Ranking Bob Dylan’s 33 Studio Albums: No. 15 — ‘Modern Times’

August 17th, 2012

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.)

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. 15 of 33: Modern Times (2006)

This was Bob Dylan’s first No. 1 album in the U.S. since Desire (1976), making Dylan the oldest artist (65) to hit No. 1 out of the gate.

The album has the blues-based feel of 2001’s Love And Theft, but you’ll also find some ’30s-style ballads sprinkled in. Dylan’s voice, ravaged by time, is more tempered here, a bit softer. But it’s still hard-edged, and the music has bite.

There was some controversy when this came out, because Dylan basically took old blues numbers and re-wrote them (borrowing lines from different places), and he didn’t credit anyone in the usual “traditional arrangement” way. It was strange to see him taking credit for “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” for example. If you can get past that, there’s some real solid stuff here.

The opener, “Thunder On The Mountain,” is done Chuck-Berry style, kinda like “Johnny B. Goode.” “Spirit On The Water” is one of those ’30s-style songs. “When The Deal Goes Down” has a Paul Butterfield-style “Mystery Train” sound to it. “Someday Baby” swings and moves along nicely. “The Levee’s Gonna Break” is excellent, and I love the little stretched note that continues throughout the song. There are some nice mini-solos in it, too.

Probably the most interesting track is the finale, “Ain’t Talkin’.” It’s a mysterious song, seemingly coming out of the fog. The guitars are dreamy, and what do the lyrics mean? It’s wonderful.

This sure beats the 1980s synthesized stuff he threw at us. I hope he does this kind of stuff ’till he’s 90.

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

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