There is a town in North Ontario....
Trying to compile a "best of" covering Neil Young's vast career is a mighty difficult task. Furthermore, "Greatest Hits" is a bit of a misnomer of a tile, as Young never was, or is, a chart act. Anyway, as a compilation, this is a pretty good one, chosen by Young himself. anther issue with Young's work is that of remastering - some albums have been remastered, some have not. This album contains remastered material and boy, does it sound good. The original albums from which the tracks are taken still sound ok, but this sounds so much better, I have to say. I have the 2009 remasters of the first four albums, but these sound much better, to me, anyway. What is odd is that they are probably the same remasters, but they definitely sound different to my ears.
1. Down By The River
2. Cowgirl In The Sand
3. Cinnamon Girl
4. Helpless (as part of CSNY)
5. After The Gold Rush
6. Only Love Can Break Your Heart
7. Southern Man
8. Ohio (as part of CSNY)
9. The Needle And The Damage Done (live)
10. Old Man
11. Heart Of Gold
12. Like A Hurricane
13. Comes A Time
14. Hey Hey My My (Into The Black) (live)
15. Rockin' In The Free World
16. Harvest Moon
The first three cuts are classics from Young's second album, "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere", including the two extended tracks that bookended the album. Just check out "Down By The River" as an example of how good the remastering is - it is rich, deep, warm and bassy. A real pleasure to listen to,as is the great guitar work throughout the song. That exact quality is even more apparent on the superb, rambling (but never boring), "Cowgirl In The Sand". Young and Crazy Horse could really ramp it up. For 1969, this was ground-breaking, impressive, improvisational stuff. Man, that guitar sound. "Cinnamon Girl" is one of that album's two shorter, rocky numbers. It is an infectious merging of late sixties slightly psych-ish vibes with the solid rock sound that would be used in the seventies.
"Helpless" came from Young's Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album, "Deja Vu". It is a suitably atmospheric slice of folk rock. Slow, dignified, melodic and evocative. Young sings plaintively of his "town in North Ontario". The town was said to be Omemee, Young's hometown, which now has a museum dedicated to him. "After The Gold Rush" is one of Young's best-known songs - a haunting song that nobody really knows the meaning to, but there's something very Woodstock, very late sixties/early seventies hippy about it. The flugelhorn perfectly merges with Young's bleak but melodic piano. "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" is a very late sixties, breezy, harmonious love song. It showed that the often cynical, caustic Young had a tenderness deep within him. "Southern Man" has achieved notoriety in that it was the song that provoked Lynyrd Skynyrd to write "Sweet Home Alabama" as a response to Young's daring to call into question the often racist ways of many in the south of the USA. Young was dead right if you ask me, particularly in 1969. Lynyrd Skynyrd should have taken a look out of their own window, much as I love their music. Anyway, it is a great song, with a solid, pertinent message and some excellent guitar. "Ohio" continues in the "protest song" vein, detailing the Kent State University killings of four protesting students by the Ohio National Guard. Again, this song leaves you in no doubt as its meaning. Fair play to Young once more for highlighting this shocking incident in song.
"The Needle And The Damage Done" is a quiet, acoustic but hard-hitting anti-drug song. The recording here is a live one. "Old Man" is an appealing acoustic and bass-driven folky number, enhanced by some gentle drums and piano. It is very typical of the early seventies folk rock period. "Heart Of Gold" is another well-known song, a mixture of acoustic and more solid rock, taken at a mid-pace with another enigmatic and memorable lyric. "Like A Hurricane" sees Young return to guitar-driven, more conventional rock. It is full of searing lead guitar and is overall a barnstormer of a track. Roxy Music and solo Bryan Ferry have covered the song successfully over the years.
"Comes A Time" is a country violin-powered folky number. "Hey Hey My My (Into The Black)" is from Young's live album, "Rust Never Sleeps" (recorded live then overdubbed in the studio). It was Young's response to the punk genre and what he perceived as his growing irrelevance. It contains some buzzy, grungy guitar that went down well with punks at the time. Young's "difficult" and "irascible" persona also endeared him to many. It was popular in 1979 and remains so. It was notable for its lyrical reference to Johnny Rotten, already "gone but not forgotten". The solid guitar riffage continues on the iconic "Rockin' In The Free World", with its easy to sing along with chorus. Young was, by now, seen as a sort of grand old man still protesting away. He was about to become "the Godfather of Grunge". Those titles are very annoying. "Harvest Moon", from 1992, is a less abrasive and gently appealing, laid-back song.
Personally, I feel there are periods in Young's career and some songs that have been overlooked - "Cortez The Killer", "Welfare Mothers", "Mansion On The Hill" and "Powderfinger", for example. That is nit-picking, though, as this, particularly with its excellent sound quality, is a great listen.