Neil Young has had one of the most impressive, interesting careers in rock and roll history, crafting so much music over the years that a lot of great songs have fallen between the cracks. These are five of my favorite deep cuts from the man’s career, though I could have just as easily listed another 40 more.
- “The Old Country Waltz” – American Stars ‘N Bars (1977)
1977’s American Stars ‘N Bars may have been pieced together from different recording sessions, but it’s a great album that gave us a handful of classics, including the spaced-out ”Will to Love” and the immortal “Like a Hurricane.” Those songs are pretty popular in most circles, though, so I wanted to shine a spotlight on a personal favorite of mine: album opener “The Old Country Waltz.”
Man, do I love this song. It’s Neil doing country with swagger and a lot of charm. You can almost smell the weed in the air and the liquor in Young’s breath as he sings “The Old Country Waltz,” but he keeps it together to deliver one heck of a take. Oh, and the backing vocals from Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson don’t hurt either.
Seriously … just listen:
- “Inca Queen” – Life (1987)
1987s Life wasn’t a complete return to form for Young, but compared to the three albums that preceded it—Everybody’s Rockin’, Old Ways, and Landing on Water—it must have sounded like a goddamn revelation at the time. Two song stand out the most on Life: “Long Way Home,” with its chilling harmonica and emphatic vocals, and “Inca Queen,” arguably the best song Young recorded in the entire decade.
“Inca Queen” is more than eight minutes of gorgeous guitar work and lyrical themes that fans will recognize almost immediately. Sure, some regrettable synthesizers show up and I could do without the sound effects, but this is still the closest Young has gotten to a downright masterpiece since Rust Never Sleeps.
In a weird way, “Inca Queen” is Young’s “Brownsville Girl”—the instant classic hidden away on an 80s record many fans have probably never even heard. I still remember how surprised I was when I heard it the first time, spinning a used copy of Life I had picked up at the record store. I think I played it three or four times in a row that day.
- “Stringman” – Unplugged (1993)
It’s one of the greatest unsolved riddles of all time: Why does Young’s MTV Unplugged performance not get the attention it deserves? It’s a five-star classic in my book and one of the strongest albums of his entire career.
The tracklist on Unplugged is truly fascinating, jumping from fresh takes on beloved classics to some of the most obscure songs of his entire career, and it sounds as if he took a lot of care piecing it together. I was still relatively new to Young’s music when I first heard Unplugged, so I can’t imagine what it must have been for longtime fans to hear it for the first time and try to guess what might come next. “World on a String”? “Transformer Man”?
And that leads me to “Stringman,” written in the 70s for the unreleased Chrome Dreams album. It’s a heavy, serious song—one of Young’s saddest, in fact—but damn is it good. You can say the soul is gone, Young sings. And the feeling is just not there/ Not like it was so long ago. On the empty page before you/ You can fill in what you care/ Try to make it new before you go.
Though I’ve since heard bootlegs of the original, this was the first version of “Stringman” I heard and it’s still the one I turn to when I want to hear it. It’s a fantastic performance of one of Young’s true lost classics. Thanks goodness he played it that night.
- “Red Sun” – Silver and Gold (2001)
I’ve written before about how much I love Silver and Gold, and it’s a topic I seem to rant about quite a bit. There’s just something about this album that connected with me the first time I heard it and has never gone away. Silver and Gold does feature some filler—namely the one-two punch of “Daddy Went Walkin’ and “Buffalo Springfield Again”—but it also features a handful of beautiful tracks that, 16 years later, still sound just as good as they did at the time.
“Red Sun” and “Razor Love” have always been the two biggest standouts on Silver and Gold, and I could have easily chosen either one for this list. I ultimately went with “Red Sun,” though, because I suspect “Razor Love” might be slightly more well known and the backing vocals from Ronstadt (again!) and Emmylou Harris just absolutely kill me every time. The lyrics are another high point, with Young sounding sweet as ever.
When the red sun sets, he sings. On the railroad town/ And the bars begin to laugh/ With a happy sound/ I’ll still be here/ Right by your side/ There’ll not be anyone/ In my heart but you.
- “Plastic Flowers” – Storytone (2014)
I know I’m in in the minority here, but I really dig 2014’s Storytone, which features Young playing both stripped-down solo versions and orchestral versions of the same 10 songs. Maybe it’s just a side effect of reading his two memoirs in the last year or so, but hearing Young sound as raw and honest as he does throughout Storytone sincerely moves me. And, sure, some of the lyrics on “Plastic Flowers” are a bit clunky, but it’s still my favorite track on the album. The one I go back to again and again.
“Glimmer” and “Tumbleweed” are two other highlights from Storytone that I highly recommend. Heck, give the whole thing a listen; it’s not nearly as bad as some critics made it out to be at the time.
Others I almost included: “Hippie Dream” from Landing on Water (1985), “Such a Woman” from Harvest Moon (1992), “Throw Your Hatred Down” from Mirror Ball (1995), “After the Garden” from Living with War (2006), “Wolf Moon” from The Monsanto Years (2015),