Neil vs. Neil: The Song-by-Song Diamond-or-Young Challenge.

I’ve been working on an essay tentatively called “Neil Young Marked for Death” on and off for a couple years now. It’s a play on the title of the famous Lester Bangs essay “James Taylor Marked for Death.” My idea is that Neil Young, in particular Neil Young worship, is an unfortunate cultural phenomenon that has as much to do with liking Neil Young’s music as admiring the many admirable facets of Neil Young. These include but are not limited to his musical integrity, his contrarian outlook, his lefty politics, his unwillingness to tour with Crosby, Stills, and Nash or Buffalo Springfield, along with a tendency to quit bands at the drop of a hat, and the dependable regularity of his musical output.

You might see me showing my hand already. It’s not that I hate Neil Young; I like a lot of his songs, and even love a couple. Even so, I think he’s way overrated for what he did and what he continues to do. There are several singer-songwriters from his generation and approximate genre I would rank well above him (we’ll get to one later, but here are a couple for now: Roger McGuinn, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, shit, Rod Stewart and James Taylor if you get a couple beers in me).

But to think about music and only music would be beside many a Neil Young fan’s point, which is that Neil Young has been around so long, man, and he’s still vital and all that, man. He hasn’t sold out, whatever that means these days; he never went Hollywood. And he’s old, you see, so he’s someone Neil-lovers can look up to. Most of this doesn’t have anything to do with Neil Young’s actual music, and has everything to do with admiring a person for who/what s/he is. It’s a classic case of combining lifestyle and biography with someone’s art /music.  And that’s fine, but let’s speak plainly: this has led to Neil Young being over-valued, overrated, and annoyingly so, for quite some time.

One night ten years ago, I said something to this effect in a bar with a friend. We argued, this friend and I. At one point I just came out and said it.

“Fucking Neil Diamond is better than Neil Young!”

This sticks for a lot of reasons. They have the same first name, so there’s that. They both started around the same time, and have had long runs as recording artists. One is known for glitzy, showbiz-type shows (Diamond) and the other for stripped-down acoustic affairs or rocking out with some of the worst lead guitar in the history of the instrument (Young).  Both have had commercial success, flops, comebacks, career reboots.

It’s pretty safe to say, however, that even after the Rick Rubin-produced albums, the way-late Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and space age bachelor pad revivals, Neil Diamond is still way lower on the prestige list-o-meter than Neil Young. This has a lot to do with music journalists like to think they look more like Young than Diamond, as David Lee Roth might put it.

Anyway, these exchanges led to us to do a Song-by-Song Diamond-or-Young Neil Challenge. What follows is an reconstruction of the score sheet we wrote in our heads that night. Winning songs are in bold. The pairings are random, from lists I pulled off the internet, which led to some ridiculous, period-spanning match-ups (“Love on the Rocks” versus “Cinnamon Girl”?). This seemed to keep the competition honest.

These rulings are mine. Neil Diamond comes out on top, 27 to Young’s 20 with two ties.

writer for NPR’s blog came up with this comparison as well some years back. So great minds think alike, even though the writer, Robin Hilton, falls in the pro-Young camp.

Neil Diamond

Neil Young

1. Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon 1. Old Man
2. Cracklin’ Rosie 2. The Needle and the Damage Done
3. Song Sung Blue 3. Harvest Moon
4. Solitary Man 4. Southern Man
5. Forever In Blue Jeans 5. After the Gold Rush
6. Cherry, Cherry 6. Only Love Can Break Your Heart
7. America 7. Harvest
8. Hello Again 8. Out on the Weekend
9. Love On The Rocks 9. Cinnamon Girl
10. I’m A Believer 10. Tell Me Why
11. Play Me 11. A Man Needs a Maid
12. Kentucky Woman 12. Don’t Let It Bring You Down
13. Shilo 13. Like a Hurricane
14. Holly Holy 14. Rockin’ in the Free World
15. Beautiful Noise 15. Alabama
16. I Am…I Said 16. Down by the River
17. Delirious Love 17. There’s a World
18. Thank The Lord For The Night Time 18. Till the Morning Comes
19. September Morn 19. Helpless
20. Red, Red Wine 20. Birds
21. Soolaimon 21. I Believe in You
22. Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show 22. Ohio
23. Heartlight 23. Cowgirl in the Sand
24. You Got To Me 24. Cortez the Killer
25. Mr. Bojangles [?] 25. Cripple Creek Ferry
26. Stones 26. Walk with Me
27. If You Know What I Mean 27. Words (Between the Lines of Age)
28. Brooklyn Roads 28. Comes a Time
29. Longfellow Serenade 29. When You Dance You Can Really Love
30. I Am… I Said 30. Unknown Legend
31. Pretty Amazing Grace 31. Are You Ready for the Country?
33. For the Turnstiles
34. Sweet Caroline 34. From Hank to Hendrix
35. Walk On Water 35. Walk With Me
36. Crunchy Granola Suite 36. See the Sky About to Rain
37. Cherry cherry 37. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
38. I Got The Feelin’ (Oh No, No) 38. World on a String
39. Desiree 39. The Loner
41. My My, Hey Hey – Out Of The Blue
42. Be 42. Mr. Soul
43. Alone Again (Naturally) 43. Revolution Blues
44. You Don’t Bring Me Flowers 44. Sugar Mountain
45. And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind 45. Sign Of Love
46. Feels Like Home 46. Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)
47. Oh Mary 47. The Old Laughing Lady
48. Done Too Soon 48. One of These Days
49. Hell Yeah 49. Pocahontas

Final score: Diamond: 27. Young: 20, Tie: 2.


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