Who He Is: I open these sorts of articles with this type of framing question because I know my tastes can be a bit arcane and out of the mainstream much of the time, and feel a duty to explain some of my more obscure choices to readers. But Neil Diamond has sold over 100 million records over the course of his career, and I’m guessing that if you’re culturally literate enough to even bother reading a website like mine, then you know who Neil Diamond is.
When I First Heard Him: My father was a huge Neil Diamond fan, and he was very vocally proud of the fact that his Marine Corps career had sent him to California during the summer of 1972, allowing him to attend one of the Greek Theater concerts immortalized on Neil’s epic live album Hot August Night. Neil’s first studio album came out before I had set foot in nursery school, and it included “Solitary Man,” one of my Dad’s favorite songs. So I presume he acquired that record (The Feel of Neil Diamond) soon after its release, and was likely playing it regularly on the big old wooden console record player with the cobra-eyed stylus arm in our house when I was still a toddler. Neil never left the stereo throughout the years when I lived at home with my parents (remember when your life only involved a dozen or so well-beloved albums played over and over again, pre-Internet?), so at bottom line, I can never really remember a time without Neil Diamond on my life’s jukebox.
Why I Love Him: There’s the “comfort music” factor at play here, of course, with Neil’s music representing happy, easy childhood times, readily evoked when his discs are spinning. (See here for more on that concept). But as my musical tastes and smarts evolved over the years, I developed a much deeper appreciation for Neil as a songwriter and song-stylist, especially deft at crafting heartbreaking little vignettes like, say, “Morningside,” which shows up on my Top Ten list below. Can you think of a sadder song with a more glorious melody? I can’t. Neil also excelled in exploring idioms that you really wouldn’t expect a nerdy Jewish kid from Brooklyn to have mastered in the ways that he did. The “African Suite” from his 1970 album Tap Root Manuscript, for example, beat the more-critically-acclaimed likes of Paul Simon and David Byrne to the punch by more than a decade in its explorations of African melodic and rhythmic themes as the wellspring of Western pop/rock culture, but he was not considered cool enough to get due credit for that, was he? He certainly deserved it, and I certainly accord him that respect. As another example, being from the deep American South, I grew up with gospel music as a key part of my cultural experience, and Neil actually created an improbable crossover pop hit in 1969 with “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show,” an effective and honest homage to that idiom. I was also a self-taught guitar player, and sometime around 1974 or 1975, I acquired a chord book for his 12 Greatest Hits compilation album, and played and sang those songs regularly over the years that followed, for my own amusement, most of the time. I will confess that once the ’80s rolled around, ever-edgier me largely stopped following Neil’s ever-more middle-of-the-road ballad-oriented contemporaneous releases, but his ’60s and ’70s classic songs and albums are a vital part of my musical heritage, without doubt, shame or question.
#10. “Morningside” from Moods (1972)
#9. “Crunchy Granola Suite” from Stones (1971)
#8. “Holly Holy” from Touching You, Touching Me (1969)
#7. “Stones” from Stones (1971)
#6. “If You Know What I Mean” from Beautiful Noise (1976)
#5. “Soolaimón” from Tap Root Manuscript (1970)
#4. “Longfellow Serenade” from Serenade (1974)
#3. “Brooklyn Roads” from Velvet Gloves and Spit (1968)
#2. “Done Too Soon” from Tap Root Manuscript (1970)
#1. “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show” from Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show (1969)