How many years do you have to do something before it becomes a tradition?
Well in recent years, whenever I go away with my family, I set myself the ‘challenge’ of working my way through a particular artist or band’s albums in chronological order.
I love my little step family of course, but as both my step-kids have autism and behavioural issues, holidays can be difficult and having your own focus can really help you keep your sanity when the demands are high.
I usually pick an artist or band that I already love but haven’t had chance to fully check out the full back catalogue .
A couple of years back I set myself the challenge of listening to and ranking each and every solo Beatles’ post-Beatles output. If you’re interested, you can find these here: Paul, John, George and Ringo.
Then last year it was the wonderful New Order, which you can check out here: My Week With New Order.
Now onto this year, when I’ve decided to take on the fascinating and varied output of one of rock’s most unique, influential and enduring songwriters, Neil Young.
I know a good many Neil albums already, but considering there are around 40 studio albums spanning 50 years, I’ve never taken the ‘plunge’ at listening to them ALL.
There are a number of albums missing here; such as some of the live albums, compilations and so on. But I’ve tried to be as comprehensive as possible and feature as many studio albums as I could.
I hope you enjoy reading my opinions (and remember that these are all they are, one listener’s opinions, often uninformed and inexperienced, and my thoughts may well change the more chance I have to hear the albums again and again!) and I’d love to hear your favourite Young songs and albums in the comments below!
How I marked each album I listened to:
⭐️ Passable (there’s no such thing as a Neil Young album not worth listening to!)
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Essential Listening
Anyway, enough dilly-dallying – Let’s Rock!
Neil Young (1969)
A strong debut, already showing Young’s unique melodic ability. More country and classical influence than I expected.
Perhaps not as memorable or emotionally/stylistically ‘raw’ as his later efforts, but a well crafted start to his solo work and definitely worth a listen.
Favourite song: I’ve Been Waiting For You
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
Neil really finds his feet on this more confident album which has the edge and rockier sound that garnered him the ‘godfather of grunge’ mantle. The songs are consistently engaging, and this album is an understandable classic.
If I had any criticism it would be some of the solos/jams go on a little long, but that’s just a personal taste preference.
Favourite song: Cinnamon Girl
After the Gold Rush (1970)
Another absolute classic master class in songwriting. Neil pushes his voice on some of the songs which might put some listeners off, but to me it just added to the vulnerability and emotion in the songs.
Real maturity and melodic brilliance throughout.
Favourite song: Only Love Can Break Your Heart
Like a lot of people, Harvest was my first introduction to Neil, and as such it’s difficult to analyse it objectively. It’s the album I guess I judge all the others by; the benchmark if you will.
A classic singer/songwriter at the height of his powers, with songs that resonate and stick with you (with the exception of A Man Needs a Maid which isn’t great!). A Gorgeous album that you can return to again and again and never get wary of.
Favourite song: Heart of Gold
Time Fades Away (1973)
Neil comes over like Dylan’s ‘naughty little brother’ on this live collection of new blistering rockers and heartfelt ballads.
Neil’s always captivating live, but the tunes on first listen grab you less than the last few.
That said, it’s still full of great moments and definitely worth checking out.
Favourite song: Love in Mind
On the Beach (1974)
Funky, bluesy and tight as hell. Enough groove and heart for days.
Favourite song: Motion Pictures (For Carrie)
Tonight’s the Night (1975)
Accomplished and consistently strong tunes which definitely rock. However I didn’t enjoy this one as much as On the Beach on first listen.
Probably the most ’70s sounding of Young’s albums I’ve heard so far.
Favourite song: New Mama
Oh yes. Zuma reaches the parts other artists’ albums can’t reach, and this is definitely one of my favourites so far.
I can tell I love this one, as I don’t want to move on, I just want to keep listening to it!
Favourite song: Pardon My Heart
Long May You Run (1976)
A collaboration with longtime friend and collaborator Stephen Stills.
A serviceable rock album and It’s nice enough but didn’t quite move me like Zuma did.
Favourite song: Make Love to You
American Bars and Stars (1977)
For the most part, American Bars and Stars sounds like an Eagles’ album. I like the Eagles, but come on Neil!
Favourite song: Like a Hurricane
Comes a Time (1978)
A very pleasant and stripped back listen, similar in feel but perhaps less remarkable than Harvest.
A happy sounding Neil seems to have found peace on this album.
Favourite song: Already One
Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
If Young sounded like he was settling down on ‘Comes a Time,’ he rediscovers a serious amount of fire on ‘Rust Never Sleeps.’
Neil repeats the formula of Time Fades Away some 6 years earlier by recording a ‘live’ (with some added studio instruments) album of new material.
The difference here however is that the songs are unforgettable, the atmosphere is electric and intimate throughout and after a few more lacklustre albums, Neil shows what a songwriting force he still was at the end of a fascinating decade.
Favourite song: Thrasher
Hawks and Doves (1980)
Although Neil’s output in the ’70’s was consistently great, I have my fears going into the ’80’s. It’s fair to say that many established artists released some howlers in the ’80’s, even Bowie! So I set my expectations low for Neil.
But I have to say his first ’80’s album Hawks and Doves is…good. That’s it? Well yeah, it’s not a bad album, it sounds like a Neil Young album, and hasn’t fallen for any of the musical trends of the times. It’s not gonna set the world on light, but it’s enjoyable, folky and fun.
Plus I don’t know why but I love that album cover!
Favourite song: Captain Kennedy
Neil goes New Wave. It rocks. It works.
Favourite song: Rapid Transit
Neil goes full on 80’s with a combination of rock and electro.
Maybe it’s because I was forewarned how controversial this album was that I listened without prejudice, and I quite liked it. I admire an artist trying out new things and not becoming stagnant, and although this isn’t the sort of album you’d return to again and again, it’s fun and combines a kind of Kraftwerk sound with rock, what’s not to like?
See also…Hot Space by Queen. Needs to be listened to in isolation of the rest of the catalogue to really enjoy it.
In fact, I’d be interested to hear what fans who got into Neil during this period first thought of the rest of his albums!
Favourite song: Computer Age
Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983)
Perhaps it’s not too much of a shock that Neil wanted to make a Rockabilly album, considering he started out in instrumental ‘Shadows’ style band the Squires (thanks Wikipedia!).
But it must’ve been a shock for fans and the record company at the time, as Neil continued to shift styles and direction at a dizzying pace. They must’ve thought he’d gone nuts!
Well, I can confirm it’s a really fun rockabilly album and is definitely worth a spin, although it’s not essential listening. Neil doesn’t sound out of place making electronics or rockabilly; which is surely a testimony to his diverse talents, and you can tell he’s having fun throughout.
My only criticism is it’s maybe a bit ‘too well produced,’ and would’ve preferred more of a raw live sound to fit the music, but hey, it’s the 80’s, what you gonna do?
Favourite song: Bright Lights, Big City
Old Ways (1985)
Following Neil through the ’80s is a bit of a guessing game from album to album – what’s he going to do next?
And whilst it’s been interesting seeing him try out different styles so far, country and western was never my thing, and for the first time in 17 albums, I was on the verge of boredom for this one.
It’s nice, it’s listenable, but it’s pretty dull.
Favourite song: Misfits
Landing on Water (1986)
At its best, Landing on Water explores some pretty interesting industrial rock ideas. At its worst it feels like a Phil Collins’ album (no offence to Phil, but this is a Neil Young album). Plus for some unknown reason I found the drum production painful, no idea why (anyone else had this or is it just me?).
Landing on Water combines some of the electro ideas of Trans with heavier rock and ’80’s pop.
I reckon this will improve with repeat listening as there are a lot of good melodies in there.
But it’s not what I’d call a classic Neil Young album.
Favourite song: Violent Side
I thought Neil getting back with Crazy Horse was enough to allay my fears. But whether it’s the ’80s production or that I’ve maybe listened to too many ’80’s albums in one day but this felt like just ‘more of the same;’ with the same issues I had with ‘Landing in Water’ and I didn’t find it an enjoyable experience for the most part.
Favourite song: Inca Queen
This Note’s For You (1988)
Neil goes all Jools Holland, and although it’s still not back to the heights of his best output, it’s a good listen and much more enjoyable than the last few. I liked this one.
Neil’s voice hasn’t sounded this soulful for a while and his foray into jazz works surprisingly well.
Favourite song: Coupé De Ville
Neil ends a turbulent and varied decade on a huge ‘comeback’ album with Freedom.
The fire and the passion is palpable, and unlike most of his 80s output these songs are memorable and crucial listening.
This ‘new’ and ‘reenergised’ Neil helped remind the burgeoning grunge movement of the late 80’s/early 90’s who their ‘godfather’ was and helped solidify his reputation as a relevant songwriter for the times.
The title is suitable; Neil sounds ‘free’ and ready to embrace a new decade on this brilliant album.
Favourite song: Don’t Cry
Ragged Glory (1990)
Goodtime grungy goodness.
It’s top stuff, but feels more like a collection of ‘B-Sides’ to ‘Freedom’ than its own standalone album. If you loved that, you’ll like this.
Favourite song: Over and Over
Harvest Moon (1992)
The spiritual successor to ‘Harvest’ some 20 years earlier; featuring many of the same musicians and sharing a similar stylistic sound and feel.
Neil must’ve had so much pressure to release a Harvest style album for so many years, so I’m glad he waited to do it on his own terms, and this is a gorgeous album that indeed makes a nice listening companion to Neil’s most famous album.
Music for the soul, absolutely beautiful throughout.
Grab yourself a glass of something medicinal and let this album envelope you.
Favourite song: You and Me
Sleeps with Angels (1994)
Damn that 90s production is sweet, and this is a very listenable, if not overly engaging set of songs. It might well improve with repeat listens, but I’ve not fully made my mind up on this one.
A little middle of the road for Neil’s 90’s albums, not quite acoustic, not quite electric, but kind of a mishmash of eclectic ideas.
Favourite song: Safeway Cart
Mirror Ball (1995)
Heavy metal meets pirate shanties in this wonderfully chaotic rock album which combines Neil with some of his protégés; members of Pearl Jam no less!
Mirror Ball seriously rocks, so crank it up loud! I love this!
Favourite song: Scenery
Dead Man (1996)
Although it’s always a treat to hear Neil’s guitar playing, this is less a fully fledged album as it is a collection of guitar motifs played by Neil to soundtrack the film of the same name. It’s difficult without having seen the film and judging it purely on its musical merit to find much to make me want to return to it.
Favourite song: Guitar Solo Number 2
Broken Arrow (1996)
I admit as I got towards the end of Neil’s ’80s albums I was struggling. A few interesting stylistic changes unfortunately gave way by the end of the decade (Freedom not withstanding, I’ll come back to that!) to rather dull country and western or pounding drums trying to find a melody.
But I’m so glad I stuck with it, because his ’90’s output (in which I include Freedom because it signalled the change he was going to make and was released in the last few months of the ’80’s anyway!) was so damned exciting and expressive; as he rode the wave of alternative music he’d help to create and certainly helped to influence.
On Neil’s last ‘proper’ 90’s album Broken Arrow, he incorporates the classic melodic strengths of his 70’s classics with the raw power of his 90’s output to create a seemingly easy sounding retrospective group of tunes to see out the decade and millennium with a bang. Highly enjoyable.
Favourite song: Scattered
Silver and Gold (2000)
Neil starts off the new millennium showing his softer, reflective side on this sumptuous acoustic album that takes you to a very chilled out place. Neil’s voice has never sounded better and although it’s perhaps not up there with his very best, it’s a pleasant album that instantly feels like an old friend. Neil is in fine fettle as he embarks on his 4th decade of music making.
Favourite song: Silver and Gold
Are you Passionate (2002)
Neil joins up with one of my all time favourite ‘backing bands’ ever, Booker T and the MGs (the incredible musicians who provided the backbone for Stax records!) including one of my all time favourite guitarists Steve Cropper!
Neil’s forays into electronica, jazz and rockabilly all worked well, so I would’ve expected with all those stellar ingredients him to easily be able to turn his hand to soul, and for this to be a really classic album. But strangely it doesn’t really work and falls flat. Neil’s voice sounds thin and unconvincing, and his songwriting is not up to its heights. A real shame.
Favourite song: Two Old Friends
Neil writes a ‘rock opera’ about a fictional family from a fictional small town in America (similar to the small town he came from).
A concept album in the hands of Neil Young avoids all of the cliches and the tropes you would expect from a ‘rock opera’ and instead presents itself as a great music album with a running lyrical theme that is intelligent, interesting and well executed.
Favourite song: Bandit
fun but fairly It’s not uninspir . But so many
If the last few albums had lacked some of Neil’s characteristic rawness and ‘bite,’ the same could not be said for ‘Living With War,’ his frank attacked on the Bush administration and the Iraq war.
He took a real chance at taking such a firm political stance and lost a lot of fans as a result, but simply replied ‘I don’t want those sorts of fans anyway.’
You’ve got to admire his conviction; showing once again his punk head and hippy heart were very much alive and well.
The music is also passionate and unforgettable. A great return to form after a run of inconsistent albums.
Neil uses the same rhythm section as on 1989’s ‘Freedom’ album for these ‘metal folk protest songs,’ and it makes a good companion album to that one. His use of the whole band as backing singers also gives the song ironically a ‘call to arms’ feel; although obviously the call is against war and the war-mongering president of the time.
Favourite song: Shock and Awe
Chrome Dreams II (2007)
Yes, you read that right, this is the second Chrome Dreams album, the first being unreleased at the time of Bars and Stars at the end of the ’70’s.
Anyway, any album was going to feel less hard hitting after ‘Living with War,’ but this is another heartfelt collection of classic Neil Young songs and I loved this album.
Favourite song: Ordinary People
Fork in the Road (2009)
Neil finds his funk again in this tight, rocking selection of tunes on the subject of driving, to end off the first decade of the new millennium. The songs aren’t quite ‘up there’ with the last couple of albums, but it’s a solid collection.
Favourite song: Light a Candle
Le Noise (2010)
Le Noise is one of Neil’s rawest albums, sounding mostly like one man and his guitar cranked up ‘to 11’ with a few studio parlour tricks thrown in. But it works.
Favourite song: Peaceful Valley Boulevard
Neil enlists his mates from Crazy Horse for the first time since 2003’s Greendale for a collection of traditional folk songs with a live and raucous arrangement of their own.
The joy of old friends doing what they love permeates the album and is infectious to the listener, and Neil makes these traditional songs his own.
I could’ve done without the version of God Save the Queen though haha.
Favourite song: Oh Suzannah
Psychedelic Pill (2012)
Neil’s second album of the same year with Crazy Horse; this time with original material. Ironically, even though the songs are ok, I found this one much less inspiring than their take on traditional songs from the same year.
And what is it with these 18 minute jams? I love your music Neil, but enough already.
Favourite song: For the Love of Man
A Letter Home (2014)
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️A Letter Home is something a little different; which coming from an artist as diverse and varied as Neil Young is an amazing thing in itself.
Released on Record Store Day, the whole album was recorded in a refurbished 1947 vinyl recording booth, that artists used to create one-time demos on (including Elvis in his young days) by singing and playing directly onto vinyl disc.
Obviously this seriously limits how the recording is made…it has to be live, it has to be one take and there is only room for one person in the booth.
In the hands of someone younger and more ‘polished,’ this would’ve come across as strange and achingly hipster. But for someone whose ‘vintage’ is the same as the booth they are singing in, and for someone like Neil, who is as used to stripped back intimate recording as they are to lavish big production pieces, it comes across as timeless, charming and somehow fitting.
Obviously the AM radio/78rpm 1940’s sound won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I found it endearing and heartwarming. Neil’s choice of songs really suit him and the project too.
Favourite song: Crazy
Neil records an album of songs presented in different ‘versions;’ solo, with an orchestra and in a big band format!
Quite a nice idea, offering the listener different options and also letting different facets of each song show themselves from different angles.
Of course none of this would matter if the songs weren’t any good, and I’m happy to report they are well worth listening to. Perhaps not Neil’s finest writing, but still enjoyable.
I enjoyed the ‘solo’ performances, which have the characteristically direct and intimate Neil Young feel I love. I’m a sucker for strings and the beauty of the orchestral arrangements contrast nicely with Neil’s wonderfully unrefined voice. The big band versions are entertaining too. Neil takes another risk, and once again it works…how does he do it?!
Favourite song: When I Watch You Sleeping (Solo version)
The Monsanto Years (2015)
In a similar way to teaming up with members of Pearl Jam on ‘Mirror Ball,’ Neil joins with band Promise of the Real (featuring two of Willie Nelson’s son’s) on Monsanto Years.
This is another concept protest album, criticising the Monsanto Corporation, who were a major producer of genetically engineered crops at the time.
While musically it sounds great, and the intention is an admirable one, the songs aren’t quite notable enough to make this one a classic. I hope he does more with this set up though as they do sound good together!
Favourite song: Rules of Change
Peace Trial (2016)
A continuation of the same feeling I got from The Monsanto Years; I.E the music sounds great but the songs don’t come up to the same level as the production given to them. I’m not daft enough to think Neil has ‘lost it,’ because he has shown time and time again that just when you think he has, he’ll surprise you. But Peace Trial didn’t do it for me.
Favourite song: Show Me
The Visitor (2017)
Yay, I got my wish – Neil is back with Promise of the Real, who sounded great on The Mansanto Years, but deserved songs more worthy of the sound, and they get it on ‘The Visitor.’
Ok, this is no ‘Freedom,’ but Neil manages after all this time to still sound fresh and crucial and like he really means what he’s writing about. Political, heartfelt and real.
Favourite song: Stand Tall
Neil’s back with Promise of the Real for a soundtrack for a film he starred in with wife Daryl Hannah. I’ve yet to see the film, but I did enjoy his reworking of some of his more recent tunes mixed with some new ideas, and this is an enjoyable soundtrack throughout. Many of the songs sound like they were recorded by a group of friends around a camp-fire. And if that doesn’t warm your cockles, I don’t know what will!
Favourite song: Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
And just like that, I’ve listened to 43 Neil Young albums in just over a week. Obviously this is a ridiculous way to consume a back catalogue and I would recommend taking your time and really enjoying what is really a fascinating body of work.
But I’m so glad I did listen, because what an incredible legacy Neil Young has had/continues to have. Over 50+ years he has created one of the most fascinating collections of music. Even more importantly he has always ploughed his own furrow; never afraid to take his music exactly where he has wanted to take it, unconcerned about expectations or trends. Although he’s had his musical peaks and valleys, you’ve got to admire how genuine and true he is to himself and his values. Never afraid to try new styles and ideas, it’s amazing how well he turns his hand to anything from electronica to grunge, jazz to country, and yet still maintain an authenticity and a unique soul that is truly inspirational.
It’s also incredible that someone that has been making music for so long can consistently surprise you on each and every album. I don’t think there’s any other songwriter who manages this to the same degree. And do you know what…he has always sounded like he is enjoying himself on every album too!
I doubt there is any other artist I could listen to so much music from in such a short time and not get tired of.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my reviews and if you’re a Neil Young fan I hope it doesn’t have you tearing your hair out too much!
Like I’ve said, a lot of the these reviews are knee-jerk initial thoughts and quite rushed with the time I’ve had.
I know many of my thoughts on particular albums will change over time, and I definitely intend to revisit a lot, if not all of his catalogue over the years and give them the time and attention they deserve.
But mostly, I hope reading these reviews has encouraged you to check out more of Neil’s music or revisit the old favourites.
Thank you for reading!
Quick roundup of where the albums landed in this review:
⭐️ Passable (there’s no such thing as a Neil Young album not worth listening to)
- Old Ways (1985)
- Life (1987)
- Dead Man (1996)
- Are You Passionate (2002)
- Psychedelic Pill (2012)
- Peace Trial (2016)
- Time Fades Away (1973)
- Long May You Run (1976)
- American Bars and Stars (1977)
- Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983)
- Landing on Water (1986)
- Prairie Wind (2005)
- The Monsanto Years (2015)
- Neil Young (1969)
- Tonight’s the Night (1975)
- Comes a Time (1978)
- Hawks and Doves (1980)
- Trans (1982)
- Ragged Glory (1990)
- Sleeps with Angels (1994)
- Silver and Gold (2000)
- Greendale (2003)
- Fork in the Road (2009)
- Le Noise (2010)
- Americana (2012)
- Storytone (2014)
- The Visitor (2017)
- Paradox (2018)
- Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
- On the Beach (1974)
- Re-Ac-Tor (1981)
- This Note’s For You (1988)
- Mirror Ball (1995)
- Broken Arrow (1996)
- Chrome Dreams II (2007)
- A Letter Home (2014)
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Essential Listening
- After the Gold Rush (1970)
- Harvest (1972)
- Zuma (1975)
- Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
- Freedom (1989)
- Harvest Moon (1992)
- Living with War (2006)