45. Landing on Water (1986)
If other 1970s greats, including Don Henley, were having 80s hits with modern, synth-heavy records then why shouldn’t Neil Young give it a go? A question to which the obvious answer is: because it might sound like Landing on Water, on which perfectly good songs – not least Hippie Dream’s devastating portrait of David Crosby in his coked-out ruin – were knackered by sterile, unsympathetic production.
44. Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983)
As a monumental middle-finger to a record label that had demanded a “rock” album from Young, the rockabilly and 50s R&B of Everybody’s Rockin’ is pretty impressive. As a listening experience, not so much. The digital production is horrible; the cover of Jimmy Reed’s Bright Lights Big City abysmal.
43. Old Ways (1985)
It has its moments, My Boy and Are There Any More Real Cowboys? among them, but Young’s 80s country record – produced again, it seemed, mainly to annoy his then-label, Geffen – is overproduced, syrupy and cliched to the point of sounding patronising. His subsequent courting of the conservative Nashville market by making reactionary statements in interviews is best overlooked.
42. Are You Passionate? (2002)
This collaboration with Booker T and the MGs, which attracted much attention for the bellicose, post-9/11-themed Let’s Roll, is otherwise forgettable: competent, aimless mid-tempo songs; low on thrills. Relief arrives when Crazy Horse lumber gracelessly into view on Goin’ Home.
41. Peace Trail (2016)
You cannot fault Young’s recent work ethic, or his political commitment, but Peace Trail – his second album of 2016, partly inspired by the environmental protests at Standing Rock reservation – was a mess: sketchy songwriting, half-baked musical ideas including a burst of Auto-Tuned vocals, platitudinous lyrics. Good title track, though.
40. Life (1987)
After hobbling Landing on Water with a cack-handed application of synths and drum machines, Young proceeded to hobble an album with his old muckers Crazy Horse in exactly the same way. It’s infuriating as the songs were often great, as evidenced by Prisoners of Rock and Roll, a virtual manifesto for Crazy Horse’s primitive musical approach: “We don’t wanna be good.”
39. Fork in the Road (2009)
“I’m a big rock star, my sales have tanked / But I still got you – thanks,” offered Young on the title track. He’s nothing if not honest, but his sales might have held up better had his later albums not sounded increasingly dashed-off, with more thought put into their messages – here about pollution and the ongoing financial crisis – than the music.
38. Broken Arrow (1996)
There is a pervasive theory that Young’s music has suffered since the death of his long-term producer, David Briggs, the one man who seemed capable of reining him in and calling out his less inspired ideas. Certainly the first album he made after Briggs’s death felt sprawling and directionless: long Crazy Horse jams alongside bootleg-quality live tracks.
37. Paradox (2018)
Darryl Hannah’s incoherent film about Young and his latest young collaborators, Promise of the Real, is an endurance test to rival 1972’s similarly aimless documentary Journey Through the Past, but the soundtrack – a patchwork of instrumental passages, outtakes and live recordings – is quite immersive and enjoyable as it drifts along, although clearly only diehard Young nuts need apply.
36. Colorado (2019)
The latest in a succession of middling albums with Crazy Horse, Colorado features some incendiary performances in the band’s patent ham-fisted style – there’s a moment midway through She Showed Me Love where drummer Ralph Molina appears to stop playing by mistake – but it also features some painfully on-the-nose political lyrics, and not much in the way of decent tunes.
35. Storytone (2014)
Indecision plagued Storytone, which Young released in three versions: one orchestrated, one stripped back, one with a bit of both. Perhaps he realised that the album’s initial Neil Young-as-crooner concept didn’t quite work, veering as it did between charming (the big band-fuelled I Want to Drive My Car) and schlocky (Tumbleweed).
34. Prairie Wind (2005)
The least appealing of Young’s albums in the Harvest vein, Prairie Wind is still one of Young’s stronger latter-day albums. The autumnal, reflective mood of He Was the King and This Old Guitar were presumably influenced by the death of his father and Young’s own brush with mortality after a brain aneurysm.
33. Silver & Gold (2000)
Another album in the country-rock vein of Harvest. The highlights are high – the brooding closer Without Rings is particularly fine – but there is a lot of filler, and the rose-tinted nostalgia of Young’s paean to his former band, Buffalo Springfield Again, is particularly runny.
32. Greendale (2003)
Hailed by some as a return to form – which simply meant an improvement on its lacklustre predecessor, Are You Passionate? – Greendale was Young’s rock opera, a grandiose title that seemed antithetical to its rough, bluesy sound. The songwriting is too uneven to sustain interest: Be the Rain and Bandit are great; Grandpa’s Interview interminable.
31. Arc (1991)
It was Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore who suggested Young release a live album entirely comprised of the feedback-laden intros and outros of his live performances. Mixed in the studio into one 35-minute track, it is not quite as confrontational a statement as Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, but it’s worth hearing at least once.
30. The Monsanto Years (2015)
Young’s latest backing band, Promise of the Real, sound fiery here, and Young himself is audibly livid, but The Monsanto Years was another album that felt rushed to the point that actual writing had been overlooked. The lyrics – raining fire on GMOs – frequently feel more like ranting blogposts set to music than songs.
29. Trans (1982)
Inspired by his quadriplegic son Ben, an electronic Neil Young concept album with vocodered vocals was an incredibly bold move, so much so that Young padded it out with more straightforward material. The end result was a curious mess; the loveliness of Transformer Man was fully revealed only when Young played it acoustically on 1993’s MTV Unplugged.
28. Hawks & Doves (1980)
Distracted by family strife, Young’s follow-up to the classic Rust Never Sleeps was a ragged collection of thrown-together country tunes and sundry offcuts. Hawks & Doves is wildly uneven, its title track flatly awful, but the good bits – the sinister Captain Kennedy, the beautiful Lost in Space, The Old Homestead’s lengthy allegory for his own career – are fantastic.
27. Mirror Ball (1995)
Clearly proud of his “godfather of grunge” tag – Crazy Horse’s combination of looseness and intensity was a key influence on the sound – Mirror Ball saw Young collaborating with Pearl Jam. The results were solid, but never explosive or edgy enough to stop you wishing he’d chosen to work with his former tourmates Sonic Youth, who might have pushed him harder.
26. Chrome Dreams II (2007)
Classic Neil: 30 years after declining to release an album called Chrome Dreams, he puts out a follow-up. Chrome Dreams II hinges on one track, the astonishing 18-minute Ordinary People. Recorded in 1987, it casts most of the album’s newer material in an unforgiving light, but the frazzled, ultra-distorted Dirty Old Man holds its own.
25. Americana (2012)
An album largely comprised of folksongs dramatically reassembled – Clementine and Oh Susanna among them – Americana is sporadically great, occasionally sloppy and sometimes genuinely surprising. Improbably enough, it concludes with Crazy Horse setting about God Save the Queen, as in the UK national anthem, not the Sex Pistols song.
24. Neil Young (1968)
“Overdub city,” protested Young of his solo debut, and he had a point. It is packed with fantastic songs that Young would repeatedly return to live – The Loner, Here We Are in the Years, The Old Laughing Lady – but frequently groans under the weight of Jack Nitzsche’s elaborate arrangements. From this point on, Young would prize simplicity and spontaneity.
23. Psychedelic Pill (2012)
Crazy Horse made their name playing extended jams, an approach Psychedelic Pill took to the extreme: the opener here, Driftin’ Back, goes on for the best part of half an hour. Whether it warrants that length is another question, although Ramada Inn, which clocks in at a mere 16 minutes, is terrific.
22. Dead Man (1995)
Young’s first film soundtrack, 1972’s Journey Through the Past, was a mishmash of live recordings and outtakes that succeeded in horrifying fans who thought it was the follow-up to Harvest. Performed live to a rough cut of Jim Jarmusch’s surreal western Dead Man, it is something else: a lengthy, stark, occasionally violent guitar instrumental.
21. American Stars ’N Bars (1977)
The weakest of Young’s 1970s studio albums, American Stars ’N Bars matched tracks taken from the then-unreleased Homegrown with lo-fi home recordings (the oddly creepy Will to Love), leaden country-rock and one undisputed Crazy Horse classic: Like a Hurricane (although there are better live versions out there).
20. A Letter Home (2014)
It sounds like a novelty – Young recording cover versions in a 1947 vinyl recording booth owned by Jack White – but A Letter Home works, leaping from songs Young would have played as a coffeehouse folk singer, such as Bert Jansch’s Needle of Death, to a haunting version of Bruce Springsteen’s My Hometown.
19. Living With War (2006)
Swiftly recorded and released, backed by a 100-voice choir, the anti-Iraq war tirade Living With War finds Young sounding energised by the urgency of his undertaking and, one suspects, by the furore he must have known it would cause. A subsequent Crosby Stills Nash & Young tour heavy on this material was greeted by boos and walkouts from their more conservative fans.
18. Re-ac-tor (1981)
A Crazy Horse album that’s grinding, dark and repetitious (deliberately so; it’s influenced by a gruelling programme of treatment undergone by Young’s son), Re-ac-tor is hard work, occasionally uninspired and sometimes magnificent, as on the ferocious din of Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze and the concluding Shots.
17. Harvest (1972)
That Harvest’s huge commercial success sparked a bout of wilful, even contrarian behaviour in Young wasn’t so inexplicable: he presumably knew his biggest album was nowhere near his best. The songs veer from fantastic (the title track; Words) to forgettable, while the arrangements are slick but sometimes overblown, as on A Man Needs a Maid.
16. This Note’s for You (1988)
By far the most successful of Young’s 80s genre experiments, and a creative rebirth of sorts, Young’s bluesy R&B album is best known for its title track, an evisceration of 80s rock’s growing penchant for corporate sponsorship, but its best moments are subtle and understated: the atmospheric Twilight, the small-hours melancholy of Coupe De Ville.
15. Hitchhiker (1976)
The sound of Young alone in the studio, “turning on the tap” as David Briggs put it, and letting new songs pour out (almost all of which ended up being re-recorded elsewhere). The fact that Young is audibly, heroically stoned throughout only adds to the album’s intimate charm.
14. Le Noise (2010)
Produced by Daniel Lanois, this is Young’s best album of the 21st century, and it took him somewhere new. Lanois added the occasional disorientating tape loop while Young accompanies himself on distorted electric guitar, which he is clearly playing at ear-splitting volume. Bringing this freshness of approach to a solo singer-songwriter album resulted in some strong material.
13. Harvest Moon (1992)
Harvest Moon is better than the classic album its title referenced, and whose backing musicians it reassembled. The sound fits the songs, which are wistful and streaked with nostalgia. The title track, its riff nicked from the Everly Brothers’ Walk Right Back, is a genuinely beautiful hymn to marriage and enduring love.
12. Ragged Glory (1991)
Crazy Horse at their most gleefully primitive – Young apparently recorded his vocals standing in a pile of horse manure – rampaging through garage-rock standards (the Premiers’ Farmer John), riotous jams (Love and Only Love, Mansion on the Hill) and paeans to their own limitations (F!#*in’ Up). A blast from start to finish.
11. Homegrown (1975)
“Sometimes life hurts,” wrote Young in explanation of Homegrown’s belated 2020 release, 45 years after he recorded it in the wake of his split from the actor Carrie Snodgrass. It’s certainly downcast, its tone set by the opener Separate Ways, but it is also Young at the peak of his powers, writing fragile, beautiful songs.
10. Comes a Time (1978)
The gentle country-rock album his record company doubtless wished he had released as a follow-up to Harvest, Comes a Time is far better than its spiritual predecessor. It is rougher round the edges – Crazy Horse show up on the wonderful Lotta Love and Look Out for My Love – and home to a brace of Young classics, the title track among them.
9. Freedom (1989)
After a confused 1980s, Young’s stunning return to full, raging power was perfectly timed, chiming with the nascent grunge movement he helped inspire. The widely misinterpreted Rockin’ in the Free World was the hit, but Freedom is packed with killer tracks, from the lengthy, horn-backed Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero) to a ferocious, feedback-strafed cover of On Broadway.
8. Sleeps With Angels (1994)
Kurt Cobain’s suicide note quoted a Young lyric, much to its author’s horror; the title track of Sleeps With Angels was his distressed response. Elsewhere, this is as bleakly compelling and creepy as his mid-70s work, with Crazy Horse on surprisingly muted form. Piece of Crap, meanwhile, introduces Young the cranky middle-aged refusenik, a role he would frequently inhabit.
7. Time Fades Away (1973)
Only Neil Young would follow up his commercial breakthrough with a chaotic audio-verité souvenir of a disastrous tour. But Time Fades Away isn’t just a screw-you gesture, it’s utterly compelling. The songs – Last Dance’s churning, hippy-baiting din; fragile piano ballad The Bridge; and the autobiographical Don’t Be Denied – are incredible, potentiated by the ragged performances.
6. Zuma (1975)
Lighter in tone than the “ditch trilogy” (Time Fades Away, Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach) that preceded it, Zuma reunited Young with a revitalised Crazy Horse, sparking Barstool Blues’s glorious evocation of a drunk mind meandering and the brooding, majestic historical epic Cortez the Killer. And its lambent closer Through My Sails is the last truly great song that Crosby Stills Nash & Young released.
5. After the Gold Rush (1970)
After The Gold Rush feels like Young’s morning-after-the-60s album, but unlike the consoling tone of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, it is gaunt, troubled and affecting. Amid the relationship woes, there is ecological disaster, racism and Don’t Let It Bring You Down, which, Young noted, was “guaranteed to bring you down”.
4. On the Beach (1974)
Despairing and disconsolate, but set to beautiful music: the shimmering electric piano of See the Sky About to Rain, the epic acoustic closer Ambulance Blues (“You’re all just pissing in the wind,” it concludes), the title track’s stoned, misty take on rock. For contrast, there is Revolution Blues, a ferocious, unsparing portrait of Young’s old acquaintance Charles Manson.
3. Tonight’s the Night (1975)
Young’s tequila-sodden, no-filter response to the deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and their roadie Bruce Berry is harrowing, extraordinarily powerful listening, the drunken raucousness of the performances matching the raw emotion of the songs. The point when Young’s voice cracks during Mellow My Mind is perhaps the most starkly potent in his catalogue.
2. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
Young’s debut with Crazy Horse is an incredible album: the sheer potency of its songs and sound; the killer riff of Cinnamon Girl; the way the playing on the extended jams Down By the River and Cowgirl in the Sand embodies their lyrical angst, keeping the listener utterly gripped even as they tip the 10-minute mark.
1. Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
The line between Young’s live and studio albums has always been flexible. Rust Never Sleeps was recorded on stage in 1978, then overdubbed. In truth, most of his 70s albums could conceivably be called his best – he kept up a remarkably high standard – but Rust Never Sleeps offers a perfect summary of everything that makes him great, its quality perhaps spurred by the punk movement he references on Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) and, more elliptically, on Thrasher. Side one’s sequence of acoustic songs is breathtaking, and Crazy Horse rage in thunderous style on side two, home to Powderfinger’s heartbreaking saga of violence, death and familial bonds – arguably his greatest song.