It was July 30, 2005, and I was trying really hard not to admit to myself how disappointed I was. Earlier that day, I had gone out in search of a copy of Neil Young’s 1983 album Trans, in which he sang through a vocoder on most of the songs. I had heard about the album for awhile, and while the reviews had been mixed, my interest was piqued. Earlier that year, I had become obsessed with Young’s massive discography, and this was one album I needed to hear. The likes of Kmart and Target had no chance of stocking an album this obscure, but I did manage to find a copy of it at Record Theatre, one of the last true record stores in my town. I got home, put the album on, and about 40 minutes later, wondered if the adventure I had just gone on was a waste of time. This album just wasn’t doing it for me.
Don’t get me wrong, Trans isn’t a completely bad album. It’s certainly interesting, and I’d recommend giving “Transformer Man” and “Computer Age” a listen. But on the whole, it’s certainly not my favorite of his. Still, while my 15-year-old self was just underwhelmed, and wished he had spent his money on something more enjoyable, a decade later, I’m really glad I was able to listen to that album. Neil Young has recorded a lot of albums, some incredible, some not so much. Likewise, some of them have featured fairly conventional songwriting, while others have been more experimental. Some of those weirder albums rank among his best work, while others do not, but I would argue that all of them are worth listening to at least once.
If you want to get into Neil Young the easy way, only listening to his most accessible, overwhelmingly acclaimed records, that’s fine. I’d recommend starting with Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, then checking out After The Gold Rush, Harvest, Rust Never Sleeps, Freedom, and Ragged Glory. You can’t go wrong with any of those albums, and you get a nice portrait of both his acoustic, folk-y work, as well as the heavier albums that earned him the Godfather Of Grunge title. After that, I’d go for On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night, two of Young’s darkest albums (the latter, in particular), but also two of his most universally acclaimed works. With those albums, you’d have all of the Neil Young albums that everyone agrees are great, and you don’t have to delve into the hit-or-miss aspect of his discography.
But while this would leave you with a lot of great songs, I would argue that if you really want to get into Neil Young, you should check out some of the wonkier releases, too. The thing is, those weird, somewhat dodgy albums are an inextricable part of Young’s personality. It might be more simple if he could just give us Rust Never Sleeps, and never any of the more off-the-wall stuff like Re-ac-tor or Everybody’s Rockin’, but that’s not how he operates. You never know which direction he’s going to go in next, and while that can certainly be exasperating, it’s also part of the fun.
Admittedly, 15 years ago a suggestion like this might have seemed absurd, “Really, John, I’m supposed to spend all this money on albums even you don’t think are very good just so I can ‘experience’ Neil Young? Bite me.” And back then, you would have been right. But while the streaming/downloading era has certainly been a mixed blessing for the music world (worth noting, Neil himself is more worried about the quality of these streams than the money he might be losing), one undeniably positive aspect of it is that you can sample an artist’s most challenging work without having to pay in advance. If the ’50s rock ‘n roll of Everybody’s Rockin’ or the wall of guitar noise that comprises Arc pique your interest, sample them, and if you think either one is worth owning, go from there.
Neil Young turns 70 on Thursday, and as his most recent releases have illustrated, he’s not getting safer in his old age. This year, he released The Monsanto Years, an anti-GMO screed that rivals 2006’s Living With War, his anti-George W. Bush screed. Now, if the idea of a cranky old man ranting about how evil GMOs are doesn’t float your boat, I can hardly blame you, but like everything Young has ever made, it’s probably worth listening to at least once. If you like it, awesome. If you don’t, well there are a bunch of other Neil Young albums that are undeniably brilliant, and if the price we have to pay for that is a handful of albums that are just too damn weird for anyone more than a small audience of dedicated fans to truly enjoy, it’s a price I’m more than willing to pay.