The 411 Music Ten Deep 5.30.12: The Top Ten Neil Young Albums
Posted by C.A. Bell on 05.30.2012
From Harvest and Déjà Vu to Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Zuma and more, 411's C.A. Bell counts down the top 10 Neil Young albums!
There are some artists in music history that are nothing short of iconic. They are the obligatory members of a lot of obligatory lists. Go-to artists that are so well respected, one can hardly argue with there placement on a list of any topic. In other words; these guys are my bread and butter. So, I've reasoned that, instead of beating around the bush, some of these folks should just get their own list. This is, just like the title suggests, hero worship. In the first edition a few months back, I took a close look at Brian Eno. This week, I'll be delving into the career of Neil Young to find his ten best albums. This means that I have spent the last week almost exclusively listening to Neil Young, CSNY, and Buffalo Springfield. I'm much happier for the effort.
Neil Percival Young (born November 12, 1945) is a Canadian singer-songwriter who is widely regarded as one of the most influential musicians of his generation. Young began performing as a solo artist in Canada in 1960, before moving to California in 1966, where he co-founded the band Buffalo Springfield along with Stephen Stills and Richie Furay, and later joined Crosby, Stills & Nash as a fourth member in 1969. He forged a successful and acclaimed solo career, releasing his first album in 1968; his career has since spanned over 40 years and 34 studio albums, with a continual and uncompromising exploration of musical styles. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website describes Young as "one of rock and roll's greatest songwriters and performers". He has been inducted into the Hall of Fame twice: first as a solo artist in 1995, and second as a member of Buffalo Springfield in 1997.
Young's work is characterized by his distinctive guitar work, deeply personal lyrics and signature alto or high tenor singing voice. Although he accompanies himself on several different instruments, including piano and harmonica, his idiosyncratic electric and clawhammer acoustic guitar playing are the defining characteristics of a varyingly ragged and melodic sound. While Young has experimented with differing music styles, including swing, rockabilly, and electronic music throughout a varied career, his best known work usually falls into two primary styles: acoustic (folk and country rock) and electric (amplified hard rock). Young has also adopted elements from newer styles such as alternative rock and grunge.
As one of the original founders of Farm Aid, he remains an active member of the board of directors. For one weekend each October, in Mountain View, California, he and his wife host the Bridge School Concerts, which have been drawing international talent and sell-out crowds for nearly two decades with some of the biggest names in rock having performed at the event including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, The Who, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Tom Waits, Thom Yorke of Radiohead, R.E.M, Foo Fighters, Metallica, Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth, The Smashing Pumpkins, Paul McCartney and Dave Matthews. The concerts are a benefit for the Bridge School, which develops and uses advanced technologies to aid in the instruction of children with disabilities. Young's involvement stems at least partially from the fact that both of his sons have cerebral palsy and his daughter, like Young himself, has epilepsy.
Young was nominated for an Oscar in 1994 for his song "Philadelphia" from the film Philadelphia. Bruce Springsteen won the award for his song "Streets of Philadelphia" from the same film. In his acceptance speech, Springsteen said that "the award really deserved to be shared by the other nominee's song." That same night, Tom Hanks accepted the Oscar for Best Actor and gave credit for his inspiration to the song "Philadelphia".
Young's political outspokenness and social awareness influenced artists such as Blind Melon, Phish, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana. Young is referred to as "the Godfather of Grunge" because of the influence he had on much of the fuzz-based guitar rock coming out of Seattle, but most specifically the direct influence he had on both Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder. Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam inducted Young into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. Young is cited as being a significant influence on experimental rock artists Sonic Youth, and Thom Yorke of Radiohead. Yorke recounted of first hearing Young after sending a demo tape into a magazine when he was 16, who favorably compared his singing voice to Young's. Unaware of Young at that time, he bought After the Gold Rush, and "immediately fell in love" with his work, calling it "extraordinary". Dave Matthews lists Neil Young as one of his favorite and most inspirational songwriters and covers his songs on occasion. Young also inspired Oasis singer-songwriter Noel Gallagher, with Gallagher covering "My My, Hey Hey (Into the Black)" on the live album Familiar to Millions.
In 2001, Young was awarded the Spirit of Liberty award from the civil liberties group People for the American Way. Young was honored as the MusiCares Person of the Year on January 29, 2010, two nights prior to the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards. He was also nominated for two Grammy Awards: Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance for Fork In The Road and Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package for Neil Young Archives Vol. I (1963–1972). Young won the latter Grammy Award. In 2010, he was ranked #26 in Gibson.com's Top 50 Guitarists of All Time. In 2000, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Young thirty-fourth in its list of the 100 greatest artists of all time, and in 2003, included five of his albums in its list of 500 greatest albums of all time. In 2000, Young was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame. In 2006, Paste magazine compiled a "Greatest Living Songwriters" list; Young was ranked second behind Bob Dylan. (While Young and Dylan have occasionally played together in concert, they have never collaborated on a song together, or played on each others' records). He ranked thirty-ninth on VH1's 100 Greatest Artist of Hard Rock that same year. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame explained that while Young has "avoided sticking to one style for very long, the unifying factors throughout Young's peripatetic musical journey have been his unmistakable voice, his raw and expressive guitar playing, and his consummate songwriting skill."
With a resume like that, it is nearly impossible to deny that Young's career is worth a good hard look. So, I've decided to take a look at what I think are his ten best albums, including his work as a member of CSNY and Buffalo Springfield. Now, I should probably be more careful with my wording. With an artist like Neil Young, it isn't so much a matter of these being his 'best' albums as they are my favorites. You could argue for a lot of albums being the man's best. I'd rather look at this as a buying guide of sorts. For fans that are interested in hearing more Neil Young, picking what album to hear first or next can be daunting. Personally, I made more than a few mistakes buying lesser Young records before getting to the really good stuff. So, I am hoping this helps the Young newbies out there just as much as I'm hoping old hat fans will find something to discuss. Now, onto the list.
The Honorable Mentions (And Excuses)
Chrome Dreams II
Comes A Time
Live At The Fillmore East '73
Time Fades Away
Four Way Street (with CSNY)
Fork In The Road
American Stars 'n Bars
10. Zuma, 1975.
1975's Zuma is Neil Young's seventh studio album as a solo artist and his second with Crazy Horse on backup. Some believe the album was named after Zuma Beach in Malibu; however, it seems more logical that the title comes from Montezuma, as he is featured prominently in the song "Cortez The Killer". Zuma was the first album released after the famed Ditch Trilogy, comprising the albums Time Fades Away, Tonight's the Night, and On the Beach (yeah, I don't know how four albums make a trilogy either, other than to guess that Time Fades Away is considered the live companion piece). It has an overall more upbeat atmosphere, with a combination of country-tinged rock acoustics and lumbering hard-rock pieces similar in style to songs on Young's second album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. As on the latter album, Young is backed up by Crazy Horse with the late Danny Whitten being replaced by Frank Sampedro.
As a setlist, Zuma is a ragtag collection of misfits that benefits heavily from Young being at the pinnacle of his prowess as a songwriter and confidence as an instrumentalist. The music sounds at parts as if it is just about to fall apart (presumably due to drug use) but never does (presumably due to the band's familiarity with one another). The result is a bit of beautiful chaos. "Don't Cry No Tears" is a dusting off of a song Young had written in high school, "I Wonder", which appeared in his Archives in 2009. "Danger Bird" interpolates sections of an unreleased song relating to Young's breakup with Carrie Snodgress called "L.A. Girls and Ocean Boys", specifically the line "'Cause you've been with another man / there you are and here I am". Lou Reed once told an interviewer that he felt Young had become a "great guitarist" during this period, specifically citing "Danger Bird" as an example. I think Lou Reed must have never listened to "Southern Man", "Mr. Soul", or "Cowgirl in the Sand". "Pardon My Heart" was originally intended to be released as part of Homegrown.
In the middle of the album you will find the sole reason why I really wanted to rank Zuma higher on this list. While there isn't anything weak on this record, "Cortez the Killer" is one of my favorite songs of all time. Young has claimed several different origins for "Cortez the Killer", most notoriously saying during a show on August 13, 1996 that he'd written it in high school while suffering "Montezuma's Revenge". The song ends with a fade out because the original cut stopped abruptly due to recording tape running out before the band had finished playing, and a final verse Young had written was not recorded. Young's reaction to hearing of this was, "I never liked that verse anyway", and it has never been performed live. "Through My Sails", (originally titled "Sailboat Song") the final track, is the only track ever released from an aborted Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recording session in Hawaii in late 1974 for the as yet unreleased Human Highway album. Altogether, Zuma is a great album that most Young fans love, but might seem a little aimless for the novice fan. I think every fan should hear "Cortez the Killer", but we'll get another bite at that apple later.
9. Buffalo Springfield Again, 1967.
Buffalo Springfield Again is an example of a record that worked its way up the list with a fresh listen. I've got to go out on a limb and say that I can count on one hand the albums from this period that sound better than this one. For those of you unfamiliar with Buffalo Springfield, allow me to give a brief introduction. Springfield was a late-sixties folk-rock band of the same class that included The Byrds. Most famous for launching the careers of Neil Young and Stephen Stills, I hold that Springfield did more ambitious things in three albums than most of their contemporaries would accomplish in their careers. That is due in large part to the work they did on this record, with the most timeless pieces coming from Neil Young's pen. Released on October 30, 1967, the recording of Buffalo Springfield Again has been stated by some as tense and protracted, because Young was often absent and the band was unable to keep a permanent bass player. (The group's first bass guitarist, Bruce Palmer, spent much of the sessions detained on drug charges.) A number of Los Angeles session players also make appearances.
Among the notable tracks are Young's minor hit, "Mr. Soul". The album also includes two orchestral experiments Young produced with Jack Nitzsche, a Phil Spector associate whose work will make another appearance on the list: "Expecting to Fly" and "Broken Arrow". Both tracks were intended for solo release, and feature Young only, backed by session players (though Furay overdubbed a harmony vocal on the latter). These songs are nothing short of strange for their day and not only foreshadow later operatic song structures for Young (on tracks like "A Man Needs A Maid" and "There's A World") but many of the deconstructionist chamber pop kicking around today. Stills contributed four tunes, among them "Rock and Roll Woman", a song co-written by an uncredited David Crosby and allegedly featuring Crosby on backup vocals. (He had just been fired by The Byrds) This song was probably the first collaboration between Stills and Crosby. Simultaneous tension in the Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, and The Hollies would eventually result in the formation of Crosby, Stills & Nash. That will become important later too.
8. Live at Massey Hall, 2007.
Live At Massey Hall 1971 is one of Neil Young's very best performances officially released, which is saying alot. Released in 2007, the album features a solo, acoustic performance from Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada on 19 January 1971 during the Journey Through the Past Solo Tour. It is the second release in Young's Archives Performance Series, and so far it is also the most commercially successful. It reached #1 in Canada with 11,000 units sold in its first week. It debuted at #9 on the Irish Charts, and #30 on the UK albums chart. The album debuted on the Billboard 200 album chart on March 31, 2007 at number 6, with 57,000 copies sold. It spent 11 weeks on the chart. In 2009, the album was named by Fretbase as one of the all-time 10 best albums featuring a singer-songwriter on acoustic guitar.
Though the set of songs featured that night was similar to other concerts during the tour, the bulk of the songs played would have been unfamiliar to the audience. Of the eighteen songs Young performed during his second set that night, only eight had already appeared on record. These include songs that Young recorded with the bands Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, or had released on one of his three solo albums to date. Five additional songs performed would appear one year later on the landmark album Harvest (though there are noticeable differences in the lyrics on "A Man Needs a Maid"). One song, "Bad Fog of Loneliness," makes its first appearance with this release. The remaining four songs would see the light of day on subsequent 1970s albums. "Love in Mind" and "Journey Through the Past" would appear on the 1973 live album Time Fades Away, which has yet to appear on CD. "See the Sky About to Rain" was released in a different arrangement on the 1974 album On the Beach. "Dance Dance Dance" would appear on Crazy Horse's February 1971 debut album, and rewritten with new lyrics on the 1977 compilation album Decade as "Love Is a Rose." The reworked version later became a hit for Linda Ronstadt. Many of the songs appear in a form that virtually duplicates live takes found on other albums. "Cowgirl in the Sand," "Don't Let It Bring You Down," and "Down By the River" are unchanged from the versions that appear on 4 Way Street. "Journey Through the Past" and "Love In Mind" are similar to the performances found on Time Fades Away. "The Needle and the Damage Done" appeared in a live cut on the otherwise studio album Harvest.
For much of 1971, Young was recuperating from a debilitating slipped disc back injury (he references this injury at the beginning of the "Helpless" take, saying, "bending over is... not so much fun" after dropping a pick). The year would be the first since 1965 not to see a new studio album featuring the prolific artist. The release of a live album was scheduled for March 1971. It may have featured material from just this show, or from several shows, including the one featured on the first Archives release, Live at the Fillmore East. According to Young, "This is the album that should have come out between After the Gold Rush and Harvest...David Briggs, my producer, was adamant that this should be the record, but I was very excited about the takes we got on Harvest, and wanted Harvest out. David disagreed. As I listen to this today, I can see why." Atlantic Records ultimately released a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young live album, 4 Way Street on April 7, 1971. While I enjoy that live CSNY record (as proven by it's existence on the honorable mentions list), I think Live At Massey is a far superior record. It functions as both a fascinating historical document, with all of these great songs existing in transition, and as a fun listening experience in its own right.
7. On the Beach, 1974.
On The Beach is the first of a few records here that should help a beginning Neil Young fan decide if they want to go any deeper. I do not personally know anyone that identifies as a Young fan who also doesn't love this record (myself being one of them). Recorded after (but released before) Tonight's the Night, On the Beach shares some of that album's bleakness and crude production—which came as a shock to fans and critics alike, as this was the long-awaited studio follow-up to the commercially and critically successful Harvest—but also included hints pointing towards a more subtle outlook, particularly on the opener, "Walk On". While the original Rolling Stone review described it as "One of the most despairing albums of the decade", later critics such as Allmusic's William Ruhlmann used the benefit of hindsight to conclude that Young "[w]as saying goodbye to despair, not being overwhelmed by it". The despair of Tonight's the Night, communicated through intentional underproduction and lyrical pessimism, gives way to a more polished album that is still pessimistic but to a lesser degree.
Much like Tonight's the Night, On the Beach was not a commercial success at the time of its release but over time attained a high regard from fans and critics alike. The album was recorded in a haphazard manner, with Young utilizing a variety of session musicians, and often changing their instruments while offering only bare-bones arrangements for them to follow (in a similar style to Tonight's the Night). He also would opt for rough, monitor mixes of songs rather than a more polished sound, alienating his sound engineers in the process. Throughout the recording of the album, Young and his fellow musicians consumed a homemade concoction dubbed "Honey Slides", a goop of sauteed marijuana and honey that "felt like heroin". This may account for the mellow mood of the album, particularly the second half of the LP. The typically humble Young has said of it "Good album. One side of it particularly—the side with 'Ambulance Blues', 'Motion Pictures' and 'On the Beach' — it's out there. It's a great take."
"Walk On", the album's opener, has Young combining his cynical outlook with a touch of closure and a wish to move on and keep living. This is probably the most well-known of all the songs from On The Beach, due to its inclusion on Decade (perhaps the single best 'greatest hits' collection ever made). The album also includes the high-strung "Revolution Blues," inspired by Charles Manson, whom Young had met in his Topanga Canyon days. "For the Turnstiles" is a country-folk hybrid featuring Young's banjo and a caterwauling harmony vocal from Ben Keith, while playing Dobro. Also of note is "Vampire Blues," an attack on the oil industry. Young also throws in a remake of his Harvest era "See the Sky About to Rain." This track had also been released a year earlier on The Byrds's eponymous album. "Ambulance Blues" closes the album. The song explores Young's feelings about his critics, Richard Nixon and the state of CSNY. The line "You're all just pissing in the wind" was a direct quote from Young's manager regarding the inactivity of the quartet.
For about two decades, rarity made a cult out of On the Beach. The title was deleted from vinyl in the early 1980s and only briefly available on cassette - the old slide-out case style, as well as 8-track Cartridge tape. On the Beach headed the list of most-desired albums not released on CD. Along with three other mid-period Young albums, it had been withheld from re-release until 2003. The reasons remain murky but there is some evidence that Young himself didn't want the album out on CD, variously citing "fidelity problems" and legal issues. Beginning in 2000, over 5000 fans signed an online petition calling for the release of the album on CD. Pitchfork Media listed it #65 on their list of the 'Top 100 Albums of the 1970s'. In 2007, On the Beach was placed at #40 in Bob Mersereau's book The Top 100 Canadian Albums.
6. Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, 1969.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is Neil Young's second album as a solo artist, though many mistakenly think it to be his first. The first time Young recorded with backing band Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere peaked at #34 on the Billboard 200 and has been certified a platinum album by the RIAA. The album contains three songs that became standards in his performance repertoire: "Cinnamon Girl," "Down by the River," and "Cowgirl in the Sand," all of which were written when Young had a 103 °F fever. In 2003, the album was ranked #208 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. An interesting production note: Young's final lead vocal track (on the original album) was actually a temporary scratch vocal he sang through the low quality talk-back microphone on the mixing board, with no effects such as reverb. Young liked the stark contrast to the rest of the recording and used the track, becoming one of Young's many innovations.
Upon release, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere received generally favorable reviews from critics. Bruce Miroff of Rolling Stone wrote a favorable review. He described his voice as "perpetually mournful, without being maudlin or pathetic. It hints at a world in which sorrow underlies everything [...] because that world is recognizable to most of us, Young's singing is often strangely moving." Despite stating that "in several respects [the album] falls short of his previous effort" and that "the lyricism of the first album can only be found in faint traces," he went on to state that the album "offers ample rewards. Young's music partially makes up for its lack of grace by its energy and its assurance." Robert Christgau rated the album a B+, stating that "Young is a strange artist and I am not all the way into him yet, but this record is haunting."
However, later reviews have been more positive. William Ruhlmann of music database website Allmusic rated the album five out of five stars. Ruhlmann stated that "released only four months after his first [album], [it] was nearly a total rejection of that polished effort." He noted that "Cinnamon Girl," "Down by the River," and "Cowgirl in the Sand" were "useful as frames on which to hang the extended improvisations Young played with Crazy Horse and to reflect the ominous tone of his singing." He concluded that the album "set a musical pattern Young and his many musical descendants have followed ever since [...] and a lot of contemporary bands were playing music clearly influenced by it." Mark Richardson of Pitchfork Media rated the album 10 out of 10 points, stating that "the opening riff to "Cinnamon Girl" erases the memory of Neil Young completely in about five seconds" and that "Crazy Horse were loose and sloppy, privileging groove and feeling above all." He also said that "Young sounds comfortable and confident, singing with the versatile voice that has changed remarkably little in the 40 years since" and concluded that it "was a sort of big bang for Young, a dense moment of creative explosion that saw possibilities expanding in every direction."
For me, it was when I realized that I loved the song "Down By The River" that I knew Neil Young's music would be with me for the rest of my life. Now, every song on this record is important to me, but "Down By The River" is a perfect explanation of what Young does best. The song is epic in story. Young uses the lead guitar to create a massive palette with flickers of cogent lyrical content. I don't see how anyone could call themselves a Neil Young fan without thoroughly enjoying Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
5. Tonight's the Night, 1975.
Young's sixth release, Tonight's the Night, is one that you will either find confounding or beautiful. That fact is the only thing keeping me from placing it higher on the list. To be completely honest, there are days that I would argue this my favorite Neil Young album of all. Tonight's the Night was recorded in 1973, its release delayed for two years, until 1975. It peaked at #25 on the Billboard 200. The darker tone of the record and looser song structure has probably contributed to the album's relative obscurity in comparison to Young's mega-hit Harvest, which was recorded not long before. Tonight's the Night is a direct expression of grief. Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and Young's friend and roadie Bruce Berry had both died of drug overdoses in the months before the songs were written. The title track mentions Berry by name, while Whitten's guitar and vocal work highlight "Come on Baby Let's Go Downtown"; the latter was recorded live in 1970. The song would later appear, unedited, on a live album from the same concerts, Live at the Fillmore East, with Whitten credited as the sole author.
The material is unique throughout onight's the Night. I typically describe this album as what it must be like to listen to Harvest after a long night of drinking. Apparently for Young, it was a lot like making Harvest during a long night of drinking. There is beauty in the murk however. "Borrowed Tune" is Young at his most simple and direct, telling a haunting story about sitting on a hotel room floor, too messed up to write a new song. So, he borrows a tune from the Rolling Stones. "Albuquerque" is one of the great, unsung epic Young ballads. To this day, I have a hard time listening to "Tired Eyes' without dropping a tear. Neil isn't preachy and seems to be able to convey the depth of his own pain as easily as he can flip a coin.
Tonight's the Night is not widely mentioned among non-Young fans, but that isn't for a lack of positive critical reception. AllMusic gave the album a perfect five star score (along with a majority of the selections in the top ten). Famed rock critic Robert Christgau also gave the album an A rating, a far more rare distinction from Christgau. Dave Marsh wrote in his original Rolling Stone review:
"The music has a feeling of offhand, first-take crudity matched recently only by Blood on the Tracks, almost as though Young wanted us to miss its ultimate majesty in order to emphasize its ragged edge of desolation. [...] More than any of Young's earlier songs and albums—even the despondent On the Beach and the mordant, rancorous Time Fades Away—Tonight's the Night is preoccupied with death and disaster. [...] There is no sense of retreat, no apology, no excuses offered and no quarter given. If anything, these are the old ideas with a new sense of aggressiveness. The jitteriness of the music, its sloppy, unarranged (but decidedly structured) feeling is clearly calculated."
In a followup review published in the 1983 edition of The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, Marsh wrote:
"The record chronicles the post-hippie, post-Vietnam demise of counterculture idealism, and a generation's long, slow trickle down the drain through drugs, violence, and twisted sexuality. This is Young's only conceputally cohesive record, and it's a great one."
And as the reviewer notes in PopMatters: "Tonight's the Night is that one rare record I will never tire of." In 2003, the album was ranked number 331 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. This is one I think slips through the cracks with even deep catalog fans and unjustifiably so. The playing and songs are stronger than you will find on Zuma or On The Beach. Personally, I'll take the ballads here over anything Young has done elsewhere in his career. It's that damn good.
4. After the Gold Rush, 1970.
There is absolutely no good argument against Neil Young's third solo record, After the Gold Rush, being considered one of the very best albums in all of rock history. Released in August 1970 on Reprise Records, it was one of the four high-profile albums released by each member of folk rock collective Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in the wake of their chart-topping 1970 album Déjà Vu. Gold Rush consisted mainly of country folk music, along with the rocking "Southern Man". Songs were inspired by the Dean Stockwell-Herb Berman screenplay After the Gold Rush. The record peaked at number eight on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart; the two singles taken from the album, "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" and "When You Dance I Can Really Love", made it to number 33 and number 93 respectively on the Billboard Hot 100.
Initial sessions were conducted with Crazy Horse at Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles amid a winter tour that included a well-received engagement with Steve Miller and Miles Davis at the Fillmore East. Despite the deteriorating health of rhythm guitarist Danny Whitten, the sessions yielded the released tracks, "I Believe In You," "Oh, Lonesome Me", "Birds" issued as a b-side, and "When You Dance I Can Really Love". Most of the album was recorded at a make-shift basement studio in Young's Topanga Canyon home during the spring of 1970 with Greg Reeves, Ralph Molina of Crazy Horse, and burgeoning eighteen-year-old musical prodigy Nils Lofgren of the Washington, DC-based band Grin on piano. This was a typical idiosyncratic decision by Young; Lofgren had not played keyboards on a regular basis prior to the sessions. Along with fellow Young stalwart Jack Nitzsche, he would join an augmented Crazy Horse sans Young before enjoying his own group and solo cult success alternating with a 25 year membership in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. The Young biography Shakey claims Young was intentionally trying to combine Crazy Horse and CSN on this release, with Crazy Horse appearing alongside Stephen Stills and CSNY bass player Greg Reeves.
Songs on the album were inspired by the Dean Stockwell-Herb Berman screenplay for the unmade film After the Gold Rush. Young had read the screenplay and asked Stockwell if he could produce the soundtrack. Tracks that Young recalls as being written specifically for the film are "After the Gold Rush" and "Cripple Creek Ferry". The script has since been lost, though has been described as "sort of an end-of-the-world movie". Stockwell said of it "I was gonna write a movie that was personal, a Jungian self-discovery of the gnosis...it involved the Kabala (sic), it involved a lot of arcane stuff."
Critics were not immediately impressed; the 1970 review in Rolling Stone magazine by Langdon Winner was negative, with Winner feeling that, "none of the songs here rise above the uniformly dull surface." Critical reaction has improved with time; by 1975, Rolling Stone was referring to the album as a "masterpiece", and Gold Rush is now considered a classic album in Young's recording career. After the Gold Rush has appeared on a number of greatest albums lists. In 1998 Q magazine readers voted After the Gold Rush the 89th greatest album of all time. It was ranked 92nd in a 2005 survey held by British television's Channel 4 to determine the 100 greatest albums of all time. In 2003, Rolling Stone named the album the 71st greatest album of all time, his highest ranking on this list. Pitchfork Media listed it 99th on their 2004 list of the "Top 100 Albums of the 1970s". In 2006, Time Magazine listed it as one of the 'All-Time 100 Albums'. It was ranked third in Bob Mersereau's 2007 book The Top 100 Canadian Albums. Young's followup album, Harvest, was named the greatest Canadian album of all time in that book. In 2005, Chart Magazine readers placed it fifth on a poll of the best Canadian Albums. In 2002, Blender Magazine named it the 86th greatest "American" album. New Musical Express named it the 80th greatest album of all time in 2003.
3. Déjà Vu, 1970.
During my college days, I was a late night radio DJ. I would be in the studio all alone from 11 until 2 AM. There were a lot of times that I would have to fight to keep myself awake and the air from going dead. Whenever I felt the sleep coming in, I knew I could throw on "Carry On" (Déjà Vu's opening track) and be good for the rest of the night. Déjà Vu is the first album by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and the second by the trio configuration of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. It was released in March of 1970 by Atlantic Records. It topped the pop album chart for one week and generated three Top 40 singles: "Teach Your Children," "Our House," and "Woodstock."
Déjà Vu was greatly anticipated after the popularity of the first CSN album and the addition of Young to the group. Stills estimates that the album took around 800 hours of studio time to record; this figure may be exaggerated, even though the individual tracks display meticulous attention to detail. The songs, except for "Woodstock", were recorded as individual sessions by each member, with each contributing whatever was needed that could be agreed upon. Young does not appear on all of the tracks, and drummer Dallas Taylor and bassist Greg Reeves are credited on the cover with their names in slightly smaller typeface. Jerry Garcia plays pedal steel on "Teach Your Children" and John Sebastian plays mouth-harp on the title track. Four singles were released from the album with all but the last ("Carry On") charting on the Hot 100.
The popularity of the album contributed to the success of the four albums released by each of the members in the wake of Déjà Vu: Neil Young's After the Gold Rush, Stephen Stills' self-titled solo debut, David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name, and Graham Nash's Songs for Beginners. In 2003, the album was ranked number 148 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The same year, the TV network VH1 named Déjà Vu the 61st greatest album of all time. The album ranked at #14 for the Top 100 Albums of 1970 and #217 overall by Rate Your Music. In my opinion, Déjà Vu is a perfect picture of each performer at the very top of their game. Furthermore, I think that Stephen Stills and Neil Young (on the rare occasions that they got along well enough) are one of the great unsung songwriting duos in rock history. Each knew when to allow the other space to create and each knew exactly what to add to the other. Unlike other famous duos like Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richards, I find it extremely difficult to know exactly which of the two was responsible for what in their cooperative songs.
2. Harvest, 1972.
Well, you had to assume this one was coming. I'm willing to bet that most readers will be surprised that 1972's Harvest isn't number one on the list. Neil Young's fourth solo record is certainly his most commercially successful. It topped the Billboard 200 album chart for two weeks, and spawned two hit singles, "Old Man", which peaked at #31 on the Billboard Hot 100, and "Heart of Gold", which peaked at #1. Harvest was the best-selling album of 1972 in the United States.
After Young left Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, he recruited a group of country session musicians (whom he christened The Stray Gators) and an all-star list of guests that included David Crosby, Graham Nash, Linda Ronstadt, Stephen Stills, and James Taylor to record Harvest. The record was a massive hit, producing a US number one single in "Heart of Gold". Other songs returned to some usual Young themes: "Alabama" was "an unblushing rehash of 'Southern Man'"; and "The Needle and the Damage Done" was a lament for great artists who had died of heroin addiction. The album's success caught Young off guard and his first instinct was to back away from stardom. He would later write that the record "put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there."
Despite the album's strong sales, assessments by critics were not overwhelmingly favorable at the time. A negative review was published in Rolling Stone, where John Mendelsohn called the album a disappointing retread of earlier, superior efforts by Young, writing of "the discomfortingly unmistakable resemblance of nearly every song on this album to an earlier Young composition — it's as if he just added a steel guitar and new words to After The Gold Rush." A review in The Montreal Gazette gave the album a mixed verdict, calling it "embarrassing" in places but interesting lyrically, and singling out "Are You Ready for the Country?" as the record's best cut. More recent evaluations of the album have been far more positive: in 1998, Q magazine readers voted Harvest the 64th greatest album of all time. In 1996, 2000 and 2005, Chart polled readers to determine the 50 greatest Canadian albums of all time — Harvest placed second in all three polls, losing the top spot to Joni Mitchell's Blue in 2000, and to Sloan's Twice Removed in the other two polls. In 2003, a full three decades removed from its original harsh assessment, Rolling Stone named Harvest the 78th greatest album of all time. In 2007, Harvest was named the #1 Canadian Album of All Time by Bob Mersereau in his book The Top 100 Canadian Albums.
1. Live Rust/Rust Never Sleeps, 1979.
If you are a regular reader of this column, you know that I've been working on the mother of all lists over the last several weeks. I am attempting to list the top ten concert albums of all time. I have said this before and I will stand by it; Neil Young is the greatest live performer of his generation. With that, Rust Never Sleeps/Live Rust may just be the greatest live concert recording ever made. Some people might argue that a live album should hardly be considered as the greatest work of any artist's catalog. Typically, I would agree. Neil Young is anything but typical. He is one of the exclusively few artists that is more often transcendent than anything else in concert. Whether he is playing an acoustic guitar by himself, or rocking harder than ever with Crazy Horse, Young is constantly and fully engaged with that one performance. He uses his live show to work new songs and breathe new life and interpretations into old ones. It hasn't been out of the question throughout his career to play songs on one night that would never be heard again. In the case of Live Rust you have all of that with the added benefit of a vital artist, at the top of his game, responding to one of the most important transitory periods in rock history with all guns blazing.
The beginnings of Rust are part of the key to its magic. 1977 was a watershed year in music with the birth of punk. This new guard made their distaste for the rock heroes of old a battle cry. Very few of those older artists adjusted well to the temperature change. Those that did took to the new 'wave' as if it were a challenge. I'm talking about people Lou Reed, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, and (luckily) Neil Young. These were the guys that were wanting to work with these new guys and see where they could take one another. Much has been made of Neil Young's still unreleased madcap film Human Highway. I could spend a few pages talking about that, but the most important bit of information for this discussion was that the film marked a collaboration between Neil Young and Devo. While on the shoot, the former Cleveland ad company employee Mark Mothersbaugh used the term "rust never sleeps", a pitch he created for Rustoleum. Young took interest in the phrase. With that little coincidence, the Rust Never Sleeps tour was born. The image of rust is important here. With punk, Young is feeling that maybe his career is all too quickly coming to rust. So, what is he going to do? If you've heard the album, the answer is pretty clear. Hell, the title says all you need to know; Rust NEVER Sleeps. It's better to burn out than turn to rust.
Though Rust Never Sleeps was generally liked amongst critics, Live Rust was not received well for reasons I have yet to understand. Though Never Sleeps features a few key songs that aren't on Live Rust, the latter is a pitch perfect encapsulation of Young's catalog to this point. Young breathes new life into every song he touches in these performances, whether it be "Cortez the Killer" or "Comes A Time". He's also playing new songs, most notably acoustic and electric versions of "Hey Hey, My My". These tracks serve as the thematic glue of the record. You literally points a finger at Johnny Rotten and says, "try doing this sonny". Furthermore, the full double LP is a showcase for everything that Young can do in concert. He plays acoustic alone. He plays the burning electric rock with Crazy Horse. He does both extremely well. I've always held that there are a few magic ingredients to a truly great live record. Most important among them is timing. If you can get an artist after they have made their greatest songs, but before they have lost the ambition to do something new with those songs, there is a chance at greatness. Add to that Young's full blaze retort to the punk movement. He has something to prove with Rust. As a result, he makes a live record that is more fondly remembered today than almost anything the punk movement created. If you can't listen to Live Rust, then you aren't a Neil Young fan.
So, did you know me and some of the other fools that write at 411 also work on an indie music blog? What's that you say? You've been looking for one of those? Well, you should definitely come check us out at Earbuddy.net. Also, make sure to catch the latest columns from my colleagues at Earbuddy here on 411, like Nick Krenn's 3 R's and John Downey's Love/Hate News Report.
No synthesizers whatsoever were used during the writing of this column.
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