Ranked: Bob Dylan Albums From Worst to Best
The author of a new Dylan biography assesses the canon.
Bob Dylan turns seventy today; in celebration, we're ranking his entire studio discography. Assembling the list is journalist and Professor of English at Syracuse David Yaffe, whose latest book, Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, is just out from Yale.
32. Dylan (1973)
Columbia Records threw together this album of schmaltzy outtakes as revenge on Dylan for defecting to Asylum Records. The sole highlight is a goof on Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi."
Listen: "Big Yellow Taxi"
31. Down in the Groove (1988)
The '80s are passing Dylan by. "Silvio," co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, is a minor standout on this critically reviled album.
30. Empire Burlesque (1985)
Producer Arthur Baker should be tried for crimes against music, burying some good songs in appalling '80s synths and drums. "Dark Eyes" is a sublime acoustic exception.
Listen: "Dark Eyes"
29. Knocked Out Loaded (1986)
A mostly disposable collection from Dylan's era of collaborating with Tom Petty. The outlier is "Brownsville Girl," a stunning collaboration with Sam Shepard.
Listen: "Brownsville Girl"
28. Self-Portrait (1970)
Dylan said he made this album to get the hippies off his lawn, which didn't work. High points are tracks from a performance at the Isle of Wight Festival with The Band, and the pirate anthem "Days of '49."
Listen: "Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)"
27. Together Through Life (2009)
This record hit number one in 2009, but Dylan was Teflon by this point. Still, "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" was morbid enough for True Blood, and Mike Campbell's guitar is a marvel.
Listen: "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'"
26. Bob Dylan (1962)
Dylan has said that he regretted his debut shortly after recording it, but "Song to Woody" opened the songwriting genie, and "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" is worth following.
Listen: "Song to Woody"
25. Under the Red Sky (1990)
This slipshod effort that makes more sense when you learn that Dylan was writing nursery rhymes for his four-year-old daughter. That's George Harrison on the title track.
Listen: "Under the Red Sky"
24. Modern Times (2006)
This album hit number one on the chart, but ripped off enough old blues songs to be tried for grand larceny. Still, "Ain't Talkin'," the spooky closer, is a masterpiece, with dashes of Ovid thrown in.
Listen: "Ain't Talkin'"
23. Good as I Been to You (1992)
Thirty years later, Dylan delivered the kind of traditional folk album people expected in 1961. He nails every track, as if he were strumming in Washington Square. "You're Gonna Quit Me" is the ultimate guilt trip.
Listen: "You're Gonna Quit Me, Baby"
22. World Gone Wrong (1993)
All folk, with the weight of the world very apparent, this album uses the downward spiral of the Earth as an excuse for being no good. "Blood in My Eyes," meant to convey lust, sounds medical.
Listen: "Blood in My Eyes"
21. Slow Train Coming (1979)
Bob found Jesus and won his first Grammy. "Gotta Serve Somebody" doesn't quite convince; "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" is more like it, hypnotic and compelling.
Listen: "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking"
20. Nashville Skyline (1969)
Decades before alt-country, many found this uncool, but "Lay Lady Lay" was a deserving hit, not to mention the Johnny Cash duet "Girl from the North Country," and a crooning vocal delivery that wouldn't last long.
Listen: "Lay, Lady, Lay"
19. Saved (1980)
Dylan's most hardcore salvation album went as deep into Gospel as he would ever get; the title track testifies with the insistent beat of the church chorus. On "In The Garden," he's Jesus' lawyer.
Listen: "In the Garden"
18. Shot of Love (1981)
Rolling Stone panned this album, but "Every Grain of Sand" later won acclaim from both Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello. Shot of Love also includes a left-field tribute to Lenny Bruce.
Listen: "Every Grain of Sand"
17. Street Legal (1978)
Dylan's last pre-Christian album has some powerful songs haphazardly recorded. "New Pony" is nasty fun. The finale, "Where Are You Tonight?," is a devastating and desperate cry.
Listen: "Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)"
16. Planet Waves (1974)
Dylan's first number-one album was his only album-length collaboration with The Band, a charming collection of songs cobbled together in about as long as it takes to listen to them. "Forever Young" is for keeps.
Listen: "Forever Young"
15. New Morning (1970)
George Harrison plays call and response on "Time Passes Slowly," and the title track celebrates domestic pastoral. (Enjoy it while it lasts, Bob!) "The Man in Me" would later play over the opening credits of The Big Lebowski.
Listen: "The Man in Me"
14. Oh Mercy (1989)
Producer Daniel Lanois helps Dylan approach fifty; the result is stuffed with masterpieces. "The Man With The Long Black Coat" is classic balladry, and "Most of the Time" devastates.
Listen: "Most of the Time"
13. Infidels (1983)
Dylan dumps Christianity and reconsiders the world of his fathers. "I and I" returns to meaningless sex, while "Sweetheart Like You" is a new twist on an old line, identifying with the Sweetheart.
Listen: "Sweetheart Like You"
12. "Love and Theft" (2001)
An album released on 9/11 inspires many conspiracy theories, all silly, of course. "Mississippi" is Dylan's greatest song of the new millennium, getting bleaker all the time.
11. John Wesley Harding (1967)
Dylan decides to ignore the '60s and quote the Bible. Hendrix covers "All Along the Watchtower" and forever changes the subject.
Listen: "All Along the Watchtower"
10. Time Out of Mind (1997)
Dylan nearly died of heart disease in '97, and when he didn't, this return to songwriting after seven years was greeted like a miracle. "Love Sick" can't even be sullied by its use in a Victoria's Secret commercial.
Listen: "Not Dark Yet"
9. The Basement Tapes (1975)
These are the most legendary demos ever — you need the expanded bootlegs to truly appreciate the splendors of these sessions.
Listen: "Tears of Rage"
8. Desire (1976)
With lyrics cowritten by Broadway titillator Jacques Levy, Desire also shines via young Emmylou Harris's backups and a plea for Dylan's wife Sara that includes rhyming "help" with "kelp."
7. The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964)
Dylan, in castigating mode, points fingers at those who "philosophize disgrace." Times includes many of Dylan's greatest early songs.
Listen: "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"
6. Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)
Recorded in one Beaujolais soaked night, Another Side finds Dylan moving on from politics, and into getting drunk on his own vision. He was so much older then, he's younger than that now.
Listen: "My Back Pages"
5. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)
This is where Dylan became Dylan, leaving obscurity behind forever. At twenty-one-years old, he opens with "Blowin' in the Wind" and leaves scorched earth with "Don't Think Twice." "Hard Rain" roars out a warning.
Listen: "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"
4. Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
Dylan imagines God and Abraham tussling at folk's highway, and begins with a song called "Like a Rolling Stone." "How does it feel?" is the question that kept stinging.
Listen: "Like a Rolling Stone"
3. Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
Dylan goes electric on side one, but gets visionary on acoustic side two. "It's Alright Ma" contains everything you wanted to say ever, and "Baby Blue" bids farewell to folk.
Listen: "Mr. Tambourine Man"
2. Blood on the Tracks (1975)
This is the best divorce album ever. "Idiot Wind" lashes out against all idiocy, but Dylan makes himself the idiot in the end. "Tangled Up in Blue" tangles memory, love, and pain, and manages to squeeze in a nod to Petrarch, too.
Listen: "Tangled Up in Blue"
1. Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Is it the devastation of "Just Like a Woman?" The dreamlike mystery of "Visions of Johanna?" The hypnotic incantations of "Sad Eyed Lady?" Yes, and much more.
Listen: "Visions of Johanna"