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Ranking Bob Dylan’s 33 Studio Albums: No. 20 — ‘Planet Waves’

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. 20 of 33: Planet Waves (1974)

This is sort of a rebound effort for Bob Dylan, who had released no better than middling material over a four-year period.

The Band joins him for this effort, and the album preceded their mammoth 1974 tour that spawned Before The Flood, one of the two or three best live albums I’ve ever purchased (but not included in these rankings).

Many people have said this was his preview to Blood On The Tracks. Some of the songs harbor the kind of bitterness (pertaining to the end of a marriage) Blood On The Tracks would be remembered for. However, the music bears no resemblance, especially since The Band’s sound is pretty distinctive here.

“Dirge” is a particularly strong number that does seem to put Dylan on the path toward Blood On The Tracks. It probably was directed toward his wife. It’s got some solid keyboards. “You Angel You” is heartfelt, and “Tough Mama” is a pretty good rocker, also with sweeping keyboards. “On A Night Like This” opens the album happily (There seems to be this swing from upbeat numbers to more serious ones).

But the highlight of the album is “Forever Young” — the slower version. Dylan gets mushy, but in a strong, convincing, heartfelt way, toward his children. It’s an amazing, lasting piece any parent can sing to his/her kids. It can also be directed toward oneself and dedicated to our friends.

There’s a faster version of “Forever Young” on the album that removes the emotion of the slower one and doesn’t quite deliver. I don’t know why he added it. (Actually, my favorite version might be the short one on Biograph, which I think was used in a commercial not long ago.)

Whether or not this album was a preview to what Blood On The Tracks would become can be disputed. But Dylan was on the path to re-found glory, which would be confirmed the following year.

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

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