Neil Young: Five Best Albums

Neil Young has enjoyed a long and erratic music career. His first brush with fame came with Buffalo Springfield in the 1960s. He released his first solo album in 1969, and he also teamed up with Crosby, Stills, and Nash for 1970’s Déjà Vu. Young’s been prolific ever since, releasing grungy rock with Crazy Horse and gentler material tinged with country and folk.

My favourite Neil Young records all come from the first ten years of his solo career. While Young enjoyed a strong comeback from 1989’s Freedom, albums like 1990’s Ragged Glory and 1994’s Sleeps With Angels suffer from their release in the overlong CD era. A special shout-out to 1977’s Decade, a spectacular compilation that wasn’t eligible for the list below.

Five Best Neil Young Albums

Tonight’s The Night

Neil Young Tonight's The Night

#5, 1975
A drunken wake to commemorate the deaths of Crazy Horse’s Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, Tonight’s The Night is Young’s most ragged album, with some of his worst singing. Songs like ‘New Mama’ and ‘World On A String’ are well-written, while the rawness of ‘Tired Eyes’ and the title track are cathartic. Whitten’s also featured on a live performance of Crazy Horse’s ‘Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown’.

Everybody Knows This is Nowhere

Neil Young Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

#4 , 1969
Young’s second solo album was his first with backing band Crazy Horse, whose primeval stomp fitted perfectly with Young’s grungy guitar. Some of the album’s seven songs are unremarkable, but it’s irrelevant when the track-list includes ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and lengthy guitar epics ‘Down By The River’ and ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’.

On The Beach

Neil Young On The Beach

#3, 1974
On The Beach is a calmer sequel to Tonight’s The Night, although it was released beforehand; Tonight’s release was delayed for two years. Notable for being out of print on CD for years, it has the apocalyptic rocker ‘Revolution Blues’, but lots of pretty material like ‘See The Sky About to Rain’ and the entire second side.

Rust Never Sleeps

Neil Young and Crazy Horse Rust Never Sleeps

#2, 1979
Neil Young’s work seemed remarkably clear headed at the end of the 1970s, regaining his equilibrium after a tough few years in the middle of the decade. Rust Never Sleeps features a beautiful acoustic side (‘Thrasher’, ‘Sail Away’) and a raging electric side (‘Powderfinger’).

After the Gold Rush

Neil Young After The Goldrush

#1, 1970
After the success of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s Déjà Vu, Young created a confident solo album. This eclectic set of brilliant songs ranges from the prettiness of the title track and ‘I Believe In You’ to rockers like ‘Southern Man’ and ‘When You Dance (I Can Really Love)’.

Do you have a favourite Neil Young album, or a top 5? Am I silly to leave off Ragged Glory? Do you love his 21st century work?

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    • I haven’t heard Hitchhiker, but I probably should. I already know most of the songs obviously, but it’s nice to hear them in one place. Lots of those songs are centrepieces of later albums – ‘Captain Kennedy’ is the best song on Hawks of Dove, and ‘Powderfinger’ is a highlight on Rust Never Sleeps.

    • I do feel like his 1990s stuff suffered a little from being released in the CD era – for me Ragged Glory mostly works on the back of that glorious Crazy Horse sound, but still might have been a better 40 minute album. A forty minute Freedom would have been excellent too.

  1. It’s amazing how Tonight’s the night sat on the shelf for a couple years before seeing the light of day – I enjoyed your line about some of his worst singing. For some reason, it’s that completely unpolished/imperfect sound that’s really started to appeal to me about Neil!

  2. Hard to argue with anything on this list. My personal top 5 would be Harvest, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, On The Beach, Zuma and American Stars N’ Bars.

  3. Great list. One probably needs a top ten for Mr Young. I say that even though I rarely listen to his material these days and have nothing from the past 14 years.

    Nevertheless, here’s my offering (off the ragged cuff):

    5. Comes A Time
    4. Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
    3. On the Beach
    2. After The Goldrush
    1. Time Fades Away (the only Neil I’ve written about)

  4. Upon my first (okay, 30) listen(s) of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, I loved it immediately. Along with Al Green’s “Call Me”; Randy Newman’s “12 Songs”; and Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”, “Moondance” and “Veedon Fleece”, “Nowhere” was my go-to summer album.

    Nowadays, I haven’t listened to it in about a month. I haven’t necessarily grown tired of it; rather, it’s just that I’ve realized how the songwriting isn’t top-notch. “On the Beach” has its standout moments but has really mediocre songs throughout. “Tonight’s the Night” is entirely raw and bare, and I like it for that reason alone. However, some of the song’s are just okay; others are fantastic though. Lastly, “After the Gold Rush” is amazing; probably my favorite Young album. Is nearly perfect (I just don’t like the title track, quite frankly).

    Ahhhhhh, this is making me want to listen to some Neil Young again! With that being said, I should check out Deja Vu.

  5. I’m actually working on a ranking of ALL of Neil Young’s albums at the moment! Quite a task, as there are about 60! I’d agree pretty much with your top 5 though Graham apart from I have Zuma in there instead of Rust Never Sleeps. The order is slightly different for me with On The Beach my current no. 1. His quality control has been a bit wayward in recent decades but there is still the odd gem to unearth. Of his more “recent” albums I would have Ragged Glory and Mirror Ball up there near the Top 10.

    • Thanks for writing in! I think the Guardian or someone put out a list yesterday of all Young’s albums – I find I get diminishing returns at some point in most artists’ discographies – at some point it makes sense for me to listen to something else instead. Young in particular is very prolific, cranking out a record a year even in his older age.

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