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The Very Best of Neil Young

Decades of classic music bundled together in one sheet

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    Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in July 2015. It’s being republished today as Neil Young’s new album, Peace Trail, prepares to drop later this week.

    You may have caught our Neil Young’s Top 10 Songs earlier this week. As exciting and challenging as it was to pluck 10 of his finest tunes from such a daunting discography, it was only the tip of the iceberg. So we decided to delve a little deeper into his work for a few more superlatives. Disagree with our choices? Of course you do. That’s part of the fun of these kinds of features. Let us know your own picks (and possibly some additional categories) in the comments section below. This is the very best of Neil Young.


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    We’ve talked exhaustively on this very site about the different faces of Neil Young — the old folkie, the grungy nihilist, the weirdo experimentalist, etc. After the Gold Rush works so well because it combines so many of these sides of him. On one hand, the record’s fairly straightforward, from the plaintive yearning on “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” to the critique of Mason-Dixon racism on “Southern Man”. On the flip side, Young gets abstract in his environmentalism on the title track, whose surreal tone can be attributed to the un-filmed Dean Stockwell script on which several of the songs are based. Hell, we even get a taste of his work with CSN&Y and Buffalo Springfield when Stephen Stills pops up on opener “Tell Me Why”.

    All of this makes After the Gold Rush sound more all over the place than it actually is. Part of its charm also lies in its sonic cohesion, courtesy of a crack backing band consisting of Crazy Horse, Jack Nitzche, and an 18-year-old Nils Lofgren, who learned to play piano just for this album. Together, they manage to be introspective without being boring and — an especially impressive feat for Crazy Horse — rock without going on too long. With that in mind, it’s almost a blessing that the erratic script for After the Gold Rush got lost. If Young had pulled from its entirety for this quasi-soundtrack, the whole thing may have gone off the rails. Instead, we get just the right amount of everything. –Dan Caffrey


    BEST SONG

    Neil Young’s voluminous catalog is made up of literally thousands of songs across more than 40 studio records, which should seem to make picking a best song something akin to pulling a needle out of a haystack. It would be, that is, if one song (two, if we’re being technical) didn’t perfectly sum up not only Young’s sound, but his fierce iconoclasm.

    Regardless of whether you prefer the stripped-down “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” or its more full-bodied companion, “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”, together both versions capture the two sides of Young’s split musical personality — rocker thrash on the one hand and the contemplative singer-songwriter on the other. Musically, both songs cover Young’s sonic spectrum, but it’s the lyrics that really nail his uncompromising ethos dead to rights. The song is checkered with bits and phrases that spell out his principled credo. When he pleads that “Rock and Roll will never die,” it’s a promise he’s still making good on more than 35 years later.

    Young also wasn’t mindlessly throwing words on the page when he posited that “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” a line that speaks pretty deliberately to the singer’s fighting spirit. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a line that’s been championed as a rally cry for generations of principled musicians who followed him. Some maybe took the singer’s words a bit too much to heart (Kurt Cobain famously quoted the line in his suicide note), but considering the remarkable ripple effect Young made with a quick turn of phrase, it’s hard to find another song that matches the one-two punch that bookends Rust Never Sleeps. –Ryan Bray


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    BEST MUSIC VIDEO

    The short-form music video was never Neil Young’s medium of choice. The music spoke for itself, and there was arguably no better way to present it than to watch the words leave Young’s snarled lips, to see his foot stomp in time to the rhythm. Director Jonathan Demme, the talent behind such landmark films as The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, saw this and collaborated with Young on a feature-length concert. Filmed in Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium, the film is a mix of interviews and footage from the live show, focused heavily on Young’s then newest album, 2006’s Prairie Wind. The movie covers 19 tracks, the first half comprised of music from Prairie Wind, the latter an acoustic set spanning Young’s entire career. Occasionally, he explains the inspiration for a song before launching into the number; other times the inspiration is self-evident.

    What carries the film is the joy that organically materializes onstage between Neil and Pegi, Neil and his bandmates (many of whom have been with him for the vast majority of his career), and Neil and the crowd. There’s also a thick passion that Demme exudes from behind the camera, both in admiration for Young and his work and, more broadly, the wonder of hearing an evening’s worth of incredible music on a storied stage in a city known for its aural hunger. Documentaries are meant above all to be objective, and in that sense, Demme failed spectacularly. This is a movie made by a fan, albeit a talented and famous one. From the opening frames to the final note, there’s no doubt that we are watching the work of one genius as he documents another. –Zack Ruskin


    BEST ALBUM COVER

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    Neil Young has never given too much precedence to the look of his records, opting often for unique typography set against a crude texture or illustration. This makes the effort behind the On the Beach photo that much more special. The top two-thirds of the image could be any ’70s album cover, the title laid out in a wavy, transparent font. There’s Neil sans shoes staring off into the waves. His pastel yellow shirt matches a lounge chair, sun umbrella, and even a Coors beer can sitting on a table in the foreground. But then there’s the Cadillac, or at least the rear fins of one, buried in the sand. The visual immediately recalls something apocalyptic, or at the bare minimum, surreal.

    It’s surely a testament to how Young was seeing the world, further emphasized by a newspaper near the middle of the cover that reads “Senator Buckley Calls for Nixon to Resign.” The world in which Young recorded and released On the Beach was a place with corrupt presidents, a country at war, where even that most American of icons – the Cadillac – was burying its head like an ostrich in shame. The power of the imagery speaks to the bleak tone of the songs contained within, a statement album from an angry man made all the more powerful by the art adorning its cover. –Zack Ruskin


    10 BEST NON-GREATEST HITS

    neil young gh beyond The Very Best of Neil Young

    10. “Shots”

    Even some of Young’s most die-hard fans forget about 1981’s Re-ac-tor, an odd entry in his catalog released between his ’70s winning steak and experimental sidesteps of the ’80s. And while many dismiss it as nowhere near as distinctly thoughtful as a record like Comes a Time or even Hawks and Doves or as distinctly weird as Trans, that’s exactly the point. Re-ac-tor is an exercise in primitive repetition, an album that’s loud, monosyllabic, and dumb. Closer “Shots” pulls off this inspired boneheadedness most successfully, appealing to the sauropod in all of us with Ralph Molina’s militaristic drum roll, Young and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro’s plodding guitar solos and gunfire effects straight out of a Contra video game. –Dan Caffrey


    09. “Throw Your Hatred Down”

    Neil Young found his perfect foil in Pearl Jam for his most unadulterated rock outing on 1995’s Mirror Ball. The record is a front-to-back scorcher, with the young grunge bucks throwing everything they have behind their master. Tucked in the middle of the mayhem, “Throw Your Hatred Down” marries decibel levels with the singer’s penchant for jabbing at world leaders, the media, and anyone else waging war on his endless quest for heavy peace. Beware of face-melting guitar solos. –Ryan Bray


    08. “Ramada Inn”

    Young love gets sang about plenty in rock ‘n’ roll. But old love? Rarely. And old love that’s fading way? Hardly ever. So leave it up to Neil Young & Crazy Horse to write a dirge about a longstanding marriage that’s corroding due to empty-nest syndrome, functional alcoholism, and just plain boredom. That last one’s scariest since it seems impossible to prevent. And while it’s not my place to decide whether or not “Ramada Inn” was addressing Young’s marriage to his then-wife Pegi (which ended in divorce after 36 years), it’s clear that the man has had plenty of experience with love you just can’t hold on to. Just like the rest of us. –Dan Caffrey


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    07. “Revolution Blues”

    Charles Manson had an undeniable effect on several rock musicians in the 1960s. Young himself met the murderer and cult leader while visiting the home of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and was so impressed with the cryptic catch of his music that he briefly considered helping Manson land a record contract. That didn’t happen, of course (at least not by Uncle Neil’s hand), but Young did write a song about Manson — backed by the rhythm section of The Band, no less — that was cryptic and catchy in its own right. In other words, it was a Neil Young song. –Dan Caffrey


    06. “Pardon My Heart”

    Neil Young can rock, and Neil Young can rock you to sleep. Zuma perhaps captures the balance of that yin and yang better than any of his records, and “Pardon My Heart” certainly delivers the goods on the softer side of that equation. Even when set in the thick of a record already heavily scarred with heartache, hearing Young try and make sense of a relationship beyond repair makes for one of the most tender and delicate listens in the singer’s overstuffed oeuvre. –Ryan Bray


    05. “This Old Guitar”

    Written about an old guitar of Hank Williams that Young was gifted some 35 years ago, “This Old Guitar” is one of a number of aching beauties that make up 2005’s Prairie Wind. Young uses the guitar as a metaphor about musical tradition, how songs and genres get passed down through the generations into the hands of those lucky enough to hold it. “The more I play it the better it sounds,” he sings. “It cries when I leave it alone.” Fortunately, he’s never away for long. –Ryan Bray


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    04. “Ordinary People”

    “Ordinary People” was originally an outtake from Young’s awkward R&B experiment This Note’s for You, and given how much bite the track has, it’s no surprise it sounds like nothing else from those sessions. There are horns, yes, but they exist solely to bring some levity to an 18-minute-plus epic about the working-class slog. The mammoth length and journalistic tales of economic oppression give hint that Young traversed the whole continent to write it. Maybe he did. –Dan Caffrey


    03. “Look Out for My Love”

    Some of Neil Young’s best stuff comes out when he’s being obtuse. “Look Out for My Love” sounds like a warning at the start, but by the song’s end it plays out like a cry for help. Also, how about that killer acoustic guitar lick at the end of the chorus? Gorgeous. –Ryan Bray


    02. “Mellow My Mind”

    There’s a tattered beauty that courses through the marrow of Tonight’s the Night, the middle child of Young’s famed ditch trilogy. “Mellow My Mind” captures the record’s ragged spirit at its most frayed. Young’s voice is wildly out of tune, while the music threatens to fall off the bar stool like a hapless drunkard. But what it lacks in precision it more than makes up for in wounded heart. Besides, has Neil Young ever been one to follow the rules? –Ryan Bray


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    01. “Thrasher”

    Young’s always had a preoccupation with environmental apocalypse, but he used to address it with twinkling surrealism rather than inelegant bluntness — songs that could just as easily have been describing a pleasant dream as opposed to a nightmare. And make no mistake, “Thrasher” is a nightmare of Mad Max proportions about a future where Young’s friends have become mutants, he’s had to burn his credit card for fuel, and nasty machines tear up the prairie like rusted mechanical land-sharks. But his guitar gently shimmers all the while, building a resignation that adds some complexity to Young’s politics, which will always be more interesting than full-on grouchiness. –Dan Caffrey


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