Very few artists have Neil Young’s staying power. Even fewer have his talent. Since his earliest days with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY, he’s grown into one of the most prolific and respected musicians of all time. He’s dabbled in folk, rock, country, and blues, pioneered grunge, set the standard for singer-songwriters the world over, and created some of the most masterful songs of the last century. In tribute to Canada’s most curmudgeonly genius, here are the 10 best Neil Young songs of all time.
10. Revolution Blues
Five years after Charles Manson and his followers bought the decade of peace and love to a bloody close, Young released Revolution Blues, a harrowing commentary on the atrocity that’s made all the more chilling by being written in the first person. The murder fantasies contained in the lyrics are disturbing enough, but the chugging riff machine that grounds them is positively apocalyptic. Helping the song on its journey to greatness are The Band’s Rick Danko and Levon Helm on bass and drums respectively.
9. Rocking in the Free World
From the title, Rocking in the Free World sounds like the kind of fist-pumping, life-affirming anthem that’d go down a treat with Americans. But if there’s one thing you should never do to a Neil Young song, it’s make assumptions. President Donald Trump did, and it landed him all kinds of trouble when he decided to use the song without prior permission during his first campaign run. Like Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Rocking in the Free World is less an ode to America’s greatness and patriotism than a caustic sweep at its weakness.
8. Cowgirl in the Sand
Recording-history.org ranks Cowgirl in the Sand as one of the best Neil Young songs of all time. It’s not hard to see why. The first two minutes serve as a masterclass in feverish guitar riffing by Crazy Horse. When Young finally kicks in with the lyrics, we’re treated to an equally epic masterclass in songwriting. On this, as with the rest of his second solo album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Young is testing the boundaries of conventional song structure. There are solos where there shouldn’t be, guitar interplays where there oughtn’t to be, and at ten minutes in length, it’s far longer than the 3 minute, radio-friendly tracks everyone else was doing at the time. But it works. Beautifully.
7. The Needle and the Damage Done
During the recording of his Live at Massey Hall 1971 album, Young introduced The Needle and the Damage Done with the comment, “I got to see a lot of, um, great musicians who nobody ever got to see. For one reason or another. But… strangely enough, the real good ones… that you never got to see was… ‘cause of, ahem, heroin.” Lasting just two minutes long, it ranks as one of the most harrowing accounts of the despair and agony of heroin addiction ever written.
Any doubts about Neil Young’s song-crafting abilities end with Powderfinger. Described by Billboard as one of his most transcendent story songs, the lyrics center on a young man who tries to protect his family from approaching raiders. All of the older men are unavailable, leaving him “to do the thinking.” He ultimately gets his head blown off, describing his death with the harrowing line “my face splash in the sky.” It’s a majestic piece of songwriting with cinematic proportions and a foundation in the best kind of folk storytelling. The music, meanwhile, is rock and roll to its core, with Crazy Horse giving it everything they’ve got and Young cutting lose with some incendiary riffs.
5. Southern Man
Southern Man may have landed Young in a heap of bother with the South in general and with Lynyrd Skynyrd in particular, but as Cheat Sheet points out, this unforgiving swipe at Southern culture in the ’60s still shines as one of the most searing indictments of race relations in the U.S. to date. The Southern man might not have needed him around anyhow, but the rest of us know which side our bread’s buttered.
4. After the Gold Rush
After the Gold Rush is a minimalist masterpiece. Young is in a reflective mood, ruminating on the state of the environment in the ’70s and pondering how it’ll all end. A lesser song and a lesser songwriter may have sounded preachy. But this isn’t a lecture. It’s a contemplation, and the lessons we draw from it are our own. Whatever you decide about the future of Mother Nature, though, there’s no denying that horn solo is one of the greatest things on tape.
3. Hey Hey, My My (Out of the Blue)
At the time of writing Hey Hey, My My (Out of the Blue), Young thought he was writing about Johhny Rotten, the man every parent loved to hate, and Elvis Presley, who himself had once been written off as a dangerous influence before achieving icon status. In fact, it wasn’t about the life of either man. It was about the death of, who, 15 years later, took the idea that it was better to burn out than to fade away to its inevitable and tragic conclusion. After learning that Cobain had quoted the song in his suicide note, Young was left so shaken by the literal interpretation of his words he dedicated his 1994 album Sleeps with Angels to him.
2. Heart of Gold
The only Neil Young song to ever top the charts in America is also one of his most enduringly popular. Heart of Gold is a folk-rock classic, with an emotional depth and lyrism that’s made all the more remarkable by the gorgeous backing vocals provided by James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. It’s lonely and it’s lovely, with no gimmicks, no pop trickery, and just Neil and his guitar showing us the way.
1. Old Man
When Pete Townsend and Roger Daltry decided they’d rather die before they get old, they clearly weren’t thinking ahead. When Neil Young wrote Old Man, he was. There’s nothing humiliating about a septuagenarian singing “Old man, take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you/ I need someone to love me the whole day through.” There is, however, something extraordinary about a 24-year-old doing the same. That’s how old Neil Young was when he wrote this timeless, wonderfully empathetic masterpiece. That’s why he’s one of the greatest artists of all time, and that’s why Old Man deserves the No.1 position on our list of the 10 best Neil Young songs of all time.