From Beatles and Byrds indebted folk rock with Buffalo Springfield, to guitar-slinging misfit, to singer-songwriter intimacy, to professional misery-guts, to increasingly unpredictable rocker, to still moving elder statesman, Neil Young has done it all and for the newcomer his output has been little more than bewildering.
When it comes to picking your way through Young’s back catalogue, a huge amount is down to personal choice, so whether you’re into Neil Young the acoustic hippy or Neil Young the corrosive rocker, there’s much to appreciate, but equally there are many albums that may just baffle the listener. Don’t worry about it though, because he really wouldn’t want it any other way.
1) After the Gold Rush (1970)
Neil Young’s debut found him still trying to find his way and its follow up, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, introduced Neil Young the guitar wrangler and his on again / off again backing band, Crazy Horse. He then decided to join forces with the counter-culture icons Crosby, Stills and Nash for a hugely successful album, before returning to his solo career and recording an album which still stands up today as one of the unarguable high points of his career.
Labelling After the Goldrush as one of Neil Young’s best albums is dangerously close to underselling it. Where there are better selling examples of Neil Young in acoustic mode, After the Goldrush has both a higher tune count and tighter quality control than Young would later exercise. The irresistible title track and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” alone would sell this album, but the fact it has brief musical sketches like “Till the Morning Comes” and “Cripple Creek Ferry”, as well as he heart swelling “I Believe in You”, an angry rocker in “Southern Man” and the brilliance of “When You Dance I Can Really Love”, ensure that After the Goldrush is a Neil Young album that everyone needs to own.
2) Tonight’s the Night (1975)
Harvest saw Neil Young achieve mind-boggling success, but it didn’t bring him any sense of achievement, so his follow up album would be the angry and confused Time Fades Away live album of previously unreleased album. It’s an utterly brilliant musical statement, but as Young wasn’t fond of that album either, so it’s still unreleased on CD and hence, not on this list.
Another album which Young took his time releasing on CD was On the Beach, but when it was finally released on CD and it was discovered to be just a pretty good album rather than a transcendent work of unalloyed genius, it’s reputation dropped a little.
The circumstances in which Tonight’s The Night was recorded means that most of the songs on it sound as if they are going to unravel at any moment due to the fact that Young and Crazy Horse were on the point of collapse. It’s also an album of interesting juxtapositions as well, the best being the end of the cracked, broken and utterly fragile “Borrowed Tune” being utterly blown away the next moment by the live track “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown”, when Young and Danny Whitten’s interlocking guitars and vocals blast joyously from the speakers. It’s the single moment of levity and celebration in an album of pitch black brooding darkness and emotion.
3) Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
The schizophrenic nature of Neil Young’s work meant that he often struggled to fin the right balance between his acoustic material and his love of hard rocking tunes. Sometimes he got it exactly right, such as on After the Goldrush, but most of the time it narrowly failed to hit the spot.
The solution to this was Rust Never Sleeps. One half acoustic tunes and one half electric hard rockers, it was an obvious solution, but one that was only obvious after the fact. Opening with marvellous solo acoustic number “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” and continuing a run of great tunes, including the bitter look back that was “Thrasher” and the pretty “Pocahontas” and “Sail Away”. It’s arguably one of the greatest Side 1 of any album ever recorded.
Then comes Side 2.
Opening with a sustained electric chord, “Powderfinger” and backed by Crazy Horse, Neil Young has never sounded more energised and emboldened as he did on the four rockers that make up the second half of Rust Never Sleeps. The slow and powerful “Powderfinger” itself tells a powerful tale, and Crazy Horse never sounded better than on Young’s celebration of single mothers “Welfare Mothers”. Best of all though is the closing track, a supercharged reprise of the albums opening track, retitled “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”, one of the greatest closing tracks on any album ever.
Much of Rust Never Sleep’s success comes from its ambiance, achieved by the simple trick of much of it being recorded in front of a live audience, but having them audible at the start and end of the album.
4) Live Rust (1979)
The tour to promote Rust Never Sleeps was one of Young’s most theatrical and resulted in the hugely enjoyable Live Rust, a live album where highlights of Young’s career were given the Rust Never Sleeps treatment. Frequently listed as one of the greatest live albums ever recorded, it does have it’s clunky moments (Young attempting some sort of West-Indian accent during “Cortez the Killer” is a particular low point), but by and large it deserves its reputation as the first live Neil Young album that the newcomer should reach for.
5) Ragged Glory (1990)
Much like his friends and contemporaries, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, Neil Young struggled with the 80s. Be it the new-fangled production methods, his musical conceits being given free-reign to run riot, or just struggling to find his place in the musical landscape, few people look back on Young’s 80’s output with any fondness, though a number of songs on 1989’s Freedom did indicate that there was light at the end of the tunnel. As it turned out those lights were on the front of a huge monster truck of an album driven by Young and Crazy Horse.
Ragged Glory was the return to form that Neil Young’s fans had been waiting for. An album laden with riff-heavy rockers, it recaptured exactly what everyone had loved about Young’s harder rocking albums from the 70s. From the singalong opener “Country Home”, the raging “F*!#In’ Up” and even a rattle through garage-rock standard “Farmer John”, Ragged Glory is Neil young and Crazy Horse, doing exactly what Neil Young and Crazy Horse do best. Sure, a couple of the songs are overlong epics, but Young has always been keen for Crazy Horse to stretch their legs when given the opportunity.
6) Decade (1977)
Unlike many of his contemporaries, the Neil Young section of your local music store isn’t over-stuffed with a myriad of compilations. Much of this is down to the man himself and his tendency to be forward looking and his insistence on the purest since fidelity possible – hence his dislike of the CD medium, him pumping huge amounts of cash into the development of the PONO digital music player and him spending vast amounts of time agonising over his finically crippling archive boxed sets that are being slowly drip-fed to an eager fanbase with an above average amount of disposable income.
There is only one affordable and easy to find Neil Young compilation, but that was originally released back in 1977, and even then it was something of an epic. Lovingly compiled by Neil Young himself, Decade is perhaps too long and lingers too long on certain albums, while it totally ignores others. What it does provide is a lucky-dip grab-bag of Neil Young numbers. It’s the ultimate introduction to a musician that seemed to change pace and style even as he was making an album. Throughout the 70s David Bowie changed styles so often that he became known as the chameleon of rock, but it’s arguable that Neil Young actually changed more often and with greater fluidity.