Coming up with a list of Top 10 Neil Young Songs is a challenge, since he's such a prolific and wide-ranging artist. Dating back to the '60s, Young had displayed a restless creative streak that has resulted in 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'From: ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ (1969)
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 the line: "Shot her dead ... Oooh."
‘After the Gold Rush’ From: ‘After The Gold Rush’ (1970)
The next song to be featured in our list of the Top 10 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 by piano, in addition to a horn solo that comes midway through. The incomplete manner in which Young chooses to end the song makes the listener desperately want to hear more.
'Helpless'From: ‘Decade’ (1977)
Although this track appears on Young's Decade retrospective, it was also featured on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's landmark Deja Vu record. Unsurprisingly, "Helpless" quickly becomes a showcase for the vocal harmonies that his occasional band mates always offered. But it's also a minimalist-sounding walk down memory lane for Young, who vividly recalls the sights and sounds of his youth.
'Cowgirl In the Sand' From: ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ (1969)
The next title to be featured as our list of Top 10 Neil Young Song shares much in common with "Down By the River." Unconventional in the sense that it goes almost two full minutes before the vocal begins, this song is loosely held together by Crazy Horse as Young delves into searing guitar solos that rank as one of his career highlights.
'The Needle and the Damage Done'From: ‘Harvest’ (1972)
A heartfelt ode to Danny Whitten as the Crazy Horse guitarist was descending 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. Young's vocal is so powerful that the listener might not realize it was recorded live in concert until "The Needle and the Damage Done" ends.
'Heart of Gold'From: ‘Harvest’ (1972)
Arguably one of Young's best-known songs, the country-flavored "Heart of Gold" was a chart-topping hit a good month before the Harvest album would be released. The song owes a debt to country pioneers before him. "Heart of Gold" is also 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.
'Cinnamon Girl' From: ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ (1969)
While many of the songs appearing on our list of Top 10 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 "Cinnamon Girl" are basically the stuff of legend.
'Old Man'From: ‘Harvest’ (1972)
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.
'Ohio'From: ‘Decade’ (1977)
A protest song following the 1970 Kent State shootings, "Ohio" finds Young accompanied by his Crosby, Stills and Nash bandmates on the song's chorus. Young reportedly wrote the lyrics after reading about the incident in a magazine. The single was rush released by Young's record company while the tragedy was still fresh in America's public consciousness.
‘Rockin' In The Free World’ From: ‘Freedom’ (1989)
Considering how 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 songs for good reason: It is an enduring testament to the universal power of the song.