There is no better time to get into Neil Young. The acclaimed singer-songwriter is enjoying a renaissance of sorts over the past years with a refreshing outlook on progressive politics and a back catalogue that could make Bob Dylan blush. The artist has become, once again, one of the foremost voices in his arena. While, of course, we would suggest that delving into his whopping 42 studio albums is certainly worth your while, and may even see you through lockdown without repeating a track, if you’re time-poor then we have ten of the singer’s greatest albums.
To have spent over five decades at the top of the rock world is a feat not many artists can achieve. Neil Young has done it not with gimmicks or pop prowess but by continuously writing songs which are deliberate, artistic and authentic. There are few artists that feel as genuine as Neil Young. Not plagued by ego or individualism, Young hasn’t just been one of the starring songwriters of his five decades in the limelight but he’s also been just as happy to take a back seat and let the band take the praise.
Hardly any artists have been as prolific as Neil Young during their career. Never deterred by workload or expectation, Young has always been his own master and has made sure that everything he has done has been an accurate reflection of him. Whether that’s being involved with Farm Aid from the beginning or working hard for The Bridge School, Young is normally the ageing rocker that makes you feel good about rock and roll.
“I don’t like to be labelled, to be anything. I’ve made the mistake before myself of labelling my music, but it’s counter-productive,” Young once said in a quote which typifies his approach to music. “The thing about my music is, there really is no point,” he added, nonchalantly. “I just do what I do. I like to make music.” And he sure did make a lot of it.
Taking a look at his back catalogue and you can see both how and why Young garnered so many fans during his time in the limelight. While his singles and singular songs are plentiful and rich, it is within the art form of ‘the album’ that Young truly shines like nobody else. As such, we’ve narrowed down his huge canon of work to ten of the best.
Neil Young’s 10 best albums:
10. Freedom (1989)
Like many of his sixties contemporaries, Neil Young struggled to find his place in the eighties. The glitz and glitter balls of the decade soon gave way to the pursuit of electronic advancement and that meant music too. Folk artists like Young faltered when trying to assert themselves as they had done in the prior two decades. Young, however, did eventually find his groove.
Rather than try to fit in with a changing world, Young decided on Freedom from 1989, that he would push through the confines of pop and deliver a powerful and poignant record. It was so full of rage and discontent that many have championed it as the foundational stone of the grunge movement that was to follow it. As well as ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’, the obvious hit, the LP also included ‘Crime in the City’ and the classic crunch of ‘On Broadway’.
9. Time Fades Away (1973)
After Young finally managed to crack the charts he decided, like any true musical innovator would, that he would deliver perhaps his most chaotic LP. Charged with malicious intent, the album is buzzing with possibility and Young’s displeasure at his newfound fame.
As well as being a middle-finger to the mass market audiences who had just filled his bank account, Young uses Time Fades Away also delivers some of his best songs. There is the churning rock of ‘Last Dance’, the piano beauty of ‘The Bridge’ and his open-book song ‘Don’t Be Denied’.
8. Sleeps With Angels (1994)
While Young was being resolutely championed as the forefather of grunge by the time Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana and the de facto grunge God, committed suicide he was struck down by despair. Cobain had quoted a Young lyric in his suicide note and it left the songwriter bereft. The title track of the album was his response.
The album could rightly be adored simply for the title track, such is its power. It sees Young affirming his role as a cantankerous rocker, displeased with the creativity he saw in front of him. If he was the daddy of grunge then he was back to whip a few people into shape. It’s a bleak moment in Young’s career but nevertheless, it’s a wonderful album.
7. Zuma (1975)
When Neil Young reunited with Crazy Horse for Zuma, they produced a much lighter LP than the record that had preceded it. It saw Young once again try to find his own groove in a new world. The seventh studio album of Young’s career, it peaked at number 25 on the Billboard charts.
As well as the fabulous ‘Barstool Blues’, ‘Through My Sails’ and the historical epic ‘Cortex the Killer’, the album is imbued with a sense of desperation for life. Written after the loss of Danny Whitten, Crazy Horse’s leading man, the group needed to realign and Zuma is the result.
6. Tonight’s the Night (1975)
The sixties were a wild ride and by the time Young reached the middle of the new decade he had gone a similar route to most of his contemporaries. It meant that Young had drowned his aspirations for free-love and free-thinking in gallons of tequila, found himself a good dealer and set up shop. It took the death of Danny Whitten to sharpen up.
Tonight’s The Night sees Young explore his own feelings towards sobriety as well as expertly conveying his grief with touching honesty. While the drunken chaos of the LP is hard to deny, there’s a sense of foreboding that is unavoidable. But there’s one moment when Young’s voice cracks on ‘Mellow My Mind’ and lets the truth and beauty of the song shine through the mistake. It’s one of his most arresting moments on record.
5. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
Neil Young’s 1969 debut with Crazy Horse is one of the most potent records of Young’s established career. Considering its comparative lowly position, it speaks highly of Young’s talents that he has so many high-class albums to choose from. Few records across the world of music can match this one blow for blow.
The record contains a group of songs that Young had written while under the influence of a debilitating fever. As well as the title track, Young composed ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and its killer riff, ‘Down By the River’ and all its jams and even the lyrical angst of ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’ all while suffering from hallucinations. It is one of the most engrossing albums in Young’s entire canon.
4. After the Gold Rush (1970)
The sixties were a wild time and when Neil Young opened his eyes on January 1st 1970, we like to think his bleary eyes were perfectly trained on his guitar, aiming to have an album as brilliant as After The Gold Rush as quickly as possible. That’s because it is hard not to see this album as a hangover from the counter-culture vibes that permeated the prior decade.
‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ is perhaps the archetypal moment of the album. Stark and distressed, despite the title, Young confirmed it was a song that was “guaranteed to bring you down”. While the LP was routinely rolled over by some of the biggest publications of the day in the reviews, Young’s songwriting power has transcended generations and time to become one of the best albums ever made.
3. On the Beach (1974)
As part of the Ditch Trilogy, you can naturally expect On the Beach to be a bleak affair, despite the apparent sunny setting of the LP. The album is largely thought of as one of the most despairing albums ever made and sometimes seen as Young waving goodbye to despair, having been recorded after but released before Tonight’s The Night.
There are some grand moments on the album and while ‘Ambulance Blues’ is certainly one of Young’s best songs, it’s hard to see past the titular track. ‘On the Beach’ is a stoned and superior view on the sunnier side of life, no matter how melancholy the melody may be.
It’s a triumph of an album and certainly deserves revisiting. Chances are it will confirm everything you’ve been told about the talent of Neil Young.
2. Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
One of Neil Young’s finest attributes, as well as being a consummate songwriter, was his incredible performances on stage. It makes sense then that one of his best albums is a composition of his time both in the studio and in front of an audience. Rust Never Sleeps was recorded on stage in 1978 and later overdubbed in the studio but not a single drop of magic was spilt in the transfer.
Young has always kept up a remarkably high standard on his work but he flushes out a warmer more formidable tone on Rust Never Sleeps. The first side of the record, dripping in folk-rock purity and delicately breathtaking before it, Young kicks things up a notch on the second side. There are nods to the punk movement around him on ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’ and ‘Thriller’.
Without doubt, the best song on the album is the saga ‘Powderfinger’, which still to this day is doused in mystique, violence and familial bonds. It’s a showstopper.
1. Harvest (1972)
After ‘Heart of Gold’ went to number one, there was always a great chance that the album would follow —such were the charts in those days. Even still, the record became Young’s only number one album and, for that reason alone, it could be considered his finest album. Luckily, for the anti-populists around, the LP is also simply brimming with incredible songs too.
It featured the London Symphony Orchestra on two tracks and vocals by noted guests David Crosby, Graham Nash, Linda Ronstadt, Stephen Stills, and James Taylor. It was proof that Young was transcending the ideals of ‘the rock star’ and was now exploring the possibilities of pop music. Though the record is largely acoustic it swings through genres and styles with effortless grace.
Songs about life, death, love and loss are explored with the delicacy that Young was becoming famed for. While other acts had sought to extend their careers by going harder than ever before, Young takes a softer approach and discovers gold while doing so. Songs like ‘Out on the Weekend’, ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Old Man’ are all the proof you need of Harvest is Neil Young’s best album ever.