Although Young has experimented widely with differing music styles, swing, jazz, rockabilly, and electronica throughout a varied career, his most accessible and best known work generally falls into either of two distinct styles: an acoustic, country-tinged folk rock, as heard in songs such as "Heart of Gold", "Harvest Moon" and "Old Man," or a grinding, lumbering form of hard rock, as in songs like "Cinnamon Girl", "Rockin' in the Free World" and "Southern Man."
After the breakup of Buffalo Springfield, Young signed a solo deal with Reprise Records, home of his compatriot, Joni Mitchell, with whom he shared a manager, Elliot Roberts. Young and Nitzsche immediately began work on Young's first solo record, Neil Young (November 1968), which received mixed reviews. In a 1970 interview, Young deprecated the album as being "overdubbed rather than played," and the quest for music that expresses the spontaneity of the moment has long been a feature of his career. Nevertheless, the album contains some tunes that remain a staple of his live shows, most notably "The Loner."
Young reformed Crazy Horse with Frank Sampedro on guitar as his backup band for Zuma (1975). Many of the songs are overtly concerned with failed relationships, and even the epic "Cortez the Killer," outwardly a retelling of the Spanish conquest of South America from the viewpoint of the Aztecs, can be seen as an allegory of love lost—something that didn’t save it, however, from being banned in Franco's Spain.
The following year, Young reunited with Stephen Stills for the album Long May You Run (1976), credited to the Stills-Young band, but many of the dates on the follow-up tour were cancelled midway when Young walked out, later sending Stills a telegram that read: "Funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach, Neil."
Freedom completed the return to form, a mixture of acoustic and electric rock dealing with the state of the US and the world in 1989, alongside a set of love songs and a version of the standard "On Broadway." Rockin' in the Free World, two versions of which bookended the album, again caught the mood. Some say it became a de facto anthem during the fall of the Berlin Wall, a few months after the record's release. However, most Germans don't remember the song being related to the reunification, understandably so, since the lyrics are not about political repression. Like Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.", the anthemic use of this song was based on largely ignoring the verses, which evoke social problems and implicitly criticize American government policies. By 1990, grunge music was beginning to make its first inroads in the charts and many of its prime movers, including Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, were citing Young as an influence, which led elements of the press to give him the somewhat dubious title "The Godfather of Grunge."
Young's 2001 single "Let's Roll", was a tribute to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the passengers and crew on Flight 93 in particular. At the "America: A Tribute to Heroes" concert he performed a cover version of John Lennon's "Imagine". In 2002, Q magazine named Neil Young in their list of the "50 Bands To See Before You Die."