Saturday, November 13, 2010

Rockin' Out with Neil Young

Slightly belated, but since today was Neil Young's birthday, I figured it was worth celebrating. I felt it instinctively in my heart, but I didn't know it objectively until the middle of the day. I knew there was a reason I felt that November was a "Neil Young kind of month" - it's because the man's birthday is in November! Happy birthday, Neil!

Neil is one of the few artists I know that has mastered both the art of acoustic and the art of electric music. And me being more the type to be interested in electric music, I figure I'll celebrate by picking out Neil's ten(ish) best electric guitar-driven rock songs, from throughout his career. Let's get started.

Stop #1 - Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, from 1969. This was Neil's second solo record, and the first with his most frequent backing band, Crazy Horse, fashioned from a bar band previously titled The Rockets. The album itself is top material, one of the best in the history of rock, but the two standout tracks from an electric guitar perspective are the jammy Down By The River, and the epic Cowgirl in the Sand.

Stop #2 - After The Gold Rush, from 1970. Not as strong an album, from start to finish, as the previous one (Everybody Knows...), but it features the song Southern Man, which is a powerful and (not always the case) radio-friendly rocker that's endured through the years.

Stop #3 - Ohio, from 1970. Released as a single and recorded with the supergroup Crosby Stills Nash & Young, this song features a biting electric riff, and heavily emotional political commentary. Rumor has it, David Crosby broke down in tears immediately after this song was recorded. Like Southern Man, it still receives a fair bit of radio play even today.

Stop #4 - Harvest, from 1972. This is widely acclaimed to be one of Neil Young's greatest albums, if not the greatest - and it is a good acoustic album, but the highlight is the closing track - Words (Between the Lines of Age) - which is a meandering electric epic.

Stop #5 - Zuma, from 1975. This is Neil's second official and full album with Crazy Horse, and is more consistently electric than Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, if not, overall, as flawless. But it features an inspired piece that contains what I would argue is Neil's most hauntingly sublime electric lead ever committed to record - that piece is Cortez The Killer.

Stop #6 - American Stars N' Bars, from 1977. This was not a Crazy Horse album, but the standout track, Like A Hurricane, was recorded with Crazy Horse. Hurricane is, suitably, an electric powerhouse that reaches almost unbelievable heights of guitar wizardry. Live versions are consistently interesting.

Stop #7 - Rust Never Sleeps, from 1979. If Harvest is Neil's greatest acoustic album, this could be argued as his best "hybrid" album - combining both the acoustic and electric halves of his muse. It is also a Crazy Horse album (at least for those songs not performed solo by Neil). The track most worth mentioning is Hey Hey, My My (the electric version of the song), which is a marauding beast that foams distortion at the mouth. A bit subtler (relatively speaking), but also of note, is the track Powderfinger.

Stop #8 - Freedom, from 1989. We jump ahead to the end of Neil's experimental period, which doesn't get as much exposure as the rest of his catalog. Freedom introduced the world to the electric anthem (also providing an acoustic version) Rockin' In The Free World.

Stop #9 - Ragged Glory, from 1990. Another Crazy Horse album, and quite possibly Neil's finest fully electric album. There is no shortage of good, heavily distorted rock grooving on this album. In fact, it's hard to pick a single favorite, but the fight is between the two 10+ minute epics - Love To Burn, and Love And Only Love.

Stop #10 - Greendale, from 2003. Greendale is a fascinating rock opera that, despite featuring Crazy Horse, manages to stay focused on the story instead of wandering off too far into the realm of jamming. This makes for a more coherent and captivating conceptual album experience, but the highlight for me is still the jamming on Carmichael, which is exquisite. But the closing piece, Be The Rain, has a powerful driving riff, and a perhaps more radio-friendly structure (hint hint), in spite of its length (coming in at almost 10 minutes).

Honorable Mentions (because Neil's got way too much good music to try to contain within any boundaries): Last Dance from 1973's Time Fades Away (still unreleased on CD), an angry electric jam; and the title track from 1974's On The Beach, which is rather subdued for an electric song, but quite beautiful. And there's so many more less popular songs that I haven't even touched on...

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