Aliens land. They’ve traveled from some distant planet with a specific mission: to find out what this ‘rock and roll’ stuff is all about. Through some curious coincidence, they find you. “What is rock and roll?” they demand, rayguns drawn. You begin to sweat. Still, there is really only one question you need to ask yourself:
“Which Neil Young album do I play them first?”
This is no hyperbole; Neil Young is the personification of rock and roll in human form. From his humble beginnings as a surf rocker in the Squires to his tenure in Hall Of Fame acts Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, to his most recent blitzkrieg Psychedelic Pill, Neil has spent a career as the embodiment of artistry despite fierce resistance. This iron-willed devotion to the Muse has not come without a price, however: While Neil’s successes have mostly flown in the face of prevailing music biz wisdom, his uncompromising nature has earned him almost as many failures, failures that should have sunk him several times over. His unpredictability and star-chamber business practices have often made him a pariah; his impulsive spirit and mood swings would frequently estrange his fellow musicians and most ardent supporters. Even more than Dylan, Neil Young has made a career of being consistently inconsistent.
As an architect of what we now consider ‘underground music’ there is no peer: For every Great Indie Moment of the past thirty years, there is a Neil Young song correlative. Wanna hear ground zero for Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs? See “Journey Through The Past.” The raw-nerve humanity in the songs of Jason Molina? Check out “On The Beach.” The primary influence on J Mascis’s wild, feedback-laden guitar playing, or his reedy, cracked vocal style? That’d be “Cortez The Killer” and “Mellow My Mind,” respectively. Alt country? “Harvest.” I could do this all day. Of course, it works both ways: Neil Young’s decision to release 1991’s Arc, a 35-minute collage of feedback and noise, seems directly inspired by his run-ins with Sonic Youth, while the Pearl Jam-assisted Mirror Ball would find the newly-sired Godfather Of Grunge an awestruck but reluctant don of the alternative rock revolution.
Neil Young has never lent his music to a commercial. He was the Canadian hippie that publicly supported Reagan (despite the fact that he was not eligible to vote), only to record an entire album arguing for the impeachment of George W. Bush. He vainly made movies that made Cocksucker Blues look like Double Indemnity. His autobiography depicts a man more interested in model trains, vintage cars, and cutting-edge technology than his legacy as a rock star, which seems to bore and trouble him.
This, at least, is consistent: As early as 1966, the reluctant star penned “Out Of My Mind” for Buffalo Springfield’s debut album, a song containing the lyrics “All I hear are screams/ from outside the limousines/ that are taking me out of my mind.” He introduced himself to the world with songs about epileptic seizures, tormented small-town girls, and the rent that always seems to be due. His peers may have been enjoying the nectar of flower power, but Neil’s acute perception allowed him to see the darkness just below the surface.
It is easy to view Neil as a cranky contrarian who takes his gifts and fortunes for granted, but this is an oversimplification. It is equally tempting to define him alongside similarly protean artists from Bowie to Gaga, but this, too, is specious. The genre experiments of other artists often indicate an identity crisis, or an attempt to recreate oneself in the hopes of appealing to increasingly fickle market forces. It could be argued that Neil’s shape-shifting is motivated by the exact opposite reasons: trends, expectations, and market forces be damned, he doesn’t feel like making another country-rock record right now. Whether his imagination leads him to Greendale or to goldrush, it’s all the same to Neil Young. This is why even his most seemingly impersonal, comically overambitious leaps of faith contain, at their core, an honesty — a humanity.
His music may be frequently peevish and outwardly rebellious, but at heart, Neil’s a moralist. His fierce loyalty to talented-but-toxic characters like Bruce Palmer, Rusty Kershaw and Danny Whitten is an example of a probity that undermines a reputation for hardness. Other examples can be found within the songs themselves, full of lessons: Sooner or later it all gets real. Only love can break your heart. Don’t be denied. Don’t wait till the break of day. Time fades away.
It has become customary when introducing Counting Down pieces to note that there is no ‘worst’ album by the featured band, acknowledging that a great artist’s relative failures are often redeemable within a greater context. In previous entries I have written on Sonic Youth and Drive-By Truckers, among others, this has been true and I stand by it. It is not true for Neil. I won’t claim that the bottom five entries on this list are complete turkeys, but they’re certainly pretty close.
Still, I feel I must disclose that Neil Young has created some of the most important music of my life. Since the release of Freedom in 1989 and subsequent concert at Jones Beach that same year, I have unfailingly purchased every Neil Young record on the Tuesday of its release; I have done this even as the digital age has allowed me to audition lousy albums like Greendale and Fork In The Road beforehand. A tattoo on my right wrist reads ‘WWNYD,’ elevating Neil to the status of Jesus Christ, and a promotional poster of Neil at Massey Hall hangs over my writing desk. In some ways, this makes me both the best and worst person for the job of ranking Neil’s albums; I am, and shall always be, a Neil Young apologist.
Start the Countdown here.