It was only three years ago that the critics had him dead and buried. He was nothing but an annoying shadow of the creative brilliance he once was during the '60s and '70s.

But what has happened to Neil Young's career over the past two years no one would have predicted three years ago. Young is now on top of the musical world with his new album, "Ragged Glory" (Reprise), a critical favorite for album of the year.The first hint of what was to come appeared two years ago on the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album "American Dream," where Young's contributions far outshone those of his mates. Then there was last year's poetically insightful "Freedom," an acoustic-rock blend that was critically acclaimed as one of the finest albums of the decade.

Now, Young (with backup band Crazy Horse) is back with "Ragged Glory" - a down-and-dirty rocker that, quite frankly, could be the finest Neil Young rock album ever. Better than "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere." Better than "Tonight's the Night." Better than "Rust Never Sleeps."

It's not a polished album. It's certainly not a commercial one. And considering the extended length of most cuts, chances of radio airplay are not good, even on the

most rock-oriented stations.

But what "Ragged Glory" is is awesome, prompting even the self-critical Young to proclaim, "While we were doing it, we all knew we nailed it."

It's an album filled with angry guitar riffs, defiant feedback and pensive lyrics, all wrapped around rhythm tracks that squeeze the most out of Young's surprising melodies. Unlike Young's other rock albums, this one takes no timeouts for acoustic breathers. Rather, it races from one jam to the next in an improvisational sort of style that sets it far apart from the crowd.

Young and Crazy Horse recorded the hourlong album at Young's ranch in the hills southeast of San Francisco, and in the process they defied record-industry convention by recording all the tracks live.

As Young told one critic, "No one else is making this kind of music these days. Once music made that turn toward perfection in the '70s, with the multitrack recordings and the polished sound and producers spending three days just getting the drum sound right, people began playing like machines. We wanted to explore the music."

But never has Young explored it with such abandon. The sheer passion of the music prompted Rolling Stone to crown Young the king of rock 'n' roll - the same magazine that was Young's harshest critic throughout the 1980s.

Why the creative accolades? "Ragged Glory" is an album that runs contrary to every prevailing rock trend. Instead of political pandering to the '60s hippie-turned-yuppie crowd, it is full of restlessness, frustration and retrospection. Instead of polished perfection, it is gloriously ragged. And in the process, it has a gloriously human feel to it.

From the sneering cover of "Farmer John" to the Jimi Hendrix-esque "Mother Earth" to the tattered "Over and Over" and "Love to Burn," Young uses simple harmony and lyrical understatement to reveal his world-weary universal sentiments. The songs are straightforward and the meanings unmistakable, as on the controversial track "F!ing Up" and "The Days That Used to Be."

"Love and peace may be hippie values, but to me they're bywords for the '90s," he told one interviewer. "This record is about me working out my problems, it sounds friendlier to me. When I'm angry and frustrated, it reassures me. When I listen to it, it puts me back on course."

And back on course in this case meant climbing back in the saddle with Crazy Horse. It wasn't until last winter that Young decided to patch things up with Crazy Horse, a band he'd written off several years ago.

Young was weeding through 27 years worth of tapes and films for a retrospective of his career, "Decade II," and the journey through the past revealed "a consistent pattern: When I played with Crazy Horse, I looked and felt and sounded the best. I already knew that, but looking through all those tapes made it real obvious."

And what is so obvious with "Ragged Glory" is that almost 30 years after he started, Neil Young is once again establishing himself as one of the most creative talents in rock 'n' roll.

Not bad for a guy written off three years ago as "dead."