Ranking Bob Dylan’s 33 Studio Albums: No. 4 — ‘Highway 61 Revisited’

September 6th, 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 is coming soon. In the meantime, here’s my album-by-album ranking of Dylan’s 33 studio LPs (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. 4 of 33: Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Quite a few people would rank this No. 1. And it would be No. 1 for any artist besides The Beatles and a couple of others (and Dylan, of course). It’s sits at No. 4 because of the three great albums above it. And let me say for the record that I wavered between this and my No. 3 until the very end. I played these two albums perhaps five “final times” each before giving the unnamed LP the slight edge at No. 3. It was extra innings but a complete game for both.

No one was doing heavy numbers combined with lyrical ferocity like this in 1965. Dylan seems light years ahead of everyone in terms of a in-your-face, heavy rock sound. Everyone points to Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath as the original heavy metallers, but this LP, while not what we would call “heavy metal,” is about as heavy as it got at the time.

When you hear the opening snare on “Like a Rolling Stone,” you’re in for an amazing, chilling ride. It has great chord progressions, a combination of ripping guitars and sweeping keyboard unlike anything heard before it. (All by accident: Al Kooper just started fooling with the organ during the session; Dylan loved it so much, he kept it in). Who or what is it about? A woman knocked down a peg? Society in general? The political world? Someone who had it all and lost it? All of the above? No matter. Amazing.

“Tombstone Blues” benefits from the guitar work of Mike Bloomfield, who was known for his work with my favorite blues group, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Each little solo at the end of each intense verse has a different, interesting lick to it that drives the song along like a train in a hurry going from coast to coast. The fact that the title of the album harkens to the old road that led to the Delta blues ties in very nicely here.

“It Takes a Lot To Laugh, It Takes a Train To Cry”: I just love the way it bounces along like a lumbering blues number with excellent instrumentation. It has some nice, descriptive lyrics too. “From A Buick 6” is probably the “weakest” number, a real blueser with heavy bass and harmonica. “Ballad Of a Thin Man” includes one of the greatest rock piano pieces I’ve ever heard. It goes so well with the corny lyrics. But what’s special is that going along with that piano is Kooper’s organ, making this something out of a foggy murder mystery. And the scathing lyrics, intended for everyone, but seemingly directed at people who don’t understand the new generation, just send a chill down the spine.

“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” apparently has to do with everything going wrong on a trip to Mexico. It has solid keyboards throughout. And then there’s the climactic finale, the 11-minute “Desolation Row,” which has one of my favorite melodies ever, with a flamenco-sounding guitar. There’s this great poetry wrapped around all these amazing characters. The man playing that flamenco-sounding guitar is Charlie McCoy, a Nashville musician. That gorgeous melody just keeps me listening forever.

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