Music

The Top 50 Neil Young Songs of All Time

This list of the Top 50 Neil Young Songs has been narrowed down from the hundreds of songs he wrote over time. I had a really hard time making it and many songs in the “Honourable Mentions” section of my Top 100 could have easily been on here instead. That Top 100 was a bit of a cop out, but this part of the list is truly ranked. So I hope you enjoy the Top 50 Neil Young Songs of All Time

 

50. “Running Dry” from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969)

An appeal to his new band to change their name and become Crazy Horse? Maybe. I’m not exactly sure if I buy that, as “Running Dry” sounds like a breakup song. But the wailing fiddle and Young’s plaintive singing make the lyrics resonate.  I think many of us can relate to these feelings.

 

49. “Will to Love” from American Stars and Bars (1977)

One of the unissued tracks that Young added to this record to pad it out, “Will to Love” is easily the best song on the album that doesn’t feature a guitar solo. It’s an autobiographical meditation on why Young feels like he can have a successful relationship but they aren’t successful.

 

48. “Danger Bird” w/ Crazy Horse from Zuma (1975)

A classic Crazy Horse track from their “reunion” album. Maybe not one of Young’s best songs as a song, per se, but it features everything that makes Crazy Horse great and some of Neil Young’s classic playing.

 

47. “Pocahontas” from Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

Kind of similar in subject matter to “Cortez the Killer,” this is another one of Young’s alternate histories; this time Young associates the genocide of natives in North America with recent media attention about it, specifically Marlon Brandon drawing attention to it by failing to show up at the Oscar’s.

 

46. “Journey Through the Past” from Time Fades Away

Young’s notorious live album from the Harvest Tour, when he and the Stray Gators drunkenly played brand new material to audiences expecting “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man,” is one of his great neglected records. This song, the “title” track to the film of the same name (which was not included in the score), is one of Young’s nostalgia trips. Though less effective than his best efforts, perhaps due to its specificity, it’s still got a number of lines that resonate it has an appealing melody.

 

45. “Wrecking Ball” from Freedom (1989)

Emmylou Harris’ version is more famous (deservedly, I think) but this is one of Young’s most compelling romantic songs from later in his career. It’s got some absolutely great imagery that hooks you in to the relationship, like the best of Young’s romantic songs.

 

44. “Alabama” from Harvest (1972)

Young’s second song about the South is less effective than the first, both in terms of its less immediate music and its lyrics. The lyrics are still somewhat piercing, and they do conjure the famous image of a car partially in the ditch, which would come to define Young over the next few years, but I just feel like this isn’t “Southern Man” and so it pales as a follow up.

 

43. “Albuquerque” from Tonight’s the Night (recorded 1973, released 1975)

Young uses a geographical/physical place as an image for his feeling of loneliness in general and on tour in particular. Though some of the lyrics are inane, the melody is strong and the performance on the original is one of the reasons Young became the “Godfather of Grunge.”

 

42. “I Am a Child” by Buffalo Springfield from Last Time Around (1968)

One of the few Young songs to make it on the last Springfield record (released after the band had broken up), this is one of Young’s songs about childhood (obviously). Though it doesn’t work as well as “Sugar Mountain,” it still does a good job of conjuring up an innocent youth before the problems of adulthood.

 

41. “Don’t Be Denied” from Time Fades Away (1973)

This is one of Young’s autobiographical songs. Despite the ragged performance, it’s one of Young’s more hopeful songs… at least it gives the listener hope, as we hear about his struggles and his commitment to making it, after he’s made it, so that part is hopeful.

 

40. “Round and Round” from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969)

The most sedate song from his second record, this track still manages to sound as ragged and fragile as much of the rest of the album, in part due to some rather odd production and Young’s wailing backing falsetto. Young’s lyrics are oblique but that has always been something he handles better than most – though I don’t know entirely what he is singing about (I am guessing his own failings, thinking about those failings), the words still resonate.

 

39. “Out of My Mind” by Buffalo Springfield from Buffalo Springfield (1966)

Belying his age (21) and the fact that the band hadn’t made it big before he wrote the song, this is one of the earliest and most effective songs about the dissociation caused by fame. Young’s ability to see it coming at such a young age (pardon the pun) is really striking. The song is brief but extremely effective and is only dated by the rather poor production.

 

38. “The Old Laughing Lady” from Neil Young (1968)

The first of Young’s many songs about substance abuse and addiction, this is perhaps the most obscure. The track highlights the ridiculous over-production of his debut album – listen to those “soulful” backing vocals in the middle of the song, something Young would never do again – but the song itself is one of the strongest from his debut.

 

37. “Pardon My Heart” from Zuma (1975)

A plaintive song about a failing relationship, this seemingly slight acoustic number from what is otherwise a Crazy Horse reunion record contains some of Young’s most heartfelt and affecting lyrics.

 

36. “The Loner” from Neil Young (1968)

One of the rare rock songs from Young’s debut solo album, it was actually recorded with a member of Buffalo Springfield. There’s debate about whether the song is about Young’s former bandmate Stephen Stills, or whether it is about Young himself. (It sure sounds like it’s about Young…)

Regardless, the production on this record is the first to truly capture Young’s blistering playing, which stands out even with the string section. (Buffalo Springfield had only rarely captured it on record.) Released as Young’s first single, it failed, but it’s one of the few songs from this record that Young has played throughout most of his career.

 

35. “Sugar Mountain” B-side of “The Loner” (1969)

Not released on LP until Young’s first “Greatest Hits” collection, this song is perhaps Young’s second finest reminiscence about his lost youth. It has been surprisingly enduring for a live track on a b-side, which attests to the power and universality of the lyrics.

 

34. “The Last Train to Tulsa” from Neil Young (1968)

The first of Young’s stream-of-consciousness/hallucinogenic epics, all obviously inspired by Bob Dylan, this one makes perhaps the least sense of all of them, but it has lots of great imagery. Compared to lots of other Dylan-inspired efforts of the era, it’s highly listenable and maybe – just maybe – there’s enough here to actually feel something.

Young would get much better at these types of songs (see “Ambulance Blues” from On the Beach) but this dry run is still the highlight of his debut album, showing off his imagination better than anything else on that record.

 

33. “Harvest Moon” from Harvest Moon (1992)

The only Neil Young song I really knew by heart until I decided to actively listen to him sometime in my late teens, this song is indelibly placed in my memory because the video was in constant rotation on Much Music in my youth. It is, along with “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World,” Young’s most famous song since the 1970s.

The song itself is just pleasant, full of his typical earnestness and imagery of his romantic songs but, perhaps because it recalls his earlier hit album, or perhaps because the melody is so compelling, it seems to stick around longer than some of the songs I think have better lyrics. I was struggling with where to rank this but it’s just too stuck in my head to be any lower.

 

32. “For the Turnstiles” w/ Ben Keith from On the Beach (1974)

One of Young’s most seemingly obscure lyrics, we can interpret it a number of ways. But the performance of just Young on banjo and Keith on Dobro (doing his best Stephen Stills vocal impersonation, as far as I can tell), is one of Young’s starkest and most compelling arrangements in his entire catalogue.

 

31. “The Bridge” from Time Fades Away (1973)

This love song is one of Young’s best in this genre. It’s not a traditional love song as it’s about repairing a relationship using what should be a very clunky metaphor. But it works, as does the fragile (alcohol-fueled) performance.

 

30. “Old Man” from Harvest (1972)

The less famous of the two hit singles from Harvest is, for me, far and away the better song, a song about owning his new ranch in California and whether or not he’s made the right choice. Ostensibly written for the “Old man” who inspired the song (the caretaker), it’s really about Young grappling with the sudden monetary success he has and whether or not it has changed him. Will the ranch save him?

 

29. “Through My Sails” w/ Crosby, Stills and Nash from Zuma (1975)

A standout CSNY track in Young’s Crazy Horse reunion album, this is a very pretty brief song with typically illusory but impressionistic lyrics from Young. Themes we see crop up again and again in his songs of the ’70s appear here: misplaced happiness, disillusionment, the beach, the ocean.

 

28. “Ambulance Blues” from On the Beach (1974)

This hallucinatory trip through Young’s past is perhaps his best attempt at one of these Bob Dylan-style stream-of-consciousness image onslaughts. It’s particularly affecting to me because it mentions the town I live in!!!

Well, I’m up in T.O.
keepin’ jive alive,
And out on the corner
it’s half past five.
But the subways are empty
And so are the cafes.

Except for the Farmer’s Market
And I still can hear him say:
You’re all just pissin’
in the wind
You don’t know it but you are.

And there ain’t nothin’
like a friend
Who can tell you
you’re just pissin’
in the wind.

Young transitions from a weird dream of an abandoned Toronto to celebrating honest friends. I have no idea what the connection is. There are lots of stanzas in the song that affect me. I don’t know that they add up to anything but a bunch of nice poem segments pasted together, but I still really like the song.

 

27. “Barstool Blues” from Zuma (1975)

A song with lyrics worthy of the confusion of Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach, it contains some of Young’s most memorable lines, all vaguely connected. For me, this set’s the kicker:

And I saw you in my nightmares
But I’ll see you in my dreams
And I might live a thousand years
Before I know what that means.


I have dreamed of people in the weirdest of situations; sometimes I thought I could take meaning from it, sometimes not. A couple of times I have acted on dreams, to generally unfavourable results. There is a part of the mind that will remain inaccessible to us.

 

26. “Love in Mind” from Time Fades Away (1973)

Though brief, this is a powerful song about the incongruence between our feelings, reality and what society expects of us. Young’s optimism when he wakes up is tempered by the day and by what he knows about the world, and he’s not sure what to do about it. The chorus is never repeated and, though we begin with optimism, we end with confusion.

 

25. “Tired Eyes” from Tonight’s the Night (recorded 1973, released 1975)

The only song I can think of where Young speaks in the verses instead of singing, this song tells the story of a drug deal gone bad in California, or rather Neil Young hearing about this drug deal gone bad. Young’s description of hearing about the encounter is juxtaposed with a desperate plea in the chorus that his now dead friends come back to life. Haunting and kind of awful.

 

24. “Cinnamon Girl” from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969)

Young’s first hit, this garagey, dirty rock song is perhaps most famous for his one-note solo (stolen from Pete Townshend) but is also notable for the bizarre noodling at the end. Either way, it introduced Young’s incomparable intuitive playing to a much wider audience and is still played on classic rock radio.

The lyrics aren’t much, but the real thing is the performance.

 

23. “Revolution Blues” from On The Beach (1974)

This is the best song that has been written about Charles Manson, as far as I know. Young’s description of meeting Manson and his “family” acts as an allegory for the emotional turbulence of the decade and the confusion and anger left over from the ’60s with its dashed hopes of a new world. The imagery is great. So is that bass part.

 

22. “Birds” from After the Gold Rush (1970)

This break-up song is certainly one of Young’s most moving pieces, though it is quite brief.  The brevity of the song reinforces the full impact of the “It’s over” refrain that just devastates the listener.

 

21. “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” from Buffalo Springfield (1966)

Neil couldn’t even sing this song about how out of place he felt in the world. Though “The Loner” is more visceral in its sound, this song is more heartbreaking.

I believe the verses are modeled after the structure of “Howl.”

 

20. “Borrowed Tune” from Tonight’s the Night (recorded 1973, released 1975)

Not Young’s most famous song about drug use, but certainly one of his most effective; it also doubles as as an examination of the creative process, as he uses the melody from “Lady Jane” – hardly the first time a songwriter used another song to write his own but maybe the first time he admitted it in the lyrics of the new song.

 

19. “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” from Freedom (1989)

This is perhaps Young’s most iconic song, at least for those of us who were born in the ’80s or later. It’s arguably more famous than anything he ever wrote because of its chorus, the irony of which has been lost on many listeners, just like the meaning of “Born in the USA” has been lost on every politician who has used it for a campaign. This song features Young’s fiercest political lyrics since “Ohio.” Much like “Hey Hey (My My)” it is presented on the album first in an acoustic version and then in a far fiercer electric version. (It’s the acoustic version that’s available on YouTube at the moment.)

 

18. “Mr. Soul” by Buffalo Springfield from Buffalo Springfield Again (1967)

Sort of a spiritual sequel to “Out of My Mind” (see above), “Mr. Soul” is Young’s further comment on the experience of being famous, this time due to his first epileptic fit, experienced on stage during a show. Young takes The Stones’ “Satisfaction” riff and turns it back on itself, and the performance stands as the hardest song Springfield ever recorded. Young’s lyrics are poignant and more effective than “Out of My Mind,” probably because they’re lived in.

 

17. “Vampire Blues” from On the Beach (1974)

The metaphor is obvious and rock stars prone to excess singing about the environment will always be hypocritical. But we’re all hypocrites at least some of the time, and the obvious metaphor is still an effective one; it’s another strong example of Young’s examination of the fear and doubt at the heart of the excess of the ’70s.

And then there’s that guitar solo: the second one after the 3 minute mark is basically an anti-guitar solo, it starts off so low it’s barely audible on some speakers. It is the epitome (or nadir) of Young’s unconventional soloing technique that rejects technique in favour of feel. One of his greatest moments as a guitarist.

 

16. “Like a Hurricane” w/ Crazy Horse from American Stars and Bars (1977, recorded in 1975)

Possibly recorded for Zuma, it’s kind of amazing that this standard got relegated to what was essentially an outtakes album or dumping ground. Young’s riff is undeniably famous at this point and the song’s central metaphor is one of Young’s most effective. That string synthesizer used to drive me crazy (“This is not Crazy Horse!” I would rant) but I have given in to it.

 

15. “After the Gold Rush” from After the Gold Rush (1970)

One of Young’s most famous songs about the death of edenic nature and the loss we experience when convenience and technology take hold, it’s also probably the best.

The arrangement is sparse – just Young’s voice and piano and a horn, which joins him briefly – and completely fits the mood of the song. The lyrics are impressionistic as usual, but are at least vaguely interpretable, with the each verse matching a tense (past, present, future).

 

14. “Southern Man” from After the Gold Rush (1970)

The song that inspired a line in “Sweet Home Alabama” (“I hope Neil Young will remember/Southern man don’t need him around anyhow”) is probably Young’s second most famous “social comment” or political song after “Ohio.” Both songs feature righteous anger at sociopolitical conditions, only this song is longer, is about long-standing conditions and features one of Young’s greatest guitar solos, where he stops in the middle for what feels like an eternity, and then resumes with some of his most barbed playing ever. Though musically out of step with most of the rest of the album, it might be the best thing on it, which is saying something.

 

13. “The Needle and the Damage Done” from Harvest (1972)

Young’s most famous song about drug use was included in a live version on his most popular record, a practice that would become common for many of his songs – though, in the future, Young and an engineer would mute the crowd noise – because Young seemed to feel these performances were better than anything he could get in the studio.

The song is brief but poignant and deservedly famous. The line about a junkie being a setting sun is controversial and, for many, makes the song fail. I’d like to offer an alternative interpretation: I don’t know that Young was saying junkies are beautiful like sunsets, but rather that junkies appear to die and then come right back up again the next day, as if nothing is wrong. If this interpretation is correct, it makes it harder to help the junkie because they seem okay half the time. Regardless, it’s the interpretation I prefer and it’s one of his best songs, in my mind.

 

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

The title tracks of Young’s infamous album about the deaths of a bandmate and a roadie – delayed for two years because nobody thought it could be released – feature some of Young’s most pained vocal performances, accompanied by a ragged backing band that doesn’t always know what Young is going to do next but nearly always anticipate him (except that one time, where he gets them).

This was the first record where Young started bookending his albums with different versions of the same song and here it acts as a thematic summary of the bleak album about the consequences of 70s excess.

 

11. “Thrasher” from Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

Perhaps Young’s best song about the clash between technology, and the life it provides, and nature (only bested by “Cortez the Killer” because of the guitar lead); Young fantasizes about giving up on the modern world and living in nature, something that most of us can sympathize with at some point in our lives – it’s a pull that afflicts us all, for whatever reason.

As usual, Young paints pictures that we have to link together about what he is singing about, but the pictures are so vivid and, to me at least, so affecting.
See the Top 10 Neil Young Songs

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