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Bob Dylan has been praised as a standard bearer fot the protest movement and villified as a traitor to the folk music scene. He has known the heights of rock and roll stardom, and experienced some frightening lows as a singer that time nearly forgot. Throughout it all, Dylan has produced several albums that are universally recognized as the best in their genres. For a fan in the beginning stages of amassing a Dylan collection, here are the five essential Bob Dylan albums one needs to start.

1. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Much more polished and listenable than his self-titled first album, Freewheelin' is a coffeehouse concert in a box. The immediacy and unpolished singing style that defined the early Dylan sound can be found in every track of Freewheelin'. Blending covers of folk chestnuts with stunning originals, Dylan shows the first signs of an artist coming into his own on this evocative album.

2. Highway 61 Revisited. Three years and a million miles from his freewheelin' days, Highway 61 shows an artist in flux. The lead single, Like a Rollin' Stone, was the first and most notorious electrical swipe at the traditional folk scene for Dylan, and the one that put him on the map for a generation of young people looking for direction from within their own tribe. Stunning originals and a raucous backing band make Highway 61 Revisited a must have for fans, and a great album to play while driving away from it all.

3. Blonde on Blonde. What more can be said about an album consistently mentioned in the same breath as Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on any list of best rock albums? Top session men culled from Nashville along with a seasoned producer and artist at the top of his form all combined to make the most artistically satisfying of Dylan albums. Blonde on Blonde is a skillful melange of blues, pop folk and country-influenced original songs that defined the 60s Dylan sound. By this point in his career, Dylan had the full attention of his fans, and he gave them plenty of material to study. In fact, his tribute to wife Sara, 'Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands', takes up one entire side of the two-record set. If you can afford only one album, make it Blonde on Blonde.

4. Blood on the Tracks. This is the watershed album of Dylan's later career, and has not diminished in quality or relevancy over the years. Conceived while Dylan was embroiled in both professional and personal conflicts, Blood on the Tracks will take the listener to places he or she never thought an artist of Dylan's status to take them. Many of the songs presented are bittersweet and romantic, telling of the singer's longing for news of a former lover. Other tracks, most notably 'Idiot Wind', are nothing less than the desperate cries of a man bleeding from psychic wounds only he can fully understand. Blood on the Tracks can be a harrowing listening experience, but essential to the fan who wants a better fix on the man behind the music.

5. Oh Mercy. This may not be the first choice of every Dylanphile, but it is highly representational of a mature artist putting his soul into an album. Later albums, particularly his Grammy-winning Time out of Mind, may explore certain issues more deeply, but Oh Mercy was the album that kick-started Dylan's return to mainstream success and acclaim. Ably produced by U2 producer Daniel Lanois, Oh Mercy has a fuller, richer sound that his previous efforts in the 80s and early 90s. Dylan's hushed and subdued vocals combined with Lanois' patented 'depth of field' production make Oh Mercy the first and best of the New Dylan sound.