Icon: Neil Young
From plaintive folk ballads to raging rockers, Neil Young carved out a path up the center of popular music that was both singular and idiosyncratic. This is our guide to his best.
The spirit of the debut album has changed enormously over the past 40 years. Now we expect a fully-formed creative mission statement on Day 1 - anything less must be dismissed - whereas in the '60s, the debut album was an amalgamation of filler, traditional covers that bands also played live, and maybe two or three originals with modest hit single aspirations. That's certainly the case with Neil Young's self-titled debut, the... only non-essential record from the first decade of his career.more »
In 1967 Young was coming off of Buffalo Springfield Again, an album that lacked a big hit but included three of Young's best early songs - "Expecting to Fly," "Broken Arrow" and "Mr. Soul" - as well as the first collaborations between Young, Stephen Stills and David Crosby. Neil Young doesn't follow the melancholy rock epic template that Young had built with those three songs, and much of it is a bit dull as a result. The playing is strong - Ry Cooder plays guitar and Jack Nitzsche piano - and there are a couple of standouts, including "Here We Are in the Years," one of his best deep cuts. Better to grab the records that followed it.
He's always felt conflicted about it, but Neil Young makes for a hell of a good rocker. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is his one prime-era full-on rock album. Opening with "Cinnamon Girl," as good a rock song as has ever - ever - been written, and closing with "Cowgirl in the Sand," which invented the extended-ballad-into-jam-session school of rock, it's an incredible document of a once-in-a-generation artist finding his voice, experimenting... with its inflections, and having a shit-ton of fun.more »
In a song like the tender "Round & Round (It Won't Be Long)" we hear the next eight years of Neil's career - in the rockers we can imagine Buffalo Springfield developing into America's great rock band, a perfect rival to both the Stones and Cream. "Down By the River," is maybe the quintessential Neil Young song, and its amazingly violent guitar riff is like machine-gun fire, or the passionate stabs of a long, sharp knife. It's the birth of Neil as Guitar God, a title that he loved defending every other album with a chunky, distorted four-minute guitar solo. On Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere alone there are four of them. So yeah, it's an absolutely essential record, and certainly Young's most fun.
After the Gold Rush is the first in Neil Young's Sad Record Quintet (it goes Gold Rush, Harvest, On the Beach, Tonight's the Night and Zuma), and also one of his finest albums. Though "Southern Man" - Young's longest-lasting hit - comes from After the Gold Rush, within the context of the album it feels like a throwaway. The emotional intensity of "I Believe In You" and the incredible self-pitying of "Oh,... Lonesome Me" are far more resonant.more »
The title track is among Young's best. "Well I dreamed I saw the knights in armor come/ Saying something about a queen," it begins, painting something out of Camelot before transporting to "lying in a burned-out basement with a full moon in my eye." Then this cutting thought: "Thinking about what a friend had said/ I was hoping it was a lie" that always makes me wonder politics or love? But of course at the time it was both. Always both.
The opening lyric of the album always stops me cold: "Sailing hardships through/ Broken harbors out on the waves in the night." Neil Young was 24 years old when he wrote and recorded After the Gold Rush. There are lyrics on that record that I constantly reference as wise words of advice that will lead us from peril, comfort self-pity, and elucidate love in a way our hearts rarely can. They're things our fathers never taught us. They're lessons of vulnerability and pride. They are the truths we say into mirrors and nowhere else. Every time I listen I wonder: How could he know all of these things at 24?
Harvest is famously Neil Young's only #1 album, with "Heart of Gold" his only #1 single. And in this case, the public was right. Young has better moments than Harvest, but none of them are nearly as palatable as this album's confident, soft-folk, and none of them (aside from maybe "Ohio" and "Southern Man") so closely read the Zeitgeist: Young's songs about the satiation of bucolic life corresponded directly with the counterculture's... movement toward simplicity and earth. "Keeps me searching for a heart of gold/ And I'm getting old," he sings. Tune in and cash out is the clear implication.more »
A handful of other songs explore the same light folk of "Heart of Gold": "Old Man," the album's other big single (#31 on the charts), where he memorably sings, "Old man look at my life/ 24 and there's so much more"; "Out on the Weekend," a song about feeling alone in the midst of with-it people (a common Young refrain); the self-explanatory "Are You Ready for the Country" (the Band is clearly a big influence on that one); and of course "Harvest," maybe the album's greatest song, and arguably Young's most plaintive: "Did she wake you up to tell you that/ It was only a change of plan?/ Dream up dream up let me fill your cup/ With the promise of a man."
And then there's "The Needle and the Damage Done" from a live performance at UCLA. The song is a confessional missive about drug addiction, a stark splash of cold water on the evolution of the culture. "I sing the song because I love the man/ I know that some of you don't understand," he both mourns and accuses. It's one of his great performances.
Bizarrely out of print for years (I paid $60 for a CD bootleg of it in the '90s - it was the only way to hear the thing), On the Beach is both one of Neil Young's saddest records -- and his most jubilant. We hadn't heard him as loose and carefree as he is in "Walk On" ("I remember the gold old days/ Staying up all night and getting crazed") since... Buffalo Springfield, and "Vampire Blues" and "For the Turnstiles" both have similarly playful moods, albeit with obvious shadows.more »
Elsewhere, Young is as dark as we've ever heard - or would ever hear, with the exception of Tonight's the Night, released the following year. "Revolution Blues" is harrowing and nasty ("We've got twenty-five rifles just to keep the population down"), a rambling paranoid screed that's half-Dylan, half-Lennon ("How Do You Sleep?" is a good comparison).
"On the Beach" is haunting. "The world is turning/ I hope it don't turn away," he murmurs to open it. The song shares its title with Nevil Shute's 1972 novel about a post-Apocalyptic world, and the mood clearly establishes that this was intentional. There's a soft funereal procession feel to the gait, and Young's voice never rises above an emotive whisper. The worst part? The small stuff still matters: "Though my problems are meaningless/ That don't make them go away," he sings.
"See the Sky About to Rain" is another favorite, its keyboard tones a gorgeous, melancholy buzz. "Motion Pictures" is Young in back-porch mode lamenting "living in-between" and "Ambulance Blues," the nine-minute album closer, finds Young reminiscing about what was and what can no longer be. Every second of it is precious. On the Beach is an out-and-out masterpiece, my single favorite Neil Young album and one of the greatest records I've ever had the honor to hear.
"I'm sorry. You don't know these people. This means nothing to you." Neil Young included those words in the liner notes to Tonight's the Night, an album about the drug overdoses of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry ("Bruce Berry was a working man who used to load that Econoline van," he sings in the opener). Recorded in 1973 but unreleased until 1975, it's always been considered one of... rock's darkest records, a full-on confrontation with rock's destructiveness, a reality check on the myths of rock and the counterculture's pending Utopias.more »
It's also a very good Neil Young record. The autobiographical elements are clear in Tonight's the Night, but they are hardly all there is. The perils of drug addiction were already a Young staple ("The Needle and the Damage Done," most prominently), and he's always shunned the rock lifestyle. And considering the circumstances, it's also hard to ignore how boozy the record sounds. This isn't a PSA, it's a rock & roll record.
"Come on Baby Let's Go Downtown" is a ballsy rocker, and a nice example of where he and Crazy Horse would go later in the '70s. When people talk about Neil Young as the Godfather of Grunge, they mean songs like this. "Mellow My Mind" is one of Young's most romantic songs (only behind "Unknown Legend" in my list) made even better by a cocky swagger. "Albuquerque" is absolutely perfect - maybe the most underrated Neil Young song of all time ("AahhhahahaaaaaaallllbAAAHHkurrkeeee").
And then there's my favorite (yeah, that's how great this record is): "Tired Eyes," which begins with this wonder, "Well he shot four men in a cocaine deal/ He left 'em lying in an open field/ Full of old cars with bullet holes in the mirrors." The guitars are perilously loose and Neil's almost crying he's straining so hard. It's not sad, though - it's defiant.
Though it had some success upon initial release, Zuma is probably Neil Young's most-overlooked record today. It perfectly balances the vestiges of Young's folk period (still appearing in live form) with the heavier rock phase that was beginning to develop. Hearing "Danger Bird" is to watch Young's more aggressive style blossom. It's rhythm is plodding, and there's something vaguely heavy metal about it. It feels determined to stir up shit. (This is... where I note Wikipedia's item that "Danger Bird" is Lou Reed's favorite Neil Young song. Check-mate.)more »
"Pardon My Heart" is as beautiful a folk song as Neil ever wrote. And the sentiments are sharp and knowing: "Pardon my heart/ If I show that I care." Strong stuff. "Through My Sails" is the final Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song, recorded in Hawaii in 1974 (the famed Human Highway sessions). It's a lush, tender lullaby: "Leaving with the wind blowing/ But love takes care."
The rest of the record picks up the pace. "Don't Cry No Tears" and "Barstool Blues" are both fantastic country-rock, "Drive Back" is a shotgun blast into the air, and "Lookin For a Love" feels like a George Harrison song circa Rubber Soul. And who can we forget "Cortez the Killer," the greatest live Crazy Horse song ever? There isn't a weak song on the whole thing.
Neil Young made it through the '80s, but barely. There were the debacles that were Trans, Everybody's Rockin', Old Ways and This Note's For You. Rock had moved past him, and he wavered on whether he wanted to keep up. By the time of Harvest Moon in 1992, Young had regained focus.more »
Harvest Moon is an extremely simple record - maybe the simplest since his debut. The title track - layered by streams... of acoustic guitars - almost bounces as Neil plainly beckons, "Come a little bit closer/ And hear what I have to say." It's a lot of saccharine, but the tune is so beautiful and the sentiment so comforting that it's hard to resist.
The album is entirely folk-rock, and the arrangements have a crisp (and now dated) sound and country tinge that suits them. It's a good record, but far from Young's best. By 1992, we had begun grading on a curve. Never before would we have celebrated the chilled-out old man rock of "From Hank to Hendrix," that's part Jimmy Buffet, part late-'80s Grateful Dead. And it packs the cringing line: "Now we're headed to the Big Divorce/ California style."
But it definitely has its moments. As TV on the Radio singer Tunde Adebimpe so wonderfully demonstrated with an a capella version in Rachel Getting Married, "Unknown Legend" is an impossibly beautiful song - a stunning ode to a True Love. It's worth cherry-picking for these songs at the very least.
This record is idiotic fun. A 1995 collaboration with Pearl Jam - at the time the biggest band in the world - it effortlessly captures all the worst aspects of grunge: the macho pounding, the sea-shanty rhythms, the overdone guitar effects and solos. But those things are true of all rock & roll to some extent, so what can you do? "Song X" is a big opener, a proclamation That This Will... Be Rock.more »
"I'm the Ocean" actually follows through on the promise. Most of the record sounds like Neil Young trying a bit too much to solidify that Godfather of Grunge title, but on this song it sounds like a great fucking Neil Young song, made better by the young fire of the backing Pearl Jam. It's a special song enhanced by the sudden appearance of Eddie Vedder as a back-up singer midway through, his first of a very few appearances on the album. It probably makes my list of Top 20 Neil Young songs.
"Truth Be Known" is also great, instantly inventing country-grunge without batting an eyelash. The record builds to "Peace and Love," Mirrorball's one duet between Young and Vedder. (It makes you wonder what Vedder was doing during those sessions - was he a brooding coach?) The result is... kinda boring. There are also a lot of guitar solos because this was an age where you had to play a lot of guitar solos.
There is one other keeper: "Throw Your Hatred Down," a nicely paced rocker that finds Neil in a permanent snarl but stays jaunty all the same. Oh 1995, you silly thing.
Neil Young, a guitar, and a live audience. That's what you're getting with Live at Massey Hall, a long-traded bootleg recently released as part of the Neil Young Archives set. The set selection is stellar: opening with "On the Way Home," one of his final songs with Buffalo Springfield, it beautifully tackles classics "Tell Me Why," "Old Man," "Cowgirl in the Sand" (whose acoustic performance is almost exactly how Nirvana handled their... Unplugged performance) and "Ohio," which sounds more weary than angry by 1971.more »
We also get the incredible pleasure of hearing him perform "A Man Needs a Maid" and "Heart of Gold" for the very first time, dryly (we think) introducing the former as "a Broadway musical." It's Young solo on the piano, and just as "Maid" draws to a close, Young begins singing "Heart of Gold," playfully pressing into the piano. Without the banjo - which completely dominates how we hear the song - "Heart of Gold" feels Tin Pan Ally, and suddenly it clicks what he meant by "a Broadway musical." It's a fascinating glimpse into someone's creative make-up.
The entire performance is amazing. This was the pinnacle of Neil Young's folk era, and this set is the perfect exploration for serious fans. It's a must.