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The Very Best of Neil Young

Decades of classic music bundled together in one sheet

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in July 2015. It’s being republished today as Neil Young’s new album, Peace Trail, prepares to drop later this week.

You may have caught our Neil Young’s Top 10 Songs earlier this week. As exciting and challenging as it was to pluck 10 of his finest tunes from such a daunting discography, it was only the tip of the iceberg. So we decided to delve a little deeper into his work for a few more superlatives. Disagree with our choices? Of course you do. That’s part of the fun of these kinds of features. Let us know your own picks (and possibly some additional categories) in the comments section below. This is the very best of Neil Young.


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We’ve talked exhaustively on this very site about the different faces of Neil Young — the old folkie, the grungy nihilist, the weirdo experimentalist, etc. After the Gold Rush works so well because it combines so many of these sides of him. On one hand, the record’s fairly straightforward, from the plaintive yearning on “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” to the critique of Mason-Dixon racism on “Southern Man”. On the flip side, Young gets abstract in his environmentalism on the title track, whose surreal tone can be attributed to the un-filmed Dean Stockwell script on which several of the songs are based. Hell, we even get a taste of his work with CSN&Y and Buffalo Springfield when Stephen Stills pops up on opener “Tell Me Why”.

All of this makes After the Gold Rush sound more all over the place than it actually is. Part of its charm also lies in its sonic cohesion, courtesy of a crack backing band consisting of Crazy Horse, Jack Nitzche, and an 18-year-old Nils Lofgren, who learned to play piano just for this album. Together, they manage to be introspective without being boring and — an especially impressive feat for Crazy Horse — rock without going on too long. With that in mind, it’s almost a blessing that the erratic script for After the Gold Rush got lost. If Young had pulled from its entirety for this quasi-soundtrack, the whole thing may have gone off the rails. Instead, we get just the right amount of everything. –Dan Caffrey

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BEST SONG

Neil Young’s voluminous catalog is made up of literally thousands of songs across more than 40 studio records, which should seem to make picking a best song something akin to pulling a needle out of a haystack. It would be, that is, if one song (two, if we’re being technical) didn’t perfectly sum up not only Young’s sound, but his fierce iconoclasm.

Regardless of whether you prefer the stripped-down “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” or its more full-bodied companion, “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”, together both versions capture the two sides of Young’s split musical personality — rocker thrash on the one hand and the contemplative singer-songwriter on the other. Musically, both songs cover Young’s sonic spectrum, but it’s the lyrics that really nail his uncompromising ethos dead to rights. The song is checkered with bits and phrases that spell out his principled credo. When he pleads that “Rock and Roll will never die,” it’s a promise he’s still making good on more than 35 years later.

Young also wasn’t mindlessly throwing words on the page when he posited that “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” a line that speaks pretty deliberately to the singer’s fighting spirit. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a line that’s been championed as a rally cry for generations of principled musicians who followed him. Some maybe took the singer’s words a bit too much to heart (Kurt Cobain famously quoted the line in his suicide note), but considering the remarkable ripple effect Young made with a quick turn of phrase, it’s hard to find another song that matches the one-two punch that bookends Rust Never Sleeps. –Ryan Bray

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BEST MUSIC VIDEO

The short-form music video was never Neil Young’s medium of choice. The music spoke for itself, and there was arguably no better way to present it than to watch the words leave Young’s snarled lips, to see his foot stomp in time to the rhythm. Director Jonathan Demme, the talent behind such landmark films as The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, saw this and collaborated with Young on a feature-length concert. Filmed in Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium, the film is a mix of interviews and footage from the live show, focused heavily on Young’s then newest album, 2006’s Prairie Wind. The movie covers 19 tracks, the first half comprised of music from Prairie Wind, the latter an acoustic set spanning Young’s entire career. Occasionally, he explains the inspiration for a song before launching into the number; other times the inspiration is self-evident.

What carries the film is the joy that organically materializes onstage between Neil and Pegi, Neil and his bandmates (many of whom have been with him for the vast majority of his career), and Neil and the crowd. There’s also a thick passion that Demme exudes from behind the camera, both in admiration for Young and his work and, more broadly, the wonder of hearing an evening’s worth of incredible music on a storied stage in a city known for its aural hunger. Documentaries are meant above all to be objective, and in that sense, Demme failed spectacularly. This is a movie made by a fan, albeit a talented and famous one. From the opening frames to the final note, there’s no doubt that we are watching the work of one genius as he documents another. –Zack Ruskin

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BEST ALBUM COVER

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Neil Young has never given too much precedence to the look of his records, opting often for unique typography set against a crude texture or illustration. This makes the effort behind the On the Beach photo that much more special. The top two-thirds of the image could be any ’70s album cover, the title laid out in a wavy, transparent font. There’s Neil sans shoes staring off into the waves. His pastel yellow shirt matches a lounge chair, sun umbrella, and even a Coors beer can sitting on a table in the foreground. But then there’s the Cadillac, or at least the rear fins of one, buried in the sand. The visual immediately recalls something apocalyptic, or at the bare minimum, surreal.

It’s surely a testament to how Young was seeing the world, further emphasized by a newspaper near the middle of the cover that reads “Senator Buckley Calls for Nixon to Resign.” The world in which Young recorded and released On the Beach was a place with corrupt presidents, a country at war, where even that most American of icons – the Cadillac – was burying its head like an ostrich in shame. The power of the imagery speaks to the bleak tone of the songs contained within, a statement album from an angry man made all the more powerful by the art adorning its cover. –Zack Ruskin

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10 BEST NON-GREATEST HITS

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10. “Shots”

Even some of Young’s most die-hard fans forget about 1981’s Re-ac-tor, an odd entry in his catalog released between his ’70s winning steak and experimental sidesteps of the ’80s. And while many dismiss it as nowhere near as distinctly thoughtful as a record like Comes a Time or even Hawks and Doves or as distinctly weird as Trans, that’s exactly the point. Re-ac-tor is an exercise in primitive repetition, an album that’s loud, monosyllabic, and dumb. Closer “Shots” pulls off this inspired boneheadedness most successfully, appealing to the sauropod in all of us with Ralph Molina’s militaristic drum roll, Young and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro’s plodding guitar solos and gunfire effects straight out of a Contra video game. –Dan Caffrey

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09. “Throw Your Hatred Down”

Neil Young found his perfect foil in Pearl Jam for his most unadulterated rock outing on 1995’s Mirror Ball. The record is a front-to-back scorcher, with the young grunge bucks throwing everything they have behind their master. Tucked in the middle of the mayhem, “Throw Your Hatred Down” marries decibel levels with the singer’s penchant for jabbing at world leaders, the media, and anyone else waging war on his endless quest for heavy peace. Beware of face-melting guitar solos. –Ryan Bray

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08. “Ramada Inn”

Young love gets sang about plenty in rock ‘n’ roll. But old love? Rarely. And old love that’s fading way? Hardly ever. So leave it up to Neil Young & Crazy Horse to write a dirge about a longstanding marriage that’s corroding due to empty-nest syndrome, functional alcoholism, and just plain boredom. That last one’s scariest since it seems impossible to prevent. And while it’s not my place to decide whether or not “Ramada Inn” was addressing Young’s marriage to his then-wife Pegi (which ended in divorce after 36 years), it’s clear that the man has had plenty of experience with love you just can’t hold on to. Just like the rest of us. –Dan Caffrey

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07. “Revolution Blues”

Charles Manson had an undeniable effect on several rock musicians in the 1960s. Young himself met the murderer and cult leader while visiting the home of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and was so impressed with the cryptic catch of his music that he briefly considered helping Manson land a record contract. That didn’t happen, of course (at least not by Uncle Neil’s hand), but Young did write a song about Manson — backed by the rhythm section of The Band, no less — that was cryptic and catchy in its own right. In other words, it was a Neil Young song. –Dan Caffrey

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06. “Pardon My Heart”

Neil Young can rock, and Neil Young can rock you to sleep. Zuma perhaps captures the balance of that yin and yang better than any of his records, and “Pardon My Heart” certainly delivers the goods on the softer side of that equation. Even when set in the thick of a record already heavily scarred with heartache, hearing Young try and make sense of a relationship beyond repair makes for one of the most tender and delicate listens in the singer’s overstuffed oeuvre. –Ryan Bray

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05. “This Old Guitar”

Written about an old guitar of Hank Williams that Young was gifted some 35 years ago, “This Old Guitar” is one of a number of aching beauties that make up 2005’s Prairie Wind. Young uses the guitar as a metaphor about musical tradition, how songs and genres get passed down through the generations into the hands of those lucky enough to hold it. “The more I play it the better it sounds,” he sings. “It cries when I leave it alone.” Fortunately, he’s never away for long. –Ryan Bray

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04. “Ordinary People”

“Ordinary People” was originally an outtake from Young’s awkward R&B experiment This Note’s for You, and given how much bite the track has, it’s no surprise it sounds like nothing else from those sessions. There are horns, yes, but they exist solely to bring some levity to an 18-minute-plus epic about the working-class slog. The mammoth length and journalistic tales of economic oppression give hint that Young traversed the whole continent to write it. Maybe he did. –Dan Caffrey

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03. “Look Out for My Love”

Some of Neil Young’s best stuff comes out when he’s being obtuse. “Look Out for My Love” sounds like a warning at the start, but by the song’s end it plays out like a cry for help. Also, how about that killer acoustic guitar lick at the end of the chorus? Gorgeous. –Ryan Bray

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02. “Mellow My Mind”

There’s a tattered beauty that courses through the marrow of Tonight’s the Night, the middle child of Young’s famed ditch trilogy. “Mellow My Mind” captures the record’s ragged spirit at its most frayed. Young’s voice is wildly out of tune, while the music threatens to fall off the bar stool like a hapless drunkard. But what it lacks in precision it more than makes up for in wounded heart. Besides, has Neil Young ever been one to follow the rules? –Ryan Bray

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01. “Thrasher”

Young’s always had a preoccupation with environmental apocalypse, but he used to address it with twinkling surrealism rather than inelegant bluntness — songs that could just as easily have been describing a pleasant dream as opposed to a nightmare. And make no mistake, “Thrasher” is a nightmare of Mad Max proportions about a future where Young’s friends have become mutants, he’s had to burn his credit card for fuel, and nasty machines tear up the prairie like rusted mechanical land-sharks. But his guitar gently shimmers all the while, building a resignation that adds some complexity to Young’s politics, which will always be more interesting than full-on grouchiness. –Dan Caffrey

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10 BEST LIVE SONGS

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10. “Comes a Time” (from Live Rust, recorded on the 1978 Rust Never Sleeps tour)

Not to beat a dead horse, but that Live Rust record really is something, huh? The record does a nice job of capturing the lightning in a bottle that is the Neil Young/Crazy Horse live experience. But even when left to his own devices as he is on “Comes a Time”, there’s an energy that brings the singer’s best songs vividly to life. –Ryan Bray

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09. “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” (from Tonight’s the Night, recorded on the 1970 Crazy Horse tour)

The 1972 death of Crazy Horse’s Danny Whitten looms heavily over Tonight’s the Night, so why shouldn’t his ghost show up to the party? Undoubtedly included as a tribute to the late guitarist, vocalist, and, most importantly, good friend of Young, “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” finds the two of them onstage slurring through an all-night stomper about buying drugs, eating at diners, and getting pulled over by the cops. It’s the closest thing to a good-time number that Tonight’s the Night has, and the fact that it was recorded live is a fitting testament to Whitten’s once vibrant spirit. –Dan Caffrey

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08. “Helpless” (from Live at Massey Hall 1971)

“I dropped my pick,” Young begins his rendition of “Helpless” from Live at Massey Hall 1971. That playful slip-up aside, Young settles nicely into one of his finest tunes. Save for applause at the start of the song, Young owns the room in such a way that you could hear a pin drop. They’re clinging to his every word, and that just makes his longing for a place he can’t retreat back to all the more wonderfully cathartic. –Ryan Bray

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07. “On the Way Home” (from Sugar Mountain – Live at Canterbury House 1968)

The rare instance in which the live version surpasses the original. With Young exhibiting a rougher vocal tone onstage, “On the Way Home” finally takes on the palpable sense of longing it never achieved on record. The demo-like recording quality and skeletal instrumentation — horns swapped out for an acoustic guitar — both help, too. –Dan Caffrey

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06. “Cortez the Killer” (from Live Rust, recorded on the 1978 Rust Never Sleeps tour)

“Cortez the Killer” is one of Neil Young the Guitar Hero’s finest moments. As good as it sounds on Zuma, the track’s sonic sprawl has to be heard on stage to be truly appreciated. Young and Crazy Horse let the shit fly on Live Rust, and while it’s tough to capture the true majesty of the song on wax, this version does a lot more justice to the band’s famously raw dynamic. –Ryan Bray

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05. “A Day in the Life” (recorded at Hyde Park in 2009)

Some songs seem impossible to cover. One of those tracks is “A Day in the Life” by The Beatles, with its separate melodies sewn together through an orgasmic, triumphant crescendo of sound. Leave it to Neil Young to take up the challenge. His cover retains the energy of the original while marinating the sound in a sorrowful twang. Things continue to improve when, three minutes into the song, Paul McCartney himself appears to help Young finish off the track in transcendent, euphoric style. –Zack Ruskin

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04. “Grey Riders” (from A Treasure, recorded on the 1984–85 tour with The International Harvesters)

Early on in “Grey Riders”, Young describes his hound dog howling as a group of phantoms on horseback rides across the sky. Later on when he repeats the line, his guitar solos and the madman fiddling of Rufus Thibodeaux have gotten so out of hand that he can’t be bothered to even say the world “howl”. Instead, he just fucking howls himself, which is about the closest you can get to the Neil Young experience without going to the show and howling along with him. Aoooo! –Dan Caffrey

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03. “Mr. Soul” (from MTV Unplugged, recorded on February 7, 1993)

It’s easy to forget there was a time when MTV, and by extension MTV Unplugged, actually mattered. All the evidence you need is in Neil Young’s set for the network’s once-ubiquitous live series. His solo rendition of “Mr. Soul” offers powerful proof of just how much heat he can bring with just a guitar and a harmonica. Then again, did you really need a reminder? –Ryan Bray

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02. “One of These Days” (from Neil Young: Heart of Gold, recorded August 18–19, 2005)

Horns don’t make everything better, but they certainly make “One of These Days” — a particularly reflective number from a particularly reflective album — better. As Young remembers everyone who’s helped him in his life, his mellow thoughts get punctuated by thankful bursts of trumpet, trombone, and sax. And all of a sudden, the meditation gives way to measured excitement. –Dan Caffrey

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01. “Rockin’ in the Free World” (Live Acoustic) (from Freedom, recorded March 10, 1989)

When the name of your song is about imploring people to “keep rocking,” there’s an inherent risk in doing an acoustic rendition. But Young boldly placed a live unplugged version of this track as the opening number of his 1989 comeback album, Freedom. By starting off with this gentler take, the electric studio alternative becomes even more powerful as the album’s closing number. Such juxtaposition is what we’ve come to love about Neil — the heart of his music carrying through, no matter the format. That said, “Rockin’ in the Free World” is a song meant to be heard live, with fists raised and voices hoarse, despite it being one hell of a way to kick off a record. –Zack Ruskin

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