Ranking Bob Dylan’s 33 Studio Albums: No. 1 — ‘Blonde On Blonde’

September 11th, 2012

By Bill Spurge

Last year, I decided to complete my collection of Bob Dylan albums. I was a few albums and some odds and ends short, so I bought 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 might be coming soon. In the meantime, here’s the finale of my album-by-album ranking of Dylan’s 33 studio LPs (NOTE: Before today, Dylan had actually released 34 studio albums, but I’ve chosen not to include 2009’s Christmas In the Heart.) Thanks for sticking with me for these 33 stories! If you don’t agree with these rankings (or even if you do), please let me know in the comments or on Facebook.

Of course, these 33 album-ranking stories have taken us right up to the release of Tempest, Dylan’s new album, which came out this morning, September 11. Rolling Stone gave it five stars. Looks like I’ll have to re-evaluate my rankings at some point!

No. 1 of 33: Blonde On Blonde (1966)

When Blood On The Tracks became a part of my life, I immediately needed to know more about Dylan’s music. I knew some older guys who were into him, and the critics had always loved his work, but I was out in left field, blind to anything beyond the two Greatest Hits albums I owned.

But once I heard Desire and finally had a few dollars in my pocket, I knew it was time to explore further. In 1977, I bought a book about the top 200 albums of all time and noticed all these Dylan albums ranked very highly. I embarked on a campaign to purchase all the highly rated albums and work my way through the list. Blonde On Blonde would be a quick purchase (on 8-track — ugh!).

It didn’t take long to realize what I’d been missing. I quickly became enamored with Highway 61, Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Nashville Skyline and the like. But I always seemed to turn back to Blonde On Blonde as my most enjoyable listen, alongside Blood On The Tracks. And it remains so.

When I think of this album, I think of a man who is in a zone unlike anyone could imagine, other than John Lennon and Paul McCartney. After the mesmerizing Bringing It All Back Home and the scintillating Highway 61 Revisited, this legend had one more blast of artistic brilliance left in him before he became merely more-than-mortal. He was at the top of his game. Even the album cover depicts a man who is so self-assured, standing in the bitter cold of a New York City winter, seemingly oblivious because he is so cool and confident.

When I think of this climactic album of a three-LP run that could only be matched by Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, I think of Dylan laying out all the soul-pouring he could summon out of a period only his mind can see and his heart could feel. The finished product, at almost 73 minutes long, is believed to be the first two-LP rock album (at least by a major artist) and what I believe to be his finest masterpiece.
Like Blood On The Tracks, this album started out haphazardly in a New York studio, with musicians grumbling about the lack of finished product, Dylan’s tinkering, and the leaving-the musicians-in-the-dark aspect of what he was trying to accomplish.

It was suggested he go to Nashville, of all places, to get things going. He had already worked in the earlier session with The Hawks, who would later become The Band. But now there would be several other musicians backing Dylan, including Charlie McCoy, the ever-present Al Kooper, a blind pianist named “Pig” Robbins and Ken Buttrey, who would later play the bongo/cowbell sounds on “Lay Lady Lay.”

There was a piano in Dylan’s hotel room (Why don’t we all have instruments in our hotel rooms?), and Al Kooper would play it while Dylan sat and wrote songs (Perhaps inspired by Kooper’s playing, he kept getting coming up with more lyrics and music). There were no cassette machines to get things down in those days, and when Dylan had completed some material, Kooper would head to the studio in advance of Dylan’s arrival and fill the band in on what Dylan was looking for.

The result was an amalgam of songs so diverse and inspiring.

Journalist Bill Spurge of New York City has been a Bob Dylan fan since 1974.

  • Ed

    I am a Dylan fanatic…I’ve driven hundreds of miles to see him live… 6 times so far! I own his whole album library in Vinyl as well as CD. His newest stuff might be his best…Tempest is incredible. I agree with you about Blood on the Tracks! fyi: