I met this guy one night. A friend of a friend. Nice guy. And he asked me a question, almost immediately, and it really threw me off-guard. He asked me what my favourite Bob Dylan album was. Not whether I liked Dylan at all. Not whether I had a favourite song. The question, literally, was: “So Simon, what is your favourite Bob Dylan album?”
It’s a great question. And one I had to think about for a bit. It wasn’t that I felt pressure to perform, to be on, to nail it. To correctly state the one perfect Dylan album. That was not the problem. The problem was far simpler: I could not think of one.
And I will point out right here that I am a huge Dylan fan. Even though I almost think that anyone reading this might already know that. I had a blog – for many years – that was titled Blog On The Tracks. I have a lot of his material. Most of it. And I could not, off the top of my head, think of a favourite album. I even had a mind blank when I got around to naming more than one title, and settled for “the one with All Along the Watchtower on it” when of course I meant John Wesley Harding.
Dylan has got to a point where all of his material is now raved about. And a tad too much sometimes, and I say that as a huge fan, but I just don’t get the rave reviews of Love & Theft and Modern Times. They are nice records. Good records. Strong enough. But the real revelation was Time Out of Mind. That was the record that restored hope – and came at a time when it was needed. The two that immediately followed are fully decent but they are nothing earth-shattering.
Thing is, now, you can get away with naming any Dylan album as a favourite. But 25 years ago, words would have needed to be carefully chosen. There are the people who love Infidels and the people who write off everything from the 1980s. There are people who are sure that Nashville Skyline is actually a slice of country-pie genius, when it was maligned at the time. And for a good time after. And there are people who see Slow Train Coming as the exception to the rule when discussion suggests that Dylan’s “born again phase” was ill-advised. The “forgotten record” for so many seems to be Street Legal, arriving after two absolute classics (Blood on the Tracks, Desire) and just before the commitment to sing about Jesus (Slow Train, Saved, Shot of Love). There are people (not many, mind) who have made a case for Shot of Love; the gorgeous Every Grain of Sand might almost be reason enough to elevate that album in the scheme.
And part of my problem in instantly naming a favourite Dylan album is that I am, in some ways, all of these people referenced in the album-choices above. I often feel like my favourite Dylan album is the one I am listening to at the time. (Unless it’s Down in the Groove or Knocked Out Loaded!)
Hopefully Dylan fans reading will have noticed that I have not even discussed any of the albums before the-one-with-All-Along-the-Watchtower-on-it. Which means that the first seven albums, where Dylan made his name (oh, and redefined both folk music and rock’n’roll) have not even been mentioned yet.
So, this is why I found it hard to name a favourite Dylan album. Obviously I could spring straight for Blood on the Tracks. As I do really love that album. Always have. And I could also name Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Again, obvious classics. I have always loved the second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, chiefly for the track Girl from the North Country.
Dylan has had plenty of bad patches. But so many of the bad patches created amazing songs/performances; I totally dig that album New Morning. Seen by many as nothing special, but totally special to me for songs like Day of the Locusts, The Man in Me, Time Passes Slowly and Sign on the Window. None of them could hold a candle to Blowin’ in the Wind for those raised only on some version of Dylan’s greatest hits. But those who have heard the album will (hopefully) know what I am trying to say. Right? Right?
Now I could blog all day, all week and all month about Bob Dylan. And some days, some weeks and some months it almost feels like I have. But there are now so many podcasts about Dylan. And I’m still sure there are several thousand people already out there blogging relentlessly about his tracks. But what’s your pick? What would you say if a person asked you to name just one?
Oh, and after naming half of the albums I named above, and of course mentioning Blonde on Blonde (and Oh Mercy, a personal fav that I would place over Infidels as a reason Bob didn’t suck for the entire 1980s) I settled on the one thing you are not supposed to do in a conversation regarding favourite albums: I chose a compilation.
The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 was my extended intro to Dylan – above and beyond Masterpieces – and it really did change my life. I still go back to it. I still love it. I still prefer many of the outtake versions to songs that made it on to the albums and to some of the versions that were chosen. So that’s what I told the guy at the party that night. In a conversation that was nowhere near as gruelling as this post perhaps makes it sound.