Bob Dylan's Best and Worst Album Covers

Musical Genius, Yes. Skilled Creator of Cover Art? Sometimes.

By Jay Michaelson

Published October 02, 2012, issue of October 05, 2012.
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The Worst

5. Dylan (1973)

Really, this cover shouldn’t count, since the album was cobbled together without Dylan’s authorization, and until the digital era was quite hard to find at all. (It’s still unstreamable on bobdylan.com.) It’s a terrible collection of leftovers and covers, and its tossed-off, dated and clichéd album cover signifies that. Pure dreck.



4. Empire Burlesque (1985)

There were several bad Dylan albums in the 1980s, and all had bad covers: “Shot of Love,” “Knocked Out Loaded,” but worst of all, I think, is the slickly produced, badly written and generally woeful “Empire Burlesque.” The cover conveys everything that’s wrong about this album: the desperate attempt to remain current and fashionable (computer font! Miami Vice jacket!), the obscuring of what’s good about Dylan by superficial crap, and a factory-made look and feel that convinced all but the most faithful that Dylan had become a has-been.


3. Saved (1980)

Eerily prefiguring “Tempest,” the cover of “Saved” has a similar serif font and thoughtless aesthetic. The album is a poor retread: Where “Slow Train Coming” was spiritual and sincere, “Saved” was a pedantic sermon. The cover reflects that. “Saved” has Dylan performing in a kind of aura sent from heaven, in some amorphously cubist goo that reflects the messy production of the hastily thrown-together album. If you want to hate the Christian Dylan, hate “Saved.”


2. Planet Waves (1974)

I’ll probably catch some flak for this one, since the cover is Dylan’s own work, but I’m sorry, this drawing sucks. Dylan’s unreleased work with The Band, “The Basement Tapes,” came with a great cover that captured the whimsy and authenticity of the ensemble. But his only properly recorded album with them has a misdrawn peace symbol, a bad rendition of the Band’s members and a tossed-off feel; it belongs on a cocktail napkin. Worse, like the cover of “Tempest,” it undermines what’s good inside: an underrated release in an underperforming cover.


1. Tempest (2012)

And that brings us to Dylan’s new release, complete with 1983-era lipstick title font (see Klymaxx) and bargain-basement art direction. Did someone really get paid for this? There are better production values on Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” I think Dylan (or his team) is trying to evoke a mixture of the sacred and the profane here, since “Tempest” started out as an album of religious songs. But what he got looks cheap, like a first-year design student’s first foray into Photoshop. A disaster.

Dishonorable mentions: “Love & Theft,” “Christmas in the Heart,” “Shot of Love,” “Knocked Out Loaded,” “Another Side of Bob Dylan.”

Jay Michaelson, a contributing editor for the Forward, designed both album covers for his old garage band, The Swains.


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