The idea of the deep cut has always been somewhat confusing. Sure, the term’s meaning is clear enough as a catch-all for any song that is lesser known within an artist’s oeuvre. But as a concept, the “deep cut” label often summons connotations of quirkiness and eccentricity, sometimes where there is none to be found.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse only make this business trickier, as their entire songbook can seem like one noisy whole without discernible parts. (Thank you, feedback.) I can’t confidently tell you why “Down by the River” is more renowned than “Danger Bird” –another dark, slow-burning showcase for Young’s lead guitar work — or why the inviting “Lotta Love” gets fewer spins than much of the more abrasive fare the Horse likes to kick at our faces. When trying to isolate the group’s best deep cuts, you realize that their discography subverts the very notion: Even their classics are B-sides in spirit.
These 10 choice tracks, then, are a whole lot more than just overlooked. They’re a collective testament to the singularity of this musical beast — a team of uninhibited collaborators whose work across five decades thrums with an unabating sense of freedom. We won’t be at all surprised if Colorado, their new album out this week, plays more like this list or a greatest hits collection. This band makes it harder than most to tell the difference.
“Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” (1969)
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere turned 50 earlier this year, and it still holds up as one of Young’s absolute best records. In contrast to the tasteful, polished folk rock of his 1968 debut, Young’s first rodeo with Crazy Horse is raw, messy rock ‘n’ roll, the kind that’s less about note-for-note technical precision and more about capturing the perfect vibe in the studio. You get a sense of this on the album’s title track, a shaggy, scratchy take on country rock. It may not be wild as “Down by the River” or “Cowgirl in the Sand”, or even “Cinnamon Girl”, but its charming roughness — much like the oversized flannel shirt the songwriter wears on the album cover — foreshadowed the influence Young would have on the grunge movement two decades later. –Jacob Nierenberg
“Don’t Cry No Tears” (1975)
“Don’t Cry No Tears” kicks Zuma off with a catchy, gentle riff that sounds decidedly un-Crazy Horse, especially on the heels of the glum and introverted Tonight’s the Night. But the song, addressed to recent ex-girlfriend Carrie Snodgress, quickly racks up its share of jagged, idiosyncratic Young-isms: quavering vocals, parenthetical asides of barbed guitar, cinder-block drums thudding just a hair off the beat. It’s one of the more earworm-y songs that Young has ever written, but it’s still unmistakably his — like something the Eagles might do if they wore flannel and lived in the woods. –Matthew Taub
“Danger Bird” (1975)
Zuma’s “Danger Bird” is the ultimate sleeper pick in discussions of Young’s best guitar work. It’s not as raunchy as “Down by the River”, nor as melodic as “Cortez the Killer”, but the song climbs steadily toward a hypnotic crescendo as Young’s guitar jerks and writhes higher and higher — like a bird not quite comfortable taking off. The song is another mediation on Young’s breakup with Carrie Snodgress, and Crazy Horse here are perfectly, ominously subdued, leaving Young with space to storm or otherwise leave disconsolately empty. Lou Reed himself called the guitar playing on this track the best he’d ever heard, and he’s right that Young is simply not like other guitar heroes. Many of them show off with solos that soar, but few capture the loneliness and pain of life in the air. –Matthew Taub
In 1975, Young was gearing up to release a solo, acoustic album named Homegrown, about the collapse of his relationship with Snodgress. Instead, he released Tonight’s the Night, deciding that Homegrown was “a little too personal” and “just a very down album.” (Mind you, Young was still reeling from the deaths of two close friends when he wrote and recorded Tonight’s the Night.) Homegrown’s title track later appeared on American Stars ‘n Bars, recut with Crazy Horse as a short and sweet country-rock sing-along, extolling the virtues of growing your own crops (read: marijuana). For the most die-hard fans, “Homegrown” stands as a bittersweet reminder of what could have been, but for what it is, it’s a hoot — as silly as Young would allow himself to get on record. –Jacob Nierenberg
“Lotta Love” (1978)
Things tend to get loud when Young and Crazy Horse get together, but “Lotta Love” is a tender, understated exception. The song, a late addition to Comes a Time, was patched in after the higher-ups at Reprise Records asked Young to flesh out the tracks he already had. Perhaps still raw from the label’s sidelining of Hitchhiker (which wouldn’t be released until 2017), Young obliged, taking the opportunity to record two new songs with Crazy Horse. Of the pair, “Lotta Love” is the keeper, featuring a beautiful guitar-and-piano interplay as well as some of the finest singing of Young’s career: “So if you look in my direction/ And we don’t see eye to eye/ My heart needs protection/ And so do I.” The song was a top 10 hit for Nicolette Larson, who was moved to cover the song after finding a tape of it on the floor of Young’s car; though his own version was overshadowed by Larson’s, it stands as one of the most unabashedly lovely tunes Young has ever written. –Jacob Nierenberg
“Sedan Delivery” (1979)
“Powderfinger” is easily one of Young’s 10 best songs, with or without Crazy Horse, but this also means it’s arguably too beloved to be a deep cut. “Sedan Delivery”, however, is very much a deep cut. While Rust Never Sleeps is widely seen as Young’s defiant response to punk rock, “Sedan Delivery” sure sounds like Young’s attempt to write a punk rock song; it’s fast-paced, abrasive, and stiff. (The song sounds radically different on Chrome Dreams, yet another of Young’s infamous unreleased albums. Seriously, some of the man’s best albums are the ones he kept on a shelf.) But the lyrics are pure psychedelia, detailing a game of pool with a woman with varicose veins, a trip to the dentist, and a delivery of “chemicals and sacred roots” to an old man in white clothes — which sounds like a mad scientist but could very well be a drug dealer. Blistering guitar: check. Bizarre narrative: check. In other words, it’s a classic Neil Young song. –Jacob Nierenberg
“F*!#in’ Up” (1990)
It’s always arresting when an artist finds an intricate metaphor or provocative analogy for a familiar human experience. But sometimes, a point is best made plain. “F*!#in’ Up” is an anthem of frustration for anyone who has ever regretted a decision, felt inadequate or ill-equipped, or failed to learn from a mistake — in other words, it’s an anthem for everyone who breathes. On an album and in a career full of gnarled, gnashing outbursts of distorted mayhem, “F*!#in’ Up” still distinguishes itself near the top of the Crazy Horse chaos-meter. For six heaving minutes, Neil chastises himself and yanks exasperated sounds from somewhere deep inside his guitar as the band pounds the point home at full throttle. If the main riff bounces back and forth like someone slamming their head against a wall, the 65-second feedback coda is the sound of collapsing from dizziness. –Matthew Taub
“Love to Burn” (1990)
Young’s output in the ’80s was woefully lacking in guitar heroics, but Ragged Glory more than made up for lost time. Virtually every track features at least one guitar solo, and some of the album’s most ragged and glorious solos can be heard on “Love to Burn”. It’s little more than an excuse for Young and Crazy Horse to just jam in the studio for 10 minutes — and it’s not even the only song on the album to hit that length — but what a damn good excuse it turns out being; Crazy Horse chug along with the crisp efficiency of a krautrock band in perfect sync with its bandleader, who drops a few dippy hippie-isms (“You better take a chance/ A chance on love”) in between raging solos. Time flies when they’re having fun. –Jacob Nierenberg
“Twisted Road” (2012)
Fairly or not, Young has earned a reputation as something of a curmudgeonly loner, a mad scientist in pursuit of some ever-elusive musical truth. So, it’s lovely to hear him go full nostalgic on “Twisted Road”, a wistful tribute to the Bob Dylans, Hank Williamses, and Roy Orbisons of yore who gave young Shakey his inspiration. The song seems entirely candid on its surface, opening on the lines, “First time I heard ‘Like a Rolling Stone’/ I felt that magic and took it home.” But it’s actually pretty darn subtle and clever, with Young finding a variety of indirect ways to expand the song’s lexicon of references. The descending chord progression coming out of the chorus, for example, clearly mimics “The Weight” by The Band while memories of “the dead on the radio” invoke both the Grateful and the departed. This is the kind of short ballad that could have easily ended up on a Neil Young solo album rather than Psychedelic Pill, but it’s more meaningful to hear Neil reminisce with lifelong colleagues by his side. –Matthew Taub
“Walk Like a Giant” (2012)
It’s hard to say whether “Walk Like a Giant” is a bummer or an inspiration. On the one hand, Young parallels the breakdown of a warming planet with the decline of his own aging body, singing, “I used to walk like a giant on the land/ Now, I feel like a leaf floating in a stream,” and adding that things went downhill when “the weather changed.” On the other hand, the ferocity of his performance — and the audacity of the song’s 16-minute running time — undermines the presumption that Neil’s lost anything at all. The song was released on Psychedelic Pill in 2012, when Young was nearly 67, but it would have fit seamlessly next to “Hey Hey, My My” on Rust Never Sleeps (1979). Maybe the song is ultimately an attempt to pass the torch: The pummeling sounds repeated over the final four minutes are not only imitations of a giant’s footsteps, but also wake-up calls to face the realities of our deepening environmental crisis. –Matthew Taub