Ranking Bob Dylan’s 33 Studio Albums: No. 31 — ‘Self Portrait’

July 18th, 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. 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. 31 of 33: Self Portrait (1970)

Most people would have this album ranked in the bottom two, so I’m pretty close.

There are some people who actually don’t think Self Portrait is such a bad album. It actually reached No. 4 on the U.S. charts.

It’s not that all the songs are horrible, but there are very few songs that are good enough to support the weight of the overall mediocrity/weakness of the release. And that’s not good in the case of a double album. Also, the album is mostly cover versions that simply aren’t that well done — much like Dylan.

Much of the LP has that country sound employed on the previous year’s Nashville Skyline, but with not nearly with the same results.

Let’s start with the good: “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo).” We all know the Manfred Mann version, which is outstanding and deserves its status as a pop classic. But I like Dylan’s version. It seems impromptu, and although it’s a little sloppy, you get the feeling it’s probably intentional. It’s a very fun song, and I love the guitars. Another good one is “Copper Kettle,” which is a positive look at moonshining. Joan Baez covered that one earlier.

Besides that, there are lousy versions of “Blue Moon” and “The Boxer” (I don’t know if Dylan brought in another singer or double-tracked his own voice, but the harmony on “The Boxer” sucks). “Belle Isle” is horrible; was he trying to do “Ferry Across The Mersey”? The opening track, “All The Tired Horses,” begins with promise, but a girls’ choir sings the same lyrics over and over again — enough already. “Minstrel Boy” and the instrumental “Wigwam” are equally bad.

This is the last of the three Dylan LPs I can totally do without. Up next are a few albums that have some good points but are still below average. Be sure to check out my other Dylan-ranking stories here and here.

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

  • Aw, don’t you like “Wigwam”? Someone once called it “3 A.M. After the Bullfight.” I haven’t listened to this album in a long time, but when I do go back I agree with you that there are a few gems, and some that I’d rather skip over, but I usually listen to them anyway. “Minstrel Boy” was interesting at the time, because it was obviously a new Dylan song, performed only once, at the Isle of Wight. “Gotta Travel On” really works for me as well as “Days of 49.” I heard Dylan do “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know About Her” when he was backed by Tom Petty in 1986, and it was great. Try to find that and listen to it. I would put this album somewhere in the bottom third, but ahead of “Down in the Groove.” — Walt Campbell of Muscle and Bone: Songs of Bob Dylan. muscleandbone.us