In a career spanning five decades, Neil Young has earned wide admiration as an iconoclast who’s taken full advantage of Rock’s capacity for endless reinvention. His idiosyncratic career path has found him alternating superstar smashes with staunchly uncommercial and/or highly personal projects — a pattern that he set early in his career and has maintained in the decades since.
The Canadian-born singer, songwriter, and guitarist achieved his first major recognition in 1966 as a member of the Los Angeles-based Country Rock band Buffalo Springfield, which established Young as a distinctive, prodigious talent. He had already launched a solo career when his ex-Buffalo Springfield bandmate Stephen Stills invited Young to join him in the Folk Rock supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash, which then became Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Their first album as a quartet, 1970's Deja Vu, became a massive hit. Young would work with Crosby, Stills and Nash on several occasions in the future, but his restless nature insured that those reunions would have a limited lifespan.
Young's second solo album, 1969's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, marked the beginning of his decades-long association with the trio Crazy Horse, whose primitive punch was (and remains) a prime vehicle for Young's raw, spontaneous Rock vision. The subsequent After the Gold Rush and Harvest put Young squarely at the forefront of the period's booming West Coast Singer Songwriter movement; the latter album produced a No. 1 hit single in the bittersweet "Heart of Gold."
Characteristically, Young followed the crowd-pleasing success of Harvest with a trilogy of emotionally raw, uncompromisingly personal albums — Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and Tonight's the Night — that alienated and confused many fans even as it underlined Young's singular artistry. As Young later wrote in the liner notes of the 1977 compilation Decade, having a hit single "put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there."
Young's commercial stock soared again at the end of the 70s with the lush, acoustic Comes A Time and the thematically ambitious Rust Never Sleeps, which mixed acoustic solo material with raucous tunes recorded with Crazy Horse, and which found Young endorsing the Punk movement on "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)." Young followed those successes with a series of eclectic albums — e.g., the heavily electronic Trans, the rockabilly-inflected Everybody's Rockin', and the countrified Old Ways — that caused his then-label, Geffen, to take the unusual step of suing him for making music that was "unrepresentative" of himself. After returning to his '70s label Reprise in the late '80s, Young was back on more familiar, rocking ground with Freedom and Ragged Glory, and he successfully revisited his acoustic Singer Songwriter side with 1992's Harvest Moon. His albums since then have continued to alternate noisy rock (usually with Crazy Horse), laid-back songcraft, and quirkier projects.
With Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, Young organized the first Farm Aid benefit in 1985, to call attention to ailing family farms and raising money to help keep them on their land. He remains on the board of directors for the annual concert, and performs each year.