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. 6 of 33: Nashville Skyline (1969)
Why do I love this LP so much? For starters, the songs are very catchy and fun to sing. The lesser-known songs are just plain fun. And there are three songs that are huge personal favorites: "Lay Lady Lay," "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" and "I Threw It All Away." Also, pedal steel guitar, which is prominent on this record, is one of my favorite instruments. And because Dylan is a great songwriter -- regardless of the genre.
Dylan recorded a host of songs with Johnny Cash while working on this album, and they settled on "Girl From The North Country," which appeared (quite nicely) on Freewheelin' many years earlier. This is a unique duet, to say the least, but I think they pull it off nicely. I love the instrumental "Nashville Skyline Rag." Guitar, keyboards, drum brushes: Simple and fine.
"I Threw It All Away" is beautiful and one of Dylan's most transparent songs, lyrically. He really seems to regret losing her, and it's a very sad song. "Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand ..." Double entendre?
"Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" closes out the album in great style. I love the pedal steel working with the "regular" guitar and the keyboards. I love when he sings, "Throw my ticket uut the window, throw my suitcase out there too; Throw my troubles out the door, I don't need them anymore, for tonight I'll be staying here with you." The pedal steel wails in a solo near the end, making it one of my favorite musical parts of a Dylan song.
And what can I say about "Lay, Lady, Lay"? Everyone knows it. It reached No. 7 on the charts. I played it often while working at my friend's luncheonette at age 13 in 1969, and it's one of Dylan's finest musical/chord progression pieces. One of the best things about this song is the combination of bongos and cowbell. Years ago, I wondered about this odd but wonderful use of percussion. Is it two guys? No. It wasn't until recently I read that the drummer, Ken Buttrey, asked Dylan what kind of drumming he wanted, and Dylan said "bongos." Buttrey didn't think that would work, and he asked the producer, who said, "cowbell." He tried to marry the two. So he asked Kris Kristoffersen, who was a janitor where the sessions took place, to hold them while he played them. He was going to spite them to show how bad it would sound. Instead, he found it to be a really cool sound.
This LP followed John Wesley Harding and further distanced Dylan from his triumphant mid-'60s period. For some, that was a letdown. How can you top what he did during those years? For me, however, these two follow-ups just add two more sides to Dylan, with the kind of shifts that would be a trademark. It's country Dylan, it's simple Dylan, it's not abstract Dylan. Yet it's still Dylan.
Journalist Bill Spurge of New York City has been a Bob Dylan fan since 1974.