Neil Young’s Essential Albums
Rolling Stone’s Album Guides survey an iconic artist’s discography, breaking down their finest LPs into three tiers: Must-Haves, Further Listening, and Going Deeper. We also recommend key tracks from other releases under the heading Spare Parts.
In 1975, at the age of 30, Neil Young prophesied the next five decades of his career. “You gotta keep changing,” he told Rolling Stone‘s Cameron Crowe. “Shirts, old ladies, whatever. I’d rather keep changing and lose a lot of people along the way. If that’s the price, I’ll pay it. I don’t give a shit if my audience is a hundred or a hundred million. It doesn’t make any difference to me. I’m convinced that what sells and what I do are two completely different things. If they meet, it’s coincidence.”
That attitude helped him produce one of rock’s most impressive catalogues — from commercial blockbusters such as Harvest to cult-favorite oddities, like Trans. He follows his cranky muse wherever it takes him, including spontaneously ditching a tour with his old friend Stephen Stills via a terse goodbye note in 1976 and walking out on a Buffalo Springfield reunion tour when he got bored 35 years later. But we love him just the same.
He’s also one of the few rockers of his generation who still makes music as uncompromising as that of his youth. His voice sounds incredible live. With his ambitious Archives site, fans are more involved than ever — just this month, he politely asked subscribers to select his next project for release from the vault.
As Young prepares to enter a new decade with no signs of stopping, we survey his vast body of work, from the all-time classics to everything else. Listen to the playlist here.
Must-Have: ‘After the Gold Rush’ (1970)
Recorded at the peak of Young’s stardom with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, his third solo LP is his most stunningly introspective — from ballads like “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” to the anti-racist rocker “Southern Man” to the title track, an environmental plea as timely today as it was in 1970.
Must-Have: ‘Tonight’s the Night’ (1975)
After the overdose deaths of CSNY roadie Bruce Berry and Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, Young channeled his grief into this haunted masterpiece — “a drunken Irish wake,” in the words of bassist Billy Talbot. “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” features ghostly vocals from Whitten taped years earlier, and “Roll Another Number (For the Road)” is Young’s kiss-off to the Sixties dream. “Everybody was hoping I’d turn into John Denver,” he said. “That didn’t happen.”
Must-Have: ‘Zuma’ (1975)
The ragged rebirth of Crazy Horse after the loss of Whitten can be traced to the arrival of guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, who joined the band for this desert stomper. Songs like “Don’t Cry No Tears” and “Barstool Blues” are tour-de-force studies in compact songwriting and searing reverb, and “Cortez the Killer” is a -seven-minute fever dream tracing the Spanish conquistador’s bloody arrival in the New World.
Must-Have: ‘Decade’ (1977)
A triple-LP tour of Young’s first 10 years — from Sixties flights with Buffalo Springfield (“Broken Arrow”) to Crazy Horse guitar bangers (“Down by the River”) to CSNY and solo hits (“Ohio,” “Heart of Gold”). The inclusion of five unreleased songs (especially the yearning “Winterlong” and the Nixon-inspired “Campaigner”) makes Decade one of rock’s few landmark
Must-Have: ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ (1979)
Recorded live (and overdubbed in the studio), Rust Never Sleeps is Young’s half-acoustic, half- grunge ode to his own restless relevance. He calls his former CSN bandmates dead weight on “Thrasher” and cele-brates the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten on “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” The highlight is “Powderfinger,” a Western parable in which the pioneer hero gets his head blown off. Even Johnny Rotten never came up with anything so brilliantly twisted.
Further Listening: ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ (1969)
Only a warrior like Neil Young could write three classics — “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down by the River,” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” — in a single day while battling a fever. They form the heart of his first LP with Crazy Horse, and the only one before Danny Whitten’s death. Young leans heavily into psychedelic Americana and country rock, especially the funereal “Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets),” which features Bobby Notkoff’s eerie violin. Young and the band had been together for only a couple of months, but the slashing, hardscrabble looseness of “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down by the River” set a template for decades of grizzled noise.
Further Listening: ‘Harvest’ (1972)
High off the success of CSNY and After the Gold Rush, Young headed to Nashville, where he hunkered down with a collection of session musicians, including pedal steel player Ben Keith, he dubbed the Stray Gators to create a country-rock sound that would loom large over the soft-rock Seventies. The track list almost reads like a greatest-hits album, including his lone Number One single, “Heart of Gold”; the wistful title track; and beloved tunes like “Old Man” and “Out on the Weekend.”
Further Listening: ‘On the Beach’ (1974)
Fueled by disillusionment and honeyslides (an intense combination of fried weed and honey), Young created his bleakest, most personal album. With assistance from the Band’s Rick Danko and Levon Helm, he indulges Mansonite murder fantasies (“Revolution Blues”), looks back on his idealistic “folkie days” like they were an eternity ago (“Ambulance Blues”), and delivers one of his most wrenching breakup songs in “Motion Pictures (For Carrie).”
Further Listening: ‘Ragged Glory’ (1990)
At the dawn of the Nineties, Young brought Crazy Horse back into the studio and made the follow-up to Rust Never Sleeps his patient audience had waited more than a decade to hear. From the fiery back-to-the-land opener, “Country Home,” to the explosive single “Fuckin’ Up” to the long, wandering solos on songs like “Over and Over” and “Love to Burn,” Ragged Glory saw Young rediscovering tormented amps and hulking riffs. It’s no wonder that the media began referring to him as the Godfather of Grunge in the years that followed
Further Listening: ‘Harvest Moon’ (1992)
With its delicate melodies and fireside comfort, the all-acoustic Harvest Moon picks up musically where Harvest left off, except with 20 years of hard-won wisdom to draw from. “From Hank to Hendrix” is a touching, honest generational travelogue, and the title track is an ode to his wife, Pegi, that remains his most romantic song ever.
Going Deeper: ‘Time Fades Away’ (1973)
Fans who scored tickets to Young’s first big post-Harvest tour were expecting to hear hits like “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man.” Instead, they got a set of new songs, often about how bummed out Young was by fame. Releasing a live album from these shows as his follow-up to Harvest was an even weirder idea, but the result is a beautifully ornery live LP capped by the autobiographical anti-fame classic “Don’t Be Denied.”
Going Deeper: ‘Trans’ (1982)
Switching from guitars to synths and singing through a vocoder (which reflected his attempts to communicate with his disabled son), Young created his most divisive album, scandalizing rock fans with the techno chill of “Computer Age” and “Transformer Man.” But Trans has aged surprisingly well, like a prehistoric version of Bon Iver or Radiohead’s organic futurism.
Going Deeper: ‘Freedom’ (1989)
Young spent the Eighties making inexplicably bad albums, mainly to get out of his contract with Geffen Records. When he finally did, he returned to the anthemic guitar fuzz and acoustic ache his fans always wanted. “Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero Pt. 1)” and his violent cover of “On Broadway” lashed out at Reagan-era social collapse, the folk tunes like “The Ways of Love” and “Too Far Gone” were wistful and tender, and “Rockin’ in the Free World” mixed liberation, rage, and irony into Young’s greatest classic-rock anthem.
Going Deeper: ‘Psychedelic Pill’ (2012)
The slow-burning opener, “Driftin’ Back,” clocks in at nearly half an hour, and though a line like “Going to get me a hip-hop haircut” showcases just how lovably out of touch he feels in the 21st century, Psychedelic Pill is his greatest album since the Nineties. The turbulent “Ramada Inn” is his own version of Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind,” a lengthy, despairing take on a collapsing marriage, and the 16-minute “Walk Like a Giant” manages to be both a thunderous epic and a sad, honest acknowledgment of his fading relevance and his generation’s inability to change the world.
Spare Parts: “Last Trip to Tulsa” (Neil Young, 1969)
A wonderfully puzzling psychedelic saga from his debut, complete with lines like “I’ve been working on this palm tree/For 87 years.”
Spare Parts: “Four Strong Winds” (Comes a Time, 1978)
Originally recorded by Canadian folk group Ian and Sylvia, this sweet cover is a highlight from Young’s otherwise slept-on Comes a Time.
Spare Parts: “Opera Star” (Re·ac·tor, 1981)
A rollicking opener about staying true to your destiny, it shows Young and Crazy Horse bravely entering the Eighties with one goal: “I was born to rock!”
Spare Parts: “Touch the Night” (Landing on Water, 1986)
Weird Eighties Neil had his good moments, as this stormy rocker attests. The video features him as a Ron Burgundy-type TV reporter.
Spare Parts: “I’m the Ocean” (Mirror Ball, 1995)
A mass of distorted riffs and defiant lyrics. It’s fitting that Young sings, “People my age, they don’t do the things I do,” backed by his young pals Pearl Jam.
Spare Parts: “Razor Love” (Silver & Gold, 2000)
A delicate sequel of sorts to Harvest Moon’s “Such a Woman,” from the acoustic Silver & Gold, it frees Young to profess his love to wife Pegi over subtle percussion and harmonica.
Spare Parts: “Goin’ Home” (Are You Passionate?, 2002)
The highlight of this odd soul record is the lone Crazy Horse track. Young tears through tumultuous lines about American Indians and battle drums over Sampedro’s sizzling guitar.
Spare Parts: “Be the Rain” (Greendale, 2003)
This catchy, Earth-conscious tune glides along with backing vocals by Pegi Young and the Mountainettes, who sing, “Save the planet for another day!” as Neil echoes, “Hey, Big Oil, what do you say?”
Spare Parts: “The Restless Consumer” (Living With War, 2006)
His blazing Bush-era screed, centered around the chant “Don’t need no more lies,” it reaffirms the political passion Young showed on CSNY’s “Ohio,” which has only deepened over the decades.
Spare Parts: “Peace Trail” (Paradox, 2018)
An ode to his own enduring spirit, with country rockers Promise of the Real. “I ain’t taken my last hit,” he sings with campfire intimacy. Thank God for that.
Further Reading: Shakey by Jimmy McDonough
Nearly 750 pages long and more than 10 years in the making, this 2002 biography is the most definitive account fans will ever have. Young allowed McDonough complete access to his professional and personal life, and the results capture his enigmatic spirit so accurately that he tried to block publication of it, resulting in a $1.8 million lawsuit.