Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Masters: Neil Young - Best Studio Albums

RtBE loves listening to new music and prides itself on keeping tabs on up and coming artists but in 2019 we are also going to have a monthly spotlight on legendary artists who we really love. We are calling this series The Masters. It will focus on the best albums, live records, transcendent shows and other odd ways we appreciate the artists and their contribution to music, culture and our formation.
For August The Masters focuses on Neil Young.

Uncle Neil is an artist who constantly follows the muse for both good and bad. Not everything has been great or even good (see his early and mid 80's output) but when the creative stars align he has produced some of the best classic rock tunes, which will live on forever. 

A songwriter who oscillates between screaming loud riffs and acoustic folk ballads Neil touches on all genres and sounds. RtBE tends to lean towards his louder/heavier side, and for this list we are leaving out all of his albums with Crazy Horse. This is done because basically our personal preferences would put five of those albums in this list so we wanted to separate them out with their own post coming later this month. 

Below we are picking Neil Young's best studio work, (minus the Horse), but like lots of artists in our Master series there will be excellent albums left out. As always this list is a discussion starter, not a final statement on the matter.   Let's dig in...

His best pure folk album starts our list as Neil took a second in the late seventies to go back to his Canadian roots and wrap up Comes A Time with a cover of Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds" with class and grace. Those adjectives are found throughout this record as the title track is a pure ode with its fiddle work and pristine strumming, accompanying soulful singing from the Young and backup voices; the most straight ahead pretty Neil may have ever been. While most fans probably go to Harvest, RtBE digs Comes a Time much more.   

The piano shuffling "Lotta Love" was often covered and is a soft beautiful tune while "Human Highway" is just one example of Nicolette Larson's fantastic supporting harmonies with Young throughout this record even helping to sing lead on "Motorcycle Mama" the silliest tune here. While an amazing track like "I Am The Ocean" almost single-handedly gave Mirror Ball this slot, Comes A Time is a much more solid complete record from Young and the purest folk vibe he ever committed to a full length album. 

The bleakest Neil ever on record. Following the overdose deaths of his friends Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, Neil dove into his personal pain with Tonight's The Night. Truth be told RtBE does not reach for this album often, it is not a personal favorite, but the power of the record is hard to deny, even with it's dark feelings. 

The title track, "Mellow My Mind", "Roll Another Number" and "Tired Eyes" are all stand out numbers as Neil is backed by the Santa Monica Flyers highlighted expertly by Ben Keith's pedal steel playing. "Albuquerque" is a haunting song and a gorgeous mediation on traveling, the road and loneliness while the live track cut with Crazy Horse "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown" about scoring drugs is a scorcher. Not the easiest listen but a vitally important part of Neil's catalog.    

After a decade where Neil burned bridges, filed law suits and put out some pretty sub par records, he surprisingly wrapped strong with Freedom. Bookend with acoustic and electric versions of his soon to be anthem "Keep On Rockin In The Free World" he repeated the trick he pulled on Rust Never Sleeps in 1979.  Following up on the great Eldorado EP, Young took three songs from there, "On Broadway" "Eldorado" and "Don't Cry" to flush things out, he also reached way back to the 70's to revisit one of RtBE Personal Favorites "Too Far Gone".

(We should state here and now that while not official, Chrome Dreams which "Too Far Gone" first appeared on, is one of our all-time favorite things Neil ever did..err didn't do. It would have made our list if it was a real release. For more info check this out.)   

Freedom solidified that Young had things left to say in 1989 and still remains a powerful force. It has a wide range of styles and sounds, but that suites Neil fine. The winding cinematic "Crime In the City" and the acoustic folk strumming of the delicate "Hangin On A Limb"to the powerful final track which just buzzes with intensity. We could go on and on about Rocking The In The Free World" one of the best rock songs of its place and time, and even while widely known still criminally underrated, but we will save that for another post. Freedom was/is a huge statement record and remains one of the best he ever released. 

When RtBE yearns for depressed Neil, On The Beach is the album we reach for as this is some odd, textured loneliness and isolating music. There is a vibe to this album unlike all of his other albums which feel more piecemeal, even the other two of his Ditch Trilogy records. 

On The Beach captures malaise perfectly. Sad, ambivalent these songs wander, mean nothing and yet somehow mean everything. The second half of the album, "On the Beach" "Motion Pictures" and "Ambulance Blues" is a stoned meditation as the players were high as fuck on honey sliders and in the zone. The acoustic backing with the occasional dobro, fiddle, steel guitar or Wurlitzer drips in adding minimal texture as Young goes after his muse in real time. For certain songs feel like instruments just jump in and out without preconception; minimalist jamming or demo offerings which flourish into final takes. 

"Revolution Blues" features the rhythm section of Rick Danko and Levon Helm while "Walk On" kicks things off with a testament to living through tough times. "See The Sky About To Rain" is pretty while "Vampire Blues" is out there and "For The Turnstiles" gets cinematic. Not a bad track here and the ultimate mood album from Neil and company starting with that dynamic (and best of his career) cover art through the last notes. 

In going back through Young's varied career After The Gold Rush is even more amazing; every song is a winner. Other albums have blinding high-points and disastrous lows, but ATGR is so solid it stands head and shoulders above the rest. While nowhere near the Young album RtBE spins the most, it is clearly his crowning achievement as every song could be on a greatest hit collection. Thirty five minutes of amazing song-craft, performance and nuanced singing, After The Gold Rush has it all. 

The piano playing from both Young and a young Nils Lofgren is crucial to it's success, but a song like "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" could be done in any fashion and succeed. From the title track and "Southern Man" to the supportive "Don't Let It Bring You Down" and the grooving folk rock of "When You Dance I Can Really Love" each show a portrait of an artist as young man. This record came before true fame, death and personal loss truly aged Young on the next few releases (See On The Beach and Tonight's The Night above).

Super-stardom was right around the corner because of this amazing record, and Young's innocence would be lost, but for this place and time the stars aligned.  A killer release from top to bottom. 

How'd we do, agree, disagree? Thanks for Reading and feel free to add your thoughts in the comments. 

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