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Ranked: Neil Young Albums From Worst To Best
Assessing the hits and misses from a hit-and-miss genius.
By Nick Keppler
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"