10. ‘Living With War’ (‘Living With War’ / 2006)
In case it hasn’t been made abundantly clear many times throughout the years, Neil Young is a raving progressive with very liberal tendencies. Thus, he was hyper-critical of the American government during the Bush Era, particularly in respect to the Republican president’s foreign entanglements. Living With War the album was a full collection of anti-Bush rhetoric, even going as far as to suggest his impeachment. The title track is one of Neil Young’s strongest protest songs, met perfectly with a minimalist brass section and fiery lead vocals.
9. ‘Philadelphia’ (‘Philadelphia’ Soundtrack / 1993)
One of Neil Young’s most emotional recordings was never featured on an album. If Bruce Springsteen opened the 1993 Oscar-winning ‘Philadelphia’ with a bang, then Young closed it with a collective need to uncontrollably weep. The film itself remains one of the most poignant dramas of all time. Young’s track, which was used as the finale, ties every bit of pain, anguish, and bittersweet joy together in a haunting package that says goodbye to Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) in a way any other words never could have.
8. ‘Motion Pictures’ (‘On The Beach’ / 1974)
1974’s On The Beach is a bit of a mixed bag. The record, as Young remembers it, was essentially one giant trip for him and his band. The seemingly lazy, but often brilliant drug-addled meanderings of the record remain some of the songwriter’s most interesting endeavors. ‘Motion Pictures,’ a track on the opposite side of the album, is an excellent excursion through Young’s powerhouse lyricism that’s as sharp as a tack. It’s worth mentioning that Robyn Hitchcock has done a fine job in recent years revitalizing the song with his rendition, too.
7. ‘Be The Rain’ (‘Greendale’ / 2003)
One could most certainly argue that Greendale is one Neil Young’s most ambitious projects. The 2003 record took the idea of a concept album to new heights. Young released multiple versions of it, including a solo acoustic performance with his own narration of the story. He also created an array of visual media including film segments and maps to lay the foundation for the story. The album, which dabbles in social activism and Americana grassroots storytelling, ends with ‘Be The Rain.’ This cataclysmic finale is earth-shattering, especially on the full-band version of the tune which accompanied the main release of ‘Greendale .’
6. ‘Down by the River’ (‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ / 1969)
Neil Young’s first studio effort with his long-time backing group, Crazy Horse, set the stage for a four-decade collaboration. ‘Down by the River,’ a bizarre love story gone awry, exhibits Young’s instrumental prowess above all. The track’s extended guitar solos don’t feel excessive or ostentatious, as lengthy solos typically do. Instead, his tactful shredding remains the most memorable and legendary aspect of the song. While focusing on his folk era, fans often forget how strong of a rock and roller Young was and still is. He can really play guitar.
5. ‘Unknown Legend’ (‘Harvest Moon’ / 1992)
In 1992, Young returned to the folksy Americana themes he established thirty years earlier on ‘Harvest’ with its spiritual successor, ‘Harvest Moon.’ It’s a joyful jaunt through Young’s immense songwriting talent, highlighting his ability to shed years of rock and roll and return to country folk as if he had never left the genre to begin with. ‘Unknown Legend’ may be one the most beautiful love songs ever written; its stunning delivery is one of Young’s very best.
4. ‘Ramada Inn’ (‘Psychedelic Pill’ / 2012)
Neil Young’s more recent studio albums have been divisive amongst fans and critics. Anyone, however, who argues Young still doesn’t have ‘it,’ hasn’t sat down and spent time with ‘Ramada Inn.’ On his 2012 record, Young arguably wrote one of his best songs ever. ‘Ramada Inn’ is a cinematic journey through contemplations about old age and floundering relationships. The seventeen minute track should be listened to in its entirety. It’s so exceptional, so captivating, that you’ll find yourself spinning it like a three-minute single, perhaps even all day.
3. ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ (‘Harvest’ / 1972)
Many ‘top ten’ or ‘best of’ lists of Neil Young Songs include at least several tracks from 1972’s ‘Harvest.’ While it is a landmark album for the performer, it isn’t entirely fair to hone such an impressive and diverse catalog into one folk album. That said, one song must shine through. It isn’t ‘Old Man,’ and it isn’t ‘Heart of Gold.’ No, it’s ‘The Needle and the Damage Done.’ The live recording, which was used on the studio album, strips Neil Young down – not just instrumentally, but emotionally. In 1972, his peers were dropping like flies to drugs, especially to heroin. ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ tells it straight, and it doesn’t mess around.
2. ‘After The Gold Rush’ (‘After The Gold Rush’ / 1970)
‘After The Gold Rush’ is quite the record. There isn’t a song on it that isn’t spectacularly good. It’s the album that brought fans classics like ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart,’ ‘Birds,’ and the Lynyrd Skynyrd-enraging ‘Southern Man.’ (Quite seriously, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ is a response to it.) Its star tune is the title track, though. As wonderful as Young is at creating unending layers of distortion and complexity, he simply cannot be beat when he embraces brevity. ‘After The Gold Rush’ is Neil Young, some of his most beautiful imagery, and a piano. That’s all you’ll ever need.
1. ‘Thrasher’ (‘Rust Never Sleeps’ / 1979)
Running with the theme of Young embracing a certain level of brevity in his performance, ‘Thrasher’ is arguably his most unappreciated song – and one of his most superb. The track is nothing short of an epic, calling upon the appreciation of homegrown Americana good feelings and farmers that later influenced Young so much that he founded Farm Aid with Willie Nelson. ‘Thrasher’ is, without a doubt, a perfect exploration of Neil Young’s most evocative, compelling poetry. The performance, masterfully executed on a twelve string, is the epitome of Neil Young. The song is a treasure – a diamond hidden underneath a pile of gold.
The Top 10 Neil Young Songs
Written by Brett Stewart.