Best Bob Dylan album for somebody whose never heard him?
February 8, 2008 12:21 PM   Subscribe

I've never given Bob Dylan a fair shake, and I'm starting to feel like I'm missing out. If there were one album (or two, if need be) that you consider to be an excellent primer or introduction to his music, what would it be?
posted by inkedmn to Society & Culture (55 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Blonde On Blonde
posted by matteo at 12:24 PM on February 8, 2008

Biograph is what got me started on him.
posted by hecho de la basura at 12:24 PM on February 8, 2008

Blonde on Blonde x 2
posted by gergtreble at 12:25 PM on February 8, 2008

Bringing it all Back Home and Freewheelin'
posted by piedmont at 12:25 PM on February 8, 2008

Blonde on Blonde. Seriously, you can't really go wrong with that, and if you really dislike it, odds are you're not going to like much else he's released.
posted by InnocentBystander at 12:27 PM on February 8, 2008

I never know what the standard is for determining an artist's ideal "entry point" for getting to know him or her. Is it the canonical "best album" (for Dylan, probably BOB), is it the album "most characteristic of the body of work" (probably also BOB), is it the artist's own creative breakthrough album (BOB again), or is it the album that's held up best over time (BOB, objectively).

So, Blonde on Blonde then.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:34 PM on February 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

But Planet Waves is what I put on when I want a shot of Dylan. Full disclosure.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 12:35 PM on February 8, 2008

I'll nth Blonde on Blonde, with the caveat that you may want to skip track 1, which despite being one of his more famous songs, is the worst on the record (in my opinion).

In fact, you might just want to skip straight to the last song. If you don't like that, you probably won't like Dylan much.
posted by dersins at 12:35 PM on February 8, 2008

I'd probably suggest Blonde on Blonde, too, but it might matter a bit where you're coming from.
posted by OmieWise at 12:35 PM on February 8, 2008

I prefer Highway 61 Revisited to Blonde on Blonde, but the two are close.
posted by rfs at 12:36 PM on February 8, 2008

Ok, Blonde on Blonde is currently downloading on the trusty iPhone. Thanks guys!
posted by inkedmn at 12:36 PM on February 8, 2008

i think any of the following:

blonde on blonde (most famous), freewheelin' (i just love it), or blood on the tracks (Real emotional).

Now my all time favorite, though best if you know him well first are his bootleg tapes. Holy crap they are good. You can hear his jacket sleeve hitting the guitar!! The song versions he does are simply sublime.

Have fun!!
posted by Black_Umbrella at 12:38 PM on February 8, 2008

Planet waves is also awesome its what i have with my right now at work
posted by Black_Umbrella at 12:40 PM on February 8, 2008

I dunno. There's a lot of variety. Blonde on Blonde is fine, but if you lean to the pre-electric stuff, then The Times They Are a-Changin' is hard to beat and Blonde on Blonde might leave you cold.
posted by Rumple at 12:41 PM on February 8, 2008

If you don't like Blonde on Blonde (I know, I know, I recommended it above), you might give Time out of Mind a listen. That was actually my way into Dylan, after years of giving him short shrift. I'm now a huge (HUGE) Dylan fan, largely because I was so intrigued by that album. It's not nearly as iconic, but it's very beguiling.
posted by OmieWise at 12:43 PM on February 8, 2008

Blood On The Tracks.

I randomly bought that tape (!) in a discount bin in 7th grade, and I became a lifetime convert.
posted by emd3737 at 12:44 PM on February 8, 2008

Either Blood on the Tracks or Highway 61 Revisited.
posted by jplank at 12:45 PM on February 8, 2008

The Basement Tapes is awesome. Different but also great are the combo of Blood on the Tracks and Desire.
posted by ND¢ at 12:45 PM on February 8, 2008

I certainly don't disagree with Blonde on Blonde, but I'm surprised to not see more "votes" for Highway 61 Revised.
posted by desuetude at 12:47 PM on February 8, 2008

I think you're missing the point if you skip the first track of Blonde on Blonde. I'm gonna say my favorite is Desire.
posted by apetpsychic at 12:48 PM on February 8, 2008

For something that's a little broader than a single album (of which there are so many good choices), you might check out Live 1966 - The Royal Albert Hall. First set acoustic, second set electric, home of the infamous "Judas" shout and legendary subsequent response.

There's also D.A. Pennebaker's documentary, Don't Look Back (1967), which was groudbreaking both in its subject as well as presentation (verité-style filmmaking). 2005's No Direction Home contains a lot of Pennebaker footage and some contemporary interviews that puts a very good perspective on the whole Dylan story.

/turns on some Friday afternoon Dylan
posted by asuprenant at 12:53 PM on February 8, 2008

I'm actually going to vote for Blood on the Tracks, here. That's how it happened to me, anyway.

I hated Dylan with a passion for a solid few years, while my best friend loved him. After a while, I started hearing a few songs I actually liked -- I think "Meet me in the morning" was one of the first -- and I decided he was good enough to warrant making a mix CD. I gathered all my friends albums and started to select songs liked, and soon enough realized I better just burn all of them and be done with it.

Anyway, Blood on the Tracks was the first to win me over. Then Time Out Of Mind, Highway 61, Blonde On Blonde, and Bringin' it all Back home.

Once you get through those, you can do anything he did in the 60s and 70s, and 90s. (I'm intentionally leaving out the 80's here -- I think you'd have to be related to Dylan to handle most of that.)
posted by jeffxl at 12:54 PM on February 8, 2008

I've never thought of him as much of a singer, but more of a brilliant musician and lyricist and that's always kept me from being a big Dylan fan. If you don't take to him, consider finding songs of his that other singers have performed. There's some good stuff out there.
posted by CarlRossi at 12:54 PM on February 8, 2008

I also agree with OmieWise's "Time Out of Mind" suggestion. I think it's perfect mix of pre-electric and post-electric (and post-gospel stuff, which is phenomenal but an admittedly acquired taste). It's new enough to be accessible & relevant, but has that classic Dylan storytelling element to it.

Whenever I recommend Bob to someone, I always give them BOB, Time Out of Mind, and Blood On the Tracks. I don't think just one album is definitive enough.
posted by Detuned Radio at 12:55 PM on February 8, 2008

Oh, and one more bit of advice: Ignore the "if you don't like X, you probably won't like Dylan". I don't believe that for a second. Bob Dylan's music is so many things that I'm sure there's something for everyone to love. You've just gotta find it.
posted by jeffxl at 12:57 PM on February 8, 2008

If Blonde On Blonde doesn't do it for you, *please* take a run at Blood On The Tracks. For my money, BOTT is the Dylan album I couldn't live without. Bringing It All Back Home/Highway 61 Revisited/Blonde On Blonde essentially function as a trilogy; if you like any one of them you will almost certainly want to hear them all. But BOTT, released a decade after Blonde On Blonde, is a completely different animal. (And if you like BOTT, do yourself a favor and download the original version, before Dylan scrapped half the tracks and re-recorded them with a new band. "New York Sessions" is the boot to look for; torrents are fairly easy to find on the internets. Many Dylan fans assert that the original version is superior to the released album. And they're right.)
posted by Banky_Edwards at 12:58 PM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Blonde on Blonde.

Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again is an awesome tune.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:05 PM on February 8, 2008

John Wesley Harding.
posted by deern the headlice at 1:08 PM on February 8, 2008

If multi-disc compilations are acceptable, I'd say Biograph or, maybe even better, The Bootleg Series: Volumes 1-3 (only ever released as a set).

If comps are okay, but it's got to be a single disc, go for the first Greatest Hits album. It's like the Dylan version of the Beatles red and blue compilations.

If it's got to be a single studio album, then either The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan or The Times They Are A-Changin. I think that having an understanding of his earlier work leads to a deeper, more informed reading of the later stuff.
posted by box at 1:10 PM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seeing Dont Look Back years ago is how I fell in love with Dylan. Somehow getting a bead on who he is as a guy, along with what he does as an artist, makes listening to him that much more interesting.
posted by padraigin at 1:15 PM on February 8, 2008

Wow, so little love for Highway 61 Revisited? I would suspect that that album is far more suitable for the uninitiated - Blonde on Blonde, on the other hand, might just be that bit too long, and perhaps too strange, for somebody who's listening to Dylan for the first time.

Blood on the Tracks is also great (although I concur with Banky_Edwards, the unreleased version is better).
posted by chorltonmeateater at 1:16 PM on February 8, 2008

Everything up to john welsey harding and blood on the tracks. Not any album, but EVERY album until then. Dylan is the best.
posted by history is a weapon at 1:20 PM on February 8, 2008

I'm with hecho de la basura -- Biograph is a fine introduction, and you get some sense of Dylan's evolution rather than the snapshot offered by Blonde on Blonde.
posted by Killick at 1:26 PM on February 8, 2008

Blood On the Tracks gets my vote.
posted by dobbs at 1:41 PM on February 8, 2008

This may sound like a strange answer, but I'd actually go with the I'm Not There soundtrack. I'm not a huge Dylan fan, and most times it's his voice that puts me off. The I'm Not There soundtrack has a lot of back-catalog stuff that I've never heard, sung in a non-Dylan voice so you can really get a sense for what an unbelievable songwriter he is (truly, one of the best ever) while not constantly thinking "OH MY GOD THIS MAN HAS AN ANNOYING VOICE". Then, after you get a sense for the songs, go with Blood On The Tracks.
posted by pdb at 1:45 PM on February 8, 2008

Who is Bob Dylan anyway? You have the early folk Bob Dylan, followed closely by the electric Bob Dylan. The folk fans hated the new electric sound. Then you have the post motorcycle accident Bob Dylan - something was lost. There are several flavors in this period, none of which I personally cared for, although he did have a few great hits and albums ("Blood on the Tracks"). It was mostly a downward spriral. Finally there is the current, resurrected, Bob Dylan, much improved over the post accident version, but not quite up to the folk or electric version. Each version of Bob has its own unique sound, and you can easily like one without liking another. I suggest YouTube as a source for an easy way to sample much of Bob quickly and cheaply. One of my all time favorite Bob songs is The Lonely Death of Hattie Carroll from his folk days. Ballad of a Thin Man is another great song.
posted by caddis at 1:54 PM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Blonde on Blonde, for the diversity and the strongest demonstration of his sense of the absurd. Then just find "Positively 4th Street" off iTunes or something. Bob was a singles man as much an album person in his prime.
posted by raysmj at 1:59 PM on February 8, 2008

Blood On The Tracks is probably my absolute favourite, but for someone who isn't yet a Dylan fan, my vote would definitely be Highway 61 Revisited. "Like a Rolling Stone" is probably his most radio-friendly single, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" is one of his more accessible symbol-soaked epics, and if that opening line of the title track doesn't grab you, maybe nothing will.

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"

Shit, there goes my afternoon . . .

*grabs headphones*
posted by gompa at 2:01 PM on February 8, 2008

Blood On the Tracks, without question. Make sure you get and read Pete Hamil's liner notes, though. Or see them here: "Totalitarian art tells us what to feel. Dylan's art feels, and invites us to join him."
posted by Framer at 2:02 PM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree that Bringing it all Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and Blood on the Tracks feature some of the densest lyrics and kickass music Dylan's ever released.

But if Dylan as a singer potentially puts you off (as a few people here have mentioned), try any of his most recent three CDs (Time out of Mind, Love and Theft or Modern Times). His music and lyrics have become simpler, but he really shines as a vocalist. (Really!)

To my ears, old-as-dirt Dylan evokes a lot of old country/folk/blues recordings. He's still technically limited, but he's a more expressive singer nonetheless. I never liked his "pretty" voice from the Nashville Skyline era, and after hearing how he sounds these days, I can't listen to Lay Lady Lay without my teeth starting to ache.
posted by maudlin at 2:04 PM on February 8, 2008

Oh, and "Positively 4th Street" is the quintessential "cranky Bob" song, which I why I suggested it. It was also released as a single before ever being included on any album (a greatest hits package). "Idiot Wind" is cranky too, a more mature sort of cranky, wherein he turns on himself at the end, but the older song is a gloriously cranky kiss off, although you can feel the hurt in it.
posted by raysmj at 2:04 PM on February 8, 2008

I agree with caddis that it is completely possible to love one version of Dylan and hate another. I can't stand the early folky stuff for the most part and while I have a few songs I like from the Highway 61/Blonde on Blonde period, I am not really drawn to it at all and I don't think that it has aged very well. The Basement Tapes however, I could listen to everyday. Boozy and drugged out and loose and just plain fun. Listening to early Dylan makes me feel like I am doing it more because of its importance and because I should, rather than because I want to (kind of like reading books). But The Basement Tapes has none of that sense of obligation for me. As for Blood on the Tracks/Desire, I just like the sound better than the Blonde on Blonde era. So, if you find yourself not liking Blonde on Blonde then you shouldn't give up on Dylan as a whole. Use free sources to check out different eras of Dylan and there is a really good chance that something will click.
posted by ND¢ at 2:04 PM on February 8, 2008

I would like to point out that half of what makes Blonde on Blonde my favorite Dylan album is the amazing team of musicians playing behind Bob. The piano accompaniment on "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" (played by Paul Griffin) is probably the five greatest minutes of rock piano ever recorded.
posted by turaho at 2:07 PM on February 8, 2008

I like Bob Dylan but not a lot and dont really like acoustic folk. A lot of these albums turn me off, but he has so many great songs spread out on each one that my best bet was to buy a couple complitions. In my book he's still an artist I appreciate via singles and you might be the same. You may not like all the songs on Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks, but you may love four songs off there. Start with the comps. If you like a group of songs find out if they are from the same Dylan period. Dylan has been in music for so long and has gone through so many stages its like talking about 5 different artists.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:11 PM on February 8, 2008

Blood on the Tracks.
posted by 23skidoo at 2:26 PM on February 8, 2008

A guy gave me a Dylan mix tape about twelve years ago, and it really got its hooks into me. He wisely culled some of the best material from the first album up through Blood on the Tracks. I still remember being moved by Visions of Johanna on the first play, and the song still stops everything else I'm doing when it comes on.

The first full album of his I bought was Highway 61 Revisited and, if CDs could have grooves worn into them, that one would.

I recommend the following, in this order:
Highway 61 Revisited
Blonde on Blonde
Brining It All Back Home
Blood on the Tracks

And, if you're a Johnny Cash fan at all, seek out the Skyline Sessions, recorded when Bob and Johnny were recording North Country Girl for Nashville Skyline.
posted by Kafkaesque at 2:33 PM on February 8, 2008

Bringing It All Back Home, obviously. Brining It All Back Home is one of my favorite DIY Thanksgiving cookbooks.
posted by Kafkaesque at 2:34 PM on February 8, 2008

Somewhere way, way back in my head there is a room where three different versions of Mr. Tambourine Man are playing themselves on loops, syncing and desyncing, seven days a week 24 hours a day, and everything I say or do must somehow make a path for itself through that room.

So I would have to choose Bringing It All Back Home even though the rest of the album is undistinguished by comparison. Really, I'd start with the earliest acoustic version of MTM I could find and go on from there-- wherever that is.
posted by jamjam at 2:43 PM on February 8, 2008

If you insist on trying just one thing I'd suggest watching Scorsese's masterful No Direction Home to give you some idea the scale of Dylan's breakthroughs. It's full of great performances too.
posted by timeistight at 3:27 PM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am 56 years old and have been an avid Dylan fan since the early 60s. I've seen him perform live 3 times in the past 2 years and as far back as 1965. I would recommend starting with "Freewheelin' Bob Dylan", his second album.
posted by thomas144 at 3:31 PM on February 8, 2008

Finally, a question that forces me to register for an account and make an honest reader of myself!

As a few responders have rightly noted, the thing with Dylan is that the guy is so creative and restless that there are several different versions of him. As Shakespeare says, "one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages." Here's how I break down Dylan's (so-far) collected work--others may collapse or expand according to their own tastes and distinctions.

1) Prehistory. I love this stuff--think of Bob Dylan before he became Bob Dylan. You have to go to "field recordings" for it, or listen to, say, the first disc of the soundtrack to No Direction Home or the officially released Bootleg Series 1-3. He took on a wide range of styles and genres, appropriating and rewriting other people's songs and folk classics, and if you love fingerpicking and raw expressive singing (or sweet expressive singing--track down the songs Barbara Allen or Moonshiner for anyone who says he can't sing)--start here. The first album, Bob Dylan, falls into this category.
Essential Songs: I Was Young When I Left Home. Barbara Allen. Quit Your Lowdown Ways.

2) Songwriting (Young Prodigy). If you like your music with a dash of social conscience this period is for you important. Still solo/acoustic, but the words are his own now (even those he adapted from). The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan is really the essential acoustic guitar album, because it shows the range of what one person can do with that medium--love songs, comedy, protest, ballad, blues. I think A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall is an untouchably good song. But then the same guy does a song like "Babe, I'm In The Mood For You" and you can't help but laugh.
Essential Songs: A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall. Mama You Been On My Mind. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.

3) Electric (Adolescent Rebellion). After a few folk albums that became progressively less folky and more about wordplay and relationships, the guitars come out and hell breaks loose. The '65-'66 trilogy all work sort of together here, with my favourite being Highway 61 Revisited, and in particular the four songs on the second half (Desolation Row is my favourite song of all time). As someone said enough, if you like one, you'll like them all. I'd advise you go in order of release date. (Actually, Blonde on Blonde is my least favourite...)
Essential Songs: Love Minus Zero/No Limit. It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues. Desolation Row. Visions of Johanna.

4. Fun (Carefree Post-Adolescence). This is a criminally overlooked period, and the reason I hesitate to hand someone, say, Blonde on Blonde and say "Here's Dylan." In the late sixties and early seventies he put out a lot of stuff that a lot of people were disappointed by, and perhaps rightly so, given that the intensity of the work tapered off so sharply after the '66 blowout. But from The Basement Tapes (recorded in this time) through John Wesley Harding's closer I'll Be Your Baby Tonight through all of Nashville Skyline (country Bob!), New Morning (pastoral Bob!), and others, I go to this period when I want to have a good time. There are some damn sweet love songs from this period. Listen to "Sign On The Window" and tell me your heart doesn't crack like his voice does on the word "sleet."
Essential Songs: Million Dollar Bash. Sign On The Window. Country Pie. I'll Be Your Baby Tonight. If Not For You. Winterlude. Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You. Wigwam.

5. Relationships/Divorce (Adult Bob). Blood On The Tracks is justly celebrated (I too love the original versions). Track down Up To Me on Biograph to see the song left off it. Desire and Street Legal (an album I love and everyone else despises) follow suit. There's a maturity here, and you start to realize song-writing isn't just aimed at kids--it can say and do something more.
Essential Songs: Tangled Up In Blue. Shelter from the Storm. Up To Me. Isis. Hurricane. Senor (Tales of Yankee Power). Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat).

6. Gospel/80s (Soul-Searching/Dark Days). As for gospel, some great stuff here, but it's dicey to recommend given the subject matter. As for the 80s, um, skip it for now. Except for Knocked Out Loaded, where you get the high point of the decade (Brownsville Girl) and the low point of his career (They Killed Him--see if you can guess the exact second the low point comes). And the third disc of Bootleg Series 1-3 shows you what good work he was still capable of doing then. Essential Songs: Slow Train. Every Grain of Sand. Blind Willie McTell. Brownsville Girl.

7. Infinity--and Beyond! (Wisdom at last). Damn, there's more than 7 stages. I'll have to crunch in a lot here. There was a brief comeback here with Oh Mercy (check out the song Most of the Time) then a bit of a hunkering-down period where he recorded some solo acoustic folk records (I'm holding off on buying these until I feel I've been extra good--I know I'm gonna love 'em) and toured a lot (actually, he's been basically touring non-stop for 20 years now). Then comes the big return with Time Out Of Mind, a bluesier record than which you'll not meet--if you like blues, get this (and if you like this, get Oh Mercy as well, since Daniel Lanois produced both and they hang together well. Then Love And Theft and the newest one, Modern Times. These two seem to represent the sound he's doing now--a minstrel summary of American popular music pre-'60s. It's as if in his early career he played work that pre-dated the first World War--18th century traditional folk stuff (his early records, and the Basement Tapes stuff with The Band). Then he owned the 60s and beyond. Now he's filling in the period from the 1920s to the 1950s, playing swing, rockabilly, croonin' lullabies, and drawing on the blues. I love what he's doing now, and you can't go wrong just picking up the latest releases. I want to stress this because the guy is STILL a contemporary, relevant artist who is putting out work to rival his best, even though he's sixty-plus. It's exciting to be waiting on the new Dylan disc the same way kids did forty years back. That's his real legacy, the real artistry, I think--the lasting.
Essential Songs: Love Sick. Not Dark Yet. Can't Wait. Mississippi. High Water (For Charley Patton). Lonesome Day Blues. Po' Boy. Spirit On The Water. Workingman's Blues #2. Nettie Moore. Ain't Talkin'.

Don't start with Blonde On Blonde and think you're getting the best, because Blonde On Blonde is the best of one style but not of all styles. (I know you already got Blonde On Blonde based on previous recommendation, but this post is really for future reference of others who might be in your situation.) Instead (or in addition), download every track I mentioned as essential and you'll have the breadth (I purposefully picked a mix of famous and obscure, brilliant and just plain odd/fun). Then, put 'em in a mix, see what sticks out, and go hog-wild from there. You'll start to see how much there is out there, and that will let you discover it in any order you like. I, for example, got hooked with 1995's MTV Unplugged, when I listened to Desolation Row, then read the liner notes and thought, huh, there are more lyrics than what he sings in this version. I wonder what they sound like. Then I went from there. And yet NO ONE would advise that Unplugged should be someone's first, definitive exposure to Dylan...

Enjoy. I'm jealous.
posted by roombythelake at 4:19 PM on February 8, 2008 [12 favorites]

I'm fond of Desire, mostly indifferent to the rest.
posted by Tuwa at 7:10 PM on February 8, 2008

I'll add another vote for Blood on the Tracks.

That said, if I wanted to impress someone with Dylan's songwriting, I'd probably put together a compilation of Dylan covers by other artists.

Hmmm ... it's tempting to use an AskMe question to get people's recommendations for their favorite Dylan covers. I know I would put Chris Smither's version of Desolation Row on that list.
posted by tdismukes at 9:18 AM on February 9, 2008

I find it fascinating that so many different bob albums are cited as "the one that got me into Dylan," but the one that I have heard that said of most often is Highway 61 Revisited. And I have to admit that of all the many albums of his that I love, that one may be the one that still holds the most "magic" for me. I'm nowhere near tired of it after hundreds of listens over 20 years (though I do always skip the first track).
posted by ericost at 5:14 PM on February 9, 2008

I agree, and I do too. Sometimes I just skip right to the good stuff at the end.
posted by caddis at 7:50 PM on February 9, 2008

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