Simply put, Neil Young is an artist of remarkable dexterity and durability. Aside from the fact that he boasts a song catalog rivaling that of Dylan, McCartney and, in fact, every other popular artist of the past half century, he's one of the few musicians whose every move is subject to speculation.
Even his most rabid fans find little consistency in his outings. One moment he's the yearning rambler embracing patchwork jeans and homespun sentiment, the next, he's a cranky grunge rocker, stomping across the stage clad in flannel shirt and backwards baseball cap. A genuine musical chameleon, he seems to switch his MO at will, or more precisely, with each new release, leaving listeners speculating as to his next digression.
Even now, nearly 50 years after his initial efforts as a solo artist, a member of the Squires, and his collaboration with future funk rocker Rick James in the Mynah Birds, he continues to defy categorization, meandering from rock to rockabilly, folk to country, grunge to thrash with occasional detours into techno, electronica and experimentation along the way. And that doesn't even include his moonlighting gigs with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills Nash and Young and Crazy Horse.
Born Neil Percival Young on November 12, 66 years ago in Toronto Ontario Canada, Young's been a prominent player ever since assuming his role with Buffalo Springfield in 1966. Although his tenure in the band proved to be volatile and found him walking out at least a couple of times prior to the band's demise a mere two years later, it did give him with a testing ground for the more adventurous aspects of his solo career. Songs like "Mr. Soul," "Burned," "Expecting to Fly," "I Am A Child" and "Broken Arrow" provided a template for what would emerge as Young's singular style -- a sense of weary resignation tempered by unrelenting insurgency that's often found even his most tender impulses at odds with his ever-present irascibility.
In order to discern Young's yin from his yang, the tender versus the tenacious, we offer a look back at Neil's extensive catalogue, delineating those specific albums that are most representative of each of his many guises. It's not all-inclusive - archival issues, live efforts, soundtracks, compilations and his work with CSNY -- are omitted mostly, though not completely -- but it does offer the most obvious examples of his various shifts in stance. So, hang on, kids, it's a rollercoaster of a ride...
Neil, the forlorn folkie: Neil Young (1968), After the Goldrush (1970) Harvest (1971), Comes A Time (1978), Harvest Moon (1992), Silver and Gold (2000), Prairie Wind (2005) -- each of these albums finds Young in mellow mode, with songs seemingly inspired by the heartland. This is Young at his most wistful and reflective
Neil, the relentless rocker: Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969), Tonight's the Night (1975), Rust Never Sleeps (1979), Live Rust (1979), Ragged Glory (1990), Arc Weld (1991), Mirror Ball (1993) Living WIth War (2006) - Young takes no mercy, with a blinding barrage of noise and fury that forever affirms his title as the Godfather of Grunge. Dark and deliberate, these albums don't offer an easy listen, but for sheer verbosity, they can't be beat.
Neil, the nihilist: Time Fades Away (1973), On the Beach (1974), Zuma (1975), Sleeps With Angels (1994) - Weighed down about the tragedy that consumed him -- Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten's drug overdose, a medical malaise,the instability of his various musical alliances and the failure of his relationship with girlfriend Carrie Snodgrass -- Young released some of the darkest and most despondent albums of his career. Sadly, they found him reaching both his commercial and creative nadir.
Neil, the country crooner: Old Ways (1985), A Treasure (2011) -- Truth be told, there's a fine line that separates the country crooner from the forlorn folkie, but Neil's involvement in Farm Aid and his alliance with Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and other heartland heroes bolstered his blue collar credibility. Neil's good ole' boy persona rings true whenever its revisited.
Neil, the Blues buster: This Note's For You (1988) -- Even with all his varied guises, his detour into brassy, jazzy, old fashioned R&B took even the most jaded fan by surprise. Yet it also afforded him his first hit of the decade via the title track. An accompanying video took the form of a corporate put down, one that included MTV among its targets. Surprisingly though, it garnered the distinction of being named video of the year.
Neil, the rockabilly rebel: Everybody's Rockin' (1983) - Another one-off transformation and as recklessly weird as ever, the album put him at odds with his then-label Geffen, which denounced the record as "unrepresentative" of his signature sound. But by then, any attempt to approximate a representative style was pretty pointless anyway. Mostly rockabilly covers, the album clocked in at only 25 minutes, suggesting Young himself didn't take it all that seriously either.
Neil, the eclectic eccentric: Re-Ac-Tor (1981), Trans (1982), Greendale (2003), Fork in the Road (2009), Le Noise (2011) - whether it's the synthesizers, vocoders and electronic pulses that characterized Re-Ac-Tor and Trans, the bewildering conceptual soundtrack that added up to Greendale, the fascination with his ill-fated Lincvolt hybrid automobile that inspired Fork in the Road, or the obtuse guitar drone of Le Noise, Young's never been adverse to challenging his audience's melodic sensibilities or simply shocking them entirely. These albums rank among the most inaccessible efforts of his entire canon, but for diehard fans, they're also a source of fascination.
Finally, there are those albums that don't fit into any one niche -- Hawks & Doves
(1980), Landing on Water
(1987), Lucky 13
(1993), Are You Passionate?
(2002) and Chrome Dreams II
(2007) - sets of songs that either recycle earlier unreleased recordings or simply combine elements of each of his disparate styles. They weren't solid sellers and much of their content seemed slapdash at best, even by Young's standards. Yet, those who truly admire the man have learned to accept the weak with the worthy while chalking it all up to his irrepressible charm. Keep on rocking in the free world of your imagination, Mr. Young, and we, your admirers, will likely keep rolling with you all the way.
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