So as I round out the inaugural feature of O&T history, I’m proud to announce that my #1 recording artist of all time is the one and only Bob Dylan.
The man himself needs very little introduction. Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, the young Dylan left his small hometown some years before his 20th birthday to ply his musical trade in the bright lights of New York City. After several years playing the folk circuit, he released his first studio album, 1962’s eponymous Bob Dylan, aged just 21. 32 studio albums and 47 years later, Bob is regarded as probably the greatest lyricist of all time, a stoic defender of racial equality and an enigmatic figure whose genius could hardly have been guessed from his ramshackle exterior.
During the 1960s, Dylan was a huge supporter of the civil rights movement and his music reflected his protestory spirit: songs like ‘Masters of War’ (from 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) and ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ (from 1964’s The Times They Are A-Changin’). The ’60s produced some of Dylan’s best work with the seminal trio of albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde released back-to-back-to-back from 1965-66. This is doubtlessly the greatest trio of albums ever released one after the other, and Blonde on Blonde is regarded by many as his finest album.
Dylan famously ‘went electric’ at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and alienated some of his folk-y fanbase. Not many artists could recover from the critical shellacking that he underwent after this event, but Bob rode the storm and embraced his new fanbase while appeasing his folkier admirers: 1965’s amazing Bringing It All Back Home boasted a first side (this is in the vinyl era, obviously) featuring electric stunners like ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’, whilst the second side had a trimmed-down sound with just Dylan, his guitar and harmonica singing classics like ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’. This album, itself an undeniable classic, would be the best album in most careers, but Dylan’s talent is so unique that it may not have even been the best album he released that year, as Highway 61 Revisited arrived later on and blew people away.
Of course, I could harp on about every single Dylan album (both the good and the bad, there’s been more than a little of both), but it would take too long and my fingers may actually fall off, so I’ll just inform you, the fine people, of my favourite Bob album and discuss it a little.
From this preamble you would be smart to assert that it’s 1966’s superb Blonde on Blonde – I just talked about its two predecessors and seemed to be gearing you up for it. However, despite the fact that it’s one of the best albums ever, it’s not my favourite by Bob. That title goes to 1975’s perfect record Blood on the Tracks. After Blonde was released, Dylan entered a less-commercially friendly phase, with albums like the universally slammed Self Portrait (Rolling Stone’s review of which started with the line “What is this shit?”) and bluesier records like Nashville Skyline.
Blood on the Tracks, however, marked an emergence from these sounds, and it’s for me the best work in the career of a genius. Songs like ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ and ‘Idiot Wind’ are poignant, beautiful and funny, offering up both comic lines (“They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy,/ She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me/I can’t help it if I’m lucky” – ‘Idiot Wind’) and moving ones, like the scintitllating verse below from ‘Simple Twist of Fate’. Dylan’s talent has always been to tell a story through songs, and he’s never done it better than on this album:
He woke up, the room was bare
He didn’t see her anywhere.
He told himself he didn’t care, pushed the window open wide,
Felt an emptiness inside to which he just could not relate
Brought on by a simple twist of fate.
Dylan once said “I consider myself a poet first and a musician second”, and that’s a pretty accurate assertion from the man himself. His lyrics are poetry of the highest calibre at times, and his unorthodox voice lends them gravity, poignance and significance as his characters undergo the tribulations of life to which we can all relate. Songs on Tracks like ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ and ‘Buckets of Rain’ are among his best, and there’s really no better record I’ve ever heard. Best album of all time, you heard it here first.
Dylan has many critics, and it’s easy to slag him off: not a good singer, not a great guitarist, released nearly as many bad albums as good ones, pretentious and a bizarre character.
I would agree with some of the above, but it’s not Dylan’s voice or his guitar playing that make him the greatest artist of all time, it’s his incomparably beautiful lyrics and the unbelievably complex concepts he handles in songs that no-one else could write. He’s got his bad records, sure, but Dylan at his best cannot be touched by any other musician (or arguably, poet) alive or dead. When you can produce as much astounding music as Bob has over a period of half a century, you deserve to be at the top of any list. The greatest songwriter who’s ever lived, the most gifted poet and lyricist who’s ever set foot on the musical scene and possibly the most influential artist of all time, Bob Dylan is for me, without doubt, the greatest recording artist who’s ever lived, and probably ever will.
Sickest tracks: Genuinely impossible to compile. Listen to these albums: Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks, Desire, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Modern Times. Oh, and ‘Most of the Time’ from Oh Mercy, amazing song.
If you like this, you’ll also like: Any quality lyrical music really, but these are a few heavily Dylan-influenced albums: Bruce Springsteen – Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker, Belle & Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister, Elton John – Madman Across the Water.