A Byrd, a Buffalo Springfielder and a Hollie – who would have thought that this combination would generate such a vast musical legacy? And who would have thought that they could have almost screwed things up as well? And it really is a tale of genius and disaster with David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash – from the highs of their debut album to the lows of the likes of ‘Live It Up‘. And along the way a series of drug problems, with Crosby ‘winning’ that contest hands down, the only one of the three to get the jail time that eventually saved him. They’ve skirted with the edges of irrelevance, they’ve chased elusive ‘modern commercial’ sounds which ruined everything that made them great and they’ve kept the bus rolling along with a zombified Crosby and various sound-alike stand-ins that allowed the production of one more album or the undertaking of one more tour. And they’ve fought it seems sometimes almost constantly, only Fleetwood Mac can really rival them for creating a soap opera – punctuated by extreme falling outs – around their own lives. That may sound harsh, but it’s important to be honest otherwise you’d end up calling ‘Allies‘ a masterpiece or believing that the trio’s second album was superior to their debut just because it outsold it.
Oh, but when they were good they were so good – and latterly, before their seemingly really honest to god final for all time this time falling out, they were reliably excellent as a live act in all its combinations – CSN, CN, C, N, S – all worth seeing. And therefore a top 10 essential Crosby Stills and Nash ‘family’ albums – which means all the preceding letters but also CSNY, but not Neil Young solo – he’s also struggled at times but let him in with his prolific nature and he’d end up dominating the list. I’ve also left out Manassas on the grounds that I’ve written enough about it before – the first album is (with Gene Clark’s ‘No Other‘) my oscillating favourite album of all time if push really does come to shove. ‘Down the Road‘ is also, despite its detractors, mostly a superb album – and if this had been the Manassas debut it would have had praise heaped on it.
This still leaves no shortage of albums to pick from, in their golden period – up until about 1975 – there was a seemingly endless series of excellent albums, and that’s without picking on the appearances on friends’ albums to the point that it seemed like these three never slept they were so busy. For reasons alluded to previously it’s quite likely that they didn’t actually sleep that much. There was a long period when there were albums with only flashes of brilliance – ‘Daylight Again‘ won’t appear, but that doesn’t mean that ‘Delta‘ isn’t an excellent song. A pretty decent best of could be scraped together from the later CSN/CSNY releases, but after the debuts of both bands the all through consistently great album seemed to elude them. Some sub-combinations really didn’t work well – Stills-Young with its songs about cars, casual relationships, sailing, long drinks with banana in them and scuba diving is a mid-seventies definition of ‘Yacht Rock’, so mediocre that it is almost a parody of the genre.
And then there was the unexpected arrival of 2004’s ‘Crosby/Nash‘ which launched a decade of fevered activity from CSN – European tours for this album and then for CSN. Crosby and Nash popped up again as voices for hire appearing on David Gilmour’s solo album. There would be a string of solo albums from Crosby, Stills got in on the act and released his first solo album for fifteen years ‘Man Alive‘ and two albums so far with his blues band The Rides a well as a solid album with old flame Judy Collins. There was the tantalisingly unfulfilled prospect of a Rick Rubin helmed CSN covers album – and perhaps it’s a relief though that that project failed, what might have been truly game changing would have been a new songs album. Imagine that. Well, we almost can because there’s the 1999 CSNY album ‘Looking Forward‘ which saw the quartet almost recapturing that which made them great, had the trio been able to stay on that path, well, who knows?
Stephen Stills toured the UK for almost certainly the last time, and a live album emerged to document that. Retrospective box sets for all three emerged, mostly it seems through Graham Nash’s efforts. And then it all came to a shuddering halt – with Crosby being critical of Neil Young’s decision to shake up his home life, and then Crosby being critical of Graham Nash’s decision to shake up his home life. As David Crosby ruefully admits in the documentary ‘Remember My Name‘, it may be his fault that none of his old bandmates will play with him now – even Roger McGuinn finally relented on an almost Byrds reunion to play with Chris Hillman on a ‘Sweethearts of the Rodeo‘ celebration – admittedly Crosby was out of the Byrds by that album, but there’s been no talk of a ‘Fifth Dimension‘ or ‘Younger than Yesterday‘ celebration. And although CSN/CSNY/CN are now, it would appear, all as dead as a Monty Python parrot, the biggest surprise of the last few years has been that string of good or better albums from Crosby with new, mostly much younger, players and Graham Nash also releasing the heartfelt ‘This Path Tonight‘ showing his song writing hasn’t dimmed either.
Here, then, are ten albums that are almost all pure gold. It’s a list somewhat skewed to the earlier years, and it includes several live releases – these dudes could be awesome live and had a wide repertoire to call only, the only pity is there isn’t room for ‘Another Stoney Evening‘ or ‘Crosby- Nash Live‘. Or ‘Wind on the Water‘, or Crosby’s ‘Towering Inferno – King Biscuit Flower Hour concert‘, or anything by CPR. Hey, maybe there should be an Essential Crosby/Nash Top 10 albums…well, that’s for another time (if ever). Even with all these albums you’ll still lack arguably CSN&Y’s finest moment, ‘Ohio‘ – you’ll need a compilation for that. It’s on ‘So Far‘ but really you ought to get the 4-Disc ‘CSN‘ set (which is also chockfull of great outtakes and alternate versions including the long version of ‘Almost Cut My Hair‘ .
Number 10: David Crosby & Graham Nash ‘Crosby◇Nash’ (2004)
What David Crosby and Graham Nash needed was someone who really understood their music, and what made a great song that blended their voices, painted a picture and – quite important – really blended their voices. It turned out that what they needed was James Raymond, Crosby’s son. What is more amazing is that Crosby and Raymond only met as adults, with Raymond already an established musician. James Raymond has an incredible ability to write songs that sound just like something Crosby and Nash would write, with there being no better example than the opening song of the album.
Number 9: CSNY ‘CSNY 1974′ (2014)
A big set of 3CDs and a DVD is the only way to document the tour that set a new bar for excess. The size of the entourage, the catering and drinks bills, yes the drugs, but even the CSN&Y embroidered pillowcases provided at each stopover. No detail on how to spend money and to party real hard was overlooked. They also played some gigs as they careened along the road. It’s big, it’s overblown, but it must have been quite a sight. For those of us far too young to have attended this is the way to sample the vibe of this landmark tour that would almost destroy the band (that’s a recurring theme in CSN&Y’s story – sometimes it seems like they couldn’t order a coffee without the band being on the edge of a terminal break-up).
Number 8: Graham Nash ‘Songs for Beginners’ (1971)
Graham Nash’s debut solo album is notable for the songs which address his complicated relationship with Joni Mitchell, and take a hard look at himself and his role in his love affairs falling apart on ‘I Used to be a King‘ which references his earlier Hollies song ‘King Midas in Reverse‘ but puts a positive spin on his current situation whilst at the same time declaring a hardening of his heart. There’s a balance with storming numbers like the autobiographical ‘Military Madness‘ and political tracts such as ‘Chicago/We can Change the World‘ which in a classic Graham Nash way both lays the blame and says “but we can fix this“.
Number 7: Stephen Stills ‘Stephen Stills’ (1970)
The album that includes the morally ambiguous world wide smash ‘Love the One You’re With‘, but also saw Stills collaborating with rock nobility – Ringo, Eric and Jimi all appear. Stills, naturally, continues to act as “Captain Manyhands” and contributes the majority of the rest of the instrumentation on any given song. Here though is his most solid and together set of songs – he’s on record as saying that his first three solo albums could together make a single really great album, which is true but most of the songs would be pilfered from here.
Number 6: Graham Nash ‘Wild Tales’ (1974)
There’s less love – but obviously not no love – on Nash’s second solo outing. There’s a lot more of Nash in protest singer mode, sometimes throwing in some autobiography as on ‘Prison Song‘. Mostly though the targets are Nixon and the Vietnam War – and they’re proof positive that Graham Nash is so much more than a jolly writer of pop songs. Can you dig that?
Number 5: Graham Nash & David Crosby ‘Graham Nash & David Crosby’ (1972)
Backed by the cream of West Coast session men, and a trio of the Grateful Dead including Garcia on pedal steel on ‘Southbound Train‘ this is probably the nearest thing to a second CSN album to rival the debut that exists in the canon. It’s hard to say which one or two songs would have needed cutting to make sufficient room for Stills but the thoughts an intriguing one. Although, considering the bitter ‘Frozen Smiles‘ was aimed at Stills (off doing Manassas at the time) it’s clear that such a band coming together was not going to happen at that particular moment. But Crosby and Nash can rock, well no surprise, and they can be acoustically thoughtful – again no surprise there and this is a pretty darn near perfect album demonstrating both sides.
Number 4: CSNY ‘4-Way Street’ (1971)
An album that delivers everything a live album should – and since the band was still young enough in its career there was a need to bring in non-band songs. So Crosby’s ‘Triad‘, Nash’s ‘King Midas in Reverse‘ (on the expanded release) make an appearance. And songs you know are extended….forever. ‘Southern Man‘ chimes in at almost 14 minutes, and ‘Carry On‘ is even longer. There’s a great mix of electric and acoustic (“This is wooden music again, so you gotta be cool, otherwise you won’t hear it…Shhhhhh“) sets. Simply one of the greatest live albums of its, or any other, time.
Number 3: David Crosby ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’ (1971)
An album that opens with an improvisation (‘Music is Love‘) that sums up the Hippie optimism for the future, then dissects, in the form of a Western, the falling apart of CSN&Y through their love life complications revolving around Rita Coolidge. And then moves on to do some finger pointing on ‘What are their Names?‘ and intermixes wordless songs where voices become literally just another instrument in the blend. A unique and beguiling album.
=Number 1: Crosby, Stills & Nash ‘Crosby Stills & Nash’ (1969)
Oh, come on – get real man. How could one place either the CSN or the CSN&Y debuts above the other? Such different records, ‘Crosby, Stills and Nash‘ so full of struggles with love and struggles with society and with that driving acoustic guitar sound somehow so full of optimism for change, and change for the better. A record which of course so well documented the times it was created in that it became a huge part of the soundtrack for the Woodstock movie. The trio would never – on a studio record – sound better, and they’d never manage, try as they might, a so consistently good set of songs. That could be a sad thing, if this record wasn’t such perfection.
=Number 1: CSNY ‘Déjà Vu’ (1970)
Well, it had to be really. When CSN wanted to beef up their sound, and play live what they had laid down in a studio setting, it was clear that they needed another guitarist and Neil Young was available since his post-Buffalo Springfield career wasn’t going so great. It made a lot of sense to Stills to reconnect with his bandmate from a previous band. There’s been a lot of back and forth subsequently on whether this was such a great idea – CSN was in many ways Stills’ band since he’d provided vocals, guitars, bass, keyboards and percussion. But it soon became apparent that letting Neil in on the act changed the dynamics. For one thing, ‘Deja Vu‘ was huge – the CSN debut was no sloth at sales, but ‘Deja Vu‘ was twice as big. It’s no surprise either – it sounds like a greatest hits. It celebrated the Counter-Culture with Joni’s ‘Woodstock‘, it opened with the sublime ‘Carry On‘ and it had Crosby’s two contributions – the rebellious youth anthem ‘Almost Cut My Hair‘ and the mystically questioning ‘Deja Vu‘. Neil’s stuff was pretty good too with ‘Country Girl‘ adding that composite song cycle feel to the album that ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes‘ had done on ‘Crosby, Stills, & Nash‘
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