Neil Young: Trans (1982)
If you remember it at all. I'm sure plenty of Neil fans try to put it (as well as much of his 80s output) out of mind.
But it's just so damn weird I find it irresistible. Is it a fascinating failure? Or just plain fascinating? I vacillate.
Most of the album finds Neil merging the harder rocking sound of Crazy Horse with synthesizer music, often running his vocals through a vocoder that made it sound like a computer emulation of his singing. (He later explained this as an attempt to simulate the communications issues he faced with his severely disabled son.) But once you get past the weirdness of Neil Young trying to sound like Kraftwerk, there are some fairly cool songs. "Sample And Hold," yet another song about a mail-order love doll (see also, e.g., the Police's "Be My Girl/Sally," Bram Tchaikovsky's "Girl Of My Dreams"), has a pretty cool riff and is downright fun. (It was also a hoot in concert, with Neil and guitarist Nils Lofgren doing some cool guitar dueling on stage.) "Transformer Man," setting aside the electronic drums and vocoder, would have been a classic Neil track (as confirmed when he performed an acoustic version on MTV Unplugged), and is still pretty great as is. "Computer Age" is perfectly entertaining (Sonic Youth did a bang-up cover). The reworking of Buffalo Springfield's "Mr. Soul" as a synthesized tune is kinda superfluous, but, again, still fun.
As with many of Young's albums, even some of his best, there is a patchwork feel to the track selection given his tendency to work on myriad projects at once. Here, he ended up tacking on a few songs from an aborted tropical-themed project called Island In The Sun. (While he's been gradually releasing some of these abandoned projects, Island has yet to see light of day.) Opening track "Little Thing Called Love" is actually a fun pop song, and works pretty well on the album, its shiny production polish and slightly synthetic sound presaging what follows; in contrast, the closing "Like An Inca," one of his longer, "Cortez The Killer"-styled narrative epics, is a bit incongruous, with its repetitive, folky riff (though it's not a bad song, one that might have served his canon better if included in a different package). In between is the straight ballad "Hold On To Your Love," pretty forgettable.
The album was followed by a string of equally weird and controversial albums, ranging from rockabilly to straight-up country, resulting in Young being sued by his record label for refusing to record albums that sounded like Neil Young albums. (Though the mid-decade albums that did sound like Neil Young albums weren't any better.) While I may view the entire decade as best served by a single-cd compilation cherry-picking a few highlights from a stack of otherwise erratic albums, Trans is the one that I actually play straight through from time to time.
Here's an audio rip of "Transformer Man":