Neil Young is a songwriter who has long walked a wandering path: at times, he shuffles along what he himself has called the middle of the road, while at others he takes huge strides through the ditch. His career is also dotted by a number of missteps—paths begun but never finished. There are those who might say that some of those trips Young's engaged in were little more than interesting fuck ups that showed his willingness to experiment but which ultimately failed as albums. To be sure, that's certainly the case with a few of the ones he's dropped over the years, but there are a few that belong right up there alongside Tonight's the Night on a list of Young's best.
1) Live at the Fillmore East (2006)
One of the releases in Young's Archives series, this set was recorded in 1970 with the original cornerstones of Crazy Horse—guitarist Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina—alongside Young and piano player Jack Nitzsche. The music rumbles as Young and Crazy Horse meld into a single, churning beast. It's a sound well-known today, but this album documents the early moments in Young's relationship with Crazy Horse, undertaken at a time when he truly set himself apart from the folk-singer crowd.
2) Time Fades Away (1973)
While Young has often culled together studio albums from songs recorded over wide spans of time, save for a single song this raw and rambling live album was constructed out of tracks cut during a three-month tour in support of the much more palatable sounds of the previous year's Harvest. Crazy Horse's Danny Whitten died of an OD after Young fired him just prior to the tour, and that loss weighs heavy on the performances, making for an emotional record—even more so because Young nails the songwriting on this one.
3) On the Beach (1974)
Culled together from a number of sessions and featuring 12 different players on various tracks, this one is a true trip: it begins with the relatively lightweight “Walk On” and then descends into murkier sounds, culminating with the epic Side B run of “On the Beach,” “Motion Pictures” and “Ambulance Blues.”
4) Trans (1982)
Another lightweight opener with “Little Thing Called Love,” but it serves as the gateway into a bizarre computer world where a songwriter like Young would seemingly have no place, except that beneath—or perhaps because of—the vocodered voice and synth-heavy arrangements, the songs are, once again, solid. It may feel somewhat uncomfortable hearing Young in a Kraftwerk-inspired setting, but this is where he's at his best: refusing to back down as he experiments, yet armed with songs that can hold their own with the rest of his catalogue. Plus, the claustrophobic, electronic remake of “Mr Soul” is a brilliant re-envisioning of his past as a possible future.
5) Sleeps With Angels (1994)
Though this record came out during the height of grunge, it's hardly the sound of Young trying to play the part—that's what happened on Mirrorball, his atrocious collaboration with Pearl Jam. Here, though, Young ventures into the darkest musical territory he's ever played with. The guitars are guttural and often sonically disturbing, while the album is unrelenting and exhausting through to the end. It's among Young's most focused efforts. V
Read Bryan's Old Sounds featuring the worst of Neil Young here