KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

NEIL YOUNG Part 1 – Thoughts On An Artist / Three Compilations

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 Neil Young Photo (circa 1968)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), Neil Young - Decadewhich 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.

Neil Young - Lucky ThirteenBetween 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.

Neil Young - Greatest HitsIt 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.

NThe 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.

38 comments on “NEIL YOUNG Part 1 – Thoughts On An Artist / Three Compilations

  1. mikeladano
    January 19, 2013

    Great writeup Rich. I own the 2004 compilation as a way to dip my toes into Neil’s catalogue. So, for that reason, I look forward to the next couple parts of this!

    Mine didn’t come with a DVD though. That must have been a deluxe release of some kind?

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    • Thanks, Mike. Yeah, my version of Greatest Hits was a special edition that came with a DVD, and I’m glad that’s the one I chose to buy. I’m surprised that’s the only album of his you own, since I thought all Canadians were required to have his entire discography. Haha.

      Hope you’re having a great weekend filled with some amazing music.
      Rich

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      • mikeladano
        January 19, 2013

        Well Rich, I take a “better late than never” approach to collecting! For a guy who grew up a metal-head, Neil Young was a bit of a stretch to wrap my head around. His vocals are unique.

        But in time I’ve grown to appreciate him, and I will continue to add more Neil to my collection. Keep posting, maybe you will lead me in the direction to continue!

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      • Mike, I completely understand the “better late than never” approach. There are only so many hours in the day, and sometimes we miss good music the first time around. No doubt about his unique vocals (and guitar playing), but I guess that’s what makes him so special.

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      • mikeladano
        January 19, 2013

        Absolutely. When I was younger I didn’t always appreciate the unique approach. Now, when I’m older and think I’ve heard it all and seen it all, I appreciate artists that are a little left of the norm.

        And yes, his guitar playing is beautiful. Whether its acoustic or electric. He’s mastered both.

        I am actually really looking forward to the rest of the parts in this series Rich!

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      • Thanks Mike. If anyone understands the concept of spending an inordinate amount of time revisiting & writing about the recorded works of a singular artist, it’s you. I hope we both find some previously undiscovered gems in Neil’s catalog over the next few months.

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      • mikeladano
        January 19, 2013

        I’m sure I will! I’ve heard a lot of the albums before in my record store days (particularly Harvest Moon and Mirror Ball), just not added them to my collection. Let the education continue!

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      • Mike, Harvest Moon was a particular favorite back in ’92; one of the only Neil Young albums I already know pretty well (“From Hank To Hendrix” is one of my all-time favorite of his songs). I probably only listened to Mirror Ball a couple of times when it was released, which is the case with most of his albums. Now I get to remedy that.

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      • mikeladano
        January 19, 2013

        This is going to be an exciting series for both of us then! Do you have all the Neil discs already?

        Mirror Ball was a popular one for us to play in store, since it was the new one at the time, and of course Pearl Jam were his backing band on that, and they were massive at that time. So I know that album pretty well. Albums since then, not so much!

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      • As I mentioned in this post, I own 45 Neil Young discs (most on CD, with a few on LP). I’m only missing one studio album (Living With The War), a couple of live albums and the Archives box set. Something tells me I’ll get a pretty complete picture of his output with just the 45 discs I already have. I’ve never been a Pearl Jam fan (I just don’t dig Vedder’s voice), but they’re all great musicians and I seem to remember their work on Mirror Ball being excellent. It’ll be another couple of months before I get to reassess it, but I’m certainly looking forward to it.

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      • mikeladano
        January 19, 2013

        Missing just one, not bad. I’m sure you can present a pretty complete picture!

        I don’t count this one as a Neil release myself, but he did do the Merkinball EP with PJ as well, but that was released as a Pearl Jam EP.

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      • I could include his work with Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, The Stills-Young Band, etc., but I figure 45 solo albums is good enough…for now. I’ll get to the others in the future.

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  2. C.D.
    January 19, 2013

    Also never listened to much Neil growing up, only really know Harvest/Harvest Moon/Rust Never Sleeps, so also in my older age I look forward to knowing him better w/ a Met fan to help inform it.

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    • Hey Chris. I promise not to let my baseball allegiance get in the way of my assessments of Neil’s albums. Hopefully you’ll find some new songs of his to love at the same time I do.

      Like

  3. C.D.
    January 20, 2013

    Feel there are plenty of old classics for me to discover. This is a guy that I’ve barely scratched the surface on

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    • Chris, I’m looking forward to helping you discover his classics at the same time I do. There are literally hundreds of Neil songs I’ve heard over the years and then forgotten, so there will be plenty for me to absorb.

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  4. Phillip Helbig
    January 23, 2013

    I have one Neil Young album, Live Rust. (I’m not sure if my CD is missing the minute in “Cortez the Killer” or not.) I like most of the songs, though many fall into the category “great music, somewhat daft lyrics”. I really like the Les Paul sound in “Cinnamon Girl” and “Like a Hurricane” (but are there any cornier lyrics than the chorus?).

    I often listen to Planet Rock internet radio. I’ve heard studio versions of some of the songs, but the live ones seem to be better.

    Is there an essential Neil Young album? A good compilation?

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    • Hi Phillip. To the best of my knowledge, the unedited version of Live Rust has not been released on CD in North America, so the full “Cortez…” can only be found on the LP. I’m guessing there must be a release out there which includes the full version, but it would be nice to hear it in the context of the album.

      As I’m just starting to revisit his catalog I won’t pretend to be an expert on his music, but when it comes to deciding on essential Neil Young albums it depends on what aspects of his music you prefer. I’m sure there are lots of people who only like his fuzzy guitar workouts with Crazy Horse, and others who only like his more acoustic Harvest/Harvest Moon material. If you give me a couple of months, hopefully I can help you decide which of his individual albums are essential, since I’ll finally be getting to know them as I proceed through his discography. I’ll be posting my comments on his first few albums in a day or two, and there are a couple of keepers in that batch.

      As for compilations, I believe only the three I discussed in this post are currently available. Decade is an excellent 2-CD collection, but it stops in 1977. Lucky Thirteen is an acquired taste, and not something to explore until you know his classic material. Greatest Hits is a solid single-disc collection, but it doesn’t cover much more ground than Decade even though it was released more than 25 years later. Neil is very picky about how his catalog is presented, so I don’t see a 2- or 3-disc compilation of his best material anytime soon.

      I hope you’re doing well and enjoying 2013. It’s always great to chat with you.
      Best…
      Rich

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  5. Lewis Johnston
    January 24, 2013

    Speaking as a long time fan I think the compilations are an excellent place to start to explore Young’s vast catalogue. Decade is the one I would personally endorse. You have got yourself a long journey here Rich and I am looking forward to the ride very much. As a trivia aside, if you examine the Decade cover closely one of the stickers on the guitar case reads “North British Hotel, Edinburgh”. It is on Princes Street next to Waverley Station. Silly I know, but I always get a kick out of it. The hotel is called The Balmoral nowadays.

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    • Hi Lewis. I’m glad you’ll be along for the ride. It will be great to get input from someone who’s such a big fan, and has liked his music longer than I have. Decade is definitely a great compilation, but it only tells part of the story. The other comps are good but there’s so much of his catalog that needs to be represented on a compilation for people who don’t want to work their way through each individual album. That’s an interesting tidbit about the album cover. None of the scans I found online are sharp enough for me to see that sticker, but I’ll check my CD later to see if it’s visible on such a small booklet. Be on the lookout for my next post later today.

      Cheers!
      Rich

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  6. Phillip Helbig
    January 24, 2013

    “I’m sure there are lots of people who only like his fuzzy guitar workouts with Crazy Horse, and others who only like his more acoustic Harvest/Harvest Moon material.”

    I enjoy both. Who else has distorted Les Paul guitar and nice acoustic stuff? Jethro Tull? Not many others. Usually, acoustic stuff is just something different; few bands have a lot of acoustic stuff and a lot of electric stuff.

    “Decade is an excellent 2-CD collection, but it stops in 1977.”

    Not necessarily a bad thing. 🙂

    “Neil is very picky about how his catalog is presented, so I don’t see a 2- or 3-disc compilation of his best material anytime soon.”

    I remember reading about a huge box set or whatever of archival stuff. I can even see offering it in different formats. However, IIRC one had to buy more than one format to get all the material. I fail to see any point in this except gouging the fan.

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    • Phillip, I’m like you in that I enjoy both aspects of Neil’s musical personality. I love that he’ll jump from one style to another from album to album, and often on the same album. Your Tull comparison is a good one. I know you’re a big fan, as am I, and even though there are lots of differences between Neil & Tull, they have more in common most fans might think.

      Although I would often agree with your comment about Decade ending in 1977, he’s released so much good music since then and a lot of his best songs have never been compiled for fans who might not want to explore each individual album. He did release the Archives box set several years ago, with a mixture of album tracks, live performances and rarities. I still haven’t gotten a copy since I wasn’t sure how essential it was, although after finishing up his discography in a couple of months, I might need to get a hold of it. Neil seems to be the kind of artist who wants to give his fans bang for their buck, so if the box set was a fan-gouging release I would probably blame the record label.

      Rich

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      • Phillip Helbig
        January 24, 2013

        I’m not sure about the extent of gouging. It is a huge amount of material and available in different formats. Both are OK. IIRC, there was just one song or whatever on one format which wasn’t available on the other, and vice versa.

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      • I also heard that the Blu-Ray version of the box set allowed you to access additional content online if you’re set up for that. I recently got my first Blu-Ray player but haven’t set it up for internet access yet. When I do that, it may be time to look into the BR version of “Archives.”

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      • Phillip Helbig
        January 25, 2013

        Yes, I think it was in connection with that, but also a song or two on the normal CDs but not on DVD or something. But what is this—dozens of CDs and a couple of online bonus tracks?

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      • That seems to be a typical thing that record companies have now been doing for years: releasing different versions of the same albums and compilations with varying track listings, forcing fans to buy them all. It’s gotten to the point where I just choose the best option for me and buy that one, and if I want to hear the other songs they’re usually easy to find out in cyberspace. Not the best option, but financially it makes sense.

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  7. Heavy Metal Overload
    January 24, 2013

    Wow, that’s quite a huge chunk of albums you’re taking on here. And a really varied output too (even more so than I thought reading about the Geffen era)!

    I know a few NY songs but that’s about it. I have liked most of what I’ve heard (and some great covers of his songs) so it’ll be an education reading your thoughts and listening to your cherry-picked tracks.

    Like

    • Yep, HMO…I like to dive into several albums at a time, and this particular batch just happened to be packed with great music that covers a lot of ground. I’ll be curious to find out if any of the song samples I include in these posts makes an impression on you. I tend to avoid including the well known songs, since I assume most people who will be reading my posts will already be familiar with them. Instead, I try to pick one notable track that won me over from each album. Choosing them here was difficult, since there’s so much good stuff. Thanks for checking it out.

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  8. waynelaw
    January 26, 2013

    That is a whole lot of Neil!!…I only own his Live Rust record but that record has been worn out from play. I consider “Cortez the Killer” a masterpiece that never loses its edge…just like Neil.Going to a show of his is never a nostalgia trip like with so many others of his generation…his music and his growth as an artist seems to keep flowing and evolving. it is a rare thing.

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    • I couldn’t agree more, although having never seen Neil live (I need to remedy that) I base my knowledge of his live performances on the various live albums I own. There’s no doubt that “Cortez…” is a masterpiece. I will be including that in my next post, as it’s on one of the albums in the batch I’ve been listening to the last few days. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate it.

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      • waynelaw
        January 28, 2013

        A song like “Cortez the Killer” is part of the reason that blogging is becoming part of my life. If you are new to rock music today…you might think Nickelback is the best it has to offer and that is a sad state of affairs for a music form that, until recently- ruled the earth.

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      • Excellent point. I’m glad you’re optimistic about the ability of us bloggers to help spread the word about classic recordings that we love, since most of the time we’re preaching to the converted (which is always a lot of fun in itself). I agree that if even one person checks out some music they haven’t heard or had forgotten about because of something we’ve written, that’s a great thing. I know I’ve been enlightened or had my love of an artist refreshed based on other bloggers, so it definitely works.

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  9. Michael Martz
    March 11, 2013

    Neil was the first artist I ‘adopted’ as I moved off into my college years, way back in ’72. I’m lucky to have followed him through nearly his entire career. What a wild ride… although I’m a huge fan, there are albums I absolutely can’t stand, and others I return to constantly.

    Freshman year, my roommates and I used to sing along to Sugar Mountain, along with stuff from 4 Way Street and The Temptations. I was able to see NY & Crazy Horse in December of ’72 in Kansas City- still probably the best concert I’ve ever seen. A very young Linda Ronstadt opened, and they played 2 or 3 great songs that didn’t appear on albums until much later. One of the odd things about Neil is that he’s not a real linear guy- he’ll put stuff out when he feels like it, not just his most recent music. Later saw him in Memphis in the mid-80s at a concert that was evenly split between his ‘Transformer Man’ persona and the ‘Shocking Pinks’. We were, of course, hoping for a ‘greatest hits’ show and received something quite a bit different.

    It’s great that you’re going through his work in such detail. He’s definitely a different type of artist. I’ve written him off several times and he’s always come back strong!

    Like

    • Michael, you have quite a history with Neil’s music, so your perspective on his career is likely to be different from mine. I’m curious to find out if my highlights are the same as yours. I have a friend who was a long-time fan when he saw that mid-80s tour, and he hated it. It’s not like today when you can check online to find out details about a current tour. Back then you just showed up and were surprised…sometimes pleasantly, sometimes not so much. I still try to find out as little as possible before seeing any kind of live performance, and I always keep an open mind. Going in with expectations usually leads to disappointment.

      It’s a lot of fun to delve into an artist’s catalog like this. I own 45 of his albums and have listened to all of them at least once or twice, but you can’t really get to know the full scope of his work without going from start to finish…even if, as you so accurately pointed out, his discography is far from linear.

      Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate it.

      Cheers!
      Rich

      Like

  10. K.Creamore
    August 18, 2013

    I was never a Neil Young fan growing up, but love his music now. I find that he is hit and miss with his music. I am though very pleased with his last album Psychedelic Pill.

    Like

    • Thanks for your comment. Neil is definitely an acquired taste for many people, and he was for me as well. His catalog definitely has its ups & downs, but he’s a one-of-a-kind artist whose entire catalog is worth exploring to find a ridiculous number of classics.

      Like

  11. DanicaPiche
    July 11, 2015

    Here is a great thing about your blog, Rich. I thought I was familiar with Neil Young’s work and count him among my favorites…yet I didn’t realize the extent of his discography. Catching up on this series is a project that I’m sure I’ll enjoy.

    Like

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