Music

Neil Young’s 100 Best Songs

I attended a live recording of Slate’s Culture Gabfest recently in which Carl Wilson argued we are waiting too long to celebrate our greats once they’re dead, we should celebrate them while they’re still alive. Hence, this celebration of Neil Young.

Bob Dylan is the Greatest (English language) Songwriter of All Time, changing the way people wrote lyrics in a way that nobody could ever do again. But of all the post-Dylan songwriters, you could argue Neil Young has created the greatest body of work: he has written more songs than just about anyone of his generation (save Dylan) and among that mass of songs are over 100 good to sublime songs. With apologies to Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell, Neil Young is Canada’s Greatest Songwriter as well. And he has a claim to being the second greatest songwriter in the history of the English language, though this is basically an impossible debate. (It’s easy to establish Dylan’s importance. It’s far less easy to figure out who is second to Dylan.) But I don’t want debate about where exactly Neil Young sits among the great English language songwriters.

Because Neil Young is also my favourite songwriter. His songs speak to me more than any other songwriter I’ve ever heard. I connect with his lyrics more often than with just about anyone else’s. I am not sure anyone else has managed to externalize feelings and thoughts like Young has, at least as far as my own feelings are concerned. And nobody else tells stories like him: he’s a painter, usually an impressionist, who eschews traditional narratives for evocative images and lyrical puzzles.

In addition to being a great songwriter, he’s also a trailblazing musician. As a musician he showed rock stars that they could chart a different course: Young has played multiple genres over his career, sometimes on the same record. Two of these, country and a loud, noisy, rough version of rock music we might call “proto grunge,” seemed utterly irreconcilable until Young made a career of alternating between them. As part of the latter genre, he helped pioneer a style of instrumental performance in rock that was all about feel and essentially rejected advanced instrumental techniques. Young’s electric guitar playing is infamous for its primitiveness and its volume. So, in celebrating Young I wanted to not just call attention to his brilliant songs but also to his performances of his songs, some of which might not be so great without a bonkers guitar solo.

This is ostensibly a list of Neil Young’s 100 greatest songs. But it’s longer than 100, because I couldn’t stop myself at 100. I believe there are actually 116 songs on this list. I hope you enjoy the songs and feel the same way I do about at least some of them.

Please note: I maybe haven’t listened to Re-Ac-Tor, Trans, Everybody’s Rockin’, Landing on WaterAre You Passionate?, Prairie Wind and The Monsanto Years enough to find many gems. This stems from received critical opinion as much as my own listening habits. Maybe someday I’ll give them more time and find more songs to love.

Pretty Good Neil Young Songs

This section of songs is made up of Young songs I like but that I don’t feel like are quite up to the standard of his very best. Other songwriters would probably love to have written some of these, but Young’s own standard is so high that, to me, they didn’t quite cut the mustard. Still very good songs though.

I have arranged them chronologically by recording date because I couldn’t rank them, it was too hard.

“Out on the Weekend” from Harvest (1972)

The first song on Harvest is a pleasantly lolling number which introduces the vibe of (most of) the album. It’s a pretty inconsequential compared to many of Young’s songs from around the time, but I feel like I can relate to lyrics, even though I’ve never driven down to LA, in a pickup truck or any other car.

“A Man Needs a Maid” from Harvest (1972)

A sensitive (and arguably sexist) orchestral ballad completely out of place with the rest of Harvest, I still admire its song for its stylistic commitment to orchestral pop bombast, with Young’s fragile vocal in total contrast to Jack Nitzsche’s ridiculously over-the-top arrangement. One does wonder what Young’s musical would have sounded like had he ever completed it. (This and “Heart of Gold” were ostensibly part of it, if you can take stage banter seriously).

“Heart of Gold” from Harvest (1972)

Young’s most popular song is possibly my least favourite of his good songs because I’ve heard it so damn much. To all the people in the world who think Neil Young is “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man,” I just shake my head and sigh. “Heart of Gold” has its virtues – that insistent harmonica line, one of Young’s most hopeful lyrics – but at this point it’s way too overplayed for me.

“Bad Fog of Loneliness” outtake from Harvest (1972, not released until 2009)

A simple, plaintive, pleasant song; hearing this one really makes you wonder why it didn’t make the cut, though the verse is significantly weaker than the verse. Not his best set of lyrics.

“New Mama” w/ The Santa Monica Flyers from Tonight’s the Night (1975, recorded 1973)

I don’t really know what this song is about but it’s a dose of pretty on a very, very depressing album.

“Star of Bethlehem” from American Stars and Bars (1977, recorded 1974)

A song recorded for an abandoned record, possibly Homegrown, this one actually manages to sort of fit in with the country music on American Stars and Bars. This is one of those ones I want to like a little bit more than I do.

“Little Wing” from Hawks and Doves (1980 – recorded 1974)

Originally intended for Homegrown, this is a pleasant little number (like much of Homegrown) that is both appealing and slight. Not to be confused with the Jimi Hendrix classic of course.

“Deep Forbidden Lake” outtake from Homegrown (unreleased album, recorded 1974-75)

Homegrown could be viewed as Young’s follow up to Harvest, a set of pleasant country rock tunes that, if the session list is anything to go by, might have been more musically consistent than his most popular record. Instead, Young scrapped the album and opted to release the (relatively) more polished version of Tonight’s the Night instead. (Tonight’s the Night had been shelved because nobody believed it was commercial enough).

This is one of the numerous songs Young has released from the sessions, but the others all found themselves onto actual albums, whereas this pleasant song about a lake in the woods was released on his best-of compilation, Decade. Young has written many of these pastoral songs – this one strikes me because I have spent time sitting, looking at a deep lake in the woods with small boats on it more times than I can count – but it’s not one of his more effective sets of lyrics, and the melody is not quite up to his best melodies.

“Campaigner” from Decade (1977)

I’m not 100% sure when this song was recorded, but it’s safe to assume it was recorded sometime during Nixon’s presidency. A sort of vague attack at the President, it’s something I’ve always wanted to like more than I do.
https://youtu.be/rv7XaLG6zC8

“Look Out for My Love” w/ Crazy Horse from Comes a Time (1978 – recorded 1975?)

This Crazy Horse outtake – likely from Zuma – doesn’t really fit with the rest of Comes a Time and, unsurprisingly, it’s the most muscular thing on the record, featuring a particularly crazy guitar part from Young or Sampedro. I guess I can understand why Neil chose to include it on Comes a Time instead of on Zuma because it’s a little less raw than that record, but it still feels out of place. Enjoyable performance, though.

“The Old Country Waltz” from American Stars and Bars (1977)

A country waltz about a band playing a country waltz, and what that means to the audience who is getting drunk – I can’t help but enjoy the symbology, which feels almost too cute.

“Depression Blues” outtake from Old Ways I (1983)

Recorded for the initial version of Old Ways, but not included in the finished product two years later, this song is over-arranged (as with everything on that album) but features what I think are wryly humourous lines about Young’s own personal feelings and the feelings of other people who suffer from depression. I’m not sure what the song means, really, but I like it.

“Inca Queen” w/ Crazy Horse from Life (1987)

Though I prefer the remake (see below), this is still a near-classic along the lines of Young’s other revisionist history songs, only it is severely marred by the production, like everything on Life.

“When Your Lonely Heart Breaks” w/ Crazy Horse from Life (1987)

A song that almost manages to take advantage of the terrible production on Life, this is basically one of those super slow, vaguely soulful ’80s ballads. (Young cannot really sing soul, so it’s just vaguely soulful.) Young’s version of this style isn’t bad. Don’t think he recorded another song like this until Are You Passionate?

“We Never Danced” w/ Crazy Horse from Life (1987)

A moving song ruined by terrible ’80s production which renders Crazy Horse utterly unrecognizable. I want to like this song, but then I listen to it. I’m sure the live version is much better.

“Coup Deville” w/ The Bluenotes from This Note’s For You (1988)

This quiet, sad song is one of the more effective things on Young’s weird detour into a large band with a horn section. Perhaps the most effective song on this particular album.

“Cocaine Eyes” w/ The Restless from “Eldorado” (1989)

A rather ferocious track from an EP released in only two countries, this song features his patented guitar playing and some really impassioned singing. Shame it didn’t get wider distribution.

“Too Far Gone” from Freedom (1989)

A pleasant melody underlies this loping, autobiographical country song. I’ve heard it actually dates from over a decade before which fits because, though it’s pleasant, it’s not exactly a highlight of his career.

“White Line” w/ Crazy Horse from Ragged Glory (1990)

A pleasant melody with a trademark fuzzy guitar lead. There’s a bit of country to the backing vocals. Basically everything good about Crazy Horse distilled into a brief package.

“Driveby” w/ Crazy Horse from Sleeps with Angels (1994)

A kind of mantric chorus is probably the most memorable thing from one of the highlights of this exhausting double album. Young seems to be taking lyrical inspiration from the grunge movement, something he was known for doing in the past with punk.  This song may be slight, but it’s one of his more memorable songs from the decade.

“Train of Love” with Crazy Horse from Sleeps with Angels (1994)

A pleasant, optimistic song that feels utterly foreign to most of the music Young has had Crazy Horse record with him in the past, this shows off that band’s versatility if nothing else.

“Just Singing a Song” from Fork in the Road (2000)

A song that is literally about why Young converted his car to run on renewal energy, rather than just singing a song, this one has a classic ramshackle feel. The lyrics are a little obvious, but I like the aesthetic.

“Mr Disappointment” w/ Booker T and the MGs from Are You Passionate? (2002)

Who knows what Booker T and the MGs were thinking when they agreed to be Young’s backing band for an album. On paper, it makes no sense. On record, it doesn’t work much either. But I like this one: Young is singing in this weird speak-sing voice – except for his backing vocals and when he sings the hook – the lyrics are pretty great and the whole thing sounds better than I ever imagined it would. Trademark guitar playing to boot.

“Let’s Roll” w/ Booker T and the MGs from Are You Passionate? (2002)

A lot of songs were written about 9/11, most of them were awful. Young’s isn’t amazing: it’s like the polar opposite of “Ohio” both in terms of what it’s about – celebrating heroism instead of condemning violence – and it’s attempt to literally depict the events. But I’ve always loved the weird vocal arrangement on the chorus. Don’t love the bridge, which is why it’s not higher on the list.

“The Restless Consumer” from Living with War (2006)

A loud, angry song about the Bush era; this song is a little less effective than Young’s best protest songs because it’s melody is not great.

“Peaceful Valley Boulevard” from Le Noise (2010)

One of Young’s environmental narratives, this time for the 21st century, this one still has strong imagery but it’s not as impressionistic, or as effective as something like “Thrasher.” (Studio version not currently available on YouTube.)

“Ramada Inn” w/ Crazy Horse from Psychedelic Pill (2012)

At nearly 17 minutes, this Crazy Horse jam is somehow the third longest song on this double/triple record. Like much of the lyrics on the album, it seems autobiographical, and specifically seems to allude to Crazy Horse as well as Young’s marriage. Like much of Young’s autobiographical or pseudo-autobiographical work, his lyrics make his story more relatable than the average rock star, even if we can’t always figure out what’s going on. There’s lots of great typical Young guitar playing in the breaks.

Neil Young’s Honourable Mentions

These songs are ones that I wanted to put in the Top 50 Greatest Neil Young Songs but ran out of room. They are again sorted chronologically because I have a hard time deciding which I like the most.

“Flying on the Ground is Wrong” by Buffalo Springfield from Buffalo Springfield (1966)

This early song is a near-gem, with lots of memorable lines and a compelling melody line. It’s just not quite as coherent as Young’s other songs on this record. It’s almost there.

“Expecting to Fly” by “Buffalo Springfield from Buffalo Springfield Again” (1967)

I initially forgot to include this song on this list which maybe tells you everything you need to know how I feel about. A solo Young track in all but name from Springfield’s second album, this is a pretty classic Young lyric set to a bonkers, over-the-top Jack Nitzsche arrangement with I have spent my adult life trying to decide whether I love or hate. Everything about Young’s song and his performance feel, to me, as if the they deserve a completely different arrangement. Not only due the lyrics of the song feel ill-suited, but Young’s frail falsetto vocal performance is in completely contrast with the orchestral bombast. I suspect this is what they were going for, I’m just never sure I agree.

“I’ve Been Waiting for You” from Neil Young (1968)

The original version of this song is over-produced and kind of shitty, though Young’s guitar solo is impressive if conventional.

It’s the performance on Sugar Mountain that I like, where this simple, plaintive song makes an impact on me, makes me think of all the times I thought there was someone right for me in the world, I just had to find her, and then everything would be okay.

“If I Could Have Her Tonight” from Neil Young (1968)

I really like this song but hate the production on the original record. (Listen to a live version!) I feel like Young has almost completely captured my feelings towards women as a teenager and young man. In fact, this should probably be higher up on the list, but that arrangement just doesn’t do it for me at all.

“Tell Me Why” from After the Gold Rush (1970)

This has a really catchy melody but Young’s lyrics, though good, are not among his best, and they stand out this excellent album as perhaps a little too vague. Still, it’s a pretty good song.

“Don’t Let it Bring you Down” from After the Gold Rush (1970)

One of Young’s most impressionistic songs from the era, where the verses serve as paintings in a series, unified by the lyrics in the chorus. To me, there lyrics are a little vaguer than his best, but it’s another one I’ve grudgingly left out of the Top 50.

“I Believe in You” from After The Gold Rush (1970)

One of Young’s prettiest melodies is paired with some of his most…well, not optimistic lyrics…but hopeful lyrics, I guess. There’s still a lot doubt here, which keeps it from getting it too sappy. It’s plaintive and sincere and lacks some (but hardly all) of the despair of his other lyrics from the era. One of the hardest to leave out of the Top 50.

“Words (Between the Lines of Age)” from Harvest (1972)

“Words” sounds like it belongs on After the Gold Rush, if you ignore the pedal steel guitar. The lyrics are not great by Young’s standard, but the performance by the band gives an idea of what was about to come on tour, showing that this ostensibly country rock band was really a rock band in disguise. Its’ a welcome fusion of this band and Crazy Horse, in terms of style.

“L.A.” w/ The Stray Gators from Time Fades Away (1973)

An apocalyptic vision of the destruction Los Angeles, that may well be deserved. Young contrasts visions of physical destruction and unappetizing aspects of LA and its people with the desire of so many to move to Los Angeles.

“Winterlong” w/ The Santa Monica Flyers outtake from Tonight’s the Night (recorded 1973)

An outtake released on Neil Young’s first best of compilation, Decade, because it’s such a strong song and performance, this track embodies everything that’s great about this era of Neil Young, without really standing out enough as one of the best songs from Tonight’s the Night.

Another reason it may have been excised is that it doesn’t really fit in thematically with the record.

“Motion Pictures” from On the Beach (1974)

Another one that was really hard to leave off the Top 50 list; though this song is apparently about his breakup with Carrie Snodgress, it feels like it doubles as a rejection of the life of the ’70s for a life he is either currently leading or about to lead (depending upon the line).

“Drive Back” w/ Crazy Horse from Zuma (1975)

A trademark Young distorted-but-melodic guitar melody highlights this song that references Lennon’s “Whatever Get You thru the Night” and seems to be about the idea of abandoning adulthood for the innocence of childhood. Maybe.

“Long May You Run” by the Stills Young Band from Long May You Run (1976)

A song about a car that can be interpreted in many ways; is the car a metaphor for his career, for his life, for Stephen Stills’ life? Who knows!

“Comes a Time” from Comes a Time (1978)

This is a pleasant, thoughtful song that is a little overproduced in its original version – a return to the sound of Harvest, but more polished. A strong melody is paired with Young’s typically strong impressionistic lyrics.

“Lotta Love” from Comes a Time (1978)

A simple, earnest song that became a huge hit when Young’s backing vocalist covered it on her own; it’s pretty unrepresentative of Young’s overall songwriting – except for the admission of vulnerability – but as simple, sort of romantic pleas go, this is pretty good. “My head needs relatin, not solitude.”

“Ride My Llama” from Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

This is a diverting and catchy little song. I don’t really know what it means – the lyrics are more even obscure than usual – but the melody and arrangement are appearing and whatever I get from the lyrics meshes with the themes of the other acoustic songs on this record.

“Sail Away” from Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

One of Young’s most pleasant songs, it maintains the theme of the acoustic side of Rust Never Sleeps, of nature (and decay) as an escape from the problems of civilization.

“Misfits” from Old Ways (1985)

The rather ridiculous arrangement from Young’s traditional country record hides a song that features one of Young’s classic hallucinatory narratives which illuminates our modern condition through symbols and couplets rather than direct storytelling. If you can find a more stripped down version of the song, listen to it instead.

“This Note’s for You” w/ The Bluenotes from This Note’s for You (1988)

The title track for Young’s bizarre album with horns is a simplistic but effective dig at the slew of celebrities hocking brands in the 1980s, something that is beyond commonplace now. The song isn’t great, really, but the video is fantastic.

“Ordinary People” from Chrome Dreams II (2007, recorded 1988)

A crazy hybrid of Young’s sound from Freedom with a big does of This Note’s for You, this was one of Young’s legendary unreleased tracks for nearly 20 years. It’s ridiculously long – one of his longest studio recordings ever, if not the longest – and full of angry lyrics and guitar playing. The horn section helps but the bad ’80s keyboards date it a little bit. Anyway, it’s pretty great.

“Crime in the City” from Freedom (1989)

Probably the most interesting thing Young released in the late ’80s, this track combines one of Young’s long, rambling impressionistic songs – with far more specific lyrics this time out – with unusual touches for Young – a saxophone solo! a weird, percussive break, etc. One of the more unique things he’s recorded.

“No More” from Freedom (1989)

This one recalls an early melody of his (or two) but Young’s lyrics are personal and perhaps more forthright than some of his other songs about drugs, at least in terms of his own personal experience. If you believe the YouTube comments, this song has moved more than a few former addicts.

“Days that Used to Be” w/ Crazy Horse from Ragged Glory (1990)

Reeking of nostalgia for the activism of the 60s and one of his early bands (Buffalo Springfield?), this track still has a bunch of great lines and a strong melody. If this is nostalgia, I’ll take more of it.

“Over and Over Again” w/ Crazy Horse from Ragged Glory (1990)

This Crazy Horse reunion record is a record I’ve always wanted to like more than I do. For whatever reason, Young’s songs on it don’t really hold up to the ones he used to write for this band, at least for me. The one exception for me is “Over and Over Again,” which features some of Young’s more simple romantic lyrics but features plenty of Young’s infamous guitar playing (as does the record in general).

“One of These Days” from Harvest Moon (1992)

A sort of weary-yet-wistful rumination on Young’s past and the people he’s known, this is a particularly simple song but it’s endearing and more and more heart-tugging, the older you get.

“Prime of Life” w/ Crazy Horse from Sleeps from Angels (1994)

This is my favourite thing from Young’s grungy, dirty Crazy Horse double LP, released at the height of grunge. It’s an opaque song but with an insistent chorus and some impassioned backing vocals from the Horse. Good stuff.

“I’m the Ocean” w/ Pearl Jam from Mirror Ball (1995)

One of Young’s rambling, impressionistic pseudo-narratives, this one is the standout song for me from his collaboration with Pearl Jam. It has a relatively unique sound for both artists: a murk with the keyboards and lead guitar only occasionally appearing through the dense murky sound. But Young’s lyrics contain some good lines and it the melody is appealing enough that the murk is okay.

Also, check the out the reprise, “Fallen Angel,” which is just Young with a pump organ playing the melody from “I’m the Ocean.”

“Music Arcade” from Broken Arrow (1996)

An extremely sedate solo performance from the otherwise electric Broken Arrow, this impressionistic song is one of Young’s best of the 1990s, featuring his trademark vivid imagery of a fading but still vivid memory.

“Interstate” w/Crazy Horse from Broken Arrow (1996)

An acoustic track released as a vinyl-only bonus on the otherwise electric Broken Arrow, this song has a haunting melody and very impressionistic lyrics even for Young. One of his underrated tracks from this late in his career.

“Red Sun” from Silver & Gold (2000)

This is a pleasant, impressionistic and optimistic song from what we might consider a spiritual follow up to Harvest Moon. It’s a little slight, but the melody is catchy and some of the lines are compelling.

“Razor Love” from Silver & Gold (2000)

A catchier melody than “Red Sun,” with more elliptical lyrics, but again with lines that stick in your mind, this is probably my favourite song from Silver & Gold.

“Bandit” w/ Crazy Horse from Greendale (2003)

Another one of Young’s sort of historical narratives/portraits, with an insistent chorus and a pleasantly ramshackle feel, this is probably my favourite song from Young’s song-cycle/rock opera. Whether or not you like this record, how many people were this ambitious at nearly 60 years of age?

“Bringin’ Down Dinner” w/ Crazy Horse from Greendale (2003)

Though I personally prefer “Bandit” in terms of my enjoyment, I think this is the better set of lyrics. It makes we wish the rest of the album were this good. Couldn’t Embed this one.

“Let’s Impeach the President” from Living with War (2006)

Though this song doesn’t have the power of Young’s earlier protest songs, and though it verges into paranoia, it still features a biting attack on Bush Junior in the verses, and it’s not far off the mark. (The chorus is super inane, though.)

“Light a Candle” from Fork in the Road (2009)

A very optimistic song – in a Nietzschean sort of way – this one starts out very minimalist and slowly builds to a much fuller sound. Young’s lyrics are perhaps more existentialist than any other song of his I’ve ever heard. As an existentialist myself, I like that.

“Hitchhiker” from Le Noise (2010)

An alternate version of “Like an Inca” from Trans, “Hitchhiker” is an autobiography in song, typical of Young’s long-form narratives, albeit more specific – and perhaps more based in very specific historical incidents. Like most of the album, it is drowned in Daniel Lanois’ loops, a brave risk for someone to take in their 8th decade.

“Angry World” from Le Noise (2010)

The lyrics may be almost willfully naive, but they have their appeal. The loops start from the outset and the whole thing feels utterly brave for a man of his age (like the rest of the album).

“Love and War” from Le Noise (2010)

The most conventionally produced of the songs from Neil Young’s flirtation with Daniel Lanois’ loops, “Love and War” may also be the most moving song from the album; it’s a reflection on his career as a songwriter and how he’s written about the same things everyone writes about, to no effect.

“Walk Like a Giant” w/ Crazy Horse from Psychedelic Pill (2012)

The second longest track on this ridiculously long record is more immediate and more catchy – and just a titch longer – than “Ramada Inn.” The lyrics are rueful – about how the flower power generation didn’t actually achieve anything.

“Plastic Flowers from Storytone (2014)

I hope I never have a midlife crisis where I seek out a woman too young for me and spurn my wife of 36 years. But if I ever do, I know I will never be able to capture that moment in song, and certainly not a song like this: a return to Young’s impressionistic, semi-biographical sketches of his heyday. (Couldn’t find the studio version on YouTube.)

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