Where To Start With

Where To Start With… Neil Young

Beginning our new series of deep dives into the work of music legends, Chris White guides us through five albums by way of introduction to Neil Young’s immense catalogue 

Neil Young

Neil Young (Photo: PR)

With an illustrious career stretching back almost six decades and encompassing almost 50 studio albums alone, knowing where to start with Neil Young’s hefty back catalogue can be a daunting prospect.

In this first of a new musicOMH series of in depth focus pieces on some of music’s most critically acclaimed artists, Chris White, author of the recently released book Neil Young Album by Album, shares his thoughts on how to get to grips with one of rock’s most mercurial and unpredictable figures through five key records… 


Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)

Neil Young - Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere By the end of the 1960s, Neil Percival Young, born in Ontario, Canada in 1945 but based in California since the age of 20, was already an established name after a short but successful stint as a key member of LA rock band Buffalo Springfield, best known for their 1967 hit single For What It’s Worth. Young’s always fractious relationship with the other band members – in particular fellow songwriter Stephen Stills – saw him walk out for good in May 1968 and his first, eponymously titled solo album followed in November that year. 

The album Neil Young, while having some excellent songs, was an uncertain, transitional effort overall, hamstrung by the recording’s mastering issues which led to a new version being released just two months later. But Young’s next album, 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, remains one of the most important (and best) records in his entire discography, featuring his first collaboration with his legendary, force of nature backing band Crazy Horse and kicking off a run of outstanding albums that would last a decade.

The album had its genesis in a chance meeting between Young and the members of a relatively unknown six-piece garage rock band called The Rockets during Young’s Buffalo Springfield years. After jamming together a few times and loving their self-titled debut album, Young, excited by the possibilities of his new electric guitar/amp combination backed by the Rockets’ freeform, unstructured groove, booked studio time with three members of the group – guitarist Danny Whitten (who would tragically die of a heroin overdose in 1972), bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina – who would soon evolve into Crazy Horse.

While there are no weak moments at all among Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’s seven tracks, there are three standout songs which remain perennial Young classics to this day. Cinnamon Girl, with its irresistibly crunchy guitar riffs, handclaps and joyous vocals, is three minutes of rock near-perfection, while Down By The River and Cowgirl In The Sand, in contrast, are nine and 10 minute long epics, early examples of the sprawling and unhurried sonic landscapes that would form an integral part of many a Neil Young and Crazy Horse album to come, with expansive, evocative instrumental sections featuring numerous tempo shifts and some scintillating guitar interplay.


After The Goldrush (1970)

Neil Young - After The Goldrush Although Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was the record that announced Neil Young’s arrival as a solo artist of the first rank, it was its follow up After The Gold Rush that made him a star. Following the first outing of his Crazy Horse-backed, more unstructured garage rock sound on Everybody Knows… After The Gold Rush also established what was to become Young’s other trademark guise – that of the poetic, country and folk influenced acoustic singer-songwriter.

The phenomenal success of super group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSN&Y), who Young joined in 1969, created the perfect platform for each of the four individual members to push forward their own solo careers. With After The Gold Rush, which he’d been working on alongside his CSN&Y commitments, Young came up with the ideal record to capitalise on his new found fame, showing consistently for the first time his ability to mine traditional American music and blend its sounds with rock’s melodic immediacy to deliver songs that felt both organic and accessible. It’s fantastic from start to finish, but highlights include the beautiful piano melody and cosmic lyrics of the title track, the wistfully pretty country-tinged ballad Only Love Can Break Your Heart (later covered by Saint Etienne to great effect), Southern Man’s controversial condemnation of racism in the Deep South of the US and the soaring, hymnal I Believe In You. 

Young went on to achieve the peak of his commercial success with Harvest two years later, but while his best known album is undoubtedly also a classic, there’s a strong argument that After The Goldrush is the most complete record of Young’s entire career and the best place to begin exploring his music. This is partly because of the sheer quality of the songs, but also the beautifully judged musical textures, the restrained elegance of the performances and Young’s lyrical versatility, which tackles subjects ranging from universal themes of love and loss to evocative depictions of a flawed America. 


Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

Neil Young - Rust Never Sleeps There is probably no single record Neil Young has made that better demonstrates his phenomenal musical versatility than Rust Never Sleeps. A record divided into two distinct sides with different recording dates, personnel and styles, Rust Never Sleeps’ straight down the line split between acoustic and electric halves – the latter with Crazy Horse – is an iconic and thrilling work that also marks the end of an astonishing run of high quality albums dating back to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere 10 years earlier. 

Over the previous seven years, Young had retreated from the global fame generated by Harvest’s phenomenal success, releasing a trio of frequently brilliant but more raw and challenging albums known by fans as ‘The Ditch Trilogy’ before gradually returning to a more mainstream sound with records like the more accessible rock textures of 1975’s Zuma and the gentle country rock of 1978’s Comes A Time. 

Rust Never Sleeps is perhaps best known for its well documented influence upon the noise-pop and grunge bands that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in particular, the line from My, My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) –  “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” – which became legendary when Kurt Cobain quoted it in his suicide note in 1994. Included here in two separate versions that bookend the album, the closing, Crazy Horse backed Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) provides a compelling, distorted mirror image of My, My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) with its monstrous guitar riff and swathes of feedback a direct reaction by Young to the scabrous energy of punk. Add in three more of Young’s finest songs – the gorgeous, yearning acoustic melodies of Thrasher and Pocahontas and the magnificent storytelling drama and rock dynamics of Powderfinger – voted Young’s best ever track by Rolling Stone magazine in 2021 – and Rust Never Sleeps has to be considered one of the most essential of the Canadian’s albums.


Harvest Moon (1992)

Neil Young - Harvest Moon While the 1970s is widely regarded as Young’s defining decade when he produced most of his most enduring work, after a difficult 1980s, when he zigzagged unconvincingly between several different genres, he enjoyed a major career renaissance in the 1990s. Buoyed by his emerging status as ‘the godfather of grunge’, which led to him recording his 1995 album Mirror Ball with Pearl Jam, there are several records from this period which are among his best. While my personal favourite is 1990’s Ragged Glory, with its thrillingly raw, muscular and expressive guitar sound showcasing Young and Crazy Horse at their finest, 1992’s acoustic Harvest Moon is probably the album to explore first. 

With Harvest Moon, Young finally delivered the follow up to Harvest that fans had spent the past two decades hoping for, even reassembling most of the original band lineup from the 1972 record. The album’s meticulous craftsmanship, beautifully understated playing and some wonderfully elegant, timeless songs make it a delightfully mellow listening experience, with the gracefully lilting title track in particular becoming one of Young’s most widely known songs.

Young has continued to record albums regularly right up until 2023’s Before And After, and while his later work remains unfailingly honest, passionate and interesting, with many albums worthy of exploration, the 1990s was the last time he was truly great as a recording artist.


Neil Young - Hitchhiker Hitchhiker (recorded 1976, released 2017)

Neil Young’s career has always been incredibly prolific. As well as his remarkably frequent studio albums, a large number of live albums, official bootlegs and entire previously unreleased albums have been made available in recent years as part of Young’s gargantuan Archives series. In my Neil Young Album by Album guide, I made the decision to include several albums originally planned as official releases before subsequently being ditched either by Young himself or by his record company, as I felt they formed an essential part of Young’s artistic journey. 

Of these, 2017’s Hitchhiker, an acoustic solo album he recorded in one night on 11 August 1976, should form part of any introduction to Young’s music. On the night in question, Young and producer David Briggs went up to Indigo Ranch Recording Studio in Malibu from their beach home and, as Briggs put it, Young said “guess I’ll just turn on the tap”. The following 33 minutes provide a fascinating insight into a great songwriter at the peak of his powers. His sheer natural talent can be appreciated here in its purest form, with some truly great songs flowing through his body to his guitar and voice with seemingly effortless ease. 

Young intended to release the album shortly after it was recorded, but executives at Reprise felt that it wasn’t a real record, but a collection of demos, advising him to record the songs with a band instead. Young declined to do so, and the album remained locked in the vaults for the next 40 years before finally appearing as the first of the Neil Young Archives Special Release series with the title Hitchhiker. By this point, eight of the 10 songs had been released on other studio albums during the intervening three decades, a testament to the formidable strength of the material. These include early versions of Pocahontas and Powderfinger as well as lesser known gems such as the heartfelt relationship break up ballad Give Me Strength and Campaigner, one of Young’s most explicitly political songs with its depiction of an unnamed, disillusioned figure who has apparently been campaigning for the by then disgraced ex-US president Richard Nixon. 


Considering deeper exploration?

Neil Young - Album By Album

Neil Young – Album By Album book cover

There is no other musician like Neil Young. The popular perception is that he is something of a musical schizophrenic – either the acoustic country-folk troubadour of After The Goldrush and Harvest Moon, or the rock guitar-wielding frontman of his Crazy Horse albums. Yet categorising Young’s work so neatly feels reductive due to the sheer variety of different musical styles he’s explored over his long career – whether that be synth-rock on 1982’s Trans, pure unadulterated country on 1985’s Old Ways, orchestra and big band on 2014’s Storytone, grunge on the 1995 Pearl Jam collaboration Mirror Ball, or sparse, improvised instrumentals on 1996’s Dead Man soundtrack.

I chose to write about Neil Young because I felt that of all the great figures of rock music, his musical journey had been the most interesting and varied, and I wanted to tell his story by reviewing his albums one by one and weaving in biographical information alongside my insights into his music. The content has been written chronologically, starting with 1969’s eponymous debut album and running right through to 2023’s Before And After. If you’re keen to explore Young’s music further after dipping into the five albums I’ve covered in this article, perhaps Neil Young Album by Album may be the book for you.

• Neil Young Album by Album, by Chris White, is available to buy now from Pen and Sword Books

• More on Neil Young can be found at neilyoungarchives.com 

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