Bob Dylan: His top twenty albums

Andy Gill offers his personal selection of the Dylan records no collection should be without, and Professor Christopher Ricks gives a literary critique of an iconic song

Bringing it all Back Home 1965
Dylan's move into more surreal poetics and his decision to "go electric" met unparalleled success in "Maggie's Farm", "Mr Tambourine Man" and "It's Alright, Ma". Stand-out track: "Subterranean Homesick Blues".

Highway 61 Revisited 1965
In which Dylan grabs rock n' roll's baton and races forward with it: a dizzying whirl of words borne along full-tilt on some of the sharpest blues-rock licks ever embedded in vinyl. Stand-out track: "Like A Rolling Stone".

Blood on the Tracks 1975
The greatest comeback album of all time and the greatest love album of all time, remarkably gleaned from Dylan's fearless raking-over of the embers of his crumbling marriage. Stand-out track: "Tangled Up In Blue".

The Essential Bob Dylan 2001
The most complete compilation yet assembled, a sprawling 36-track odyssey from "Blowin' In The Wind" to "Things Have Changed" whose range and depth simply beggars belief. Stand-out track: virtually all of them.

The Bootleg Series, Vol 4: Live 1966 1998
The classic Free Trade Hall show, with one of the singer's best acoustic sets followed by Dylan and The Hawks playing "fuckin' loud" in response to calls of " Judas!". Stand-out track: "Like A Rolling Stone".

The Bootleg Series, Vol 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1991
Dylan's first trawl through his vast archive. Features "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Like A Rolling Stone" as works-in-progress, along withsongs such as the stand-out track: "Blind Willie McTell".

John Wesley Harding 1968
Dylan's first comeback, a quiet, diffident affair wreathed in religious imagery and presented in a warm, simple manner entirely at odds with the psychedelic era. Stand-out track: "All Along The Watchtower".

Love and Theft 2001
A confluence of antique forms and eternal concerns, Dylan's pranksterish spirit informing a tour through 20th century American roots forms, from country-blues to heavy boogie. Stand-out track: "High Water (for Charley Patton)"

The Basement Tapes 1975
Recuperating from his bike accident in 1967, Dylan hunkered down with The Band and recorded oddities, anthems and nonsense songs, his genius shining through even the obvious throwaways. Stand-out track: "Tears Of Rage".

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan 1963
The first great statement of his recording career, marked by poetic protest broadsides like "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and love songs like "Girl from the North Country". Stand-out track: "Blowin' in the Wind".

Nashville Skyline 1969
Dylan's transformation from rebellious spokesman of a generation to conservative country crooner was validated by fine songs like "I Threw It All Away" and the virtuoso picking on display. Stand-out track: "Lay Lady Lay".

Time Out of Mind 1997
Dylan's dark meditation on mortality mingled JJ Cale-ish blues shuffles with sepulchral reflections on age and love, rendered by producer Daniel Lanois through appropriate graveyard shadows. Stand-out track: "Not Dark Yet"

Oh Mercy 1989
Dylan's first hook-up with Daniel Lanois ended his longest writer's block with this haunting collection of questioning songs directed at himself and at a world constantly making demands of him. Stand-out track: "What Was It You Wanted".

The Bootleg Series Vol 7: No Direction home 2005
The accompaniment to next week's Scorsese-directed Arena documentaries offers two CDs of outtakes and live cuts. It's the best account of his progress from tyro folkie to rock god. Stand-out track: "Visions of Johanna".

Desire 1976
Dylan enlisted the help of theatre director Jacques Levy to co-write the songs about framed boxers, idealised mafiosi and Egyptian goddesses, then drafted in a gypsy violinist for a bohemian tone. Stand-out track: "Hurricane".

Another Side of Bob Dylan 1964
Dylan's transitional album, in which he first hinted at rejecting "protest" music for a more personal, poetically open mode through which to encompass the wider world. Stand-out track: "My Back Pages".

The Times They Are A'Changin' 1964
Classic protest-era Dylan, his angry scowl on the cover reflected by "Only A Pawn In Their Game" and the tribulations of victims Hattie Carroll and Hollis Brown. Stand-out track: "With God On Our Side".

New Morning 1970
After the self-immolatory débâcle of Self Portrait, this offered a portrait of a Dylan exploring new avenues of expression, from wacky cocktail jazz to country-pop to rustic waltz. Stand-out track: "If Not For You".

Planet Waves 1974
Another comeback, this time accompanied by The Band on a curious combination of rollicking celebrations like "On A Night Like This" and darker songs such as the harrowing "Dirge". Stand-out track: "Forever Young".

How does it feel to be a poet?

Like a Rolling Stone (1965)

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?
People'd call, say, "Beware doll, you're bound to fall"
You thought they were all kiddin' you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin' out
Now you don't talk so loud
Now you don't seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal.
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

Pride doesn't like the company of the other deadly sins, for pride is proud of the fact that it alone has a very good side. Proud of your work, proud of your accomplishments. Dylan has the right to be proud of "Like a Rolling Stone". But he doesn't seem so proud or talk so loud. You won't catch him boasting that this is the greatest song ever written. He leaves pronouncements to the hype-mongers. On the recent 60 Minutes interview, he dismissed this as the sort of thing that gets said this week.

There are two ways in which we get these judgments wrong. One is to use the good as the enemy of the best. Let's never let go of the highest standards. The other is to use the best as the enemy of the good. Let's not be ungenerous towards the generosity of a great artist who gives us so much that is so good even if it isn't the summit of what he or she can do. Be grateful for what we've shared, and be glad. So he sings.

The performers of the dance of death in "Tarantula" include tragedy. Or rather Tragedy. Or even perhaps (the actor's throbstuff) Taragedy. But be warned, there is a caveat. Caveat: let him beware, or at least be wary. For although tragedy can be profound in its understanding of pride, tragedy becomes shallow as soon as it does itself fall into pride. It should not presume to look down on comedy, its otherwise inclined brother. "Tarantula" contemplates: "Tragedy, the broken pride, shallow and no deeper than comedy", tragedy in line for "the doom, the bending and the farce of happy ending".

"Like a Rolling Stone", which looks into the depths of such comedy as is savage farce (and yet is not without a happy ending of a weird kind), is an achievement in which Dylan takes pride. The song takes pride as its target.

"Once upon a time": do remember how fairy-tales sally forth, but don't forget how soon the darkness encroaches. For this nursery formula enters not as a sarcasm but as an irony.

The song bides its time before releasing "proud" (getting on for the sixtieth word), but we have got the picture. The posture, too, there in: "Once upon a time you dressed so fine". (Of pride, the proverb says: "be her garments what they will, yet she will never be too hot, nor too cold".) There, too, in "Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?", with its evocation of small-minded largesse (all change was small change to her in those days). Averse to advice, she saw no need to heed. "People'd call, say: 'Beware doll, you're bound to fall'". And why was she bound to fall? Because of what famously comes before a fall. This thought itself, within the song, comes before "proud".

Her misguided insouciance is guyed in the rhyme "didn't you?"/ "You though they were all kiddin' you". (A rhyme? That? You must be kidding.) "Now you don't talk so loud": but the song is, in its way, a talking song, a good talking-to. "Now you don't seem so proud": "seem" partly as a further rounding on her, but partly as an admission that he can't really be sure what is going on inside.

"Now you don't seem so proud/ About having to be scrounging your next meal." Not at all the same thing as a meal, this phrase. Scrounging your next meal means swallowing your pride.

So she had it coming? But Dylan knew that those who take pleasure in the words "had it coming" are themselves likely to be guilty of the complacency that they impugn. Or the callousness, dressed up so fine. Dylan's voice can be heard to disown the phrase at the end of "Black Cross", the story of Hezekiah Jones: "And they hung Hezekiah/ As high up as a pigeon/ White folks around said/ 'Well, he had it comin'/ Son-of-a-bitch never had no religion'."

Not that a religion guarantees a good god. There are dishonest gods and goddesses. The woman in "Like a Rolling Stone" has been down before the bitch goddess, the goddess that failed and that made her fail. Fail, fall, feel.

Dylan has always known how to marry half-truths so that they make a true whole. He knows there's no success like failure - he trusts his art more than he trusts other people's judgments. And he knows that failure is no success at all - may your song always be sung, for the song that is unsung is forever unstrung. But then he knows, too, the truth that the poet Yeats embraced, a truth that does much to explain why "Like a Rolling Stone" is so much more than a put-down. The truth that: "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." In "Like a Rolling Stone". Dylan sings not only to and of her, the princess, but to and of himself. And of all of us, come to that.

Christopher Ricks' 'Dylan's Visions of Sin' is out now in paperback, Penguin, £9.99

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