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. 5 of 33: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)
I guess this is my favorite pre-Beatles album. It's certainly one of the most intellectually stimulating albums ever made; it's hard to believe a 21-year-old wrote almost every song, including "Blowin' In The Wind," "Masters of War," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."
And while those songs are legendary, there are a few others that are personal, lesser-known favorites, like "Oxford Town," "I Shall Be Free" and "Corrina, Corrina."
What's even more amazing is that there were at least two dozen outtakes, some of which are great, some of which remain unreleased.
And, of course, there's the famous album cover with Dylan and his old flame, Suze Rotolo, walking at the corner of Jones Street and West 4th Street in NYC's Greenwich Village. The relationship was already disintegrating, and some of the songs ("Don't Think Twice," for instance) reveal the pain of the situation.
I don't really need to go deeply into songs like "Blowin' In The Wind." Everybody knows them. The LP's opener still applies and always will. It's just incredible, lyrically. Same for "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." It's so sad and poignant, and again, timeless. Dylan would downplay the Cold War angle, saying the lyrics weren't about nuclear war, just bad things that are going to happen in general. Though many people think he wrote "A Hard Rain" and "Blowin'" in response to the Cuban Missile crisis, they were already written and were being performed before that scary, Cold War event.
Another topical number is "Oxford Town," perhaps the most underrated song on the album. It centers around the hard-to-believe-today fact that a U.S. Air Force man named James Meredith enrolled to be the first black student at the university of Mississippi but was not allowed in by the segregated university and the governor. Federal troops had to be called in to let him in.
One of my favorite songs is a 1920s number called "Corrina, Corrina," a slow, melodic piece that is sung quite nicely. It's the only song that included a backup band. "Girl From The North Country" is a beautiful song about the longing for a girl who might not remember him. This is the one he covered with Johnny Cash on Nashville Skyline, and it's rumored to be about an old girlfriend from Minnesota.
Speaking of girlfriends, "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" is certainly one of my favorite Dylan songs, and it seems to be clearly directed toward Rotolo, who left on a trip to Italy while Dylan was working on this LP, marking perhaps the beginning of the end of the relationship. Pointed lyrics sung with conviction, but also kind of sarcastic. It really sums up a lot of relationships that have gone sour.
I love the closing track, "I Shall Be Free" (not to be confused with "I Shall Be Free #10" from Another Side of Bob Dylan). It's just a fun one to sing, with references to stars at the time. It seems to take the edge off some of the serious numbers that preceded it.
There just wasn't anyone coming close to the writing and performance of this work in 1963. I believe this is the album that set the tone for the song-writing process followed by most of the great artists of the next 10 years. It was the seed that spawned the greatest song-writing period in history. Everyone owes that to Dylan.
Journalist Bill Spurge of New York City has been a Bob Dylan fan since 1974.