Born on 24 May 1941, Bob Dylan has released more than three dozen studio albums over the last 60 years or so; naturally, that includes plenty of stunning records, a few duds, and some that are, shall we say, “fair”. That’s far from surprising—after all, nobody bats a thousand—especially since Dylan enjoys foisting head-scratching stylistic left turns on unsuspecting fans. While his discography contains plenty of justly praised masterpieces, several of his collections have failed to gain the respect they deserve. With that in mind—and in celebration of his 80th trip around the sun—we’ve compiled this list of ten Dylan albums that aren’t necessarily fantastic or horrible. They’re just underrated.
Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)
With the possible exception of his mostly-covers debut album (1962’s Bob Dylan), Another Side of Bob Dylan is probably the most ignored of Dylan’s early acoustic works. It’s a shame because the majority of its songs are top-notch, and the performances—recorded on one June evening in 1964—are inspired, intimate, and sublime. While he largely abandoned the “protest” flavor of his previous records (typically aggravating Dylan purists in the process), the sheer variety he ekes out of his solo performances is impressive.
For instance, he bangs out 12-bar piano blues on “Black Crow Blues”; unspools more odd surrealism on “Motorpsycho Nitemare” and “I Shall Be Free No. 10”; tosses off a future classic with “It Ain’t Me Babe”; and even adds a couple of multi-verse epics (“Chimes of Freedom” and “Ballad in Plain D”) before he’s done. Vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica, and piano rarely sounded this fully formed. – Chris Ingalls
New Morning (1970)
Released just four months after the puzzling and polarizing (but not all that bad) Self-Portrait, New Morning was a relief to fans put off by Dylan’s sprawling double-album of country crooning. His “normal” voice was back, all 12 songs were self-penned, and while it doesn’t have the dangerous buzz of, say, Blonde on Blonde, the pastoral, full-band beauty of the album is a wonder to behold. Opening with the gentle, chiming folk of “If Not for You”, New Morning is infused with surprising warmth, even during rave-ups like the title track and “One More Weekend”.
There are a few oddities sprinkled in here—like the lilting waltz of “Winterlude” and the strange jazziness of “If Dogs Run Free” (complete with scatting by Maeretha Stewart). But, you also get the gorgeously gospel-tinged “Sign on the Window”, self-referential treasures like “Day of the Locusts” and “Went to See the Gypsy”, and of course, “The Man in Me” (the song that gave The Big Lebowski its much-beloved theme song nearly 30 years later). Not a bad batch of tunes, all things considered. – Chris Ingalls
A result of record company revenge, Dylan came out on Columbia after the titular artist jumped ship for Asylum Records (where he would stay for only two albums before rejoining his old label). Compiled without Dylan’s involvement and made up of studio outtakes from Self-Portrait and New Morning, Dylan sounds on paper like it was set up to fail as a way for Columbia to get the last laugh. Admittedly, many people don’t like the sequence; however, for the most part, it’s utterly charming.
Consisting of nothing but covers and traditional tunes arranged by Dylan, the set includes a gorgeous version of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” with Dylan on piano (a majestic return to his protest roots); barn-burners like “Sarah Jane” and “A Fool Such as I”; a few puzzling contemporary covers (“Big Yellow Taxi” and “Mr. Bojangles”); and some Self-Portrait-style crooning on “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue”. It gets a little clunky at times, and it’s not going to knock Blood on the Tracks off anyone’s Top Five list, but Dylan is a fun diversion that deserves a listen. – Chris Ingalls
I have yet to meet a single music fan who has heard Desire and disliked it. It’s generally beloved across the board; that said, besides the sprawling opening protest salvo, “Hurricane”, Desire doesn’t contain too many of his instantly recognizable songs. Really, it’s sort of the ultimate “fan favorite” LP. Coming off the heels of Blood on the Tracks (still one of his most revered albums), Dylan could’ve followed up that intimate tale of marital discord with a soundalike sequel. Of course, that’s never been his modus operandi, as Dylan thrives on shifting gears even when it may not make the most sense.
Desire contains a ragtag core band featuring bassist Rob Stoner, drummer Howard Wyeth, and violinist Scarlet Rivera (all of whom would make up elements of Dylan’s famed Rolling Thunder Revue). The sound they crafted on Desire is haunting, propulsive, and sharp. The songs—mostly co-written by theatre director Jacques Levy—encompass exotic travelogues (“Mozambique”, “Romance in Durango”, and “Black Diamond Bay”), extensive epics both compelling (“Hurricane”) and a bit bloated (“Joey”), and aching balladry (“Oh, Sister” and “Sara”). Desire is an album that may not immediately spring to mind among casual fans, but many die-hards list it among their favorites. – Chris Ingalls
Shot of Love (1981)
After two albums of fire-and-brimstone gospel music (1979’s Slow Train Coming and 1980’s Saved), Dylan was still fired up but also allowing hints of more secular themes to slip into his songs. While there is nothing ambiguous in his message on “Property of Jesus”, other songs—such as the title track and “Heart of Mine”—could be more broadly interpreted. Meanwhile, “Lenny Bruce” is a straightforward elegy in which Dylan sings about once sharing a cab with the comedian. Shot of Love is also notable for containing two of his best songs from this era of his career: “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” (a charging rocker) and “Every Grain of Sand” (which might be Dylan’s most contemplative song on faith). The playing and production on Shot of Love is warm and organic, two qualities that would be in shorter supply on his records as he made his way through the ’80s. – Rich Wilhelm