This feature originally ran in 2014. We’re reposting in anticipation of Neil Young’s new album, Visitor.
Top Songs is a feature in which we definitively handpick the very best songs in an artist or band’s catalog. Sounds simple, right? Oh, if only.
Pick 10 songs at random from any of Neil Young’s albums released between 1968 and 1982, 1989 and 2000, and 2003 and 2012, and chances are you’d have a pretty good best-of list, or at least a decent mix tape. Shit, you’d probably be better off doing that than trying to sift through all of his material and curate something comprehensive. Still, that didn’t stop us from setting out to do just that. First, though, we set some criteria for ourselves to make things easier: no Buffalo Springfield or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and, most importantly, we had to go beyond the hits. Yes, the hits are important. But any best-of Neil Young list should also cover his three distinct personalities: the folky Neil, the loud Neil, and the weird Neil. There are countless little subgenres within that Holy Trinity, but it’s as good a place to start as any. Did we succeed? Probably not. How could we? But it sure was fun to try.
Senior Staff Writer
10. “Transformer Man”
When Neil Young released his bizarre electropop album Trans, many listeners dismissed it as cheap sci-fi dribble. It’s hard to blame them — the tinny Krautrock production, constant reliance on vocoder, and Uncle Neil’s oversized granny sunglasses all seemed to point toward something campy and comedic. But one look at the lyrics of “Transformer Man” lets you know he was deadly serious. The yearning tune isn’t a tongue-in-cheek homage to a giant robot; it’s about his son Ben, who, like his brother Zeke, was born with cerebral palsy. When you view the song in that context, phrases like “Every morning when I look in your eyes/ I feel electrified by you” are suddenly evocative and touching. Of course, Young didn’t reveal the true meaning of the song to many people when it was released (it was no one’s business, really), forcing fans to look past the robotic exterior and directly at the human being underneath. –Dan Caffrey