Peter Stone Brown on his top 10 Dylan albums (source rec.music.dylan, pre 2001)

1. Blood On The Tracks

When Bob Dylan released Blood On The Tracks early in 1975, it was more than a return to form. It was a return to the intimacy and at the same time the intensity of his greatest work, but on a whole new level. This new level included not only the lyrics – one could argue his most personal lyrics since Another Side Of Bob Dylan – but the performance as well. The singing and his guitar and harp showed him to be at the very top of his game.

Gone were the songs of domestic bliss that had marked every album of original material (with the obvious exception of the soundtrack, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid) since Nashville Skyline. But to be fair, several songs on Planet Waves showed at the very least that Dylan was starting to again stretch out his writing. In retrospect it was the bridge he had to cross to get to Blood On The Tracks.

1. (b) An Alternative New York Sessions

One time, sometime in the past 20 years I put on the “New York Sessions” and I couldn’t stop listening to it for a month!  I am not alone in feeling that Dylan never should have messed with it. Joining me in this are several friends and Larry “Ratso” Sloman. When bootlegs of the original New York sessions started appearing, as “The New York Sessions” or “Blood On The Tapes”, they featured Dylan playing the songs with his guitar in Open E tuning. As an album I prefer the New York Sessions version, because there’s a cohesion of sound and feel that isn’t on the album as released. It simply has that special indefinable thing and an added intensity that as great as it is isn’t on the album as released. In addition, the less is more approach (something I always prefer no matter who the artist is) Dylan took in both the vocals and the instrumentation serves him well.

Musicians:
Bob Dylan – guitar, vocals, harmonica
Tony Brown – Bass
Richard Crooks – Drums
Buddy Cage – Steel Guitar
Paul Griffin – Organ, Piano

Possible additional players on Meet Me In The Morning and Call Letter Blues:

Barry Kornfeld, Charlie Brown, Eric Weissberg – Guitar
Thomas McFaul – Keyboards (highly unlikely)

2. John Wesley Harding

John Wesley Harding is definitely not a rock album. It’s an album coming from another place entirely, an album that paints a landscape, a very American landscape. Throughout the album the various characters are seeking some kind of salvation, and at the conclusion of the album, the suggestion is that maybe the salvation is in love.

3. Basement Tapes

There are some who would say and I’m one of them that these recordings contain some of the best singing Bob Dylan ever did in addition to being the missing link between Blonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding and show a whole other side of the collaboration of Dylan and The Band, though this set only includes Dylan recordings.

The music can be put into three initial categories serious songs, funny songs and covers. But within those categories are subcategories. Some songs that start out sounding like a joke end up being serious.

4. Blonde On Blonde

While some people seem to think that because Blonde On Blonde was recorded in Nashville, it’s a country record, there is not one close to country song on the album. If anything, the song structure quite often is closer to what was going on down the road in Memphis. The Nashville musicians had to adjust to Dylan’s working habits, and to make sure he retained something of the hit sound he’d developed be brought with him Al Kooper and Robbie Robertson. For one Kenny Buttrey was the perfect drummer for Dylan’s music, and Dylan was finally able to come up with the version of “Visions Of Johanna.” Considering the song is heavy with obvious New York City imagery, it’s kind of funny Dylan had to go to Nashville to get the musical ambiance to complement the lyrics. 

5. Highway 61 Revisited

The sound was harder and tougher than Bringing It All Back Home and it quickly became clear that Dylan had taken the lyrics into new, uncharted territory. He combined symbolism with absurdity in a way that initially seemed incomprehensible, which was bolstered by the semi-comedic liner notes. We didn’t even stop to think about the fact that most of the songs were based on blues; that would come later.

Immediately noticeable was the lead guitar, played by Mike Bloomfield. The riffs he played after each chorus of “Tombstone Blues” were like nothing we’d heard before.

It was, almost to the day, my second anniversary as a Bob Dylan fan. Considering how much he’d changed and grown in those two years alone — to this day one would be hard pressed to track similar growth in such a short period of time, in any artist, in any field. It was very clear that Dylan was still writing about what was going on in the world, but the targets weren’t as defined or simplistic. Topics like war and peace or civil rights weren’t the main issue. Dylan was singing about the madness of society and the music and lyrics matched that madness. Most of the songs displayed a healthy contempt for the conventions and institutions of society, as well as authority, and the rapid-fire laser sharp tone of the lyrics knocked down one icon after another. Blink, or get distracted, and you missed it.He combined symbolism with absurdity in a way that initially seemed incomprehensible, which was bolstered by the semi-comedic liner notes.

6. Bringing It All Back Home

The songs on Bringing It All Back Home are when Dylan moved strongly into symbolism often combined with a wonderful sense of the absurd. These are the songs that solidified Dylan’s reputation and also the songs that caused everything Dylan wrote, did, said, wore, muttered, ate, and sneezed to be analyzed to death for the 50 years following their release.

Bringing It All Back Home was the album to ease Dylan out of the role of solo folksinger. Much of the sound of the album after a bit of experimentation is due to the guitar work of Bruce Langhorne, the only musician on the record to appear on both the electric side and the acoustic side. As noted above, Langhorne played an acoustic guitar with a pickup, but he had this cool yet gentle electric sound.

7. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

I couldn’t wait to get out each day and rush home and play Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. I think my favorites were “Don’t Think Twice,” “Corrina Corrina,” “Talkin’ World War III” and “I Shall Be Free.” At the end of November, a week after the Kennedy assassination, Dylan came to the Mosque Theater in Newark. My parents bought us tickets. It was my first time going to a concert without them. My brother ran into some girls from his camp in the lobby. They were flipping out. They’d arrived early and Dylan had walked by them right through the lobby on his way into the theater. They were screaming and stuff. My first exposure to pop hysteria.

8. Oh Mercy

Oh Mercy, the first Bob Dylan album comprised entirely of new, original material since 1985’s Empire Burlesque, is much more than a return to form. It’s dark, moody, emotionally stark and questioning and possibly Dylan’s best work since Blood on the Tracks.

Part of the reason is that in Daniel Lanois, Dylan may finally have found a producer who understands his work and knows how to capture it in the modern studio context without compromising the music.

Lanois understands that mystery is one of the key ingredients of Dylan’s magic and conveys that mystery throughout the record with a spooky ambiance, from the way the harp is recorded on ‘What Was It You Wanted?’ through such cuts as ‘Shooting Star’ and – most noticeably – ‘The Man in the Long Black Coat.’

9. Time Out Of Mind

In 1997, following a near-fatal illness, Dylan received universal acclaim for Time Out Of Mind, a spooky bluesy album dealing with the topic of death among other things straight on.  Interestingly enough the album was completed before his illness. 

Most of the songs on Time out of Mind depict someone who can’t wait to leave where he is, for various reasons, from the light being bad to the room temperature or anything else you might want to pick. Something is continually making this person crazy, there’s no solace anywhere. It sounds pretty desperate to me and other than that it’s basically a blues album. Most of the songs are blues-based which is fine with me, and three of them are quite similar built around riffs that pretty much come from Howlin’ Wolf.

Once again, it was his performance as much as the songs and his ability to make you feel that did it and the album went on to win three Grammies including album of the year.

10. Slow Train Coming

When Slow Train Coming came out in August 1979, I bought it immediately and despite having qualms about some of the lyrics, I thought it was one of Dylan’s best albums. Producer Jerry Wexler captured the right sound at the right time and I dug certain cool touches only he would’ve done like the subtle horns on “Precious Angel.” The drawing on the cover of the workers with a pick axe (signifying a cross) laying down the rails while the train comes up behind reminded me of something you might find on a Folkways Records album cover of labor songs. But what made the album great along with the production and superb musicians like the then new guitar genius Mark Knopfler was Dylan’s singing. It was as intense, passionate and committed as he could get and it really didn’t matter whether I or anyone else disagreed with or had questions about this particular message. When Dylan sang the lines (on “Precious Angel”) “Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high/When men will beg God to kill them and they won’t be able to die,” it was enough to scare the shit out of you.