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Top 10 Best Neil Young Songs

Updated on November 21, 2016
Neil Young performing in Finland 1996.  Young's career has spanned many decades.  He has experimented with different styles over that period, but somehow managed to maintain a distinctive and unique sound.
Neil Young performing in Finland 1996. Young's career has spanned many decades. He has experimented with different styles over that period, but somehow managed to maintain a distinctive and unique sound. | Source

Putting together a top 10 of the best Neil Young songs is not an easy task. For one thing, Neil Young's career goes back decades and his output over that time has been pretty prolific.

Another thing about Young is that he draws on a variety of musical styles, from folk to country, to rock, to pop, to punk, and even experimental electronic!

Yet whatever style he's playing, he always manages to be distinctively Neil Young, recognizable by his unique singing style, powerful and idiosyncratic lyrics.

On the rock tracks we also get to hear his wonderfully eccentric lead guitar skills.

Back then people closed their eyes and listened to music. Today there's a lot of images that go with the music. A lot of music is crap and it's all commercial and the images are all trying to sell the record.

— Neil Young
Toronto, Ontario: Neil Young was born in the Canadian city in 1945.  His father was a Canadian sports journalist, his mother was American citizen of French ancestry who was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Toronto, Ontario: Neil Young was born in the Canadian city in 1945. His father was a Canadian sports journalist, his mother was American citizen of French ancestry who was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

A Brief Biography of Neil Young

Neil Young was born in Toronto, Canada in 1945. His father was a journalist and sports writer. His mother was an American of French ancestry who was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

He began playing in bands in Canada in 1960. He moved to California in 1966, where he was a co-founder of the band Buffalo Springfield. Later he became the fourth member of the band, Crosby, Stills & Nash.

His first solo album was released in 1968. Since then his highly acclaimed solo career has lasted 45 years and Young has released a total of 35 studio albums.

Below are my selections for the top 10 best Neil Young songs.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young perform at the PNC Arts Center, Holmdel Township, New Jersey, USA in August, 2006.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young perform at the PNC Arts Center, Holmdel Township, New Jersey, USA in August, 2006. | Source

It's better to burn out, than to fade away.

— Neil Young

1. Hey Hey, My My - Into the Black

It was a toss up whether I included the crunching rock version of the song, or its more wistful, acoustic sibling, My My, Hey Hey - Into the blue.

Kurt Cobain famously quoted from the song in his suicide note, leading to Young not playing it for several years after.

2. The Needle and the Damage Done

A heartfelt song about the destructiveness of heroin addiction.

Many of Young's 1970s lyrics dealt with the dark side of the hippy values and lifestyle that he and others had adopted in the 1960s.

All that stuff about heavy metal and hard rock, I don't subscribe to any of that. It's all just music. I mean, the heavy metal from the '70s sounds nothing like the stuff from the '80s, and that sounds nothing like the stuff from the '90s. Who's to say what is and isn't a certain type of music?

— Neil Young

3. Cortez the Killer

A haunting song about innocence lost, featuring one of Neil Young's best extended guitar solos. Young's lead guitar is his secret weapon and sounds as distinctive as his singing voice.

If you ever want to know about just how much effort and detail goes into getting his guitar sound right for the studio and live performances, try reading Shakey: Neil Young's Biography.

The rockets and the satellites, spaceships that we're creating now, we're pollinating the universe.

— Neil Young

4. Rockin' in the Free World

Another track with acoustic and electric versions. The 1980s were generally a bad time for Neil Young creatively.

Much of his energy at this time went into trying to raise his disabled son. But at the end of the decade, he seemed to find new inspiration and drive.

His raucous and energetic performance of Rockin' in the Free World on Saturday Night Live has come to be seen as a legendary version.

5. Thrasher

Rust Never Sleeps was an interesting and impressive album with an atmospheric and acoustic side one, which included, Thrasher.

Side two of the album is a complete contrast and features some of Young's rawest rock material, which in retrospect could be described as the precursor of the style that came to be known as "grunge".

I have so many opinions about everything it just comes out during my music. It's a battle for me. I try not to be preachy. That's a real danger.

— Neil Young

6. Down by the River

A dark song about murder with an extended instrumental, from the album: Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.

Young is backed by Crazy Horse, who play with him on many of his greatest rock tracks. The track features some incredible atmospheric Young lead guitar.

I totally have no other talent and I would be totally out of work if I did anything else.

— Neil Young

7. Heart of Gold

Neil Young's most widely covered and most recognizable track. It's a beautiful song, stripped down and emotional with an unforgettable melody.

This song contributed to the astronomical success of Young's 1977 album, Harvest.

8. After the Goldrush

Neil Young's psychedelic take on the ecological damage being wreaked on the planet during the 1970s.

The lyrics are strange and obscure, but somehow they make sense emotionally and the evocative imagery is striking.

I live for playing live. All my records are live, since After the Gold Rush, with the exception of Trans and the vocals on Landing on Water.

— Neil Young

9. Old Man

Another track from the Harvest album. According to Young, the "old man" in the song was the caretaker on his recently acquired ranch, where Young "lived alone in a paradise".

A beautiful and philosophical song about love and loneliness.

10. Powderfinger

Another dark tale of death and sacrifice. A topic that Neil Young explores and delivers so well.

You are drawn into this song as soon as you hear the strummed, distorted chord and Neil's warbled bellow: "Look out mama, there's a white boat coming up the river!"

Two Tracks That Almost Made the List

Like I said in my introduction, choosing a top 10 for Neil Young is almost an impossibility, given the depth and quality of his output.

Below are 2 tracks that on another day may well have been included in my list.

I live for playing live. All my records are live, since After the Gold Rush, with the exception of Trans and the vocals on Landing on Water.

— Neil Young

Love to Burn

A song about coming to terms with a bitter relationship break-up from the past (something Young had experience of) and moving on.

From the Ragged Glory album, which I personally think is an under-appreciated gem - but then, I love Young's rock stuff!

I don't think I'm a thorn in the industry, I'm just another part of it.

— Neil Young

The Old Laughing Lady

A beautifully haunting track from Young's first solo album.

The lyrics are classic Young, enigmatic but emotive. There is a wonderful solo "unplugged" version of this track played by Young as a kind of epilogue at the end of the Heart of Gold DVD.

© 2013 Paul Goodman

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    • sweetjamieblueyes profile image

      Jamie Sykes 3 years ago from Lewisville, North Carolina

      Great list! I love Neil! My Daddy plays The Needle and the Damage Done on the guitar all the time so that's my #1 Neil Young song. I also like Harvest Moon.

      I've seen Neil in concert (with CSN) twice and he is quite the showman! I'm going to see CSN on the 24 of March and kinda wishing he was with them this time, too.

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 3 years ago from Parts Unknown

      It must of been a next impossible task to make a top 10 Neil Young list! Neil is an all time fave of mine, and I would of have had a tough time doing it. I am also glad to see "Thrasher" on this list. It is an all time fave of mine and it doesn't all always get the amount of love that some of his other tunes do. Also Rust Never Sleeps is one of my all time fave albums.

      I also seen Neil Young live back in 1993. It was a Neil Young and Pearl Jam double bill with Soundgarden and Blues Traveler opening. It was a truly life changing moment!

    • profile image

      rmcmillen 4 years ago

      Great list ...... however I also liked Southern Man and From Hank To Hendrix... and Harvest Moon is also great.