Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
I don’t remember hearing Neil Young’s music much when I was growing up, although I was probably aware of some of his most popular songs like “Southern Man” and “Heart of Gold.” It wasn’t until I was 12 or 13 and began listening to rock radio stations (as opposed to Top 40) that I started hearing his music more frequently. In 1979 you couldn’t go 30 minutes without hearing one of his new twin acoustic & electric songs, “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)” or “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black).” Even though I enjoyed them, it would be years until I owned any of his albums, remaining content to hear his songs occasionally on the radio. For some reason he’s never come close to being one of my favorite artists, yet I’ve liked him enough to accumulate 45 of his albums. Unfortunately, I only know a handful of them well, while the rest have been sitting on the shelf for years waiting to be played again. Whether he’s performing a quiet song accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar & harmonica, rocking out on extended freak-outs with Crazy Horse, delivering heartfelt country/rock songs with The Stray Gators or International Harvesters, blasting off into space-age synth-heavy experiments, or in any of his numerous other guises, he never fails to deliver something completely unique. And for that reason alone I’m looking forward to delving deep into his discography and getting to know the hundreds of songs that I’ve heard once or twice and subsequently forgotten, while also getting reacquainted with the dozens of Young songs I already love.
Like many people, my first purchase was the 2-CD compilation called Decade (1977), which was originally a 3-LP set. It combined most of the best-loved songs from his solo albums, his earlier work with Buffalo Springfield, and his collaborations with Crosby, Stills & Nash, all chosen by Neil himself with informative (if hard-to-read) handwritten liner notes for each song. Of the 35 songs on this collection, I’m already pretty familiar with about 24 of them, but after spending much of the week with this album (and the two other compilations I’ll discuss below) it was nice to learn some of those lesser-known tracks, many of which are exclusive to Decade. “Down To The Wire” is a cool 1967 psychedelic nugget featuring Stephen Stills & Dr. John that was originally intended for the unreleased Buffalo Springfield album, Stampede. It reminds me a bit of Texas psychedelic legends 13th Floor Elevators. “Sugar Mountain” is a well-known song recorded live in 1968 that made its first album appearance here (it was originally a b-side), but was later included on a live album of the entire concert. According to Neil’s liner notes, he wrote this on his 19th birthday, and when Joni Mitchell heard it she wrote her own early classic, “The Circle Game” (which I talked about here). “Soldier” is the edited version of a stark piano ballad that was included on his Journey Through The Past soundtrack.
“Winterlong” was originally intended for, but eventually left off, Tonight’s The Night. It’s a very catchy midtempo country rocker with Neil self-harmonizing, and features a weeping steel guitar. “Deep Forbidden Lake” starts off as a stark tune with just voice & guitar before developing into a simple, sparse country song. According to his liner notes, this song “hopefully signified the end of a long dark period…” “Like A Hurricane” is another well-known classic, but this version features a different lead vocal than the album version. It’s not strikingly different, but it remains a killer song. “Love Is A Rose,” later a hit country song by Linda Ronstadt, was recorded in 1974 during Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tour rehearsals. It has a great melody that grabbed me immediately, and I love the back porch country vibe. “Campaigner” is a rare political song with a sense of humor, as he sings “Even Richard Nixon has got soul” without a hint of irony, anger or bitterness in his voice. I’ve always loved the song “Long May You Run” from the Stills-Young Band album of the same name. The version included here also features David Crosby and Graham Nash, and as much as I love their voices (individually and collectively), there’s something about their harmonies here that makes the song a little too sugary for me. It’s still catchy, but I much prefer the album version. The rest of Decade includes Neil Young standards like “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By The River,” “Cowgirl In The Sand,” “After The Gold Rush,” “Old Man,” “Harvest,” “The Needle And The Damage Done” and “Cortez The Killer.” I’ll be discussing all of them as I get to each of their respective albums, so I only included the titles here to show what an impressive collection this is. It’s hard to believe this only covers the first 10 years of his recording career, and yet it’s still so thorough.
Between 1982 and 1987 he released several albums on Geffen Records after parting ways with Reprise. None of those are considered landmark releases, but they showed him experimenting with various sounds and styles, and cemented his reputation as an artist who always does things his own way. It’ll be a while before I get to that portion of his catalog, but I did spend some time this week with a compilation from his Geffen years called Lucky Thirteen (1993). Subtitled “Excursions Into Alien Territory,” it’s another quirky collection (selected by Neil) that’s stylistically all over the map, and includes 6 unreleased songs or alternate versions among its 13 tracks. As with Decade above, I’ll briefly discuss those 6 songs and get to the others when I revisit the individual albums. “Sample And Hold” sounds like it’s from the future (at least it did all those years ago), with vocoder-treated vocals and a synth-pop sheen on top of a typically plodding Crazy Horse rhythm. Although this song originally appeared on Trans, the version included here is longer and possibly even a different take (I’ll know more when I get to that album). Lyrically, it’s right out of a sci-fi story, as he’s attempting to order some kind of automaton (or possibly a realistic sex doll). It features dialogue between the customer and the supplier, and is certainly an interesting choice to lead off a compilation.
“Depression Blues” is from sessions for 1985’s Old Ways album. It’s a lovely, slow country shuffle with downbeat lyrics that touch on similar themes to his later CSNY song, “This Old House.” “Get Gone” was recorded live with The Shocking Pinks, the rockabilly group he formed for 1983’s Everybody’s Rockin’. It’s a fun song with a Bo Diddley beat that doesn’t really amount to much, and at over 5 minutes it definitely overstays its welcome. “Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me,” also with The Shocking Pinks, is much better: a cool, dramatic blues tune with a great horn section. In 1988 I was a big fan of his This Note’s For You album (credited to Neil Young & The Bluenotes), which featured a fantastic horn section (even better than The Shocking Pinks) and some great funky & bluesy grooves. This compilation closes out with two songs recorded live for the “Blue Note Café” sessions. “Ain’t It The Truth” doesn’t appear on that album but it would’ve fit in nicely. It’s mostly a stomping, Nuggets-type song (similar to the ‘60s tune “Bread And Butter”) embellished as an uptown blues number. “This Note’s For You” was a pretty big hit, and this live version is equally as strong as its studio counterpart. Knowing how Neil likes to defy conventions, I’m surprised he closed out this disc with such a catchy, upbeat song, but looking back on Decade (which ended with the instantly hummable “Long May You Run”), perhaps he has a soft spot for leaving fans on a positive note. I think most people would need to hear the majority of his classic ‘70s material before venturing into this era, but when they’re ready to dip their toes in the water, this compilation is a decent place to start.
It wasn’t until the release of Greatest Hits (2004) that a single-disc compilation of his most popular, radio-friendly songs was made available. At 16 songs and over 76 minutes, it’s certainly a generous collection, but as someone who owns just about every official release in his discography it’s a bit redundant. What makes it worth owning for me is the bonus DVD, which includes high-resolution audio files of all the tracks. Of the first 12 songs, 11 of them appeared on Decade (most in the same album versions), with “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” being the sole track from that era to make its initial compilation appearance here. Only 4 songs from the post-Decade period are included: “Comes A Time,” “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black),” “Rockin’ In The Free World” and “Harvest Moon.” All of these are incredible songs and deserve to be here, but it’s hard not to think that even casual fans would’ve been better served by a slightly more thorough 2-disc collection that covered his whole career up to that point. I shouldn’t complain about what’s not here, though, since the goal of Greatest Hits was to include songs “based on original record sales, airplay, and known download history” (according to the CD packaging), and they seem to have achieved their goal.
The Neil Young catalog is quite intimidating. It’s the largest discography I’ll be revisiting & writing about so far, which means I’ll spend the next several months immersing myself in the twists-and-turns & ups-and-downs of his voluminous output. Right now I own every studio album except one (Living With The War), and I’m missing a couple of live albums as well as his massive Archives box set. If I get my hands on any of them during this process I will include them here, but something tells me that I’ll have a pretty complete picture of Neil Young after spending quality time with the 45 albums I already own. I hope you’ll join me for this long ride. Please ask your Neil Young-loving friends to stop by and share their opinions and insights so you can all help me to best appreciate his music. Thanks. Now I’m off to spend some time with his first few albums. See you soon.