double album was released in 1975.

Desire (1976)

This was the album that put the soundtrack to Dylan's second most mythical tour, the Rolling Thunder Revue. A Dylan with his face painted white and the best voice of his entire career, he embarked on a tour amid the chaos of his recent divorce. Musically, the use of Scarlet Rivera’s violin and the duets with the great Emmylou Harris stand out, giving this album a sound all of its own. Among the songs there are true gems such as Isis, One more cup of coffee, Mozambique, Romance in Durango, Sara and one of his great classics, Hurricane.


Time Out Of My Mind (1997)

Dylan's 19th reinvention came after he was hospitalized with a serious illness. While in hospital, Dylan thought that he would soon be reunited with Elvis, so, desperate for his own mortality, he delivered his best album in decades with the invaluable help of Daniel Lanois. The producer had already helped him with the remarkable Oh Mercy, but it was this album that confirmed that Dylan was heading for a third peak in his career. Dylan begins his stage of 'crooner' blues with a raspy voice on an album in which he is accompanied by the faithful Duke Robillard and Lanois himself on guitar. The result is an explosive cocktail, with the guitars of Lanois, Robillard and Dylan mixed in the dense atmosphere of the former, who even managed to show off with a solo on his '56 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top in the rockabilly Dirt Road Blues. But the two best songs are Love Sick and the colossal Not Dark Yet, a ballad that can look eye to eye with his best songs in which he faces death with a voice that seems to come from beyond the grave.


The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 - Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (1997)

One of the most incredible tours in history, which is surrounded by legend and myth. Dylan gave his own audience the middle finger, something that other artists would do after him, like Bowie or Radiohead; but that has not been surpassed. The ‘concert at the Royal Albert Hall’ was not really there but in Manchester's Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966, and it was the culmination of the most productive stage of Dylan's career. With the Hawks accompanying him, he hit the road like a rolling stone, defiant and electric. His performances were divided into two: a first acoustic and a second totally electric. The result was, normally, to end the performances in a chorus of boos. Exhausted from it all, drummer Levon Helm left the tour and was replaced by Mickey Jones. That's how things were in the spring of 1966 when Dylan arrived in England. Among his English fans, there were also a lot of ‘Talibans’ from the folk scene, ready to pay whatever it costs the ticket to boo their ex idol. Then, on May 17, one of them would provoke the most ardent and powerful reaction ever heard, and luckily someone was there to record it. After an incredible acoustic set, based on the great trilogy, Dylan set Manchester ablaze with a brutal electric performance in which he delivers incredible versions of songs from his acoustic period such as Baby Let Me Follow You Down, from his first album, One Too Many Mornings, through The Times The Are a Changin', and I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Had Met), a song whose title was going to give him the idea for one of the best answers in the history of rock, when sick of it all, he decided to answer a ‘Mr. Jones’ who shouted "Judas!" with "I don't believe you, you're a liar", before turning around and saying to the band in great anger "play fucking loud!" He then went like a killer into the definitive version of Like A Rolling Stone, the equivalent of a slap in the face of the folk mob who first raised him to the status of Prophet, and then wanted to crucify him. On this tour, in this concert and in that particular song you can see the rage of the one who hates being told what to do and say, but also the rebellion of the high school boy who left written in his yearbook that his aspiration in life was to join Little Richard.

Love & Theft (2001)

Time Out Of Mind
was the beginning of a new phase, but Love & Theft was its peak. At this moment Lanois left the producer's chair and Dylan himself took over, with a great band at his disposal, and two guitarists as brilliant as Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton, he recovered his creative fervour. This is where Dylan achieved the sound he would remain faithful to for the next few years. Dylan was still aware of his own mortality but there was a bright side to this as well. If he was going to die, he would do so with his Spanish leather boots on, and dancing. Bye and Bye is pure Tin Pan Alley: here you can see his love for Sinatra and Billie Holiday, and get a head start on the American Songbook covers that would come later. The lyrics give the key to the album: "Well the future, for me is already a thing of the past". For his ‘new suit’, Dylan decides to look back again; the key figure of the 60s has decided that his influences lie further back than 1958, from the rockabilly of Summer Days, with a great work by Campbell on his Telecaster and Sexton with his Collings SoCo, to the Chicago blues in Cry A While, or the Delta blues in High Water (For Charley Patton), with a great work by Campbell on the banjo. Although the song that most clearly leaves us with a clue that we’re in the presence of a totally inspired Dylan is the wonderful Mississippi.