Dylan tops US chart for first time in 30 years

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Bob Dylan is justly known as many things: the offbeat poetic conscience of modern America; the man who bridged the folk-rock divide and lived to tell the tale; the man with a voice "like sand and glue", as David Bowie once sang, who has nevertheless compelled audiences to listen to him for more than 40 years.

One thing Dylan has not been, though - or, at least, not often - is a chart-topper. So yesterday's news that his latest album, Modern Times, has hit the number one spot in the US album charts came as something as a surprise to everyone, from diehard fans to teenage iPod addicts who have barely heard of him.

In its first week's release, Modern Times outsold offerings from such lesser artists (but brighter commercial prospects) as Jessica Simpson and Method Man. Alongside its success in the US, it also charted at number one in Australia, Norway, Canada, the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand, Denmark and Switzerland. The album has earned plenty of critical praise, the third straight album of his to impress the critics after Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft. The Washington Post, in an enthusiastic notice, described it as "a brooding, introspective album on which Dylan ruminates on regret, faith, romance, chaos, morality and mortality. Not necessarily in that order..."

Its commercial fortunes have to do with a lot more than excited music critics, however. The 65-year-old songwriter has been emerging from his reclusive shell in new and innovative ways. He recently made a television advert for Apple's iPod music player and iTunes online music store, featuring a song from the new album called "Someday Baby". That kind of cross-marketing is not exactly in keeping with the counter-cultural spirit of Dylan's youth, but clearly it works.

For the past four months, Dylan has also hosted his own satellite radio programme called Theme Time Radio Hour, in which he sounds off on everything from baseball to divorce. The show attracts 1.7 million listeners a week.

Dylan has been opening up in more conventional ways, too, publishing his memoir Chronicles Vol. 1 and participating in Martin Scorsese's homage-paying documentary, No Direction Home.

Modern Times is Dylan's first number one album since Desire in 1976, a record best remembered for its opening track, "Hurricane", an impassioned protest over the wrongful imprisonment of the black boxer Rubin Carter. (A decade later, Carter was cleared of three murders in his native New Jersey, partly thanks to Dylan's campaigning, and was the subject of a 1999 movie, also called Hurricane.)

Only two other Dylan albums have hit the number spot: Desire's immediate predecessor Blood On the Tracks - a masterpiece which includes the classics "Tangled Up In Blue", "Shelter From the Storm" and "Idiot Wind" - and 1974's Planet Waves, the commercial highlights of a dense and widely acclaimed career that began back in 1962 and has seen him shift more than 100 million albums.