By Bill Spurge
A year ago, I decided to complete my collection of Bob Dylan albums. I was a few albums and some odds and ends short, but I purchased most and swapped items with a co-worker and fellow Dylan fanatic.
Then, in honor of the 50th anniversary of his first album, 1962’s Bob Dylan, I set out to rank every Dylan album and song. A monumental task, indeed. I listened to album after album, four or five times through. Even albums I knew in my sleep were placed under scrutiny. Then came the hardest part: making the list. The albums came easier. The songs, not so easy.
My song list is coming soon. In the meantime, here’s my album-by-album ranking of Dylan’s 33 studio albums (NOTE: Dylan has actually released 34 studio albums, but I’ve chosen not to include 2009’s Christmas In the Heart. I have to have some ground rules.)
These 33 album-ranking stories will take us right up to the release of Tempest, Dylan’s new album, which is scheduled to come out September 11. Enjoy!
No. 33 of 33: Knocked Out Loaded (1986)
I chose this album as Dylan’s worst for several reasons. Obviously, I feel the song content isn’t very good, and unlike a couple of his other reviled LPs such as Dylan and Self Portrait, he was responsible for the writing or co-writing on much of this LP. Actually there are only two Dylan-only compositions, but three are-co-written by him and there are three covers.
The main problem with this album, and why I chose it “over” a couple of others as worst, is its un-Dylanlike cheesiness. It seems ’80s-contrived, and that’s not good. He bought into the MTV ’80s thing, selling out for perhaps the only time in his career. There are cheesy synthesizers, and “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore” has what sounds like a drum machine. Many songs include female background singers, which often works, but not here.
The most embarrassing moment is the song “They Killed Him,” which was written by Kris Kristofferson. It’s about Gandhi, and Gandhi would have had a cow — and eaten it, even while on a hunger strike — had he heard it. It’s the only time Dylan went totally cheesy on a song. There’s a part where a children’s choir comes in out of nowhere and sings the chorus. It’s so bad, it’s comical. The synthesizers are just as bad.
Many people rank this album very low, but they keep it from being ranked last because it features “Brownsville Girl,” a popular song among critics and fans. The problem is, I don’t like “Brownsville Girl.” It’s 11 minutes long, and it doesn’t inspire me at all — as “Desolation Row” does. So it doesn’t “save” the LP for me.
If there’s one song I like, it’s the last track, “Under Your Spell.” It has a nice melody, it’s convincing and the chorus works well.
Rolling Stone called Knocked Out Loaded “the absolute bottom of the Dylan barrel,” and I concur. I read that Columbia has yet to bother to re-master it.
Knocked Out Loaded is the only Dylan album that doesn’t sound like Dylan being himself, for better or worse. So I rank it last.
If you own this disc, let us know how you feel!
Journalist Bill Spurge of New York City has been a Bob Dylan fan since 1974.