One of the great benefits of the Internet is that it prevents people becoming obsessives. You might argue that, on the contrary, what it shows is that the world is full of them. But in fact, there’s only room for a few thousand. I can see that there might be some strange pleasure in knowing that you are the world’s greatest authority on the B-sides of Genesis singles (well, bad example, but you know what I mean), but surely anyone would see that there is no pleasure in being the third- or fourth- or ninety-ninth-most expert on a topic. Certainly, I’ve found that the discovery that there are sadder, more pedantic, more committed (and committable) fans out there as curiously liberating. I’m happy that the job of being No. 1 Neil Young fan is being done, not by me, but by hyperrust.org/ ; these leaves me free to listen to things I like, and have a life.
I recommend reading Jimmy McDonough Shakey: Neil Young’s biography (Vintage, 2003). Although it is authorised by NY, it is not a hagiography, and provides a real insight into the subject. It is a study of the man not the work, so is focused on the mechanics of recording and touring rather than analysing songs, but allows you to appreciate them much better all the same.
It’s funny, too: he can hardly find a pleasant word to say about CSN&Y at any time, and marshals a range of opinions on the technical competence of Crazy Horse (p. 269): Joni Mitchell says “If I would go into a little bar, … I’d say ‘What a great band’. But presented in concert?... That should not be elevated to the concert level.”
Johnny Rogan has written an album-by-album critical study, Neil Young, 0-60 (2000), which I think errs on the side of charity to Neil’s dumber and duller moments (he had a bad time in the 1980s, but then who didn’t?). Incidentally, Neil has said himself he doesn’t like all his stuff, and would be very worried to hear of anyone who claimed they did.
I therefore nominate:
Everybody knows this is nowhere (1969) sounds like it was recorded in an afternoon in a backroom, but brilliant; Tonight’s the night (1974) Dazed by drink and drugs, but still coming out on the side of life and love; Rust never sleeps (1978) Half acoustic, half electric, all brilliant; Ragged glory (1990) With Crazy Horse, fast and loud throughout; Sleeps with angels (1994) A new direction; strange sounds, strange tunes, modern life
After the Goldrush (1970); On the Beach (1974); Zuma (1975); Decade (1977); Comes a time (1978); Live Rust (1979); Freedom (1989); Harvest Moon (1992); Unplugged (1993) (not exactly revelatory, since many were acoustic in the first place, but a good selection); Broken arrow (1996); Silver and gold (2000); Greendale (2003)
Neil Young (1968) some good songs but a bit directionless; Harvest (1972) hardly straight country, despite what people say, but “Are you ready for the country?” and “There’s a world” spoil a side each; Time Fades Away (1973) live recordings of a set of new songs; raved about by NY fans but rough and messy, and not in a good way; Hawks and Doves (1980) good acoustic side, unspectacular country rock side; Old Ways (1985) as mainstream country as he gets; has aged well; Mirrorball (1995) grunge with Pearl Jam; musically relentless; Are you Passionate? (2002) soul-tinged, with Booker T and the MGs; let down by songs [saw a review which said “You’re my girl” is a love song, but since it says “You’re my girl/ and you’re showing me now/ how grown up you are” I think it’s probably addressed to a relative not a lover; hope so, anyway]
American Stars’n’bars (1976): goodish country rock side, patchy other side; Journey Through the past (1972): mostly poor retreads/live versions, there are, though, nice long versions of 'Southern Man', 'Alabama' and 'Words' and a very nice CSN&Y 'Find the cost of freedom'; Trans (1982): mostly voice-synthesised… those scary computers are going to take over the world! (whoops, too late!); Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983): 50’s rock n roll – not as bad as it could be, but still…; Landing on water (1986): just to show 80’s rock can be as bad
Having said that, I must confess to having listened to all of them over and over with pleasure, so perhaps I’m an anorak after all.
Sponsored link: You can buy any of these albums (or certainly the recommended ones) by going to a shop, and giving them some money, and taking them home again the same day, and listen to them. Or you can spend a week trying to order them online, no we've just run out, we'll have to ship them from China, you weren't in a hurry, were you?