Bob Dylan, the self-described “song and dance man” whom David Bowie once remarked possessed a “voice like sand and glue”, brings his ever-evolving circus of song back to Australia this month. STACK navigates a cavernous catalogue.

Dylan: you get him, or you don’t. To some he’s an icon, a storyteller par excellence whose melding of folklore, myth, poetry and groundbreaking rock changed music. To others he’s an irascible, wheezy old man trading on long-departed glories, muttering unintelligibly over some serviceable but hardly life-changing twelve-bar blues. But Bob Dylan – born Robert Allen Zimmerman to Latvian Jewish immigrants in Hibbing, Minnesota in May 1941 – has sold over 100 million records in his storied six decade career, played to hundreds of thousands of people around the world, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and was awarded The Nobel Prize for Literature (to his apparent bewilderment) in 2016.

Even naysayers admit there is something remarkable about the man. Admittedly, his now gurgling death-wheeze of a voice can be hard going; but once you fall in love with the imagery – and the passion – and recognise the brilliance of his phrasing, the ruined pipes seem a mild complaint.

The ’60s

Dylan Highway 61 RevisitedHighway 61 Revisited (1965)

Highway 61 runs through America, from Dylan’s home state of Minnesota all the way to the fabled flood plains of the Mississippi Delta. But Dylan’s road ran to the future: listen to anyone else in 1965 – including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or any of his contemporaries – and this record proves how devastatingly, unyieldingly ahead of the pack he was. Even if he’d never recorded another note, this record makes Dylan a legend. Starting as acid-drenched, Chicago blues-tinged, post-beat poetry, its tide roared over the cultural sand; its sheer breadth and magnitude rendering all around it pale and trifling. Before Highway 61 Revisited, there was ‘popular music’, folk, early rock, and blues. After it, there was art, pure rock’n’roll, love, hate and poetry, and somehow it all existed in this one single long-playing record.

Picks: Ballad of a Thin Man, Highway 61 Revisited, Like a Rolling Stone
Available on: Vinyl, CD

Dylan Blonde On BlondeBlonde On Blonde (1966)

If Highway 61 Revisited blew the ‘60s open, its sprawling successor Blonde on Blonde – recorded with a clan of superbly intuitive American country musicians and future guitarist/leader of The Band, Robbie Robertson – strikes Dylan’s much-vaunted “thin, wild mercury sound”, and from there mines a rich vein of love songs, unhinged blues, sprawling poems and flip-a-day whimsy; it’s his high watermark and is unsurpassed in his catalogue. Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, a 16-minute opus he composed for his then-wife, channelled TS Eliot and all the music of the ages, and originally took up the entire fourth side of the double vinyl set.

Picks: Visions of Johanna, Leopard Pillbox Hat, Fourth Time Around…. Oh, ALL OF IT.
Available on: Double vinyl, CD

The ’70s

Dylan Blood On The TracksBlood On The Tracks (1975)

A literal reading would have this emotionally-charged set of bereft love ballads inspired by Dylan’s marital woes. But as ever, this rivetingly-performed set of mainly acoustic songs weaves a wider world on repeated listens. Sure, there’s pain in spades, but by using a break-up as a story setting (rather than simply a subject), Dylan’s sense of possibility – and ours – expands exponentially. You can travel worlds in this album – from fishing trawlers and basement music nights to travelling circuses and flights of fancy to faraway places on other peoples’ money – in under 40 minutes.

Picks: Tangled Up in Blue, Shelter from the Storm
Available on: 180 gram vinyl, CD

Dylan Slow Train ComingSlow Train Coming (1979)

Dylan’s fire and brimstone conversion to a particularly unbending and evangelical brand of Christianity in the late ’70s shocked his fans but (initially) reinvigorated his music. Produced by Atlantic Records legend Jerry Wexler (Aretha Franklin), Slow Train Coming is a powerful listening experience that doesn’t waste a note, produced to perfection.

Picks: Gotta Serve Somebody, Man Gave Names to all the Animals
Available on: 180 gram vinyl, CD

1997-Present

Dylan Time Out Of MindTime Out Of Mind (1997)

A certain kind of re-birth: it can’t be compared to his true masterpieces, but it’s engaged, wholly expressive, and includes some of his better latter-day songwriting. But most essentially, it made him relevant again; no longer the wavering oddball with an often only faint grip over his surroundings, Dylan stamped an authority all over Time Out Of Mind, undiminished ever since.

Picks: Love Sick, Cold Irons Bound
Available on: 180 gram vinyl, CD

Dylan No Direction HomeNo Direction Home (2005)

Martin Scorsese’s 2004 opus on Dylan barely unravels Bob’s abundant and complex mysteries, but crucially, it paints a clear picture of the America that created him: the post-war rush, the vast tracts of land to travel in, the tomes read, pages turned and people encountered – this is how myths get made. Dylan is encountered at close quarters over several junctures of his storied career; not enough to truly know him, but enough to understand the world that made him – which is crucial – because you can then understand how Dylan remade the story.
Available on: DVD, CD soundtrack

Dylan TempestTempest (2012)

Often overlooked, Tempest saw Dylan attempt – and sometimes succeed in – a return to the long form verse/chorus storytelling idiom that traversed the ‘cinema of the mind’ that his masterful works so wondrously explored. The songs paint illuminating stories and the music is the perfect soundtrack for the unwinding tall tales. Twelve-bar blues stomps are largely absent here.

Picks: Scarlet Town, Tin Angel
Available on: CD