Neil Young (Reprise, 1969)
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Reprise, 1969)
After the Gold Rush (Reprise, 1970)
Journey Through the Past (Reprise, 1972)
Harvest (Reprise, 1972)
Time Fades Away (Reprise, 1973)
On the Beach (Reprise, 1974)
Tonight's the Night (Reprise, 1975)
Zuma (Reprise, 1975)
American Stars 'n' Bars (Reprise, 1977)
Decade (Reprise, 1978)
Comes a Time (Reprise, 1978)
Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise, 1979)
Live Rust (Reprise, 1979)
Hawks and Doves (Reprise, 1980)
Re-Ac-Tor (Reprise, 1981)
Trans (Geffen, 1982)
Everybody's Rockin' (Geffen, 1983)
Old Ways (Geffen, 1985)
Landing on Water (Geffen, 1986)
Life (Geffen, 1987)
This Note's for You (Reprise, 1988)
Freedom (Reprise, 1989)
Ragged Glory (Reprise, 1990)
Weld (Reprise, 1991)
Arc (Reprise, 1991)
Harvest Moon (Reprise, 1992)
Lucky Thirteen (Reprise, 1993)
Unplugged (Reprise, 1993)
Sleeps With Angels (Reprise, 1994)
Mirror Ball (Reprise, 1995)
Broken Arrow (Reprise, 1996)
Year of the Horse (Reprise, 1997)
Silver and Gold (Reprise, 2000)
Road Rock, Vol. 1 (Reprise, 2000)
Are You Passionate? (Reprise, 2002)
Greendale (Reprise, 2003)
Prairie Wind (Reprise, 2005)
Living With War (Reprise, 2006)
Live at the Fillmore East 1970 (Reprise, 2006)
Live at Massey Hall 1971 (Reprise, 2007)
Chrome Dreams II (Reprise 2007)
Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 (Reprise, 2008)
Fork in the Road (Reprise, 2009)
Archives Vol. 1: 1963-1972 (Reprise 2009)
Live at the Riverboat 1969 (Reprise, 2009)
Dreamin' Man—Live '92 (Reprise, 2009)
After all these years, Neil Young still plays rock & roll as if the offbeat were just a nasty rumor. His voice still creaks like the back-porch stair you try not to step on when you're sneaking in after three, and his guitar still shatters windows across the street. The most durable and independent of rock's elder visionaries, he's taken unpredictable twists and turns all through his career while gaining a certain eccentric wisdom along the way. But his music has always divided neatly into soft, pretty folk ballads and loud, pretty rock ballads, with the stomp-on-the-floor folkie pulse amplified into the dinosaur rumble that Young has kept reverberating from "Cinnamon Girl" in 1969 to "I'm the Ocean" in 1995. His favorite backing band is the crude, tough Crazy Horse, who embody his commitment to outlaw hippie swagger the way Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young embody his commitment to simple-minded hippie good times, and in both groups he's there to be one of the boys. But no matter who he plays with, he forces them to wing it, which gives even his most serious songs a throwaway feel. For Neil Young, throwaways are a Zen spiritual exercise, a way of keeping his aging hippie bones loose and limber.
He began with Buffalo Springfield in the late Sixties, in an uneasy alliance with Stephen Stills, writing some of the band's greatest songs: "Mr. Soul," "Out of My Mind," and "Flying on the Ground Is Wrong." For his first solo move, he explored the style he'd begun toying with in Buffalo Springfield songs such as the great "Expecting to Fly" and the not-so-great "Broken Arrow," with ornate, heavily overdubbed pop productions. But he abandoned that tactic and began jamming with the L.A. garage band Crazy Horse for the sloppy guitar splendor of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, his first classic and still one of his best. Young sums up his whole musical philosophy in the brain-shredding one-note solo of "Cinnamon Girl"; "The Losing End" and "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" are wistful Topanga Canyon folk rock; the key tracks "Down by the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand" are long, violent guitar jams, rambling over the nine-minute mark with no trace of virtuosity at all, just staccato guitar blasts sounding as though Young is parachuting down into the middle of the Hatfield-McCoy feud.
He joined up with Crosby, Stills, and Nash for 1970's Déjà Vu, contributing the ballad "Helpless" and the suite "Country Girl," as well as the hastily recorded Kent State protest single "Ohio." After the Gold Rush sweetens the raw attack of Everybody Knows with CSNY's mellow approach, going back to Young's folkie roots for the gorgeous melancholy of "Tell Me Why," "Till the Morning Comes," and "Only Love Can Break Your Heart." The title song is a piano ballad with a cryptic lyric about Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s, with Young hitting eerie high notes he'd never reach again. Young took this sound to the bank with the huge country-flavored soft-rock hit Harvest, which had the #1 single "Heart of Gold," "Old Man," and "The Needle and the Damage Done." "Out on the Weekend" has some of his prettiest harmonica playing; "A Man Needs a Maid" has some of his most unintentionally hilarious lyrics.
If Young had stuck to the Harvest approach, he could have had more hits, but as he famously proclaimed, the middle of the road was a bore, so he headed for the ditch. Journey Through the Past was an eccentric soundtrack to Young's unreleased film debut; Time Fades Away, a live album of new songs recorded with a terrible backup band called the Stray Gators, has a lot of cult cachet, partly because Young refused for years to issue it on CD, but it's one of his duller albums, despite "Don't Be Denied." On the Beach, also disavowed by Young and unreleased on CD until 2003, is weirder but sharper, with harrowing lows and an amazing high in the off-the-cuff, apparently improvised eight-minute folk song "Ambulance Blues."
Tonight's the Night was recorded in 1973, inspired by the heroin deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, but it remained in the can until 1975. It's Young's rawest, messiest album, 12 grief-stricken songs with the Crazy Horse rhythm section, guitarist/pianist Nils Lofgren, and steel guitarist Ben Keith. They all sound drunk, off-key, and ferociously emotional as they mourn the open-hearted Sixties people they see burning out all around them. "Roll Another Number," "Lookout Joe," and "Speakin' Out" have terror behind their lonesome hippie smile; "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown" is a 1970 live cut with Whitten singing about dope, right before it killed him; "Tired Eyes" is a slow-motion collapse that ranks as one of Young's most beautiful songs, high harmonies straining to the breaking point over an open grave. According to legend, Ronnie Van Zandt of Lynyrd Skynyrd was buried in his Tonight's the Night T-shirt.
Zuma is more cowboys-and-Indians mythos with the Horse, showcasing Young's wildest guitar since Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere in "Barstool Blues" and the somber "Cortez the Killer." American Stars 'n' Bars has the home-recording oddity "Will to Love," Young overdubbing himself while he sings about salmon swimming upstream—it's better than it sounds—while "Like a Hurricane" remains Young's most reliable live warhorse, with roaring guitar and a bittersweet tale of a mystic cowgirl who dances on the light from star to star. Comes a Time was an acoustic triumph, heavy on dobro, banjo, and fiddle, with a rugged country groove and harmony vocals from Nicolette Larson. It's a clear-eyed adult version of Harvest, offering his truest love song, "Peace of Mind" ("She knows your weak spot/But she still gets you hot"), "Look Out for My Love," "Human Highway," and a cover of the folkie standard "Four Strong Winds." The catchiest song is also the funniest, "Field of Opportunity."
Just in time for the end of the Seventies, Young brought it all back home with Rust Never Sleeps, one side of acoustic folk elegy and one side of unbelievably brutal Crazy Horse rampage. His greatest songs are here: "Powderfinger," an exorcism of male violence with shotgun power chords rising to the challenge of punk rock; "Pocahontas," an agonizingly lonely ballad; "Thrasher," a farewell to Crosby, Stills, and Nash; "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)," a feedback-heavy tribute to Elvis Presley and Johnny Rotten that lives up to the credo "It's better to burn out than to fade away." Young meditates on youth and age, home and exile, cowboys and Indians, and he's honest enough to admit he learned about Indians from watching "The Brady Bunch" (well, what other TV show had a "Grand Canyon rescue episode"?). With Live Rust, he picked an ideal time for a definitive summary that kicks the dump in the rump; the folkie first half is pretty good, with Neil sounding surprisingly feisty in the killer version of "Sugar Mountain," but it's the Crazy Horsed second half that you actually want to listen to, especially "Like a Hurricane."
Sometimes in a bar, you will hear someone try to defend Neil Young's Eighties albums. This is technically known as a "desperate cry for help." They actually are as bad as they seemed at the time. He started out the decade strong with Hawks and Doves, a brief folk set including the scary "Captain Kennedy," and swung to the other extreme for the long, robotic guitar jams of Re-Ac-Tor. But he began to rust out with the campy synth-pop parody Trans: dismissed on its release, later burdened with retro charm, Trans is now his most overrated record. Young spent the next few years floundering in search of a hit, trying a new marketing hook with every album, but he failed to sell out no matter how much he dumbed down. Everybody's Rockin' was cutesy rockabilly; Old Ways a more sincere and therefore more annoying country album, with guest shots from Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson; Landing on Water an eager-to-please Aldo Nova imitation. The Crazy Horse reunion Life coincided with the CSNY reunion American Dream, both albums reeking of flop sweat. This Note's for You was a big-band parody, complete with inept horn section, apparent evidence that Neil was ready to close his tired eyes for good.
But fans started to revive hope with the import-only El Dorado EP, which featured Young's first real guitar playing in years, and Freedom offered proof with the Bush-bashing hit "Rockin' in the Free World." Freedom was at least one-third overproduced Eighties dreck, but it was also a sign of life, combining three El Dorado tracks with Springsteen-style ballads ("Wrecking Ball"), spruced-up oldies ("Too Far Gone"), and the heartbreaking Linda Ronstadt duet "Hangin' on a Limb," a ballad about a man who abandons a lover because "there was something about freedom he thought he didn't know." With noise-loving Neil Young acolytes such as Sonic Youth, Nirvana, and Dinosaur Jr. on the rise, the old man completed the most well-timed comeback in rock history with Ragged Glory, stealing back some of his own thunder in an album of wild Crazy Horse guitar jams: "Country Home," "Fuckin' Up," and best of all, "Over and Over," a joyfully noisy celebration of the kind of long-term love that turns time into a joke.
Ragged Glory established Young as rock's elder statesman, the one Sixties veteran who was both learning and teaching new tricks, sounding relaxed and affable with his hipness level at an all-time high. No rocker this old had ever been this relevant, and Young kept his creative roll going all decade long. Harvest Moon was his long-threatened country sequel to Harvest, with a title track celebrating a marriage that lasted and "From Hank to Hendrix" mourning one that didn't. Sleeps With Angels, partly inspired by Kurt Cobain's burnout, has beautifully elegiac rockers such as "Change Your Mind," "Trans Am," and "Piece of Crap." Weld was a live revamp of Live Rust (with many of the same songs); Arc was a static feedback piece a la Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. Unplugged obviously doesn't push very hard, but it's surprisingly potent and listenable, ranking just behind Comes a Time for when you're in the mood to hear Neil get mellow. Particularly welcome is the official debut of one of his greatest ballads, the longtime bootleg fave "Stringman," which he recorded in 1974 but never got around to releasing.
Mirror Ball was a one-off collaboration with Pearl Jam, and while there's only one great song on the album, it's the best thing he's done since Rust Never Sleeps—"I'm the Ocean," a surging nightmare about love and death that ends with Young stranded in his Cutlass Supreme in the middle of an intersection, trying to turn against the flow, as Kurt Cobain, O. J. Simpson, Bill Clinton, and other rock stars battle it out in his soul. Broken Arrow had three lazy gems, "Big Time," "Slip Away," and "Scattered." Year of the Horse was live slop with no track listings, which made it even harder than usual to tell the jams apart. At one point, a fan yells, "They all sound the same," and Young cheerfully replies, "It's all one song!" Road Rock was definitely one live album too many, with an 18-minute "Cowgirl in the Sand"; the backup all-stars get pitifully lost trying to follow Young until he abandons them around the 13-minute mark to take off on two minutes of shriek guitar.
The much-maligned Silver and Gold was very lightweight country rock, but with a few ace tunes, especially the poignant "The Great Divide," the oft-bootlegged "Razor Love," and the shameless Sixties nostalgia of "Buffalo Springfield Again." He also contributed three (out of four) good songs to the universally ignored CSNY reunion Looking Forward. Are You Passionate? was a muddled attempt at R&B; giving this guy a subtle rhythm section is like giving a gorilla a Palm Pilot. But Passionate was noteworthy as the first genuinely bad album he'd made since the Eighties, a conceptual achievement of sorts.
Greendale was an improvement, an extended narrative filled with righteous political anger, but he ¬hadn't been writing any good songs lately, and his skills were too soft to handle such an ambitious project. Prairie Wind was laid-back harvest twang, with some nice family-man tunes, stretching the wafer-thin Elvis tribute "He Was The King" to six minutes just for a hoot; the title song was a touching elegy for his father. Living With War was a protest quickie, featuring "Let's Impeach The President." For some reason, he revisited his Landing On Water production style for Fork in the Road—the acoustic ditty "Just Singing A Song" could have passed for a Flight of the Conchords skit. But Chrome Dreams II, a sequel to a legendary Seventies bootleg, holds up as his finest album of the 2000s, unleashing his guitar for some inspired flights of hippie delirium. The 14-minute "No Hidden Path" is a psychedelic-cowboy statement that tops the 18-minute "Ordinary People" (an outtake from 1988), but it's "Spirit Road," at a mere 6:32, that sums up the man's grizzled guitar, as he wails like a sleepless Montezuma still prowling the beach looking for white boats to shoot at.
Decade is an excellent three-vinyl¬disc, 35-song retrospective that invented a whole new genre, the deluxe box set. The only problem with Decade is that most of its good songs are already on albums worth owning, but it still serves as a map for new fans and a sampler for nonfans. Lucky Thirteen attempted a one¬disc salvage job on the Eighties Geffen years, but there's less to the picture than meets the eye. The first volume of the long-promised Archives turned out to be a letdown, mostly featuring songs fans already had, but the live installments had essential moments, especially Fillmore 1970 (a showcase for Young's guitar duels with Danny Whitten) and the acoustic Massey 1971. Still in command of his crazy grin and unkempt guitar, Neil Young remains the model of the rock star who gets old without turning to rust. He can't possibly keep this up more than another 20 years or so.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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