Top 10 Neil Young Songs
Coming up with a top 10 list for the prolific and wide-ranging Neil Young is quite a challenge. For over four decades, Young had displayed a restless creative streak that has resulted in him performing and recording hundreds (if not thousands) of great songs with a wide variety of solo bands, to say nothing of his famous collaborative groups. We did our best to boil down the most important tracks from one of rock’s most impressive archives here:
‘Down By The River’
Many argue that it was on his sophomore record that Neil Young began truly finding his voice. This rocker nears the 10-minute mark showing that even early in his career, Young wasn’t willing to play by anyone’s rules aside from his own. Most haunting moment? After the song’s chorus is first performed, when he lingers a little too uncomfortably long on “…Shot her dead…Oooh…”
‘After The Gold Rush’
The next song to be featured in our list of the top Neil Young songs finds the singer deep in one of the many vulnerable moments that would highlight his career. This track features Young’s vocals accompanied throughout the song by piano, in addition to a horn solo that comes mid-song. The incomplete manner in which Young chooses to end the song makes the listener desperately want to hear more.
Although this track appears on Young’s ‘Decade’ retrospective, it was also featured on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s landmark ‘Deja Vu’ record. Though the track is a prominent showcase for the vocal harmonies that his occasional band mates could offer, the song is a minimalist-sounding walk down memory lane for Young, who vividly recalls the sights and sounds of his youth.
‘Cowgirl In The Sand’
The next title to be featured as a top Neil Young song shares much in common with ‘Down by the River.’ Unconventional in the sense that it is almost two full minutes before Young begins singing, the song, loosely held together by Crazy Horse, delves into searing guitar solos that rank as one of Young’s career highlights.
‘The Needle & The Damage Done’
A heartfelt ode to Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, whom he was seeing descend into heroin addiction, this two-minute song does more to evoke the sad and stark scenery of a drug addict trying to score than almost any other song. The emotion in Young’s vocals is so powerful, it is not until the song ends that the listener realizes the song was recorded in concert as opposed to the studio.
‘Heart of Gold’
Arguably one of Young’s best-known songs, the country-flavored ‘Heart Of Gold’ was a chart-topping hit a good month before his ‘Harvest’ album would be released. The song owes a debt to country pioneers before him. The song is notable for the way it stays in first gear, refusing to budge out of its comfort zone. Somehow, it still makes for one of Young’s career highlights.
While many of the songs appearing on our list of top Neil Young songs lean on the more subtle or countrified aspects of his career, Young also boasts a generous catalog of guitar-based rockers. Few tracks are as immediately identifiable with Young as this track is, and with good reason. The hand claps and simple guitar riff that lead the song are basically the stuff of legend.
Reportedly inspired by the caretaker of a property in California which Young would eventually own, this nugget embodies the very spirit of Young. With a powerful chorus sung by Young, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, Young’s declaration of “It doesn’t mean that much to me to mean that much to you” is perhaps one of the song’s most powerful moments, even though it is sung in a relatively understated manner.
A protest song written in response to the 1970 Kent State shootings, Young is accompanied by his Crosby, Stills and Nash bandmates on the song’s chorus. Young reportedly wrote the lyrics to the song after reading about the incident in a magazine. The single was rush-released by Young’s record company while the Kent State incident was still fresh in America’s public conscience.
‘Rockin’ In The Free World’
While many artists tend to mellow as they age, who would have ever thought that Neil Young would deliver such an immediate, rocking track 20 years into his career? This guitar-based anthem is No. 1 on our list of the top 10 Neil Young songs for good reason: It is an enduring testament to the universal power of the song.