Being a considerable and long-time Dylan fan, people will ask my favorite Dylan songs and albums. Those are hard to pick, as they are far too many. Dylan’s body of work is like an iceberg. What’s above the water, what most people know of, is small compared to what’s beneath the water, those less familiar works. That’s where my favorites are.
(On the topic of his massive body of work, one reviewer said that Dylan’s official and very successful collective bootleg albums themselves – all the golden material that never made it onto albums – would amount to a successful career in themselves for most artists. He’s right.)
But I can list my favorite albums if you ask about them by more precise categories. Here’s the list my five absolute favorites that are under appreciated – if not totally unknown – by most.
Bob Dylan, 1962
Upon release, Bob’s first album was quickly referred to as “Hammond’s Folly” in reference to John Hammond who took a big chance on signing the young man from Hibbing, MN to Columbia Records. The album hardly made a bump its first year, selling only about 5,000 copies. There are only two original compositions on the album, the rest are great folk bits from others.
Featuring simply Dylan’s strong and organic voice, his acoustic guitar and harmonica, this album is an absolute explosion of energy, the most powerful being “Fixin’ to Die”, “Freight Train Blues” and “Gospel Plow”. “Freight Train” has an unbelievably long dragged-out one breath hold on the last word of the refrain…”blues”. Longest I’ve ever heard and never have been able to come close to following it as I sing it along with him. The disc also features “House of the Rising Sun”.
This one is arguably Dylan’s most energetically performed albums. And the cover photo is classic. It is the only one from those early days where he doesn’t sport some sort of attitude, either good or bad. It is really a great photo, allowing his boyish innocence to stand evident.
New Morning, 1970
Dylan has a small handful of albums that are very distinct from everything else, regarding the songs and manner in which he performs them. His picture on the cover of New Morning tells you this is different, as it presents a different kind of Dylan. New Morning is simple – his voice and some backing musicians. Each song is beautiful and a winner, one of those works where it is hard to pick a favorite tune.
One favorite, a wholly unique tune, is “If Dogs Run Free.” It is the only Dylan song featuring scat. Yes, scat. Who knew? Rolling Stone gave the whole work a glowing review in 1970, including this gem: “‘If Dogs Run Free’ puts me in mind of a beatnik poetry reading at the Fat Black Pussy Cat Theatre in Greenwich Village.” “The Man in Me”, “New Morning” and “Time Passes Slowly” are all gems. Deeply performed from the depths of his soul. It features two good gospel songs to close up the LP: “Three Angels” and “Father of Night”.
Any even semi-serious Dylan collection should have New Morning, as well as this next one.
Street-Legal was the studio album just before Dylan’s world-shaking emergence as a born-again Christian with his best-selling “Slow Train”. Every song on Street-Legal is absolutely rock solid, many of them heartfelt confessions of broken or troubled love. This is not surprising given this album appeared the year following his divorce from his first wife, Sara, with whom he had four children and adopted her daughter.
My favorites here are “Changing of the Guards” (which Patti Smith does a wonderful cover of on her remarkable collection of great covers, Twelve), “Is Your Love in Vain” and “True Love Tends to Forget.” “New Pony” is a creative and different little song, save for the fact that his new pony’s name is Lucifer.
The noted critic, Greil Marcus, couldn’t have been more wrong about this LP in his Rolling Stone review, saying “Most of the stuff here is dead air, or close to it.” He notes that some of the performances are “wretched” and one is “particularly cruel” to any listener’s ears. If you have any interest in Dylan’s music, get this album and see just how embarrassingly wrong poor Marcus is.
Empire Burlesque (1985)
Not many Dylan fans would list this one as a favorite in any category, but I’m not most Dylan fans. I just like so many of these songs because they are clever and have so many great lines. The opening track – “Tight Connection to My Heart” – bursts forth with this great line:
“Well I had to move fast, and I couldn’t with you around my neck. I said I’d send for you and I did, what did you expect?”
As well as,
“Someday maybe, I’ll remember to forget.”
“While they’re beatin’ the devil out of a guy who’s wearing a powder-blue wig.
Later he’ll be shot for resisting arrest, I can still hear his voice crying in the wilderness.”
No doubt the guy deserved the beatin’ because of his wig choice.
In “Clean Cut Kid” he tells of a promising young kid – he was clean cut supposedly – who got turned into a killer by the powers that be. Dylan explains how this young man had quite a diet after his defilers got finished with him.
“He drank Coca-Cola, he was eating Wonder Bread, he ate Burger Kings, he was well fed.”
So, if you ever have the trivia question come up, “Did Bob Dylan ever sing about Wonder Bread or Burger King?” you now know the answer.
There are two particularly beautiful songs, “Emotionally Yours” – the wonderful arrangement transfixes me, particularly the violin – and “Dark Eyes”, a hauntingly beautiful song, of which Judy Collins does cover that will silence you.
Good As I Been To You (1992)
I listened to this disc constantly in graduate school, serving as background music during long bouts of reading and writing my thesis. I love this one because it is a collection of very old folk gems performed by Dylan’s voice, acoustic guitar and harmonica. Clean and stripped down. We have to go back to 1964 to find his previous scaled-down offering. Oh, and it includes “Froggie Went a Courtin'”. Who can’t love that?
My two favorites are “Canadee-I-O”, a traditional Canadian ballad written in the early 1800s of a young maiden who dresses as a sailor so she can follow her love to sea. “Authur McBride”, an Irish folk song, written in the early 1800s as well, if not before, tells the story of two men who resist the invitation of a military recruiter to join the war because they know he’ll “send us to France, where we would get shot without warning.” It is a remarkable story and performed so uniquely and creatively by Dylan. “Jim Jones” is another favorite, another sailing song, about Jones who is a convict banished to New South Wales, but he promises to get his revenge on those who have sent him there.
What I love about this album is the classic folk ballads, the simpleness of the arrangements – Dylan and his acoustic – and the total soulfulness with which he performs each number. He puts all he has into them, allowing you to reach right into his very heart.
So there you have it, my top five under-appreciated Dylan discs. If this were a list of six, I would include his second gospel album, Saved, which features songs written and performed with such passion of spirit, conviction, humility and anointing that they could have only been created by a man who possessed an unquenchable evangelical faith. You can’t fake stuff like this.
(And for the record, he has never denied that faith in the intervening decades and will often perform a number of these songs, even though nearly no one is clamoring for them. He does so because he still wants to, because he believes they still say something worth saying.)
Enjoy the enrichment to your music collection.