While assembling the tracks for our election day playlist early this month, I stumbled upon something that surprised and thrilled me: Neil Young had once again made his music available for streaming. Though it came with a characteristic lack of fanfare, anyone who’s been following Young’s Internet presence in recent years can attest that this was a big deal. Last summer, seemingly àpropos of nothing, Young had joined his fellow musical iconoclast Prince in yanking the majority of his catalogue from Spotify and other streaming services, citing what he described as the worst audio quality “in the history of broadcasting or any other form of distribution.” But while Prince’s music had quickly reemerged on TIDAL, Young held out, directing his fans instead to his own lossless digital music service Pono. Visit neilyoung.com today, and you’ll be greeted with a blog post defending Pono, with the oddly confrontational title “Quality Whether You Want It or Not.” As of now, however, Young appears to have quietly accepted the writing on the wall; those of us who don’t particularly care about “quality,” at least on the same quixotic level as Neil wants us to, can at last listen to his music again on convenient digital devices.
And that’s perfect timing for me, because I always seem to find myself listening to Neil Young in the short window between Halloween and Thanksgiving. It’s a ritual that began when I was in grad school in Tucson, Arizona, and inevitably started to feel homesick for Michigan around the beginning of the holiday season. Young’s music conjured up a second-hand nostalgia for the cold, grey winters in his own hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba: “Every time I think about back home, it’s cool and breezy,” he’d sung on the title track of his 1969 album Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, a classic expression of a northern outsider’s disenchantment with Southern California. And while Tucson ain’t exactly Los Angeles, his sentiment felt weirdly, deeply relatable to me at 24 (the same age, incidentally, as Young when he wrote the song). Since then, early-to-mid-November has been my Neil Young Season; and now that I’m once again living in a part of the country with actual seasons, Young’s stark, beautifully desolate musical sensibility remains linked with the part of the year when leaves start falling from the trees and a hint of chill sneaks into the air.
You might already be able to tell that the following guide to Young’s discography will be deeply, idiosyncratically personal; but that’s only fitting, because I can think of few artists more personal, or more idiosyncratic, than Neil Young. This is, after all, a man who spent many of the best years of his career chasing a deliberately raw, unpolished sound with the help of anti-producer David Briggs and notoriously ramshackle backing band Crazy Horse, only to later pull his recordings off the Internet because they weren’t suitable for audiophiles. His body of work can be as thorny and willfully obscure as the man himself; but the beauty of it is that it’s often the thorniest parts that are most rewarding. In short, Neil Young isn’t an artist who translates well to the “greatest hits” approach. So here, instead, are my personal highlights from his 50-year-plus career: beginning with his roots in the early 1960s Manitoba garage rock scene, all the way to his forthcoming 37th album Peace Trail. If you’re new to Young’s music, then this should at least give you a few ideas of where to start–and thankfully (at least for now), no PonoPlayer is required.
One interesting thing about Neil Young is that, despite his inconsistency in making his music available, he remains an inveterate packrat and a dedicated archivist of his own work (another thing he and Prince had in common, actually). So, when in 2009 he finally released his long-promised early-career retrospective Archives Vol. 1, the exhaustive collection went all the way back to his very first recordings as a teenager with Winnipeg surf-rock quartet the Squires. Nor was this the first dedicated fans had heard of the Squires: as early as 1975, Young had pilfered the melody and opening verse from the band’s British Invasion-inspired 1963 tune, “I Wonder,” for “Don’t Cry No Tears” on his album Zuma.
After the Squires’ breakup, Young spent time playing folk clubs in Winnipeg and wrote a successful song, “Flying on the Ground is Wrong,” for local group the Guess Who. He also briefly played in an R&B combo, the Mynah Birds, led by American singer Rick James (yes, that Rick James); but the group’s chances at a debut album on Motown were scuppered when James was arrested for being AWOL from the United States Navy. In the end, Young’s big break came after he and Mynah Birds bassist Bruce Palmer moved to Los Angeles, where they hooked up with fellow Canadian Dewey Martin and Americans Stephen Stills and Richie Furay to form folk-rock group the Buffalo Springfield.
Young’s early contributions to the Springfield were mostly out of the spotlight: three of the four songs he wrote for their 1966 debut album were sung by Furay, whose voice was more conventionally appealing than Young’s thin, quavering warble. But Neil did take the lead on “Out of My Mind”: a fragile, introspective psych-pop ballad of the kind that would become his 1960s stock in trade. By the following year’s aptly-named Buffalo Springfield Again, tensions between Stills and Young meant the group had effectively ceased to function as a unit; this suited Young just fine, and two of his three contributions to the record were recorded solo with legendary producer and arranger Jack Nitzsche. Of these, the most audacious by far was closing track “Broken Arrow”: a six-minute-long suite incorporating found sounds and blending multiple genres and time signatures.
“Broken Arrow” established many of the defining themes in Young’s songwriting over the years: the surreal, sweeping Dylanesque lyrics; the fixation on the pressures and anxieties of fame; even the fascination (bordering on fetishization) with traditional Native American culture and iconography. His eponymous solo album, released in January of 1969, effectively picked up where his Springfield-era magnum opus had left off, retaining Nitzsche as a co-producer and indulging in similar baroque psychedelic flourishes. Neil Young isn’t a perfect debut by any means: Young tends to work best as a minimalist, and here Nitzsche’s trademark “Wall of Sound” production style threatens to swallow him whole. But lead single “The Loner” is a fine slice of psych-rock, one that has followed the mercurial Young throughout his career as a kind of theme song. Even more essential is “Sugar Mountain,” originally released on the B-side of “The Loner”: a gorgeous pastoral folk song, written while Neil was still a member of the Squires and recorded live in November 1968 at the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Neil Young was a commercial failure, but it didn’t matter much: by the time it was released, Young had already moved on to a radically different musical approach. On his next album, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, he hooked up with “The Loner” producer David Briggs and a scrappy L.A. group called the Rockets, whom Young rechristened Crazy Horse. The rickety, almost proto-punk attack of guitarist Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot, and drummer Ralph Molina was the perfect complement to Neil’s own woolly lead guitar playing; especially live, where Young’s stark murder ballad “Down by the River” would grow to epic proportions in shows like their storied March 1970 date at the Fillmore East. Another favorite of mine from the early Crazy Horse era wasn’t even officially released until Archives Vol. 1: “Everybody’s Alone,” a fractured blue-eyed soul number with a killer guitar lead and the kind of howling, desperate vulnerability Young does better than anyone else.
Apparently not satisfied with just one new band, Young also joined Los Angeles psych-folk supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash in 1969, just before their first public performance at Chicago‘s Auditorium Theater. Their second show was the following morning, at no smaller a venue than the Woodstock Music & Art Fair: an epochal and, for Young, disenchanting performance that he’s referred to again and again, from 1973’s dissolute “Roll Another Number (For the Road)” to 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps film to an analogous moment on 1991’s Ragged Glory tour. But from watching the Woodstock film, you’d never know Neil was in the band: citing dissatisfaction with the band’s performance, he’d refused that any footage of him be used. I, however, happen to like CSN&Y’s Woodstock version of Young’s “Sea of Madness”: another soul-flavored rocker with lyrics that could have been ghost-written by Jean-Paul Sartre.
Both Crazy Horse and CSN&Y were doomed to drift apart soon after their respective formations: the former because of Whitten’s growing addiction to heroin, the latter for the same, ego-related reasons that had killed the Springfield (and also because of David Crosby‘s growing drug addiction). Fortunately, Young’s solo performances in the wake of the breakups were among his most spellbinding and iconic. The intense version of “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” recorded at Toronto’s Massey Hall in January of 1971, for example, is a fair sight better than the studio take from the previous year’s After the Gold Rush. And it’s this incarnation of Neil Young–flannel shirt and harmonica clip, hunched over an acoustic guitar, hair hanging limply in front of his face–that would most thoroughly enter the mainstream consciousness in the early ’70s, solidified by the massive success of his 1972 solo album Harvest.
Harvest and its big radio hit, “Heart of Gold,” have become so synonymous with the era’s mellow soft rock movement that it’s easy to forget it’s actually kind of a weird record: like, “desolate, alienated songs about falling in love with a housekeeper, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra” weird. That being said, my favorite track is pretty much as stereotypical of Young during this period as they come: plodding opener “Out on the Weekend,” which makes the very idea of being out on the weekend sound like the most mournful, lonesome thing in the world.
Young famously claimed that the success of Harvest put him “in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.” But Young’s derailing wasn’t an entirely conscious decision. His post-Harvest tour was haunted by the death of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who overdosed soon after being fired from Young’s new backing band the Stray Gators; the bad vibes were only increased by Young’s own alcoholism and rapidly-unravelling mental state. The resulting live album, 1973’s Time Fades Away, is as severe a departure from a mainstream breakthrough as I can imagine: eight ragged, desultory performances of all new songs, delivered with barely-veiled contempt to a restless and dissatisfied audience. My favorite track is “L.A.”: a sardonic country-rock ode to the “city in the smog” in which Young gleefully imagines the valleys being “sucked into cracks in the earth” before asking, “Don’t you wish that you could be here too?” It’s brilliant.
Though it wasn’t released until nearly two years later, the first studio album Young recorded after Time Fades Away was Tonight’s the Night: a brutal outpouring of grief and insobriety that’s definitely not to be confused with the Rod Stewart song of the same title. Whitten’s ghost is even more present on this record than on the previous one–literally, in the case of the spooky repurposed live track “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown“–and he’s joined by the specter of beloved CSN&Y roadie Bruce Berry, who died of his own heroin overdose mere weeks before sessions began. Tonight’s the Night is a beautiful wound of a record: its rawness is all-but-unsparing, Young’s voice frequently cracking and flubbing notes out of sheer, unhinged emotion. On “Borrowed Tune,” he lifts the melody from the Rolling Stones‘ “Lady Jane” because he admits he’s “too wasted to write [his] own.” It’s captivating, but don’t listen to it if you’ve been thinking at all about self-harm.
It’s unclear whether Tonight’s the Night was initially rejected by Young’s label Reprise, or whether Young himself held it back from release; whatever the case, however, the album that did come out in 1974 wasn’t much more uplifting. On the Beach is slightly less death-obsessed and more song-oriented than its spiritual twin, but still a stone-cold bummer, weighed down by Young’s depression over the dissolution of his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress. My personal highlight is “For the Turnstiles”: another impenetrable, Dylanesque fever dream with frenzied Old Weird America vocal harmonies courtesy of veteran Nashville sessioneer Ben Keith. Seemingly determined to shelve as many records in the mid-’70s as he actually put out, Young then recorded a full album of stoned, downtrodden country-folk songs called Homegrown, only to pull it from release in favor of Tonight’s the Night. Most of the album has made it out one way or the other, though: including “Star of Bethlehem,” a highlight from 1977’s scattershot American Stars ‘N Bars with gorgeous harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris.
One album of new material that did actually come out in 1975 was Zuma, featuring a reformed Crazy Horse with Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on rhythm guitar. The so-called “Ditch Trilogy” was technically over, though you wouldn’t be able to tell from the raw-nerve divorce lament “Barstool Blues,” which is as shambolic and chilling as anything on Tonight’s the Night. Still, as artistically gratifying as the “ditch” period had been, it had understandably lacked the wide commercial appeal of Young’s earlier work. The latter half of the ’70s was thus dedicated in part to winning back the mainstream audience he’d spent the last few years boldly squandering. Following an ill-fated 1974 reunion with Crosby, Stills & Nash, Young reunited with Stills alone in 1976 for the mildly-received Long May You Run; his own 1978 album Comes a Time was a deliberate return to the placid country-rock everyone associated with Harvest. It’s a charming record, if not an especially memorable one.
It was with his next major artistic shift, 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, that Young finally managed to satisfy both his audience and his muse. Like the Who‘s Pete Townshend, Young was one of the few rockers from the ’60s to be inspired and challenged by the insurgent punk movement, rather than simply put on the defensive. Rust Never Sleeps certainly benefits from that renewed energy, but it’s a great album regardless of context. “Powderfinger” in particular is a triumph for Young as a guitarist and as a songwriter: the story it tells, of a young frontiersman’s death in a suicidal attempt to defend his home from an attacking gunboat, is downright literary in its rich narrative detail. I don’t know if “Big John’s been drinkin’ since the river took Emmy Lou” is my favorite Neil Young lyric of all time, but it’s definitely in the top five.
By all rights, Rust Never Sleeps should have been a rebirth for Neil Young; instead, he kicked off the ’80s in inimitable form by steering straight back into the proverbial ditch. 1980’s Hawks & Doves was remarkable mostly for its side-one highlights–the majority of which were leftovers from Homegrown–and its baffling side-two hints of Reagan-era conservatism. The following year’s Re-ac-tor was better, at least to these ears: what it lacked in memorable songs it made up for with Crazy Horse at their most punk, culminating in the grinding, nihilistic closer “Shots.”
Even more than in 1973, though, there was a method to the apparent madness of Young’s sharp left turn. Both his first child, Zeke, and his second child, Ben, had been born with cerebral palsy; unbeknownst to the public, Young had spent the first several years of the 1980s consumed in an experimental therapy program meant to help Ben learn to speak. So, while his decision to sing primarily through a vocoder on 1982’s Trans was baffling to many listeners at the time, in context it made perfect sense: Young was simulating the feeling of hearing his son try to communicate, but not being able to make out the words. Even without the back story, Trans is an underrated record: Neil does Kraftwerkian synthpop better than a Canadian folkie has any right to. With the back story, though, I have to fight back tears every time I hear his sweetly robotic love song to Ben, “Transformer Man.”
Everybody’s Rockin’, released the year after Trans, doesn’t hold up as well as an album, but it may be Young’s all-time greatest “fuck you.” The story goes that he initially submitted a country record, but his label Geffen Records demanded a “rock and roll album.” So, like a true smartass, Neil complied–and turned in a record of literal 1950s-style rock and roll. Everybody’s Rockin’ was savaged by critics, and is remembered today mostly for prompting Geffen to sue Young for making music that was deliberately “uncommercial” and “uncharacteristic” of his previous recordings. I’ll be honest, though: I admire Neil’s chutzpah, and his retro re-recording of the old Crazy Horse nugget “Wonderin'” is a lot of fun.
With the dust still settling from Geffen’s lawsuit (and his own, $20 million countersuit for breach of contract), Neil released a more polished version of his aforementioned country album, Old Ways, followed by two straight-up butt-rock records in 1986’s Landing on Water and 1987’s Life. A monkey’s-paw situation if ever there was one, these albums will make even the most rockist Neil Young fan long for another Trans. And in a way, that’s exactly what we got: Young took another sharp left with his return to Reprise, This Note’s for You, an R&B-flavored record cut with a horn section he dubbed the “Bluenotes” (not to be confused with “Harold Melvin and the…”, who actually sued for copyright infringement). And, just like Trans, “Neil with Horns” is better than it has any right to be; Young’s cantankerous bark lends itself surprisingly well to bluesy shouters like “Hey Hey,” which begins as a stereotypical woman-troubles lament and devolves into Young hollering, “Get off’a that couch, turn off your MTV!”
For most listeners, however, the real comeback didn’t arrive until 1989’s Freedom: the first indisputably “classic” Neil Young album since Rust Never Sleeps a decade earlier. “Rockin’ in the Free World” was the obvious hit, but the album is appealing even in its less obvious moments: like “Don’t Cry,” an emotional divorce ballad punctured with explosive feedback and Young’s most vicious guitar tone in years. Having regained his footing, Young followed up by reuniting the Horse for 1990’s Ragged Glory–a statement of intent if ever there was one–and putting his most iconic backing band through their paces on raw, punkish numbers like the self-explanatory “F*!#in’ Up.”
It was partly on the strength of Freedom and Ragged Glory that Young was christened the “Godfather of Grunge”: an appellation he arguably earned as much for his pioneering of the flannel-and-stringy-hair look in the ’70s as for his musical influence on the new crop of alternative guitar-rockers. But he was still an iconoclast first and foremost, which might help to explain why he decided to follow up two consecutive hard rock records with a deliberate sequel to his ultimate “MOR” album, Harvest–well, that and the fact that mixing his 1991 live album Weld had given him tinnitus. Harvest Moon is actually less of a genuine sequel than it is a nostalgia-tinged tribute to the original Harvest and what it meant to its aging Baby Boomer audience: there’s nothing anywhere near as eccentric here as “A Man Needs a Maid” or “Words (Between the Lines of Age).” But the album is at its best when it hews closely to the sequel concept, like when Young quotes the melody of Harvest‘s “Old Man” for the warm relationship memoir “You and Me,” with backing vocals by his longtime duet partner Nicolette Larson.
Young went back to earning the “Godfather of Grunge” title with Sleeps with Angels, released in the wake of Kurt Cobain‘s 1994 suicide–though, musically, the album had more in common with Neil’s “ditch”-era records like Tonight’s the Night. As you might imagine, it’s not an easy listen; but it’s one of Young’s more accomplished latter-day works, and the rickety piano ballad “A Dream That Can Last” closes the curtain with a much-needed injection of hope. More conventionally “grunge”-sounding was the following year’s Mirror Ball, which ditched the Horse in favor of Seattle alt-rockers Pearl Jam: a nice palate-cleanser after the backward-looking Harvest Moon, with Young sounding energized on tracks like the wryly anthemic “I’m the Ocean.”
After such a strong start, the late ’90s unfortunately turned out to be a bit of a wash for Neil. The death of his friend and longtime producer David Briggs in late 1995 sent Young back into the studio with Crazy Horse, but Briggs’ absence is keenly felt on the aimless, self-produced Broken Arrow. The 1997 concert film and accompanying album, Year of the Horse, is better, but also basically the definition of “for enthusiasts only.” For my money, Young’s best work of the second half of the decade was his moody soundtrack for Dead Man, the 1996 Gothic art-western by Year of the Horse director Jim Jarmusch. Young’s meandering electric guitar solos were improvised on the spot (and sound like it), but they’re a perfect complement to the film’s stark, eerie vibe.
Four years passed between Broken Arrow/Dead Man and Young’s next studio album, Silver & Gold: the longest wait between records in his career to date, and for a forgettable album at that. 2002’s Are You Passionate?confirmed at least that he was trying again, and raised some eyebrows with the appearance of Stax Records hitmakers Booker T. & The M.G.’s as his backing band. Hearing Southern Soul love songs crooned by a man whose voice Rolling Stone once described as perfect for an opera adaptation of Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” is definitely worth a few minutes’ curiosity; mostly, however, Are You Passionate? confirms that Young’s wheelhouse is his wheelhouse for a reason. It’s no coincidence that the best song on the album is “Goin’ Home”: a nine-minute Crazy Horse opus that somehow manages to be more remarkable than any of the glut of nine-minute Crazy Horse opuses on Broken Arrow, out of novelty if nothing else.
In any case, 2003’s Greendalestuck squarely to Young’s wheelhouse, once again recruiting Crazy Horse for a freewheeling set of inimitably sloppy guitar jams. This time, though, the sloppy guitar jams had a narrative conceit, telling the story of a Northern California town thrust into turmoil by a cop killing and the ensuing media frenzy. Anyone expecting obvious, inherent significance from Greendale‘s concept clearly hasn’t been paying much attention to this post; but Young’s aforementioned literary eye for detail and character is fully present in songs like “Leave the Driving.” And the sloppy guitar jams don’t sound half bad, either.
After Greendale, Young made another of his periodic returns to the Harvest well with 2005’s Prairie Wind, an album made more poignant by tragedies both societal (the World Trade Center bombings) and personal (the death of Young’s father, and the brain aneurysm he suffered around the time of recording). With its clawhammer acoustic guitar and conspicuous reference to Chris Rock at the 9/11 benefit concert, “No Wonder” somehow manages to sound both timeless and bizarrely contemporary. The following year’s Living with War, on the other hand,tipped the scales all the way to the “bizarrely contemporary” side: nine electric protest-folk songs aimed at the George W. Bush administration (and a pointed cover of Katharine Lee Bates‘ and Samuel A. Ward’s “America the Beautiful”), rush-released less than a month after their recording. Of these, the biting military-industrial complex rebuke “The Restless Consumer” arguably holds up the best, as it sounds the most like an actual Neil Young song.
In its own way, Living with War set the stage for the last ten years of Neil Young’s music: if there’s any consistency to the albums he’s been putting out recently, it’s that they’re all driven by a similar sense of spontaneity, often recorded, announced, and released all within a scant couple of months. 2009’s Fork in the Road is basically an album-length infomercial for Young’s alternative-fuel Lincoln Continental, the LincVolt; it’s a slight record, but the amiable, distorted boogie rock of “Fuel Line” is nothing if not fun. 2010’s Le Noise–a pun on the album’s sonics and the surname of producer Daniel Lanois–is a little more substantive: a collection of tender songs like “Sign of Love” that would have sounded natural being strummed on an acoustic guitar, except instead they’re shuddering out of the speakers on waves of distortion.
Of course, not all spontaneous works are created equally. 2012’s twin Crazy Horse albums, Americana and Psychedelic Pill, were met with a collective shrug by critics; neither are bad records–the latter, in particular, is pretty damn good–but they’re definitely meant for acolytes. 2014’s lo-fi acoustic cover album A Letter Home is even more high-concept and obscure (one would expect nothing less from a collaboration with Jack White), but also more tuneful: I especially liked Neil’s cover of “Needle of Death” by Bert Jansch, the melody of which he’d already nicked for the On the Beach track “Ambulance Blues.” Earlier this year, Young and roots rockers Promise of the Real released Earth, a quasi-live album of his recent and vintage environmentalist songs mixed with prominent animal noises; the benedictive opening track, “Mother Earth,” ends with the cacophonous buzzing of wasps. The fact that none of this sounds all that strange in context is a testament to the determined oddity of the preceding five decades of Young’s career.
Last weekend, Neil Young turned 71 years old; he celebrated his birthday by turning up unannounced to perform at the ongoing protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota. His new album Peace Trail, due for release early next month, sounds to be as out-of-time and yet of-the-moment as ever, with allusions to Standing Rock in the title track (and explicit references in the newly-released song “Indian Givers“), all delivered over that familiar hacksaw acoustic guitar and tom-tom-like drums. It’s a small, but powerful thing: in a week when we lost both Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell–not to mention the fabric of American democracy as we know it–it’s comforting to know that Neil is still out there, being Neil. And as his adopted country continues to march inexorably into new, horrifying territory, I wish him the best: driving ever onward, Pono on the stereo of his ethanol-fueled muscle car, right through the middle of the ditch. Long may he run.