1/ Rowland Scherman // Wikimedia Commons
In 1975, folk-rock icon Bob Dylan embarked on a concert tour of epic proportions. Reportedly inspired by the booming sound of thunder, he named it the Rolling Thunder Revue. His intention was to “play for the people” and, furthermore, provide an experience those people would never forget. For the task, Dylan employed a number of backing musicians from his as-yet-unreleased album “Desire,” which came out in January 1976 between legs of the tour. The band was joined at its live shows along the way by a rotating cast of supremely talented guest performers including Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and Roger McGuinn.
The result was a concert series for the ages, with two new releases to show for it. One is a monolithic, 14-CD “Bootleg Series” box set consisting of five complete, professionally recorded performances from the first leg of the tour. The second is Martin Scorsese's acclaimed Netflix documentary, which interweaves fact with fiction to relatively seamless effect. Indeed, viewers are still deciphering which parts of the documentary were real and which were conceived as a clever ruse. What's definitely authentic are the thrilling live performances, capturing Dylan in a state of truly inspired frenzy. Covered in makeup and flanked by a full cavalry of talent, he belts out energized versions of old classics and new tunes alike.
Of course, the Rolling Thunder Revue is merely one among a legion of milestones for Dylan, whose decades-spanning career has undergone numerous ebbs and flows. Armed with an intensely deep knowledge of American music, he first emerged from the Greenwich Village folk scene as the voice of dissent against various institutions of oppression. When he plugged in at the Newport Festival in 1965, the world's foremost protest singer received some backlash of his own.
All was forgiven over the following years as he churned out classic album after classic album, sliding from one style or story to the next with unparalleled ease. To this day, he's still touring and putting out albums with surprising consistency. Like a modern-day Shakespeare, Dylan's created a canon so vast and vital that one need not peer behind the curtain to reap its endless rewards. That's not to mention his profound influence on a slew of contemporaries, including everyone from The Beatles to Bruce Springsteen. Put simply, the last half-century of music wouldn't be remotely the same if not for this artist.
In honor of the recent Rolling Thunder Revue releases, Stacker is celebrating the best Bob Dylan albums of all time. The data was culled from Best Ever Albums (last updated June 2019), where overall rank is determined by calculating the aggregate position of each album from over 38,000 different top album charts. The 38,000 charts referenced are a blend of publications' charts (e.g. Rolling Stone, New Music Express, Stereogum, The Quietus) and people's personal charts. In theory, the more charts that an album has appeared on and the higher its rank score, the better it will be. Only solo studio albums were considered, meaning no live albums, shared billings, or compilations.
Without further delay, here are Bob Dylan's 25 best albums.
You may also like: Best Grateful Dead albums of all time
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- Overall album rank: #7,304
- Rank in decade: #1,435
- Rank in year: #149
- Appears on: 45 charts
Dylan's first entirely acoustic effort since 1964 was also his first complete album of song covers. Almost every track is a traditional number, meaning a song that was passed down over time and rarely credited to an original source. In addition to lukewarm reviews, the album garnered controversy when avid folk music fans accused Dylan of lifting arrangements from other artists. As always, he brushed it off and moved on.
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- Overall album rank: #5,415
- Rank in decade: #953
- Rank in year: #104
- Appears on: 58 charts
Not only was this sprawling double album panned upon its release, but Dylan himself would become one of its biggest detractors. He later referred to it as a conscious “joke” that was crafted in hopes of turning off his most overzealous fans. Nevertheless, “Self Portrait” has undergone something of a critical reappraisal in recent years. Divided between original songs and covers, it features a slew of guest personnel and finds the artist singing mostly in “crooner” mode.
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- Overall album rank: #4,946
- Rank in decade: #773
- Rank in year: #91
- Appears on: 50 charts
Jewish-born atheist Dylan converted to Evangelical Christianity in the late 1970s, resulting in a trilogy of Christian-themed albums. This third and final installment adopts a somewhat looser stance than its predecessors and sounds slightly more like traditional rock. Tracks such as “Every Grain of Sand” are considered some of Dylan's best work of the time. Drummer Ringo Starr and guitarist Ronnie Wood make brief appearances, while Benmont Tench of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers plays keyboards throughout.
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- Overall album rank: #4,939
- Rank in decade: #1,125
- Rank in year: #114
- Appears on: 67 charts
Grateful Dead alum Robert Hunter co-wrote the lyrics for this latter-day effort, which reached #1 on the Billboard charts. It was recorded by Dylan and his touring band, with additional help from David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers. Featuring weathered vocals and a palpable blues influence, the album plays like elevated bar music. Critical reactions ranged from mixed to positive.
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- Overall album rank: #3,737
- Rank in decade: #692
- Rank in year: #74
- Appears on: 109 charts
Released just four months after the somewhat disastrous “Self Portrait,” Dylan's 11th studio album delivered both a return to form and a path ahead. It also saw the complete revival of his original voice, now imbued with a raspier edge. Featuring frequent collaborators David Bromberg and Al Kooper (among others), “New Morning” was ushered in on a wave of critical praise. Fans of “The Big Lebowski” will surely recognize the song “The Man in Me,” as it was used to memorable effect during that film's opening credit sequence.
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- Overall album rank: #3,615
- Rank in decade: #679
- Rank in year: #61
- Appears on: 95 charts
Reuniting with roots-rock outfit The Band, Dylan delivered his first #1 album on the Billboard chart. Unlike previous collaborations between the two iconic acts, this one strikes a more intimate and relaxed tone. While arguably dispensable when compared to Dylan's better work, “Planet Waves” still makes for a quality listening experience. Highlights include “Forever Young” and “On a Night Like This,” among other songs.
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- Overall album rank: #3,356
- Rank in decade: #530
- Rank in year: #48
- Appears on: 103 charts
In the wake of his Christian-themed trilogy, Dylan returned to form once again on his 22nd studio album. Along for the ride was Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler, who co-produced and provided guitar. Former Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor also lent his unique talents. The end result is a relatively consistent effort, which pairs vivid lyrics and Dylan's original vocal style with an early 1980s production sound.
9/ Adrian Lasso // Wikimedia Commons
- Overall album rank: #3,337
- Rank in decade: #465
- Rank in year: #64
- Appears on: 111 charts
Most of Dylan's 21st-century albums are stylistically indebted to a range of American music traditions, and this one is no exception. Drawing upon everything from blues to rockabilly, it walks the line between influence and originality. There's also a variety of moods on display, as the album swings from somber to playful from one track to the next. After an epic song about the Titanic, it closes with an ode to the legendary John Lennon.
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- Overall album rank: #2,288
- Rank in decade: #200
- Rank in year: #4
- Appears on: 157 charts
Picking up where his heroes left off, Bob Dylan emerged from New York's Greenwich Village scene as a singular force in folk music. That said, his debut album went largely overlooked upon its initial release. Consisting primarily of classic covers, it finds his raspy vocals in an early and emulative stage of development. The album also introduced listeners at home to his deft harmonica and acoustic guitar playing.
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- Overall album rank: #2,263
- Rank in decade: #457
- Rank in year: #45
- Appears on: 121 charts
In the wake of his religious conversion, Dylan delivered the first album in his Christian-themed trilogy. Rife with spiritual overtones and dogmatic teachings, it was arguably his most concerted effort since 1975's “Blood on the Tracks.” The song “Gotta Serve Somebody” landed Dylan his first Grammy Award. Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits fame) plays lead guitar.
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- Overall album rank: #2,170
- Rank in decade: #439
- Rank in year: #45
- Appears on: 116 charts
After the one-two punch of “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire,” Dylan released this underwhelming 1978 effort. For the recording, he employed a backing band of slick professionals in lieu of the Rolling Thunder Revue. As a result of its glossy production and somewhat aimless vibe, a number of American critics drubbed the album as a major letdown. Critics and listeners felt differently in the U.K., where it became his best-selling album at the time.
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- Overall album rank: #1,820
- Rank in decade: #366
- Rank in year: #34
- Appears on: 176 charts
Dylan explores the modern world as only he can on this acclaimed album, which was his first chart-topper in 30 years. Continuing the latter-day renaissance that began with 1997's “Time Out of Mind,” the work culls from pretty much every genre of American music but folk. It's all delivered in the gravelly tone that would define so much of Dylan's later output. Some familiar controversy emerged when he faced accusations of lifting lyrics without crediting his sources.
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- Overall album rank: #1,589
- Rank in decade: #251
- Rank in year: #23
- Appears on: 172 charts
After a string of mid-80s disappointments (excluding the Traveling Wilburys project), Dylan emerged from the proverbial ashes once again with this 1989 release. It saw him teaming up with Daniel Lanois, who'd previously produced or co-produced smash hits like Peter Gabriel's “So” and U2's “The Joshua Tree.” Not only does Lanois' production lend the album a sense of cohesion and atmosphere, but he also plays an instrument on nearly every track.
15/ The World Famous Comedy Store // flickr
- Overall album rank: #1,128
- Rank in decade: #109
- Rank in year: #6
- Appears on: 261 charts
Armed with his nasal voice and trio of unplugged instruments, Dylan went beyond protest music to explore an ever-expanding range of subjects and themes. It all flows together with poetic precision, reinforcing Dylan's status as a lyrical genius. Songs like “All I Really Wanna Do” and “It Ain't Me Babe” rank among his most timeless tunes. For listeners in 1964, it was another side indeed.
16/ Kevin Winter // Getty Images
- Overall album rank: #1,033
- Rank in decade: #192
- Rank in year: #17
- Appears on: 224 charts
Proving that 1997's “Time Out of Mind” was no fluke, Dylan followed it up with this eclectic and inviting masterpiece. It straddles various moods and styles without ever feeling forced or belabored, thereby striking a completely natural accord. Winner of the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, “Love and Theft” was also named as the #1 album of 2001 by Rolling Stone. Speaking of love and theft, Dylan was later accused of plagiarizing passages from an obscure Japanese biography for the song “Floater.”
17/ Xavier Badosa // flickr
- Overall album rank: #947
- Rank in decade: #98
- Rank in year: #20
- Appears on: 323 charts
A harrowing motorcycle crash and subsequent trip to Nashville paved the way for this country-folk classic. It features drummer Kenneth A. Buttrey and bassist Charlie McCoy as Dylan's rhythm section, with Pete Drake playing pedal steel guitar on "Down Along the Cove" and "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight." The album represented a stark departure from the three ones preceding it, all of which steered into the rock 'n' roll genre. Jimi Hendrix would famously cover “All Along the Watchtower” for his 1968 epic “Electric Ladyland.”
18/ Chris Hakkens // Wikimedia Commons
- Overall album rank: #889
- Rank in decade: #90
- Rank in year: #25
- Appears on: 313 charts
Dylan still had Nashville on his mind when he released this full-blown country album, and recorded it under the working title “John Wesley Harding Vol. 2.” It presented listeners with Dylan's new crooner vocal style, which came as a result of him quitting smoking. Not only did Johnny Cash sing on the opening track, but Dylan promoted the album by playing some of its songs on Cash's musical variety show. Kris Kristofferson and Charlie Daniels were two other famous musicians to appear on the work.
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- Overall album rank: #881
- Rank in decade: #182
- Rank in year: #20
- Appears on: 292 charts
Even Dylan's most ardent fans figured his best days were behind him until he released this 1997 masterwork. Daniel Lanois was back in the fold as producer, providing a sonic atmosphere of ambient darkness and deep mystery. Heightening the gloomy effect are a number of songs, which grapple with themes of death and destruction. It was the dawn of a new era for perennial comeback kid Bob Dylan.
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- Overall album rank: #508
- Rank in decade: #63
- Rank in year: #3
- Appears on: 419 charts
The times they were a-changing in 1964 and Bob Dylan was ushering in some of that trasnformation, hence his unofficial status as the voice of a generation. Like the two albums before it, this one was an acoustic affair with Dylan providing vocals, harmonica, and guitar. Interweaving sociopolitical anthems with ballads of injustice, the album's best songs have remained prescient in the decades since their release. One could even say that in today's rapidly changing and politically charged world, this music is as vital as it's ever been.
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- Overall album rank: #367
- Rank in decade: #96
- Rank in year: #7
- Appears on: 468 charts
Fans of the recent Netflix documentary will recognize tunes from this iconic album, released between the two legs of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. A collaborative affair, it features contributions from a full slate of talented personnel. That includes not just members of the Rolling Thunder Revue, but country singer Emmylou Harris and guitarist Eric Clapton, as well. Harkening back to Dylan's roots as a protest singer, the 8-minute opener “Hurricane” tackles the unjust trial and subsequent incarceration of boxer Rubin Carter.
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- Overall album rank: #162
- Rank in decade: #28
- Rank in year: #2
- Appears on: 766 charts
Thanks in part to a little song called “Blowin' in the Wind,” this album captured the youth zeitgeist and turned Bob Dylan into a 1960s folk hero. Additional tracks such as “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall,” “Masters of War,” “Don't Think Twice, It's Alright,” and numerous others only cemented his status as a songwriter and poet of the highest order. Featured on the cover is Dylan's girlfriend Suze Rotolo, an artist who inspired a number of his earliest classics. This was among the first 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry.
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- Overall album rank: #101
- Rank in decade: #21
- Rank in year: #4
- Appears on: 977 charts
Supported by a cavalry of talent, Dylan plugs in and expands upon his repertoire in every conceivable direction on this seminal album. Divided between an acoustic side and an electric side, it's more or less credited with creating the folk-rock genre. “Maggie's Farm” touches down on socioeconomic struggles, but the majority of tunes are fixated on broader themes such as love and drugs. Rolling Stone would later call it the “cultural equivalent of a nuclear bomb.”
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- Overall album rank: #35
- Rank in decade: #11
- Rank in year: #2
- Appears on: 1,453 charts
Dylan's most candid album is also one of his best, even if some critics took their sweet time warming up to it. Grappling with the dissolution of his marriage to wife Sara, the artist lays everything bare by way of some truly inspired tunes. The mood often sways from bitterness and anger to melancholy and nostalgia within the course of mere minutes. On Pitchfork's list of the top 100 albums of the 1970s, this one lands at #5.
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- Overall album rank: #27
- Rank in decade: #10
- Rank in year: #3
- Appears on: 1,587 charts
One of rock's first great double albums represents an epic culmination of everything Dylan was doing at the time. Much of the recording went down in a Nashville studio, where a team of professional musicians waited for hours while Dylan fleshed out his lyrics. The end result was a seamless blend of subjects and styles, with an ongoing legacy to show for it. Consequence of Sound placed “Blonde on Blonde” at #11 on its list of the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time.
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- Overall album rank: #21
- Rank in decade: #7
- Rank in year: #1
- Appears on: 1,924 charts
Featuring early Dylan at the height of his electric power, “Highway 61 Revisited” garners the full support of a tight backing band. The blistering “Like a Rolling Stone” might have sparked a little controversy in its day, but many critics have since dubbed it the greatest rock song of all time. It's but one among a slew of brilliant compositions, which collectively make the album as inventive as it is diverse. According to Best Ever Albums, this is Bob Dylan's greatest musical achievement.