This week marked an interesting accomplishment for Neil Young, who debuted an album in the Top 40 of the Billboard 200 for the 40th time with The Monsanto Years, which opened at no. 21. Many of the reviews for Monsanto have been mixed—either as a question of its musical content or because of Young's politics, which tackles numerous companies including the titular Monsanto and Starbucks. Regardless of what you think about Young's politics, and even if you dislike his style personally, you've got to hand it to him for having cracked the Top 40 on the albums chart 40 times. Music Times isn't going to run through all 40 of those entries, but we'll give you a quick rundown of the seven highest-charting albums in Young's catalogue. You may be surprised at some that did...and didn't...make the cut.
07) Comes A Time...no. 7 (1978)
Neil Young is noted for his fascination—even obsession—with audio quality, and there are stories a-plenty to go with the style and quality of Comes A Time, his 1978 release. It was originally meant to be a solo record, in the style of his classic Harvest Moon, and not a more rocking record with his longtime band Crazy Horse. Reprise Records reportedly asked him to consider adding rhythm tracks to the album, which resulted in Young booking his band for two tracks—"Look Out For My Love" and "Lotta Love"—which are immediately noticeable for their rough style, typical of Young's electric joints, compared to the smoother production of his acoustic numbers. Young reportedly hated the result, and bought 200,000 copies just to keep it out of the hands of consumers (he later confirmed the legend, noting that he used them as shingles for a barn on his property). It didn't quite work...the album still got to no. 7.
06) Live at Massey Hall 1971...no. 6 (2007)
The Grateful Dead's fans are blessed that the band promotes such an active bootleg community, resulting in nearly every one of the band's concerts being available for repeated listening somewhere. Young and his affiliates may not jam quite as much as the Dead, but he can certainly carry out a live song and his setlists are as varying as any. Live At Massey Hall 1971 demonstrates just how much potential there is for any given Young set, and why there should be many, many more available for listeners to purchase. A superfan would have been able to identify every song on Massey Hall when it dropped during 2007 as part of Young's archive series, but you have to consider the context of when the concert took place. There are five track from the aforementioned Harvest album...which would come out a year after the concert happened. Those and five other tracks, which would be released on other albums in the decade, were totally new to those at the concert.
05) Mirror Ball...no. 5 (1995)
Determining why one Young album crack the Top 10 while another barely cracks the Top 100 can be confusing. Mirror Ball, which peaked at no. 5 during 1995, is not so hard to figure out. Crazy Horse deserves credit for its loyalty and for putting up with Young for nearly 50 years...so we understand why they would be miffed during the mid-'90s when the songwriter decided to replace them for one album with Pearl Jam as his backing band. Understand, of course, that Pearl Jam was realistically a much bigger band than Young was at the time, in the midst of the peak of grunge and all, and you also have to understand that any reasonable Seattle band member was probably a massive Young fan. He's called the "godfather of grunge" for a reason...his rough guitar work with Crazy Horse and his love of distortion opened the door for what Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and others were all about. Of course, it didn't hurt Young's sales numbers to include Pearl Jam on his album, either.
04) Americana...no. 4 (2012)
Young, God love him, has maintained respect and relevance upon releasing new music unlike most of the acts from his generation. So too have the songs that were included on Americana, a collection of folk standards as performed by Young and Crazy Horse. You could argue that people came out in droves to buy Americana because of the familiarity of its content—"Oh Susannah," "This Land Is Your Land" and "Gallows Pole"—but it sure didn't hurt that it was also among the best-reviewed albums of the year, including being noted as the album of the year by noted critic Robert Christgau. Your correspondent actually named Psychedelic Pill, a collection of new songs from Young and Crazy Horse, as his favorite album of that year, but you surely can't go wrong with either (Pill only got to no. 8 on the Billboard 200).
03) Déjà Vu...no. 1 (1970)
Neil Young has been involved with three no. 1 albums...and unfortunately only one was solely "Neil Young." The other two were as a part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the songwriting supergroup that he occasionally, and successfully, took part in. The group, which had been a trio for its debut, added Young on the good word of Stephen Stills, who of course worked with him as member of Buffalo Springfield. Déja Vu was the group's best studio effort by far, featuring the four songwriters at their near peaks, including David Crosby's "Almost Cut My Hair" and Graham Nash's "Our House." We would hesitate to call this Young at his "best," but his solo cuts—"Helpless" and "Country Girl"—are as notable as anything on the album. Unfortunately, this itineration of the Crosby/Stills/Nash outfit couldn't stay together too long, mostly because Young can be a really tough guy to work with. At least Déja Vu is worth experiencing over and over again.
02) 4 Way Street...no. 1 (1971)
We mentioned that Young was tough to work with...and so were the other members of CSNY. The title 4 Way Street humorous and 100 percent accurate for those familiar with the legendary feuds between the members of the group, even before going onstage (things haven't exactly gotten better over the years, either). Maybe it's one of those things where the emotions offstage got channeled into performance onstage, resulting in better shows. The first live release from the band must have carried some allure, which allowed it to go to no. 1. That said, the rereleased version of the performance, which came out during 1992, is much more worth your time, especially if you're a Young fan. The bonus content on the newer version features Young performing a medley of his hits "The Loner/Cinnamon Girl/Down by the River," his "Southern Man," as well as Young's greatest CSNY release, "Ohio."
01) Harvest...no. 1 (1972)
Young had, of course, already earned two no. 1 albums as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young but he would finally get a no. 1 for himself with Harvest. Many will arguable between this and his 1970 album After The Gold Rush as Young's best album, but there's absolutely no question as to what is his best album in terms of commercial output. Not only did Harvest spend more weeks at no. 1 than any other entry on his discography (only two weeks, but still impressive), it was also the best-selling album of 1972 for any performer. As we mentioned before, it's sometimes difficult to figure out why one Neil Young album is more popular than another...but it's not too tough to figure out why Harvest made it big with buyers. In a song catalogue so huge, it's mind-blowing to consider how many of his most memorable tracks come from this one 10-song collection: "Heart of Gold," "Old Man," "Are You Ready for The Country" and "The Needle and The Damage Done." No kidding.