This feature originally ran in 2014. We’re reposting in anticipation of Neil Young’s new album, Homegrown.
Top Songs is a feature in which we definitively handpick the very best songs in an artist or band’s catalog. Sounds simple, right? Oh, if only.
Pick 10 songs at random from any of Neil Young’s albums released between 1968 and 1982, 1989 and 2000, and 2003 and 2012, and chances are you’d have a pretty good best-of list, or at least a decent mix tape. Shit, you’d probably be better off doing that than trying to sift through all of his material and curate something comprehensive. Still, that didn’t stop us from setting out to do just that. First, though, we set some criteria for ourselves to make things easier: no Buffalo Springfield or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and, most importantly, we had to go beyond the hits. Yes, the hits are important. But any best-of Neil Young list should also cover his three distinct personalities: the folky Neil, the loud Neil, and the weird Neil. There are countless little subgenres within that Holy Trinity, but it’s as good a place to start as any. Did we succeed? Probably not. How could we? But it sure was fun to try.
Senior Staff Writer
10. “Transformer Man” from Trans (1982)
When Neil Young released his bizarre electropop album Trans, many listeners dismissed it as cheap sci-fi dribble. It’s hard to blame them — the tinny Krautrock production, constant reliance on vocoder, and Uncle Neil’s oversized granny sunglasses all seemed to point toward something campy and comedic. But one look at the lyrics of “Transformer Man” lets you know he was deadly serious. The yearning tune isn’t a tongue-in-cheek homage to a giant robot; it’s about his son Ben, who, like his brother Zeke, was born with cerebral palsy. When you view the song in that context, phrases like “Every morning when I look in your eyes/ I feel electrified by you” are suddenly evocative and touching. Of course, Young didn’t reveal the true meaning of the song to many people when it was released (it was no one’s business, really), forcing fans to look past the robotic exterior and directly at the human being underneath. –Dan Caffrey
09. “Cowgirl in the Sand” from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
“Cowgirl in the Sand” is the product of a fever dream. Penned while Young was suffering from the flu, the song covers an insane amount of ground, whether it’s loose ladies and the paradox of fame (“When so many love you, is it the same?”) or his tumultuous departure from Buffalo Springfield (“Has your band begun to rust?”). The musicality is equally diverse, jumping from subtle fingerpicking to a serrated guitar solo with every single verse further conveying chaos. Young, however, remains steady with high-pitched vocals and steadfast conviction, both of which rise above the instrumental cacophony through the 10-minute track. –Henry Hauser
08. “Ordinary People” from Chrome Dreams II (2007)
“Ordinary People” was a longtime live staple for Young fans starting in the late ’80s but wasn’t released on a proper studio album until 2007, when, at 18 minutes, it took up all of side three on Chrome Dreams II. The length is more than justified, as Young has a lot of ground to cover, most notably an indictment of the Reagan years. Young places the former President’s administration directly in his crosshairs over nine verses, each one about everyday people trying to get by in the harsh economic climate of his era. The tales of these salt-of-the-earth characters come alive with howling guitar solos, simple yet brilliant horn arrangements, and Young spitting venom at the powers that be. It might not be his greatest protest song ever (that comes later on this list), but it’s definitely his most ambitious and most impassioned. Young sings, “I got faith in the regular kind/ Hard-workin’ people/ Patch-of-ground people,” and you believe it from the first note to the last. —Nick Freed
07. “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” from After the Gold Rush (1970)
Young describes “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” as a song that’s “guaranteed to bring you right down … it sorta starts out real slow then fizzles out altogether.” And he’s absolutely right; even the instruments crumble under the weight of his leaden lyrics. Presenting a phantasmagoria of frightening images, from a “dead man lying by the side of the road” to the “blue moon sinking from the weight of the load,” he paints a surreal portrait of death and decay with bold brushstrokes. Then again, there seems to be the tiniest sliver of hope for those who forge intimate relationships in the fires of adversity. “Just find someone who’s turning/ And you will come around,” counsels a sage Shakey. Everything’s endurable as long as you’ve got someone to endure it with. –Henry Hauser
06. “Powderfinger” from Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
There’s no hero’s death to be had in “Powderfinger”. Although the teenage protagonist is defending his family’s home against enemy forces, he doesn’t even get off one shot before he’s mercilessly gunned down. It’s as if Young’s fighting against the folk traditions he first built his career on, crafting only a beginning and middle rather than a satisfying conclusion. Granted, it might take a couple listens to pick up on this subversion, as Crazy Horse keep the sonics chugging along with their trademark abandon. Pancho Sampedro’s sloppy guitar dueling, Ralph Molina’s juuust-behind-the-beat drumming, Billy Talbot’s punch-drunk bass, and the falsetto backing harmonies of all three make you forget just how goddamn sad “Powderfinger” actually is. The crowd’s approving whistles help, too. –Dan Caffrey
05. “Heart of Gold” from Harvest (1972)
“Heart of Gold”, Neil Young’s only single to hit No. 1 in the States, conveys a sense of perseverance that’s both pitiable and comforting. Leading with a bluesy yet buoyant harmonica, Shakey reveals that what he wants out of life isn’t fame, fortune, or affection, but rather an outlet for his love: “I want to live/ I want to GIVEEEE.” His deepest regret isn’t that he’s unloved; it’s that he’s never found someone to receive his love. As a fluid pedal steel guitar slithers between the pithy lyrics, he describes the fruitless trek that’s taken him from “Hollywood … to Redwood.” Harmonizing with James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, Young confesses that this search for companionship has cost him his entire youth: “You keep me searching, and I’m growing old.” Though the song leaves us feeling wretched and alone, there’s also an undercurrent of resilience. He’s still not ready to give up his quest. –Henry Hauser
04. “Revolution Blues” from On the Beach (1974)
On the Beach openly criticizes Richard Nixon on its closing track, “Ambulance Blues”. The third track, “Revolution Blues”, is about Charles Manson, someone who’s a worse person than Nixon (even if many would argue otherwise), but the lyrics never take a stance on his actions. Instead, Young places the listener in Manson’s blood-soaked shoes while The Band’s rhythm section drives the melody with paranoia, detailing murder fantasies about preying on Hollywood’s elite. That’s to say nothing of weirdo macabre imagery that ranges from “fountains of blood” to “10 million dune buggies comin’ down the mountain” to sleeping on someone’s lawn after killing their guard dog. By sticking to the first person, Young cooked up what’s still his scariest song to date and, even more disturbing, one of his grooviest. –Dan Caffrey
03. “Rockin’ in the Free World” from Freedom (1989)
Young’s earlier rock and protest tracks were all about biting lyrics backed by thoughtful acoustic guitars. On his 1989 comeback album, Freedom, he stuck to this tradition by opening with a live acoustic take of “Rockin’ in the Free World”, one of his most politically charged songs. But by the record’s end, he had broken from his formula with an electric counterpart that really blows things apart. Young’s voice has a menacing snarl to match the chugging guitar rock underneath. The music mimics Young’s anger at the current political climate and an administration sending troops to die in foreign wars. The lyrics take direct shots against George Bush, Sr.’s leadership, and the track was even used later on as an anthem for the fall of communism in the modern world. It’s Young’s most powerful protest song and one that should live on as one of the best of his career. –Nick Freed
02. “After the Gold Rush” from After the Gold Rush (1970)
Not only is Neil Young one of the best songwriters alive; he’s also a master of simplicity. Many of his best tunes are unfussy tracks with nothing more than a single instrument and his skeletal voice. The title track from After the Gold Rush is no different, built on mostly a piano and Young’s vocals, which float high in his nasal passage like a mist. He sings about dreams of the past, present, and future of our environment — a lyrical touchstone throughout his career. The horn solo in the middle adds a hint of longing and pain as he wonders and worries about the future that humans have made for the planet. It’s beautiful and simple, exactly as it needs to be. –Nick Freed
01. “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) / Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” from Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
It’s pointless to talk about what Rust Never Sleeps opener “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” sounds like. If you’ve gotten this far in the list, you probably already know how it goes (Neil’s voice + foreboding guitar + a barely audible crowd, rinse, wash, repeat). We’re better off talking about its influence and intent. Is it optimistic or pessimistic? On one hand, its heavier counterpart — which serves as a predecessor to “Rockin’ in the Free World” by closing the album — is often seen as a spiritual forefather of grunge. On the other hand, its most famous line was used in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note, perhaps signifying the death of grunge. John Lennon hated it, Stephen King loves it (read It for proof), and Chromatics covered it. Virtually everyone who’s heard it has something to say about its complex message. Is it really better to burn out than to fade away? Like all great rock ‘n’ roll questions, there’s no easy answer, especially since Neil Young hasn’t done either one of these things. –Dan Caffrey