Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Neil Young: Best of the Last 25 Years

I've been listening to Neil Young quite a bit lately, mostly focusing on the later part of his career. I love his early stuff, and most folks prefer classic albums like "Harvest" and "Rust Never Sleeps". But he's remained incredibly prolific over the last quarter century, and his late-era catalogue is definitely worth exploring. While there are missteps, he's mostly been on a long string of inspiration that seems a bit taken for granted. I've compiled my favorite tracks of the last 25 years, one per album (excluding all live releases apart from the MTV unplugged collection). Selections from Neil Young solo albums are here alongside recordings with Crazy Horse and CSNY. These are my personal favorites from each album, and they are all songs that I feel deserve a wider recognition as being some of the best work of his amazing career.

1. Hippie Dream (“Landing on Water”, 1986)

The 80s were a struggle for Neil. He hopscotched from one genre to another, not really finding a sustained groove with any of them. The material – for the most part – just wasn’t there. After venturing from the weird electronic experiments of “Trans” to nostalgic rockabilly on “Everybody’s Rockin’” to the maudlin country of “Old Ways”, 1986 brought Neil to a fairly straightforward pop-rock album: “Landing on Water”. Danny Kortchmar’s production is laden with 80s clichés and as a result the album now sounds dated, but there are signs of life from Neil. Several tracks are keepers, especially the bitter and acerbic “Hippie Dream,” a wicked sneer at the phony idealism and hypocrisy of some of his 60s colleagues who buried their pious delusions of peace and love into an orgy of money and drugs. As compelling as anything he recorded in the 80s, “Hippie Dream” is a fascinating peek into Neil’s disdain and disillusionment over the leftover wreckage from the Summer of Love, the dark underbelly of the Woodstock mythology.

Another flower child goes to seed
In an ether-filled room of meat-hooks
It’s so ugly… so ugly.

2. When Your Lonely Heart Breaks (“Life”, 1987)

“Life” is a collection of new songs recorded live with Crazy Horse, and it represents another half-step back to respectability for Neil. No, it doesn’t have the grungy vibe and swing that you’d expect from the Horse, but in hindsight things are clearly moving in the right direction. “Life” features some solid tunes, and one killer track – the forlorn, lovesick rock ballad “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks”. Neil’s yearning vocal is heartfelt and strong, and the band keeps it simple and sparse. Even an artifact of its era – a ghostly synthesizer that pulses in the background – isn’t enough to derail one of the better Neil Young songs of the 80s.

What’s your problem, she’s gone?
You’re still movin’, movin’ on
You got memories… she got strong.

3. Coupe de Ville (“This Note’s For You”, 1988)

Neil’s next genre exercise was a foray into horn-heavy blues/rock with the Bluenotes, but while the live performances were smoking hot and bootlegs from the era have been cherished by fans, the studio album – “This Note’s For You” – was mostly flaccid. There were a few exceptions – the title track which MTV famously spurned and then embraced, the long, swinging opener “Ten Men Workin’” and – especially – the haunting, obsessive ballad “Coupe de Ville”. Taut and filled with a palpable sense of dread, it’s one of Neil’s standout tracks of the decade by a wide margin.

I had a few cheap thrills
But they cost me a lot more
Than I could give.

4. Feel Your Love (“American Dream”, 1988)

Neil next appeared on an ill-advised reunion album with his drug-addled former mates Crosby, Stills & Nash. “American Dream” suffers from a plastic and overblown production, and the only songs of even remote interest are Neil’s – and his contributions aren’t exactly going to go down as among the best of his canon (to put it mildly). And yet… there is the lovely “Feel Your Love” tucked away near the end of the record. A downbeat and simply elegant ballad, it’s by far the finest moment on an otherwise mostly unlistenable album. It would feel right at home on the later, largely acoustic albums like “Harvest Moon,” “Silver & Gold” or “Prairie Wind.” “Feel Your Love” is a forgotten gem of a song.

High on a balcony, right where we used to be
This city dancing like a sparkling sea
I wanna catch a wave, I wanna swim to shore
Walk on that same beach like I did before

5. Cocaine Eyes (“Eldorado” EP, 1989)

Neil ends the decade with a molten blast of searing rock and a welcome return to greatness with the “Eldorado” EP and its accompanying full-length “Freedom.” “Eldorado” was released only in Japan and Australia, but it quickly became legendary and highly sought by fans across the globe. The blistering opening track, “Cocaine Eyes”, is widely regarded to be a scathing attack of Stephen Stills. Neil turns everything up to 11, and just lets it loose for the first time in, well, far too many years. It’s so loud the air is fuzzing with electricity, and feedback pulses directly into the unwary listeners’ cerebral cortex. It’s the successor to “Rust Never Sleeps”, and it only took a decade to arrive.

Some might go for poison
And some go for too much stuff
Some just go to sleep at night
And forget to wake up

6. Crime in The City (Sixty To Zero Part I) (“Freedom”, 1989)

“Freedom” was a landmark album, one of Neil’s best. Launched by the raucous anthem “Rockin’ in the Free World,” it substantially returned Neil to national prominence and ushered in a career renaissance that has, for the most part, continued to this day. “Freedom” was a deep record loaded with strong material and very little fat; a stellar mix of rockers and ballads that stand up alongside anything he’s done. At the forefront is the epic nearly-9 minute “Crime in the City”, a collection of gripping vignettes of decadence and urban rot. Like much of “Freedom,” it is miles ahead of almost everything else Neil did in the 80s, and showed a renewed creative spark that he would continue to ride over the next 2 decades.

And make sure that he's hungry
And make sure he's alone
And send me a cheeseburger
And a new Rolling Stone

7. Mansion on the Hill (“Ragged Glory”, 1990)

Back with the Horse, Neil’s career surge continued with the widely praised “Ragged Glory”, a collection of long, lumbering guitar epics. This is classic Neil Young & Crazy Horse – stripped down, blazing guitar, that distinctive shambolic, loping drum beat, tight harmonies and fluid melodies. “Mansion on the Hill” is one of the more accessible (i.e. short) tracks on the album, and it’s a doozy – an electric folk-rocker that echoes hazily of “Cowgirl in the Sand” but with a fresh coat of paint.

I was in a hurry
but that don't matter now
'Cause I have to get off
that road of tears somehow.

8. Unknown Legend (“Harvest Moon”, 1992)

After the hard-rocking “Ragged Glory”, Neil – as he so often does – took a left turn back to his country-folk roots and delivered a sequel of sorts to his most famous album, “Harvest.” “Harvest Moon” was a commercial and critical success, and continued his string of hits. It opens with a poignant peek into Neil’s relationship with his wife Pegi. “Unknown Legend” is a tribute brimming with love, respect, and unabashed admiration for the free spirit with whom Neil shares his life. Linda Ronstadt provides background vocals like she did 20 years earlier on those classic “Harvest” singles, and once again the late great Ben Keith soars on the pedal steel. The production is warm and glowing, the feeling from the soul.

She's been runnin' half her life
The chrome and steel she rides
Collidin' with the very air she breathes

9. Philadelphia (“Philadelphia” soundtrack, 1993)

Neil rose to the occasion when Jonathan Demme requested a song for his Oscar-winning AIDS drama “Philadelphia.” Bruce Springsteen’s stately “Streets of Philadelphia” earned more airplay and attention, but it couldn’t match Neil’s track for sheer power and breathtaking beauty. A sublime vocal performance, Neil’s falsetto floats ghostly over a graceful piano and string arrangement. Somber, elegiac, utterly gorgeous… Demme’s film needed a song of extraordinary power for its wrenching finale, and Neil Young delivered a classic.

Someone is talking to me,
Calling my name
Tell me I'm not to blame
I won't be ashamed of love.

10. Transformer Man (“Unplugged”, 1993)

Originally recorded for his 1982 album “Trans”, this forgotten nugget was resurrected for Neil’s MTV Unplugged album with superb results. Dedicated to his son Ben, who was born with cerebral palsy, the acoustic presentation here strips the vocal effects and electronics of the original recording and gets to the soul of the beautiful song beneath. “Transformer Man” is as lovely and touching as anything Neil has ever recorded. Neil’s devotion to his son shines through in this song, in his annual Bridge School Benefits, and in a million other ways, and is inspiring to behold. So many people misunderstood “Trans”, and only in retrospect do we know that it was written and recorded as Neil and his wife grappled with the struggles faced by their young son, and Neil’s quest to reach and communicate with him. “Transformer Man” is a powerful statement of love.

So many things still left to do
But we haven't made it yet
Every morning when I look in your eyes
I feel electrified by you

11. Trans Am (“Sleeps With Angels”, 1994)

Dusty desert roads, outlaws, drugs, killers, foreboding and mournful, “Trans Am” is a Quentin Tarantino movie distilled into an ominous 4-minute rock shuffle. Neil’s recorded numerous “car” songs over his long career, but “Trans Am” must be the darkest. Its parent album, “Sleeps with Angels,” was another artistic triumph. Recorded with Crazy Horse and produced by Neil with David Briggs, it’s a somber, brooding album loaded with killer songs, haunted characters and distorted guitars. Like most of the rest of the album, “Trans Am” is low-key, drenched in atmospherics and minor keys, and drifts vividly into a dangerous underworld that fascinates and disturbs.

The golden gate was open wide,
the sun came shining through
Where once the angels stood and cried
everything was new

12. I’m the Ocean (“Mirrorball”, 1995)

Another turn from out of nowhere: in 1995, Neil recorded an album with Seattle alternative-rock titans and enthusiastic Neil Young admirers Pearl Jam. It seemed an obvious match. Pearl Jam had frequently covered Neil’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Fuckin’ Up,” and they joined forces with Neil on an incendiary live performance of “Free World” at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards. They churned out the sonic powerhouse “Mirroball” in only 4 days. Neil let himself get carried away by their abandon and harnessed their energy for all it was worth. “I’m the Ocean” is the centerpiece of the album – a philosophical litany and unflinching look back at Neil’s life and career. “People my age, they don’t do the things I do” he sings. Topping 7 minutes, “I’m the Ocean” rocks like an avalanche of boulders careening into a valley, unstoppable and thrilling… Jack Irons pounds the drums with such desperate abandon they blast straight into your skull, the young guns in Pearl Jam just doing their best to keep up before the whole thing falls apart… pure adrenaline.

I'm an accident
I was driving way too fast
Couldn't stop though
So I let the moment last

13. This Town (“Broken Arrow”, 1996)

Back to the Horse, and the disheveled “Broken Arrow”. Neil gives the distinct vibe of not giving much of a fuck with this album, especially compared to some of the carefully crafted work he produced earlier in the decade. Maybe that’s the whole point… going back to the unhinged and unpolished locomotive rock that Crazy Horse does best. Unfortunately the material just isn’t strong enough to make it compelling: there is no “Cowgirl in the Sand” or “Like a Hurricane” or “Down by the River” for sure, not even anything equal to the epic guitar squalls from “Ragged Glory” just a few years past. The songs are thin on inspiration and the whole thing is hard to penetrate and generally uninteresting. The obvious exception is “This Town,” a nostalgic and relatively gentle track that, although it has the vibe of a half-written demo, does possess a wistful charm. It’s a glowing high point on what is unquestionably Neil’s least successful album of the 90s.

Some people think that it's not OK
To sleep around and kiss the hours away

14. Slowpoke (“Looking Forward”, 1999)

Perhaps to eradicate the putrid stench of “American Dream,” Neil once again collaborates with his CSN cohorts, and this time the results are significantly better - - to a point. The tracks offered by his bandmates are still largely forgettable, but 3 of the 4 songs Neil donated to the project are absolutely topnotch: the title track “Looking Forward,” “Out of Control” and the warmly beautiful “Slowpoke.” All of these songs really belong on Neil’s next album, the acoustic based “Silver & Gold”, as they would have transformed that album from just a really good Neil Young record to an all-time classic. They are rather lost here surrounded by the subpar CSN material, and it’s a shame because they rank with his best work of the era. “Slowpoke” might be seen as autobiographical – “when I was faster, I was always behind” – but it’s too enigmatic to be sure. Mournful in tone, with sumptuous harmonies, somber wailing harmonica and a vocal that seems steeped in regret, “Slowpoke” is a sad little song that is hard to peg and harder to forget.

Something pushed back
the curtain again,
The stage is empty
and the crowd is thin.

15. Silver & Gold (“Silver & Gold”, 2000)

As pure an expression of love as you’ll find in Neil’s career, “Silver & Gold” is a beauty, as is the album it graces. Perhaps his most unjustly overlooked record, “Silver & Gold” is a stripped-down acoustic collection of consistently powerful tunes that seem unusually personal. Strong from start to finish, it is well worth discovering and savoring.

Workin' hard every day
Never notice how
the time slips away
People come, seasons go
We got something
that'll never grow old.

16. You’re My Girl (“Are You Passionate?”, 2002)

Recorded with Booker T and the MG’s, “Are You Passionate?” is a unique record for Neil. Sadly, it doesn’t quite gel, and the primary reason is the general lackluster material. A missed opportunity. As always with Neil, even with albums that generally bomb, there are high points and on “Are You Passionate?” the peak is “You’re My Girl”, a breezy soulful ode to his daughter. Neil gets a rap for being cantankerous, and no question he can be, but his most revealing and openly heartfelt songs tend to be about his family – as grumpy as he can be, he never shies away from showing his soft side.

You went heading into summer
on a natural high,
With the world at your feet.

17. Bandit (“Greendale”, 2003)

“Greendale” is a rather inscrutable concept album that delves into family drama, politics, and ecology. After the uninspired “Are You Passionate?” Neil needed a new direction and he found it with an album that found many listeners scratching their heads. The tracks – intended to be sung in the voice of the various people in the story – are mostly long, rambling character portraits. It’s an intriguing album and one that rewards upon multiple listens. “Bandit” is the stand-out track; he growls the half-spoken verses, intentionally sounding every one of his years. The subject is a young man troubled by drugs and debt and reaching his rope’s end… and then the gently lilting chorus, “someday you’ll find what you’re looking for.” The voice of experience. Harrowing and hopeful, “Bandit” has a quiet intensity that is riveting. Musically it’s one of his best productions, a shuffling beat and acoustic guitar with a deep bass-line that sounds like the twang of a giant rubberband.

You're invisible, you've got too many secrets.
Bob Dylan said that.
Or some’in’ like that.

18. The Painter (“Prairie Wind”, 2005)

The first single from “Prairie Wind,” another collection of acoustic-based material, is perhaps Neil’s strongest track of the new century thus far. “Prairie Wind” is largely a quiet, reflective collection of songs – perhaps inspired by the recent death of his father Scott Young. Shortly after its recording, Neil would have a surgery to repair a brain aneurysm, and knowledge of this condition may have also informed the album. It’s nostalgic without being grim. “The Painter” – which earned Neil a Grammy Award nomination – sounds like a summation of sorts, a leisurely flip through an old photo album, a fleeting visit with old friends and memories.

It’s a long road behind me,
And I miss you now.
If you follow every dream,
you might get lost.

19. Shock & Awe (“Living With War”, 2006)

The ongoing turmoil in Iraq during the reign of George W. Bush inspired Neil to return to the unabashedly political songwriting as he did so many years earlier with “Ohio.” His anger and outrage spawned an album that delved into different aspects of life during wartime, especially focusing on the effects of those who suffered the most - - the soldiers, and their families. There wasn’t much subtlety in songs like “Let’s Impeach the President” and “Shock & Awe”, and Neil certainly was heavily bashed in certain quarters because of it... but he never hesitated to say exactly what he felt. Musically it’s a blunt force; clashing guitars and lyrics dripping rage and venom, spat out in righteous anger and indignation. Written and recorded quickly, it sounds fresh and immediate, and beyond anything else… raw, like a fresh wound. The songs are never going to rank among his best, but the force of Neil’s convictions carries it. It’s an important snapshot of turmoil, blood and pain, and a courageous statement for an artist who has never feared taking risks.

Thousands of bodies in the ground
brought home in boxes to a trumpet’s sound
No one sees them coming home that way
Thousands buried in the ground

20. Boxcar (“Chrome Dreams II”, 2007)

“Chrome Dreams II” was a sequel to an album that never was. The original “Chrome Dreams” from the late 70s never saw the light of day, its songs scattered on subsequent albums or still unreleased. “Chrome Dreams II” was a rather uneven collection of new material and older recordings, including the phenomenal 18 minute epic “Ordinary People” recorded during the Bluenotes era of the late 80s. “Boxcar” dates from around the time of “Freedom” – it was on the original lineup of the record, when it was to be called “Times Square”, but was ultimately shelved until nearly 20 years later. A simple song, but effective; built around a banjo line and a shuffle beat, “Boxcar” is a lonely little song, unsettled and a bit ominous, a furtive trip to nowhere.

I'm just a passenger on this old freight train
I ride a boxcar through the night
It doesn't matter where I might get off
It doesn't matter where I light

21. Light A Candle (“Fork in the Road”, 2009)

“Fork in the Road” is another tossed-off album, much like “Living With War,” only this time the topic is more prosaic – Neil’s fascination with his Lincvolt automobile, which runs solely on alternative energy. As a song collection it’s rather bland and uninspired, Neil’s enthusiasm not quite able to carry it. While much of the album deals with his automobile fetish, the title song is an angry tirade over the state of the economy, and the corporate bailouts which so riled and divided the country. Most of the album is electric charged straightforward rock, but “Light A Candle” stands out as a lovely, gentle acoustic ballad that is by far the gentlest moment on a record that is ultimately a difficult listen and loaded with throwaways.

When the light of time is on us
We will see our moment come
And the livin’ soul inside will carry on

22. Love and War (“Le Noise”, 2010)

Last year saw Neil collaborate with famed producer Daniel Lanois on “Le Noise,” a collection of songs with only vocals and guitar – no drums, no bass. Lanois amped up the effects and the results are intimate and intense, with surging electric feedback looping and swirling in layers through the speakers. “Love and War” is the quietest track, and a remarkable gaze into the past. Neil sums it all up here in two words: love and war, and all the possible permutations they represent. The raw-nerved anger of “Living with War” is absent here… it’s regret, wisdom, the sad voice of experience. Neil continues to give the real deal, long after he could have retired. He could have simply issued infinite sequels to “Harvest,” polite acoustic-folk, until he disappearing onto his ranch. Instead he continues to explore his heart and soul and those of others; he continues to experiment, walk different avenues and allow his muse to take him where it will. It doesn’t always work, but that’s the point: he’s not afraid to try. He never has been. That is why he’s undeniably one of the all-time, unparalleled greats in rock history.

I said a lot of things that I can't take back
But I don't really know if I want to
There've been songs about love
I sang songs about war
Since the backstreets of Toronto
I sang for justice and I hit a bad chord
But I still try to sing about love and war


Anonymous said...

Interesting list and a good overview of the period.

Two points ... I think Neil was purposefully making these various genre jumps to piss Geffen off .. and ... the boot legs of his music from this period are superior in execution to the studio work ... the same same songs take on a whole new aspect .. grab some of those and have a listen and I guarantee you it will modify your already interesting list ...

Anonymous said...

One word... 'Interstate'.

Johnny B said...

Absolutely agree on several of these, including (especially) "Hippie Dream" )and the Landing on Water album), "Coupe De Ville", "Bandit", and "I'm the Ocean".

Anonymous said...

Each to their own as is the want of every Neil Young fan and I agree with some of these choices but I'm sure even the compiler could look at this list in two months and change it radically again and then again such is the quality all the way through. One thing I disagree with: Broken Arrow is an overlooked guitar classic. Go back to it, the first three songs are epic.