Friday, February 19, 2010

Discography: Neil Young - The Golden Age (1968 - 1979)

Neil Young's Discography is a daunting one. He may be one of the most prolific artists of all time with albums spanning almost 5 full decades. That's just his solo work. If you factor in Buffalo Springfield and CSNY, the man has a staggering track record (no puns intended.) I am going to focus strictly on Neil Young's solo work. It was sort of his Golden Age from 1968 - 1979. Almost every album went at least to Gold status in the United States (only his first album did not reach this goal.) It's an astonishing career that continues past Rust Never Sleeps, but to tackle all of this in one post is just absurd. So without further ado....

Neil Young (1968) - After leaving Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young started his career with an album that sounds more in tune with his past then the true spring board for what he would sound like in the next decade. It isn't without it's best points, but the self titled debut lacks the energy and feeling that the forthcoming albums would have. One of the best songs, which is beautifully performed in Johnathan Demme's film Heart of Gold is "The Old Laughing Lady." A beautiful timid song in the vein of "Sugar Mountain", it's the biggest stand out the record has going for it. "Ive Been Waiting For You" is another stand out song that if Crazy Horse was behind it, would have made it even better. "Last Trip to Tulsa" is the last of only a few really stellar songs that paves the way to some other Neil Young epics in the not to distant future. It's not a complete waste of time, but it's definitely the weakest of all the albums you will read about here.

Key Tracks: "The Old Laughing Lady", "Last Trip to Tulsa", "I've Been Waiting For You"

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) Easily one of Neil Young's premier works, his sophomoric album was no slump, but a huge leap forward. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere contains 3 of Young's most important songs as well as a few other gems. It's the first appearance of his long time backing band Crazy Horse. His backing band would be mocked by old friends as being sloppy and not very good at their craft, but Neil Young's own guitar style had always been a little grittier than most rock guitarists of the time, so Crazy Horse seems a perfect fit. On a track like "Cinnamon Girl", the extra fuzz and crunch of the band gives even more power behind the guitar part. Extended jams "Down By the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand" are delightfully sprawling with some of Neil's best early guitar craftsmanship. The titular track is a nice little quick ditty and "Round and Round (It Won't Be Long)" is a sweet lullaby. If you like Neil's grunge roots, this is the first of many signs of this to come. Later in this discography we'll be discussing his first true grunge album Rust Never Sleeps.

Key Tracks: "Cinnamon Girl", "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere", "Round and Round (It Won't Be Long)", "Down By the River", "Cowgirl in the Sand"

After the Gold Rush (1970) Young kept the big albums coming with his next fantastic record, and easily one of his most famous, After the Gold Rush. The early 70's saw Young at the prime of his home run hitting. For some reason upon it's release it was not immediately recognized as one of his better albums, but somehow in time it's garnered more praise. An album containing the pot stirrer "Southern Man" with it's indictment of the South's treatment of blacks as well as the amazing piano ballad in "After the Gold Rush", it's hard to see where critics saw the negative points in the album. Even lesser hits like "Tell Me Why" with it's simple acoustic strum along feel and the simple love song "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" may not be complex by any stretch, but still top notch. It doesn't have the raw power and fury that Everybody Knows had, but it still has that Neil Young quality.

Key Tracks: "Tell Me Why", "Southern Man", "After the Gold Rush", "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", "Tell Me Why", "Oh, Lonesome Me", "Cripple Creek Ferry"

Harvest (1972) Well regarded as Neil Young's magnum opus, Harvest is more or less the best of the early era Young material. It's not my personal favorite, but there is no denying a classic. With massive hits like "Old Man", a song about a kindred spirit Young met while buying a ranch, and "Heart of Gold", Young's most recognizable tune, are unavoidable in their popularity and unavoidable in their perfection. "The Needle and the Damage Done" is a staple of Young's archives and it's a heart wrenching song on the destruction of heroin, which hits close to Young as many of his friends and fellow rock stars from that era died of drug overdoses. Then there are the gems of the disc. The sweeping "A Man Needs a Maid", which the London Symphony Orchestra lends it's hand, is a beautiful song. "Out on the Weekend" is a melancholy opener and "Words (Between the Lines of Age)" is an intense closer. Where it lacks the intensity and grittiness of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, it is a little more eclectic than After The Gold Rush. If you don't own this album yet, I don't really know what to tell you. It's an essential to any record collection.

Key Tracks: I'll consider this one Neil's flawless album. I can't pick any song to leave off, even if it's not m personal favorite.

Time Fades Away (1973) I would just gloss over this, but it's too intriguing to not to. For Neil Young fan's, this is the Holy Grail. Only released on vinyl and never on CD or any other format, Time Fades Away was recorded during the tour for Harvest and features songs that I have yet to hear. It along with the soundtrack to Neil Young's super rare film Journey Through the Past are two rare treats that are only able to be found on wax. I hope someday to stumble upon it because the concert started a trilogy of wildly divergent, dark and abrasive Young records after the death of his long time friend and Crazy Horse guitarist, Danny Whitten. This was the start of a three album stretch called "The Ditch Trilogy." The next albums to come after this are stark in their contrast to Young's previous work and I can only imagine this being just as intense, especially since Whitten was supposed to tour for this record and died shortly before it of a drug overdose. If anyone reading this has a bootleg, has a vinyl copy OR sees a vinyl copy, get it. I will pay you handsomely (which means you will get the amount the record cost and I'll wear a suit.)

{Editor's Note: Holy Crap! I apparently have found 7 tracks of the total 8. Will listen to what I got and redo this section!!}

On The Beach (1974) On the heels of the massive Harvest, Neil Young's follow up to his biggest hit is something of a strange beast. On the surface, it would seem that is a dark, gritty and huge departure of an album. It's sounds aren't the lush, orchestrated productions of his past few studio records, but for Young that was the point. Recorded after Tonight's The Night but released first, of the two albums it is far better produced. It's minimal in it's structures and arrangements and the songs somehow still soar even though they are bathed in a muffled sound. A song like "Ambulance Blues" sounds as if it were recorded in a bath tub, but this claustrophobic sound mixed with the intense lyrics of loss and of dissatisfaction benefit. The titular track is a sprawling guitar anthem and sounds a bit like a slowed down "Like A Hurricane." "Vampire Blues" is an organ laden blues track and "For the Turnstiles" is one of Young's most underrated lyrical moments as well as a fantastic song in it's composition. Whereas Harvest was a conventional album in it's production, On The Beach is a 180 degree turn away from convention and turns into complete art. It's a forgotten treasure.

Key Tracks: "On The Beach", "Vampire Blues", "For The Turnstiles", "Ambulance Blues", "Motion Pictures"

Tonight's The Night (1975) The final release of the Ditch Trilogy, Tonight's The Night is as gritty as it gets. Louder and more clamor then On The Beach, the tracks here are heavier and denser in their usage of electric guitars and Neil Young's vocals are even more war torn and weary. When dealing with his grief, Young churned out three brilliant albums and they all lead to Tonight's The Night. A song like "World on a String" has more pep in it's step than anything on On the Beach, but it still has that dark and melancholy overtone to it. The titular track here sounds like it could fit well on Everybody Knows This is Nowhere but with an extra layer of grime on it. "Borrowed Tune" is the sister song to "After the Gold Rush" with it's piano laden beauty and Neil's delicate falsetto performance. "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown" is a fantastic rocker romp co-written by the then deceased Danny Whitten. It's a nice, live cut sung by Whitten for the most part and one of the tributes to his death on the record. As dark and unrelenting this record is, it makes for an intense but satisfying listen.

Key Tracks: "Tonight's The Night", "World on a String", "Borrowed Tune", "Mellow My Mind", "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown", "Albuquerque"

Zuma (1975) Released the same year as the dark, foreboding finale to the Ditch Trilogy, Zuma is a more traditional Neil Young album. With more of a focus on poppier songs and extensive guitar jams, this album is the closest follow up to Everybody Knows This is Nowhere in sound and style that you'll get. It's a fantastic album start to finish. Crazy Horse backs Young up yet again with their signature sound. The first kind of track you get are the pretty country vibed pop songs. "Don't Cry No Tears" is catchy as hell and a great sing along while "Pardon My Heart" is one of Young's saddest love songs. The two biggest and best tracks are the sprawling guitar rockers. "Danger Bird" is one of Neil's most underrated and finest guitar outings, while the fantastic and sprawling "Cortez the Killer" is one of Young's most covered and favored tracks. Young feels back on his feet after three albums of dark disparity and although the Ditch Trilogy is a fantastic monument to loss and death, it's nice to hear Young and Crazy Horse move on from tragedy to create fine music.

Key Tracks: "Don't Cry No Tears", "Danger Bird", "Lookin' For a Love", "Pardon My Heart", "Cortez the Killer"

American Stars 'n Bars (1977) After working with Stephen Stills on Long May You Run, Young followed up Zuma with American Stars 'n Bars. With a lot more country soaking into the songs and a much cleaner sound. An amalgam of tracks that were to be released on two different unreleased records, Homegrown and Chrome Dreams, this album seemed to have worked out regardless of the two other never released projects. Side One is far and away a country rock album. Songs filled with violin and more traditionally country styled lyrics, it isn't overbearing as much as Neil Young at his finest country mode. "Saddle Up the Palamino", which features Linda Ronstadt and Nicollette Larson on backing vocals is a powerful ballad. Young's jagged electric over violin and toe tapping beat, it makes for an interesting hodge podge. "Hold Back the Tears" is the highlight of this side with it's heart felt vocal performances from Young and his back ups as well as a beautifully simple fiddle line. Side two is notable for it's two sprawlers. The first of which, "Will to Love" is an eerie acoustic track with a crackling fire. Equally sprawling, but much louder, "Like a Hurricane" may be Neil Young's finest guitar outing. It's intensely rough, as it is the only track on the record to feature Crazy Horse, and it's slap-dash but controlled guitar solo is one for the record books. As much as it's a mixture of different sounds, American Stars 'N Bars is also one of Young's finest albums as a whole.

Key Tracks: "That Old Country Waltz", "Saddle Up the Palamino", "Hold Back the Tears", "Will to Love", "Like a Hurricane", "Homegrown"

Comes a Time (1978) With even more of a solid country rock sound, Comes A Time may be my least favorite record from this era, maybe aside the self titled debut. That's saying a lot as this album has some of the best harmonies care of Nicollette Larson. The titular track is the most memorable of the straight up country tracks where as the real shining moments are on the two tracks that stick out. "Look Out For My Love", with Crazy Horse backing, is a fantastic track that seems like it would have fit better on Zuma than Comes A Time minus it's heavy acoustic guitar feel. "Lotta Love" is a sparse track which would later be redone by Larson with more grandiosity. It's a beautiful song. The other notable track is the cover of "Four Strong Winds", which shows up many times live throughout Young's career. Comes A Time has redeeming moments, but the album to follow would blow it out of the water.

Key Tracks: "Comes A Time", "Look Out for My Love", "Lotta Love"

Rust Never Sleeps (1979) A huge departure from what Young was working on and apparently Young's move to make himself feel less irrelevant in his sound, Rust Never Sleeps is a live record with two faces. Side one is an acoustic side of more traditionally sound Neil Young fare whereas side two is the birth of grunge. The album opens with the acoustic version of "Hey Hey, My My (Out of the Blue)." It's his ode to the fact that his sound was becoming dated and his new found love for the punk rock scene that was taking over. The acoustic version was the initial intent for the track, but upon touring, Crazy Horse would back him up for an electric version (same title with the addendum "(Into the Black.)") that would be the landmark of this record. It predates many bands that would come in the post-punk scene and grunge movement from Sonic Youth to Dinosaur Jr. "Powderfinger" was originally written by Young for Lynyrd Skynyrd who would never record it due to the death of Young's friend Ronnie Van Zant. It's a fantastic country electric rocker. "Welfare Mothers" and "Sedan Delivery" are screeching and brutal rockers that are blisteringly intense. "Thrasher" is a particularly great song on side one with it's simple acoustic and harmonica sounds. As much as Rust Never Sleeps was a revitilization of Young's career, that wouldn't last long as his 80's output and turmoil with record companies would plague him for a decade and a half. Rust Never Sleeps is the official end to the Golden Age of Neil Young.

Key Tracks: "Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)", "Thrasher", "Pocahontas", "Powederfinger", "Welfare Mothers", "Sedan Delivery"

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