Neil Young's new album, A Letter Home, is a covers collection without a single original composition, but the man has spent the last 50 years writing songs, so we can forgive him taking a little time off. Even with 35 albums, there are a ton of tracks that have fallen by the wayside over the years. Some are from albums that never came out, while others were only played live a handful of times before disappearing completely. Here are 20 of our favorite lesser-known songs that are either unreleased or under-appreciated. By Andy Greene
Neil Young wrote songs at such a frantic pace in mid-1970s that he couldn't possibly release them all, even though he was averaging an album a year. This gentle love ballad was cut during the sessions for Homegrown, an LP he canned in favor of Tonight's the Night, itself an album that had been sitting on the shelf for over a year. Many of the Homegrown songs surfaced on later albums, but "Kansas" stayed in the vault and only emerged again on Young's 1999 solo acoustic tour. Hopefully it'll finally get a release on the long-awaited second box set.
Neil Young stunned fans at New York's Bottom Line on May 16th, 1974 when he played a surprise hour-long set consisting almost entirely of unreleased songs. It remains one of his greatest bootlegs and deserves to see an official release one day. The show opened up with a song he introduced as "Citizen Kane Jr. Blues," but was later retitled "Pushed It Over the End" when it resurfaced that summer on CSNY's stadium reunion tour. It's a mellow, dreamy song supposedly inspired by Patty Hearst that would have been a career highlight for most songwriters. For Neil, it was merely something he played a handful of times one year and then tossed overboard forever.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's 1999 reunion album Looking Forward is an infinitely forgettable effort and really just an excuse to launch a big-money reunion tour, but the LP did give us "Out of Control." The song was a regular highlight of Young's acoustic tour earlier that year, and it didn't much benefit from the CSNY treatment. Listen to this stripped-back version to hear how it could have been.
People not intimately familiar with Neil Young's history were a little confused when he called his 2007 LP Chrome Dreams II for the simple fact the never released anything called Chrome Dreams. The hardcores knew that was a title of a 1977 album that was shelved in favor of Americans Stars 'n Bars. One of the highlights of the LP was the haunting piano balled "Stringman," which he played a handful of times on a 1976 tour with Crazy Horse and than again at his MTV Unplugged taping in 1993. It's a fan favorite, though he's only busted it out twice in the past 21 years.
Neil Young and Pearl Jam's 1995 collaborative album Mirrorball was recorded in just a few days and is a hit-or-miss affair, but there's no denying the power of the seven-minute long "I'm the Ocean." It's a trippy, jammed-out tune that was a highlight of Neil and Pearl Jam's all-too-brief European tour that summer. The three members of Crazy Horse were none-too-pleased when he ditched them for Pearl Jam in 1995, and they probably didn't love being forced to play "I'm the Ocean" on their 1997 tour, but they still did a pretty great job with it.
Neil Young called out Richard Nixon by name in his furious 1970 protest song "Ohio," but a few years later he seemed to find some small degree of sympathy for the man after he was forced out of office and nearly died a few months later when his phlebitis flared up again. "Hospitals have made him cry," Young sang. "But there's always a freeway in his eye." "Campaigner" came out on Young's 1977 compilation album Decade. It tends to pop up in concert right around the time of major elections. It was last played in the midst of the Clinton/Obama primary battle royale of 2008.
Neil Young was near the peak of his commercial career when he launched a grueling 90-date arena tour in early 1973. Fans came to hear hits from Harvest, but he packed the set list full of brand-new tunes that left many in the crowds very confused and highly irritable. He collected those songs on the 1973 live album Time Fades Away, an LP that's legacy only grows as time goes by even though it has yet to be released on CD. At the time, it was greeted as a complete disaster. One of the highlights is this super sarcastic tribute to the "city in the smog." He hasn't touched it once since the tour ended in April 1973.
Another lost masterpiece from Time Fades Away is "Don't Be Denied." It's a super intense, autobiographical song that traces Young's entire life, down to his parents' divorce when he was a child. Over five minutes it addresses the bullies he encountered at grade school, the formation of his high school band the Squires, his fabled trip from Canada to Los Angeles and the rise of Buffalo Springfield. It's an ambitious song, but Young makes it work. He's played it a handful of times in the past couple of decades, and it remains absolutely brilliant and chilling.
Neil Young may have pissed off a lot of old hippies when he praised Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, but within a few years he was ripping into George H.W. Bush on "Rockin' in the Free World" and he's remained a staunch liberal ever since. That was abundantly clear on his 2006 ripped-from-the-headlines album Living With War. The entire LP is a primal scream against George W. Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of it seems dated today, but "Restless Consumer" remains potent. It's a rant against our consumer culture and has amazing lines like, "Don't need no TV Ad. . .Don't need no side effects like diarrhea or sexual death."
In May 2010, Neil Young launched his Twisted Road tour (named after a song nobody would hear for another two years) and played a ton of songs from Le Noise, an album that nobody would hear for four months. Neil likes to keep his fans on their toes. The best new track of the night was "You Never Call," a deeply sad tribute to Young's longtime friend and collaborator L.A. Johnson, who died earlier that year. Needless to say, it has yet to be released on an album. It was, however, in Jonathan Demme's 2011 movies Neil Young Journeys.
Broken Arrow was the first Neil Young album after the death of his longtime producer David Briggs. (It's likely not a coincidence that Briggs' death marked a considerable decline in quality in Young's work.) Though it's not as strong as Ragged Glory and other Crazy Horse albums of the era, Broken Arrow does have some very fine moments. The highlight is "Slip Away," a fantastic, jammed-out tune that shows why Crazy Horse remain one of the greatest backing bands in rock history. The live rendition on Year of the Horse is even better.
Young's relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress was completely falling apart when he wrote songs for the (ultimately shelved) Homegrown, and many tracks on the album reflect the miserable situation. The piano ballad "Try" uses some of Snodgress' actual phrases, such as "shit Mary, I can't dance." Snodgress passed away in 2004, and three years later Young began playing many songs she inspired on his American theater tour. He played it 20 times that tour, and he hasn't touched it since.
By the standards of most songwriters, Neil Young's 1968 self-titled debut is an enormously strong album. Songs like "The Old Laughing Lady," "The Loner" and "I've Been Waiting for You" are absolute classics. Still, expectations were extremely high for this disc and there's a few too many clunkers like "String Quarter from Whiskey Boot Hill" and "Here We Are in the Years." It wasn't a huge hit and Young wouldn't really become a superstar until he joined CSNY the following year. That means many people have forgotten the last track on the first album, a nearly 10-minute long, psychedelic trip called "The Last Trip to Tulsa." We don't know what Young was smoking when he wrote lines like "The servicemen were yellow/The gasoline was green," but we want to try some.
Re*act*tor remains one of the most underrated albums in Neil Young's catalog. Recorded with Crazy Horse just two years after the Rust Never Sleep tour, it kicks off with "Opera Star," the story of a fuck-up that learns he's not meant for the world of high art. "You were born to rock," Young sings. "You'll never be an opera star." The song came out of a long hibernation last year when Young toured Australia with Crazy Horse.
Trans is the album that made David Geffen so angry that he ultimately sued Neil Young for recording "unrepresentative music." Apparently he wasn't paying much attention in the 1970s when Young bounced around between genres on most every release. Trans is a New Wave record where many of the lyrics are obscured by the use of a vocoder. "Sample and Hold" sounds like it could have been cut for a Kraftwerk album, though it was completely transformed at Young's 1993 Unplugged concert.
Neil Young fans were justifiably a little wary when Life hit shelves in the summer of 1987. His last few albums had been some of the worst of his entire career, especially the dismal Landing on Water from 1986. But those that didn't give Life a chance really missed out. It's a pretty stellar Crazy Horse record. The best moment is "Prisoners of Rock and Roll," which is essentially Crazy Horse's anthem. "We never listen to the record company man," Young sings. "They try to change us and ruin our band."
Life may have been a strong album, but Neil Young and Crazy Horse truly returned to their glory days three years later with the release of Ragged Glory. It stands up with anything they did in the 1970s. "Over and Over" sounds like it was nailed on a single take on a perfect full moon night. After 22 years, Young finally brought it back onstage at a Red Rocks gig in August of 2012. It still sounded absolutely perfect.
The death of Kurt Cobain struck Neil Young extremely hard. Not only did the Nirvana frontman quote from "Hey Hey, My My" in his suicide note, but Young had been trying to reach the singer at the time of his death. He got the sense he was going through a very hard time and he wanted to give him advice. "Change Your Mind" was written before Cobain passed away, but it's still basically the conversation that Young hoped to have with him.
In 2001, Neil Young and Crazy Horse entered a California studio and attempted to record an entire album. For whatever reason, Young was unhappy with the results and he brought in Booker T. & The MG's to re-record the songs. The lone surviving Crazy Horse song from the eventual album, 2002's Are You Passionate?, was "Goin' Home." It's a spiritual cousin to "Cortez the Killer," and the single best song on the album. A few years back, Young made a pledge to release the Crazy Horse sessions on an album called Toast. We're still waiting to hear that thing.
Unlike most of his peers, Young has never been afraid to try out unreleased songs in front of a live audience, even if the song isn't completely done. This was the case with "Sixty to Zero" in the summer of 1988, which was reworked the following year as "Crime in the City" on Freedom. The original was a full 20-minute epic played a mere 13 times in 1988. Thankfully, camcorders were a running and it's survived. For years it was only available for viewing on third-generation VHS tapes, but YouTube is an incredible thing.