A great songwriter, but not a great voice. Neil Young? Bob Dylan? Kris Kristofferson? It could apply to a lot of singer-songwriters.
Neil Young knows he’s not a great singer. When he was with Buffalo Springfield he even let Richie Furay take the lead vocals on several of his songs. People who don’t like Neil Young because of his voice are missing so much great music! Neil has a way of conveying songs that make them uniquely excellent.
Maybe no one’s keeping track, but Neil Young may be the most prolific songwriter ever. He’s done over 40 albums of original material, and that doesn’t include live albums or collections.
His 1st solo album is Neil Young (might as well get your name known). The January 1969 release featured “The Loner” (among other good songs). Just four months later (prolific!), Young released Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere with his band Crazy Horse. It has the classic rock tracks “Cinnamon Girl”, “Down By The River”, and “Cowgirl In The Sand”. Then in August (still 1969), he joined the band that became known as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, with former Buffalo Springfield bandmate Stephen Stills. Deja Vu.
Looking back, Neil Young wasn’t really a member of the group, he was much more like a guest star. Since 1969, Young has only contributed 10 songs to three studio albums that were many years apart. That’s why they’re called CSN & sometimes Y. Of course he performed live with CS&N many times, and there is that one truly classic single… “Ohio”…about the killing of 4 Kent State students by National Guardsmen.
Joining CSN made him famous. He used that notoriety very well with a high-quality solo album in 1970, the same year as Deja Vu. The title was, appropriately, After The Gold Rush. It’s filled with good songs, including “Tell Me Why”, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, “I Believe In You”, “Birds (It’s Over)”, and “Southern Man”. CS&N probably wondered where those songs were when they put together Deja Vu.
Young then released what is generally considered his best album, 1972’s Harvest. It has his only big hit, “Heart Of Gold”, which featured Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor on vocals, and “Old Man” on which JT played the banjo part. Other cuts include “A Man Needs A Maid”, “The Needle And The Damage Done”, and “Alabama”. That last song, along with “Southern Man” from his previous album, really ticked off Lynyrd Skynyrd. “Sweet Home Alabama” became a huge hit for them as they bashed Neil Young in the lyrics. Afterwards, they became friends. Fun fact: “Heart Of Gold” was knocked out of the #1 position by a song that sounded like Neil Young…”A Horse With No Name” by America.
Neil Young turned away from the success of Harvest by releasing some of his least commercial albums…Time Fades Away (a live album of new material, only very recently made available again)…On The Beach …and… Tonight’s The Night (a stark album partially about the drug deaths of friends). A famous quote from Neil: ” ‘Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch.” Those three albums are known by fans as “The Ditch Trilogy”.
Critics and core fans now look back favorably on these albums. I bought the albums as they were released, and like some songs from all of them. My personal favorite cut is “See The Sky About To Rain” from On The Beach.
It would take lots of articles (or books) to cover Neil Young, so here are some selected musical moments.
Besides the singles “Long May You Run” with Stephen Stills, and “Like A Hurricane”, the next commercial popularity for Neil Young was the album Comes A Time in 1978. It was a return to the country-rock sound, with lots of great songs and vocal help from Nicolette Larson, who had a hit with “Lotta Love”, a song from the album.
Neil Young ended the 1970’s with some of his best work…Rust Never Sleeps. It includes both his acoustic and electric sides. Two versions of the same song, with slightly different lyrics, bookend the album. “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” and “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black). The first is acoustic, and the second is an electric all-out Rock song. A career-spanning live album followed…Live Rust. Good stuff.
Apparently success makes Neil Young turn the other way. His albums in the ’80’s were so non-commercial that his new label, Geffen, sued him for not recording “typical Neil Young albums”. There were 9 albums between 1980 and 1989. They varied a lot in musical styles and quality. Again, I like some of the songs, even from Trans (1982), which apparently some fans hate. They just couldn’t handle the Synth Rock sound of Neil’s voice electronically altered through a “Vocoder”. I like “Transformer Man”, the reworking of “Mr. Soul”, and especially “Sample And Hold”…the original vinyl version is best. Unfortunately, the CD has a different mix. 1988’s This Note’s For You got noticed for the popular video with Young saying he’s “not singing for Pepsi, not singing for Coke”…instead, “this note’s for you”. I love the bluesy song “One Thing” from the same album.
Neil returned to Reprise Records in 1989, and what do you know…he made a “typical Neil Young album”…Freedom. It has acoustic and electric versions of “Rockin’ In The Free World”. When he did a radio concert for the album, he performed a great version of “Someday” with just piano and voice. It’s way better than the album version, which is burdened with sound effects and odd background voices.
Another solid Neil Young album followed…Ragged Glory (1990). Harvest Moon in 1992 pleased even more of his fans. For some reason, Neil must have wanted back into the middle of the road. Harvest Moon and Comes A Time are the most Harvest-like of his albums.
And then he recorded another 18 albums! Can’t get into them all, but here’s my “Neil Young’s Best Vol. 4” playlist (1992-2014).
Neil Young has musically gone wherever his mood and muse have taken him…rock, country, electronic, grunge, folk, jazz/blues, experimental. No one is going to like everything he’s done. Music is subjective. We listen to what we like. Neil Young has given us a lot to like during his long run.