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Neil Diamond: The top 10 songs from rock's King of Guilty Pleasures

As the housewives' favourite hits the UK for his 50th anniversary tour, we dig out the Diamond cuts

Graeme Ross
Thursday 28 September 2017 16:08 BST
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Solitary man: Diamond's early songs were autobiographical, a theme he returned to with Rick Rubin
Solitary man: Diamond's early songs were autobiographical, a theme he returned to with Rick Rubin (Keystone/Getty)

More than a little cheesy, often derided by the critics and now well into his 77th year, Neil Diamond has been making music for the best part of six decades and shows little sign of easing down any time soon. The word legend is bandied around too easily these days but Diamond fits the bill with ease. He has a back catalogue of famed if somewhat unhip proportions. Blessed with an innate gift to write memorable hit songs seemingly at will, Diamond has seamlessly traversed several genres, from his Tin Pan Alley beginnings through his sensitive singer-songwriter period to housewives’ favourite and poptastic hit-maker, while making a huge reputation as a dynamic live performer. Along the way there’s been just a little too much schmaltz and Las Vegas-style glitz, earning him the aforementioned critical scorn, not that it bothered Diamond or his legions of loyal fans too much, as the hits kept on coming with more than 130 million album sales. Now enjoying something of a critical re-evaluation, Diamond is in the middle of a 50th anniversary world tour celebrating his storied career. The first of his run of UK dates is 1 October. With such a huge back catalogue to choose from, it’s not easy to pick the top 10 Neil Diamond songs but here goes.

10. ‘Song Sung Blue’ from Moods (1972)

The perfect example of Diamond’s effortless command of the populist song and also perfect ammunition for his many detractors. Depending on your mood, Song Sung Blue is a guilty pleasure an infectious singalong karaoke classic or a twee and supremely annoying example of his smooth, easy-listening schmaltz. Either way, impossible to ignore.

9. ‘America’ from The Jazz Singer (1980)

From the soundtrack to the film The Jazz Singer, this was Diamond’s stab at acting stardom. ‘America’ is big, bombastic and intensely patriotic, with Diamond’s trademark rasp in great form. In retrospect, this is the point at which Diamond allowed the glitz and schmaltz to take over but ‘America’ is a rousing, anthemic example of what he does best.

8. ‘Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon’ from Just for You (1967)

One of his early hits when he was just starting out as a performer, and written for his audience of younger female fans who have stuck with him ever since. A remake by the rock band Urge Overkill graced Pulp Fiction‘s soundtrack, lending Diamond some much needed credibility and prompted casual fans to revisit his startlingly fresh original about a young man not considered good enough for the girl of the title.

7. ‘Pretty Amazing Grace’ from Home Before Dark (2008)

By the new millennium, Diamond, whilst still a huge concert draw with a vast loyal following, was treading water artistically. Enter producer Rick Rubin who, after working work with Johnny Cash, had established himself as the go-to guy whenever a failing artist sought to re-establish some street cred. The album 12 Songs (2004) and the follow up Home Before Dark featured a number of deeper self-penned Diamond cuts but the haunting, beautifully sung and played ‘Pretty Amazing Grace’ was the track that most recalled the classic feel of Diamond’s best work of the 1960s and 1970s, while crucially lacking the kitsch factor that had so alienated the critics.

6. ‘Shilo’ from Just for You (1968)

Diamond was seeking to evolve from his early Brill Building pop, and with ‘Shilo’ audiences heard a more introspective Diamond reminiscing about an imaginary childhood friend, borne out of loneliness and isolation, in one of his most personal early songs. ‘Shilo’ hints at a direction Diamond didn’t take too often – that of the confessional singer-songwriter in the mould of contemporaries and fellow New Yorkers Carole King and Paul Simon.

Amazing grace: Diamond performing in February this year at the pre-Grammy gala in The Beverly Hilton (Frederic J Brown/AFP) (Frederic J. Brown/AFP)

5. ‘Solitary Man’ from The Feel of Neil Diamond (1966)

Diamond’s first hit single, albeit a modest one, came several months before he really came to the fore as a songsmith with The Monkees’ mega-selling versions of ‘I’m a Believer’ and ‘A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You’. The autobiographical ‘Solitary Man’ is very much of the burgeoning singer-songwriter genre, as Diamond relates his early years as a struggling songwriter and the price he has to pay for his craft. Along with ‘Shilo’, ‘Solitary Man’ is about as deep and analytical as he ever got until his resurgence under Rick Rubin, and its melancholy air was perfect for Johnny Cash’s interpretation under the aegis of none other than Rubin himself.

4. ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’ from Tap Root Manuscript (1970)

Not about a woman as popularly thought but wine, and it’s another upbeat singalong classic from the King of Guilty Pleasures, his first number one single and demonstrated Diamond’s absolute mastery of simple, hook-laden feel-good pop music.

3. ‘I Am... I Said’ from Stones (1971)

One of the very best of Diamond’s many signature songs which sat perfectly with the angst-ridden heart-on-the-sleeve singer-songwriter genre of the early 1970s. Diamond composed it as a reaction to his feelings of isolation in being “lost between two shores”, New York and Los Angeles. Just don’t look too deeply into the much lampooned line “And no-one heard at all, not even the chair.”

2. ‘Sweet Caroline (Good Times Never Seemed So Good)’ from Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show (1969)

Diamond recently revealed that his most famous song was only partially inspired by a photograph of JFK’s daughter and that the true inspiration for ‘Sweet Caroline’ was actually his then wife Marcia. Diamond needed a three syllable name for the chorus, so ‘Sweet Caroline’ it became. Best heard after a few drinks, ‘Sweet Caroline’ is one of those songs that because of overfamiliarity can often cause the listener to reach for the off button when it comes on the radio but Diamond’s true breakthrough record is an enduring classic loved by karaoke enthusiasts and wedding guests worldwide.

1. ‘Holly Holy’ from Hot August Night (1972)

Tough choice between the 1969 original and the live version on Diamond’s definitive in-concert document from 1972. The original studio version is a beautiful, moving experience, all gospel harmonies and swelling strings but ‘Holly Holy’ really finds its apogee on Hot August Night, one of the great overlooked live albums and a virtual best-of Diamond up to that point. It’s a tour-de-force performance from Diamond, with that glorious gravelly baritone given full rein on the man’s greatest and most transcendent song.

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