To celebrate Bob Dylan's 81st birthday on May 24, 2022, BILL WATT reveals his 10 favourite albums by the singer/songwriter great
FREEWHEELIN' BOB DYLAN
This stark acoustic album was Dylan's second and, despite it's cringingly bad title, was the launchpad for his epic career as singer, musician, poet and story-teller. It was released in 1962 when Dylan was just 21 years old, but I was first bedazzled by it in its complete glory many years later when I was about the same age. Dylan wrote 11 of the 13 tracks himself including Blowin' In The Wind which became world famous when recorded by folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary. My favourite track, and the song I rank as one of the best ever written, is A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall. That song is as edifying as it is mystifying.
"I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
... And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall"
Awesome stuff. Other favourites to be heard here include the searingly beautiful Girl From The North Country, the eviscerating anti-war classic Masters Of War and civil rights protest song Oxford Town.
SLOW TRAIN COMING
I know ... I know. How can a sane man rank one of Dylan's trio of gospel albums alongside his 1960s classics? Quite simple really. This is a list of my favourite albums, not necessarily Dylan's greatest work. And Slow Train Coming arrived at a point in my life when I was just starting to get engrossed by the mystery of Dylan, so it has sentimental appeal. It is also beautifully recorded, with Dire Straits guitar king Mark Knopfler leading the way. And, let's face it, you don't have to be religious yourself to be charged by the power and beauty of devotion and righteous anger. There's some great songs on here, including the title track, which seems a little prophetic if you listen carefully:
"Big-time negotiators, false healers and woman haters
Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition
But the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency
All non-believers and men-stealers talkin' in the name of religion
And there's a slow, slow train comin' up around the bend"
But my favourite track is When He Returns - a gritty and powerful, if overly fundamentalist, take on the return of the Christian Messiah. Forget the hate folks and take a new listen to this album. You just might be converted (to loving this album).
TIME OUT OF MIND
This classic has been deemed a comeback album by some, but really Dylan never went away. Released in 1997 It was the first album of original songs from Bob since 1990, and it was a real cracker. Dark and moody, you can feel Dylan starting to come to terms with advancing age (he was 56 at the time) and his own mortality - obvious in Trying To Get To Heaven. "Every day your memory grows dimmer
It doesn't haunt me like it did before
I've been walking through the middle of nowhere
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door."
The other standout track for me is Not Dark Yet but plenty of people have fallen in love with Make You Feel My Love, which was beautifully covered by Adele some years later.
This is one of only a few albums in the Dylan catalogue that revels in the inspirational input of creative female performers. Emmylou Harris' backing vocals and the searing violin of Scarlet Rivera lifts the tracks to a stellar level. Of course, this album is justifiably famous for protest song Hurricane and its exposure to the world of the wrongful imprisonment of black boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. "Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin' that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he coulda been
The champion of the world."
But, there is so much more to Desire than just Hurricane. My favourite track is One More Cup Of Coffee with it's eastern European/Jewish/ Roma pace and feel. Rivera's violin is haunting. Other classic tracks are Isis (but there are better live versions) and Sara. I love Joey, but apparently you're not meant to because it is sympathetic to a mafia mobster - Joey Gallo, also known as Crazy Joe.
BLONDE ON BLONDE
You're questioning my sanity again! Many critics put this album forward as Dylan's best moment ... the work that pushed him from very good to great. Many claim it is the best record in the history of popular music. It comes in at Number 6 here because, as I explained earlier, the rankings are based on my taste alone. And, don't diss Number 6. This is an elite list of some of the very best recordings ... ever. Blonde On Blonde, released on June 20, 1966, was one of rock's first double LPs and features some of Dylan's best work - I Want You, Just Like A Woman, Visions of Johanna, 4th Time Around and the epic 11-minute long Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands. Why haven't I mentioned Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, you ask? Well, simply it isn't one I enjoy that much! Visions of Johanna is my personal favourite but interpretation of the lyrics can be a challenge: "The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes ev'rything's been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish truck that loads
While my conscience explodes". Every time I hear that line my conscience nears detonation!
THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN'
This is an angry album. It's mostly a young Dylan, armed with guitar and harmonica, screaming out his outrage at inequality, racism, poverty and violence. The title track became the anthem for societal change in the broken America of the 1960s. "Come senators, congressmen please heed the call,
Don't stand in the doorway Don't block up the hall,
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled,
The battle outside ragin' will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls for the times they are a-changin'"
Other fabulously angry songs on this album include Ballad of Hollis Brown, Only a Pawn in Their Game, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, With God On Our Side and my personal favourite When The Ship Come In.
BLOOD ON THE TRACKS
There is a lot of pain and anguish in this album, plus a whole heap of great story telling. It was recorded as Dylan was attempting to come to terms with his estrangement from wife Sara Lownds. Much of the albums is dedicated to relationships and the excruciatingly difficult heartbreak they cause. The angst reaches a crescendo on Idiot Wind. "You'll never know the hurt I suffered, Nor the pain I rise above,
And I'll never know the same about you, Your holiness or your kind of love
And it makes me feel so sorry"
Somehow, in the middle of all the pain, Dylan managed to write and record an epic ballad that I've always thought of as his attempt at writing a cinematic Western - Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts. But, my favourite track at this moment, although it can vary with this album, is Shelter From The Storm.
I bought this album while working as a copy boy (or general dogsbody) at a newspaper office in Sydney. Although fun at times, copy kids were generally treated like crap. So, when I heard the following lyrics from the first song on the album, Changing Of The Guards, I was smitten: "Gentlemen, he said, I don't need your organisation, I've shined your shoes
I've moved your mountains and marked your cards
But Eden is burning, either get ready for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards." And, I have never lost my love for this album. I know it isn't Dylan's best work but I reckon it is awesome. The band is so tight and the use of female backing singers creates an album quite different to Dylan's other masterpieces. Changing Of The Guards won me over initially but my favourite track here is No Time To Think and its 18 verses of tragic, painful and so terribly clever poetry.
BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME
There are so many of my favourite tracks on this album - Maggies Farm, Love Minus Zero/No Limit, Mr. Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden, It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), It's All Over Now, Baby Blue and the song it is perhaps most famous for ... Subterranean Homesick Blues (see iconic music video below). This album is famous as the moment in time when Dylan veered away from folk/protest music towards a more electric, eclectic and surreal artform. The first side of the album was recorded with electric backing, the second being acoustic. The best of the lot, for me, is Mr Tambourine Man. You can't help but be uplifted by the lyrics: "Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow"
HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED
Finally, we reach my all time favourite Dylan album - Highway 61 Revisited. Every song here is an absolute classic although Like A Rolling Stone, with its opening lines: "Once upon a time you dressed so fine, Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?" is certainly the most famous of them. Like A Rolling Stone is Dylan at his most innovative. By this stage the former folk/protest singer had emerged as a dynamic and creative shaper of electric rock 'n' roll. And, with Like A Rolling Stone - its angry spat-out lyrics, organ chords and full band backing so crazily intense for the complete 6 minutes - you can see why. Funnily enough, my favourite track is the only acoustic song on the album, the mesmeric, 11-minute long Desolation Row. The song is essentially a weird parade of iconic characters doing weird things, for example: "Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk
Now he looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette
And he went off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet
You would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row".
Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues is probably my next favourite, but truly, every song here is a winner.