Neil Young has created a massive amount of music over the past five decades — ear-splitting rock with Crazy Horse, gentle solo acoustic music, psychedelic West coast rock with Buffalo Springfield and folk rock with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, not to mention some wild genre experiments in the ‘80s. Not everything he tries works, and not every album is a classic. But, with the release of his new album, BARN, we took a deep dive into his entire catalog. If you’re looking for his most famous songs, scroll ahead to #25, but if you’re not a die-hard fan, you might find some stuff you’ll really like here.
The song got overshadowed by Bruce Springsteen's "Streets Of Philadelphia" from the same soundtrack, but Neil's piano ballad was a beautiful and surprising contribution; Neil doesn't contribute to soundtracks too often. 'Philadelphia' director Jonathan Demme told Rolling Stone: "I thought, what we need is the most up-to-the-minute, guitar-dominated American-rock anthem about injustice to start the movie off. Who can do that? Neil Young can do that. So we edited a title sequence to 'Southern Man' to help him see how his music could power the images we were working with. He said, 'I'll try.' Six weeks later, we get a call: 'Hi, it's Neil, I'm sending a tape.' So in comes this song. We were crying the first time we heard it. I went: 'Oh, my God, Neil Young trusts this movie more than I do.'"
One thing that Neil and Crazy Horse does well is loooong, mid-tempo jams. “Slip Away” was already eight and a half minutes long in its original version on 1996’s ‘Broken Arrow,’ but they stretch it out to nearly eleven on this live version. The extra length seems to lend more urgency to the main character’s plight (“She lives in such pain/She rides in a bulletproof stretch limousine”).
Originally from Young’s 1969 self-titled solo debut. That album was a bit overproduced; Young sounded like he was still a member of the Buffalo Springfield. It’s a good version, but this one - just Young singing and playing acoustic guitar and harmonica - is a lot stronger.
1989’s ‘Freedom’ was something of a comeback for Young (we’ll get to that later), but ‘Ragged Glory’ was his mind-blowing reunion with Crazy Horse. There were some heavy rockers on ‘Freedom,’ but there’s nothing like Crazy Horse when it comes to wild electric guitar jams. MTV’s Kurt Loder wrote of the album at the time, “‘Ragged Glory’ is, in fact, a monument to the spirit of the garage – to the pursuit of passion over precision, to raw power and unvarnished soul.” He noted, “I guess Neil Young is the king of rock and roll. I don’t see anybody else on the scene standing anywhere near this tall nowadays.”
‘Freedom’ could have been titled “How Neil Young Got His Groove Back.” After nearly a decade of highly stylized music (big band R&B, old school country, synth-pop, rockabilly) ‘Freedom’ saw Neil returning to his three main lanes: solo acoustic folk, laid back country-tinged songs, and frenzied Hendrixian rock. “No More” kind of combined the latter two, with Young’s wild solo reflecting the main character’s struggles with drugs.
Neil was in his mid-40s when ‘Ragged Glory’ was released. And, as Kurt Loder wrote in the aforementioned review, “Yes, kids, here’s a guy grizzled enough to be your ex-hippie dad, and he and his equally antique pals are blasting out a tune called ‘F*!#in’ Up’ that would singe the curls of any corporate-metal act currently on the charts.” It’s no surprise that newer acts like Nirvana and Pearl Jam adored Neil Young. In fact, Pearl Jam occasionally covers this song in their shows.
In 1990, Crazy Horse released the raging ‘Ragged Glory.’ 1994’s ‘Sleeps With Angels’ was haunted by the death of Kurt Cobain. ‘Broken Arrow,’ on the other hand, was a much more laid back Crazy Horse affair, albeit a loud one. On “Big Time,’ Neil and the Horse seem like they’re just enjoying playing together. They’re not really doing anything new, but Neil still insists, “I'm still living in the dream we had... for me, it's not over.”
This song feels like a huge mood swing: the verses see Young pleading with “my sweet love,” who he seems to be breaking up with. His Gibson Les Paul then dive bombs into a series of bonkers distorted guitar jams. Throughout the song, you feel like he’s saying, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be ok, it’s all going to be fine…. NO IT’S NOT, IT’LL NEVER BE FINE!”
This album ended Young’s string of genre-hopping albums in the ‘80s, and for our money, ‘This Note’s For You’ is his best album from that era. The socially conscious lyrics on this song were a preview of what he’d address soon after on “Rockin’ In The Free World”: “People sleepin' on the sidewalks/On a rainy day/Families livin' under freeways/It's the American way/Starvin' in the city/While the farm goes to seed/Murder in the home/And crime on the streets.”
One of Neil’s best riffs comes on this jam where he explains, without judgement, that “welfare mothers make better lovers.” This song, and the rest of side two of ‘Rust Never Sleeps,’ showed that Young could go punch for punch with the more aggressive punk rock bands that were coming up at the time. (Side 1 of ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ was acoustic and mellower, and side 2 featured Crazy Horse.)
A song that Young wrote during the Bluenotes era, and he used the Bluenotes horn section on this mostly acoustic epic. It details bleak scenes in America (as he also did on “Rockin’ In The Free World” from the same album.)
Another song from Young’s 1969 solo debut that gets more justice with a later arrangement. When you hear them play it, it feels like “The Loner” was always meant for Crazy Horse.
A song Young wrote years earlier; he intended to record it with Crosby Stills Nash & Young for an album that was supposed to be called ‘Human Highway.’ The quartet even recorded a take, but as with so many things CSNY, it never came out (until years later). But this version, on which he harmonizes with Nicolette Larson, is gorgeous.
As Young said in a 1995 interview with UK magazine MOJO, "Thrasher was pretty much me writing about my experiences with Crosby, Stills & Nash in the mid-'70s." He’s likely referring to the lyrics, “How I lost my friends, I still don't understand/They had the best selection/They were poisoned with protection/There was nothing that they needed/Nothing left to find/They were lost in rock formations/Or became park bench mutations/On the sidewalks and in the stations/They were waiting, waiting/So I got bored and left them there...They were just dead weight to me.” Ouch. Even though this was a lovely acoustic jam, it still hit hard, and likely endeared Young to the punk rockers who also looked down on CS&N.
A rare acoustic Crazy Horse track; it’s one of two songs from this album that they appear on. It was a reminder that they’re a great band, even without distorted guitars and giant amps.
Originally from Neil’s 1982 Kraftwerk-obsessed synth-pop album ‘Trans.’ On the original, Young sings through a vocoder, making his voice nearly unrecognizable. Here, backed by a few acoustic instruments and backing vocals, we learned that this was one song from ‘Trans’ that actually holds up without the production.
The band here, and on much of this album, is the Santa Monica Flyers. They included the surviving members of the original Crazy Horse - bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina - along with guitarist Nils Lofgren and slide guitarist Ben Keith. Original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten had tragically died by this point; much of the album was a response to his death (as well as the death of CSNY roadie Bruce Berry). “World On A String” is a bleak song from a bleak album. Young sings, “No, the world on a string/Doesn't mean a thing.” By this point, he was a big star, but all of the fame and money, he learned, “doesn’t mean a thing” in the face of the tragedy of losing friends.
In the early 2010s, Young ended a brief Buffalo Springfield reunion with this Crazy Horse project: an album featuring covers of old Americana songs. *Really* old Americana songs: for instance, “Oh Susannah” dates back to 1848. But with the Horse, Neil made the song into a garage rock rave-up.
‘Chrome Dreams II’ was a sequel to an album that was never released; Neil recorded ‘Chrome Dreams’ in the ‘70s but ultimately shelved it in favor of ‘American Stars ‘N’ Bars.’ “Beautiful Bluebird,” meanwhile, was a song written in the late ‘80s for an album that was ditched in favor of ‘Freedom.’ Typical Neil, right? ‘Freedom’ is one of Neil’s strongest albums but it would have been even better with this song.
This album saw Neil returning to quieter acoustic material as he contemplated mortality: his father, the Canadian sportscaster Scott Young, had recently passed away, and Neil himself had spent time in a hospital for an aneurysm. But like the two prior albums, 2003’s ‘Living With War’ and 2002’s ‘Are You Passionate?’ the specter of 9/11 haunted this album. In this song, Young recalls -- with grim humor -- the ‘America: A Tribute To Heroes’ telethon: “I'm hearing Willie singing on the radio again,” he sang, referring to his fellow Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson. “That song from 9/11 keeps ringing in my head/I'll always remember something Chris Rock said/’Don't send no more candles/No matter what you do!’ Then Willie stopped singing/And the prairie wind blew.”
In 2006, Young was so upset by the war in Iraq that he wrote a whole album, recorded it (backed by bassist Rick Rosas, drummer Chad Cromwell and trumpet player Tom Bray) within a week. He then took the recordings and hired a 100-person choir to add vocals to the songs and released ‘Living With War’ just a few days later. A few months after that, he re-released the album, without the choir, calling this version, ‘Living With War - In The Beginning.’ While the choir definitely added to some of the songs, “Families” works better without the extra backing. It’s sung from the perspective of a soldier missing their home: “There's a universe between us now/But I want to reach out and tell you how much you mean to me/And my family.” It’s a rare Neil song with a happy ending: the song wraps with the soldier getting their ticket to go home: “I can’t wait to see you again in the USA.”
A sweet, laid-back country-rock song that sees Neil looking back with fondness at the band that launched him to superstardom (‘Buffalo Springfield Again’ was the name of their second album). “I'd like to see those guys again/And give it a shot/Maybe now we can show the world what we've got” Sadly, in the years that followed the song, BS bassist Bruce Palmer and drummer Dewey Martin passed away. In 2010, Young reunited with founding members Stephen Stills and Richie Furay and they did a brief tour in 2011. Alas, Young ended up ditching the reunion to return to Crazy Horse.
Pearl Jam’s record label didn’t allow Young to put the band’s name on the album, but it was indeed Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready and new PJ drummer Jack Irons backing Neil on this album. The more commercial “Downtown” got some radio play, as did the Young/Eddie Vedder duet “Peace and Love.” But the album’s real highlight was tucked away at the end.
A true solo album, Young was the only musician on ‘Le Noise,’ but it’s not a “solo acoustic” affair. On ‘Walk With Me,’ Neil accompanies himself with a heavily distorted electric guitar (in Neil’s hands, of course, *every* guitar sounds distorted). Young and Pearl Jam later performed the song live, but Neil’s original solo version is still the best one.
It’s another jam where Young looks fondly back to his early days. Here, he remembers when he was first turned on to music: “First time I heard ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ I felt that magic and took it home/Gave it a twist and made it mine/But nothing was as good as the very first time/Poetry rolling off his tongue/Like Hank Williams chewing bubble gum/Asking me, ‘How does it feel?’” The song resembles the Band’s “The Weight,” and also name-drops the Grateful Dead and Roy Orbison.
This entire album has long been viewed as Young’s response to his song “Hey, Hey, My, My” being quoted by Kurt Cobain in his suicide note. It’s a bleak album, something of a companion piece to ‘Tonight’s The Night.’ Young wrote the epic 14-minute-plus “Change Your Mind” while Cobain was alive, but it seems to be the things that Young might have said to the doomed rocker if he’d had the chance.
‘On The Beach’ was recorded before ‘Tonight’s The Night,’ but was released after that album. They both share a sense of bleakness. But ‘On The Beach’ kicked off with the upbeat “Walk On,” written, in part, as a response to criticisms from Lynyrd Skynyrd fans who were unhappy with Neil’s “Southern Man.” “I hear some people been talking me down/Bring up my name, pass it around,” he sang, later shrugging them off. “Ooh baby, that's hard to change/I can't tell them how to feel.”
This album was recorded from a tour where Young was playing solo acoustic versions of the songs that would be later released on ‘Harvest Moon.’ It’s a tribute to Young’s late dog, King, and the intimacy of Young singing and playing the banjo serves the song better than the studio version. But it’s really Neil’s mimicking of King’s sniffing in this version that we love.
Another song that closely resembles a Bob Dylan song, in this case, “My Back Pages.” Here, Neil looks back in annoyance. While ‘Ragged Glory’ saw him as artistically hungry as ever, and playing louder than ever, he seems a bit disappointed with his old friends and peers. “Talk to me, my long lost friend, tell me how you are/Are you happy with your circumstance, are you driving a new car/Does it get you where you want to go, with a seven-year warranty/Or just another hundred thousand miles away/From the days that used to be.” Even in his mid-40s, Young was upset about people selling out.
Like David Bowie, when Neil committed to a character in the ‘80s, he really dove in. So when he developed his Bluenote character and put together his big band, he decided that that was the *only* music that he wanted to do, and he started playing shows where he played almost none of his catalog (although ‘Bluenote Cafe’ ends with a nineteen and a half minute version of “Tonight’s The Night”). In fact, he played a bunch of songs that didn’t make it to ‘This Note’s For You,’ and remained in the vault for years afterward. “Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me” is one of those and is arguably more powerful than most of the songs that made it to the album. But that’s Neil for you.
Neil always had a country influence, but he went full-on country in the mid-’80s, culminating in his 1985 album, ‘Old Ways.’ “Are You Ready For The Country?” was an old song -- originally from ‘Harvest’ - that he played on that tour. But the rollicking version here is just a little bit better than the original. Waylon Jennings, who guested on ‘Old Ways,’ covered this song, with slightly altered lyrics, in 1976.
The song starts out by dunking on “urban cowboys,” but soon cuts a bit deeper, as Neil and Willie lament the fate of farmers: “Well, I hope that working cowboy never dies/Not the one that's snortin' cocaine/When the honky-tonk's all closed/But the one that prays for more rain/Heaven knows/That the good feed/Brings the money/And the money buys the clothes/Not the diamond sequins/Shining on TV/But the kind the working cowboy really needs.” A few months after the release of ‘Old Ways,’ Young and Nelson put their money and time where their mouths were, with the first Farm Aid show (Nelson, Young and John Mellencamp are the founders of Farm Aid). The show has taken place mostly annually since then, and has raised over $60 million to assist family farms over the years.
There’s debate among fans as to when this was recorded: some fans place it during the ‘On The Beach’ sessions, others postulate that it was recorded during the ‘Tonight’s The Night’ sessions. It didn’t see a commercial release until Young’s ‘Decade’ collection in 1977, which might have been one of the first (but definitely not the last) time his fans asked, “Why would he have not released this song on an album?” The song got a second life when alternative rock band the Pixies covered it for a 1989 Young tribute album, ‘The Bridge.’
‘Harvest Moon’ was an obvious sequel to 1972’s ‘Harvest.’ Young used most of the same musicians, including backing singers James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, whose vocals add even more sadness to this song about a relationship that lasted from Hank (Williams) to (Jimi) Hendrix, from Marilyn (Monroe) to Madonna, but now they’re “headed for the big divorce… California style.”
Another sad breakup song, this one is likely about Young’s second ex-wife, actress Carrie Snodgrass. “I have seen you in the movies/And in those magazines at night/I saw you on the bar stool/When you held that glass so tight/And I saw you in my nightmares/But I'll see you in my dreams.” ‘Zuma’ was the first Crazy Horse album with guitarist Frank “Pancho” Sampdero, and clearly, he fit in perfectly (he stayed with the band until his retirement in 2018).
‘Time Fades Away’ is a live album, albeit one that featured all new songs (a la Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Band Of Gypsys’). Young has called it “the worst record I ever made – but as a documentary of what was happening to me, it was a great record. I was on stage and I was playing all these songs that nobody had heard before, recording them, and I didn't have the right band. It was just an uncomfortable tour. I felt like a product, and I had this band of all-star musicians that couldn't even look at each other." Apparently, substance abuse and arguments over salary ruined the tour for Young, but don’t trust his assessment: it’s a great album, and the title track is a messy, rollicking gem.
“Everybody’s Rockin’” is one of Neil's most bonkers moments from a bonkers decade, but somehow this song works. “Wonderin’” is a song that Young had recorded as early as 1970 during the ‘After The Gold Rush’ sessions, but had never released it. For some reason, he decided to do a doo-wop version of the song in the middle of his rockabilly album, ‘Everybody’s Rockin’” (fun fact about that album: with an under 25 minute run time, it’s shorter than “Driftin’ Back,” the opening song from his 2012 album ‘Psychedelic Pill’). Anyway, this version ended up getting some airtime on MTV, and rightfully so: it’s a really fun song.
In 1976, Crosby Stills Nash and Young were working on a reunion album, but when Nash and Crosby had to finish their next duo album (per their record deal), Young and Stills decided to erase the “C” and “N” from the recordings. The Stills-Young Band hit the road, but Young split after a few weeks. He informed Stills via a note: "Dear Stephen, funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach. Neil." Such is the drama that still exists in the CSNY camp. Anyway, most of the album is pretty forgettable, but “Long May You Run” is a classic.
A lovely and sad (of course!) piano ballad. But Emmylou Harris’s 1996 version, featuring Young on harmony vocals, is even better.
Young had a dark and rocky ‘70s, but he mellowed out quite a bit towards the end of the decade on ‘Comes A Time’; the album recalled ‘Harvest,’ but with a bit less angst. Apparently Young planned the album to be solo acoustic; his label disagreed and he actually went along with their wishes. (Some of the original versions are said to be included in his upcoming ‘Archives Vol. 3’ box set.) But the label may have been right: this song benefits from Nicolette Larson’s backing vocals and a string section.
One of the two songs that Neil sang on the first Springfield album, “Out Of My Mind” showed his early discomfort with fame (but notably, not with the money that came with that fame): “All I hear are screams from outside the limousines/That are taking me out of my mind.” A very ‘60s west coast production, with lovely backing vocals by Neil’s bandmates Stephen Stills and Richie Furay.
A great duo piece - it’s just Neil singing and playing banjo, with his late great collaborator Ben Keith on dobro and backing vocals. It’s a brief song about those who seek glory - sailors, explorers and “bush league batters” - and how they’re remembered after they’re gone. It also might be a dig at concert promoters, who were getting more and more wealthy as rock music was becoming a bigger business in the ‘70s: “Singin' songs for pimps with tailors/Who charge ten dollars at the door.” Ah, if only prices stayed at “$10 at the door.”
The opening track on what many consider to be Young’s last classic album. It’s a sad but lovely look at a woman, who seems to be inspired by Young’s then-current wife, Pegi, but also his first ex-wife Susan Acevedo. As Young once said, “It's inspired by some people I know and some people I don't know and all kinds of things put together.”
The highlight of Neil’s solo debut, David Bowie later covered this song (with Dave Grohl on guitar!) more than three decades later.
Most of this album was very “rock,” but this song points towards the country path that Young would later travel down. It’s very loose -- it’s almost as if Young and the Horse are inventing “garage country.”
It’s an anthem celebrating organic farming. Or growing your own marijuana. Or both. But Willie Nelson usually joins Neil onstage for this song when he plays it at Farm Aid, so it’s probably about both.
In some ways, it’s the last Buffalo Springfield song; it’s the only track on their final album to feature all five original members. Sung by Richie Furay but written by Neil Young, it’s a perfect slice of ‘60s West Coast pop.
One of Young’s loveliest but saddest ballads (and he has a lot of them)! But what a line: "Now that you've made yourself love me do you think I can change it in a day?" In 1970, Young and his first wife, Susan Acevedo, divorced. He would get married and divorced two times after that; he was obviously a tough person to be in a relationship with (ask his ex-bandmates about that!). But this song shows that he always had some self-awareness.
Booker T and the MG’s is one of the great soul bands of all time: they backed up Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Sam and Dave in the ‘60s, and also had a massive hit with “Green Onions” (if you think you don’t know it… you *do* know it. Google it). But Young turned them into a band that sounded like the Jimi Hendrix Experience at this performance, a huge tribute concert to Bob Dylan. This version approached the greatness of Jimi’s version (and surpassed Dylan’s original). It’s Neil’s finest cover (although his cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” almost made this list as well).
In Young's liner notes for ‘Decade,’ he claims that the song was banned in Spain. The lyrics were inspired by Hernán Cortés, a conquistador who conquered Mexico for Spain in the 16th century. In Jimmy McDonough's biography of Young, (2002’s ‘Shakey’) the author asked Neil if his songs were autobiographical. Young replied, "What the f--- am I doing writing about Aztecs in 'Cortez the Killer' like I was there, wandering around? 'Cause I only read about it in a few books. A lotta s--- I just made up because it came to me."
The studio version of this song got banned from MTV for dunking on corporate sponsors and the artists who made millions from them, including Eric Clapton, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. The studio version clocks in at just over two minutes, but live, Young and the Bluenotes stretch out to nearly five and a half. Young sounds like he’s having a blast with his guitar solo, and it was a preview of his aggressive playing on his next two solo albums ‘Freedom’ and ‘Ragged Glory.’
One of Young and Crazy Horse’s favorite jams; they play it often, and it can stretch to be twice as long as the album version. As former Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Pancho” Sampdero said in the book ‘Shakey’: “We kept playing it two guitars, bass, drums, but it wasn't in the pocket. Neil didn't have enough room to solo. He didn't like the rhythm I was playing on guitar. One day we were done recording and the Stringman [keyboard] was sitting there. I started diddling with it, just playing the chords simply, and Neil said, 'Y'know, maybe that's the way to do it - let's try it.' If you listen to the take on the record, there's no beginning, no count-off, it just goes ‘woom!’”
“Rockin’ In The Free World” tends to get all the attention when Neil’s ‘Freedom’ album is discussed, but this is one of his greatest ballads. This song was written over a decade earlier (it’s another song that was intended for the never-released ‘Chrome Dreams’ album) but it was worth the wait.
The highlight from the ‘Living With War’ album(s), the song bears more than a little resemblance to “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” The album - a fairly blatant critique of the Bush administration - was a pretty polarizing album. But this song was something everyone (hopefully) could appreciate. The narrator sings about a lifelong friend; they registered for the military together, but the friend didn’t come home. “Wonderin' how it really was for you, and how it happened in the end/But I guess I'll never know the truth/If you were really all alone.” He ends the song with his sad farewell: “I know you gave for your country/I feel you in the air today… Roger and out good buddy.”
It’s his greatest love song. You’re waiting for the other shoe to drop -- it *is* Neil Young, after all -- but it never does. Neil’s Stray Gators reunited for this album, featuring Ben Keith on pedal steel guitar, Spooner Oldham on keyboards, Tim Drummond on bass and Kenny Buttrey on drums. But this song’s secret sauce was Drummond’s broom sweeping and Linda Ronstadt’s gorgeous backing vocals.
One of two rockers on the otherwise ballad-heavy ‘After The Gold Rush,” Neil and Crazy Horse have done heavier versions of the song live, but there’s something about Jack Nitzsche’s barrelhouse piano playing that makes this version the definitive one.
By 1972, Neil Young was rock royalty: he was a former member of the Buffalo Springfield, a current member of the supergroup Crosby Stills Nash & Young and a well established solo act. And yet, he wasn’t happy, which inspired these devastating lines: “Can't relate to joy, he tries to speak and can't begin to say.” It wasn’t the first, or last song, by a rock star realizing that becoming a rock star won’t bring happiness. But it’s one of the most depressing.
A solo acoustic version of a song he wrote and sang on Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Last Time Around.’ This version, featuring just Young and his acoustic guitar and harmonica, is a lot more raw and intimate than the very produced Springfield version. It’s a song sung from the perspective of a child and has sweet lines like “I am a child/I last a while/You can’t conceive of the pleasure in my smile.” But -- it’s a Neil Young song! -- so it has a foreboding vibe, particularly when he sings “What is the color when black is burned?”
There have always been rumors that Young wrote it for Graham Nash after he broke up with Joni Mitchell. Whoever inspired it, it’s a bittersweet song. Two of Neil’s former bandmates - Stephen Stills and Nils Lofgren - have covered it.
Young’s only #1 hit single in the U.S. He famously said (in the liner notes of his ‘Decade’ collection), “This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there." It’s a good reminder that the most popular songs are popular for a good reason: they’re timeless and unforgettable.
Young’s greatest song in a decade. ‘Freedom’ kicked off with a live solo acoustic version of the song, but the raging electric version is the one that became iconic. “Rockin’ In The Free World” also pointed out that he was still a relevant artist: it was a hit on rock radio, and three years later, a young band called Pearl Jam started covering it. Young eventually joined Pearl Jam for a performance of the song on the MTV Video Music Awards in 1992, which is the best version, but has never been commercially released.
A top 40 single about an unlikely topic: when Young bought his ranch in Northern California the property’s caretaker gave the songwriter a tour. As Young said in the film ‘Heart Of Gold,’ “He says, ‘Well, tell me, how does a young man like yourself have enough money to buy a place like this?’ And I said, ‘Well, just luck, just real lucky.’ And he said, ‘Well, that's the darnedest thing I ever heard.’ And I wrote this song for him.”
The opening song from ‘After The Gold Rush’ announced that this would be a very different - and far mellower - album than Young’s prior effort, ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.’ The song featured just Neil Young and Nils Lofgren on acoustic guitars, with the members of Crazy Horse singing backing vocals. Simple but perfect.
The music is gentle and folky, but the lyrics are anything but: the narrator travels in time from the days of Pocahontas to the present. It starts with “They killed us in our teepee and they cut our women down/They might have left some babies crying on the ground” but then moves to hundreds of years later when “The taxis run across my feet and my eyes have turned to blanks.” He then wishes for a meeting that would be impossible, outside of a sci-fi film: “And maybe Marlon Brando will be there by the fire/We'll sit and talk of Hollywood and the good things there for hire/And the Astrodome and the first teepee/Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me.”
This song, and the album, were recorded in tribute to the late CSNY roadie Bruce Berry and former Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, both of whom fell to drug addiction. In the liner notes of the original LP, Young wrote, “I’m sorry. You don’t know these people. This means nothing to you.” But with lines like “It sent a chill up and down my spine when I picked up the telephone/And heard that he'd died out on the mainline,” it sends a chill up our spines, too.
A heartbreaking solo acoustic song, also about the death of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten. It’s just Neil with his acoustic guitar, it only lasts two minutes and it’ll break your heart.
Here’s how Neil introduced the song during his solo segment on the live Crosby Stills Nash & Young album, ‘4 Way Street’: “Here’s a new song, it's guaranteed to bring you right down, it's called 'Don't Let It Bring You Down.'” He added, “It sorta starts off real slow and then fizzles out altogether." Which is a funny way to describe one of his greatest songs, but that’s Neil for you.
A song that borrows heavily from the riff from the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” but Young makes it his own. The song is about his dissatisfaction with fame (and this was only the Springfield’s second album!). He’s revisited this jam often throughout the years -- he did a synthpop version on ‘Trans,’ a solo acoustic version on ‘Unplugged,” an acoustic Crazy Horse version on ‘Year of the Horse’ and even an acoustic version backed by Metallica (you can find it on their YouTube page). But the original is still the best.
OK, it’s not the most popular song on ‘Harvest,’ but it’s the best one (by the way, Young himself has said that). Young wonders if he’s capable of accepting and receiving love. “Will I see you give more than I can take? Will I only harvest some? As the days fly past, will we lose our grasp? Or fuse it in the sun?” It’s not a breakup song, it’s a “I know we’re going to break up someday” song.
The Clash bellowed “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones!” in their song, “1977.” Classic rock bands were put on notice, punk rock was changing the game. Young seemed to identify with that sentiment more than his peers, and indeed, he seems to criticize his former CSNY bandmates elsewhere on ‘Rust Never Sleeps.’ The album started with an acoustic version of this song, called “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue).” But “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” showed that his music was as aggressive and as brutal as the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. He name-dropped the frontman of the Pistols, singing “Is this the tale of Johnny Rotten?” But the line that hits even harder is, “It’s better to burn out, than fade away,” which Kurt Cobain quoted in his suicide note.
A lovely and nostalgic ballad about Young’s former hometown of Omemee in northern Ontario. Apparently, Young first recorded a version with Crazy Horse, and he later performed the song with the Band at their legendary ‘Last Waltz’ concert. But this version with CSNY was flawless and is the definitive one.
Like “Cinnamon Girl,” “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Down By The River” from the same album, Young wrote this song while fighting a high fever. And this song and “Down By The River” created a kind of blueprint for many of Young’s subsequent classics; long, unrehearsed jams charged by guitar playing that would never be referred to as “virtuosic.” This ain’t mellow, Grateful Dead type jamming, Young’s playing is much harsher and could almost be described as violent.
Even though ‘Live At The Canterbury House’ wasn’t released for 40 years, this version of “Sugar Mountain” is the one that became a hit when it was released as the B-side of “The Loner” in 1969. It’s a bittersweet song about the passing of youth - “You can’t be 20 on Sugar Mountain,” he sings. Young has said that he originally wrote 126 verses for the song, and that he decided to use the worst of them to start the song. We’ll respectfully disagree with Neil’s take here.
One of the greatest protest songs, ever. Young wrote it in reaction to the Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970. He booked a studio with CSNY, recorded it, and rush-released it. As Young said in his liner notes of the ‘Decade’ retrospective, the Kent State incident was “'probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning.”
Another one of Young’s most politically charged songs. The song describes the racism towards Black people in the American South. In the lyrics, Young tells the story of a white man and how he mistreated his slaves. Young seems to advocate for reparations when he sings, “I saw cotton and I saw black, tall white mansions and little shacks/Southern Man, when will you pay them back?” Many fans feel that the song inspired Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (“Well I heard Mister Young sing about her/Well I heard ol' Neil put her down/Well I hope Neil Young will remember/A southern man don't need him around anyhow”). Young has expressed pride at being name-dropped in Skynyrd’s song and said in his book ‘Waging Heavy Peace’ that Skynyrd actually wrote "Sweet Home Alabama" not in response to "Southern Man," but in response to Young's song "Alabama" (from the ‘Harvest’ album). Young felt that Skynyrd's implied criticism was deserved because his lyrics to “Alabama” were condescending and accusatory.
A murder ballad… or is it? Young has offered a number of explanations for the lyrics of the song, one of which is that "there's no real murder in it. It's about blowing your thing with a chick. It's a plea, a desperate cry." Whatever it’s about, it sounds harsh. As Trey Anastasio of Phish (a guy who knows a thing or two about long jams) says of the song’s legendary one-note guitar solo, “If I was ever going to teach a master class to young guitarists, the first thing I would play them is the first minute of Neil Young's original ‘Down by the River’ solo. It's one note, but it's so melodic, and it just snarls with attitude and anger. It's like he desperately wants to connect."
Young allegedly wrote this song for Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1977, not long before the plane crash that claimed the lives of singer Ronnie Van Zant, Cassie Gaines, and Steve Gaines. Would they have recorded a song that has an anti-gun vibe (the lyrics include “Shelter me from the powder and the finger”)? Well, Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special” also wouldn’t have been an NRA anthem. But fans have debated over the lyrics for decades: who is the narrator? When does this take place? We just know that the story doesn’t end well: “Daddy's rifle in my hand felt reassuring/He said, ‘Red means run, son, numbers add up to nothing’/But when the first shot hit the docks I saw it coming/Raised my rifle to my eye/Never stopped to wonder why/Then I saw black/And my face splashed in the sky.”
A short, rocking Crazy Horse jam featuring one of Neil’s best riffs. In the liner notes of ‘Decade,’ Young said "[I] Wrote this for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me thru [folk singer] Phil Ochs eyes playing finger cymbals. It was hard to explain to my wife." The song is believed to be about ‘60s folk singer Jean Ray. Fun fact: Paul McCartney’s guitarist Brian Ray is her younger brother and he has said that the song is, in fact, about his sister.
Most of the songs on this list are either Neil playing acoustic folk, or laid back country rock, or raging heavy guitar jams. But “After The Gold Rush” is none of the above: it’s just Neil singing softly, accompanying himself on piano and joined by a French horn player. The song shows obvious concern about the environment: “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s.” But, as with many of his songs, he doesn’t know what it’s about. Or if he does, he’s not in the mood to explain. Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt covered the song for their 1999 album ‘Trio II.’ Parton said in an interview, “I asked Linda and Emmy what it meant, and they didn't know. So we called Neil Young, and he didn't know. We asked him, flat out, what it meant, and he said, 'Hell, I don't know. I just wrote it. It just depends on what I was taking at the time. I guess every verse has something different I'd taken.'"