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Neil Young: Greatest Hits

Zeth Lundy

As a one-disc career-spanning compilation, Greatest Hits manages well, even if the two-disc retrospective Decade (1977) offers more in-depth analysis.

Neil Young

Greatest Hits

Label: Reprise
US Release Date: 2004-11-16
UK Release Date: 2004-11-15

"Quality has taken a hit in recent years, but it's starting to come back thanks to DVD-stereo. There is just no comparison between DVD-stereo and a regular compact disc or even 5.1 sound.... I've always been a strong believer in analog and this is about as close to the rewarding listening experience of vinyl as the real thing."

So says Neil Young in regards to the DVD-stereo version of his Greatest Hits collection (also available in standard CD format). It's difficult to visualize Young as an endorser of anything, let alone progressive technology. He has been rock's most vocal opponent of digital dissemination, a steadfast champion of vinyl's more "faithful" audio representation. It's a traditionalist's crusade that gets harder to wage as music continues to be swallowed by a succession of 0s and 1s -- so hard, in fact, that even Young himself conceded to issuing four more albums on CD for the first time last year (On the Beach, American Stars 'n' Bars, Hawks & Doves, and Re-ac-tor).

Either the technology he once routinely abhorred has advanced to the point of near-perfect replication, or Young is joining 'em, having failed to beat 'em. The objective answer may lie somewhere in the middle. To the listener or fan who actively seeks out fidelity discrepancies, you'll notice a subtle, but important, difference in the DVD-stereo format. The frequencies are comfortably uniform and the mix is warmer; in contrast, the standard CD version boosts the bass frequencies and attacks with the heat of contemporary album mastering. The gap in sound quality may not be as wide as it is between vinyl and digital, but it's noticeable enough to warrant a gentle endorsement of Young's opinion above.

That objective answer, however, could simply be the product of a deceptive mimicry. Each song on the DVD-stereo Greatest Hits is accompanied by visuals of the original vinyl spinning in real time on a turntable. As the records rotate clockwise, reflecting hypnotic glistens of light off their black surfaces, it's easy to be swept up in the illusion of it all. Those very images undoubtedly work their way into the subconscious, assimilating what is being seen with what is being heard, and in the end, what is being believed. The visuals act as a reinforcement of Young's comment and the DVD-audio's purported allegiance to the analog experience.

As a one-disc career-spanning compilation, Greatest Hits manages well, even if the two-disc retrospective Decade (1977) offers more in-depth analysis. Greatest Hits features three songs apiece from Young's definitive solo albums: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere ("Down by the River", "Cowgirl in the Sand", "Cinnamon Girl"), After the Gold Rush ("After the Gold Rush", "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", "Southern Man"), and Harvest ("The Needle and the Damage Done", "Old Man", and "Heart of Gold"). Also included are some Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young gems (the gorgeous "Helpless" and cautionary "Ohio") as well as the title track from Comes a Time and the ferocious live version of "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)". Unlike Decade, Greatest Hits skips out entirely on selections from Young's tenure in Buffalo Springfield and drops the darker descents of Tonight's the Night and On the Beach. In sequencing songs "based on original record sales, airplay, and known download history", Greatest Hits also makes a jarring jump in its conclusion, fast-forwarding from 1979's Rust Never Sleeps to end with 1989's "Rockin' in the Free World" and 1992's "Harvest Moon".

Such is the fate of a one-disc package; still, while a few lesser-known favorites may be missing, you'd be hard-pressed to argue with Greatest Hits' track listing. Every song included is inarguably a classic. From the ten-minute electric guitar workouts to the two-minute acoustic introspections, each tune is essential in completing a full portrait of Young's musical persona. Most of Young's fans already own all of this material on the original albums (or on Decade), leaving the DVD-stereo version as the set's sole attraction. If, like Young, you continue to long for vinyl's purity (minus the crackles and pops, which would have been a nice touch, come to think of it), the DVD-stereo may walk you one step back towards a reunion with that sound. Or, at the very least, its deft audio/visual mirage will offer the next best thing.

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