Inspired by the latest Dylan album and a terrible list by the Ultimate Rock Magazine, I decided to rank my top 20 favourite Bob Dylan studio albums, from the 39 that he has published in total. I’m not including Bootleg Series and live records. It’s been a hard task, and not 100% set in stone, but here they go…
20. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
Some may say that the soundtrack to the incredible Sam Peckimpah film doesn’t live up to its potential. But I have a personal connection with this album as it’s the first and only Dylan CD that I found in my brother’s record collection when I was only 12 and quickly turning into a Bob fan. The sonic landscape of the instrumental tracks, the power of the title track and the perfection of the original version of Knockin’ On Heavens Door make this a really evocative, refreshing and calming listening experience to me. Sadly, a couple of great jams featured on the film didn’t make it to the LP.
19. Another Side Of Bob Dylan (1964)
This is pot-induced Bob just before going electric. It’s his lightest, most ramshackle acoustic album, and yet my favourite of the four, although pretty levelled with The Times They Are A-Changin’. Another Side is really funny at times and contains some personal favourites, like To Ramona, or the original version of It Ain’t Me Babe, which was featured in one of my earliest Bob acquisitions, a Greatest Hits album on cassette tape.
18. Nashville Skyline (1969)
Bob’s full-fledged country music album is a short, wholesome and pleasant listen, and one of his more musical and consistent sounding records as far as the playing and production goes. The album combines delightful country-pop ballads with short rocky numbers, with I Threw It All Away being the highlight for me. The album cover is one of my favourites, too.
17. Shot of Love (1981)
This album is often included in worst-of-Bob lists, but I personally really enjoy the occasional all-over-the-place playing and the unfocused and rough production. None of that gets in the way of the brilliance of its songs, with excellent quintessential Bob-pop moments (Heart of Mine, In The Summertime, Dead Man Dead Man) and lyrical genius (The Groom Still Waitin’ at The Altar, Every Grain of Sand).
16. John Wesley Harding (1967)
A deceivingly simple album and a complete departure in sound and themes from Blonde on Blonde, released only a year earlier. I love the ambiguity and the mystery of its lyrics. Musically it’s sparse, in stark contrast with everything going on that year.. It’s better enjoyed in mono, and in any case I don’t think this is easy album for the casual fan.
15. New Morning (1970)
Similar to Nashville Skyline in his wholesomeness and accessibility. A laid back, really enjoyable record. A uniquely Bob-pop record, with some country and jazz vibes. There’s something about the sound of this album that reminds me of a particular summer of my life, when I was 17 or 18. Sign on the Window, If Dogs Run Free and The Man In Me are my personal favourites.
14. Planet Waves (1974)
Bob and The Band reunited. Some top shelf songs here, like Forever Young, Going Going Gone and Hazel. Some fun ones, like Tough Mama and You Angel You. I love Never Say Goodbye too. Some tracks pre-date the Blood on the Tracks theme of devotion and heartbreak, like Dirge and Wedding Song. Like New Morning, this is a record that reminds me of long, sunny days and evenings. Great album cover.
13. Slow Train Coming (1978)
This is probably one of the best sounding Bob albums, slickly produced, executed and packaged. But the contents are not for everybody. I personally really enjoy the energy and the passion of his evangelical records, the singing and the boldness of the lyrics, not to mention the fantastic live performances of the era. My favourites are Gonna Change My Way of Thinking, Precious Angel and the title track.
12. Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
The first time I heard Subterranean Homesick Blues on the Greatest Hits compilation it blew my mind, and Mr. Tambourine Man is still more than a song to me: a hymn, an anthem and a guide in life. The album has some other top tier Bob moments, especially It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), Love Minus Zero/No Limit and It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. However I prefer some of these in their live incarnations and I don’t go back to the ‘lesser’ songs on the album (Outlaw Blues, On The Road Again) as much as I do with his lesser appreciated work.
11. Saved (1980)
The standard of this album is way higher than most give it credit for. If you need and are able to ignore the obvious religious messaging, this is a really enjoyable and beautiful record. It’s Dylan at his most emotional and boldly evangelical. A very well-crafted collection of songs like What Can I Do For You?, Covenant Woman and Pressing On, which were highlights of the tour that year. The Bootleg Series Trouble No More covers this period’s live performances, which are some of the most energetic and emotional of Bob’s career.
10. Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020)
No other Dylan album released since I became a fan in 2002 has been as enjoyable as this. Perhaps it’s the timing of it – a soothing musical balm in the midst a pretty strange, unprecedented year. But I already know that some of the songs here have come to stay on the top shelf. Particularly I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You and Key West. These tracks reach emotional and personal places like no other track from his recent albums have. My Own Version of You is another highlight for me.
9. Street-Legal (1978)
The high moments on this album are among my favourites in Dylan’s canon: Changing of the Guards, Señor (Tales of Yankee Power), and Where Are You Tonight. Lyrically, Bob is at the top of his game. Musically, it’s weirdly dated and overblown, but in a good way. It’s a complex and sometimes exhausting listen, an off-the-wall record which is perhaps best enjoyed in small doses. It really benefited from the 2000s remaster.
8. “Love & Theft” (2001)
The quintessential 21st century Bob record in terms of sound, themes and production. It’s Dylan using his musical and lyrical copy and paste at his best. It has a sparkle and freshness, twenty years later, unmatched by any of his later work, with the exception of Rough and Rowdy Ways. “Love & Theft” is dense, upbeat, towering, corny, catchy. Featuring a warm analogue sound of the band playing in the studio live. Some of his late masterpieces are here, like Mississippi and High Water.
7. Oh Mercy (1989)
One of the most celebrated of the many so-called comebacks in Dylan’s career. Featuring two classics in my opinion: Most of the Time and Man in the Long Black Coat. He left a bunch of brilliant songs out of the album which can be found in the Bootleg Series, like Dignity or Series of Dreams.
6. The Basement Tapes (1975)
Not sure if this really qualifies as a studio album. Recorded in the basement of the a pink house in the middle of the Catskills woods in upstate New York between 1967 and 1968. The Basement Tapes is rock’ n ‘roll mythology, a country and western fairy tale. Or simply six iconic musicians and songwriters jamming, improvising, and having fun in a remote location, away from it all. This official release has some detractors but I believe it tells the story nicely, and in a fantastic package – this is my favourite record cover by far.
5. Desire (1976)
Desire reads and sounds like a movie. Several movies, in fact: Isis, Black Diamond Bay, One More Cup of Coffee. It’s probably his most visual record. His voice is at his loudest and best. Desire is probably his most accessible record for the casual or non fan. It’s spacial, it’s breezy, and it takes you on a journey through the dessert into the wild.
4. Blood on the Tracks (1975)
The higher I go on this list, the less there is to say about the records and the more they seem to universally speak for themselves. This one speaks of heartbreak, devotion, rage, power, isolation. It’s sheer mastery and inspiration. It doesn’t get much better than this. Still, one has to be in the mood to listen to this album. It’s not that easy.
3. Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
All killer, no filler. Some people say From a Buick 6 is a throwaway song, but I disagree. Everything here is perfect. I used to sing Tombstone Blues in my old band. Queen Jane and Just Like Tom Thumb’s have become two favourites over the years.
2. Blonde on Blonde (1966)
This album changed me and shaped me. I think I was 14 years old. I got into Dylan’s music really early on in life. This album is one of those things for me, like Tropic of Cancer, or Pet Sounds or like some Fellini movies a couple of years later. I would plunge into this album for hours on end with my headphones in bed. 14 tracks of towering music. The definition of cool. And what a band. Paul Griffin’s piano on One Of Us Must Know. Kenny Buttrey’s drumming. There’s so much to this album and there’s nothing else like it.
Time Out Of Mind (1997)
This album is the sound of going home. It’s the sound of a friend who really understands what’s going on. It’s been with me through depression and through happiness. It’s delicate, it’s loving, it’s angry, it’s cynical, and it’s funny. It’s part of who I am and who I am not, and it’s almost everything I need.