Read my reviews of Bob Dylan’s studio albums.
1962: Bob Dylan (8/10)
Dylan’s debut barely gives a hint of the songwriter he would become (though there are a couple hints). Rather, it shows off an energetic singer whose reach exceeds his grasp in terms of his singing ability. But this is pretty admirable and the album actually holds up really well over the years, with the performances feeling raw rather than amateurish. It shows off a different side of the man, had he not become The Greatest Songwriter of All Time.
Only for fans of folk, but much better than you’d expect given how few of these songs he wrote. (Those songs, though, are clear indications that something was coming.)
1963: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (10/10)
Dylan’s first album of “original songs” (note: much of the music and a few of the lyrics are stolen from others) is probably the best folk album released up until this point. There’s no real precedent for it.
In addition to refining the protest song to the point where Dylan was peerless – nobody else wrote with such sophistication about social issues in 1963 – Dylan also includes some of his stream-of-consciousness songs and also confessional songs about relationships. Both types of songs revolutionized lyric writing; the latter by making it okay – actually normal – to write about your own personal feelings and relationships in popular music, and the former by basically saying “anything goes” with lyrics in popular songs. Dylan’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics are to popular music lyrics as Nietzsche is to philosophy; after these songs, anything is possible.
Also, he’s a better performer than he’s given credit for.
Bob Dylan albums from 1964:
The Times They Are a Changin’ (10/10)
Along with his previous record, this is the point at which Dylan basically killed protest song writing, both for himself and everyone else. For himself, he seems to have gotten bored and wanted to explore new avenues (which he had already hinted at with a few of his original songs on earlier records), or maybe he just didn’t want to be viewed as such an important “voice” in the US. For everyone else: if you are a budding protest songwriter how do you compete with these lyrics? What are you supposed to do now?
Obligatory mention: Dylan has stolen many of his melodies from other songwriters. This was extremely common in the folk and blues traditions at the time and few (if any) people called him out for it. We shouldn’t judge this record by our standards today. (We should judge him now, when he continues to do it, on the other hand.)
Another Side of Bob Dylan (10/10)
Dylan was a protest song singer-songwriter. Sure, he was possibly the best ever (in English) and there was the odd deviation into other formats, but that’s what he was to most people when this record came out. It’s what he was known and respected for. Presumably one reason this album exists is because he was frustrated with the perception that singing protest songs was the only thing he did, or the best thing he did, or what have you.
And so instead we get 1 (sort of) protest song and 10 songs that are more personal or are more of Dylan’s experiments with storytelling. The former songs helped establish the modern idea of a confessional singer-songwriter which would absolutely take off throughout this decade and especially in the 1970s. But it’s the other songs which are the real meat. As he had already started to do with a few songs on earlier records, Dylan violates basically every pop song lyrical convention and instead introduces poetic techniques that had basically no precedent in English-language songs.
This is not his best set of songs but it’s probably his best set to date, or at least his most varied. And, more than his previous albums, this set of songs set a new standard in songwriting which songwriters who took their craft seriously felt they had to take seriously. (So seriously in some cases that they would imitate Dylan to the point of parody.)
1965 Albums by Bob Dylan:
Bringing it All Back Home (10/10)
It’s kind of difficult to put the importance of this album into words, especially for those of us who weren’t alive. Dylan had already perfected and arguably killed protest song writing. And on the album before this one he took popular music lyrics to places nobody could have imagined in 1963. But those were all folk albums and, especially prior to the Beatles inventing folk rock and the Byrds making it a phenomenon, folk was not the same as pop rock. (Even if folk evolved from a popular music, by the early ’60s, NYC folk was very much a niche thing.)
But here, on the first side, he brings these lyrics to rock music and the music has never been the same again. I mean, prior to this album, the point of the vast majority of rock music lyrics – even those that use sexual innuendo – was to be understood. But these lyrics – you can claim you know what he is saying, you can argue about it, you can debate it, you research the sources for his allusions and pull apart his metaphors; you could, in theory, run a university class about these lyrics and those of the albums before and after it. (Incidentally, my personal favourite is probably “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, which is just nuts.)
As to the music, well I am reminded of No Direction Home, when that idiot calls his backing band a “bloody pop group”; now, this isn’t the same band, but it ain’t no bloody pop group either. If it’s folk rock, as I guess it is, it’s far dirtier and bluesier than the folk rock then being propagated.
And though the folk side is obviously less revolutionary, it still contains two or even three classics, as well as the original version of the song that started the folk rock boom (which, here, among some of his best material, doesn’t sound very good).
An undisputed classic and one of the five best popular music albums of the “early” 1960s, if 1965 can still be considered “early.”
Highway 61 Revisited (10/10)
It’s hard to put this into words, but I’m going to try.
Dylan’s first fully electric album is one of the watershed records of the twentieth century. It finished developing his mid ’60s electric sort of “folk rock” sound, while providing yet another set of incredibly dense lyrics that could be studied in a university-level English course.
The songs are not necessarily the strongest of Dylan’s career, or even his strongest to date. But what they are (among) the most iconic, I think. “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the title track and “Desolation Row” in particular have some of Dylan’s most famous (and most quotable / singalong) lines despite their obscure meanings.
And the songs are also daring. When “Like a Rolling Stone” became a top 5 single, it became the longest hit single in history. And “Desolation Row” is the longest popular song I am aware of to this point in time. And Dylan trusted himself and his audience to make these songs interesting enough to warrant their, for the time, insane length. (These are, after all, just rocked up folk songs. It’s not like this is jazz.)
It helps that his band is excellent. Bloomfield in particular is on fire. (See, for example, “Tombstone Blues.”) And Kooper’s famous organ riff absolutely makes “Like a Rolling Stone.” It’s so hard to imagine the song without it. This band helped expand the sound of what folk rock could be, incorporating blues to a heretofore unheard of extent (except, I guess, for the electric side of Bringing it All Back Home) and making this more “rock” than “folk rock.”
And I think the quality of the songs plus the quality of the performances makes this the single greatest rock album to be released up until this point. If you think that’s hyperbole, what’s the alternative?
1966: Blonde on Blonde (10/10)
The release date of this record is up for debate, but whether it was released in May, June or even July of 1966, it was probably the greatest rock album ever released up until that point.
Dylan expands his sonic palette (particularly on the drunken revelry of an opening track) and this may be his strongest set of songs on one album, which is a bit of a surprise given that it’s a double album. (It’s possibly the first pop rock double album ever, by the way.)
Dylan’s lyrics are as dense and cryptic as ever, and it’s worth noting that this is the last Dylan record where every song would be like. Dylan has used a considerably more direct approach in the years since, to the point where some of his albums are full of lyrics where you can understand the meaning of every line without a codex.
The band is as strong as Highway 61, even if they have a little bit less time to show off.
This is one of the landmark albums in the history of rock music (much as Highway 61 was) and it was the final salvo in Dylan’s initial run as the greatest songwriter the (English) world had ever seen.
1967: John Wesley Harding (8/10)
I think it’s fair to say that by refusing to follow the trends of the time, and by doubling down on Americana, Dylan and the Band invented roots rock in the summer of 1967. (Of course, prior to psychedelia, there was no need for such a genre.) But given that they didn’t release the music officially for 8 years, this record, made without The Band, is the only sign the world got (officially) of what was happening.
This record is also notable for Dylan’s change in singing style, and an overall stylistic change from the louder, more “electric” sound of his last few records before the accident.
It’s also notable, though not necessarily in a good way, for Dylan’s more conservative lyrics – for the first time since his debut, Dylan’s lyrics sound like those of other songwriters. I’m not saying he’s copying anyone, but he’s certainly abandoned his most complex poetry for lyrics that are more accessible, often seemingly writing in a parable style.
The record is good, and it was brave of him to ignore the trends, even if it’s kind of hard for us to imagine him following those trends. But the idea that this is one of his very best records is must mystifying to me. It is the first record of a new, less brave Dylan, one who embraced tradition more than rejected it. And it is a strong set of songs and it is nice to listen to. But it’s also the first sign that peak Dylan was gone and never coming back.
1969: Nashville Skyline (7/10)
Dylan leans even further into his reinvention as a country singer, both in terms of his singing voice and the straightforward nature of his songs.
Though this record has the big hit, and though it has the absolutely fantastic duet version of “Girl From the North Country,” I definitely prefer John Wesley Harding as a record overall and I also think that record is far more important, both as a departure for Dylan and as a deliberate rebuke of the musical trends of the day. (Sure, this is deliberate rebuke of those trends too, but it’s the second time.) This one is also really, really short, and I can’t help but think that someone as prolific as Dylan had more material.
It’s very pleasant and, as I said above, it contains an absolutely great duet, but it is Dylan’s least essential record since his debut.
Bob Dylan albums from 1970:
Self Portrait (???)
I’m pretty sure I’ve listened to this at least once but I never wrote a review.
New Morning (8/10)
Ever since his motorcycle accident/self-imposed exile, Dylan had adopted significantly more straightforward/accessible lyrics, moving away from his revolutionary reference-drenched poetry of his earlier recordings.
That same more traditional approach is still present here, though he has mostly moved far away from the country that dominated his first two post-exile releases: The music is much more diverse. In fact, musically this is one of Dylan’s most adventurous albums. That’s a relative thing obviously, but it’s still relatively out there for him.
Even though the set of songs isn’t quite up to his best – I would argue it’s still a pretty decent set, compared to some of his other albums – and even though this is, for Dylan, diverse, I think this is a great introduction to him.
For anyone who finds his early stuff impenetrable or his voice to grating, this is a great start. Because not only is it more accessible, it’s actually kind of fun.
Bob Dylan’s albums from 1973:
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid Motion Picture Soundtrack (4?/10)
I saw the movie a couple of decades ago and I’m pretty sure I listened to the album around then. I guess I wasn’t writing reviews yet because the review is lost to time.
I have never heard this and I’m not sure I knew it existed. (That’s because it’s an outtakes album that Dylan himself didn’t authorize.)
Albums by Bob Dylan from 1974:
Planet Waves (???)
Despite having listened to all of Dylan’s major records except this one, and listening to most if not all of the Band’s major records, I have never actually listened to this.
Before the Flood (7/10) with The Band
I have no idea why I’ve never reviewed this one, as I’ve heard it many times.
I think this is one of the more overrated live albums I’ve heard. And maybe I wouldn’t even give it 7/10 now. Dylan enunciates different words and they change some of the arrangements but otherwise the “drastically different arrangements” claim never rang true to me.
Bob Dylan’s albums from 1975:
Blood on the Tracks (10/10)
Dylan will tell you he doesn’t write confessional songs. (I wonder if any interviewer has responded to this statement with “What about “Sara”?”) But even his son thinks this album is about the end of Dylan’s marriage.
Regardless of what the album is or isn’t about, this is Dylan’s best set of songs in nearly a decade. And though I haven’t delved into the depths of his late ’70s and ’80s music, it’s arguably his last truly essential album worth of songs. (He’s definitely written songs since that are among his very best, but I’m not sure he’s put out an entire album of them.) For me, it’s the only record he’s put out since the motorcycle accident that belongs with his truly astonishing run of world-changing albums from 1963 to 1966.
Moreover, the whole thing feels more mature – well, at least most of the time. (Except when he’s calling his ex wife an idiot…) He’s not just lyrically showing off now; instead he’s writing for a unified purpose, whether that’s to process the end of his relationship or whether it’s, um, to put Chekhov to music. (I’ve never read a defense of this claim, but I’m curious: does it hold any water? I’ve read a fair amount of Chekhov and really don’t see it at all.)
It’s one of the great singer-songwriter albums of the 1970s and Dylan’s last masterpiece. Essential.
The Basement Tapes (9/10) with The Band
People who have listened to the bootlegs will tell you that Robbie Robertson really curated this selection in favour of The Band rather than Dylan. I have never heard those bootlegs. (Also, over 100 songs were recorded and there are only a quarter of them here.)
Recorded during the summer of love, this is the birth of roots rock (as there was no need for the term before psychedelia took off). You could likely also trace the idea of “Americana” as a genre to these recordings. It’s a great survey of the second stage of Dylan’s career, writing in a more traditionally style. (I have no idea how any of the songs have lifted melodies.) There are also a few Band tracks.
This is an interesting record for numerous reasons – Dylan’s first work with a co-lyricist, it’s a return to “protest” song-writing (on two tracks, anyway), and various other reasons. It might also be the last “great” Dylan album. Not 100% sure.
It’s certainly a radical lyrical about-face from the extremely confessional (or extremely Chekhov-obsessed, depending on who you believe) Blood on the Tracks. (With the notable exception of “Sara.”)
Sure, Dylan’s lyrics are more accessible, but they’re still often among the best around. And a few of these songs are among his very best, including “Hurricane” (is this the first “true crime” song?) and “Sara” (which is devastating).
But there are some weaker tracks, like the seemingly endless, interminable mob apologia “Joey.”
I can’t quite decide whether it’s classic Dylan, despite its differences from his peak 10 years earlier. But it’s up there. It’s likely his second best album of the ’70s. And probably the last (nearly) essential record he ever made.
1978: Street-Legal (???)
This is the first of the records of a stretch of Dylan’s career that I’ve barely paid attention to.
1979: Slow Train Coming (???)
1980: Saved (???)
1981: Shot of Love (???)
1983: Infidels (6/10)
The conventional wisdom is that this is the first Dylan album after his weird trip to the Christian Music wilderness to really be worth listening to. I have deliberately avoided his late ’70s work because of its reputation, so I have no idea if this is his best album since Desire (1976) or not.
I do know that there is a weird partial, half-assed embrace of reggae, with Sly & Robbie seemingly playing on all tracks (I’m not making that up!) but with their presence, and the general reggae feel, being notable on only a couple of songs. Dylan has occasionally flirted with genres outside of his wheelhouse before and since, but this one is a weird one. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it just prompts questions. It’s better than him embracing Hair Metal. Anyway…
The draw, as always, with Dylan is the lyrics. These Dylan songs are very much in the manner of his Blood on the Tracks/Desire era writing; some of it may be at least partially confessional and it’s all far less convoluted and willfully difficult than his ’60s work, but still far, far more thoughtful, thought-provoking and complex than the average singer songwriter. Some of these lyrics do not come across well with age – particularly “Sweetheart Like You,” which is full of misogyny – but, as always with Dylan, you don’t have to agree with everything he says to still find the lyrics compelling. And this is a good set of lyrics, at least compared to what I was expecting given the reputation of his music between the late ’70s and late ’90s.
I will also say that I heard Elvis Costello’s version of “License to Kill” well before I heard this one, so I have a hard time with Dylan’s version because I like Costello’s so much.
But even though I appreciate that Dylan has come up with a decent set of songs, and taken a bit of a risk making a couple of reggae tracks, I’m not sure the record works for me as a whole. And like so much music made by artists well after their prime, I’m not sure it’s good enough to be recommended as much as it has been. Listening to this I’m not sure I would make the case you need to bother with Dylan post-Desire unless you really really like him.
So 6/10 feels charitable.
1985: Empire Burlesque (???)
1986: Knocked Out Loaded (???)
1988: Down in the Groove (???)
1989: Oh Mercy (???)
1990: Under the Red Sky (???)
1992: Good as I Been to You (???)
1993: World Gone Wrong (???)
1997: Time out of Mind (7/10)
There is a 20-year gap in my Dylan listening – everything between Desire and this record I have never listened to, solely because, when I was first getting into Dylan in my early ’20s, that period of his career was supposed to be some kind of lost period, where he made awful music. I have no idea if that’s true (though reading the Wikipedia descriptions and lists of reactions sure makes it sound like it) so I really don’t know if this is the “return to form” it’s supposed to be.
One thing I’ll note is that, somewhere along the way, Dylan started writing lyrics that were meant to be deciphered by anyone, instead of the nearly impenetrable poetic forests he was writing in his prime. That was already somewhat apparent by the mid ’70s, but I don’t know when it became his thing. But it’s very clearly that was true by this record. That’s not a bad thing – it seems to be that most if not all artists become less radical in their later years – but it just makes it hard to acclaim even good later Dylan records as great.
And I find myself generally liking this – the songs are okay by his standards but the production is thankfully not of its time – but not fully understanding the acclaim that I was supposed to agree with. I mean, it’s a decent Dylan record, but it’s hard to understand how some people could think it’s one of the best records of the year.
2001: “Love and Theft” (7/10)
The second album into Dylan’s “comeback” – and it’s hard for me to know if that’s true, since I’ve avoided Dylan between ’77 and ’96, just like most other people – is a strong set of songs performed in this sort of ragged style that Dylan seems to have adopted for the last couple decades of his career.
Like so many people, I bought into the comeback narrative hard when it began. But, frankly, as I remember Dylan the revolutionary, these songs still pale in comparison to his peak. And though his lyrics are still richer than most, they’re not as rich or as thought-provoking as they were at his peak. And the music is also a little less varied. And so I find this decent, and worthwhile to listen to, but hardly among the great records of the year.
2006: Modern Times (9/10)
Dylan takes old songs and old styles and combines them into a sort of old rock and roll view of contemporary society. That is, he uses old music to speak to the present. If you don’t like Dylan’s self-mythologizing then you will probably be put off by the lyrics (some of them in particular are a little hard to take for someone no doubt as financially successful as him) but if you don’t care about that, the lyrics combined with this new found interest in his musical roots (and the musical roots of the music he is playing) results in this wonderful tapestry that I think few other performers could equal. It is, for me (and, I think a lot of others) the best album he has recorded in nearly 30 years.
Bob Dylan albums from 2009:
Together Through Life (7/10)
Despite the tossed-off nature of this record, Dylan seems to still be pursuing the same sort of project he has been pursuing since his “renaissance” began earlier last decade. The music is a little different here – as someone pointed out it sounds a little like Doug Sahm – and the whole thing seems less momentous, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It should just be pleasant but Dylan’s lyrics are, as usual, well above average, and the backing band is great too.
Like it more than I think I should.