On his 80th birthday – Bob Dylan has a song for you

The thing is that there is really no such thing as a bad Bob Dylan studio album.  You disagree?  Well, you’re entitled to your opinion but for an album to be truly bad then there has to be not one moment of magic.  Here’s a trawl through Dylan’s “bad” albums which will prove, once and for all, that you’re wrong.

It seems churlish to sneer at Dylan’s debut, but some do, even though it contains the song of which Dave Van Ronk said “Jeez, Bobby, I’m going into the studio to do that myself in a few weeks.  Can’t it wait until your next album?

For Dylan the rest of the Sixties was an unassailable series of recordings.  And then we come to ‘Self Portrait‘.  Somewhat saved by the Bootleg series release of ‘Another Self Portrait‘, the original album is….not Dylan’s finest moment.  But it does have the Lee Hazlewoodism of ‘Wigwam.

Bizarrely ‘New Morning‘ has its knockers – which makes no sense at all. Drop the needle on Track 1 of Side 1 and you have this piece of perfection.

We’ll skip ‘Dylan‘ on the double grounds that it’s not an “approved” album, and it’s pretty well policed off Youtube.   But Dylan singing Crosby’s favourite Joni – well, it’s not all bad. Which brings us to ‘Planet Waves‘ – which is an excellent album and not just because of this.

Street-Legal‘ only went Gold, so is in many sights to be shot down as poor, and it marks that run of ‘S’ albums that are oft cited as Dylan’s worst period.  How can anyone resist that initial fade in though?

Let’s power through ‘Slow Train Coming‘, ‘Saved‘ and ‘Shot of Love.‘   Were the associated gigs Dylan at his finest? Obviously not – but the albums are full of great songs.  One doesn’t even need to cheat and drag in ‘Groom’s still waiting at the altar.’  Here we find Dylan digging a deep groove, stating commitment, and rocking out.  You may notice a small cheat on ‘Pressing On‘, don’t blame me, blame the holders of  Dylan’s copyright.  But it is a great song.

No one is going to complain about ‘Infidels‘, so the next problem child is ‘Empire Burlesque, on which Dylan is criticised for sounding too contemporary.  Contemporary rock, is that what you mean?

Of course ‘Knocked out Loaded‘ is never going to make anyone’s top 10 Dylan albums, which is one reason why tracks from it are a little hard to find.  This alternate take of ‘Brownsville Girl‘ shows well enough that even the poorest album will have its moments.  And then we reach probably the worst Dylan album of them all, but even ‘Down in the Groove‘ has this as a glorious redeemer, the co-write with Robert Hunter that is ‘Silvio.

We’ve reached the end of this list – just about – as Dylan embraces the MTV world on this cut from the not overly remarkable ‘Under the Red Sky.’  Made too fast, and with too many people on it – well, that’s Dylan’s own comments on it, but at worst it’s bland – not bad.  Even ‘Wiggle Wiggle‘ isn’t as poor as you think.  Here Dylan finds a contemporary groove with the help of Don and David Was.  And that car number plate is surely not an accident.

And that’s it.  There’s not an album that anyone could raise an eyebrow at after 1990 – the Christmas album and the “Sinatra covers” are placeholders, perhaps, but musically they are fine.  So after ‘Under the Red Sky’ there is thirty-one years of excellence to follow.  How amazing is that?  So there are just two things left to note: Dylan never stays the same, and, yes, Happy 80th Birthday Bob.


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About Jonathan Aird 2117 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?

2 Comments

  1. I just love this article. I completely agree. Well, that’s of course why I love this article 🙂 but it is also so true that even at the albums that are not really my favorite, there is still some songs that I like to listen to. Btw, Street legal is such a special album to me. Just like to share that 🙂 once again, thanks!!

    • I agree – well of course I do – but more particularly about Street Legal. I was lucky enough to get into Dylan’s music without, at first, connecting with the acreage of criticism so I had no idea that I was supposed to think the recording was “muddy” or “over gospel” or “simplistic” or any of the other defects that were found in it. Which is why it was – and remains – one of my “go to Dylan albums”. Not perfect – no. But terrible? Certainly not.

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