Playback: Neil Young

Music Features Neil Young
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Deejay: In the early days of the Buffalo Springfield you didn’t sing all of the songs that you wrote, did you?

Neil Young: No, I didn’t sing very much at all in those days ... our producers used to think that my voice was pretty funny, and it made me pretty paranoid and I just didn't sing that much.—radio interview, 1969.

Knowing I was going to write about the terrific new single-CD collection, Neil Young’s Greatest Hits, I couldn’t help but reference that brief exchange quoted in the Buffalo Springfield box set released a few years ago. Longtime fans probably know the story—though Young penned five of the 12 songs recorded for the Buffalo Springfield’s 1966 debut album (bandmate Stephen Stills wrote the rest), manager/producers Charlie Greene and Brian Stone thought so little of Young’s singing that he’s heard on lead vocals on just a pair of them (both buried on side two, no less). And here’s the extra ironic twist: Greene and Stone were best known for handling another, far more successful act than the Springfield—a mixed duo whose male member’s less-than-golden-throated voice they obviously had no problem with. His name? Sonny Bono.

Of course, by 1969—when Neil Young’s second solo album, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, catapulted him to stardom via the twin FM classics, “Down By The River” and “Cowgirl In The Sand”—it was clear his distinctive, high-pitched voice was perfectly okay with listeners. As was his equally distinctive guitar playing. Its ferocity and unpredictability—showcased on those extended tracks—were also fast becoming signature components of his budding musical personality.

And it’s a personality that, as this Greatest Hits package makes clear, has always eluded easy categorization. Better than two thirds of this collection is drawn from material recorded from ’69-’71 (“Inclusion based on original record sales, airplay and known download history,” reads Young’s simple back-cover comment regarding track selection) and is a useful reminder of how early in his career he established an inscrutably eclectic path for himself. From the folk and country elements of “Helpless,” “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man” to the neo-soul of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and the unbridled riff-driven rock of “Cinnamon Girl” and “Southern Man,” Young’s music has always been about trusting the muse and letting instinct, rather than intellect, drive his creative energies. And, as proven by excursions like Mirror Ball—his 1995 Armageddon-bent collaboration with Pearl Jam—and his most recent work, 2003’s out-on-a-limb “musical novel” Greendale, he remains as fearless as ever in the pursuit of his art. A career-spanning four full decades—not too shabby a run for a guy with a funny voice.