In the spring of 1972, Neil Young was 26 years old, and his mellow, catchy folk-rock ditty “Heart of Gold” was the No. 1 song in the country. But instead of milking the hit’s success and dashing off a ton of sound-alike singles, the iconoclastic singer-songwriter decided to go another direction. As he wrote in the liner notes of his 1977 compilation Decade, “‘Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch.”
Ever since, Young has followed his own bumpy path, shifting from rock to country to blues without warning or any overriding strategy. Consequently, he hasn’t had tons of radio smashes — he doesn’t think in terms of mainstream popularity, so whenever one of his records does well, it’s pretty much an accident.
Picking Young’s finest deep album cuts proves challenging: Because he’s been making music for almost 50 years, his catalog is so revered that even songs that never landed on the charts (like, say, “Sugar Mountain”) are well-known. Undaunted — and in honor of his new collection, Earth — we’ve compiled a list of 10 under-the-radar gems that don’t appear on any live albums or greatest-hits collections. In the spirit of Young’s diverse musical styles, the songs run the gamut of his different modes, ranging from acoustic ballads to guitar rockers to weird experiments. None are middle-of-the-road.
One of Neil Young’s great talents is crafting vague, evocative lyrics that suggest a gripping story without filling in all the details. Take this weary, hopeful cut from Tonight’s the Night: On an album in which the artist chronicled the loss of friends to drug addiction, “Albuquerque” finds its narrator seeking some quiet time for himself “independent from the scene that I’ve known.” In the song, Albuquerque is a place of escape and refuge, and the exhausted guitar solo and ragged harmonica suggest a man who’s seen a lot of unhappiness lately and just wants to shut out the world for a while.
“Don’t Cry No Tears” (1975)
Covered by everyone from Matthew Sweet to Eddie Vedder, the opening track from Zuma tries to put a brave face on a relationship that’s ended. On “Don’t Cry No Tears,” Young snarls that getting all weepy about the woman who’s left him won’t do any good: “‘Cause when all the water’s gone / The feeling lingers on.” Mind you, that doesn’t stop him from imagining the guy who’s taken his place, although he knows “There’s nothing I can say / To make him go away.” Supported by his longtime backing band, the thundering, electric Crazy Horse, Young turns getting dumped into a drunken, air-guitar pity party.
Saying goodbye — to old friends, to an era, to a time of life — Young gets cryptic on “Thrasher,” an acoustic song that speaks in riddles about the musician’s need to move on to something new. Reportedly inspired by his fractious relationship with Crosby, Stills & Nash, Young free-associates all over the place, weaving together farming metaphors, Brady Bunch references and utterly unfathomable, dazzling lines such as “I searched out my companions / Who were lost in crystal canyons / When the aimless blade of science / Slashed the pearly gates.” Highlighted by a harmonica solo that’s piercing in its sadness, “Thrasher” feels like an adios to the innocence of youth as Young bade farewell to the 1970s, heading into a period in which he’d lose many longtime fans who couldn’t cotton his strange new musical discursions.
“We R in Control” (1982)
The 1980s were Young’s great lost decade: He dabbled in unfamiliar musical styles, often with only mixed success. (Infamously, the head of his label, David Geffen, sued him for releasing music that was “unrepresentative” of him.) But in retrospect, some of Young’s loonier digressions are both fascinating and stubbornly riveting. That’s especially true of Trans, where he dove headfirst into synthesizers and vocoder, making songs that sounded like they’d been written and performed by robots. Anticipating the future-shock anxieties that were growing as life became more automated and computerized, the surprisingly funky “We R in Control” gives voice to the paranoia of the time, offering a litany of dehumanized taunts such as “We’re controlling traffic lights / We control computer flights / We control the chief of staff.” Sure, “We R in Control” may be a bit dated now, but it’s still catchy as hell — and also just a little bit unsettling.
“Wrecking Ball” (1989)
Mostly known for his skill as a guitarist, Young brings a charming, rough vulnerability to his piano-playing. As proof, check out this Freedom cut, which chronicles a man and woman trying to keep their love afloat during difficult times. “Wrecking Ball” boasts an almost blues-y, jazzy vibe, which underlines the tentative romantic mood captured in the narrator’s hope that his lady will go out dancing with him tonight. But the song also contains some wonderfully poetic lines that combine the observational and the personal: “The restless line of cars / Goes stretchin’ down the road / But I won’t telephone / ’Cause you might say hello.”
“Days That Used to Be” (1990)
Young has been writing songs that romanticize his youth since he was in his early 20s. But one of his best and most poignant came out in his mid-40s as the musician was feeling middle age approaching. “Days That Used to Be” is a heartbreakingly insightful song about missing the friends who have become estranged, lamenting the ideals you’ve lost along the way, and ruing the compromises you decided to make to keep going. Over mournful, roaring guitars, Young brings it all home with a crushing final verse that encapsulates all that the passage of time takes away: “Talk to me, my long lost friend / And tell me how you are / Are you happy with your circumstance? / Are you driving a new car? / Does it get you where you wanna go / With a seven-year warranty? / Or just another hundred-thousand miles away / From the days that used to be?”
“Safeway Cart” (1994)
Although Young can easily switch back and forth between garage-rocker and plaintive balladeer, he occasionally works in a moodier, almost dreamlike mode. That’s demonstrated beautifully with “Safeway Cart,” a shimmering, ominously low-key portrait of urban poverty. Built around a stark drumbeat and spare, muted guitars, the song throws out small details — an abandoned shopping cart, a person “with TV eyes” — that are more about conjuring a mood of desolation than offering some sort of definitive perspective. The tense, unresolved music grips the listener — you aren’t sure exactly what’s happening in “Safeway Cart,” but it’s such an arresting sonic landscape that you get swept away by it all the same.
“Truth Be Known” (1995)
Embraced by alt-rock and grunge artists in the 1990s, Young enjoyed a creative and commercial renaissance, teaming up with Pearl Jam to record Mirror Ball. The towering, elegiac guitar tune “Truth Be Known” is a nice melding of his and their styles: Young’s soulful power is complemented by the band’s musical muscle. It’s in service of lyrics that briefly sketch out what happens when life doesn’t quite turn out as you planned. As Young says in the song, “Truth Be Known” pinpoints that melancholy moment “When the fire that once was your friend / Burns your fingers to the bone / And your song meets a sudden end.”
“Without Rings” (2000)
Silver & Gold was one of Young’s largely unplugged records, filled with weathered love songs. Its closing track is its most devastating, the singer coming to terms with a relationship that’s been severed. It’s just him and his acoustic guitar, Young announcing softly, “The road we used to ride / Together side by side / Has flowers pushing through the dotted line.” “Without Rings” is oblique enough to be about friendship, but it sure sounds like a love-gone-bad song, and you can feel every ounce of loss in his voice. Plus, it contains a great turn of phrase for a lost romantic connection: “My software’s not compatible with you.”
“Off the Road” (2009)
Indicative of his idiosyncratic muse, Young conceived an entire album, Fork in the Road, around his obsession with his 1959 Lincoln, which he’d converted into an electric hybrid. But as with many of his latter-day albums, Fork also catches Young in a reflective mode, which is understandable for a man who was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm just a few years earlier. On its surface, “Off the Road” is a simple song about driving, but it’s clear from the start that there’s also a grander metaphor at work. Young sings about being behind the wheel as symbolic of life’s journey: Sometimes you need to know when to stop for the night; sometimes you have to know when to keep going. As a result, this deceptively straightforward tune ends up feeling deeply profound, as if Young is passing along some essential, hard-earned wisdom.
Tim Grierson covers culture for MEL.