Sunday, December 31, 2006

Dylan's studio albums ranked


I tried to love each of these recordings like they were my own children

Dylan’s greatest studio albums

Tier 1: albums 1-4… the four greatest albums ever…we’re not worthy

Tier 2: albums 5-20… masterpieces that demand to be listened to start to finish… they all would appear in my top fifty albums of all-time…in my mind their rankings are not set in stone, if I revisit this list six months from now I could flip-flop many of these choices

Tier 3: albums20-29…chock full of gripping material, but some blemishes

Tier 4: albums 30-32…a chore to listen to

1. Highway 61 Revisited – If I were using a ten point scoring system to judge these recordings, this would be the only Bo Derek. Every song, lyric, word, chord and note is perfect. The sequence of songs makes it absolutely compelling start to finish – which is no small task considering it commences with the greatest song ever. Dylan’s at the top his game in every aspect. I knew it was his best album right from the first time I heard Tombstone Blues on the heels of Like a Rolling Stone. Every listen to this is exhilarating, it’s timeless. There are few things in this world I have an absolute 100% conviction in, but here’s one - Highway 61 Revisited is the peak artistic achievement of Western Civilization…. Most Underrated song: From a Buick Six

2. Bringing It All Back Home – In 1965 Dylan needed a dump truck to unload his head. The unloading started here. Side two features one man armed with a guitar and harmonica performing four compositions that brought the world of song to a new level. Are there better political songs than It’s Alright Ma, better poetry in music than Mr. Tambourine Man or more poignant love songs than She Belongs to Me or Love Minus Zero? Is there another album that has as many quotable phrases? Answers: negative. Much praise has been bestowed upon this American treasure and yet we still may not fully appreciate its majesty… Most underrated song: Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream

3. Blood on the Tracks – On an early spring morning in 1987 I heard this for the first time. By the time I finished listening to Idiot Wind, I came to the realization that Dylan was in a league by himself. I proceeded to go out and purchase every tape in Dylan’s catalog over the next month. This music cuts to the bone – it’s the most honest portrayal of relationships in song. Lilly, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts is the only song that doesn’t blow me away…Most underrated song: Buckets of Rain

4. Blonde on Blonde – The best eight songs here can go head to head with Highway 61. Visions of Johanna, Stuck Inside of Mobile and Just like a Woman are so overwhelming - they give the album an unbalanced feeling. Sides one and two are clearly stronger than three or four. However, ranking this as the fourth greatest album in the history of music isn’t much of a slight…Most underrated song: Temporary like Achilles.

5. Desire - Mysticism, spirituality, injustice, protest, romance, life and death intersect with a cast of restless characters that include gypsies, lovers, outlaws and heroes to give you a snapshot of Dylan’s chaotic and fascinating life in the mid 70’s. Since his 1975 – ’76 Rolling Thunder Tour, Dylan rarely plays any of these tunes. Desire doesn’t have the elasticity and timeless qualities of the albums ahead of it on this list, but that’s one of its endearing qualities. This collection of songs always brings you back to the same time and place. It’s all pulled together by a driven acoustic sound highlighted by the distinctive melodies of Scarlet Rivera on violin. There’s nothing like Desire…Most underrated song: Joey

6. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – There may be some flaws, but this album gave birth to A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, Masters of War, Blowin in the Wind, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright and Girl From the North Country, so it has to secure a top spot on this list. Bob Dylan, welcome to the songwriting Hall of Fame after your second record. A guilty pleasure of mine is I Shall Be Free… Most Underrated song: Bob Dylan’s Dream

7. Oh Mercy! – This is where some of you might start scratching your head, but this is a subjective list. Whatever the term Dylanesque means, I think Daniel Lanois helped Bob reach that place on this record. Everything fits perfectly from the moody, dark performances to the sequence of songs. Even though Dylan wasn’t thrilled with the results, he wrote at length about it in Chronicles, so it’s important to him in some way. Few albums draw me in start to finish like Oh Mercy! Ring Them Bells and Man in the Long Black Coat back to back are immense…Most underrated song: What Good Am I?

8. John Wesley Harding – Dylan stopped pushing so hard. On most of his works preceding this, he attempted to create something fresh and exciting, usually succeeding. On JWH, the acoustic troubadour finds a middle ground with the rock star as Dylan manages to combine surreal imagery with traditional folk ballads. I hear this as an amalgamation of everything he had done while pointing towards his immediate future with the last two country influenced tracks. This is a strange brew of songs that works well together and has aged like a fine wine…Most underrated song: As I Went out One Morning.

9. Infidels – Why didn’t Dylan include the best songs from these sessions, Blind Willie Mc Tell or Foot of Pride on Infidels? The answer is irrelevant for this list. Infidels is what it is, a great rock-and-roll performance and a masterpiece. When I initially caught Dylan fever I listened to this repeatedly. Mark Knofler and Mick Taylor’s guitar licks are sublime. Jokerman is a classic and it all sounds good to me. I even like the much maligned Neighborhood Bully, Dylan doesn’t have to be politically correct for me…Most underrated song: Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight.

10. Modern Times – If Dylan starts lifting lines from LL Cool J or Adam Sandler movies I’ll be concerned. America’s greatest songwriter borrows lines from blues legends, classic movies, 19th century poets, and the bible and mixes them together with ideas he has gathered from coincidence to create something wonderful and unique. The music and vocals are warm and relaxed. Nettie Moore captures the essence of who Dylan is as an artist in the year 2006. Ain’t Talkin’ and Working Man’s Blues are instant classics. Modern Times begs for love.…Most underrated song: Beyond the Horizon

11. Planet Waves – An unfairly overlooked album. The Band’s playing and Dylan’s vocals were at their peak on Planet Waves. This is my favorite collection of Dylan love songs with a few hints of the turmoil to come on Blood on the Tracks. Tough Mama is one of my all-time favorites – never understood why the critics didn’t embrace Planet Waves enthusiastically. Most underrated song: Something There is About You

12. Time out of Mind – Dylan finally wins a Grammy Award for album of the year with his twelfth best. Dylan’s songwriting genius shines, but I prefer the sound and performances on Love & Theft and Modern Times. TOOM really builds a head of steam from the fourth song on. Love Sick, Tryin’ To Get to Heaven, Not Dark Yet, and Highlands are major works. Most underrated song: Can’t Wait

13. Slow Train Coming – Thank you Jesus. You don’t have love the message to be moved by the incredible spirit of the music. There’s nothing ambiguous about what Dylan had to say here, yet there’s still something transcendent about Slow Train. Dylan travels a new road – the passion and energy are palpable. This recording comes at an intriguing point in American and Dylan history. Most underrated Song: Precious Angel

14. Love & Theft – Some may say it started with TOOM, but I feel Dylan, the elder statesmen of American music, commences here. In the sixties he pushed music into new realms. On L&T he tries to return music back to it roots in distinctive fashion. The mix of musical styles is satisfying, but there are a couple of performances that don’t agree with me or else it might have landed in the top ten. You gotta love Mississippi and High Water. Most underrated song: Bye and Bye

15. Street Legal - Starting with the mysterious Senor and ending with the epic Where Are You Tonight?, side two is brilliant. Throughout Street Legal we hear a disillusioned legend, feel his pain and see his scars. It was a rough period for Dylan personally, but it makes for great art. The first half of this album sounds a tad awkward, yet it has its moments. You haven’t experienced Street Legal unless you own the remastered version. Most underrated song: True Love Tends to Forget

16. Another Side of Bob Dylan – If I were to rate albums based strictly on songwriting quality and importance, this would rate higher. But I love interactions between musicians and a fuller sound than one man with a guitar and harmonica. Chimes of Freedom blows my mind. I have a predilection for these recordings that pave the way for Dylan’s upcoming creative outbursts. Ballad in Plain D is another guilty pleasure of mine. Most underrated song: Spanish Harlem Incident

17. The Basement Tapes: It’s not easy for me to rank this one. These are intimate conversations which were never meant to be released and contain certain songs that were dominated by The Band. However, this album produced numerous classics that would be reworked and covered for years to come. There’s also a fascinating chemistry between Dylan and The Band that was captured and will never be duplicated. Most underrated song: Yeah Heavy and a Bottle of Bread

18. The Times They Are A-Changin’ – I can’t put my finger on it, but I’ve never loved the sound of the first side. There’s some clever songwriting there, but I don’t crave listening to it. The flip side is as good as it gets in every way. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll is remarkable. Forty plus years after the crime, the song is still relevant thanks to the chorus…Most underrated song: Only a Pawn in Their Game

19. Under the Red Sky – I wasn’t impressed with my first fifteen listens, but this Don Was production keeps growing on me. I now regard Under the Red Sky as a masterpiece. This is one case where Dylan went into the studio without much focus, but the magic spilled out onto the recording. Cats in the Well and God Knows are powerful tunes that feature some of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s last studio licks. The title track is a charming delight. 2 X 2 is the only composition that doesn’t cut the mustard…Most underrated song: Handy Dandy (I wish Dylan would play this live, it would sound great now that he’s organ-grinding.)

20. Nashville Skyline – Dylan sings loves praises in sugar-coated rhymes for 27 easy going minutes. I listen to this CD a lot. From the opening duet of Girl of the North Country with Johnny Cash through the piece de resistance Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You, Dylan’s performances are irresistible. It’s the least demanding album from Dylan’s oeuvre on the listener. Nashville Skyline is the last work I put in the masterpiece category… Most underrated song: I Threw It All Away

21. Empire Burlesque – I think Bruce Springsteen said something to the effect that if somebody else released Empire Burlesque he would be labeled a genius and the next Bob Dylan. There’s a little too much female back-up singing and an overproduced 80’s sound, but Empire has several numbers I love. Seeing the Real You At Last and I’ll Remember you excite me. Dylan never lost his ability to write or perform in the 80’s, he just failed to properly convert his genius in the studio… Most underrated song: Something’s Burning Baby

22. Saved – It took a while, but I’ve warmed up to this album. There’s several outstanding tracks led by Solid Rock. Dylan sounds a little too comfortable – no real sparks fly on this record. Saved has a serene spiritual quality – perfect listening for a Sunday afternoon…Most underrated song: Saving Grace

23. New Morning – A hodge-podge of fun songs that’s especially strong up front. As a whole this album doesn’t thrill me, it’s lacking something – maybe it needs one five minute classic tucked in somewhere. Most underrated song: Day of the Locusts

24. Shot of Love – With Every Grain of Sand as its foundation, this should have been much better. There’s some remarkable songwriting here, but there’s a lack of warmth in the performances. The music doesn’t fire me up. Lenny Bruce is a hoot…Most underrated song: In the Summertime

25. Knocked out Loaded – This has been a punching bag for too long. The studio production is awful, but I dig every song except I’ve Got My Mind Made Up. Dylan’s vocals are alive, You Wanna Ramble and Precious Memories are solid covers, and Brownsville Girl is a gem… Most underrated song ever: Maybe Someday

26. Bob Dylan – Albums comprised of mostly covers don’t fair too well on this list. There’s nothing about Dylan’s debut I don’t like. It does a nice job of capturing what he must have sounded like in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village. Song to Woody is heroic – not a bad debut composition! There a lot of satisfying down and dirty folk/ blues here…Most underrated song…See That My Grave Is Kept Clean

27. Down in the Groove – My first album after converting to Dylanism. The opening and closing pairs of covers are sweet. Things sag in the middle with the exception of Silvio. The lyrics were written by Robert Hunter for and possibly about Dylan. Silvio went on to be a nice concert staple for many years. I recognize the faults here and as long as I skip a few songs, I enjoy listening to it…Most underrated song…Shenandoah

28. Word Gone Wrong…Although it’s all covers, it’s a nice cohesive work. Word Gone Wrong, Love Henry, and Blood in My Eyes are the strongest offerings. I greeted this with some apprehension at first, but I now dig it. It’s superior to As Good As I Been To You…Most underrated song: Two Soldiers

29. Dylan (1973) – These outtakes from Self Portrait might be better than that debacle. There’s some weak stuff on this never to meant to be released album. However, I love Mr. Bojangles and Spanish is the Loving Tongue. Another guilty pleasure of mine is I Can’t Help Falling in Love. The quality of the song arrangements on most of these numbers are solid…Most underrated song: Lilly of the West

30. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: It’s almost unjust having to include this on the list. It’s a soundtrack for a movie, not really a full complete work of art. Sure it produced Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, but I favor most other versions over this one…Most underrated song: Billy 1

31. Self Portrait: Dylan succeeded in putting out a crappy album which was his goal here. I find it difficult to listen to this in one sitting (I can’t eat all that stuff in a single bite). Bits and pieces are digestible. Even at his least inspired, Dylan still produced some interesting and quirky jingles…Most underrated song: Early Morning Rain

32. As Good As I Been To You – 1991 was brutal year for me as a Dylan fan after seeing his Grammy debacle and a pair of awful summer concerts. I was hoping this 1992 album would excite me. Dylan’s vocal performance is dreadful, I loathe his voice here. The collection of covers is interesting, but this recording catches Dylan at his singing nadir. I tried liking this many years later, still nothing…Most underrated song: Froggie Went a Courtin’ (he did ride ah ha)


kevin cramsey said...

You're a pretty generous fan, liking more of the crap that the great man has offered up than most of us can tolerate. You actually might be the first person I ever heard of who liked "Joey." I hear him do it live with the Dead and it was even worse than the interminable studio version. To be honest, I have never understood the critical praise for the Desire album. "Hurriacane" is the only really good song, but the inaccuracies in the lyric are now too much for me to take and I can't listen to it anymore. Dylan got sued for this one and rightfully so. Nonetheless, I appreciated your critiques overall. You were spot on with "Good as I Been to You," that voice is truly wretched. Sounds like a cocaine-ravaged voice, booze too.

Unknown said...

Kevin Cramsey,
Desire is a masterpiece. Joe may be long, but it is a "Like a Rolling Stone" kind of long. Calling it interminable is a sin. The rhythm on each track in Desire is upbeat and catchy. The song writing is amazing; it can be interpreted in so many ways. Emmylou Harris is brilliant with the vocals she brings to the table on Desire. Excuse the french, but fuck Hurricane's incorrect facts. Have you ever heard of poetic license! Damn, just enjoy it. He's basically singing an editorial, so he is bound to bend some facts!
Thank you,
The Workdawg
p.s. Learn how to spell Hurricane you ignorant fucker.

Kraftman said...

Viva Bob Dylan! Have you checked out the full Bob Dylan multimedia discography at

It's got every Bob Dylan release with lyrics, YouTube videos and wikis! Keep on rockin' in the free world Bob Dylan fans!

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