Assessing the hits and misses from a hit-and-miss genius.
Neil Young has one of three goals in mind when he sets out to record a new album (which he does often): get cozy with some acoustic folk rock, blow up a few amplifiers with his on-again-off-again backing band Crazy Horse (or a few members of), or go down the rabbit hole of a new style. With his new memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, on the shelves, and his first-ever double album, Psychedelic Pill, out today, we've decided to take a look back at Young's vast and varied body of work.
34. Prairie Wind (2005)
After avoiding it for forty years, Young dives into schmaltz, stooping to a lyric like "I just want to tell you / You sure mean a lot to me / It may sound simple / But you are the world to me." "When God Made Me" might shock you with its observation that people aren't as loving as the deity they claim to worship. The one urgent-sounding song, "No Wonder," makes no sense. What's that about Chris Rock, Willie Nelson, and quail hunting?
Listen: "No Wonder"
33. Landing on Water (1986)
Young embraces '80s pop in all its synth-boosted gaudiness on Landing on Water. He also has a weak crop of feelings-heavy songs and has raised his voice up a pitch. The result is the usually-gruff Young sounds like more of a wuss than the guy from Kajagoogoo. The one standout, "Hippie Dream," is a requiem for the Woodstock spirit in the yuppie age.
Listen: "Hippie Dream"
32. Old Ways (1985)
On the rare occasion that Young's genre-hopping work on Geffen Records gets any praise, it's called "interesting." Old Ways, an album of Nashville-style country, doesn't even live up to that backhanded compliment. "Misfits" ropes a sneezing hooker and a band of astronauts into the traditional hard-luck ballad, but for the rest of this album, Young doesn't try anything you can't hear at your average county fair.
31. Everybody's Rockin' (1983)
Geffen freaked out over the Kraftwerk-inspired Trans and initially declined to release Old Ways, asking Young for a "rock and roll" album instead. He delivered this twenty-four-minute disc of throwback rockabilly tunes, both covers and originals, and thought it was hilarious. I guess you had to be there.
30. Life (1987)
Young takes on Reagan-era foreign policy on the first half of Life, but his message is muddled. Though the song sounds intense, I don't know if the red-blooded American tussling with a mob in "Mideast Vacation" is hero, villain, or victim. The sound is meat-headed '80s stadium rock.
Listen: "Mideast Vacation"
29. Broken Arrow (1996)
For Broken Arrow (no relation to the Buffalo Springfield song of the same name), Young reassembled Crazy Horse to lumber through forty-odd minutes of power rock without ever finding a single memorable riff or hook. I suspect he didn't start writing these songs — none of which are well remembered even among fans — until everyone was in the studio, instruments in their hands.
Listen: "Big Time"
28. Are You Passionate? (2002)
On Are You Passionate?, Young teamed up with Booker T and the M.G.'s for a sound harkening to old-school soul. But his stony persona doesn't lend itself well to Motown sweetness. "Let's Roll," inspired by Flight 93, is a relic from that brief, awkward period when songwriters tried to work with 9/11 and the shock-driven sentiments of the weeks after.
Listen: "Let's Roll"
27. Hawks & Doves (1980)
Young raided his archives to compile the first half of Hawks & Doves, but having just done the same thing to come up with American Stars 'N Bars, he didn't have much left to work with. The second, very country side is baffling. I'm not sure if Young's jingoistic attitude towards his adopted homeland on the title track is sincere, or if he thinks the U.S. is "coming apart at every nail," as he says in the prior song. He should have been guided by "Stayin' Power," a breezy, straightforward ode to commitment that is the album's best track.
Listen: "Stayin' Power"
26. Re-ac-tor (1981)
Like Hawks and Doves, Re-ac-tor was delivered to fulfill Young's album-a-year contract at a time when caring for his infant son with cerebral palsy took precedent over music. You have to be sympathetic towards that, but the results speak for themselves. (This album contains a nine-minute track whose only lyrics are "Got mashed potatoes / Ain't got no T-Bone.") Crazy Horse does sink its teeth into "Shots," a song left over from the late '70s.
25. Mirror Ball (1995)
Cashing in on his status as "godfather of grunge," Young dashed out Mirror Ball with Pearl Jam in a Seattle studio. The songs are nothing special, and Pearl Jam are loud and biting but show none of the nuance or focus that put them above their grunge peers. Young might as well have cut this album with Candlebox or Sponge. "I'm the Ocean" is a monster of a track though.
Listen: "I'm the Ocean"
24. Fork in the Road (2009)
A quickie album inspired by Young's cross-country trip in his reconfigured, eco-friendly Lincoln Continental, Fork in the Road is less about environmentalism than it is about the open road, a common rock-and-roll theme revisited by Young at his scratchiest here. "When Worlds Collide" and the title track also touch on how shitty things are across America, an unavoidable subject in 2009.
Listen: "When Worlds Collide"
23. Sleeps With Angels (1994)
You really have to watch your stereo or computer's media player to determine when a new track starts on Sleeps With Angels, an amorphous hour of sludgy guitar rock. The sound comes naturally to Young and Crazy Horse, but the songs aren't anything special. The title track, a eulogy for Kurt Cobain, got some attention at the time of release, but Young sounds just as dejected singing about a broken-down car on "Trans Am."
Listen: "Sleeps With Angels"
22. Neil Young (1968)
Though he'd lived through Buffalo Springfield, Young still sounds like an awkward youth on his solo debut, which continues the '60s-style symphonic pop that marked his contributions to Buffalo Springfield Again. It was a fine training ground for him, but Young was meant for a rawer sound; "The Loner" wouldn't prove itself a great song until he pounded it out like a proto-punk rocker on 1979's Live Rust.
Listen: "The Loner"
21. Trans (1982)
Young imports a style from the other end of the musical spectrum for Trans, his most notorious album. Each song is coated in a thick gloss of computerized synthpop and even his voice is unrecognizable, hidden behind a vocoder. Young seems to make a preemptive defense of Trans by rerecording his Buffalo Springfield classic "Mr. Soul" in its style. It fits right in, showing that new songs, like "Transformer Man" and "We R in Control," also have strong melodies at their hearts. Still, Trans now sounds ridiculously dated, especially for an album meant to represent the future of music.
Listen: "We R in Control"
20. Greendale (2003)
Greendale is a rock opera about a California family that includes a bandit, an eco-warrior, and a world-weary old man, all at odds with Patriot Act-era America. Cut with Crazy Horse's sledgehammer backing, it sounds, without careful listening, like any other album of Young in hard-rock mode, but with the addition peculiar lyrics about TV news vans and the FBI shooting a cat. Still, the stage is set for some righteous anti-authority rock, particularly in the finale, "Be the Rain."
Listen: "Be the Rain"
19. Americana (2012)
Young finally records an album of traditional folk songs, but instead of doing it in the expected acoustic style, he invites along Crazy Horse. The result is some fire put into these campfire songs. On "Oh! Susanna," it sounds like he's come from Alabama with a banjo on his knee in order to do something sinister.
Listen: "Oh! Susanna"
18. Living With War (2006)
Full of fist-pumping guitar riffs and bullhorn-ready choruses, Living With War is an entire album decrying the Bush agenda. It therefore sounds somewhat dated and rushed, but in 2006, someone really needed to write a song called "Let's Impeach the President" and Young delivered with a searing rock-and-roll editorial.
Listen: "Let's Impeach the President"
17. Psychedelic Pill (2012)
The latest album from Young and Crazy Horse sounds a lot like the first, with a grainy sonic texture and marathon guitar workouts. But now they're free from the storage capacity of physical formats; hence, a twenty-seven-minute song and two sixteen-minute ones. The lyrics are reflective: "Walk Like a Giant" muses on the fizzling of '60s ideals, while "Twisted Road" is a bit of nostalgia for the early days of the Dead and Dylan. While the sound and the message are right, Psychedelic Pill insists on ninety minutes of your time when it could have gotten the job done in sixty.
Listen: "Walk Like a Giant"
16. American Stars 'N Bars (1977)
American Stars 'N Bars is a hodgepodge of leftover tracks from three very good years of Young's career. Highlights includes the acoustic gem "Star of Bethlehem" and one of his most staggering hard-rock numbers, "Like a Hurricane," which has a solo that wails like a category-five storm. If he'd lived, Hendrix would have covered this song.
Listen: "Like a Hurricane"
15. This Note's for You (1988)
Young's experimental streak finally pays off on This Note's for You. Adding a brass section, he tips his toe into jazz rock, a style that suits him surprisingly well. "Coupe de Ville" and "Twilight" are the only songs on which Young has ever sounded cool in the calm, assured, Nat King Cole sense of the word. The title track is a scathing but fun takedown of the Cola War-era trend of rock and pop stars endorsing brands.
Listen: "This Note's for You"
14. Chrome Dreams II (2007)
Chrome Dreams is the title of an unreleased album from the late '70s Young drew from for years afterwards. Chrome Dreams II is the opposite; here, he rerecords a cluster of cast-offs from albums dating back twenty-five years. Given it had been decades since Young turned to the archives, there is much strong material here, especially "The Believer," a gospel-tinged love song, and "Ordinary People," an epic tribute to the flawed proletariat that stays spirited across its eighteen minutes.
Listen: "Ordinary People"
13. Comes a Time (1978)
Comes a Time is so filled with references to nature, seasons, vast distances, and hard-won love it sounds like a Willa Cather novel set to acoustic rock. The closing cover of Ian and Sylvia's "Four Strong Winds" fits thematically. Throughout, Young is sincere without being sappy, and he eases into a warm, inviting sound, thanks in part to some vocal assistance from Nicolette Larson.
Listen: "Four Strong Winds"
12. Le Noise (2010)
"Walk with me!" Young screams on the first song of Le Noise, but he doesn't have pleasant places to go. Producer Daniel Lanois, a master of atmosphere, coaxes Young's scariest album out of him. The songs are mercilessly pessimistic, particularly "Love and War" and "Angry World," and Lanois recorded most of them with just Young on electric guitar, backed by a sonic inferno of feedback, echoes, and reverb. This is the evil doppelganger of the minimalist folk-rock sound of Comes a Time and Harvest.
Listen: "Angry World"
11. Ragged Glory (1990)
In the early '90s, an entire generation of musicians embraced Young's template, treating angry hard rock and confessional singer/songwriter musings as two sides of the same jagged coin. (Also like Young, they all thought it was cool to dress like potato farmers.) Ragged Glory is a fierce, biting, distortion-heavy album that aligns the modern-day Young and Crazy Horse with their alt-rock offspring. A bunch of well-off forty-somethings do shockingly well at keeping pace with the kids fresh from the garage — so well that Pearl Jam slipped "Fuckin' Up" into its own set lists.
Listen: "Fuckin' Up"
10. Zuma (1975)
Young never wrote anything more transfixing than "Cortez the Killer," a song-poem that proved a rock song about genocide could be as affecting as book or movie about genocide. Listening to Young's vivid description of the Aztec culture on the eve of its downfall over a guitar riff that moves like steady ocean waves is, to me, as moving as reading Maus or watching Hotel Rwanda. The rest of Zuma goes back to rock-and-roll basics; "Don't Cry No Tears" is a reworking of a song he wrote for his high-school band.
Listen: "Cortez the Killer"
9. Silver & Gold (2000)
Young had been hoarding songs for years to make Silver & Gold, not wanting his most touching new material to go to a Crazy Horse jam session or risky foray into a new style. It paid off. Silver & Gold is a gorgeous album that moves at a grandfather's gentle pace. Songs like "Good to See You," "Daddy Went Walkin'," and the tribute to old friends "Buffalo Springfield Again," are impossibly heartfelt and warm. Young also shows that, no matter how many eardrums he rattles with Crazy Horse or new stylistic hats he tries on, his best friend is and always will be a well-tuned acoustic guitar.
Listen: "Good to See You"
8. On the Beach (1974)
On the Beach was written after the heroin-related deaths of guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, and during Young's divorce. Listening to its eight pained, rambling songs is like watching your grizzled uncle get shit-faced and cry into his beer, and, honestly, who wouldn't be transfixed by that? Young shows an uncanny ability to bend music to his emotions, no matter how thorny and stuck in his gut they are. Diving into the depths of despair gave him courage to write "Revolution Blues," an truly frightening song about his one-time acquaintance Charles Manson.
Listen: "Revolution Blues"
7. Harvest Moon (1992)
Harvest Moon features the same folky sound as Harvest, and many of the same musicians. But Young doesn't ignore the two decades between them. Harvest was an album of twenty-something restlessness; Harvest Moon speaks to middle age, with songs about marital tenderness ("Me and You," the title track) and pre-divorce anxiety ("From Hank to Hendrix"). The most sublime song, "Unknown Legend," describes a working mom's moments of reprieve on a motorcycle with all the fragility and beauty Young thinks they deserve. Given that the Stones were still getting together every few years to rewrite "Start Me Up," his embrace of midlife themes was not just earnest but brave.
Listen: "Unknown Legend"
6. Freedom (1989)
"Rockin' in the Free World" was a fucking torpedo aimed at America's post-Cold War sense of self-satisfaction. Just as urgent as "Ohio" was in 1970, it was a protest song for a society where there was too little upheaval, where the masses were shufflin' their feet and sleepin' in their shoes as the inner cities rotted and people oceans away painted them as devils. Plenty else is damn good on Freedom. "Wrecking Ball" and "Hangin' on a Limb" are two of Young's best soft ballads, and "Don't Cry" is a breakup song of scary intensity. On his version of "On Broadway," Young makes it seem like he'll take Manhattan by carpet-bombing it with noise.
Listen: "Rockin' in the Free World"
5. Tonight's the Night (1975)
Tonight's the Night was begat by the same tragedies that fueled On the Beach, and has a similar demo-tape feel. But whereas On the Beach's tracks were long-winded and subdued, the twelve songs on Tonight's the Night are brief and bludgeoning. They speak of helplessness ("Tired Eyes," "Borrowed Tune") and of yearning for a new beginning, or at least a new distraction ("Mellow My Mind," "Albuquerque"). The two-part title track, which directly eulogizes the late Bruce Berry, is the best and least inwardly focused cut. Throughout, Young and Nils Lofgren unload blazing guitar riffs, creating haunting blues rock with an emphasis on blues.
Listen: "Tonight's the Night, Part 1"
4. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
Young teamed up with Crazy Horse for the first time on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and found one of his callings: hard-rock maestro with an aching heart. "Down by the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand" begat the modus operandi of much of his best work: go deep into despair and work it out by manhandling a guitar. Meanwhile, "Cinnamon Girl" is a blast of garage rock that echoes the joy of Young finally jamming with a band that gets him. It took just this album to show that Young would go down in history as more than the guy who played those two chords on "For What It's Worth."
Listen: "Cowgirl in the Sand"
3. Harvest (1972)
The goal of a lot of mainstream music made by white people in the early '70s was molding a mixture of folk and country into radio-friendly pop. No one had more success with this formula than Young did on Harvest, the best-selling album of 1972. He put a few chords, a harmonica, and some lovesickness into "Heart of Gold," and had the world eating out of his hand. But it's not just the sound he got right; a sense of disquiet and premarital loneliness echoes through Harvest, especially on "Out on the Weekend," "Old Man," and "A Man Needs a Maid," in which the booming sound of the London Symphonic Orchestra drives home the subtext that it's not really domestic help the singer needs. Taken as a whole, it's as harrowing a portrait of a quarter-life crisis as Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run.
Listen: "Heart of Gold"
2. After the Gold Rush (1970)
Young's teenage band The Squiers became a mostly instrumental outfit after a recording engineer told him his voice was "weird." Icy, nasally, and sorta Canadian-sounding, that voice was not going to deliver the next "Glad All Over." But his particular wail was perfectly cast as a ghost come down to curse America's slave-owning past on "Southern Man." It also did wonders on "Don't Let It Bring You Down," a song with the ethereal presence of a midnight gust of wind, and After the Gold Rush's title track, a surreal ballad of environmental anxiety. With the stark tone of a breakup letter throughout, this album more than any other shows Young as a bold, idiosyncratic singer/songwriter.
Listen: "Southern Man"
1. Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Bargaining with a finicky muse, Young took an odd route to complete the half-acoustic-half-electric Rust Never Sleeps. He played brand new songs live, recorded the performances, and then built up the tracks through overdubs, never losing the zeal of a great live album. "Thrasher" and "Powderfinger" are fascinatingly cryptic. (Not knowing who is on board makes that white boat coming up the river all the more threatening.) Some songs sound like folk tunes for an era when collective culture comes in scattered mass-media bits: the Alamo and a man from Mars go hand in hand on "Ride My Llama," as do the Powhatan princess and Marlon Brando on "Pocahontas." Like a good novelist, Young adapts symbols for his own ends. The oft-quoted "Hey Hey, My, My (Into the Black)" is basically the kind of rock-and-roll anthem Chuck Berry used to sing rewritten for a multi-generational genre. Whether it's better to burn out or fade away would be debated for years, but on this album, showcasing the best of his electric and acoustic personalities, Young proved he wouldn't be doing either.
Listen: "Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black)"