I agonized over this Top 10 list of the Greatest Neil Young Songs. Every one of these songs would likely be in my Top 15 or Top 25 if I did it again in a few weeks, but there are definitely some songs in the Top 50 that I feel like I should have included in this list. Alas, there are only 10 spots.
I apologize for the huge bias to basically one decade. This is my favourite era of music so that probably explains a little bit as to why there’s nothing here from after 1979.
10. “Cowgirl in the Sand” w/ Crazy Horse from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969)
One of the two epic guitar solo tracks from Young’s second album, “Cowgirl” has vague, impressionistic lyrics (often called “dreamlike”) possibly about an idealized woman (or three), but also sometimes interpreted as being an allegory for Young settling as a solo artist in California. Either way, the lyrics make an impression but it is Young’s now legendary guitar playing that makes the true impression. With this track and “Down by the River,” Young showed a way forward for musicians who weren’t necessarily the best guitar players on the planet, but who still wanted to jam.
9. “On the Beach” – On the Beach (1974)
“Though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away” is perhaps the most resonant line for me of any line Neil Young wrote.
The title track to the middle of the Ditch Trilogy album perfectly captures the theme of underlying angst and misery during the hedonism of the ’70s. Young is living “on the beach” – a symbol of bliss for many people – contemplating his success, and how it has done nothing for him, he still has personal problems. No matter what we do, or what others think, or what happens in this world, it will not help us.
8. “Down by the River” w/ Crazy Horse from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969)
Driven by a kind of shuffling rhythm guitar track, with the barbed lead playing over it, this update on a traditional murder ballad is apparently actually about having really great sex (seriously). This track features perhaps the greatest moment of Young’s career as a guitarist when he picks the same note something like 40 times in a row during his solo.
7. “Cortez the Killer” w/ Crazy Horse from Zuma (1975)
As history, “Cortez the Killer” is awful – full of untruths. But as a song it connects to a fundamental urge in all of us to connect with our mysterious, idealized past and it features one of Young’s most famous melodic-but-distorted guitar leads.
6. “Powderfinger” w/ Crazy Horse from Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Young has an uncanny ability to tell a story when he wants to, and this is probably the finest example of Young in full narrative mode, transporting the listener to a frontier episode where a young man is charged with defending his family and fails. The song’s sequencing is also notable, being the first electric guitar focused song after a side of acoustic tracks. As the critic Jason Ankey puts it, “[Powderfinger is] a sudden, almost blindsiding metamorphosis, which is entirely the point — it’s the shot you never saw coming.”
5. “Whiskey Boot Hill”/”Down Down Down”/”Country Girl (I Think You’re Pretty)” by CSNY from Deja Vu (1970)
A suite of song fragments with a sense of momentum worthy of Paul McCartney, this piece is the most ambitious that Young gave to CSNY and is one of his rare instances of taking a series of song fragments and turning them into a “song.” It’s kind of forgotten on the second half of Deja Vu, but for me it’s one of his very best pieces, showing off Young’s ability to conjure up images, which may be disjointedly narratively, but still create a distinct impression (or, in this case, a series of impressions). As with other songs he wrote, Young’s lyrics are a series of paintings, only vaguely connected. This time he wrote different musical settings for each of those lyrical paintings, too.
4. “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” / “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” solo and with Crazy Horse from Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Many people believe “Hey Hey My My” (actually two versions of the same song that bookend Rust Never Sleeps) is the best song about trying to keep musically relevant as you age. The electric version has become somewhat more famous than the acoustic version over the years, but they’re pretty similar.
The song has caused some controversy, particularly given its association with Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Young has stated that he means it’s better to burn out artistically (not actually die) than fade away but I think the power of the lyrics is that you don’t know. There is glamour in the early death of our idols, even if that glamour is morbid and, frankly, stupid. No other song has captured that feeling this way, I think.
3. “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills Nash and Young (1970 single)
Young did not write a lot of explicit protest songs but “Ohio” is not only his best protest song, it’s the best protest song of the ’70s and one of the great English language protest songs ever written. It’s a searing depiction of the fear of “the left” after Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes authorized the National Guard to intervene in the Kent State University demonstrations, resulting in the deaths of 4 university students.
The song was written and recorded within weeks of the shootings and released shortly thereafter. It’s brief and precise and, in the latter sense, very un-Neil Young. Young takes liberties with the truth, as he always does, blaming Nixon, rather than Rhodes, but the point here feels accurate: that the President of the United States of America was fully in favour of the violent suppression of public dissent – that the government of the United States was willing to kill children to get their own way.
I have not experienced anything like the Kent State shootings in my life, and I am very thankful for that. But I can imagine what an earth-shattering experience it must have been and I can do so in part because of this song.
2. “Broken Arrow” by Buffalo Springfield from Buffalo Springfield Again (1968)
“Broken Arrow” remains one of Yong’s most radical recordings, even though it was one of his first handful of songs to be released. The song is like little else he recorded and was, for 1968, rather a radical piece of music:
- It begins with a sample collage (still a rare thing in 1968) of a “live” performance of “Mr. Soul ” – actually an-in studio performance, sung by Dewey Martin instead of Young, and featuring crowd noise stolen from the Beatles – the Young song which actually opens Buffalo Springfield Again, a trick that Young would later employ a variation of over and over again but which, in 1968, was about as out there as a it gets.
- The song features verses about the dissolution of Buffalo Springfield, albeit using oblique imagery, paired with a refrain that repeats at the end of the each verse, with the space for the actual chorus replaced by sound effects and other seemingly unrelated music:
- The first time there’s what sounds like a recording from a baseball game, featuring booing and a calliope playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”
- The second time features military drums which sound (to me) like they are calling for a execution.
- Finally, the song ends with a jazz band featuring both clarinet and piano solos.
- The coda is a heartbeat.
There is nothing else like this in Young’s canon. This was a radical, forward-thinking piece of music in 1968 but why I think it is so great is that, unlike so much other “avant garde” music from the ’60s, it still holds up as a song you’d want to listen to now, 50 years later. Young’s lyrics about Buffalo Springfield (with a Lennon-Ono reference thrown in) are oblique enough that they could be about lots of things, including one of Young’s hallucinatory visions of the west slowly dying due to modernization (a common theme of his). The sound effects feel complementary to the song, rather than distracting. As avant rock music goes, this is as good as it gets.
1. “Helpless” by Crosby, Stills Nash and Young from Deja Vu (1970)
“Helpless” may not be the Greatest Neil Young Song of All Time but it’s my favourite. I usually try very hard to separate what I view as “favourite” with what the world might (or should) view as “great” but here I cannot do those mental gymnastics here. Young’s impressionistic lyrics take me back to my childhood, not just the one I had but the one I would have liked to have had. Like Young, I spent a lot of time in “north Ontario” as a child at the cottages of family and friends, running barefoot through the woods, picking blueberries, learning how to canoe, attempting to water ski and failing… (Though it’s not actually northern Ontario as Torontonians refer to everything north of Toronto as “northern Ontario” and even some areas to the east and west of the city; where Young was living is in this part of southern Ontario we Torontonians stupidly call “northern.”) “Helpless” takes me back to those moments, but also reminds me of what I missed out on, by not fully committing to childhood wonder – for as long as I can remember I’ve been trying to figure everything out, rather than just stopping to enjoy the moment. I don’t have the same fondness for my childhood that some people have because I didn’t have as many of those wonderful formative moments of awe or stupor. This song lets me pretend I did.
Happy Birthday, Neil.