We take Bob Dylan for granted. Put simply: it feels as though Dylan has always been around. We forgot about a time before Dylan. He predates The Beatles and helped usher in the next wave of rock ‘n’ roll.
My Dad regularly used to play ‘Another Side of’, as well as the obligatory ‘Greatest Hits’ that all my friend’s Dads had but none remembered buying. He’s been a constant in my life like endless cups of tea, rainy Sunday afternoons, and being let down by sporting teams.
Everyone knows the classic Dylan albums but for most this is where it stops. Which feels criminal given that he’s released 39 albums since 1962.
Here is a list of some unfairly overlooked Dylan albums that you need to know about.
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Self Portrait (1970)
From his folk hero origins, taking protest songs to the mainstream, the Newport Folk Festival (and Manchester Free Trade Hall) electric performance controversy and culminating with the seminal ‘Blonde On Blonde’ it’s safe to say that Dylan came close to defining the 1960s. When the 1970s rolled round, for the first time in his career, Dylan wasn’t quite sure what to do next.
After the country tinged ‘Nashville Skyline’ Dylan released ‘Self Portrait’. The album is made up of cover versions of popular folk and pop songs, live performances, and some new songs – it’s a departure from the pristine “thin wild mercury sound “of ‘Blonde On Blonde’ but that was the point. Dylan wanted to release something rougher around the edges. Partly because that was what was interesting him and partly to get the “spokesmen of a generation” label off his back.
Looking at the cover, a slightly surrealist self-portrait, his intentions were hiding in plain sight. Despite all this there is plenty of quality on display.
‘All The Tired Horses’, ‘The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)’ and ‘Wigwam’ are three of the finest songs Dylan released in that period, while intriguing covers of Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Early Morning Rain’, Paul Simon’s ‘The Boxer’ and ‘Albert Frank Beddoe ‘Copper Kettle’ make ‘Self Portrait’ well worth a fresh appraisal.
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When Dylan recorded ‘Street-Legal’ his life was in turmoil. His marriage with Sara was coming to an end and they were getting divorced. His Ronaldo And Clara film had been released to some of the worst reviews of his career. He was gearing up for a world tour, his first in 12 years, but Dylan couldn’t settle on a touring band so there was an almost constant revolving door of musicians and singers until he found the people that matched the sound in his head.
And one his heroes, Elvis Presley, had died. When Dylan heard the news, it is claimed he didn’t speak for a week.
Though rehearsals started December 1977 the majority of the album was recorded in a two-day session from April 27th – 28th 1978. The standout track on the album, ‘New Pony’, was recorded May 1st, 1978. It is effectively Dylan lamenting on his divorce whilst being excited about a new relationship. It’s bitter yet hopeful.
‘No Time To Think’ contains the lyrics “loneliness, tenderness, high society, notoriety / You fight for the throne and you travel alone” and “china doll, alcohol, duality, mortality / Mercury rules you and destiny fool you / Like the plague, with a dangerous wink / And there's no time to think...” that show a man who has resigned to his fate and is trying to move on.
Considering all of this ‘Street-Legal’ is a solid reflective album that shows that just because you are down, you aren’t out.
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Slow Train Coming (1979)
Released 14 months after ‘Street-Legal’ Dylan sounds like a totally different person on ‘Slow Train Coming’. A major factor in this was his recent conversion to Christianity. After the last few years of turmoil Dylan wanted some stability and he found that through religion. The songs were the most openly spiritual that he had written to that point; his next two albums ‘Saved’, and ‘Shot Of Love’ would continue these themes more slightly more explicitly.
The title track and ‘Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking’ are the standout moments. The former is a scathing attack on America’s greed, hypocrisy, and the following of false idols. “Man's ego is inflated, his laws are outdated, they don't apply no more” is one of the most caustic lines on the album. It’s possibly one of his greatest protest songs and the latter having one of the hardest guitar riffs on a Dylan album thanks to Mark Knopfler. Throughout the album Knopfler adds some bite that matches Dylan’s lyrics.
While ‘Slow Train Coming’ isn’t a stone-cold classic it does have plenty of highs and isn’t a preachy as it’s been led to believe. If you like great solos and a tight rhythm section this is for you.
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Knocked Out Loaded (1986)
By the mid-1980s Dylan felt slightly adrift and was second guessing the times. He has released two more religious themed albums followed by the return-to-form ‘Infidels’, but after those albums anything resembling a Dylan album of yore would be deemed as the best thing since ‘Desire’.
‘Knocked Out Loaded’ followed on the heels of ‘Empire Burlesque’, possibly Dylan’s most 80s sounding album. Some of this is down to Arthur Baker’s mixing but ultimately to Dylan trying to adapt to a changing musical landscape he either totally didn’t understand or failed to connect with.
There is a good album in ‘Knocked Out Loaded’ but it’s all slightly adrift. The album features five original, or at least co-written, tracks with the rest being covers and Dylan arrangements of traditional songs. ‘You Wanna Ramble’ starts off with a brisk pace, but by the time we get to the third track – the original ‘Driftin’ Too Far from Shore’ - all that momentum has been lost.
However, it contains ‘Brownsville Girl’, arguably Dylan’s greatest song of the 80s and proved he still had it. This 11-minute epic about an ex-lover and how their current partner reminds them of her but set in a Western film backdrop. Imagine Desire’s ‘Isis’ but less catchy, with a chorus and more ridiculous.
It was co-written with playwright Sam Shepard so lines "’How far are y'all going?’ Ruby asked us with a sigh / We're going all the way 'til the wheels fall off and burn” and “Show me all around the world, Brownsville girl, you're my honey love. Well, they were looking for somebody with a pompadour” keep you on your toes and a smile on your face.
This is a polarising album, and some of it is deserving of its criticism, but it’s also one of the most fun albums in Dylan’s back catalogue.
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Christmas In The Heart (2009)
When I first heard that Dylan was releasing a Christmas album I scoffed. As I’m sure a lot of people did. However, when I heard it, I was taken aback. It was and wasn’t that I was expecting. Musically Dylan plays it safe and delivers some top tier Christmas vibes with one of his strongest vocal performances. Ever!
‘Must Be Santa’ is a slight curve (snow)ball with its bouncy Cajun rhythms and frenetic pace (a musical hangover from Dylan’s other 2009 release ‘Together Through Life’). It’s beyond catchy. Since ‘Christmas In The Heart’ was released in 2009 is has soundtracked every Christmas morning in this house since. Christmas wouldn’t see the same without it. It might be my favourite Dylan album, and if not the top then a very close photo finish for a podium place.
What ‘Christmas In The Heart’ does incredibly well is translate the feelings of Christmas. When I listen to it, I’m reminded of how great it is just to be with your loved ones for a few days with no distractions other than hanging out. ‘Silver Bells’ is laced with a melancholy that I’ve never noticed in the song before. While it is all about getting together, it is laced with a feeling that this time will be fleeting so make the most of it.
This time round, the song takes on a new prominence given how many of us did not get to enjoy the Christmas they expected. I am one of those people, but I know that when I play ‘Christmas In The Heart’ my parents will be too, and Christmas will be in our hearts because of it.
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Before there was ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’ there was ‘Tempest’. Out of all Dylan’s later releases ‘Tempest’ is head and shoulders above the rest. It was his last album of original compositions before ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’, and (personally speaking) it eclipses that, too.
What makes ‘Tempest’ so incredible, which it is, is firstly how solid the songs are and how much fun Dylan appears to be having recording them. There is a joyous bounce to the music that works fantastically with Dylan’s slightly darker lyrics.
‘Narrow Way’ is possibly the most upbeat track on ‘Tempest’. Lyrics like “I'm gonna walk across the desert, 'til I'm in my right mind / I won't even thing about, what I left behind”; “Nothing back there anyway, that I can call my own / Go back home, leave me alone”; “Ever since the British, burned the White House down. There's a bleeding wound, in the heart of town” and “I kissed her cheek, I dragged your plow. You broke my heart; I was your friend 'til now” show Dylan’s still capable of delivering something pithy and biting after 50 years in the game. W
hat these albums show is that despite not being the dominate force he might have been, Bob Dylan was able to adapt to his changing times, and circumstances, to deliver music that was enjoyable, while also acting as time capsules of where he was at the time.
While I might not play Dylan as much as I used to, or probably should, I do often return to these albums over some of his well-worn critical favourites.
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Words: Nick Roseblade
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