Best Album Ever: Neil Young's American Stars 'n Bars

Categories: Best Album Ever

The cover of American Stars 'n Bars
[Editor's Note: In Best Album Ever critics talk about their favorite records and what was happening in their lives when they discovered them.]

When we were good and drunk, we would put Neil Young's American Stars 'n Bars on the record player.

It was the fall of 2011 and I was living with two of my best friends in a dilapidated cottage with a huge ranch-style yard in the middle of Los Angeles. Most of the place was outside-- the doors of my bedroom opened out to a big gravel-covered yard full of overgrown trees and beer cans shot to pieces by our pellet gun. The landlady was an elderly German woman who used to be an avant-garde filmmaker in Berlin. All she did to keep up the place was to retain the "services" of a wet-eyed, weather-faced old man with a long gray beard, whose idea of maintenance was to aimlessly wander around our orange-less orange tree.

See also: Behind the Infamous Neil Young Carnegie Hall Concert Taping

The only reason my friends (let's call them Jack and Nick) and I could afford the place, which we affectionately deemed "The Ranch," was that it hung directly over the 101 freeway and there was always a steady drone of cars going by. We would sit and get piss drunk on whatever was cheap and pretend the sound was a river. After a couple months of living at The Ranch there was a nearly equal mix of broken beer-bottle glass and gravel in our yard.

Often, the melancholy waltz of American Stars 'n Bars would soundtrack our drinking sessions. Stars is Young's eighth studio album, which came out in 1977 on the heels of Zuma and the Ditch Trilogy. Upon its release Rolling Stone declared, "Right now ... it would be just about impossible to overrate Neil Young." The storied guitar work on "Like A Hurricane" is balanced by the earnest yearning of "Hey Babe."

The album's cover art is last call imagined with glass floor: an up-skirt shot of a woman holding a handle of Canadian Whiskey above an obliterated Young. His eyes are barely open, capturing those brutal last moments of consciousness before passing out. It was like looking into an aquarium displaying the state I was in.

It's a lovelorn album--on the album's opener "Old Country Waltz" you enter a kingdom of booze soaked self-pity. Each of the three of us living at The Ranch was lovelorn in his own way. Nick had recently split with a beautiful drummer who immediately moved on to dating a woman. Her new girlfriend had a terrific haircut. Jack had been in that endlessly frustrating up in the air period with a girl for months. As Young remarks on "Saddle Up the Palomino": It's a cold bowl of chili when love lets you down.

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