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. 32 of 33: Dylan (1973)
Many people think Dylan should be ranked dead last, but I place it above Knocked Out Loaded (No. 33 of 33, SEE STORY) because it is made up of covers and outtakes from previous LPs — and Bob Dylan didn’t even want it to be released (In other words, Dylan was much more “responsible” for the poor quality of Knocked Out Loaded).
Dylan was compiled and issued by Columbia with no input from Dylan, who had announced he was leaving the label to release a new album (Planet Waves) on Asylum.
Actually, much of Dylan isn’t from the Self Portrait sessions, as most people believe, but from the New Morning sessions (seven of the nine songs). It reached No. 17 in the U.S. despite its poor reception. You can’t get this one on CD in the U.S. — but you can get it, ahem, by other means.
I actually like the first two tracks, “Lily of the West,” which has an old Western feel, and, believe it or not, Dylan’s version of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” You might Laugh at the thought of Dylan doing a serious Elvis number, but I think he did a good job of making it very soulful, and the backup singers are fine.
After that, the LP becomes mediocre, if not distasteful. A cover of Johnny Cash’s “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” is one of the worst things he ever did. “Sarah Jane” is catchy, but it’s only halfway decent.
The intrigue does come from his versions of “Mr. Bojangles” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” if only because they represent a look into the mind of Dylan and the music he was listening to at the time. These are two very good songs, but Dylan does them no justice and adds no spice. He doesn’t outright sabotage them; it’s just that he could have done better — or maybe he was just fooling around with them and just didn’t care.
If you want to blame Dylan for recording this material in the first place, it’s understandable. If you want to dismiss the album on the grounds that Dylan didn’t want it out (and he still doesn’t), that’s fine, too. Either way, it’s not a worthy collection, save the first two tracks.
Journalist Bill Spurge of New York City has been a Bob Dylan fan since 1974.