The Best Neil Young Songs, Ranked

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In March, Neil Young announced that he was putting his music back on Spotify. The 78-year-old singer-songwriter pulled his songs from the service in 2022 as a protest against the podcaster Joe Rogan. Apparently he now feels that making his music accessible on one of the world’s most popular streaming platforms outweighs his misgivings about vaccine misinformation.

For the past several weeks, my social media feeds have been filled with links to Young’s songs. The range of tunes speaks to the breadth of his work — I’ve seen music fans share the down-home balladry of After The Gold Rush, the bummer slow-core of On The Beach, the live-wire cowpunk of Rust Never Sleeps, the luminous love songs of Harvest Moon, and many more. This is The Spotify Effect, surely, though I’d like to think it’s also an indication that spring is upon us. Few artists are better suited for the season than Neil. (Though his songs also sound pretty great in summer, fall, and winter as well.) For newcomers, Neil’s discography can be an intimidating beast, with loads of albums of varying quality released over the course of seven decades. There’s also the matter of Neil’s songs often existing in multiple versions, whether it’s live takes, demos or recordings with dramatically re-imagined arrangements.

Let’s try to make sense of it all. Here are my 100 favorite Neil Young songs. In many instances, I tried to pin down a specific version if it varied from the one associated with a proper studio record. The result is a list as vast, wide-ranging, and unruly as the man himself.

Are you ready for the country? Let’s go out of the blue and into the black!

100. “T-Bone” (1981)

There are three elements that define Neil’s artistry. We will refer to them in this column as “The Neil Trinity Of Elements,” or “The Trinity” for short.

Here are the elements:

1. The Voice

Neil’s superpower is the ability to appear simultaneously vulnerable and powerful. And that comes from the indestructible sweetness of his voice. Almost none of his imitators can duplicate this. People who try to sing like Neil typically came off as whiny or soft. (Doug Martsch is exempt from this blanket statement.) Whereas when Neil hits his upper register it evokes a sensation that can only be described as tough tenderness. He projects extreme sensitivity with unbreakable fortitude. He shows his broken heart but he does not hand the pieces over to the listener. We see that his heartbeat is tenuous and also that is unwavering. He’s like a big and fierce and stoned-as-hell lion.

2. The Guitar Tone

If you know Neil, you know the tone. If you have listened to any rock band that dabbles in folk and country music from the past 50 years, you know the tone. It is a gnarly and snarly core component of modern American music. It the sound of a stoned-as-hell lion striking violently out of his slumber.

3. The Melodies

Neil is usually grouped with the great singer-songwriters of his generation — Dylan, Joni, Cohen, Morrison, Robertson, etc. — but unlike those people he’s not really a lyrics-forward guy. Neil is a tunesmith. He belongs with McCartney, Wilson, Elton John, etc. Even his gnarliest and snarliest music has a core beauty that is tuneful, hummable, and soothing. “Like A Hurricane” isn’t just a Neil song, it’s also the best description of his music. These songs exist in the eyes of catastrophic weather patterns. Amid the cacophony there is always calm coming from Neil.

All of the best Neil songs have at least one of those components, and almost all of them have at least two. Except for “T-Bone.” When it comes to The Trinity, “T-Bone” is 0-for-3.” The vocal isn’t great, the guitar tone is junk, and the melody is nonexistent. “T-Bone” ain’t even got the T-bone, only the mashed potatoes. (“Mashed Potatoes” arguably is a better title.) And yet, for reasons I can’t explain, it belongs here, right at No. 100. Of all the Neil songs to which you could possibly listen, “T-Bone” should be the hundredth.

99. “Sweet Joni” (2020)

Another thing I want to make clear before we continue: While this column is timed with Neil putting his music back on Spotify, Spotify is easily the worst and least soulful way to listen to Neil Young. Listening to Neil Young on Spotify is like ordering Honey Slides from Amazon. The man himself surely believes this.

The top five ways to listen to Neil are:

1) Pono (duh)

2) Live and in person

3) A vinyl record purchased for under $5 at a garage sale

4) A CD purchased at a used CD store between 1992 and 2003

5) A dubbed cassette tape with an album recorded on each side by your burnout drug buddy from high school

The only legitimately cool thing about Neil being on Spotify is that Joni Mitchell also returned immediately after he returned, just as she originally bolted after Neil originally bolted. These two have had a genuine friendship bond for nearly 60 years, going back to the Canadian folk club days when Neil played Joni “Sugar Mountain” and she wrote “The Circle Game” as a response. Several years after that, Neil wrote the touching “Sweet Joni” and played it a handful of times on the down-and-out Time Fades Away tour in 1973. The song was finally released decades later as part of Everybody’s Alone, one of 10 unearthed albums included on 2020’s Neil Young Archives Vol. 2: 1972-1976.

98. “Driftin’ Back” (2012)

My most controversial Neil take is this: He is a great songwriter, but he is an even better guitar player. Not in the technical sense, of course. But certainly in the “Neil’s tone is unique and fearsome and perfect and carries him through even his very worst albums” sense. The majority of those “very worst albums” have come out in the past 20 years, which is why there is only a handful of 21st-century Neil tracks on this list. Around the time he put out Prairie Wind in 2004 — I’m being generous here — his easy way with melody started to seem a lot less easy. As the tunes have grown less memorable, Neil has leaned harder on increasingly pedantic concepts and lyrics. “Bland tunes plus social commentary” is the worst possible combination for Neil music, and it’s become the norm for for his “late” era. Late Neil is at its best when the man makes up for his faltering melodies with loads and loads of guitar solos, as he does on his 27-minute epic.

97. “Vampire Blues” (1974)

I left off an important Neil element from The Trinity, which suits the subject matter. (Consider this the important Neil element that’s available exclusively on the impenetrable NYA web site.)

4. The Vibe

Neil is a master of vibe. Particularly on the ’70s records, and and particularly on the mid-’70s records. These are the albums that amount to more than the sum of their parts because they create an overall sense of debauched generational exhaustion — post-Woodstock, post-Nixon, almost post-Vietnam, etc. Neil puts you in the room with him, cinéma vérité-style. The sleazier the music feels, the more engrossing the listen.

On The Beach is Neil’s defining “vibes album,” in that the record overall is much stronger than when you consider each track outside of context. For comparison’s sake, After The Gold Rush is a “songs album,” in which almost every track can stand alone as a discrete statement. Because this is a songs list, there are more entries from After The Gold Rush than there are from On The Beach, even though I probably listen to On The Beach more. The punch-drunk “Vampire Blues,” for instance, works better as part of that’s record slow-motion nervous breakdown than it would on a playlist of Neil jams culled from this list.

I hope Neil takes this observation as a compliment. As a critic, I am no better than him for what I have shown. In spite of my stomach pump and my hook and ladder dreams, I think Neil and me could get together for some scenes.

96. “Born To Run” (1975)

On The Beach is Neil’s “feel-bad” mid-’70s vibes album. But Zuma is the “feel-good” mid-’70s vibes album. It has the swagger you would expect from soulful hippie punks living on narcotics and mid-tempo rockers brought to life by D modal tuning. This is one of the songs that didn’t make the record — it came out as part of Dume, one of those 10 unreleased records from Neil Young Archives Vol. 2: 1972-1976 — probably because another famous guy put out a song called “Born To Run” in 1975.

95.”Transformer Man” (Unplugged version, 1993)

Trans is Neil’s most notorious vibes album. It’s also a litmus test for separating normie Neil fans from the hardcore, semi-post-modern ones. I enjoy it, though not as much as I wish I did. Trans was dismissed for so long that it now seems slightly overrated by overeager revisionists. (Though I do regret not finding room for “Computer Cowboy” on this list.) Ultimately, Neil’s ’80s period of trolling David Geffen with various genre experiments is more enjoyable as a thought experiment than as music, though he did submerge some nifty tunes amid the vocoders and synths. Neil obviously knew this, which explains why he revived “Transformer Man” a decade later with a bizarro-world Harvest Moon era arrangement on MTV Unplugged.

94. “Inca Queen” (1987)

Some of the love reserved for Trans should be shared with Life, the transitional partly live record he made with Crazy Horse a few years later. A highlight is this stately, Spanish-tinged eight-minute synth-rock number that has been lost to history. It has the lyrical hallmarks of a typical Neil Young “Cortez The Killer”-style story song about ancient marauders, but with music that attempts to meld Willie Nelson with Tears For Fears. Somehow, against all odds, it works. For an indie band seeking a sufficiently “cool and obscure” Neil song to cover on a 7-inch, this seems like a prime candidate.

93. “Prisoners Of Rock ‘N’ Roll” (1987)

Crazy Horse is Neil’s most famous backing outfit as well as his muse, and this is their personal anthem. Neil released “Prisoners Of Rock ‘N’ Roll” after recently turning 40, when it appeared like he was in the midst of a permanent career downturn. Salvation in the ’90s came from his shockingly credible reimagining of himself as a 40something rock star who acted like a 20something rock star, which enabled him to fit in with the reigning alt-rockers and indie scenesters of the time unlike no one else of his generation. “Prisoners Of Rock ‘N’ Roll” is the proudly adolescent prologue to all of that. “We don’t want to be watered down / Takin’ orders from record company clowns,” Neil sings, inadvertently summing up the M.O. for so much popular music on the horizon.

92. “Surfer Joe And Moe The Sleaze” (Way Down In The Rust Bucket version, 2021)

Originated on Re-Ac-Tor, the same sub-mental album that gave us “T-Bone.” (Neil and Crazy Horse also do “T-Bone” on Way Down In The Rust Bucket, a fantastic live LP recorded in 1990 and released 31 years later.) “Surfer Joe And Moe The Sleaze” combines two types of Neil songs, the “gripe about the music industry” diatribe (the titular characters refer to Joe Smith and Mo Ostin, the top executives at the label he was about to leave) and “the shaggy dog narrative where nothing coherent happens” story song. It feels like a sister tune to “Prisoners Of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” given that Neil complains in that song about David Geffen, who Neil was about to leave for Reprise, the label he slags in “Surfer Joe.”

91. “Eldorado” (1989)

Getting back to the “vibes album” vs. “songs album” dichotomy in Neil’s discography: Freedom is a songs album that signaled his comeback at the end of the ’80s, though in retrospect there are some questionable production choices that undermine an otherwise strong set of tunes. (“Someday,” for instance, is a lovely melody that Neil treats like a crash test dummy put through an overly busy car-crash arrangement.) Neil was also deep into his “shaggy dog narrative where nothing coherent happens” story-song guise, which is evidenced on “Eldorado” with lyrics that describe a Mexican town riddled with violent shootings and distinguished by a bullfighter with hair “as red as blood” who kills the bull and lives to see another day.

90. “Prime Of Life” (1994)

Neil put out Sleeps With Angels in the heart of the ’90s, not long after the death of Kurt Cobain and right before popular rock music radically shifted from a place where someone like Neil Young was a common touchstone. On “Prime Of Life,” Neil comments on this transition is it happens in real time, just as the songs on Tonight’s The Night traced the rock culture’s collapse at the heart of the ’70s. It’s about Kurt’s suicide, but only in the ambient sense. Kurt is never mentioned by name (like Bruce Berry was 20 years earlier in “Tonight’s The Night”) but you feel the grief and the dread in Crazy Horse’s noir-ish, ghostly creep.

89. “Welfare Mothers” (1979)

Neil in peak dirtbag mode. “Welfare mothers make better lovers” is a very stupid hook, but it is also stupidly catchy. Just reading “welfare mothers make better lovers” will get “welfare mothers make better lovers” stuck in your head for the rest of the day. (When you go to sleep tonight, you will be thinking about how welfare mothers make better lovers.) My sympathetic take on this song is that Neil is defending, rather than objectifying, people who need public assistance at a time when such individuals were vilified. Though the mental image of Neil cruising laundromats in search of available divorcées is more than mildly disreputable.

88. “Razor Love” (2000)

Starting in the late ’80s, Neil started pulling songs from his voluminous pile of unreleased ’70s material and putting new versions on his current albums. As Neil aged and his stockpile of sparkling melodies dwindled, these “new” old songs became increasingly valuable. For 2000’s Silver & Gold, Neil revived this dreamy country-rock ballad that dated back to at least his 1984 tour, when he performed it as an obscure gem amid the pseudo-shitkicker Old Ways material he was workshopping at the time.

87. “Give Me Strength” (2017)

With the exception of Bob Dylan, nobody has a stronger “shadow” career of songs (or whole albums) that weren’t released when they were made but have since become canonical via retrospective archival releases. One of the more interesting Neil albums in this vein is Hitchhiker, a collection of demos laid down between 1975 and 1977 that later became famous on Rust Never Sleeps, American Stars ‘n Bars, and Comes A Time, among other albums. “Give Me Strength” is one of only two songs that didn’t appear elsewhere before Hitchhiker came out in 2017, and I sort of understand why. Musically, it sounds a bit like “Pocahontas,” which also derives from this period, only without the fantasizing about having sex with a famous Indigenous woman. Come to think of it, maybe this is the song that Neil should have put on Rust Never Sleeps.

86. “Too Far Gone” (1989)

Another song from that fertile mid-’70s songwriting period that finally appeared on a proper album, Freedom, in 1989. I almost put the version of “Too Far Gone” from 2018’s Songs For Judy — a compilation of live tracks culled from his 1976 tour — on this list. But I had to go with the 1989 track for personal reasons: Freedom was the first Neil album that I bought when it was new, when I adopted him as my imaginary weirdo-genius hippie uncle.

85. “Ride My Llama” (Dume version, 2020)

Going with the electric version released on Archives Vol. 2 over the one from Rust Never Sleeps. This “Llama” just kicks harder.

84. “Over And Over” (1990)

If you agreed with the sentence above about how I think Neil is a great songwriter but an even better guitar player, you probably love Ragged Glory as much as I do. The Ragged Glory formula goes like this: Neil sings a very simple lyric about love or architecture perched in remote locations. Then he plays a guitar solo for a couple of minutes. Then he briefly returns to the extremely uncomplicated words while Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot maintain perfectly imperfect time. And then there’s another guitar solo that seems to go on for a half hour. “Over And Over” executes this blueprint to a T. I don’t know if this is genius songwriting, exactly, but I do know that it’s the best music to play when you driving for at least six hours through the middle of America.

83. “Pushed It Over The End” (CSNY 1974 version, 2014)

Neil’s ambivalent relationship with frenemies David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills is best understood by listening to the sizable triple-disc live album CSNY 1974, which documents the infamously drug-fueled “Doom” tour of stadiums embarked by the supergroup during the titular year. Only four years removed from the height of their cultural relevance, CSNY was already flirting with becoming a full-blown nostalgia act for aging boomers pining to “get back to the garden” of ‘6os innocence. Neil meanwhile was smuggling a bevy of new bummer tunes designed to undermine the rosy backward gazing of the band’s oldies. One of those songs, “Pushed It Over The End,” is about a woman who parlays murder into a political career, a narrative supposedly inspired by Patty Hearst. On the live album, it has the same lurching, worn-out power of Neil’s material from On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night. If you listen closely you can hear Croz and Stills doing lines off the amplifiers.

82. “Walk On” (1974)

The closest equivalent to a “feel good” song on On The Beach, “Walk On” is a straightforward statement about how Neil is aware of his reputation (a staunch individualist who will ditch his collaborators on a whim) and how he does not care about it one way or the other. In the era of Taylor Swift, every pop star has at least one song like this. (It is the “Look What You Made Me Do” of Neil songs.) But it was still a novelty in mid-’70s L.A.

81. “Old King” (1992)

Not much to spell out here. This is a Neil Young song about a dog he loves that has passed on. He could tell the dog anything. The dog didn’t even get scared about jumping off a truck in high gear. Neil admits he kicked the dog once but you can tell he feels bad about it. And he tells you these things while playing a banjo. If this isn’t your kind of thing, you probably shouldn’t be reading this column.

80. “Change Your Mind” (1994)

Sleeps With Angels is a bleak record, but this 15-minute guitar workout with Crazy Horse is a welcome respite from all that. As a teenager, I dug the guitar solos and ignored the lyrics. Had I been paying attention, I would have realized that Neil is singing about the restorative power of middle-aged, monogamous sex. And those solos are meant to replicate the arc of an orgasm shared by a pair of wrinkly bodies. In the final verse he mentions “the scent of love” leaving an “odor in the room.” This would have repulsed me at 16 and it sort of repulses me now. Let’s forget that we talked about this.

79. “Truth Be Known” (1995)

In 1995, Neil Young made a record with the most popular rock band in America at the time, Pearl Jam. Some viewed this move with cynicism — Neil was pandering to the youth audience, and Pearl Jam was reaching for old-school credibility. But the resulting album, Mirror Ball, actually indicated how well they complemented each other. PJ gave Neil’s music a bolt of energy, and Neil taught PJ (who were already engaging in Crazy Horse cosplay on their own albums) how to play with authentically sinister murkiness on songs like “Truth Be Known.”

78. “Loose Change” (1996)

While Mirror Ball is one of Neil’s most underrated albums, Broken Arrow is the most underrated. A willfully sloppy wake for Neil’s long-time producer/sounding board David Briggs, Broken Arrow is composed of gangly, rambling songs that are maybe 65 percent finished. In the 21st century, Neil made a lot of records like that, but Broken Arrow packs more punch in that 65 percent than any of the slightly-more-than-half-baked albums that followed. (The lost 35 percent seems purposely left off as opposed to Neil trying and failing to fill the gap.) At more than nine minutes, “Loose Change” is the longest track. But that’s only because Neil and the Horse hammer on the same riff for about five of those minutes like only Neil and the Horse can. Had he been alive, David might have suggested cutting some of those minutes. But Neil in this instance owns his monotony.

77. “Slip Away” (1996)

Another song from Broken Arrow. In fact, it’s the next song after “Loose Change.” They belong next to each other on this list because they exist as a single entity in my mind. “Slip Away” is practically the same song as “Loose Change,” only it’s slower and somehow better because it’s slower.

76. “White Line” (1990)

I like the acoustic take that appears on Homegrown, yet another archival record composed of material from the mid-’70s. (That one features a guest star spot from Robbie Robertson, who along with the rest of The Band was hanging out with Neil and Bob Dylan in Malibu at the time.) However, I’m sticking with the infectious electric version from Ragged Glory, a bonafide road-trip classic about joyfully heading down the road toward the woman you love. (The white line refers to the median strip, though if “white lines” contributed to the song’s creation I wouldn’t be shocked.)

75. “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks” (Year Of The Horse version, 1997)

Neil was in a Life frame of mind when he hit the road in 1996. For the Year Of The Horse live album released the following year, he included “Prisoners Of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and this icy, snail-paced synth ballad. The version of “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks” on Life was also recorded live, and it’s 13 seconds longer than the Year Of The Horse performance. But the latter cut makes up for the slightly shorter runtime with extra dollops of romantic desolation. Crazy Horse at the time was even more shambolic than usual, and Neil uses that chaotic energy to fully land this song’s vibe of heavily narcotized depression.

74. “Scenery” (1995)

Neil’s political songs aren’t known for nuance or subtlety. If he writes a song about how we should impeach the president, he will call it “Let’s Impeach The President.” This song is an exception to the rule. A downbeat lament about soldiers chewed up and spat out by the war machine, Neil sketches out the “scenery” of a military graveyard but mostly lets his guitar and Pearl Jam’s surly instrumental backing express the song’s smoldering rage.

73. “Big Green Country” (1995)

Critics of Mirror Ball have long charged that the songs would have sounded better with Crazy Horse. When it comes to “Truth Be Known” and “Scenery,” that argument has some merit. But it does not for “Big Green Country.” This is a song that rises and falls on the stupendous drumming of Jack Irons, the most aggressively hopped-up timekeeper that Neil has ever employed and his one degree of separation from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

72. “L.A.” (1973)

Neil had problems with his drummer in the Stray Gators, the brilliant studio musician legend Kenny Buttrey, because he thought he didn’t hit the kit hard enough during their ’73 tour. The animus got so bad that Buttrey eventually exited the tour. But you wouldn’t know it listening to this anti-Valentine to Neil’s adopted hometown, the “uptight city in the smog” where the freeways are crammed and the ground beneath your feet is cracked and ready to swallow you whole. “L.A.” is Neil at his most caustic, though the steady swing supplied by Buttrey leavens the acidity. A million alt-country bands later tried to cop the feel of this song, to no avail.

71. “Alabama” (1972)

Kenny Buttrey also plays on this song, and he’s part of the musical blend that successfully overcomes Neil’s terrible, post-Easy Rider, condescending northerner lyrics. To be (overly) pedantic about it, this is really a great performance rather than a great song. “Alabama” rocks so hard that you can almost ignore the part where Neil says that Alabama has “the rest of the union to help you along.” As if the rest of the union isn’t also racist! Come on, Neil! Randy Newman, a Neil fan, didn’t like “Alabama” at all, but Randy Newman naturally cares more about lyrics than I do.

70. “Southern Man” (1970)

Ditto. Though I rank it slightly higher because this was the song (even more than “Alabama”) that really lit a fire under Ronnie Van Zandt’s ass. Anytime I listen to Second Helping, I appreciate “Southern Man” just a little bit more.

69. “Look Out For My Love” (1978)

Neil’s ’70s period is rightly celebrated not just for the consistent quality of the songwriting, but also for Neil’s willingness to defy the expectations and desires of his audience. In that respect, Comes A Time might secretly be the most perverse album he put out that decade, in that it’s the closest he came to making a “normal” SoCal singer-songwriter record. Comes A Time is what the public wanted after Harvest and Neil did not deliver. In 1978, it defied expectations by presenting a series of pleasant and accessible Neil Young folk-rock tunes that seemingly played by the rules. Though if you scratch the surface the perversity still lurks. That’s certainly the case for “Look Out For My Love,” in which Neil appears to perform a genial love song but in actual fact sings about his love with a vaguely menacing edge. Neil’s love is in the neighborhood, and he knows things are going to change, but he can’t say for bad or good.

68. “Wonderin’” (Live At The Fillmore East 1970 version, 2006)

Neil finally put a very dumb version of this song on his very dumb 1983 album Everbody’s Rockin’.” He slotted it on Side 1 amid the non-immortal likes of “Payola Blues” and “Kinda Fonda Wanda.” I understand that this was his funniest troll of David Geffen — he wanted Neil to make a “rock” record, so Neil dressed up in garish rockabilly clothes — but I wish he hadn’t thrown away this charming tune in the process. The live version from the Fillmore in 1970 is a delightful showcase for Danny Whitten-era Crazy Horse, one of the greatest rock bands that ever existed in my estimation. (It also features a comically stoned introduction from Neil.) Their core strength was the vocal blend that Neil had with Whitten, who sounds a bit like Stephen Stills if Stephen Stills sounded more like Keith Richards. At times they were practically co-lead singers — “Cinnamon Girl” being the most famous example — but more often Whitten would join Neil on the chorus, like he does on “Wonderin,’” and add just the right amount of roughed-up sweetness.

67. “Don’t Be Denied” (1973)

A self-pitying rock-star complaint about fame dressed up as self-mythologizing autobiography. Neil talks about his parents splitting up, getting bullied at school, starting a band, becoming a star, and feeling ambushed by parasitic businessmen. As part of Time Fades Away, Neil put out “Don’t Be Denied” 20 years before Nirvana released In Utero, and the parallels explain why Neil resonated like he did with young artists in the ’90s. (“I’m a pauper in a naked disguise” sounds like a line from “Serve The Servants.”) He was the original “Vocally Anti-Stardom” rock star. But like the song says, despite his misgivings, Neil would not be denied. And unlike many of those ’90s rock stars who emulated him, he was built for the long haul.

66. “Star Of Bethlehem” (1977)

Another song in which Neil sings about betrayal, only this one allegedly is about his girlfriend Carrie Snodgrass cheating on him. As the title implies, Neil regards this indiscretion as a crime of Biblical proportions. In the final verse, he implies that God himself has arrived to heal his pain. Though I suspect that God is Neil Young fan, which means he would rather Neil stay heartbroken so he can keep turning out gorgeous songs like “Star Of Bethlehem.”

65. “Human Highway” (1978)

This Comes A Time track shares a title with an unreleased mid-’70s CSNY studio album as well as a bonkers 1982 comedy that Neil co-directed in which he plays a wacky, Jerry Lewis-esque auto mechanic. The song is the best “Human Highway” of the bunch.

64. “Act Of Love” (1995)

Neil debuted it at the 1995 Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame ceremony, in which he was inducted. (Neil might be the only Rock Hall inductee in history who showed up with a great new song.) He played it with Crazy Horse, and it had that loose and sloppy Crazy Horse feel. The members of Pearl Jam were there and they bootlegged the performance on a handheld tape recorder. Soon after they were in the studio with Neil, putting their own spin on “Act Of Love.” The version that ended up on Mirror Ball has the opposite of that Crazy Horse feel. It is all speed and muscle, and you can tell that Neil is having a ball with it.

63. “Scattered” (1996)

When I interviewed MJ Lenderman last year, he raved about the live version of this song from Year Of The Horse. That version really is fantastic, but I still give the edge to the one on Broken Arrow, which was also recorded live and is even more dissonant and, well, scattered than the take on Year Of The Horse. The music is heavy and mournful, but Neil keeps hope alive in the lyrics. “When the music calls / I’ll be there / No more sadness / No more cares / Let’s think about living / Let’s think about life.”

62. “Stringman” (Look Out For My Love version, 2020)

I have already talked a bit about Neil’s guitar playing. Let’s discuss his piano playing. Sing us a song, Neil, you’re a piano man! His talents here are a little unsung, but time and again Neil has shown that if you put 88 keys in front of him, the voice and tunesmith elements of The Trinity really shine. His music never sounds as pure, or as pretty, in any other context.

There are plenty more starry-eyed piano songs on the remainder of this list, but for now I would like to praise this obscurity, which had its greatest exposure on MTV Unplugged. That’s a gorgeous performance, but I’m going with the “Stringman” from Archives Vol. 2, which is based on a live recording of the song’s debut captured in London on the ’76 tour. Is it strange that Neil is singing a piano song about a guy playing the guitar? By Neil standards, it’s logical.

61. “You And Me” (1992)

You know what I haven’t talked much about? Neil’s lyrics. Words are not Neil’s strength. Take the song “You And Me,” a highlight of Harvest Moon‘s spotless Side 1. In the first verse, Neil sings, “I was thinkin’ of you and me / making love beneath the tree/ And now I wonder could it be?” I say this with love: That is “John C. Reilly sharing a poem while soaking in that hot tub from Boogie Nights-level writing. But if you love “You And Me,” you know this is irrelevant. Because the melody is on point, and Neil’s voice makes the words sound like he is sharing his deepest, purest and most emotional truths.

60. “I Am A Child” (Dorothy Chandler Pavilion 1971 version, 2022)

For decades Dorothy Chandler Pavilion 1971 was one of the most famous Neil bootlegs. (Young William Miller touches the album cover at the start of Almost Famous.) A few years ago, Neil put it out himself as an archival release, and it immediately became one of his best official live records. Like the other archival live LPs from this period, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion 1971 offers early takes on songs that would soon become deathless classics. For this rendition of the early Buffalo Springfield number “I Am A Child,” Neil smuggled an extremely early preview of “You And Me” into the song’s introduction. For that reason I give it a slight edge over every other gorgeous version I’ve heard of Neil’s wistful tribute to adolescence.

59. “On The Way Home” (4 Way Street version, 1971)

Iconic. CSN brings Neil on stage early in the set, and he opens with a song from the final Buffalo Springfield record released after Neil had already reduced that group to rubble. Two years later, Stephen Stills brought Neil into his new superstar ensemble. Did that make sense? Probably not. But that’s how good Neil is. And that’s how good “On The Way Home Is.”

58. “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong” (Carnegie Hall 1970 version, 2021)

At the start of the Springfield, Neil was not on equal footing with Stills, the group’s creative leader. Stills wrote most of the songs, and the tunes that Neil did write were sometimes sung by the bass player, Richie Furay, who had a more conventionally smooth folk-rock voice. On the band’s self-titled 1966 debut, Furay took the lead on one of Neil’s most haunting early tunes, “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong.” It’s a good vocal that serves the song well, but Neil proved he was the ideal interpreter when he took out “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong” on his early tours. My favorite version is from Carnegie Hall 1970 — Neil transfers it from gentle folk rock to a solo piano performance, and somehow makes it sound even bigger and more epic.

57. “Fuckin’ Up” (1990)

Neil asks the question at the heart of the human condition: “Why do I keep fucking up?” Neil doesn’t have the answer, because there is no answer. Instead, Neil and Crazy Horse make a case for fucking up being a good thing. The guitars are fucked up. The rhythm section is fucked up. Neil’s voice is fucked up. And it all sounds perfect.

56. “Journey Through The Past” (1973)

Neil the Piano Man returns with a rare moment of grace from the relentlessly downbeat Time Fades Away. Neil was obviously in a reflective mood at this time in his life, but unlike the tougher and more cynical “Don’t Be Denied” from the same album, this song is thoughtful about the relationships we form and then lose as time passes. A less sympathetic listener might classify “Journey Through The Past” as a lesser rip-off of “After The Gold Rush,” but a rip-off of one of the best songs ever by the guy who wrote many of the best songs ever is still bound to be pretty damn good.

55. “Expecting To Fly” (1967)

Neil’s magnum opus from the Buffalo Springfield days. This is him indulging his tunesmith side to the greatest extreme, at a time when every young songwriter with a knack for melody was chasing Brian Wilson in the “Good Vibrations” sweepstakes. He didn’t quite get there with “Expecting To Fly,” but he got much closer than most of the competition. In an alternate timeline, Neil never meets Crazy Horse and instead doubles down on elaborate chamber pop productions. “Down By The River” is recorded with a massive symphony orchestra and features an extended Theremin solo. It is the trippiest song of all-time. (This scenario might seem far-fetched but it’s not that far-fetched.)

54. “The Loner” (Live Rust version, 1979)

Neil did sort of follow the path forged by “Expecting To Fly” on his self-titled solo debut album from 1968. The results were startlingly un-Neil — loads of overdubs, polished sound, sterile and stiff playing, zero funkiness. He changed course on his next record, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and never looked back. One of the best tracks from the debut, “The Loner” didn’t get the proper treatment on record until a decade later when Live Rust captured Neil tearing through it on stage with the Horse. In that environment, “The Loner” sounded like the rough draft for the wooly and dark-hued guitar jams he effortlessly turned out in the ’70s.

53. “Tired Eyes” (1975)

“The Loner” is Neil writing about an unsavory character from a remove. “Tired Eyes” is Neil writing about an unsavory character from the inside out. He might not be the guy who killed those four other guys in a cocaine deal. But he was definitely in the vicinity, and he is definitely guilty of some other crime he hasn’t gotten around to confessing yet.

52. “For The Turnstiles” (1974)

At the risk of stretching the concept of The Trinity past the proper confines of established vocabulary, I must include one more element of Neil Young’s artistry.

5. “Smoking Pot By The Campfire” Songs vs. “Snorting Blow In A Dive Bar” Songs

It is my belief that all great Neil Young songs fall in one of these categories. “Harvest Moon” is an example of the former. It is serene and calming and makes you feel like your feet are rooted in the dirt of Mother Earth. “Time Fades Away” is an example of the latter. It is hard and delirious and approximates the feeling of being up for three days straight (non-derogatory). Most great Neil Young songs land in only one of those categories. But “For The Turnstiles” is among the chosen few that belongs in both. The ragged banjo strum evokes the campfire, and Neil’s ravaged vocal conjures the dive bar.

51. “World On A String” (1975)

This is such a “Snorting Blow In A Dive Bar” song that you can practically smell the PBR residue in your nostrils as soon as the riff kicks in.

INTERMISSION: MY “I KIND OF MET NEIL YOUNG ONCE” STORY

Steven Hyden

This was about a decade ago. I was in L.A. and I met my old college friend Mark for dinner. We decided to go to this place for drinks near Mark’s condo. There was a dining room on one side and a bar on the other. Mark and I were alone at the bar. I looked to my left and noticed that the only other people in the bar area were Neil Young and Daryl Hannah, sitting at a table out of view of the other diners.

I said to Mark, who is known for doing stupid and embarrassing things in public, that he should walk up to Neil and say something stupid and embarrassing. To my horror, he agreed. As we got up to leave, we walked by Neil and Daryl and Mark said, in a very stupid and embarrassing voice, “Hey you!” and extended his finger to bop Neil on the nose. Fortunately, he did not bop Neil on the nose. Neil just looked at him, nonplussed.

Outside, we saw Neil’s car and I took the photo above. You can see the Pono inside.

Back to the list.

50. “Big Time” (1996)

That “tough tenderness” thing that Neil can do with his voice he can also do with his guitar. You hear that on “Big Time,” which opens the grief-stricken Broken Arrow on a note of wounded optimism. The sense of loss is palpable, but Neil keeps on steadily strumming Old Black regardless. He has resolved to leave the pain behind, to take the magic potion, to get in the big black car and take a ride so far to the next adventure. For Neil, “I’m still livin’ the dream we had / for me it’s not over” is part prayer and part career mission statement.

49. “Crime In The City (Sixty To Zero, Part II)” (1989)

Since I lightly disparaged Neil’s lyrics earlier, allow me to praise some of my favorite words that Neil ever wrote. This Dylanesque pile-up of true-crime storytelling and absurdist humor is as mysterious as the title — can we dare hope that there is “Part I” hiding in Neil’s archives? If such a mythical song does exist, will we learn the backstory of the cop who takes bribes from 10-year-olds? Or the record producer who really wants a cheeseburger? For now, I’m grateful that the Rolling Stone product placement helped to get Neil back in the magazine’s good graces. (They subsequently put Freedom on their “Best Of The ’80s” list.)

48. “Wrecking Ball” (1989)

The finest love song of Neil’s middle period that is not on Harvest Moon. The version by Emmylou Harris (which became the title track of one of her best albums) is more famous, and justifiably so, but Neil’s take from Freedom set the blueprint that Emmylou and producer Daniel Lanois took straight to the stars six years later.

47. “Country Home” (1990)

Another song that originated as an acoustic number in the mid-’70s that Neil blew out with the Horse in the ’90s. In the lyric, Neil makes a questionable infidelity metaphor involving picking potatoes from someone else’s patch. But that was only an issue before Neil plugged “Country Home” into that amps. On Ragged Glory, the riff sounds incredible, like a pterodactyl crooning a swan song.

46. “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” (Carnegie Hall 1970 version, 2021)

Among the earliest appreciators of Neil’s knack for pop songcraft were Richard and Karen Carpenter, who covered this track from Buffalo Springfield’s 1966 debut LP on The Carpenters’ soft-rock opus Ticket To Ride three years later. Richie Furay again assumed lead vocal duties on the Springfield version of “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” but Neil the Piano Man makes it sound like a Smile era Brian Wilson demo on the sparkling Carnegie Hall 1970.

45. “From Hank To Hendrix” (1992)

From practically any other songwriter, this mini musical history lesson would have registered as an overwrought attempt to rewrite “American Pie,” with a pile-up of classic-rock and cultural references trying in vain to radiate gravitas. But in the gentle hands of Neil Young circa Harvest Moon, it hits as a remembrance that honors musical legends in the same way most of us regard our heroes — as markers of personal landmarks in our own lives, particularly when our own lives appear to be falling apart. As Neil heads for the big divorce, California style, he pledges his love from Hank to Hendrix, from Marilyn to Madonna, and all points here and beyond. Can they get it together? Hope resides eternally in the life-sustaining sound of Ben Keith’s pedal steel.

44. “Heart Of Gold” (1972)

Bob Dylan famously claimed that when he first heard this song on the radio, he thought it was a song of his own that he didn’t remember recording. That might be a compliment, but it’s probably more like a complisult — part praise and part putdown. “Heart Of Gold” is Neil working in a craftsman mode. It’s an incredibly well-made and lovable song, but it lacks a certain something when stacked up against his other classics. It’s the one Neil tune you could easily see his early ’70s soft-rock imitators — America, Bread, Loggins & Messina, etc. — writing.

43. “Comes A Time” (Live Rust version, 1979)

From the acoustic Side 1 of Live Rust, an album with a nearly equal amount of “Smoking Pot By A Campfire” songs vs. “Snorting Coke In A Dive Bar” songs. “Comes A Time” is the third track, which means the pleasant kind of buzz should be settling in just about now.

42. “The Old Laughing Lady” (Unplugged version, 1993)

For the kids who just getting into Neil now: I recommend checking out Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey while you listen to all of this music. One of the most pleasurable periods of my 20s was spent reading this book while plowing through the Neil albums I already loved and the ones I was just getting into. It is truly a “vibes Neil Young biography” read. Though I remember not enjoying the later periods of the book as much, since McDonough wasn’t as high on Neil’s ’90s era as I was. He was especially snotty about Neil doing TV shows like MTV Unplugged, which as a teenager was an essential text for me given how little Neil live footage was available at the time. So many performances from Unplugged remain definitive for me, but especially this incredible rendition of “The Old Laughing Lady,” which I swear features some of the finest harp playing of Neil’s career.

41. “Cowgirl In The Sand” (1969)

Is there a more lethal riff in Neil’s arsenal? There are better riffs, but nothing as murderous as “Cowgirl In The Sand.” If Neil’s default guitar tone sound sounds like a stoned-as-hell lion lashing out, this is that lion after sitting in traffic for four hours. This tone is pissed. It explodes out of the speakers in a terrible mood, and it only gets more vicious and cranky and unreasonable from there.

40. “The Losing End (When You’re On)” (1969)

My favorite example of Danny Whitten coming in off the top rope on a Neil Young chorus, and absolutely landing the heart-melting harmony vocal. “The Losing End” is a go-to song for me to put on when I’m depressed because it reminds me that I have my own Danny Whitten figures in my life, the kinds of people who will assure me that I’ll make it somehow even though I know I’ll never be the same.

I also love the guitar solo, even if (or because?) it’s only semi-competent. Though I can’t quite make out what Neil (or Danny?) says right before the solo kicks in. Alright mister, hit me — is that it? I guess I’ll listen another 5,000 times until I figure it out.

39. “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” (1975)

I once wrote that Danny Whitten-era Crazy Horse is how I want a rock band to sound. Listen to this song and you’ll understand what I mean.

38. “Helpless” (The Last Waltz version, 1978)

Also known as “the cocaine booger” version. Neil’s humility at the start is immediately disarming. He’s genuinely honored to be there, and Robbie Robertson is genuinely blown away that Neil would think for even a second that he doesn’t deserve to be there. Neil (and I’m assuming everybody else on stage) is also coked to the gills, but even with the extra adrenaline of all that star power on stage, it doesn’t drive “Helpless” into the ditch. Maybe Joni’s presence via the offstage backing vocal was a calming influence.

37. “Revolution Blues” (1974)

“Helpless” from The Last Waltz is iconic, but “Revolution Blues” remains the best Neil Young jam in which Levon Helm and Rick Danko compose the rhythm section. It’s also Neil’s funniest song, though the humor is of the pitch-black Warren Zevon variety. “Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars / But I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars.”

36. “Lookout Joe” (1975)

Neil in Lou Reed mode. Only Neil is exploring the underbelly of the left coast. The hip drag queen, the side-walkin’ street dealer, the brain-thieving Billie from down in Philly, the heroin-addicted Bill from on the hill — all of them are waiting to greet the titular hero as he comes home, presumably from Vietnam. Nobody in this song is in a good place, but that’s a worry for tomorrow morning. “Lookout Joe” is a balls-out party number for tonight, and tonight is definitely the night.

35. “Long May You Run” (Citizen Kane Jr. Blues version, 2022)

Neil’s 2012 memoir Waging Heavy Peace is as eccentric as the man who wrote it, focusing as much on Neil’s beloved automobiles as his musical career. Neil’s car fixation has also converged with his songwriting from time to time, most famously on this ode to his indomitable Pontiac hearse (“Mortimer Hearseburg” to those in the know). The song became the title track to the one and only Stills-Young Band record from 1976, but I prefer the version captured two years earlier at The Bottom Line in New York City on the Citizen Kane Jr. Blues bootleg (finally released via Neil’s Archives project in 2022). Neil announces at the start that the song is about his car, which gives the performance a comic edge. (The audience laughs several times, especially at the line about the Beach Boys). But this is still an earnest, touching song, and the modesty of the solo performance hits harder than the slicked-up Stills-Young Band recording.

34. “Sugar Mountain” (Live Rust version, 1979)

You have been reading this column for a while now. It’s break time. Go outside, find a patio or porch, and listen to Side 1 of Live Rust with an intoxicant of your choice. Do not look at your phone. Look at some trees and/or the sky. Mellow your mind, as the man himself says. I’ll be here when you get back.

33. “Tonight’s The Night” (1975)

Like “Alabama,” this is more of a great performance than a great song. Though the power of “Tonight’s The Night” is that Neil was committed at the time to expressing chemical-addled depression with a method actor’s resolve. His despondency over the deaths of his friends and the emptiness of his fame was performative, but it was also authentic. He was taking the outtakes and making them the main takes, not only exposing every bum note but reveling in it. This aesthetic was eventually codified by generations of indie-rockers until it became a cliché for skeptics allergic to words like “authenticity” to mock. But anyone who puts on “Tonight’s The Night” with an arched eyebrow will quickly be put in their proper place.

32. “I Believe In You” (1970)

Another instance of Neil seemingly writing an absolutely beautiful love song that might actually be about the opposite of love. If you focus solely on the title, “I Believe In You” is a wedding song. But Neil sets up that statement by suggesting that he might be lying about his devotion. It’s a “rock star cad” lament about a love-’em-and-leave-’em musician moving from one romantic port to the next. Only it’s not really that, because most people will focus solely on the title, and “I Believe In You” works just fine in that superficial mode.

31. “Tell Me Why” (1970)

In which Neil very disrespectfully demonstrates that he can replicate the sound of CSNY without the superstar likes of CSN, but rather with his knuckle-dragging pals from Crazy Horse on the vocals.

LET’S PAUSE FOR A MOMENT TO RECOGNIZE AN IMPORTANT TRUTH ABOUT THIS LIST

This is the part where the rankings start to lose their meaning. I can’t put these songs in an order that is truly meaningful. Because we’re talking about some of the best music ever made here. All of these songs belong in my Top 5.

Honestly, I should have said this at the start of the Top 50.

OK, back to the list.

30. “Thrasher” (1979)

In which Neil even more disrespectfully refers to the CSN guys as “dead weight.” In a 1985 interview with Musician magazine, he confirmed that he was writing about his on-again, off-again bandmates during one of their off-again periods, but that it came off “a little more harsh than I meant it.” Nevertheless, “once I write it I can’t say, ‘Oh I’m going to hurt somebody’s feelings.’ Poetically and on feeling it made good sense to me and it came right out.”

29. “When You Dance I Can Really Love” (1970)

“They all sound the same! It’s all one song!” Neil howls at the start of the live take included Year Of The Horse. And he’s right. Neil has recycled the same riff dozens of times with slight but crucial variations. It’s a simple yet exceedingly crunchy laser that Neil catches with brute force and then lets soar, only to tackle it again with his bare hands seconds later. Soar and catch, soar and catch — that’s the riff. It originated with “Mr. Soul,” and then it was perfected with “Cinnamon Girl.” But it never sounded more elegant or majestic than it does at the start of “When You Dance I Can Really Love.”

28. “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” (1969)

A goddamn rock song. Anytime I think about back home, this song pops in my head. “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” is the place in my mind where it’s always cool and breezy. The tangle of Neil and Danny Whitten’s warm voices and wiry guitars is the best kind of nowhere. I wish I could be there right now, just passing time.

27. “Don’t Cry No Tears” (1975)

Another goddamn rock song. If the Whitten-era Crazy Horse is my ideal rock band, the Zuma-era Horse with Frank “Poncho” Sampedro is close behind. They positively glide on “Don’t Cry No Tears,” like Mortimer Hearseburg shooting down an Olympic luge track. The swagger makes me cry tears of joy.

26. “Time Fades Away” (1973)

A “speeding locomotive barreling straight to hell” kind of song. Of all his debauched “Ditch” era material, “Time Fades Away” is the most nihilistic. Today, there are 14 junkies too weak to work, selling diamonds for what their worth, all while disappointment lurks. Tomorrow, there will be 13 junkies. Meanwhile, Kenny Buttrey will keep slamming away while Neil blows the most desperate harmonica solo of his life.

25. “Ambulance Blues” (1974)

What explains Neil’s enduring popularity with each new generation of listeners seeking great goddamn rock songs? The Trinity, of course, has a lot to do with it. But there’s also Neil’s ageless quality. Neil is an old man, but he has always been an old man. When he was in his 20s, he was already obsessed with mortality and lost innocence and the failure of rock music to change the world. He has written about this consistently over the course of his career, and that continuity has made his old material sound new and his new material sound old. One of his greatest songs in this vein is “Ambulance Blues,” the rambling nine-minute closer of On The Beach in which Neil reflects on “the old folkie days” that were only about a few years in his rearview mirror. Neil nevertheless sounds ancient on this song. He’s younger than that now.

24. “On The Beach” (1974)

There is also the matter of relatable themes. The key line of the glacially paced panic attack that is “On The Beach” is “though my problems are meaningless / That don’t make them go away.” That applied to Neil when he was in the middle of a quarter-life crisis in 1974, and it applies to the millions of people who will find “On The Beach” on a streaming platform while mainlining the madness of the rapidly turning world on multiple screens. That’s why I predict, in 10 years, this will be the most streamed Neil song of all. It will be his “Harness Your Hopes,” only no hope will be harnessed.

23. “Out On The Weekend” (1972)

Textbook example of the Neil Young “acoustic hitch,” that little syncopated move he does that makes his unplugged playing as unmistakable as his plugged-in tone. Countless bands have ripped it off, and when they do everyone immediately thinks, “Oh, they’re trying to sound like Harvest.” Not that this is a bad thing. You can do a good job of sounding like Harvest, and you can do a bad job of sounding like Harvest. “Out On The Weekend” is the best job of sounding like Harvest.

22. “The Needle And The Damage Done” (1972)

When my 10th-grade English teacher asked to pick my favorite poem and share it with the class, I chose “The Needle And The Damage Done.” Thirty years later, I stand by the decision. This is a remarkably economical song, full of emotion but without milking the pathos. “But every junkie is like a setting sun” remains one of Neil’s signature lines.

21. “After The Gold Rush” (1970)

As of 2018, Neil was still working on Canary, a long-in-the-works sci-fi novel about a guy who “discovers the solar company he works for is a hoax.” Apparently the company is turning out “bad energy” with genetically engineered animals whose “shit” is used to create the bad energy. Or something like that. Even Neil admitted that the novel was a “fuckin’ mess.” Assuming Neil never finishes Canary, “After The Gold Rush” has a safe hold on being Neil’s greatest contribution to science fiction.

20. “Albuquerque” (1975)

A real “the sleazier it feels, the more engrossing the listen” type of cinéma vérité song. Neil is on the road, running away from celebrity and looking for a nice plate of fried eggs and country ham. Santa Fe is only 90 miles away, but that pedal steel riff makes it sound like he’s a million miles from nowhere. This is a song you should absolutely not want to live inside of, and yet I absolutely do want to live inside of “Albuquerque.”

19. “Barstool Blues” (1975)

More Zuma swagger. A goddamn rock song through and through. A tune about getting drunk isn’t supposed to sound this graceful but you just couldn’t stop the Horse in ’75.

18. “Danger Bird” (1975)

There are so many sick live versions of this song. My favorite is the one from Saratoga ’96, where it sounds like Neil literally takes flight for about five minutes while soloing nonstop above the amphitheater audience, like a real-life danger bird set to soar across the Canadian border roughly 130 miles in the distance. But that recording is available only on Neil’s website, and I worry that I will never be able to find it again on that infamously cluttered monstrosity. (I say “monstrosity” with affection!) Neil nearly achieves levitation on the Zuma version, where incredibly it is only the second-best guitar epic on the tracklist.

17. “Mr. Soul” (1967)

His first time playing the great guitar riff of his life. In its original guise, it sounds a lot like the riff from “Satisfaction.” Only in Neil’s hands it has that witchy Neil Young quality, where hints of darkness poke around the edges imploring you to dig into the fetchingly foreboding murk that lurks below. Even when he was helping to define sunny California folk rock Neil stood apart, pointing to the source and also beyond the source, to the ditch that lay ahead.

16. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” (1970)

Neil’s first Top 40 hit. Like the rest of After The Gold Rush, it put Neil in the sensitive singer-songwriter lane. The melody has that classic Carole King/James Taylor flavor, where it sounds like a song that existed for 100 years before it was written. But Neil’s voice takes “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” to another place. He really works the “tough tenderness” thing here — he’s imparting fatalistic wisdom about the fleeting nature of love, but he also sounds impossibly innocent, like he can’t help but be crushed once again by romantic misfortune.

WE ARE NOW ENTERING THE “JESUS CHRIST, MAN!” PORTION OF THE LIST

These are the songs that are so good that you can’t help but say “Jesus Christ, man!” as soon as they come on.

15. “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” (1970)

Like I said: Jesus Christ, man! Neil lies in the title of this song. “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” will absolutely bring you down. “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” always brings me down, though in the best possible way. Neil wrote it about CSNY’s trip to London in early 1970, a moment of triumph that Neil turns into an existential crisis on this spare, droning ballad.

14. “Old Man” (1972)

The most famous example of the Neil Young acoustic hitch. This is probably the Neil Young song I have heard the most in my life, and it likely is yours as well. The greatness of “Old Man” is that this constant exposure has not undermined its power one iota. Not even Beck covering “Old Man” for an NFL commercial made me like “Old Man” less. If that’s not “Jesus Christ, man!”-worthy, I don’t know what is.

13. “Cinnamon Girl” (1969)

Neil and Danny are singing together about the band’s most devoted fan, and you would never guess that the good times might end one day. Their shared ebullience is just that vibrant. It all peaks with the greatest one-note guitar solo in rock history, which hits as the drummer relaxes between shows by dancing with his cinnamon girl. It doesn’t get more “goddamn rock song” than this.

12. “Harvest Moon” (1992)

This song came out when I was 14, which was the No. 1 worst year of my life. On the radio it just sounded impossibly romantic, which appealed to me in ways I could never admit to my friends. At that age, I had no reason to think that a girl would ever love me as much as the girl in “Harvest Moon” loves Neil. It seemed impossible. My disastrous complexion and questionable mullet would simply not allow it. But “Harvest Moon” made me wish against hope that it might happen anyway. Perhaps one day, like Neil, I would be a 46-year-old dude who sees the moon and asks his soulmate to dance in the light. Could it really happen? Somehow it did. All these years later, I still can’t believe it.

11. “Rockin’ In The Free World” (Saturday Night Live version, 1989)

For a guy who was so averse to being filmed that he demanded to be cut out of Woodstock, it’s frankly amazing that two of the best live performances broadcast on television are by Neil Young. Even more incredible is that they’re both of the same song. I give the SNL version of “Rockin’ In The Free World” a slight edge over the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards performance with Pearl Jam only because the SNL clip is what inspired PJ to start playing “Rockin’ In The Free World,” which makes the VMAs spot a sequel of sorts. Plus, the SNL “Rockin’ In The Free World” is pivotal in terms of Neil rediscovering the mojo that triggered his ’90s rebirth. You can see him find it in real time, around the time that he turns around to wiggle his ass at the audience at the 2:20 mark.

10. “Pocahontas” (1979)

Neil wrote this in 20 minutes, and in lesser hands it might have sounded like it. Neil free associates about American genocide, Marlon Brando, and the Astrodome, and all of that loopy meandering results in one of his finest “shaggy dog narrative where nothing coherent happens” story songs. What makes “Pocahontas” intelligible is the voice (it’s never sounded more pure), the robust melody (you feel like you already know it even upon first listen), and that acoustic hitch, which gives this quirky little number the feel of a stadium-rock sing-along.

9. “I’m The Ocean” (1995)

One of the most singular and gripping songs in Neil’s oeuvre. There’s no melody. There’s no chorus. There are no guitar solos. There’s hardly any variation at all. It’s just Neil rattling off a series of verses about the failing state of the world, as well as some boasting about being a guy who does things people his age don’t do. With Neil as the calm at the eye of the hurricane, it’s up to Pearl Jam to ride the groove as the ocean’s undertow grows steadily more chaotic and scary, until finally the tension breaks and blackness descends.

8. “My, My, Hey, Hey (Out Of The Blue)” (1979)

The best and most famous example of Neil writing explicitly about rock mythology and somehow not coming across as pompous or pretentious. “My, My, Hey, Hey” is so embedded in classic-rock lore that it’s easy to forget how ballsy it was to write a song like this. A ’60s rocker pledging fealty to Johnny Rotten at the end of the ’70s could have easily seemed forced or even silly. (Imagine Graham Nash singing this song.) But nobody thinks about that now. More than 40 years on, “My, My, Hey, Hey” doesn’t seem like a song that was written by anybody. Rather, it feels like it was handed down, etched in stone tablets, from up on high 4,000 years ago.

7. “Ohio” (1970)

A sizable chunk of the 2019 documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name is given over to Croz taking credit for telling Neil Young to write “Ohio.” That’s how good “Ohio” is. Merely being in the vicinity of its creation is prime rock-doc fodder. The connection to the Kent State shootings in 1970 has been rehashed by every boomer-era retrospective, but for me “Ohio” comes down to the middle part of The Trinity. This was Neil putting that Neil Young guitar tone at the center of the rock world for the first time, and that world hasn’t been the same since.

6. “Unknown Legend” (1992)

Just impossibly lovely and romantic and heart-melting. If you have a person in your life who hears this song and thinks only of you, you are a very lucky individual. (And I’m not only referring to blondes who ride Harley-Davidsons.)

5. “Harvest” (1972)

Is it getting dusty in here? This is my favorite Neil Young love song. And also my favorite Neil Young vocal. He sounds as tough as I wish I was, and he sounds as tender as I wish I was. Only a guy this tough and tender could say “dream up dream up let me fill your cup with the promise of a man” and not get laughed out of the room.

4. “Cortez The Killer” (1975)

From here on out: No more soft stuff. We’re going out in a blaze of glory while worshipping Neil the guitar god. We start with the first 210 seconds of “Cortez The Killer,” ground zero for so much of the jammy guitar rock music I love from the past 49 years. It’s impossible for Neil to stretch that section out for too long. Neil and Crazy Horse could jam on those 210 seconds for 210 minutes, and I would keep on gently bobbing my head until my neck muscles spasmed. For the Zuma version, Poncho and Billy Talbot supposedly smoked angel dust before Neil hit record, which explains why listening to this song makes you feel floaty and disconnected from your body. (“Cortez The Killer” is the one and only example of something good coming from smoking angel dust.)

3. “Powderfinger” (1979)

Neil’s greatest lyric. “Powderfinger” is a surrealist western loaded with violence and mystery. It is told from the perspective of a dead narrator, like Sunset Boulevard on the prairie. It’s a shaggy dog story that actually coalesces into a profound, potent narrative, with Neil delivering his definitive statement on the themes — mortality, cultural decline, loss of innocence, man’s estrangement from nature — that recur throughout his work. But let’s not bury the lede: This is a goddamn rock song par excellence.

2. “Like A Hurricane” (Weld version, 1991)

The song where the core elements of The Trinity — the voice, the guitar tone, the melody – come together like never before or since. “Like A Hurricane” is his most touching, vulnerable song. “Like A Hurricane” is his most transportive guitar jam. “Like A Hurricane” is his prettiest melody. The only flaw is that “Like A Hurricane” must eventually end. That is why I go with the version from the 1991 live album Weld, because Neil manages to solve even that problem. This “Like A Hurricane” appears to end after about seven minutes. But Neil then rescues the song from the overheated squalls of feedback, and proceeds to play it for another seven minutes. It’s twice the “Hurricane” for the buck.

1. “Down By The River” (1969)

What can possibly top the Weld version of “Like A Hurricane”? How about the original show-stopping Neil guitar workout, backed by my beloved Whitten-era Crazy Horse? “Down By The River” has everything you could want from Neil. It has the vocal, the guitar tone, and the melody. It has vibes for days. You can play it by a campfire in a marijuana haze, and you can play it in a dive bar in the presence of heavier substances. It is tough, and it is tender. It exudes danger, but Neil remains steady and calm. It lives in the moment, though you know it will be here forever. Lord willing, anyway.

Neil Young is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

 


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