Writing about a perverse genius like Neil Young requires an equally perverse gesture, like writing about Neil Young albums when Neil Young albums are suddenly less accessible than they used to be.
Of course, there are lots of other places to hear Neil other than Spotify. And this is good, because the man has made more masterpieces than most people. He’s also made more albums that are the opposite of masterpieces. But those records are worth hearing, too.
“I know that the sacrifice of success breeds longevity,” he once said. “That’s an axiom. Being willing to give up success in the short run ensures a long run.” Surely, a career as glorious (and gloriously checkered) as Neil Young’s confirms this axiom. Few artists have embraced risk as much as he has. Pulling his music from the world’s largest streaming service is just the latest example. But no matter what, you have never heard the last of Neil Young, even if you can’t actually hear him at the moment.
For this list, I am focusing on Neil Young’s studio albums. Though because we’re talking about Neil Young, this isn’t exactly a straightforward proposition. For instance, I did not include his soundtracks (which means no Dead Man and no Paradox) or his voluminous archival records (which means no Hitchhiker and no Homegrown). I also didn’t delve into unreleased albums that have been widely bootlegged. I did, however, include one live album, for reasons I’ll explain later.
Confused? Good. It’s the perfect headspace with which to go into the blue and then out of the black.
42. Living With War (2006)
If you’re going to write about Neil Young, you might as well begin by making an argument that initially might seem counterintuitive and alienating, but (hopefully) over time will come to make sense and even appear wise. Which is why I’m putting one of Neil’s most critically acclaimed albums of the 21st century at the bottom of this list, as I believe it explains why so many of the albums around this particular record are also mired in the lowest rung of his illustrious discography.
But before I get to that, here’s a story that I think goes a long way to explaining Neil Young. It comes from a 1979 Rolling Stone profile written by Cameron Crowe. I’m going to quote Neil at length here:
“Once, I’d become a victim of a series of chump attacks by some of the bullies in my room. I looked up and three guys were staring at me, mouthing, ‘you low-life prick.’ Then the guy who sat in front of me turned around and hit my books off the desk with his elbow. He did this a few times. I guess I wore the wrong color of clothes or something. Maybe I looked too much like a mamma’s boy for them.
Anyway, I went up to the teacher and asked if I could have the dictionary. This was the first time I’d broken the ice and put my hand up to ask for anything since I got to the fucking place. Everybody thought I didn’t speak. So I got the dictionary, this big Webster’s with little indentations for your thumb under every letter. I took it back to my desk, thumbed through it a little bit. Then I just sort of stood up in my seat, raised it up above my head as far as I could and hit the guy in front of me over the head with it. Knocked him out.
Yeah, I got expelled for a day and a half, but I let those people know just where I was at. That’s the way I fight. If you’re going to fight, you may as well fight to wipe who or whatever it is out. Or don’t fight at all.”
If your conception of Neil Young — as he’s been caricatured in the press lately — is that of a gentle hippie folk singer, then you don’t really know the man. What he is, at heart, is a fighter. Conflict fuels him. He has railed against literally everything — playing on television, appearing at the Monterrey Pop Festival, the film version of Woodstock, the Ohio National Guard, Richard Nixon, the guys in CSN, the success of Harvest, critics of Richard Nixon, the guys in CSN, anyone who might disparage welfare mothers, union busters, Crazy Horse, David Geffen, David Geffen, David Geffen, rockers who make beer commercials, George Bush, the guys in CSN, digital recording, the economic realities of the toy train industry, and, well, I could keep going for the sake of rigor but I think you get my point.
If he cannot find conflict, he invents it. As the NPR host Raina Douris recently put it to me, “he seems like he is always getting into an argument — about sound quality, the environment, politics, etcetera — with an invisible person.” This trait, if you love Neil Young, is key to what makes him lovable.
What’s less lovable, at times, is how Neil is not subtle about any of this. His primary mode of attack remains whacking his enemies over the head with a dictionary. While this can be admirable when he is whacking those who deserve it, his best intentions have sometimes resulted in his worst music, particularly when it feels like he’s whacking his own audience over the head.
Living With War is Neil at his whackiest. (As opposed to Neil at his wackiest — we’ll get to Everybody’s Rockin’ soon enough.) I can’t say for sure that it truly deserves to be considered his worst record. But I can confidently insist that it is the model for nearly all of the other “worst album” contenders in this catalog, and for that reason, it earns this spot. What are the least likable aspects of Neil’s songs from the past 20 years? Generic and tossed-off melodies, harebrained arrangements, inartful and polemical lyrics better suited for a blog than a song — it all derives from here. That Living With War was so praised in the moment, therefore rewarding Neil for these tendencies, compounds the record’s problems.
41. Fork In The Road (2009)
Neil is not about thinking. Neil is about feeling. Randy Newman, who is about thinking, put it best when he once said of Neil’s issue songs, “I don’t think he knows enough about it.” This is probably true about everything that doesn’t involve amazing guitar solos and heart-busting harmonica wails.
This album might be worse, technically, than Living With War. The lyrics are just as obvious and the music just as slapdash, and it doesn’t have the heft of being an anti-war statement delivered during an aggressively pro-war era. (Also, only one of them includes “Cough Up The Bucks.”) But as someone who believes that exploring the lesser output of a musical genius can often be more revealing (and even more interesting) than checking in on their undisputed classics, I’d recommend Fork In The Road to anyone who’s curious about Neil’s fascination with cars, motorcycles, trains, boats, ancient armadas carrying murderous conquistadors, and anything else that cuts through the stasis of daily existence. Because this, also, is crucial when attempting to understand his art.
“I love the highway,” he told the New York Times in 1997. “To me, that’s almost like my religion, movement. I’m secure in movement. I’m a transportation freak. Everything I own has wheels, or wings, or a hull. Part of my spirit just wants to go everywhere it could go, just keep on going till you get there.”
Even before I read that quote, I knew that Neil loves the road, because I’ve heard Fork In The Road. Along with the title track, there is a song called “Hit The Road” and another song called “Off The Road,” which is pretty much all there is to cover when writing about roads. There is also a song about fuel lines called “Fuel Line” and a song about getting behind the wheel called “Get Behind The Wheel.”
What Neil didn’t know at the time is that the 1959 Lincoln Continental he retooled to run on alternative energy — which inspired him to make this album — caught fire the following year and caused $1 million worth of damage to one of his warehouses. But Neil didn’t blame the car. This was merely a fork in the road, so he chose to retool the old Lincoln one more time.
40. Are You Passionate? (2002)
One more telling childhood story from that Cameron Crowe Rolling Stone profile: “When I was in school, I would go for six months wearing the same kind of clothes. Then all of a sudden I’d wear all different clothes. It’s change. It’s always been like that.”
Neil needs to move. But then he also needs to stop and marinate in whatever issue or musical guise has caught his attention at the moment. Every now and then, Neil wears the clothes of a bluesman. This is not, to put it charitably, a flattering outfit for him. He wore it first on 1988’s This Note’s For You, and he did it again on this album, a collaboration with Booker T. and The MG’s, one of the finest R&B combos this country has ever produced. When matched with such peerless musicians, Neil came up with “Let’s Roll,” his goofy 9/11 song. (“Let’s roll for freedom / Let’s roll for love / We’re going after Satan / On the wings of a dove.” Now that is what I call letting the terrorists win.) But even if he had written the second coming of “Powderfinger,” Are You Passionate? would suffer from violating a cardinal rule of Neil Young albums: Do not add horns.
39. Americana (2012)
One of the better songs on Are You Passionate? doesn’t involve the MG’s. Actually, “Goin’ Home” isn’t such a great song per se as it is an opportunity to once again hear Neil collaborate with his everlasting primordial muse, Crazy Horse. Formed in 1968, they were known originally in the early ’60s as a doo wop group called Danny And The Memories (named after their doomed leader, Danny Whitten) and then as a funky rock band called The Rockets before hooking up with Neil for Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
Opinions vary on Neil’s most steadfast backing band. David Crosby once famously declared that “they should’ve never been allowed to be musicians. They should’ve been shot at birth. They can’t play.” Whereas those of us who love Crazy Horse adore them because they can’t play, as their primitive caveman stomp provides a thuddingly simple backdrop for Neil to whip out all of those wondrously gnarled guitar solos. If they were better players, they might get in his way.
Of course, if all I knew about Crazy Horse was this collection of bombed-out folk standards, I might be inclined to side with Crosby. Even for a band whose brand is sloppy anarchy, Americana is a hot mess of blown tempos and bizarre arrangements that only seem logical if you’re listening while staring through the bottom of a tequila bottle. Sometimes, the lunacy is so extreme that it whips around back to palatable. No interest in a cover of “Oh Susannah”? What if it sounds like “Louie Louie” as performed by a bar band that’s been paid for the night in quaaludes? Does the idea of covering “Get A Job” seem corny? What if Neil is the only one who remembers Crazy Horse’s doo wop roots and yearns for a return to them? Americana is about setting up a ridiculous scenario and then somehow making it even more preposterous.
38. The Visitor (2017)
Another blog record. This time the subject is Donald Trump, a vocal fan of Neil’s music. “He’s got something very special,” he told Rolling Stone in 2008. “He’s performed for me at my casinos over the years, and he just brings it down. I’ve met him on occasions and he’s a terrific guy.”
Neil does not think Donald is a terrific guy, as The Visitor makes plain over and over again. I suspect that most #resistance era art is going to sound irredeemably ham-fisted in the years ahead, though Neil was ahead of the curve by making a record that seemed embarrassing even in the moment. If the prospect of a late-period Neil Young song called “Already Great” makes you wince just from the title, I don’t recommend going any further.
37. Storytone (2014)
If he were a different kind of artist — more like Randy Newman, for instance — he might’ve written about playing at Trump’s casino, and wryly noted how this guy he hates loves his music so much. But that would require the sort of multi-dimensional thinking that seems beyond him. There’s no conflict in it. It’s more in his style to write a “whack you with a dictionary” song like “Already Great.”
Then again, the primary problem with his late-period albums isn’t the message, it’s the prioritizing of message over music. This cuts against what he’s best at. Neil is typically conceptualized as a singer-songwriter, which means his most frequent point of comparison is inevitably Bob Dylan. But his strength has never been lyrics. It’s melody. He’s not in the Dylan lane, he’s in the Paul McCartney lane. At his best, beautiful music just pours out of him. (Even — or especially — when he’s tearing ass with Crazy Horse.) At his worst, he’s no more insightful than “Fuh You.”
This album was his attempt to record live with a 92-piece orchestra as well as a jazz-oriented big band, though Neil also released a stripped-back version of the record performed on guitar and piano. The concept is as muddled as that sounds, as is the ideology — the pro-environmentalism of “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” is followed immediately by the pro-automobile “I Want To Drive My Car,” without any acknowledgment of the contradictory sentiments. But if Storytone is slightly more pleasing than many of his albums from the past decade, it’s because unabashedly pretty songs like “Plastic Flowers” and “I’m Glad I Found You” are more musical than much of his recent output.
36. Peace Trail (2016)
If Neil Young were reading this, I imagine he would refute any criticisms with a quote from his 2006 interview with Esquire: “Epilepsy taught me that we’re not in control of ourselves.”
Neil started having seizures not long after he moved to Los Angeles in 1966, when he was a member of Buffalo Springfield. The possibility that his Epilepsy might be triggered by the stress and spectacle of live performing for years made him uncomfortable onstage, and undoubtedly informed his view of his own success. But it also seemed to give him a Zen attitude about songwriting and making records: If he was not in control of his body, how can he be in control of his creativity? In every instance, he let himself be carried away.
In that same interview, he claimed “it’s easier to communicate through music than it ever has been before. It’s easier to play. It’s easier to sing. It’s easier to write. Nothing is forced.” This might very well be the “easiest” album he’s ever made, a collection of rickety acoustic numbers with a sleepy rhythm section composed of drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Paul Bushnell, who play as though they weren’t informed that this was being recorded until two-thirds into the sessions.
I give this one a few extra points due to the sheer insanity of the album-closing “My New Robot,” in which Neil duets with Siri on a post-apocalyptic love song that makes me think that he watched Her right before heading to the studio. “My life has been so lucky / The package is arrived / I got my new robot from Amazon dot com.”
35. Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983)
I’ve seen this album pop up at the bottom of Neil Young albums lists, but speaking as a person who has recently revisited the man’s body of work, I can tell you this is a lie. Or at least a misguided exaggeration. Neil’s ’80s output generally is underrated. His 2010s albums, among other factors, have made his ’80s work sound much better in retrospect.
“My career is built around a pattern that just keeps repeating itself over and over again,” Young told Mojo in 1995. “There’s nothing surprising about it at all. My changes are as easy to predict as the sun coming up and down.”
Generally, this is true. In 1969, he made his prototypical “hard” album with Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and the following year he made his prototypical “soft” album, After The Gold Rush. This formula might seem stultifying, but sticking to these parameters is almost always a good thing for Neil.
His decision to make a rockabilly record with the Shocking Pinks is typically regarded as Exhibit A in the case against Neil Young overextending himself. But I find it kind of lovable. The way into Everybody’s Rockin’ is to look at it as an extension of Neil’s off-beat (and overlooked) sense of humor. I will never put “Kinda Fonda Wanda” on a Neil Young playlist, but imagining David Geffen playing it for the first time makes me laugh out loud. (The only thing that genuinely annoys me about this album is that he threw away “Wonderin’,” one of his sweetest love songs.) The interviews about Everybody’s Rockin’ are even funnier. “Well, that was as good as Tonight’s The Night as far as I’m concerned,” he once said of this record, and who are we to argue?
34. Colorado (2019)
In 1966, Neil was jamming with his life-long friend/occasional enemy Stephen Stills on Stills’ song “Bluebird.” Together, they discovered D modal tuning, which allowed their guitar duels to have a droning sound that evoked the Indian ragas that were fashionable with rock bands at the time. But the importance of D modal tuning for Neil soon extended far beyond ragas. He used it on early songs like “The Loner” and “Cinnamon Girl,” and then on many of his most famous songs. It is the secret sauce for one of the gnarliest and most distinctive guitar tones in rock history.
I love Neil as a songwriter. But I love him even more as a guitar player. I would argue that his influence as a guitarist is greater than as a songwriter. Every country or folk-leaning rock band has aped that tone at some point. When people liken some song to Crazy Horse, they’re really talking about that fierce “lightning smothered in molasses” thunder that Neil wrings out of Old Black.
On his recent albums, where Neil’s songs frequently fail him, the guitar playing remains a singular joy. Which is why I can look forward to all 13 minutes of “She Showed Me Love” because I know Neil will only mumble about “being an old white guy” for about two of those minutes, and then solo for the remainder. That’s about the best ratio of words to guitar playing that you can expect from late Neil.
33. Barn (2021)
Ditto everything I just said about Colorado. The best track is “Welcome Back,” because it’s also the longest.
32. Greendale (2003)
The first time I saw Neil Young and Crazy Horse play live was on the support tour for this album. His entire set was playing Greendale in order, with an encore of oldies. I remember sitting in a half-empty Milwaukee amphitheater on an unseasonably cold May day and wondering if my girlfriend at the time was going to dump me immediately after the gig for subjecting her to 13 minutes of “Grandpa’s Interview.” Me, I was just waiting through the potential hypothermia and Leave It To Beaver references in the hopes that Neil might eventually play “Down By The River.”
This show set a terrible precedent of me picking the wrong Neil tours. My friends would regale me with stories of epic shows where Neil and Crazy Horse played “Like A Hurricane” for 15 minutes, whereas I got stuck with multiple gigs on the Le Noise tour in which Neil performed “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” every night. (“A child was born and wondered why” still makes me unreasonably angry.)
But I digress: I remember people at the time calling this a return to form, which I think was a nice way of saying “not as bad as Are You Passionate?” I can confirm that Greendale is still not as bad as Are You Passionate?
31. Prairie Wind (2005)
Billed at the time as a return to the classic country-rock sound of Harvest, which I guess applies if you don’t listen to the album and take “prairie” at face value. He does rip off “Harvest Moon” on “This Old Guitar,” but otherwise the album alternates acoustic tracks with songs that dabble in less attractive Neil styles. In other words: The dreaded horns make a return. And then there’s “No Wonder,” which includes one of his most confusing head-scratchers. (“That song from 9/11 keeps ringing in my head / I’ll always remember something Chris Rock said.”) I keep listening to this album only because I’m still trying to figure out what links Chris Rock to 9/11 in Neil’s mind.
30. A Letter Home (2014)
The most common theory about the trajectory of Neil Young’s career in the 21st century concerns David Briggs, the man who produced nearly all of Neil’s greatest records until his death in 1995. Because 1995 also happens to be the year after which Neil’s albums become incredibly spotty, it is commonly believed that Neil has suffered from not having the opinionated Briggs in his orbit.
I happen to believe that this is absolutely true. Briggs was Neil’s editor, the one person who could tell him his bad ideas were bad. Not that this always worked — as Briggs himself says over and over again in Jimmy McDonough’s definitive Neil biography Shakey — but at least there was somebody in Neil’s life who had the guts to put him in his place.
I suspect A Letter Home is one of many Neil albums that might not have happened on Briggs’ watch. Many people noted at the time that Neil’s decision to make his worst-sounding record — made in an ancient phone-booth studio under the watchful eye of Jack White — immediately after introducing the world to his audio purist vanity project Pono marked the height of his unintentionally hilarious contrarianism. Surely, Briggs would have pointed this out well in advance. Nevertheless, I find A Letter Home — a collection of songs like Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” and Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe” that he might’ve played as a young man on the ’60s Canadian folk circuit — weirdly moving. If nothing else, it is unquestionably the only album he’s put out in the 21st century where every song is good.
29. Chrome Dreams II (2007)
A sequel to an album that Neil made in 1977 but never released, though most of the songs on the original Chrome Dreams came out on other albums, including three of Neil’s very best tunes: “Pocahontas,” “Like A Hurricane,” and “Powderfinger.” The most notable song on this 2007 album, the 18-minute “Ordinary People,” was recorded in 1988 with a mix of musicians from Crazy Horse and his This Note’s For You-era band, The Bluenotes. “Ordinary People” explicitly addresses the moral vacuum of the ’80s, but it stands as one of the more trenchant issue-oriented tracks that Neil put out in the 2010s. Okay, the Lee Iacocca reference doesn’t hold up but the rest does, even with the conspicuous inclusion of horns.
This jumble of timelines and sounds makes absolutely no sense in terms of normal logic. But according to Neil Young logic, it’s all relatively cogent.
28. This Note’s For You (1988)
The horn-iest album in Neil’s oeuvre. There is some real Blues Brothers-level material here. (I swear I can hear the shuffling of Dan Aykroyd’s feet amidst the sax squawks of “Married Man.”) How terrifying must it have been for a Neil fan in 1988 to read quotes like this from Rolling Stone: “The experience that I have of playing all the different kinds of music that I’ve played so intensely has a place to come to in the Bluenotes. I can incorporate everything I’ve done in my life into this band – blues, country, rock ‘n’ roll. Nothing else that I had done in the past had the kind of passion that Crazy Horse had, but the Bluenotes do. So this is what makes me wonder what’s gonna happen with Crazy Horse.”
This crazy mf’er thought he was going to play with the Bluenotes for the rest of his life! But since we know that didn’t happen, I think This Note’s For You is actually a better novelty record than many people believe. The idea of making bluesy Michelob rock in order to satirize other bluesy Michelob rockers — which is basically the concept of the title track — is kind of a great idea. And on the slow songs — “Coupe De Ville,” “Twilight” — Neil is able to properly utilize his band in the service of setting an understated, noir vibe.
Am I overrating this album because I don’t hate it as much as I expected? Possibly! But Neil sticking it to Eric Clapton while making Eric Clapton-sounding music will never not delight me.
27. Hawks & Doves (1980)
Here’s another of Neil’s endearing quirks: He likes to use titles that have already been made famous by other songs. He has a “Mansion On The Hill.” He has a “Bound For Glory.” He even has a “Born To Run,” which was recorded the same year as the other “Born To Run.” On this album, he starts off with “Little Wing” — his “Little Wing,” not the Jimi Hendrix “Little Wing.”
Otherwise, I can’t hear this slight 29-minute record without thinking about how Neil during this period was involved in intensive therapy sessions for his son, Ben, whose cerebral palsy made him unable to communicate. Following up a record as monumental as Rust Never Sleeps was already a tall order, but by all accounts his personal life precluded him from spending much time on this album. Nevertheless, the material — the bulk of which comes from the shelved albums Homegrown, Hitchhiker, and Chrome Dreams —is still pretty good, even if there’s not much of it.
26. Landing On Water (1986)
Another ’80s Neil Young album that was excoriated in the moment for sounding nothing like a typical Neil Young record. It still doesn’t sound like a typical Neil Young record; it’s not really typical in any sense. Many of the songs feel like musical comedy bits: “Touch The Night” is Neil doing Bon Jovi. “People On The Street” is Neil kind of doing rap. “Pressure” is reminiscent of Billy Joel’s “Pressure.” Even Neil seemed to realize how ludicrous Landing On Water was. When he performed the David Crosby diss track “Hippie Dream” on stage with Crazy Horse, it was transformed from icy, bass-heavy pop to a suitably muscular taunt. (Neil later revived “Hippie Dream” for his 2016 live album with Promise Of The Real, Earth, in the wake of his revived feud with Crosby. Take that dictionary to the face, Croz!)
But does this album still deserve derision? As a person who listens to a lot of contemporary indie rock, I find that Landing On Water has gone from being one of Neil Young’s most dated albums to a record that’s not all that far removed from the synth-heavy heartland rock sound currently in vogue. A band that apes the sound of “Violent Side” has a reasonable shot at getting positive reviews from critics in 2022. (Yes, I am encouraging young bands to ape the sound of “Violent Side.”)
25. Silver & Gold (2000)
Neil fans in the 20th century were trained to expect a major statement at the end of every decade. The ’60s concluded with Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. The ’70s ended with Rust Never Sleeps. The ’80s wrapped with Freedom. But the streak did not continue with Silver & Gold, which arrived after an uncharacteristically long four-year break since Neil’s previous album, Broken Arrow.
Neil’s status at the time was probably as high as it has ever been, given how strong his run of ’90s albums were. So this relatively minor country-rock record seemed worse than it actually was. It’s explicitly a non-statement record; the only passionate opinion expressed here is that Buffalo Springfield was a pretty cool band. But now it ranks easily among his best albums of the current century, with some genuinely stunning songs (“Razor Love,” the title track) standing out amid an amiable collection of gentle acoustic tunes. Neil is simply leaning into his gifts as a tunesmith, without the political concepts that have dominated his recent work. If Silver & Gold dropped today, it would be praised as a return to form.
24. The Monsanto Years (2015)
Another example of an album I might be overrating just because I don’t hate it as much as I thought I would. But this really is one of Neil’s more focused efforts from the past decade, even if the lyrics seem copy-and-pasted from a Jacobin article. (From the hilariously titled “A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop”: “When the people of Vermont wanted to label food with GMOs / So that they could find out what was in what the farmer grows / Monsanto and Starbucks through the Grocery Manufacturers (Alliance) / They sued the state of Vermont to overturn the people’s will.” Hey Neil, how about another song about watching a pretty waitress walk across a diner floor?)
The Monsanto Years benefits from the puppy-dog energy of Promise Of The Real, the Lukas Nelson-fronted Texas band that briefly supplanted Crazy Horse in Neil’s orbit during the 2010s. Throughout his career, Neil’s vampiric tendencies to latch on to younger musicians from a different generation — it happened before with Devo and Pearl Jam — has suited him. And on this record, Promise Of The Real’s infectious enthusiasm for working with a legend helps to sell all the cranky songs about GMOs and big box stores.
23. Le Noise (2010)
When I reviewed this album 12 years ago, I called it Neil Young’s chillwave record, which I meant as a (perhaps overly cute) way to describe the record’s heavily processed and deliberately lo-fi soundscapes. As you might expect, Neil Young fans did not appreciate me dragging Neon Indian into the conversation!
Nevertheless, Le Noise really does stand apart in his discography as a record in which a strong record producer — Daniel Lanois, the titular “Le Noise” — functions as a visible collaborator. The sound of Le Noise is what ultimately takes precedence. Lanois’ sonic flourishes are frequently more arresting than the actual songs, though the sleazy drug-taking inventory “Hitchhiker” is a first-ballot playlist selection for 21st century Neil.
22. Psychedelic Pill (2012)
When it comes to delivering the most extreme versions of what I love and don’t love about Neil Young, it’s hard to top this album. On the former count, he pushes his guitar playing about as far as he ever has on a studio album, playing solos for minutes on end over barely structured chords and melodies. (Neil’s professed love of John Coltrane — he’s cited “My Favorite Things” and “Equinox” as specific influences — really comes to the fore here.) When you start your record with a 27-minute song, it’s clear that you are playing strictly for the heads this time.
On the latter count, when Neil does sing on Psychedelic Pill, he’s as obsessed with nostalgia as he’s ever been. (The release of the album coincided with his profoundly weird memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, in which he expounds on old cars, toy trains, and the legality of burning wood in fireplaces about as much as talks about music.) On “Twisted Road” he sings about “old time music” and how it “used to soothe my soul” and “let the good times roll.” On “Ramada Inn,” he goes out “lookin’ for good times,” and finds that “visitin’ old friends feels right.” The title track is about how “age has nothing to do with having a good time.” The geriatric boomer vibes are so intense I’m surprised that there’s not two seniors in matching bathtubs on the cover.
21. Old Ways (1985)
In the ’70s, Neil Young was among the first generation of rockers to venture down to Nashville as his music drifted in a country direction. But whereas Harvest is a rock record with some country accents, Old Ways is just a straight-up country record. Fiddles, jaw harp, Willie and Waylon — they’re all here. Because he also talked vaguely in interviews around this time about Ronald Reagan and how “some ideas he had were good ideas,” a lot of people coded Old Ways as conservative and subsequently condemned the record. There was also the matter of Neil stating — not for the first or last time — that he was done with rock ‘n’ roll. As he put it to the Boston Globe, “I feel like I could be likened to an old hound circling on a rug for the last five years, and I think I’ve finally found my spot.” Neil subsequently made an album with Crazy Horse the following year.
Even now Old Ways often slots near the bottom of Neil Young album rankings. This is underserved. The production of Old Ways falls solidly within the norms of ’80s country, which might chafe fans used to Neil’s usual “let it all hang out” approach. But for me, the album presents a fascinating alternate timeline in which Neil reinvents himself as a craftsman capable of knocking out commercial outlaw country records like an older and grumpier Dwight Yoakam. In this context, the sentimentality of “My Boy” comes off as a canny (and touching) genre experiment that (unlike many of his genre experiments in the ’80s) registers as a surprising success.
20. Trans (1982)
For years, this was the album that people used as a punchline when joking about Neil Young losing his mind in the ’80s. Even people who don’t know Neil Young’s work are aware that Trans is the album where Neil Young sings like a robot in a 1950s sci-fi film. This was a patently absurd concept to everyone but Neil Young. (As Neil groused to Rolling Stone a few years later, “I could never get anybody to believe that the fucking idea was any good.”)
But the reputation of Trans has since shifted. Now, it’s the album that people point to when complimenting Neil Young’s artistic integrity. Even if you hate it, you can’t argue that a man who cares about commercial success or critical acclaim would make an album like Trans. Which makes Neil Young seem all the more principled as an artist.
The reality is that both positions are correct. Trans is an insane album, and it’s also a courageous one. With Neil Young, these are never mutually exclusive propositions. Rather, they frequently work in tandem.
This also means that there’s a common temptation to either overly disparage or overly praise Trans. It is, after all, the album with “Computer Cowboy,” about a cowboy who herds robotic cattle. But “Computer Cowboy” happens to be a pretty good song about a cowboy who herds robotic cattle! The obvious observation about this album is that the synth-pop soundscapes and Neil’s digitally discombobulated vocals represent his most dramatic break ever with his signature sound. But it fits completely with his eccentric sensibility; in that respect, it might very well be the most Neil Young Neil Young album ever made.
19. Re-Ac-Tor (1981)
Many Neil Young albums have two indisputably great songs and several other indisputably not great songs. Re-Ac-Tor is the best of these albums. Ralph Molina called it a “one-legged turkey” and didn’t mean it as a compliment — even Neil admitted later that he didn’t work on it long enough — but I personally appreciate how deformed this record is.
Aside from the two classics, “Surfer Joe And Moe The Sleaze” and “Shots,” most of the record presents Neil and Crazy Horse at their absolute knuckle-draggiest, with boneheaded hard rock rubbing up against some of his Neil’s most repetitious and stubbornly unpoetic lyrics. What this album presupposes is, what if Rust Never Sleeps was composed entirely of songs like “Sedan Delivery”? Which means it’s not an album for everybody. In the end, there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who feel “T-Bone” goes on for too long, and those who believe “T-Bone” could go on forever.
18. Neil Young (1968)
Another alternate timeline: Neil as a SoCal, studio-bound ’60s pop genius in the mold of Brian Wilson or Van Dyke Parks. The layered, overdub-crazy sound of his self-titled debut was an experiment he quickly came to regret. He held special contempt for the rambling nine-minute closer “The Last Trip To Tulsa,” which he dismissed a few years later in an interview with Rolling Stone. “After I did it, I didn’t like it and I didn’t want it,” he said.
But I like “The Last Trip To Tulsa,” which is Neil attempting to write one of Bob Dylan’s Fellini-esque mid-’60s picaresques. It was also, according to Waging Heavy Peace, the first song he was able to sing live in the studio all the way through. David Briggs apparently was feeding him beer to help him get over the anxiety about his voice.
The other crucial track here is “The Loner,” a mission statement for a born contrarian and an early showcase for D modal tuning. I’ve already spent about 6,000 words in this piece trying to sum up this man, but the man summed up himself in just a handful of lyrics: “He’s a perfect stranger / Like a cross of himself and a fox / He’s a feeling arranger / And a changer of the ways he talks.”
17. Life (1987)
Freedom is the Neil Young album credited with signaling his mid-career renaissance. But I think it actually started a few years earlier with this under-appreciated, nearish gem. It’s true that Neil hadn’t yet fully shaken off his production woes. The sins of the ’80s — the drums are too loud, the synths sound chintzy, Crazy Horse at times is smoothed out into a Dire Straits clone — are still very much in evidence. But, next to Freedom, this is his best batch of songs from the decade. And a good number of the tracks are appropriately raw: “Around The World,” “Too Lonely” and “Cryin’ Eyes” are his hardest rocking songs since Re-Ac-Tor, and “Prisoners Of Rock ‘n’ Roll” might as well be Crazy Horse’s theme song. All of these tracks point to the triumph of Ragged Glory three years later. And then there’s “Inca Queen,” a ghostly eight-minute epic with sick, Spanish-style acoustic picking that feels like the unheralded sequel to “Cortez The Killer.” These are all good Neil Young tunes!
The problem is that there isn’t a show-stopping classic on the order of “Rockin’ In The Free World” to grab the public’s attention. I can imagine being a music critic in 1987, briefly dipping into this record, and then noticing that “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks” sounds like a George Michael song. Maybe that would have caused me to call Life “stunningly pallid,” as Greil Marcus did. But “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks” is actually a very good George Michael song. And this is a very good Neil Young record.
16. Comes A Time (1978)
Everyone associates Neil Young in the ’70s with his “Ditch” era, the series of albums he made after Harvest in which he sought to sabotage his mainstream fame by drowning himself in tequila and songs about dead-end Angelenos. Well, this is the un-Ditch record, a very pretty and pleasant collection of acoustic love songs that would’ve had more impact if they had come out in 1973 instead of 1978. After it came out, Neil seemed ambivalent about it — he had already moved to the abrasive vibe of his Rust Never Sleeps guise. “I hear it on the radio and it sounds nice,” he told Crowe in 1979. “But I’m somewhere else now. I’m into rock ‘n’ roll.”
Comes A Time isn’t very rock ‘n’ roll. But it does have “Look Out For My Love,” his most menacing “my heart belongs to you” song. In Neil’s view, loving him is a burden that feels like a curse. Such is life in the ditch. “Look out for my love / It’s in your neighborhood / I know things are gonna change/ But I can’t say bad or good.”
15. American Stars N Bars (1977)
His most overlooked ’70s album, so named “because one side is about American folk heroes and the other is about getting loose in bars,” as Neil later explained. Actually, most of this record is composed of extremely intoxicated country-rock songs culled from various Ditch-era sessions. This carries over to the album cover — designed by the late, great Dean Stockwell — which depicts a face-planted Neil splayed out amid the detritus of what appears to be an all-time party.
The penultimate track towers over the rest of the record: “Like A Hurricane” is a Mount Rushmore Neil song, in which the lyrics, melody and guitar playing are all equally incredible. The words act like a prequel to “Harvest Moon” — he sees a woman in a bar, or rather he thinks he sees her. She might be a figment of his imagination. But it could just be that he can’t believe his luck over having found her: “Before that moment you touched my lips / That perfect feeling when time just slips / Away between us on our foggy trip.”
As gorgeous as the lyric is, the real magic comes later. If I had to choose my favorite 10 seconds of Neil Young music, it would be the part of Neil’s “Like A Hurricane” solo from 6:40 and 6:50, when his ax suddenly morphs into a trumpet and he plays this fluttery lick that sends the hair on the back of my neck straight up. I want to love you, Neil, but I’m getting blown away.
14. Broken Arrow (1996)
The most annoying aspect of the recent Joe Rogan/Neil Young discourse was the insistence of right-wingers constantly framing Neil as an old, irrelevant coot. Maybe this is because I came to Neil in the ’90s when he already seemed (from my teenaged vantage) like an old guy who also happened to be (along with Tom Petty) one of the only boomer-era musicians with real credibility among young people. Even his peers saw him that way. On his 1997 comeback album, Time Out Of Mind, Bob Dylan sings about listening to Neil Young in the song “Highlands.” This made sense in the late ’90s, because everyone listened to Neil.
I still think his output in that decade nearly matches what he did in the ’70s, which explains why my placement of Broken Arrow is so high on this list. Yes, it’s his least well-regarded album from this period. And it could be argued that the dip in quality his work took in the 21st century was presaged here. But I really don’t think so. Instead, Broken Arrow seems (for now) like the last Neil album I would classify as “great.” Speaking of Dylan, he once said of Neil, “He could be at his most thrashy, but it’s still going to be elevated by some melody.” This functions as an incisive review of Broken Arrow. It is Neil as his most thrashy, but songs like the album opener “Big Time” are elevated by melody.
13. Sleeps With Angels (1994)
Tonight’s The Night for the ’90s. It’s actually darker than Tonight’s The Night — that album plays like a wake, whereas Sleeps Like Angels takes place at a murder scene.
While the era’s most prominent Seattle bands reacted to Kurt Cobain’s death by slowly imploding over the course of the next several years, Young was perhaps the only musician to actually process the tragedy, using his album to grieve while also subtly refuting his own lyric — “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” — that Cobain used as a sign off in his suicide note. On Sleeps With Angels, Young reasserted himself as a stalwart survivor, a man who could assess the damage around him, express what it meant, and then move forward. Miraculously, he seemed to neither burn out nor fade away.
12. Mirror Ball (1995)
Sleeps With Angels was greeted as a major statement upon release, which overshadowed the album he made next. On the surface, Mirror Ball is just a bunch of songs; it doesn’t have the gravitas of Neil’s post-grunge downer concept album. And then there’s the double skepticism of Neil teaming up with Pearl Jam, then the biggest rock band in the world — he seemed to be making a blatant commercial gesture, and Pearl Jam seemed to be using Neil for classic rock credibility.
But that’s all just conversation. This album rips. Along with Ralph Molina and Kenny Buttrey, Jack Irons is the greatest drummer Neil ever worked with. His relentless playing is the pulsing heartbeat of this record. Mirror Ball is not an album about survival; it’s an album that shows how one survives and remains vital in spite of the psychic damage inherent to a long, eventful life. The message is the sound of the record — aggressive, gnarled, energetic, boisterous, pissed off. Which is why it required a backing band with the indefatigable brawniness of mid-’90s Pearl Jam.
My favorite track on Mirror Ball is also the album’s most unusual: “I’m The Ocean” has no chorus, no guitar solo, and no dramatic dynamic shifts. It starts with the band throwing themselves into a mid-tempo groove and riding it for just over seven minutes, as Young spins a series of seemingly disconnected images over 10 verses. These images evoke a mix of hope and dread. Neil describes himself as an accident moving way too fast. He brags about how people his age “don’t do the things I do.” He sees “a rider in the night” who might in fact be death. He notices homeless men who used to be sports stars. He expresses a desire for “random violence.” He likens himself to an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. In each case, he is moving. And he is unstoppable.
11. Freedom (1989)
Neil resembles a homeless busker on the cover. It was the best he looked in years. Self-consciously packaged as a prefab “return to form” record, Freedom opens and closes with different versions of an instant classic song, “Rockin’ In The Free World,” a la Tonight’s The Night and Rust Never Sleeps. The part between those songs boasts inconsistent production and uniformly excellent songwriting. In terms of the latter, it might be better than Ragged Glory — “Wrecking Ball,” “Eldorado,” “Someday,” and “No More” are all under-appreciated Neil deep cuts. And then there’s the monumental “Crime In The City (Sixty To Zero, Part II),” a delirious story song that veers freely between genuine terror and loopy comedy. This song has everything: a bank robbery, sleazy media types, a cop who takes bribes from 10-year-olds, and a soulless record producer who trashes his artistic integrity in exchange for a cheeseburger.
It’s just a shame that Freedom doesn’t have the same rawness of Ragged Glory. If it had, it would easily break into the top 10.
10. Harvest Moon (1992)
I need to take a moment to praise Ben Keith, lap steel master and one of Neil’s oldest and most trusted collaborators, who passed away in 2010. “I swear to God, I love every sound he makes — no matter what the fuck it is,” Neil once said about the man. His first ever session was with Patsy Cline on the immortal “I Fall To Pieces,” but his playing on this record is what I love the most. It’s perfect. Neil is right — I also love every sound he makes. Tim Drummond, rogue-ish bass player and another trusted Neil lieutenant, put it best: “You know how when you’re in San Francisco and the fingertips of fog crawl in from the ocean and cover the city? That’s the way Ben Keith plays.”
9. Time Fades Away (1973)
Not a studio album, I know. But it’s a live album of originals, so I’m counting it. As for Neil himself, he’s not a fan. “My least favorite record is Time Fades Away,” he told biographer Jimmy McDonough. “I think it’s the worst record I ever made — but as a documentary of what was happening to me, it was a great record.” Neil effectively buried the album for decades, taking it out of circulation until re-releasing it as part of the Official Release Series Discs 5-8 Vinyl Box Set for Record Store Day in 2014. Before that, you had to hunt down pirated copies online. I didn’t even know the album existed until I heard the rampaging title track playing over the opening credits of Martin Scorsese’s 1978 documentary American Boy at my college campus theater in the late ’90s. (It sounds like Marty used his own vinyl copy for the film.)
I agree that the documentary aspect of Time Fades Away — recorded during the support tour for Harvest, when Neil was perpetually drunk, drugged, and miserable — is a big part of the album’s appeal. But the songs themselves display all of the strengths of Ditch-era Neil — the grimy, speed-freak storytelling of “Time Fades Away,” the sardonic anti-fame commentary of “L.A.,” the crushing isolation of “Love In Mind,” the affecting autobiography of “Don’t Be Denied,” the apocalyptic fury of “Last Dance.” Neil later felt that he should’ve played these songs with a different band, but I remain a steadfast fan of The Stray Gators, that ungodly mix of Nashville pros (Kenny Buttrey) and Neil’s usual cadre of lunatics (Ben Keith, Tim Drummond, Jack Nitzsche) that for my money is the greatest country-rock band ever. (CSNY drummer Johnny Barbata actually plays on the album; Neil fired Buttrey because he said he didn’t play hard enough. You can hear him on the excellent live album, Tuscaloosa, issued in 2019.)
On Tonight’s The Night, Neil had enough distance from his grief over the death of Danny Whitten to approach it cinematically, like a method actor. But Time Fades Away has no distance. It’s an exposed raw nerve. (“Don’t Be Denied” was written the day after Whitten’s death, and sounds like it.) If I were Neil, I wouldn’t want to revisit this album, either.
8. On The Beach (1974)
The honey slides record. What are honey slides? You start by frying some weed in a skillet until it starts to smoke. Then you add honey. I’ll let Ben Keith explain the rest, courtesy of McDonough: “It just all looks like cow shit. You take a spoon of this cow shit and you eat it. And in about 20 minutes you start forgettin’ where you are.”
On The Beach was made on honey slides, a sweet narcotic that was “much worse than heroin,” claims Neil’s manager Elliot Roberts. Which explains why half of the album sounds catatonic, including the title track, the dead-eyed pre-divorce number “Motion Pictures,” and the spooky anti-Americana of “Ambulance Blues.” But this is also a funny record — spooking David Crosby by making him play guitar on the sly Manson-referencing rocker “Revolution Blues” is a good gag. The humor, in fact, is what redeems it. Because if you’ve reached the moment in your life where you’re shoveling cow shit that’s worse than heroin in your mouth, it seems like a miracle in retrospect that you survived to make dozens more albums.
7. Zuma (1975)
I’ve spent a lot of time on this list lamenting Neil’s production choices on albums not made in the 1970s. But another equally obvious observation must also be stated for the record: The albums that Neil did make in the ’70s sound amazing. Even when they’re imperfect, they are perfect. “Wasn’t a lot of work on these records, man,” David Briggs said later. “We just set up, recorded, and I mixed ’em on the spot.” One million and one bands have attempted that formula, however, and it never comes out sounding like Zuma.
Out of all the Ditch-era records, Zuma is the one I wish I could have been around for when it was made. Zuma has a lightness to it, due to it being made in a cramped beach house in Malibu. Crazy Horse was resurrected with the inclusion of Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, a guitarist of limited ability and infinite good vibes. “He had On The Beach out, and I teased him — ‘Look at the titles. It’s “This Blues.” “That Blues,'” Sampedro later recalled. “‘Here we are in L.A., there’s beautiful chicks everywhere, we’re high out of our brains havin’ a great time — isn’t there something else to write about?'”
Neil didn’t totally leave the darkness behind: “Cortez The Killer” is the obvious calling card here. But I love Zuma for all the big, dumb, and exhilarating rockers. On “Don’t Cry No Tears,” Crazy Horse lays claim to being the greatest bar band of all-time, while “Barstool Blues” — “the definition of beauty” in McDonough’s estimation — removes any doubt about another band being in the conversation.
6. Harvest (1972)
It’s 2008. I’m on the back porch of a small house I just bought. I’m with the woman who is about to become my wife. Our wedding is two months away. It’s summer. It’s dark. Stars are in the sky but I cannot see them. There is a candle on a table between me and her. I am very stoned. The title song from Harvest is playing on a CD boom box at our feet. For three minutes and 11 seconds I am convinced that there is not a song more beautiful than this one. I look at her and I am convinced there is not a person more beautiful than this one. Dream up dream up let me fill your cup with the promise of a man. If there is a heaven, I will relive this moment forever after I die.
5. After The Gold Rush (1970)
How I define “cold-blooded”: Neil joins CSN and they record Deja Vu, released in March 1970. During the process of making the album, he keeps the other guys at arm’s length, establishing a pattern by which Neil makes it clear that he sees himself as a sovereign entity in the collective. Deja Vu is a huge hit, and helps to make Neil a huge star. Six months later, he puts out this album, and it far outsells any previous Neil record. It also sounds a lot like Deja Vu, and not at all like his previous LP, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Only After The Gold Rush is actually better than Deja Vu. As a collection of songs, it’s his most consistent album: “Tell Me Why,” “After The Gold Rush,” “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” “When You Dance I Can Really Love,” “I Believe In You.” Every track is a heater.
But more than anything, After The Gold Rush proved he could take the CSNY formula and pull it off as just Y, once he used them to increase the size of his audience. Like I said: cold-blooded.
4. Tonight’s The Night (1975)
Welcome to Miami Beach … everything is cheaper than it looks. Along with Exile On Main St., this album is the ultimate example of creating a vibe of total decadence and successfully channeling the chaos into the music. The net influence of Tonight’s The Night is undoubtedly negative in that regard — so many musicians who are less talented than Neil Young have no doubt emulated the practice of getting super blotto in the hopes that they might also produce a song as powerful as “Tired Eyes.” It never works. Except one time. This time.
For all of his interest in making actual films, none of his work as Bernard Shakey comes close to matching the cinematic power of Tonight’s The Night. It’s part docu-drama and part cinema verité documentary — a precursor to the willful self-destruction of Joaquin Phoenix’s I’m Still Here but with a much better soundtrack. Neil has said that on Tonight’s The Night he performed the songs rather than wrote him. What I think he means is that he (with lots of help from perennial chaos-courter David Briggs) constructed an environment (with lots of help from perennial chaos-courter Cuervo Gold) in which he could most accurately communicate the absolute pathos of the material. To the point where it stops being a collection of songs and becomes one big, dark, bilious cloud of carbon dioxide that’s been exhaled by seedy, near-comatose losers. All to make sure nobody would ever forget the name Bruce Berry.
3. Ragged Glory (1990)
I can be credibly accused of having a bias in favor of Generation X for putting this album so high. For a while in the ’90s, Neil was preposterously dubbed the “Godfather Of Grunge” in large part because Ragged Glory influenced so many younger bands. But grunge died a long time ago and I still take this album along on every road trip. Maybe that’s because Neil was 44 when he made this, and I’m 44 now, and I also have a bias in favor of 44-year-olds being extremely kick ass at what they do.
2. Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
The first Neil Young album I ever owned. I bought it because the title seemed like what you would call a classic album. Rust Never Sleeps — “yeah man, I feel that,” I thought as a 13-year-old. The record was very confusing to me, because it didn’t seem like it was made by the same person. Side 1 was sensitive ’70s SoCal folk music that referenced Johnny Rotten and Marlon Brando. Side 2 was the most caustic music I had ever heard. I thought about returning the tape to my local record store, as I assumed that Side 2 had been mistakenly dubbed from some godforsaken album recorded by a long-forgotten and semi-competent punk band.
But then I listened a few more times and realized that the contrasting sides of Rust Never Sleeps complemented each other. Later on, I also noticed that the meanest songs were actually on Side 1 — “Thrasher” mocked the guys in CSN specifically, and “Hey, Hey, My, My (Out Of The Blue)” mocked the ’60s generation of rock stars generally. And on Side 2, he actually showed compassion for a cast of misfits: welfare mothers, drug freaks, dead riflemen, anyone else daring to live in spite of life’s inevitable decay. Now that I’m much older than I was then, I really feel that.
1. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
It’s how I want a rock band to sound. I play it when I feel anxious because hearing Neil and Crazy Horse hang out and play together relaxes me. Neil and Danny singing together is the most potent antidepressant, especially when they sing about being on the losing end. But “every time I think about back home / it’s cool and breezy” also never fails to put a smile on my face. And the part at 4:25 in “Down By The River” where Neil and Danny’s guitars grind in unison. And the one-note solo in “Cinnamon Girl,” because it has exactly the right number of notes. And the part when the riff of “Cowgirl In The Sand” first explodes out of the speakers, because it always shocks the hell out of me no matter how many times I hear it. This album makes me feel so good that I almost don’t care that this version of Crazy Horse fell apart immediately afterward. I guess it had to be that way. Neil had other places to go. But his natural habitat (and mine) will always be nowhere.
Neil Young is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.