Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sunday, January 17, 2016

My Five Favorite Dylan Albums

Here's a list of my five favorite Bob Dylan albums.  My criterion?  Basically my own personal taste, and not their place in the canon of popular music.  I think many Dylan fans will be surprised that I tend to favor the later Dylan, but, then again, that was the Dylan of my time.  I picked the five albums that I enjoy listening too most in their entirety.  Albums that I find myself skipping tracks on were disqualified from the list.

(I know I should probably start with number five and work my way down to number one, but I am going in the reverse order since that is more reflective of my Dylan journey.)

1).  Infidels.  1983

Infidels was my real introduction to Bob Dylan.  I grew up without much interest in popular music -- aside from The Beatles.  My mother had both of Dylan's earlier greatest hits albums, but I never found myself drawn to them.  I wasn't into that whole folky thing.  However, one afternoon I was sitting in the Film Lab at Towson State and I read a favorable review of this album in the Towerlight, our student newspaper.  Somehow it inspired me to go over to Record and Tape Traders and pick up a copy.  And it blew my mind.

I had never heard a song like the opening track "Jokerman" before.  I found it equally cryptic and illuminating.  I was mesmerized.  Bob sounded like an Old Testament prophet.  "Freedom, just around the corner for you, but with truth so far off, what good will it do?"  Amen, brother.  The critics hailed this album as Dylan's return from Christianity, but they weren't listening.  Christianity seemed to permeate ever track.  I think the verse to the song "I & I" succinctly sums up the relationship between God and man.  "I and I, in creation where one's nature neither honors nor forgives, I and I, one said to the other, no man sees my face and lives."  Pretty deep stuff.  At least to me.  At the time.

And the musicianship....  Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits and ex-Rolling Stone Mick Taylor going neck-to-neck on the guitars backed up by the ace rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare.  Things don't get much better than that.

The hunt was on for more Dylan.
2).  Highway 61 Revisited.  1965

After wearing down my copy of Infidels, I started researching Dylan in order to discover where to go next.  The arrows all pointed toward Highway 61 Revisited.

What an immense flood of words floating above a lively accompaniment.  I would later understand that Dylan was exalting in the ability to say whatever he wanted on this album, and the previous one, Bringing It All Back Home, after tiring of the restraints of folk music.  The album was rife with anger and judgement, as exemplified by "Like A Rolling Stone," which looked at the revolution he helped start and found it distinctly wanting, but it was also filled with humor.  A new songwriter myself, I could picture him smiling to himself as he reached for some of the most outlandish rhymes.  Listening to the album, I was surprised how the critics were later caught off-guard by Dylan's quote/unquote Christian period.  The Bible often showed up in his work.  Think of the opening of the title track:  "God said to Abraham:  kill me a son.  Abe said:  Man, you must be putting me on."  He's already wrestling with the divine.

Depending on my mood, this album often tops my list.  Highway 61 Revisited is definitely more influential, but Infidels was my first love.
3).  Oh Mercy.  1989

When I became a Dylan fan in 1983, I didn't realize that he was entering his creative nadir.  Although I always found something of value on each of his albums, it became tougher and tougher to wade through albums like Knocked Out Loaded, Down In The Groove, and Dylan &The Dead.*  I would take solace in his earlier work, but I couldn't help but wonder when, if ever, the real Dylan would show up again.

He did in 1989 with Oh Mercy.  I loved this album from the very first note as Dylan looked out at our "Political World" and discovered that "Everything Is Broken," and warned us about "The Man In The Long Black Coat."  Not only did I like the songs and the world-weary voice, I also loved the swampy production provided by Daniel Lanois.  It seems to me that, for the most part, Dylan's production seems to be rather slapdash:  A group of musicians gather around Dylan, they run through the songs a couple of times, and that's that.  Here, as on Infidels, which was skillfully produced by Mark Knopfler, Lanois places the songs in meaningful sonic context.

It was a great return to form, but it would be almost a decade before he would put together such a strong collection of original songs.

*Actually, I don't think I ever bought Dylan & the Dead.  After seeing one of the shows on this tour in Philadelphia, I didn't see the need to own the album.  Dylan's songs lost their distinctiveness when playing with the Dead.  They all seemed to blur together into the traditional mid-tempo Grateful Dead bop.  A pity.  I had seen Dylan play three songs with the Dead at RFK in Washington when he was touring with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.  Those three songs, which were also staples of the Dead's repertoire, were fabulous.   However, a whole concert of Dylan and the Dead together result in a dulling sameness.

Perhaps it was the contact high from the audience....

4).  Blood On The Tracks.  1975

Dylan seemed like an unstoppable creative force during the 1960s, but the 1970s found him much more muddled as his work careened wildly from genius to WTF.  Blood on the Tracks was definitely his best album of the decade.  It was the first of many acclaimed comebacks.

The album opens with one of Dylan's most celebrated tracks, "Tangled Up in Blue," and the blue mood continues throughout the rest of the album.  Returning to a simpler stripped down sound than some of his previous albums, most of the songs seem to look back at a past relationship.  Most critics credit turmoil in Dylan's marriage, which would eventually end in divorce, as the inspiration for the material.  However, to this day, Dylan contends that the album was not autobiographical.  Not that it needed to be.  At least for him anyway.  I certainly recognize myself in some of those songs in some of my more melancholy moments.  This is not an album I listen to often, but when I am in the right mood, it resonates very deeply.

5).  Love and Theft.  2001

Welcome to the new millennium, Bobby.

In this self-produced album, Dylan delivers a strong set of songs, backed up by his touring band, which stylistically reflect his interest in pre-rock popular music forms.  In "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum," the old master remains as cryptic and intriguing as ever, and "Mississippi" easily ranks alongside best of his songs ever.  There isn't a bad song on the album.

Dylan himself considers this album to be part of a trilogy with Time Out of Mind, that preceded it, and Modern Times, that followed it.  Critics tend to hail the Grammy-award winning Time Out of Mind as the best of the three albums.  I prefer this one.  I appreciate Time Out of Mind, but a certain gloom hangs over it.  This album, however, is filled with wry humor and experimentation.   Dylan seems to be enjoying himself, and the masks he puts on, during album.  I enjoy it, too.

Honorable Mention:

Personally, I find it hard to believe Bringing It All Back Home didn't make it.  Every song is a classic.  I tried to include it in lieu of practically every other album on the list after the first two, but it kept getting pushed back.  I will credit it as number six.  I will confess that I am not quite as fond of Blonde on Blonde.  Most critics say it is his best album ever.  It certainly contains a number of classic tracks, but I have a hard time listening to it all the way through in a single sitting.  While creatively lost in the 1990s, Dylan released two albums of himself playing old folk and blues songs solo on acoustic guitar.  I really didn't care for the first one, Good As I've Been To You, but the second one, World Gone Wrong, is really terrific and moving.  Even better are the liner notes where Dylan describes why he chose the songs.  Usually, Dylan is too oblique for my taste in his prose writing, but these liner notes really gave a glimpse of his soul.   If this was a Top Ten list, John Wesley Harding would have definitely made it, even though Bobby Boy needed Jimi Hendrix to teach him how to really play "All Along The Watchtower."  Desire features some of his best story songs.  My favorite one on the album is "Black Diamond Bay."  I love how Dylan switches the perspective of the narrator, taking a step back from the material, in the final verse.  He employs the same device later in "Blind Willie McTell," an outtake from the Infidels album, which is one of the best songs he wrote.  The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan is my favorite of his early albums.  It would definitely make my Top Ten List.  The official release of The Basement Tapes would have made my list once upon a time, until I grew a little disillusioned with it upon discovering how many overdubs were added.  I recently picked up the new "bootleg" version of the untouched original recordings.  I have figured out where they go in the official Dylan canon yet.  Although I always enjoy listening to Dylan exploring his faith, whatever it might be at the particular moment, none of his three strictly Christian albums would have made my Top Ten list.  The first one, Slow Train Coming, is generally regarded as the best one, but I prefer the harder rocking third album, Shot of Love, the best.  The album's final track, "Every Grain of Sand,"  is one of his best songs ever and a great depiction of trying to live the Christian life.

Worst Album:

I never heard Dylan, the outtake album Columbia released to spite him after he left for Asylum, but they say that it is pretty bad.  I don't hate Self Portrait as much as people did at the time of its release.  That's probably because I never sat down and really listened to it.  I can't say that I really hate any of Dylan's albums, but there are a few that just don't gel with me no matter how many chances I give them.  They include:  New Morning, Planet Waves, Street Legal, Down In The Groove and Knocked Out Loaded.

I haven't heard the Christmas album yet.  Or his Sinatra wannabe one.  They kinda scare me....

Have you bought my memoir "The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking to God" yet?  If not, you really should.  Get it on paperback or kindle here:  BUY IT NOW!  (How about that for subtle?)

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