Saturday, June 13, 2009

Rating Bob Dylan's 35 Studio Albums

Bobology. I find it a truly tiresome science. I've always wondered why so many people put so much effort into understanding a person whose most essential quality is his refusal to be defined. Isn't it much more fun to just sit back, listen and enjoy the music without needing to write a dissertation about how a certain line pertains to his second marriage and how this event influenced that song and blah, blah, blah?

That said, I've spent 8 billion hours of my life listening to Dylan, and have naturally formed some strong opinions about his work. Since I know fate of the free world hinges on the following material, I'll waste no more time on introductory blather. My only self-imposed limit is a 15-word-or-fewer description. Ratings are, as always, out of 5 McBones.

Bob Dylan
- 3 McBones. Early signs and greenhorn exuberance. Favorite Track: Song to Woody.

The Freewheeling Bob Dylan - 5 McBones. First foray into undiluted genius. FT: A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall.

The Times They Are A-Changin' - 5 McBones. Perfecting his craft with another ten flawless songs. FT: Boots of Spanish Leather.

Another Side of Bob Dylan - 5 McBones. Apt title. First signs of sloughing the folk mantle. FT: My Back Pages.

Bringing it All Back Home - 5 McBones. Starts to piss off his base. FT: Love Minus Zero/No Limit.

Highway 61 Revisited - 5 McBones. Completely alienates his base. Changes music forever. FT: Desolation Row.

Blonde on Blonde - 5 McBones. Sixth straight perfect album. Bitter folkies burn his image in effigy. FT: Memphis Blues Again.

John Wesley Harding - 5 McBones. Spooky and spare. Side A is arguably his finest work. FT: All Along the Watchtower.

Nashville Skyline - 4.5 McBones. Inserts himself into the country discussion. Teams with Johnny Cash. Earth's foundations shake. FT: Girl from the North Country.

Self Portrait - 2 McBones. After 33 years, I'm still not sure what's going on here. Oddly entertaining though. FT: The Mighty Quinn.

New Morning - 3 McBones. Obscure, at times charming, slightly erratic letdown. FT: Three Angels.

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid - 4.5 McBones. First-rate soundtrack for a first-rate film. FT: Knockin' on Heaven's Door.

Dylan - 0.5 McBones. Though few know it, the expression WTF!? was invented for this album. FT: The Ballad of Ira Hayes.

Planet Waves - 3 McBones. Decent album with The Band. FT: Not sure I have one. Wedding Song maybe?

Blood on the Tracks - 5 McBones. The greatest album ever recorded. End of discussion. FT: If You See Her, Say Hello.

The Basement Tapes - 4 McBones. A boatload of awesome, rambunctious, sometimes incomprehensible songs. FT: Million Dollar Bash.

Desire - 4.5 McBones. Possibly his most underrated work. Sings in Spanish! FT: Oh Sister.

Street-Legal - 4 McBones. Actually his most underrated work. Song Señor not sung in Spanish. FT: Changing of the Guards.

Slow Train Coming - 3 McBones. Burgeoning Jesus freakdom. Answers mystery of how animals were named. FT: Slow Train.

Saved - N/A. Yikes! I'm not saved and not trying get saved, so I don't listen to this much. FT: Hmm. I'll get back to you on that one someday.

Shot of Love - 3.5 McBones. Also Jesus-y, but way underrated. Actually good. Totally forgotten. FT: Every Grain of Sand.

Infidels - 4 McBones. End of the born-again phase, thank God. FT: Jokerman.

Empire Burlesque - 3 McBones. Slightly overrated and synth-y, but his last good album before the plunge into darkness. FT: Dark Eyes.

Knocked out Loaded - 1.5 McBones. Whoa. This is not good. Completely salvaged by the epic and unforgettable...FT: Brownsville Girl.

Down in the Groove - 1.0 McBones. Blech! Sorry, Darin. Double blech! FT: Silvio, by a mile.

Oh Mercy - 4 McBones. Bright ray of light in a truly murky decade. FT: Most of the Time.

Under the Red Sky - 1.0 McBones. Cool title, bad record. Beginning and, happily, end of the Don Was Era. FT: Born in Time, I guess.

Good as I Been to You - 3.5 McBones. Shedding demons with awesome takes on traditional ballads. FT: Arthur McBride.

World Gone Wrong - 4 McBones. Virtuosic folk and blues interpretations. He could make 50 records like this. FT: Delia.

Time out of Mind - 5 McBones. Almost dies. Retaps his genius. Broods on death. FT: Not Dark Yet.

Love and Theft - 5 McBones. The Ulysses of records. Draws from every source imaginable. FT: Mississippi (OK, I know this is a leftover from TOoM, but I regard this as his finest vocal recording, so lay off).

Modern Times - 5 McBones. Possibly his modern masterpiece. FT: Workingman Blues.

Together Through Life - 4.5 McBones. One wonders how long he can keep this up. FT: If You Ever Go to Houston.

Tempest - 5 McBones. Blood-soaked brilliance. Even the ballads are steeped in death.  FT: Tempest.



Kid Shay said...

Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 was excellent, but Vol. 3? I think they sorely missed Roy Orbison.

Bob's explanation of how "Everything is Broken" was THE song that got him back on track in the 80's is possibly the most hilarious thing I've ever read. That's a good song and all, but...really?

BillBow Baggins said...

Vol. 3. I hated it at first, but slowly it grew on me.

You're right though. Roy is irreplaceable. My dad saw his last concert ever on earth, in Akron. Why I wasn't there, I'll never know.

Everything is Broken?? Always thought it was a bit of a throwaway on an otherwise great album.


Anonymous said...

Isn't it amazing that his first record comes out with a majority of covers (the lone exception "Song To Woody") and then comes back and nails seven straight records of gold (most artists would pray for just one). Probably only The Beatles and The Rolling Stones might be able to match or surpass that.

That said, it's so hard to choose a favorite from each of those records. The one I demand to be five McBones is "The Basement Tapes." This has to be the most relaxed Dylan singing in his career. Granted, it's not really an official album (since most of the songs Levon Helm or Richard Manuel sing on are songs from outtakes of the 'Big Pink', plus Dylan wasn't even there). But the loosey gooseiness of the music and lyrics takes it over the top. Those songs stick with you. Over the last ten years, I've probably sang "Apple Suckling Tree" a million times and I still don't know what the second verse is. I almost sent the wife to insane asylum due to the excessive singing. And yet I can't get it out of my head.

As for Oh Mercy, although "Most Of The Time" is a great one, I'm goin' with "Man In A Long Black Coat."

And as for the great Roy Orbison, give me the word and I'll send you some your way.


Steven Lincoln said...

What do you recommend to get a non-Dylan listener to get him started (that would be me?)

BillBow Baggins said...


So glad you asked. The question is tremendous, and the answer is not an easy one.

I cut my teeth as a wee lad on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, which is a collection of essentials covering his first 6 albums. A bit predictable, but not a bad way to go. Unless you've been living in outer space, you'll probably be familiar with a lot of the songs.

There are also more modern and comprehensive "Best Of" albums out there, but I'm not real familiar with them.

That said, I'm not a huge fan of compilations. I like studio albums b/c songs are written and recorded and included on a record very deliberately. And Bob has such an enormous catalog that greatest hits albums just can't do justice to.

If you want to dive right in, I'd suggest one of the following:

Highway 61 Revisted
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Blood on the Tracks

I invite the McBoners to opine on this as well.

Also, if you like, I would happily burn some stuff for you. Just let me know.


Unknown said...

I agree Nate. The Greatest Hits Vol. 1 is a good insight to those first six albums.

After that I'd go with:

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Blonde On Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited
Blood On The Tracks

All three show different styles to the Dylan arc.

But what about the "The Bootleg Series" albums? Obviously, not official recordings, but there is definitely some five McBone records in there too.

Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Live 1966, for me, is definitely deserves 5 McBones. The accoustic set is unbelievable by itself. And then that electric set on the second disc takes it to another whole new level. Then add on the audience booing through the electric set, the "Judas" tag, and Dylan replying to the band "Play f'n loud!" Everytime I hear him say that, I think, "Wow! What cajones!"


BillBow Baggins said...


You're right. I give five McBones to the whole bootleg series. Just keep 'em coming.

Blonde on Blonde is another great choice for the uninitiated.

Steven, there really is a whole world of awesomeness waiting for you. Follow us! We will be your guides into the universe of Bob.


Darin said...

First off, Nate, this is great!

I'm just proud that the entire review of Down in the Groove is "Blech! Sorry, Darin. Double blech!" And I don't really like that album very much, just better than the one that preceeded it and the other weaker ones (Under the Red Sky, Dylan). I guess Down in the Groove holds a place for me because it was the first "new" Dylan album that came out after I became a fan. But I'm still honored by that review.

Steven... Like Nate, I recommend starting with the Greatest Hits (with "Positively 4th St", which you won't find on any official release) and Greatest Hits Vol 2 (with at least 5 songs not on previous albums - "Tomorrow Is A Long Time," "When I Paint My Masterpiece," "I Shall Be Released," "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," and "Down in the Flood"). That was how I started. And 20 some years later it hasn't stopped.

Freewheelin' is amazing. And then the electric trifecta of Bringing It All Back Home through Blonde On Blonde is the greatest set of output any artist will ever release in a 14 month span. Blood On the Tracks! Blood On the mother-effin', genius, Sweet Mary Mother of Jesus Tracks! For me, Oh Mercy has been the most underrated album. Time Out of Mind is the sound of genius reborn, or refusing to let go.

The Bootleg Series Vol 1-3 is the greatest box set ever made. The No Direction Home Soundtrack is a good expansion of this. And Tell Tale Signs is a great compilation of the past 10 years or so! As Dave said, Vol 4: 1966 is monumental.

While you're at it, check out the movies on/about Dylan. Don't Look Back is a classic. If you can find a copy of Eat The Document it is even better. PBS' No Direction Home documentary directed by Scorsese is great. I'm Not There is the greatest biopic ever made.

That should keep you busy for a while. And after that, you'll probably want to check out everything else including Saved and Under the Red Sky.

Kid Shay said...

I was welcomed to Bobville via a mix tape. Not exactly a greatest hits collection, but it certainly did the trick.

A few of the songs I remember: Isis, Baby Let Me Follow You Down, Most of the Time, Bob Dylan's 115th Dream, Abandoned Love, Shelter from the Storm, It's Alright, Ma...

BillBow Baggins said...


Because you and I saw the single greatest concert of all time, a McBone review was in order.


The McBoners have spoken. There seems to be a consensus that Greatest Hits vol. 1 is a great way to start, with a general agreement on which albums would be great introductions. Each of these guys mentions key stuff that is awesome that you won't find on the normal studio releases.

Darin: Positively 4th St. is essential. One of the great sides, but left off Highway 61.

Dave: 1966's play fuckin' loud! was the day the earth stood still.

Josh: Abandoned Love is one of my favorites. I guess it wasn't good enough for the Desire album.

Interestingly, or perhaps tellingly, no one mentions the Biograph box set. I've never quite seen the logic of that set, which contains many gems, but seems overwhelmed by the challenge of combining studio, live and previously unreleased recordings. Better to just stick to the Greatest Hits series, I think.



Anonymous said...


The Biograph box set (although is it really considered a box set?) is kinda of a hodge-podge, but still it's great in its own. I still don't get how they decided on track selection on that one (it's not done chronologically to Dylan's career), but it does gives the listener a window into all the various outputs of his career up to 1985 (folk to electric to country to born again) and kind of a roadmap to of what recordings would be released later (The Bootleg Series Volumes).

My favorite tracks on that set are the rare ones: "Up To Me," "I Wanna Be Your Lover," and that live track of "Visions Of Johana."

Still, you'd think they'd do a decent box set. But that's probably comin' as a 800 dollar volume set of greatest hits, unreleased tracks, and a Dylan harmonica to go with it. (I still can't believe that NY Archives Vol. 1 is 300 clams! for Blue Ray Disc, which barely anyone has that technology!)


Anonymous said...


I agree with kb.

The Basement Tapes have to be an essential five stars. That period set the course for both Dylan & the Band to make the huge musical leaps they did afterword (Dylan with John Wesley Harding & Nashville Skyline & the Band with The Big Pink). I know you're not a big fan of Dylan historians but Greil Marcus wrote an exceptional book called "The Old Weird America" and states that the connection to the Basement tapes relate back to the Folkways Anthology & the old recordings from the 1920's and '30's. Not to mention that the majority of those recordings Levon Helm was not there. He was working on a oil rig in the south. So, it was just Dylan,Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Richard Danko (with Manuel and/or Robertson switching off on drums).

"Apple Suckling Tree" is my favorite as well. Dylan banging on the piano & fire off lyrics off the top of his head, Robertson on drums, and Garth Hudson throwing his wild organ solos over all of it. It says everything about both Dylan & the Band: loose, free, and adaptive.

As far as a starter, GH Volume 1 is a great primer. If only for Positively 4th Street. But as albums go, I'd say:

Blood On The Tracks
Blonde On Blonde and/or Highway 61 Revisited
Time Out Of Mind

But you can't go wrong with any of the selections anyone has picked out here.


BillBow Baggins said...


You find yourself agreeing with kb? Fancy that.

I'm going to give the BTs a few spins. I may have been unjust in my half star deduction. Million Dollar Bash has always been a personal favorite of mine.