I was not into Neil Young growing up. I heard “Heart of Gold” regularly on WABC, and that was about it. (And I’m sure I heard “Ohio” there too, but I was seven at that point and way too young to understand who it was or what they were singing about.) By the time the late 1970s rolled around, there were plenty of Young fans at our high school (I took a poll of our high school for our student newspaper; Young and Rust Never Sleeps were incredibly popular), but CSNY’s harmonies annoyed me more than they should have, so I still avoided them. In college, I had a fraternity brother who was so into Young it basically turned me off of him for years (and he was going through a weak string of records at that point). But a roommate let me tape his copy of Decade in 1989, and Freedom and “Rockin’ in the Free World” started pulling me in, then Harvest Moon, which remains one of my favorite Neil Young records. So I started collecting.
Now it’s easier to list what I don’t have. Of the 43 studio albums below (this list doesn’t include anthologies, live albums, movie soundtracks, or anything done with Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, or the Stills-Young Band), I’m only missing six—three that have been issued in recent years, and three from the 1980s. For the uninitiated, though, it’s hard to tell what you’re going to get, because his catalogue is so varied and idiosyncratic. So as I did with Elton John last year, this entry averages out critics’ rankings and reviews of his albums, to give a general idea of what to get first, and what to get later on (or listen to once on Spotify). Young is incredibly prolific, and to some that might mean he’s released material he might have been better off keeping in the vault—but in contrast to, say, Don Henley (who’s released two solo albums in the past three decades) I’d rather have more than less. Of course, Young also repurposes material—he’s had albums he’s released years after originally recording, or songs that he decided weren’t right for a certain album but worked fine for another. And that also means lyrics and melody lines occasionally recur; I was listening to 2017’s The Visitor and one of the songs made me say, “This sounds almost exactly like ‘From Hank to Hendrix’” (from 1992’s Harvest Moon).
A warning: music critics usually prefer the old to the new. So even though Neil Young has been recording steadily since the mid-1960s, only one album issued in the last 25 years made the top 20. And another warning: unlike Elton John (who had 47 top 30 hits and is still played regularly on oldies, adult contemporary, and classic rock stations), Young has had one solo top 30 song his entire career (the #1 “Heart of Gold”), and a handful of solo songs that are played regularly on classic rock stations (let’s say “Cinnamon Girl,” “”Southern Man,” “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “The Needle and the Damage Done,” “Like a Hurricane,” “Hey Hey My My (Out of the Blue Into the Black),” “Rockin’ in the Free World,” “Harvest Moon”). So there are a lot more Neil Young albums than Elton John albums, and a whole lot more Neil Young songs that I haven’t heard in years.
I’ve averaged the grades of the following books and web sites:
- Wilson & Alroy’s Record Reviews, which I recommend pretty highly, despite their dislike of Steely Dan and Bruce Springsteen
- this Ultimate Classic Rock, which was originally written in 2015 but has been updated to include his most recent releases
- Robert Christgau’s reviews, which I loved when I was a teenager and love less today,
- Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, which came out sometime in the late 1990s (which means anything after that isn’t ranked)
- All Music Guide, because they review every album, even if the reviews are poorly constructed (Wilson & Alroy refer to AMG as “All Mushy Gibberish”),
- Stereogum’s rankings from 2013 (so several late-period albums are missing),
- Y42K, whoever they are,
- Rock Pasta,
- Tony’s Music Room (so all of them are ranked by Tony)
- And The Guardian, which issued their list just before I wrote this.
(Side note: these rankers and reviewers really need to double-check their lists. Some of the lists were written a long time ago and haven’t been updated, while others don’t claim to be all encompassing, but The Guardian missed The Visitor, Soundblab skipped Sleeps With Angels, Ultimate Classic Rock refuses to include Time Never Sleeps even though it’s now available again, and Musichound forgot to review re-ac-tor. If more than half of the sources didn’t review the album, I’ll make a note of it, because that can skew the averages.)
Also, I will occasionally refer to the Archives Series. Young has released a series of albums over the last 20 years that include live performances, albums he completed or came close to completing, and box sets including even more unreleased material as well as the aforementioned live and unfinished albums (the second one is due soon). None of those are included in these rankings, either.
Finally, I should note with such a huge catalog, I’m not terribly familiar with all of his music, especially many of the later albums. (I’d like to listen to them before bedtime, but my wife is emphatically not a fan.) I’ll make note of my opinions and whether they can be sustained by actually having, you know, listened to the albums carefully enough.
42. Storytone (2014)
Completely different from the aforementioned “angry” albums; this is a
love letter to Daryl Hannah, whom Young had taken up with after being married
to Pegi Young for 36 years. (This led to an angry split from Crosby, Stills,
and Nash after David Crosby made some poorly-chosen comments about Hannah [he’s
since apologized]; Pegi Young died of cancer in 2019.) Young recorded acoustic
and orchestrated versions of all ten songs on the album; the deluxe version has
both while the standard version has only the orchestrated ones (I own the
deluxe version). It’s not bad by any means, but it’s not among his best.
For some reason, I tend to lump it in with Robin Thicke’s desperate pleas to
repair his marriage on his album Paula, which came out around the same
time (those pleas didn’t work; they’re now divorced), as rock music isn’t
usually that personal.
41. Are You Passionate? (2002)
None of Young’s albums from 2000-2009 rank among his very best, but
this one seems to have gotten more negative reviews than the rest. It does
include his post-9/11 anthem “Let’s Roll,” which was pretty much negated by his
angry screed Living With War a few years later. Honestly, I’ve only
listened to this album once in the last five years or so, and the only song
that sticks with me even a little bit is “Let’s Roll.” Recorded with Booker T.
Jones on keyboards and Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, so it’s more
R&B-oriented than much of his other material. “Gateway of Love” is listed
on the album cover but isn’t actually on the album; apparently it was dropped
late from the track listing (it’s not the only time Young has done that).
40. The Visitor (2017)
The last of the trilogy, which probably wasn’t planned; several of
these songs have an anti-Donald Trump flavor, especially the lead track,
“Already Great.” I’m totally sympathetic to his point of view, but it’s been a
few years since I’ve listened to the album, and “Already Great” is about the
only song that sticks with me. Recorded with Promise of the Real, which
includes two of Willie Nelson’s sons, Lukas and Micah. Only five of the eleven
critical sources actually reviewed the album (as noted previous, The Guardian inexplicably left it out of their rankings, even though later releases
like Colorado and Homegrown are included),
so be aware that may skew the final number a bit.
The 1980s weren’t particularly kind to Neil Young (Freedom, from
1989, is a big exception), partially due to his switching labels from Reprise
to Geffen. David Geffen had worked with Young for years as a manager (although
his primary manager with Elliot Roberts), so Young probably thought the move
would be beneficial for him; it wasn’t. His first album, Trans, was his
electronics album (created as a way to communicate with his son Ben, who has
cerebral palsy); Geffen demanded a “rock and roll” album next. So Young
delivered this—a skimpy album (not even 25 minutes long, which was miniscule
even by vinyl standards) of ‘50s rock and rockabilly pastiches. (Young wanted
to record two additional songs, but a pissed-off Geffen cancelled the sessions;
the songs later came out on Young’s Lucky Thirteen anthology.) Geffen
wound up suing Young for making “unrepresentative” music, which he later
conceded was a mistake. The lead single was “Wonderin’,” with an appropriate
grainy video; the song had actually been written years before (it appears on
his Archive Series album Live at the Fillmore 1970).
38. Old Ways (1985)
This was the album Young wanted to release after Trans, but
Geffen rejected it. It’s really about the same in quality (although Everybody’s
Rockin’ was willfully mediocre, by Young’s own admission), but this leans
toward pure country music, with orchestration. Except for a remake of the old
Gogi Grant chestnut “The Wayward Wind,” the songs themselves are okay, and
there are several well-known names here (Waylon Jennings, Bela Fleck, Spooner
Oldham, plus longtime Young compatriots Ben Keith and Tim Drummond), but it
never quite coheres. Some of the stronger songs are available on the live
Archives release A Treasure, which is far better.
37. Fork in the Road (2009)
Young’s album dedicated to his Lincoln Continental, which was
reconfigured to run on alternate energy. (Left unattended in 2010, the car
started a fire that caused significant damage to a warehouse full of Young’s
property, but he attributed that to human error.) Anyway, Young’s a huge car
fan (read his book Special Deluxe to find out more), and that comes
across here. Unfortunately, if you’re not a big car fan it’s just not that
exciting of an experience.
First of what I’m going to call the Bitch Trilogy albums, along with Peace
Trail and The Visitor. (Young’s three albums Time Fades Away, On
the Beach¸ and Tonight’s the Night are famously referred to as the
Ditch Trilogy after he wrote in the liner notes of Decade “’Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there
soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I saw more
interesting people there.”) Anyway, this one was also made with Promise of the
Real, and it’s a tough listen, but the music itself is somewhat better than Peace
Trail and The Visitor. I would recommend listening to them in order,
maybe with the live album Earth included (Earth has four songs
from The Monsanto Years plus the otherwise unavailable “Seed Justice”).
35. Americana (2012)
Be prepared for very different versions of some familiar songs (“Oh Susanna,” “Clementine,” “This Land Is Your Land,” even “God Save the Queen”), as interpreted by Young and Crazy Horse, his on-and-off band (he’s worked with them since the late 1960s). I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it, either—it’s definitely interesting and worth a listen on Spotify at the least.34. Landing on Water (1986)
Another not-particularly-well-reviewed 1980s album from Young.
He apparently tried performing this at first with Crazy Horse, but the end
results were so lousy that they were tossed (studio pros Steve Jordan and Danny
Kortchmar played with Young instead; no bass player is listed; I guess either
Young or Kortchmar created synthesized bass effects). I finally got around to
listening to it before writing this, and I’m surprised the album didn’t come in
lower. I thought it was a synthesizerfest with mostly weak songwriting, but
some critics genuinely liked it (Wilson & Alroy gave it the same rating
they gave Tonight’s the Night and Zuma).
33. Life (1987)
I don’t have this one at all, which may not be the worst thing. (I prefer getting my CDs and downloads cheap, and since none of Young’s albums are cheap to download—the only Young albums that are less than $7.99 on Amazon are this, Landing on Water, Everybody’s Rockin’, and the Archives Series album Live at the Fillmore East—it’s generally the used CD stores for me.) Anyway, this one was with Crazy Horse and was mostly recorded live in concert (two songs were done in the studio). Weirdly, there’s a fair amount of synth on this one, which is not something I’d usually associate with Young’s Crazy Horse albums; they’re generally done with guitars, bass, and drums only. I’ll have to try this one on Spotify.
32. Greendale (2003)
I’ve had this one for four years, and managed not to listen to it at all. (And yes, I started keeping track of how many times I’ve listened to my albums five years ago, but I didn’t start putting albums I’d just bought on the top of the priority stack until a year later. Don’t judge.) This is a concept album about a town in California, touching on some of Young’s pet subjects (environmentalism, corrupt politicians, etc.). Some copies came DVDs of either an acoustic performance of the songs or a making-of documentary; I can’t remember whether mine has either one (the physical disc is in storage). All of which is another way of saying I need to listen to it a few times.
31. Living With War (2006)
This gets wildly varying reviews among the critics used to compile these rankings—a few put it at the very bottom of their lists; a few put it in the upper middle. Basically, Young got pissed off at George W. Bush, wrote and recorded the album in a couple of weeks, overdubbed a 100-voice choir, and had Reprise rush release it. Obviously, any album with a lead single titled “Let’s Impeach the President” is an angry one, but there’s more here.
29. (tie) A Letter Home (2014)
Even among Young’s odder releases, this stands out. A
Letter Home is all remakes of other singer/songwriters’ tunes (two songs
each by Willie Nelson and Gordon Lightfoot, and one by Bruce Springsteen, Bob
Dylan, Tim Hardin, and others), recorded in a 1947 Voice-o-Graph vinyl
recording booth. Young is solo except with occasional piano by Jack White (who
owned the booth). I don’t have the album, but I’m looking to add it to my
Young’s most recent recording (excluding Homegrown,
which was recorded in 1975 but wasn’t released until this past June), and his
most recent collaboration with Crazy Horse. There are only three reviews for
this one, so the average is a little skewed, but the general consensus seems to
be it’s better than the Bitch Trilogy, even though there’s still a lot of anger
there. There are also hints that Crazy Horse’s musicians are getting older
(bass player Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina both turned 76 in 2019) and
their playing may not be what it was in their youth, but if they’re close to
retirement, this isn’t the worst way to go out. Haven’t heard this, but I’ve
got a library copy waiting for me to give it a listen.
28. This Note’s for You (1988)
Young’s Chicago blues album recorded with an ad hoc
backing band he dubbed The Bluenotes. (After Harold Melvin, whose vocal group
was called The Blue Notes, instigated legal action, it was retitled a Neil
Young solo album and the band was dubbed Ten Men Workin’.) Blues isn’t
necessarily Young’s wheelhouse (but do recall that before the folk rock band
Buffalo Springfield, Young was in a band called The Mynah Birds with future
punk funk star Rick James, and they actually recorded a few unreleased single
sides with Motown), but “This Note’s for You”—a snarky take on rock stars
endorsing commercial products—is a keeper. The video was originally banned by
MTV after Michael Jackson’s lawyers threatened legal action; the channel
reversed itself and eventually awarded Young the Video Music Award for best
video in 1989. Side note: this is Young’s first album back with Reprise after
five albums with Geffen; none of those five albums rank higher on this list
27. Broken Arrow (1996)
This marked the end of a creative period running from
1989 to 1996, and another album with Crazy Horse. The Guardian
offers the theory the death of frequent coproducer David Briggs in 1995 hurt
the quality of Young’s output in that Briggs was occasionally able to rein in Young’s
less worthy ideas, and I won’t argue the point: of the 43 albums on this list,
only one released after Briggs’ death ranks in the top 20. Anyway, I’ve
listened to this album a few times, but it’s typical of his work with Crazy
Horse: jamming, occasionally disjointed, but without any standout tunes that
stick in one’s head.
Young’s first album for Geffen, and it’s another weird one. Young had
been trying to develop a communicating style with his son Ben, born with
cerebral palsy, and using a vocoder and synthesized voice seemed to work. So
two thirds of Trans consists of songs he’d recorded in the last couple
of years of his Reprise contract that were primarily synthesized material
(overdubbed material previously recorded with Crazy Horse), and the other three
songs were from a false start album called Islands in the Sun, which had
the tropics as its theme. (The track listing changed late; the original vinyl
release had a sticker with the track listing dropped on the back cover, with
“If You Got Love” pulled.) One of three I don’t have from the 1980s (the others
are Life and Hawks & Doves) and haven’t heard other than the
single, “Little Thing Called Love.”
25. Silver & Gold (2000)
I would say anything from here on up most listeners will at least like—no
one will listen to anything here and say “Well, that sucked” unless they
just don’t like Neil Young at all. Anyway, this is one of Young’s mellower
albums, with a roster of players featuring Ben Keith, Donald “Duck” Dunn, and Spooner
Oldham, plus Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris on backing vocals. “Good to See
You” and “Buffalo Springfield Again” (which obviously pleased fans of that
short-lived band) were the most popular radio tracks. The title track had been
written in the early 1980s; it had taken Young a long time to get it right.
24. Prairie Wind (2005)
Neil gets mellow, and gets rewarded (it’s his last release in the
United States to sell 500,000 copies and go gold). This one was beloved by
several critics when it first came out (Wilson & Alroy ranked it with Freedom
and Rust Never Sleeps), but recent reviews have not been kind. I like
it—“The Painter,” “He Was the King,” and “When God Gave Me” are especially
good. Some of the same musicians on Silver & Gold are here, so if
you like that one, this should be your next stop, and vice versa.
23. Psychedelic Pill (2012)
This was made with Crazy Horse, and it’s two CDs—although it’s only
around 88 minutes long (editing the 27-minute “Driftin’ Back” would have made
it work as a single disc, although “Driftin’ Back” is one of the strongest
songs on the album). I haven’t listened to it in a few years, but I think I’d
rank it a little higher than this. It’s a little more expensive than most Young
albums (due to the extra disc, I guess), but it’s probably worth the extra
money after you’ve gotten beyond the top-ranked discs.
22. Chrome Dreams II (2007)
Leave it to Young to release an album with “II” on the end without
having a corresponding “I” volume. Chrome Dreams II refers to a 1977 Chrome
Dreams album he recorded but never actually released (some of those songs
would emerge on American Stars ‘n Bars, Rust Never Sleeps, and Freedom).
Chrome Dreams II features Young regulars Ben Keith, producer Niko Bolas,
and Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina, and includes songs that were originally
intended for Old Ways and Freedom. It’s not among his best works,
but it’s definitely worth a few spins.
The sobriquet “Godfather of Grunge” started to be hung on Young in the
1990s, and he embraced it—this album was recorded with Pearl Jam (although
they’re not billed as such on the album cover; apparently their label, Epic
Records, wasn’t happy about their presence on the disc). The general attitude
among critics was “good, but could have been better.” This is one I need to
listen to a few more times, especially since I like Pearl Jam very much.
Produced by Brendan O’Brien, who had been Pearl Jam’s regular producer at that
point, and later became Bruce Springsteen’s producer of choice in the 2000s.
19. (tie) Le Noise (2010)
Here it is: the highest-ranking album Young has release in the past 20 years.
This one was produced by Daniel Lanois, best known for his work with U2. I’m
beginning to think Young may be one of those artists that works better with a
coproducer that can be strong enough to act as an editor and a check against
his impulses; John Hanlon has been Young’s most frequent coproducer of late,
and as he started out as an engineer that may mean Young may bulldoze his way
through disagreements. (I’m just speculating.) Anyway, this is more tape loops
and additional noise amongst the guitar feedback, which is something different
19. (tie) re – ac – tor (1981)
Yet another album with Crazy Horse, produced with David Briggs and Tim
Mulligan. This is the first of several albums Young would use synthesized
sounds, which of course was his way of communicating with his son Ben.
“Southern Pacific” was the single (it’s a pretty good one), and “Shots” is
generally considered the best song (although “Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze”
has its proponents. I’ve got no use for “T-Bone,” but that’s me. I only
recently got this, and while it’s not among my all-time favorites I’d say it
could be ranked over a few other albums above this.
18. Hawks & Doves (1980)
Such as this one. Hawks & Doves was pieced together from
songs originally planned for a 1975 album Homegrown (it was finally
released in its entirety earlier this year), along with a few songs Young wrote
specifically for this release. The sound is country, the tone is conservative
(which confused more than a few fans who were enamored by Rust Never Sleeps),
and it clocks in at less than 30 minutes long—Young’s shortest album save Everybody’s
Rockin’. (I have a real thing about very short albums.) Country music
artists often released very short albums in this era, but they also released
albums every six to nine months. I don’t actually own this one and haven’t
heard it; I’ll get it when I see it cheap enough.
Well, recorded in 1976, anyway; the album wasn’t released until
2017. Most of the songs emerged in different forms on subsequent albums
(everything from American Stars ‘n Bars to Hawks & Doves,
although the title track was radically reworked and came out on 2010’s Le
Noise). It’s all acoustic—just Young on acoustic guitar and harmonica. The
plan was to release it as it was in 1976, but Reprise executives recommended he
rerecord them with a band. From his book Special Deluxe: “It was a
complete piece, although I was pretty stony on it, and you can hear it in my
performances... I laid down all the songs in a row, pausing only for weed,
beer, or coke.” I’ve got this, and it’s fine.
16. American Stars ‘n Bars (1977)
Almost every Young album I have is an actual physical copy, on compact
disc. The only exceptions are the following: Time Fades Away (vinyl,
because it was unavailable on CD until very, very recently; I also have Journey
Through the Past, a two-LP soundtrack that has never been issued digitally,
on vinyl for the same reason), Everybody’s Rockin’ and Old Ways
(burned from library copies in the days I didn’t think that was such a bad
thing—I will replace them with physical copies at some point), Live Rust
and American Stars ‘n Bars (both legally downloaded). I’ve already paid
for the album, so I don’t feel like I have to get a physical album other
than to be completist, and I’m not sure it’s worth bothering. This is another
album of songs that had been previously recorded between 1974 and 1976; “Like a
Hurricane” is the key song here (and the version on Live Rust may be
15. Neil Young (1968)
His first solo album (although obviously he was known through Buffalo
Springfield); the original LP release didn’t have any identification of who he
was on the front cover, and used a technology for making vinyl albums
compatible on stereo and mono players (remember when that was a thing? Me
neither), but made the sound lousy. It was remixed and reissued with his name
on it a year later, but never sold much. Also, this has his temporary
compatriot Jack Nietzsche (who had worked frequently with Phil Spector)
creating orchestration for a few songs. Key songs are “The Loner” and “The Old
14. Sleeps With Angels (1994)
Fourth of four albums released between 1989 and 1994 that marked a
creative renaissance for Young. This is another one with Crazy Horse, and
stylewise it’s all over the map. Two songs stand out: the punk-influenced
“Piece of Crap,” a consumer anthem (and something that hints at Young’s ongoing
interest in Pono, a digital music format that’s considerably better than MP3s
but hasn’t received mass acceptance), and the title track, written and recorded
soon after Kurt Cobain’s suicide; Cobain mentioned Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Out
of the Blue Into the Black)” in his suicide note.
In the waning days when video music channels primarily played music
videos, I was entranced by the title track of this album, played on both MTV
and VH1. Clearly a love letter to then-wife Pegi, I suppose it was the first
time it occurred to me that marriage should be forever. (I had gotten married
myself the previous year.) As previously noted, Young is now married to Daryl
Hannah, but it doesn’t take away from my fondness for this album, which recalls
his 1972 LP Harvest (many of the same players returned). If anything,
the songwriting is even better.
12. Ragged Glory (1991)
Made with Crazy Horse, so expect a loose, almost deliberately untidy
feel (although the way the album was constructed was playing different sets of
music every day for a few weeks, then picking the best takes). “Mansion on the
Hill” was the single and is a pretty great song, and "F*!#in' Up"
(the first word is pronounced the way you’d expect knowing the second, third,
and fourth characters replaced the letters U, C, and K) is well remembered.
There’s also a remake of the 1960s song “Farmer John,” and “Love and Only Love”
has popped up on Young’s set list a few times.
11. Homegrown (1975)
This album was recorded in the 1970s and then set aside (it was
released in its entirety this past June). Primarily written and performed after
Young broke up with actress Carrie Snodgress, mother of his son Zeke. But Young
decided it was too personal, and friends had been urging him to release Tonight’s
the Night instead, so this was put in the vaults. (Some songs emerged over
the years, with ”Love Is a Rose” the most prominent.) This is another album
with only three reviews, so one review can skew the overall grade a bit more;
since it’s not likely to be available cheaply for awhile (i.e. the download
will be expensive and used copies aren’t likely to pop up), start elsewhere.
There are a lot of people who love this, and for the life of me I don’t
know why. Recorded live on tour with the crowd noise mixed out after Harvest
was released, and the songs are really more up Crazy Horse’s alley, but The
Stray Gators were the band (Ben Keith, Tim Drummond, and John Barbata filling
in for Kenny Buttrey, who had ticked off Young by demanding a huge salary for
the tour), and they’re mostly studio pros that sound more professional and less
loose than Crazy Horse. Anyway, Reprise, with Young’s urging, let this go out
of print and made it unavailable on CD and digitally for decades (it’s now
finally available). I have a vinyl copy, and I’m not impressed at all—there’s
not a single song that sticks with me.
9. Comes a Time (1978)
My first exposure to Young other than “Heart of Gold,” as our local
radio station played the title track and “Lotta Love” frequently. Somehow, they
ignored the actual single from the album, “Four Strong Winds,” a remake of a
classic Ian & Sylvia song that is almost a standard in Canada. Nicolette
Larson, who sings harmony vocals on most of the songs, rerecorded “Lotta Love”
solo and had a top 10 hit with it. There’s a variety of styles here, but it’s
almost the follow up album Reprise might have liked to release after Harvest.
After a ton of unsuccessful albums through the 1980s (the last album
Young had hit the top 40 in Billboard’s album charts was with 1982’s Trans;
his previous 13 solo albums had all hit that standard), Young delivered an
album at the ‘80s end that compared to his 1970s decade closer Rust Never
Sleeps. It’s angry, but in control, and “Rockin’ in the Free World” has
become a (sometimes misunderstood) standard and a staple of AOR radio (although
“No More” and “Crime in the City” also got a lot of radio play). As with Rust
Never Sleeps, acoustic and electric versions of “Rockin’ in the Free World”
bookend the album.
7. Harvest (1972)
Young’s biggest solo album, which yielded the #1 hit “Heart of Gold”
and “Old Man.” It also includes “The Needle and the Damage Done,” written
partly about the addiction issues of friends (including Danny Whitten), and
“Alabama,” which yielded Lynyrd Skynyrd’s answer record “Sweet Home Alabama”
(Young later wrote in his book Waging Heavy Peace his song “richly
deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me”). Most critics loved this record, but
not all; Robert Christgau ranked it a little below his best (which, given the
two Jack Nitzsche orchestral pieces, I can understand), while The Guardian placed
it below Le Noise and This Note’s for You (which makes me think
they’re looking for an argument). I like Harvest Moon (in theory the
sequel to this album) a lot better, but the high points here are fantastic.
This is Young’s first album after the Ditch Trilogy, released just five
months after Tonight’s the Night. He’s back with Crazy Horse, but it’s a
lot more like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere than some of the later Crazy
Horse albums. The key songs here are “Cortez the Killer” (which apparently
originally had an additional verse that was never recorded), and “Danger Bird,”
about his breakup with Carrie Snodgress. I’m not as familiar with this album as
I might wish—I usually try to listen to his albums in chronological order, and
usually conk out around Time Fades Away—so I can say it’s certainly
okay, but I can’t recommend it more than that.
5. On the Beach (1974)
I really have to listen to the Ditch Trilogy a few more times; the only
one I really know well is Tonight’s the Night. This is, in effect, the
middle album (although Tonight’s the Night was recorded earlier). Musichound
is the only source that puts this outside their top 10; Stereogum ranks
it first, with the notation “List my ten ‘desert island discs,’ you ask? On
The Beach, and nine backup copies of On The Beach.” The most-played
songs are “Walk On” and “For the Turnstiles,” but this seems like one of those
albums that needs to be heard start to finish a few times.
One of my two personal favorite Young albums, along with Harvest
Moon (I got this one a few months later, so perhaps why those two stick
out). This includes my all-time favorite Young song, “Cinnamon Girl,” which
remains a standard on classic rock radio despite never having come close to
making the top 40 (it peaked at #55). It also has two great long songs, “Down
by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” which revealed Young’s penchant for
extended jams that’s lasted to this day. His first album with Crazy Horse, and
one of just two albums in which Danny Whitten plays a significant role. Absolutely
essential to me.
Young’s dark night of the soul album (well, his first one, anyway).
Young wrote and performed this after the deaths of Danny Whitten (whose
recording of “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” is on the record, with Whitten on
lead vocals) and roadie Bruce Berry (as noted in the title track). Young then
put it aside to work on other projects, thinking it was too personal, but
friends insisted it be released, and a reluctant Reprise Records acquiesced.
Not an easy listen, even in Young’s opinion: “Sometimes it’s too intense. If
you’re gonna put a record on at 11:00 in the morning, don’t put on Tonight’s the Night. Put on the
A total turnaround after Comes a Time, Rust shows Young as
pissed as he’s been in years. As with Time Fades Away, Young recorded
these songs in concerts during late 1978 (although by that time Young’s fans
knew to expect the unexpected, and were likely not as surprised as when he
played Time Fades Away’s dour material during the Harvest tour).
“Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)” continues to be played to this day, although no
singles were actually released from Rust Never Sleeps (I only realized
it a few years ago, but the version that hit the Billboard Hot 100 was
actually from Live Rust, a two-LP set released five months later). “Pocahontas,”
“Powderfinger,” “Sedan Delivery,” and “Welfare Mothers” are also essential
Maybe I don’t like this quite as much as Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, but it’s deservedly beloved by nearly everyone. Young’s songwriting abilities are his absolute peak here (and remember 1970 is the same year CSNY released Déjà Vu and the single “Ohio,” which Young wrote immediately after the Kent State massacre). There are so many great songs here (“Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” “Southern Man,” “I Believe in You,” title track) it’s hard to know where to begin. Young also worked with a variety of musicians (Crazy Horse, Nils Lofgren, Stephen Stills, and others), but the sound is uniform. This one (like almost everything in the top 15) is a must own for any Young fan.