This is shaping up to be an incredible year for Neil Young fans. After eight long years, Young reunited with Crazy Horse for the folk standards album Amerciana, and a return to garage glory on Psychedelic Pill.
We figured this was a good opportunity to look back at Young’s lesser known classics. These songs were all released after his golden period of 1966-1978, and we also excluded material from his three late 1980s/early 1990s comeback albums (Freedom, Ragged Glory and Harvest Moon.) That leaves a ton of material.
Here are our 20 favorite songs from those remaining albums. (You can hear most of them in the playlist directly below, and the rest via YouTube.) We expect there will be plenty of differences of opinion here, so free share your picks in the comments section.
“T-Bone” (re*act*tor, 1981)
This is one of those songs you either love or hate. It also might make you a little hungry. Simply put, the song is nine minutes and ten seconds of Young singing, “Got mashed potatoes/Ain’t got no T-bone” over and over as Crazy Horse thrashes away. Sadly, it was only played live during a pair of California club shows with Crazy Horse in November of 1990. Hopefully they’ll dredge it up at least once when they hit the road this fall.
“Southern Pacific” (re*act*tor, 1981)
Young has been fascinated with trains for the vast majority of his life. He has a huge collection of toy trains, and he even bought a large share of Lionel Trains in the 1990s. This deep cut from re*act*tor is about an aging conductor on the Southern Pacific rail line who is forced into retirement after his vision starts to fade. The song has the groove of a train going down the tracks and is oddly touching. It was a highlight of Young’s 1999 solo acoustic tour, and Young did a great job of playing his harmonica like a train whistle during the performances.
“Sample and Hold” (Trans, 1982)
Many Young fans were baffled when Trans appeared on store shelves in December of 1982. It’s a Kraftwerk-inspired New Wave album about technology. Making things even weirder, many of Young’s vocals are distorted by a Vocoder. Unsurprisingly, the album got mostly terrible reviews. Only years later did music fans start to pick up on the odd brilliance of much of the disc, which was far ahead of its time. The highlight may be the eight-minute “Sample and Hold.” There’s nothing else like it in the Young catalog.
“Kinda Fonda Wanda” (Everybody’s Rockin’, 1983)
Young’s label, Geffen Records, was none too pleased with Trans, demanding that the follow-up be a “rock & roll album.” Young never likes being told what to do, but he did respond with a rock & roll album – circa 1956. The disc is pure rockabilly and the complete antithesis of Trans. The best song on the LP is “Kinda Fonda Wanda,” an extremely fun and light song that clocks in at under two minutes.
“Get Back to the Country” (Old Ways, 1985)
As you can see, Young spent much of the 1980s experimenting with genres. By 1985, it was time for a country album. It was right around this time that David Geffen famously sued Neil Young for making “unrepresentative” music. Anyone familiar with Young’s catalog up to that point could hear the influence of country music albums like Harvest and Comes a Time, though it was never as overt as on Old Ways. “Get Back To The Country” is sort of a sequel to 1972’s “Are You Ready for the Country,” and it was a highlight of Young’s 1984 and 1985 tours with the International Harvesters.
“Mideast Vacation” (Life, 1987)
Young got back together with Crazy Horse in 1987 and recorded a handful of politically charged songs for a new LP, Life. The lead-off track, “Mideast Vacation,” is about a particularly horrible trip to the Middle East with his family. After a crowd chants “Death to America,” Young runs out of his hotel, gets beat up, and then shoots up a disco. It’s a deeply weird song, and he briefly revived it in concert after 9/11.
“Arc” (Arc, 1991)
This one is strictly for the hardcore. Inspired by Young’s then-opening act, Sonic Youth, “Arc” is 35 minutes of guitar feedback and noise from Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s 1991 tour. It’s all sewn together from different shows, and occasionally you hear a few lines from such songs as “Like a Hurricane” and “Love and Only Love.” It’s not the kind of thing you’d want to play in the car, but as background music it can be a lot of fun.
“Piece of Crap” (Sleeps With Angels, 1994)
Young kept Crazy Horse pretty busy in the 1990s. Lots of their songs on Sleeps With Angels are somber affairs, but “Piece of Crap” is a rollicking, uber-grouchy song about shoddy merchandise. Sample lyric: “Tried to save the tress/Bought a plastic bag/The bottom fell out/It was a piece of crap.”
“I’m the Ocean” (Mirrorball, 1995)
In early 1995, Young dumped Crazy Horse and headed into a Seattle studio with Pearl Jam, where he cut an album in just four days. Unsurprisingly, the material is hit or miss, but the seven-minute-long “I’m The Ocean” is absolutely mind-blowing.
“Slip Away” (Broken Arrow, 1996)
Broken Arrow is the first LP that Neil Young and Crazy Horse cut after the death of their longtime producer, David Briggs. It’s a mixed bag, but the haunting “Slip Away” is pretty spectacular. The song was clearly born in the midst of a long jam, and it was always one of the best parts of the group’s 1996 tour.
“Out of Control” (Looking Forward, 1999)
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reformed for an album and tour in late 1999. The live shows were incredible, but the material on the LP Looking Forward ranged from decent to horrid. One of the few exceptions is “Out of Control,” a tender piano ballad that Young played regularly on his 1999 solo acoustic tour.
“Razor Love” (Silver and Gold, 2000)
This haunting song first surfaced on Young’s 1984 tour with the International Harvesters and occasionally popped up on tours in the 1990s, but it never made a studio album until 2000’s stripped-down Silver and Gold. It’s never a good sign when the best track on a new album is two decades old, but the song is nevertheless a masterpiece.
“Goin’ Home” (Are You Passionate?, 2002)
Neil Young and Crazy Horse cut an album called Toast in 2001, but the sessions were ultimately scrapped and many of the songs were recut with Booker T and the MG’s for Are You Passionate? The lone survivor from the session is “Goin’ Home,” a pulsating rocker that would have fit seamlessly on any of their classic albums in the 1970s. It’s the only original song that Young has released with Crazy Horse since 1996, and it’s also one of this best songs from that time period.
“Bandit” (Greendale, 2003)
The 2003 rock opera Greendale is more focused on story than music, though there’s still a handful of very nice musical moments. “Bandit” is the lone solo acoustic song on the disc, and the one track that works nicely outside the context of the LP. Young hasn’t played a single song from Greendale since the tour ended in early 2004, but he might be wise to revive this one some day.
“Be the Rain” (Greendale, 2003)
Greendale is pretty much a bummer straight through, but it wraps up with this euphoric and optimistic tune. Even though guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro doesn’t play anywhere on Greendale, the song is a classic Crazy Horse jam, and it was always the highlight of the Greendale concerts.
“It’s a Dream” (Prairie Wind, 2005)
Neil Young went through a near-death experience in 2005, when he suffered an aneurysm at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. His brush with death colors Prairie Wind, a country rock LP that features a lot of songs where the singer reflects on his life. “It’s a Dream” is a particularly touching one, about childhood and lost innocence.
“The Restless Consumer” (Living With War, 2006)
He’s famous for writing “Ohio,” but through most of his career Neil Young avoided writing about politics. That changed in 2006 when he released Living With War, a furious screed against George W. Bush that explicably called for his impeachment. The best song is the ludicrously cranky “Restless Consumer,” in which Young rails against lying politicians, pharmaceutical commercials and pretty much everything else in the modern world.
“Ordinary People” (Chrome Dreams II, 2007)
There weren’t a lot of songs released in 2007 that referred to former Ford president Lee Iacocca, but Young’s never been one to follow trends. This 18-minute song (think “Like a Hurricane” with horns) was originally written for 1988’s This Note’s for You, but it remain shelved for nineteen years. It’s one of the longest songs in Neil Young’s vast catalog, and definitely one of the wordiest.
“Dirty Old Man” (Chrome Dreams II, 2007)
Think of this one as a spiritual cousin to “Welfare Mothers.” It’s a Crazy Horse-style song about a “dirty old man” whose “got a bag of frozen peas I use on my knees.” It’s simple-minded, repetitive and a lot of fun.
“Walk With Me” (Le Noise, 2010)
Imagine a Crazy Horse song minus the bass and drums, plus some Daniel Lanois studio effects. That’s basically what you have with “Walk With Me,” the stand-out track from 2010’s solo electric Le Noise collaboration with Lanois. Pearl Jam played it with Young at the 2010 Bridge School Benefit, demonstrating how the song works even better with a full band.