The Greatest Greatest Hits Disc Ever?
To say that Neil Young's latest release - and probably his last on the Reprise label - is the greatest greatest hits package ever released might be your typical reviewer hype ... or a fan's hagiographic overkill.
But say what you will about Neil's Greatest Hits, it undoubtably will cement his status in the singer-songwriter Hall of Fame. The disc's first 11 cuts are -- to you use the most cliched reviewer phrase of all time -- classic. But really. Look at these titles that we've all heard 100's of times:
1. Down By The River
2. Cowgirl In The Sand
3. Cinnamon Girl
5. After The Gold Rush
6. Only Love Can Break Your Heart
7. Southern Man
9. The Needle And The Damage Done
10. Old Man
11. Heart Of Gold
All of these songs were written and recorded during the stunning period between January 17, 1969 and February 8, 1971. This amazingly prolific two year period captures Young at the height of his creative genius. It was a time as if "Neil Young was rock's Joe Dimaggio." Furthermore, this is a guy that wrote both "Down By The River" and "Cowgirl In The Sand" on the same day!
Remarkably, these are only 11 songs from this incredible period -- mainly from the three albums Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, After The Goldrush, Harvest.
Has any artist during such a short period produced such an enduring impact?
Fans might quibble with what is and is not included. The CD jacket states that the 16 song selection is "Based on original record sales, airplay, and known download history." Chronologically presented, it really is hard to argue with the selection of these essential Young songs from his canon representing 9 albums over a 20 year period.
While nothing from the Ditch Trilogy period ('Time Fades Away', 'On The Beach' and 'Tonight's The Night') is represented, the selection clearly favors Young's earlier work. Only two songs are post-1978: Rockin' In The Free World (1989) and Harvest Moon (1991). This is mainly due to the fact that this a Reprise release and could not include any Geffen label cuts. All but four of these songs are available on the three disc Decade, the Godfather of Greatest Hits packages.
In a review on Pitchfork (link via Chromewaves), Stephen M. Deusner writes:
"Young's stubborn integrity extends beyond his politics-- which inform all of his songs, but only define a few like "Ohio" and "Rockin' in the Free World"-- and saturates his music. His catalog is riddled with sharp contrasts and sly contradictions, not least of which is the fact that this bearish-looking man sings with such a fragile falsetto. More crucially, Young moves from ragged guitar epics to jangly country ballads with impressive agility."
From Jambase review by Kayceman (via BNB):
"But here is where the duality of the "greatest hits" issue falls into place. We're talking Neil Young here, unquestionably one of the most important and influential musicians of all time, so when we hear his songs over and over we are able to cull new meaning from them at new times in our life, and having these re-mastered marvels all in one place is certainly a plus.
So while we are not breaking any ground and both Young's early CSNY days and his last ten years are completely omitted, we are still left with a beautiful glimpse at Young's vast and necessary discography. For those getting started with Neil Young it's a good place to begin, but don't be misled, like all of the successful greatest hits CDs, it's designed to pique your interest and cause you to dig in deeper, much, much deeper."
Here's what some Neil fans have to say about the song selection on the Greatest Hits package and thoughts from Blogcritics.org.
The DVD-stereo sound does seem to be improvement over the conventional CD format, although only listening on a state art sound system can one expect to hear the differences. At the opening of the bonus DVD, Neil writes of the experience as "high resolution listening". Riding around town with the CD playing in the car stereo really doesn't do justice to the DVD-stereo mix. But hey, when else are you going to be listening? "Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)" from Rust Never Sleeps is so pristinely grungey that Neil's guitar sounds like power lines snapping from overload.
There are extensive technical notes on the audio transfer process on Neil's site. The painstaking transfer and mastering of the package came from the original 1/4" stereo 2-channel 15 IPS analog master tapes. These tapes were than sampled at 176.4 khz/24 bit in order to derive the 44.1 khz 16 bit PCM stero CD master.
The bonus DVD is really astounding in a number of respects. Each song is featured with video of a turntable playing the song in real-time! Spin the black circle, Neil.
Here's the 45 rpm single of the anti-Vietnam war protest song "Ohio" with the dongle-spindle thingie in the big hole.
The DVD also features some rare photos over the years like this one from 1971 circa "Old Man".
Also included are two music videos for "Rockin' In The Free World" and "Harvest Moon". In addition to the photo gallery are lyrics, and album artwork.
So is the Greatest Hits disc something for the die-hard fans? A Thrasher's Wheat Neil Poll on the Greatest Hits package indicates that fans are still holding out for the long awaited and ever delayed Neil Young Archives Box Set. But with the audio upgrade and bonus video, maybe so? For the casual fan or as an introduction to the vast body of Neil's work? Definitely.
As Joel Selvin writes in the San Francisco Chronicle:
"Nobody's greatest are any greater."
UPDATE 12/8/04: From Billboard via Bad News Beat: Top 50 debuts this week include Neil Young's Warner Bros. "Greatest Hits" (No. 27, 51,000 units). More on "for the turnstiles".
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