Bob Dylan at 80: The master musician’s 39 albums, ranked

Bob Dylan: the singer in Columbia's Studio A in New York City in 1965. Photograph: Ochs/Getty
From The Basement Tapes to Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan superfan Ian O’Riordan ranks the singer’s studio albums

He asked me to check out the used record stores and see had they any early Dylan on vinyl. This was his idea for a cheap Christmas present and sometime around that December of 1991, while in college in the US, I bought the self-titled debut album Bob Dylan as a gift for my younger brother.

So it’s his fault, really, because that first influence started something still not easily explained: from there I borrowed, or else stole, whatever other Dylan albums he had at the time, some on cassette such as Highway 61 Revisited, others such as Desire on vinyl, and after lifting too his copy of Robert Shelton’s biography, No Direction Home, there’s been no looking back.

Maybe Blonde on Blonde wasn’t meant to be listened to for the first time in the summer of 1992, or Saved for that matter, especially not in immediate succession. That made no difference to me.

Ian O’Riordan: ‘That first influence started something still not easily explained’
Ian O’Riordan: Within a couple of years of first hearing Dylan, I’d obsessively got hold of his entire back catalogue

Within a couple of years, I’d obsessively got hold of Dylan’s entire back catalogue, by then 28 albums. Hearing them for the first time – the creative sustenance of the songs, their phrases and rhymes, the startling authenticity of his voice – simply outplayed anything I’d heard before.

Dylan now has 39 official studio albums to his name, beginning with that self-titled debut, released in March 1962, up to Rough and Rowdy Ways, released in June of 2020. Not forgetting the 15 volumes of his Bootleg Series (another 60 CDs), his 12 live albums (comprising 68 CDs), the countless more non-album tracks and thousands of unofficial bootlegs.

To mark Dylan’s 80th birthday – today – I’ve ranked his 39 studio albums, which in many ways reflect not just his lifetime but also the vast influences around it and, of course, his often double-edged relationship with fans.

It’s a personal selection, based on what sounded – and still sounds – best to me. If I had ranked them yesterday or if I ranked them again tomorrow, the order could change again, couldn’t it?

39. Dylan (1973)

Despite the title, and interesting cover portrait, this was a throwaway album with no input whatsoever from Dylan or a single original song, made up of Colombia leftovers after he briefly jumped shop to Asylum Records. Favourite track: The Ballad of Ira Hayes

38. Christmas in the Heart (2009)

I lent my copy of this CD to Daniel Day-Lewis that Christmas of 2009 and never got it back. I’m not too bothered, although every Christmas I swear I can hear that startling old vocal range from across the other side of the Wicklow Mountains. Favourite track: Hark the Herald Angels Sing

37. Triplicate (2017)

His own personal homage to the great American songbook, and beautifully packed, these three CDs and 30 songs are well covered, and covered well enough after one listening. Favourite track: September of My Years

36. Down in the Groove (1988)

I only ever got this on cassette and it’s a proper Dylan late-1980s mess in parts, even if the cheap covers are somewhat redeemed by the songs he co-wrote with the Grateful Dead. Favourite track: Rank Strangers to Me

35. Shadows in the Night (2015)

The first of his Frank Sinatra cover albums, 10 songs neatly delivered and best to listen to while cooking or making the bed, the live performances were astonishing. Favourite track: Autumn Leaves

34. Knocked Out Loaded (1986)

Somehow I have this on vinyl and cassette, which is odd considering there is only one 11-minute song on the entire album that’s worth listening to in any depth – that favourite track he co-wrote with Sam Shepard. Favourite track: Brownsville Girl

33. Fallen Angels (2016)

More Sinatra covers anybody? This one gets in ahead of Shadows in the Night, if only because Dylan seems to be in better singing voice and mood. Favourite track: Melancholy Mood

32. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Still love the film and, even if the bootleg version of this is way better, any album that suddenly kicks in on side two with Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door will always hold up. Favourite track: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door

31. World Gone Wrong (1993)

The second of his successive solo acoustic albums of mostly American traditional folk songs. Dylan is in fine voice, the guitar softly killing, the end result ultimately a little lonely and sad. Favourite track: Two Soldiers

30. Good as I Been to You (1992)

The first of those solo acoustic albums, this is more upbeat and the delivery more telling, more Irish-influenced too, his Arthur McBride cut from the style of Paul Brady. Favourite track: Tomorrow Night

29. Bob Dylan (1962)

That first buy, which I duly borrowed back from my younger brother in April of 1995, when after hanging around the Point Depot for the afternoon and acting like one of the roadies before Dylan’s gig, I found out where he was staying and showed up the following morning with this album to sign, which he did. Favourite track: Song to Woody

28. Under the Red Sky (1990)

I rediscovered this during the 2012 Olympics in London, freshly copied on to my iPod, the strangely touching nursery rhyme lyrics were the perfect nightly antidote during the busiest two weeks of my life. Favourite track: God Knows

27. The Basement Tapes (1975)

Probably the most bootlegged album in record history, thanks to The Band. Still worthy of being passed around, it’s jaunty and still fun to play along with on my acoustic guitar. Favourite track: Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)

26. Together Through Life (2009)

Loved this at the time, even if now it sounds like it’s coming from a particular time and place in Dylan’s life, a tidy bluesy jam of a session with a wide range of musicians all around. Favourite track: Forgetful Heart

25. Saved (1980)

This I remember first buying on cassette in one of the old used record stores in Dublin and, even if warned off about Dylan’s Christian period, I was startled by the lyrics being so precise and music that still sounds so tight. Favourite track: Pressing On

24. Self Portrait (1970)

What is this s**t? That infamous opening line from the Greil Marcus original review still makes me laugh, because this is a delight, a double-album of 24 songs in part intended to frustrate certain fans and secretly entertain most others. Favourite track: It Hurts Me Too

23. Slow Train Coming (1979)

The first of Dylan’s so-called Christian trilogy, the devoutly evangelical lyrics are so sweetly delivered and musically wrapped up that the listening of it still draws me back every time. Favourite track: When He Returns

22. Street-Legal (1978)

A bit of Elvis in Vegas influence here. The sweeping production and delivery never cease to surprise. There are long rhythmic verses throughout and Dylan gives his all. Favourite track: Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)

21. Nashville Skyline (1969)

With the obvious exception of going electric, this marked the most surprising turning point in his recording career. His country-singing voice is all the more startling for its the sheer authenticity. Favourite track: I Threw It All Away

20. Shot of Love (1981)

The most underrated and best of his Christian trilogy. The bold and, at times, treacherous delivery of the lyrics alone always brings me back for more. Favourite track: In the Summertime

19. Tempest (2012)

At times, this still comes across as violently moody. Strangely enough, it’s one of the few Dylan albums I enjoy listening to while running. Before he starts singing about the Titanic sinking that is. Favourite track: Long and Wasted Years

18. Modern Times (2006)

Smoothly produced and lyrically inspired and inspiring, there is also an economy about this album which is indefatigable. Like, where in the world Alicia Keys could be? Favourite track: Spirit on the Water

17. Planet Waves (1974)

His first venture on Asylum Records, and believe it or not Dylan’s first album to reach number one on the US Billboard chart, this reuniting with The Band is by turns of the track touching or warm and then punchy or sad. Favourite track: Forever Young (the slow version)

16. New Morning (1970)

Still best played in the morning, naturally, this is Dylan the new father at his cheerful best, a great mix of tracks and treats that finishes with a suitably simple prayer. Favourite track: Time Passes Slowly

15. Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)

His last all-acoustic album before he returned to the style some 30 years later, what a way to step out, all 11 songs reportedly recorded in the one evening, and without a protest line in sight. Favourite track: My Back Pages

14. John Wesley Harding (1967)

This still sounds timeless, even if it comes at a very specific time in his life – after his motorbike crash of 1966. The biblical influence is telling too, there was just no telling at the time it would unearth the ultimate Dylan cover, All Along the Watchtower. Favourite track: I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine

13. Empire Burlesque (1985)

Dylan at his most flamboyant and, at times, reckless 1980s prime. It has been produced to death perhaps, but something and everything about this album keeps me coming back for more. Favourite track: I’ll Remember You

12. Oh Mercy (1989)

Thank you Daniel Lanois, who on Bono’s advice approached Dylan with a view to producing this. Its surprise factor is not just that Dylan is still alive and indeed well, but that he has the audacity to leave a song such as Series of Dreams off the album. Favourite track: Most of the Time

11. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)

Still, impossibly, only 21 when he recorded it, the second studio album that suddenly found his protest voice and a lot more in between, and ultimately contributed him to winning the Nobel Prize. Favourite track: Girl from the North Country

10. Desire (1976)

From that first opening hum of Hurricane, co-written with playwright Jacques Levy, everything about this album is pure Dylan storytelling. The accompaniment of Scarlet Rivera on violin still blossoms with every listen. Favourite track: Hurricane

9. Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020)

Last June, driving over the Sally Gap towards Luggala, I first played this CD in reverse – that is, beginning with the end track, the 16-minute 56-second epic Murder Most Foul. I still adore its mighty turn of phrase. Favourite track: Key West (Philosopher Pirate)

8. Infidels (1983)

A sort of Second Coming all over again. The pleasant surprise that came with my first listen was doubled when I heard some of the songs played live, beginning with David Letterman from 1984. Oh yeah, and he left Blind Willie McTell behind too. Favourite track: Jokerman

7. Bringing It All Back Home (1965)

For years I had this only on cassette and would often play it on a continuous loop in my old Alfa Romeo Spider, and no matter how familiar it sounded, it never once got old. Favourite track: It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

6. Love and Theft (2001)

Mik Pyro said to me recently that Dylan always gets the best drummers and the drumming on this album, courtesy of David Kemper, is superb. Released on 9/11, it’s so emotionally charged too, it never once tires. Favourite track: Lonesome Day Blues

5. The Times They Are a-Changin’ (1964)

I had the poster on my bedroom wall in college even before I bought the cassette. The dark and deliberately bleak sound of the songs are still held up by their magnificent, powerful telling. Favourite track: Restless Farewell

4. Blood on the Tracks (1975)

The break-up album. The problem for me at the time of my first listen was that I hadn’t yet gone through a particularly sad or turbulent break-up. Now, the pitch and tone make perfectly ragged sense. Favourite track: Idiot Wind

3. Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

The album I had in mind in the summer of 1997, when I spent a chunk of my savings on a 50th anniversary edition Fender Telecaster, because this is pure brilliant rock ‘n’ roll. He signs off on Desolation Row. Favourite track: Like a Rolling Stone

2. Blonde on Blonde (1966)

I think this is the only Dylan album I own on cassette, CD and vinyl. Nothing else comes close to that thin, wild mercury sound, or what Dylan himself said is “the closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind”. Favourite track: Visions of Johanna

1. Time Out of Mind (1997)

The first Dylan album I bought on the day of its release in September 1997, cycling into Golden Discs on St Stephen’s Green, then playing it on my Walkman on the way home. It sounded then like nothing could top the stripped-down honesty of the opening track, Love Sick, or the 10 more that followed. Still nothing has. Favourite track: Not Dark Yet