Ranking Bob Dylan’s 33 Studio Albums: No. 16 — ‘The Basement Tapes’

August 16th, 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. 16 of 33: The Basement Tapes (1975, mostly recorded in 1967)

Where do I start with this interesting hodgepodge of a collection? I recall after first getting into Bob Dylan with Blood On The Tracks, this album came out to much hoopla, probably because Blood On the Tracks was so popular.

The songs were mostly recorded The Band in Woodstock, New York, in 1967, not long after Dylan left the limelight after his 1966 motorcycle accident.

What’s interesting about the work done at these laid-back sessions is how they predated a direction toward country/mellow rock at a time when most music was complicated, heavy and tremendously produced. These songs show a more mellow, homey and primitive approach than Sgt. Pepper or anything Jimi Hendrix, Cream and others were putting out at the time. Even more noticeable is the difference in Dylan’s approach just a year after Blonde On Blonde came out. It’s almost as if he was trying to get away from the touring, pressure and intense amount of creativity that marked the previous five years. This is such a marked contrast from the previous three LPs, for sure.

The album includes a host of songs just by The Band, and while some of them are pretty darn good (I especially love Robbie Robertson’s “Yazoo Street Scandal”), it takes away from this being a true Dylan album. Many Dylan fans criticized this as well.

What I like about this album is its unabashed, goofy humor. There are several songs that are amusing, if not downright funny. I recall singing “Tiny Montgomery” and “Million Dollar Bash” with friends in cars while doing legal and/or illegal substances (and sometimes even while not doing those things). Dylan has this strange tone in his singing, like a combo of Southern drawl and Western hick, but it’s appealing for the type of lyrical and musical content here.

“Lo And Behold” is another favorite, and also fun. “Please Mrs. Henry” is also funny, and Dylan almost loses it in terms of cracking up during the singing. Some that attempt humor don’t wok as well, like “Open The Door, Homer.”

This LP includes two songs that are inferior to versions to ones on ‘Greatest Hits Vol. II: “Crash On The Levee (Down In The Flood)” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” Dylan is much more into it on the Greatest Hits versions. In fact, some have wondered why “I Shall Be Released” and “Quinn The Eskimo” weren’t included here.

For me, all in tall, this is a solid double LP. But double albums are sometimes hard to rate because there are almost always clinkers along the way. I just find it very interesting with enough solid numbers to bring it into the top half of the rankings.

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

  • Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood) is memorable from The Basement Tapes because of the swing that Dylan puts into the vocals, and Garth Hudson’s wonderful organ flourishes and solo. As you point out, there are other versions that have totally different feelings. On Greatest Hits II it is a completely acoustic outing, with his Woodstock neighbor Happy Traum on second guitar. On Masked and Anonymous, the song takes on an almost ominous tone with Dylan’s vocal and his powerful stage band. On a side note, I’ve also wondered why “Get Your Rocks Off” from the basement era has never been released on any Dylan collection. It’s a great song. Am looking forward to your future posts! — Walt Campbell of Muscle and Bone: Songs of Bob Dylan. muscleandbone.us