Looking back at the blockbuster success of "Heart of Gold," the mellow country-rock tune that became his first number one single and only Billboard Top 40 hit in 1971, Neil Young remarked that the song "put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch." Young wrote this passage for the liner notes of "Decade," a double-disc compilation that documented the first part of his career, ten years that took him from the pioneering Los Angeles rock and roll band Buffalo Springfield, through his emergence as a lone folk-rock troubadour and his alliance with Crosby, Stills & Nash, to his noisy, rambling wanderings with Crazy Horse.
Over the years, he would tap back into these different sounds and personas, but his avoidance of the middle of the road pushed him into eccentric territory his singer/songwriter peers would generally avoid. Young's willfulness could be as much a hindrance as an attribute -- famously, Geffen Records sued him for delivering albums that were "uncharacteristic" -- but his muse also led to a series of distinctive, indelible records whose legacy sometimes only revealed itself over time; eventually, the electro experiments of 1982's "Trans" were acknowledged as an artistic achievement, not a commercial disaster.
Many of Young's most enduring works arrived in the '70s, when he alternated between such bruised, beautiful introspection as 1970's "After the Gold Rush" and noisy guitar jams like 1969's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," taking detours for such after-hours decadence as 1975's "Tonight's the Night." Young would follow this rough blueprint for years, swaying between noisy rock and intimate folk. Occasionally, his muse led him directly into the cultural zeitgeist, as it did during the 1990s, when he was hailed the Godfather of Grunge and collaborated with Pearl Jam, and he always felt compelled to address social ills, whether it was through his 2006 Iraq War protest album "Living with War or The Monsanto Years," a record about the environment made with Promise of the Real in 2015. Young often returned to his home base of Crazy Horse -- they backed him on efforts like "Barn" (2020) and the Rick Rubin-produced "World Record" (2022) -- yet despite these constants in his career, he remained a vital, unpredictable presence for decades, challenging himself and his audience.