Deep Album Cuts Vol. 127: Neil Young

Neil Young is one of those artists that I sometimes feel like I've taken for granted, because he was always right there. When I was becoming a rock fan in the early '90s, he was the coolest and most omnipresent '60s act who was out there touring with my favorite bands like Pearl Jam and Sonic Youth, universally revered and respected. Harvest Moon and his Unplugged album were staples in my mom's house when they came out, and my dad had a bunch of Neil, CSNY, and Buffalo Springfield albums and CDs that he left to me when he passed away. I went to the Horde Tour the year Neil headlined, and the only part of the show where a friend let me use their pass to go down to one of the front rows was during his set, which was awesome. And throughout my teens, I'd get into bands that I can't imagine existing without Neil Young, from Dinosaur Jr. to Sparklehorse and Built To Spill. So for whatever reason I never really made a point to buy his albums and spend time with his catalog like I have with some other canonical '60s/'70s artists, at least until streaming services made it a little easier to while away an afternoon with After The Gold Rush or Rust Never Sleeps.

Neil Young deep album cuts (Spotify playlist):

1. Don't Let It Bring You Down
2. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
3. Powderfinger
4. On The Beach
5. Barstool Blues
6. Alabama
7. The Old Laughing Lady
8. Cowgirl In The Sand
9. Tell Me Why
10. Harvest
11. L.A.
12. Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown
13. Look Out For My Love
14. Fontainebleu
15. Homegrown
16. Revolution Blues
17. Pocahontas
18. Cortez The Killer

Track 7 from Neil Young (1969)
Tracks 2 and 8 from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
Tracks 1 and 9 from After The Gold Rush (1970)
Tracks 6 and 10 from Harvest (1972)
Track 11 from Time Fades Away (1973)
Tracks 4 and 16 from On The Beach (1974)
Tracks 12 from Tonight's The Night (1975)
Tracks 5 and 18 from Zuma (1975)
Track 14 from Long May You Run (1976)
Track 15 from American Stars 'n Bars (1977)
Tracks 13 from Comes A Time (1978)
Tracks 3 and 17 from Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

Neil Young is one of those major AOR acts for whom the line gets really blurry between hit songs and album tracks. Some of his biggest classic rock hits like "Southern Man" and "The Needle And The Damage Done" were never A-sides. And some of his most beloved songs that get played the most at his concerts and top any list of fan favorites are the 7-to-10 minute epics like "Cowgirl In The Sand" and "Cortez The Killer" that, with the exception of "Down By The River," never got cut down to single edits for radio play. And a lot of these songs, including "Cortez" and "Cowgirl" and "The Old Laughing Lady" and "A Man Needs A Maid" and "Tonight's The Night," appeared on 1977's platinum-selling triple LP Decade, for a long time Young's only best-of compilation. And of course "Alabama," along with "Southern Man," spurred a far more famous response in the form of one of Lynyrd Skynyrd's biggest hits.

Neil Young's catalog is also a bit complicated because of how he shied away from the spotlight at the height of his fame. His first four albums, culminating in the blockbuster Harvest, made him a household name. But, as Young famously wrote, "'Heart of Gold' put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch" (and let's be honest, Harvest is his most accessible record but it's still a pretty varied and interesting one, it shouldn't be dismissed). The 'Ditch Trilogy' that ensued -- Time Fades Away, On The Beach, and Tonight's The Night -- didn't produce any classic rock staples, but two of the three went gold, as did nearly all of his albums of the '70s. Time Fades Away was probably the first instance of a major artist releasing a set of new songs as a live album. And though it's the album Young himself has largely disowned, he's continued blurring the lines between studio albums and live albums, using concert recordings heavily on Rust Never Sleeps and Life as well as including live tracks on Harvest and Tonight's The Night.

Of the albums included here, only Everybody Knows This Is NowhereZuma and Rust Never Sleeps are officially credited to Neil Young and Crazy Horse, although members of his longest running backing band are also on tracks from Tonight's The NightOn The BeachAfter The Gold RushAmerican Stars 'n Bars, and Comes A Time, often in some configuration with other players, like The Band's Rick Danko and Levon Helm, who play on "Revolution Blues" (imagine if there was a whole band of them backing Neil, damn). Long May You Run is the sole album by The Stills-Young Band, so it kind of sits awkwardly at the cross section of the discographies of Young solo, Stephen Stills solo, Buffalo Springfield, and CSNY while really not quite belonging to any of the above, although "Fountainebleu" is I think the Young composition on the album that fit the best here (Stills and Crosby also sing backup on "Alabama").

Young's ability to turn his back on commercial appeal, within the major label system, at a time when 'corporate rock' and naked careerism were on the rise, are I think what really helped make Young a touchstone for every generation of rock musicians since his own. His continued industry battles, including Geffen taking him to court in the '80s for turning in 'uncharacteristic' and uncommercial albums, at a time when many of his peers were cashing in on slick MTV-friendly comeback albums, is probably a big part of why he was able to enter the '90s like a heroic alt-rock trailblazer. He's probably as foundational to indie rock as the Velvet Underground or anyone else. A year or so back I saw members of Mercury Rev, the Posies and Midlake on tour together under the name Tears of Silver, and one of their big singalong songs at the end of the night was "Don't Let It Bring You Down," and it struck me that a Neil Young song that's never really been on the radio could feel like kind of a universal standard in a room full of aging music nerds.  If you spend much of your time around guitarists and songwriters, you've probably known a lot of Neil Young devotees, mostly guys ("Last night I dreamt I kissed Neil Young/if I was a boy I guess it would be fun" remains Kim Gordon's funniest lyric ever). But as I've made my own music, I've found his influence to be a helpful guiding force, just in terms of feeling unafraid to make things that are flawed and vulnerable, things that sound wrong but feel right. I decided to cap this playlist at his biggest album of the late '70s, Rust Never Sleeps, because there are so many great songs just in his '60s and '70s work, but of course he did a lot of note after that.
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