It’s hard to quantify just how important Neil Young is to the DNA of rock ‘n’ roll—and it’s even tougher to pick the “greatest Neil Young songs.” From his days with the Squires in the early 1960s through his tenures with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, he was piecing together a songwriting foundation that would send his solo career to the moon between 1968 and now. Over the last 55 years, Young has made some of the most important songs in the history of music, and he’s done so without ever wavering on his principles or selling out.
With classic records like After the Gold Rush, Harvest, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and Harvest Moon now definitive classics in rock ‘n’ roll’s canon, we here at Paste can say, with the utmost certainty, that Young is one of our greatest living storytellers—maybe even the very best. What we understand about modern music would look severely different without his blueprint. The architecture fashioned on his albums have all bled into the attitudes and emotions of rock’s mainstream and underground. A godfathering figure of grunge and a practitioner of folk, country, blues and psychedelia, there is no ladder Neil Young hasn’t climbed; no stratosphere he hasn’t obliterated.
This past Friday, Young released the previously “lost” 1977 studio album Chrome Dreams, which we greatly loved. To keep the celebration going, we’ve decided to revisit our 2011 ranking and revamp it a bit—adding 25 more songs and reconsidering our original placements. In the 12 years that have passed since our initial assessment, Young has put out many more records and unvaulted numerous bootleg tapes. It’s important to keep close tabs on the man, the myth and the legend so, without further ado, here are our picks for the 50 greatest Neil Young songs of all time.
50. “Chevrolet” (World Record, 2022)
The most recent track on this list, “Chevrolet” is a massive cornerstone of Young’s 43rd studio album (and 15th with Crazy Horse), World Record. Clocking in at a hair over 15 minutes, the song is an ode to the disappearing potential of endless highways, the songwriter’s love for cars and a sparse declaration of things not being the same anymore. “Gone is the crowded highway, lost are the roads we left behind, found in the place they live inside me, Chevrolet,” Young hums. The song, and the rest of World Record, was recorded live on analog tape at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio in Malibu and evokes such a raw, unfiltered and dense sense of finesse. Young and Crazy Horse hadn’t sounded that good in years, and “Chevrolet,” immediately, became one of their best tracks in almost 30 years. This thing could’ve been featured on Ragged Glory and wouldn’t have missed a beat.
49. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” (After the Gold Rush, 1970)
“Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” the lead single from After the Gold Rush—and Young’s first-ever Top-40 hit—is likely one of his most important for the sole reason that it helped put the songwriter’s name in household conversations. Supposedly written for Graham Nash after his breakup with Joni Mitchell, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is one of Young’s only bonafide, cut-and-dry breakup songs. “I have a friend I’ve never seen, he hides his head inside a dream,” he sings. “Someone should call him and see if he can come out, try to lose the down that he’s found.” Most of Young’s other work muses on romantic disintegrations in ways that can be attributed to plenty of circumstances. Only he could have written this song, though, as it has his perfect vocal affectations, guitar inflections and harmonies.
48. “Mr. Soul” (Buffalo Springfield Again, 1967)
“Mr. Soul” has become synonymous with Young’s tenure in Buffalo Springfield—and for good reason. It’s a terrific blend of psych and garage rock, stamped with the songwriter’s trademark grit and restlessness. Young wrote “Mr. Soul” after having an epileptic seizure on stage in San Francisco, and the tests he underwent at UCLA and his sudden feelings of near-death comprise the song’s story. “Stick around while the clown who is sick does the trick of disaster,” he sings. “For the race of my head and my face is moving much faster. Is it strange I should change? I don’t know, why don’t you ask her?” Young would never make a track so hypnotic and absurd again, which is what makes “Mr. Soul” such a gem to tap back into.
47. “Walk On” (On the Beach, 1974)
The opening track from On the Beach is notorious for spitting venom at Young’s naysayers. The critical bemoans towards his rejection of adopting a mainstream shine after Harvest were clearly weighing on his mind, though, in his lyricism on “Walk On,” you’d be hard-pressed arguing that Young ever cared much in the first place. “Ooh, baby, that’s hard to change. I can’t tell them how to feel,” he proclaims. “Some get stoned, some get strange. Sooner or later, it all gets real.” Affixed with a cherry lead riff from Young, “Walk On” is muscled into the echelons of rock ‘n’ roll because of Ben Keith’s slide guitar—which is at an all-time great pinnacle here. “Walk On” is just a feel-good song full of spite from Young towards those who aren’t in his corner. It’s easy to mellow out to this one, but never forget who the enemy is.
46. “Unknown Legend” (Harvest Moon, 1992)
An undersung masterpiece in Young’s catalog, “Unknown Legend” is the opening chapter of Harvest Moon, the record that rejuvenated the songwriter’s career after a decade of less-than-stellar efforts. Like Harvest 20 years prior, Harvest Moon featured the Stray Gators—this time with Spooner Oldham providing his legendary pump organ and piano playing. “Unknown Legend” is a storytelling masterclass and bountiful character study, one of the primest examples of how great a lyricist Young truly is. “Somewhere on a desert highway, she rides a Harley Davidson,” he sings of a diner waitress in a small town. “Her long hair flyin’ in the wind, she’s been runnin’ half her life, the chrome and steel she rides collidin’ with the very air she breathes.” Paired with Linda Ronstadt’s perfect backing harmonies, “Unknown Legend” is a stirring, picturesque tale of something—or someone—that’s just beyond our reach.
45. “Stringman” (Chrome Dreams, 1977)
One of my most breathtaking and complex entries in all of Young’s catalog, as he sings of war, hippies, friendship and the casualties that come with lost hope, “Stringman” is a particularly haunting, three-minute piano ballad that greatly rivals “After the Gold Rush.” Young has had a history of writing songs that, seemingly, contradict his own professed beliefs—like the pro-Reagan track “Union Man” or “Campaigner,” where he proclaims that “even Richard Nixon has got soul”—and “Stringman” joins those ranks by standing on the other side of the counterculture protests Young once wrote empathetically about. “Or the lovers on the blankets that the city turned to whores, with memories of green kissed by the sun,” he sings. “You can say the soul is gone and close another door. Just be sure that yours is not the one.”
44. “I’m the Ocean” (Mirror Ball, 1995)
When folks argue that Neil Young wasn’t the godfather of grunge, be sure to recommend Mirror Ball to them. Young’s 1995 album is, arguably, his best augmentation of the alternative scene that was sweeping across America in the early part of the decade. To conjure his heaviest work to-date, he called upon Pearl Jam—Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, Jack Irons, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament—and the rest was history. Much of the record blurs together, but the big standout is “I’m the Ocean,” which pairs dense instrumentation with folklore lyricism. “Voicemail numbers on an old computer screen, rows of lovers parked forever in a dream,” Young sings. “Screaming sirens echoing across the bay to the old boats, from the city far away.” It’s a poetic waxing injected with an energetic arrangement. It’s quintessential, untapped Neil Young—who knew all he needed to do to flesh it out was get Pearl Jam involved?
43. “Star of Bethlehem” (Homegrown, 1974)
The closing number from the shelved album Homegrown, “Star of Bethlehem” is one of Young’s tenderest ballads ever. Featuring Ben Keith’s visceral dobro instrumentation and Karl T. Himmel’s country-inspired brush drumming, the focus of the song gets (rightfully) titled onto Young and Emmylou Harris—who harmonize so sweetly together in-between pulls of the former’s dry harmonica, lamenting the trials of getting older and watching your memories of happiness no longer shield you from a lingering downfall. “Yet, still a light is shining from that lamp on down the hall,” they sing. “Maybe the star of Bethlehem wasn’t a star at all.”
42. “Fuckin’ Up” (Ragged Glory, 1990)
Ragged Glory, the sixth Crazy Horse record, was a return to form for Neil Young and his longtime backing band. 1987’s Life and 1981’s Re·ac·tor were both underwhelming entries, but Ragged Glory quickly turned things around in 1990. Tons of great tracks came out of it, including “Country Home” and “Mansion on the Hill,” but the biggest standout is “Fuckin’ Up”—a mountainous, blistering garage rock track that highlights the ferocious combination of Young’s blistering lead guitar and Poncho Sampedro’s complimentary, rhythmic shredding. Don’t sleep on Ralph Molina’s drumming here, either. It’s a hell of a welcomed return to glory for Crazy Horse.
41. “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” (Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, 1969)
The title track from his first-ever record with Crazy Horse, “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” is a brisk, two-minute country rock that features a psychedelicized lead guitar from Young. With Danny Whitten and Ralph Molina throwing very well-timed “sha-la-la” harmonies behind Young’s crooning, “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” is what happens when you funnel a perfect arrangement into a confined musical space. It’s nothing flashy, opting to, instead, flex sludgy riffs and a twangy outro solo. Young and Crazy Horse hadn’t quite reined it in yet, and that’s what makes the song so perfect. There’s a rawness that wouldn’t return until Zuma, but it’s at its purest here.
40. “Out On the Weekend” (Harvest, 1972)
The opening track from Young’s career-defining, 1972 smash-hit record Harvest, “Out On the Weekend” is a sharp country ballad that shows just how great the Stray Gators were behind the singer/songwriter. Ben Keith’s pedal steel is particularly captivating, while Kenny Buttrey’s drum work stands out beneath Young’s piercing acoustic guitar and harmonica combo. “Can’t relate to joy,” he sings. “He tries to speak and can’t begin to say.” Much of Harvest is plagued by a sorrow that’s sewn up into pretty folk arrangements, and “Out On the Weekend” is no outlier. The storytelling is familiar—a man escapes the big city and reflects on his life—but Young sells it so well and lets the momentum transform into a damning portrayal of how loneliness can destroy a relationship.
39. “Rockin’ In the Free World” (Freedom, 1989)
After a mostly disappointing 1980s, Neil Young was able to fit one truly great track into the decade just a month before the 1990s rolled in. “Rockin’ In the Free World,” the only single from his 1989 album Freedom, is, arguably, one of Young’s most popular tracks. Inspired by a quote from Crazy Horse guitarist Poncho Sampedro when their Soviet Union tour was cancelled, Young opted to write a track that criticized George H. W. Bush’s administration and threw a jab at the then-president’s “thousand points of light” speech. It’s not his greatest political track, but it is the sharpest. Young took what he learned with “Ohio” 20 years prior and fleshed out those venomous, revolutionizing poetics even further. It’s tough-as-nails rock ‘n’ roll that teased what Young would cook up even further a year later on Ragged Glory.
38. “Sedan Delivery” (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)
Once offered to Lynyrd Skynyrd for their Street Survivors album in 1977 (along with “Powderfinger” and “Captain Kennedy”), it’s a good thing the Southern rockers turned “Sedan Delivery.” It’s much better served when Young and Poncho Sampedro are trading guitar licks with one another. Recorded originally for Zuma and then considered for Chrome Dreams and then, finally, featured on Rust Never Sleeps in 1979, “Sedan Delivery” is one of Young’s greatest forays into punk rock. It’s an energetic, raucous jam that never metabolizes its own greatness for the sake of generating chaos. Few heavy, anthemic cuts from that era were ever so streamlined.
37. “Human Highway” (Comes a Time, 1978)
Written several years before Comes a Time was recorded in 1978, “Human Highway” is one of Neil Young’s most repurposed tracks—as it appears on numerous live bootlegs. It’s also one of his best country tracks. What bolsters the song is the harmony accompaniment, which includes Crazy Horse and Nicolette Larson, and it really feels like one of Young’s personal favorites. Comes a Time is, mostly, not phenomenal—as many of his attempts to move past folk music and into honky-tonk territory feel like novelties—but “Human Highway” is transcendent and full of care and some, arguably, dark lyrics examining the ups and downs of fame. “Take my eyes from what they’ve seen, take my head and change my mind,” Young sings. “How could people get so unkind?” Between Rita Fey’s autoharp and Ben Keith’s steel guitar, “Human Highway” boasts one of Young’s most accessible and dreamiest instrumentals.
36. “Sail Away” (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)
An unbelievably underrated song from Rust Never Sleeps, “Sail Away” is one of Young’s sweetest ballads. Featuring backing vocals from Nicolette Larson, the track is a buoyant ode to love outliving failure. One of the Young’s biggest strengths is coupling hope and romance with an impending fall from grace. It’s a huge piece of humanity that he approaches from a realistic angle, and his imagery of juxtaposing Americana—like tepees and freeways—paints a vivid portrait of a world that just might be moving on without him. “See the losers in the best bars, meet the winners in the dives,” Young sings, “where the people are the real stars all the rest of their lives.”
35. “Pocahontas” (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)
The ballad “Pocahontas,” which was recorded by Young solo for Rust Never Sleeps at Indigo Ranch in Malibu and overdubbed by himself later in Ft. Lauderdale, was inspired by Hart Crane’s poem “The Bridge” and Marlon Brando’s boycott of the 1973 Academy Awards. Young tackles the cyclical nature of violence against Indigenous People, singing especially about women being killed in tepees by white men who, later, massacre roaming buffalo. “In the mornin,’ on the fields of green, in the homeland we’ve never seen,” he sings. “And maybe Marlon Brando will be there by the fire. We’ll sit and talk of Hollywood and the good things there for hire. And the Astrodome and the first tepee. Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me.” Whether or not you believe that Young is perpetuating the American white-washing of Matoaka’s identity (she has long been reduced to “Pocahontas” in historical contexts) or that he is cheekily throwing a jab at Brando’s political statement, what is undeniable is that “Pocahontas” is one of the greatest stories he’s ever sung.
34. “Harvest Moon” (Harvest Moon, 1992)
When Young released Harvest Moon in 1992, you could argue that he hadn’t put out a great solo record in 17 years. On albums like American Stars ‘n Bars, Comes a Time and Freedom, there were flashes of brilliance but nothing that made those records perfect. But Harvest Moon was different, and the title track, in particular, is one of the sweetest songs Young has ever made. The record as a whole is not a direct echo of Harvest from 20 years prior, but the choice to adopt guitar, piano and banjo calls back to Young’s inclinations to fill his arrangements with country influence. Longtime friend and collaborator Linda Ronstadt provides beautiful backing vocals that emphasize some of Young’s kindest, prettiest lines, like this one: “When we were strangers, I watched you from afar. When we were lovers, I loved you with all my heart.”
33. “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” (After the Gold Rush, 1970)
After Déjà Vu became a massive success for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in March 1970, Young turned around and released After the Gold Rush that September. It was a “solo” effort that included all of Crazy Horse—along with vocals from Stephen Stills and piano from a teenage Nils Lofgren—and really showcased Young’s best song construction efforts. He’d (mostly) turned away from the head-splitting, heavy rock riffs that defined Everybody Knows This is Nowhere a year prior, pivoting his focus onto more reflective balladry. “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” is a track I immediately think of when someone talks about Young’s nasally bravado. It’s slow, jangly and rewarding, as he waxes poetic about a protagonist watching horrible things unfurl around him. “Old man lying by the side of the road with the lorries rolling by,” he sings. “Blue moon sinking from the weight of the load and the buildings scrape the sky.” Young promises all of this despair is merely temporary, and that we just gotta have a smidge of hope and we’ll be sure to get by.
32. “Transformer Man” (Unplugged, 1993)
Initially included on the wildly divisive, critically panned electronic record Trans in 1983, “Transformer Man” was the best part of Young’s experimentation with a Sennheiser vocoder that he used in exercises with his son Ben, who was born with cerebral palsy. Young would reshape the track into an acoustic composition for his Unplugged performance 10 years later, and it quickly emerged as the undersung highlight of a setlist brimming with career benchmarks. The new version of “Transformer Man” found Young harmonizing with backup singers Astrid Young (his half-sister) and longtime collaborator Nicolette Larson and—with audible lyrics now in place—is a sweet portrait of sci-fi imagery and a connection of love through the otherworldly. “Sooner or later, you’ll have to see the cause and effect. So many things still left to do, but we haven’t made it yet,” Young sings. “Every morning when I look in your eyes, I feel electrified by you.”
31. “From Hank to Hendrix” (Harvest Moon, 1992)
The best song from Harvest Moon is “From Hank to Hendrix,” a beautiful folk-country tune that finds Young reflecting on his past, present and future. In a fitting reunion 20 years later, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt sing backing vocals just like they did on Harvest, and Ben Keith’s pedal steel and Spooner Oldham’s pump organ illuminates the skyline of affection conjured by Young’s harmonica pulls. Name-dropping everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Hank Williams to Marilyn Monroe to Madonna, Young dares to envision a world where all of the goodness lasts. “Sometimes it’s distorted, not clear to you,” he sings. “Sometimes the beauty of love just comes ringing through. New glass in the window, new leaf on the tree. New distance between us, you and me.” I’d argue that Young hasn’t written as good a song in the years since “From Hank to Hendrix” came out. That’s how special this thing is.
30. “After the Gold Rush” (After the Gold Rush, 1970)
Who knew a song that comprised only Neil Young crooning and Nils Lofgren playing piano could be so monumental and enduring? Actually, with a pairing like that, it’s hard to imagine any song not shining. “After the Gold Rush” is the heart and soul of the album it’s titled after. The darkened anguish that populates much of After the Gold Rush takes a breath here, as Young opts to wax poetic about great, vivid daydreams. “I dreamed I saw the silver spaceships flying in the yellow haze of the sun,” he sings. “There were children crying and colors flying, all around the chosen ones.” It’s a stark ballad that goes toe-to-toe with anything Young has ever made. It’s accessible, beloved and one of the earliest reference points of his brilliance—punctuated greatly by a captivating, sublime story just as moving as any fantasy novel.
29. “Mellow My Mind” (Tonight’s the Night, 1975)
Upon its release, Tonight’s the Night was not well-received by critics. They were still hoping that Neil Young would make another Harvest. What they got instead was a stark, raw, unpolished documentation of grief and drug abuse. Never before had Young been so musically open about the losses of Bruce Berry and Danny Whitten, and you can hear it viscerally across every speck of Tonight’s the Night. “Mellow My Mind” is particularly haunting—though it has some weirdly upbeat, joyous overtones—and thwarted into melancholia by Nils Lofgren’s piano-playing and Ben Keith’s pedal steel. “I’ve been down the road and I’ve come back,” Young sings. “Lonesome whistle on the railroad track ain’t got nothing on those feelings that I had.” “Mellow My Mind” is full of immediacy, as Young excavates loneliness after death and how he can numb that part of his soul. His guitar parts are staggering and unkempt, a perfect mirror to the world that his music had fallen into at the time.
28. “Ohio” (1970)
Written in the wake of the Kent State shootings that occurred on May 4, 1970, Young takes aim at Richard Nixon, who ordered the National Guard onto campus while students were protesting the Cambodian campaign expansion during the Vietnam War. The “four dead in Ohio” line repeats over and over across the song’s outro, amplifying the horrifying truth of what occurred on campus. Few protest songs have ever waged a direct war on the villains it dares to cut down (calling the National Guardsmen “tin soldiers” is such a good roast), which is what makes it, arguably, the greatest anthem of the counterculture movement. “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?” Young asks, likely pointed at Nixon or anyone who admonished the protestors and victims, two of whom were only observing the strike. “How can you run when you know?” Unfortunately, “Ohio” remains a timeless song.
27. “Cinnamon Girl” (Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, 1969)
The opening number from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, “Cinnamon Girl” features a duet between Young and Danny Whitten. Considered one of the earliest examples of what would become grunge 20 years later, “Cinnamon Girl” is a cosmic daydream about longing for a girl to fall in love with. Like most of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, it’s fit with heavy, brutal guitars and a great bassline from Billy Talbot. In his solo, Young repeats a D note over and over until it becomes branded into our ears, and he claims that the song is “for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me through Phil Ochs’ eyes playing finger cymbals.” If you don’t know what that means, you can take solace in the fact that no one but Young himself likely does. “Cinnamon Girl” kicks ass, and it’s a perfect example of what Crazy Horse could become under Neil Young’s leadership.
26. “I Believe in You” (After the Gold Rush, 1970)
I do really think that “I Believe in You” is one of the most under-appreciated songs off of After the Gold Rush. It features the same kind of vocal harmony that would become a central force on Harvest two years later, but in an even rawer, denser way here. “I Believe in You” is one of the most dynamic songs Young ever wrote, however, given how the magnetic hook of “I believe in you” outweighs the verses—which detail a gut-wrenching story about lying in a relationship. It’s that kind of world-building that sets Young apart from every other songwriter of his time. It’s confessional and brooding and dark, with sparse arrangements tacked onto a subdued piano melody from Nils Lofgren—who, along with Ralph Molina and Danny Whitten and Stephen Stills, envelope Young’s confessions. “I Believe in You” doesn’t rock out like something from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, nor does it scale back into a ballad like the rest of After the Gold Rush. It’s a jangly, sublime middle ground.
25. “Southern Man” (After the Gold Rush, 1970)
But, speaking of rockers, look no further than “Southern Man,” the blistering, critical heart of After the Gold Rush. Much of the record zeroes in on love, loss and loneliness, but “Southern Man” is an extension of the political songwriting chops that Young was bolstering on “Ohio” earlier that year. It’s a tune that deconstructs racism in the American South and demands that reparations are given to the descendants of slaves. “I saw cotton and I saw black, tall white mansions and little shacks,” Young sings. “Southern Man, when will you pay them back?” It was once thought that Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote their most popular song, “Sweet Home Alabama,” in response to “Southern Man”—but Young later clarified that Skynyrd were taking aim at “Alabama” instead, which was a (in Young’s own words) “accusatory and condescending” and “not fully thought out” rehash of “Southern Man.” However, the After the Gold Rush cut is one of the few tracks of its era that made direct calls for change in a post-Civil Rights Act world, as Young picked up on the South’s failures with lyrics of truth that still ring true in 2023.
24. “Too Far Gone” (Chrome Dreams, 1977)
The heavyweight champion of Chrome Dreams—as Young and Poncho Sampedro team up for one of the most attractive and sublime folk songs ever assembled—“Too Far Gone” is not just two bandmates dueting with an acoustic guitar and a mandolin, it’s a storytelling revelation worth gospelizing over and over again. Young sings verses about the early joys and eventual dissolution of his relationship with Carrie Snodgress. “Was I too far gone for you?” he questions. “We had drugs and we had booze, but we still had something to lose. And by dawn, I wanted to marry you.” It’s a love song rendered human and familiar by loss, and so few tracks in Young’s catalog lend such a generosity to the people, places and feelings he’s eulogizing.
23. “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” / “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)
I’m including both bookends from Rust Never Sleeps, as they are just two iterations of the same story. “My My, Hey Hey” has been etched in history forever, given that Kurt Cobain included the “it’s better to burn out than fade away” lyric in his suicide note—but both it and it’s heavier sibling, “Hey, Hey, My My,” make up some of the most heartbreaking sentiments Young has ever shared across a near-60-year career. Frustrated with his own growing irrelevance in the wake of punk’s rise in rock ‘n’ roll, the songwriter set out to transcribe his ongoing internal struggle with mortality. Comparing the Sex Pistols to Elvis and reviled by John Lennon, “My My, Hey Hey” and “Hey Hey, My My” is a talismanic longing for survival. In the acoustic “My My, Hey Hey,” Young is lamenting his own downfall; in the Crazy Horse-led, distorted “Hey Hey, My My,” he’s reclaiming a stardom that was once his.
22. “Like a Hurricane” (American Stars ‘n Bars, 1977)
“Like a Hurricane” is just as epic as anything Neil Young has ever written. The only thing that keeps it away from the Top-20 is that there just isn’t any room for it! But Young’s 21st-best song is still eons better than nearly every other artist’s fifth-best. There is no doubt, however, that he positively shreds on this thing, ripping massive solos with his Crazy Horse bandmates. Poncho Sampedro uses a Stringman synthesizer rather than his typical rhythm axe, and it helps “Like a Hurricane” transcend beyond anything else on American Stars ‘n Bars. Young sings of a relationship that flirts with disaster, but he can’t help but latch onto hope. “I am just a dreamer, but you are just a dream,” he proclaims. “And you could have been anyone to me. Before that moment you touched my lips, that perfect feeling when time just slips away between us on our foggy trip.” Psychedelic, roaring and disgustingly heavy, “Like a Hurricane” is eternal.
21. “The Needle and the Damage Done” (Harvest, 1972)
In his first real attempt at examining how drug addiction affected the world around him, Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done” is a harrowing depiction that hit close to home for the songwriter. Influenced by the heroin abuse perpetuated by his bandmate Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, Young takes an empathetic, reflective position on the illness that was hurting his friends and collaborators. “I hit the city and I lost my band, I watched the needle take another man,” he sings. “Gone, gone, the damage done.” It’s a two-minute song that finds Young performing alone, and the recording that lands as the penultimate track on Harvest was recorded at a show in January of 1971. Greatly juxtaposing the electric guitar barnburner “Alabama,” which preceded it on the tracklist, “The Needle and the Damage Done” doesn’t try to stand for anything. It’s just a poet attempting to make any semblance he can of why his loved ones are crumbling around him.
20. “Philadelphia” (1993)
Jonathan Demme’s 1993 masterpiece Philadelphia is an emotional depiction of attorney Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) suing his employing firm after getting fired for being gay and contracting AIDS. While much of the film takes place in a courtroom, audiences are tasked with watching Beckett slowly succumb to the disease and, ultimately, pass away from it after months of deliberation. It was a revolutionary moment for gay representation in cinema, and a landmark attempt at destigmatizing AIDS in greater conversations. While Demme making a film about the AIDS epidemic was a risk taken by the director at the time, Young (and Bruce Springsteen) composing an original song for the film was just as big a risk.
While “Streets of Philadelphia” won Springsteen a Best Original Song Oscar, “Philadelphia” has become an overlooked relic in Young’s career—notably because it’s been largely scrubbed from streaming services and is only available on YouTube or on an actual, physical copy of the soundtrack. But, it’s one of the tenderest arrangements the songwriter has ever put together. “City of brotherly love, place I call home, don’t turn your back on me. I don’t want to be alone,” Young sings over a lone piano and quiet orchestra of atmospheric synths. “Love lasts forever.” As it plays out at the film’s end during Beckett’s funeral, you’ve likely already been crying for 45 minutes. Young’s solemn, wholehearted performance is the gut-wrenching, singular coda that sums up Philadelphia succinctly: “Sometimes I think that I know what love’s all about. And when I see the light, I know I’ll be all right.”
19. “Expecting to Fly” (Buffalo Springfield Again, 1967)
On Buffalo Springfield’s second studio album, Young wrote three songs and all of them are incredible and some of his most experimental constructions ever. “Expecting to Fly” is especially lush, with orchestral undertones beneath Young’s warm, slightly off-kilter vocals. No other Buffalo Springfield member appears on the track, because it was recorded during one of the periods when Young was not in the band, so outside musicians—including Wrecking Crew bassist Carol Kaye, Derek and the Dominoes drummer Jim Gordon and producer, composer and pianist Jack Nitzsche—were called upon to round out the arrangement. What we get is a thoughtful, dynamic psych-rock track that flashed snippets of Young’s knack for layering and harmonies. It’s funny that one of the best Buffalo Springfield songs features just one of the core members, but sometimes things just shake out that way, huh?
18. “Old Man” (Harvest, 1972)
Inspired by the caretaker of Young’s Broken Arrow Ranch, “Old Man” is a contemplative, reflective rumination on generational disconnect and timeless mortality. Young was newly rich and on the road constantly, feeling more and more alienated from the working world every day, and “Old Man” taps into the fears and anxiety that stem from the loneliness of stardom. “I’ve been first and last, look at how the time goes past,” he sings. “But I’m all alone at last, rolling home to you.” James Taylor plays banjo and sings backup, while Linda Ronstadt can also be heard crooning behind Young. It’s one of the most definitive tracks in all of Young’s catalog and for good reason—growing older is a universal destiny, and almost everyone can find a way to fit into the story of “Old Man.”
17. “Danger Bird” (Zuma, 1975)
Neil Young’s seventh studio album and second with Crazy Horse is less loved than many of his bonafide classics, but Zuma deserves its flowers. As a follow-up to Tonight’s the Night, Zuma takes a heavier, more polished (but not by much) approach—flaunting the chemistry Young has with Crazy Horse. It’s the first record Poncho Sampedro plays on, and it came after Young’s attempts to make a second CSNY album failed after the quartet’s stadium tour in 1974. Zuma is the first chapter of Young’s post-Ditch Trilogy career, and “Danger Bird” is one of the first truly great post-Ditch compositions. Written in response to his crumbling relationship with Carrie Snodgress, “Danger Bird” is heavy and painful to hear unfurl. “And we used to be so calm, now I think about you all day long,” Young sings. “‘Cause you’ve been with another man, there you are and here I am.” The track is interpolated with snippets of the unreleased “L.A. Girls and Ocean Boys,” and the imagery in the lyrics is a callback to Young’s 1968 track “The Loner.”
16. “Tonight’s the Night” / “Tonight’s the Night, Pt. II” (Tonight’s the Night, 1975)
Like “Hey Hey, My My” and “My My, Hey Hey” on Rust Never Sleeps four years later, Tonight’s the Night is also bookended by a two-part track sequence. It’s Young’s direct reference to the death of former Crazy Horse roadie Bruce Berry, as he sings openly about his life. “Bruce Berry was a working man, he used to load that Econoline van,” Young opines. “A sparkle was in his eye, but his life was in his hands. And people, let me tell you: Late at night, when the people were gone, he used to pick up my guitar and sing a song in a shaky voice. That was real as the day was long.” It’s a mournful portrait of a fallen friend, as Young breaks up the memories with distinct proclamations of his own struggles. “It sent a chill up and down my spine, when I picked up the telephone and heard that he’d died out on the mainline.” Young and the Santa Monica Flyers would reprise the track as the closer, tweaking it with an ever so different instrumental. “Tonight’s the Night” is a hollowed-out, scattered and honest expression of loss and confusion in the aftermath of death.
15. “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong” (Somewhere Under the Rainbow, 1973)
The only track on this ranking that wasn’t initially sung by Neil Young, “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong” wedged its way onto Buffalo Springfield’s debut self-titled record in 1966. Young wrote the track, but Richie Furay is the lead vocalist. However, Young began performing it on his Tonight’s the Night tour in 1973, and a rendition of it was captured for the recent Somewhere Under the Rainbow bootleg release. Immediately, it became one of the most passionate parts of the entire setlist and, as many fans in the audience were growing upset with the lack of After the Gold Rush and Harvest cuts, a resounding cheer can be heard when “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong” rings in. The track’s lyrics, in the context of the tour and the days after Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry’s deaths, took on a brand new, heartbreaking meaning in 1973, too. “I wish I could have met you in a place where we both belong, but if crying and holding on and flying on the ground is wrong, then I’m sorry to let you down,” Young sings. “But you’re from my side of town, and I’ll miss you.”
14. “Thrasher” (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)
Young is no stranger to maintaining a relatively low profile, preferring to work through his own grief and mourning in his songs rather than in the press. After the Ditch Trilogy was largely influenced by his separation from Carrie Snodgress and the deaths of Bruce Berry and Danny Whitten, Young wouldn’t sing so deftly of that period again until “Thrasher” on Rust Never Sleeps in 1979. “Thrasher” is a heartbreaking song to revisit, punctuated by him singing “How I lost my friends, I still don’t understand” at the end of the second verse. Through mentions of “vulture glides,” “the windy halls of friendship,” “dinosaurs in shrines,” “crystal canyons” and “the aimless blade of science,” “Thrasher” sticks out as one of Young’s greatest poetic waxings. The song is a language all on its own and, with just a guitar and harmonica in hand, he turns it into a gospel of alienation, confusion and aimless wandering in the wake of displaced camaraderie.
13. “Sugar Mountain” (Decade, 1977)
Written by Young on his 19th birthday in 1964, “Sugar Mountain” wound up as a B-side to both “The Loner” and “Cinnamon Girl” at the end of the decade. The song is largely about Young’s memories of growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and he wrote it while exhausted and homesick during a tour with then-band The Squires. A big catalyst was that he couldn’t get into the same clubs anymore now that he was older, which, according to Joni Mitchell, drove him to become a folk singer. Mitchell would later compose “The Circle Game” for him after hearing “Sugar Mountain,” claiming that “if we get to 21 and there’s nothing after that, that’s a pretty bleak future.” “Sugar Mountain” initially had 126 verses when Young first wrote it, but the version of it that was released in full on Decade in 1977 is a stark, haunting portrayal of innocence lost. “Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain with the barkers and the colored balloons,” Young sings. “You can’t be 20 on Sugar Mountain, though you’re thinking that you’re leaving there too soon.”
12. “Cortez the Killer” (Zuma, 1975)
The seven-and-a-half-minute centerpiece of Zuma, “Cortez the Killer” is a brilliant guitar track that Young once claimed to have written in high school while suffering from “Montezuma’s Revenge.” The “Cortez” in question seems to be Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador who conquered Mexico in the 1500s. “Cortez the Killer” was once critiqued for its sympathetic and idyllic portrayal of Mesoamerica, but a simple lyrical analysis immediately shows that Young isn’t aiming to admonish the plights of yesteryear so much as take their existence and plug them into a modern, personal conversation. “Hate was just a legend and war was never known,” he proclaims. “The people worked together and they lifted many stones.” There are a few lines that call back to Young’s recent breakup with Carrie Snodgress. “And I know she’s living there, and she loves me to this day,” he sings. “I still can’t remember when, or how I lost my way.” One of the sharpest examples of interweaving history with personal narrative, “Cortez the Killer” is a benchmark in Young’s discography that remains largely unmatched.
11. “On the Beach” (On the Beach, 1974)
The title track from On the Beach is a harrowing depiction of Young’s psyche at the time of its conception. Recorded after a tumultuous tour for the then-unreleased Tonight’s the Night, “On the Beach” is a melancholic portrayal of loneliness and media scrutiny after finding fame and success. Few artists have ever retreated from the fruits of stardom so deftly on a follow-up record before, but Young pulls no punches and sets the record straight: He is mad at, unsatisfied with and alienated by his place in the world. “I went to the radio interview, but I ended up alone at the microphone,” Young sings. “Now I’m livin’ out here on the beach, but those seagulls are still out of reach.” There’s a particularly stirring sense of doom on “On the Beach,” more so than on any other track in his catalog (except for, maybe, “Tonight’s the Night”), and you can feel it embedded in the arrangement—which features hand drums from Ben Keith, a Wurlitzer piano from Graham Nash, a snare and hi-hat from Ralph Molina and, of course, a mangled, eroding lead guitar from Young. The song is a horrific bummer that’ll haunt you. It’s also one of Young’s most vulnerable seven minutes.
10. “Broken Arrow” (Buffalo Springfield Again, 1967)
Though Richie Furay provides pretty great background vocals, “Broken Arrow” is Young’s show to steal. The closing track on Buffalo Springfield’s 1967 sophomore record, Buffalo Springfield Again, is titled after a post-Civil War ceremony held by Creek Indians to celebrate the end of the war. “Broken Arrow” is a psychedelic, experimental masterpiece that implements an audience cheering and booing (in excerpts taken from a Beatles concert), session band The Wrecking Crew performing a non-sequitur jazz theme and a cheeky inclusion of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” At eight minutes long, the world of rock ‘n’ roll had never heard anything quite like “Broken Arrow” when it came out. I’d argue we haven’t heard anything quite like it since.
9. “Cowgirl in the Sand” (Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, 1969)
Inarguably Young’s most epic track until “Chevrolet,” “Cowgirl in the Sand” is, literally, a fever dream. Like “Cinnamon Girl,” it was penned by the songwriter while sick with the flu and riddled with a high fever, “Cowgirl in the Sand” became the acid-soaked hard rock masterpiece that is the definitive, spell-binding closer on Everybody Knows This is Nowhere in 1969. Young once said the song is about Spanish beaches, even though he’s never been to Spain. Much of the song is about idealistic women and the double-edged sword of wanton bedding: It can set you free, but it can also haunt you. “Hello, ruby in the dust, has your band begun to rust?” Young beckons, possibly referencing Buffalo Springfield. “After all the sin we’ve had, I was hopin’ that we turn back. Old enough now to change your name. When so many love you, is it the same? It’s the woman in you that makes you want to play this game.” Decked out in blistering guitar solos and distorted chaos, “Cowgirl in the Sand” is a proper example of why Young is one of the greatest axemen to ever pick up a six-string.
8. “Tired Eyes” (Tonight’s the Night, 1975)
“Well, he shot four men and a cocaine dealer,” Young sings at the opening of “Tired Eyes.” “And they left him lyin’ in an open field full of old cars with bullet holes in the mirrors.” “Tired of Eyes” was inspired by a true story that happened to one of Young’s friends in Topanga Canyon in 1972, but there are parts of the song that appear to reference the deaths of Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry—especially when Young’s singing takes adopts the guise of an internal monologue: “Well tell me more. I mean, was he a heavy doper or was he just a loser? He was a friend of yours. What do you mean, he had bullet holes in his mirrors?” Backed by the Santa Monica Flyers, the spirit of “Tired Eyes” comes through the instrumentation of Nils Lofgren’s piano-playing, Ben Keith’s pedal steel and Young’s sloppy, slurring guitar chords. It’s a murder ballad that’s even more spectral when you start peeling away the skin. “Tired Eyes” is the centerpiece of Tonight’s the Night and one of the defining fixtures in the DNA of the Ditch Trilogy. It’s a requiem for the chaos of Hollywood that took the lives of many; a eulogy for a post-Vietnam War America that had lost its identity.
7. “Winterlong” (Decade, 1977)
Played live as far back as 1970 but recorded around the same time as Tonight’s the Night, “Winterlong” was scrapped from the album (though it did appear on some acetate pressings)—only to become a rewarding surprise on Young’s compilation Decade. What it is presented as in 1977 is nothing short of a triumph. With a nuanced arrangement that spurs remnants of a Buddy Holly-era rock chorus, “Winterlong” features doo-wop style harmonies—plugged with grit from Ben Keith and Ralph Molina—and a pedal steel performance from Keith that is an absolutely transcendent companion to Young’s patient, scaled-back lead guitar. Young sings of nostalgia before it even comes, mourning how a romance might turn into a bygone memory. “If things should ever turn out wrong and all the love we have is gone,” he laments. “It won’t be easy on that day, waiting to follow through the dream light of your way.” “Winterlong” is notably sweeter than most of Young’s electric guitar tracks, but that’s what makes it stand out so immensely.
6. “Heart of Gold” (Harvest, 1972)
Young’s only #1 hit on the Hot 100, “Heart of Gold” is likely still his most popular song. Not many artists, however, can claim that their most-streamed is also one of their best—as the mainstream doesn’t always line up with the truth. Yet, “Heart of Gold” defies any such disparity between commercial and critical. It’s a perfect song that is the definitive Neil Young creation—even if we think there are four better entries. “Heart of Gold” features backing vocals from James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, along with an incomparable pedal steel showing from Ben Keith. But it’s the one-two punch of Young’s acoustic guitar and harmonica that steer the ship. He wrote in the liner notes for Decade in 1977 that “Heart of Gold” is the song that catalyzed what the Ditch Trilogy would become, and it’s since become an embellishment of a curiosity sparked by newfound love—all while keeping up with the mortality undertones of “Old Man.”
5. “Borrowed Tune” (Tonight’s the Night, 1975)
Though Tonight’s the Night is racked with grief, “Borrowed Tune” finds Neil Young looking outwards beyond it—in search of some great sign of hope to come. “I’m watchin’ the skaters fly by on the lake,” he sings. “Ice frozen six-feet deep, how long does it take?” There’s something so beautiful, damning and perfect about what “Borrowed Tune” is, as Young’s brokenness puts him in an emotional purgatory. “I’m singing this borrowed tune I took from the Rolling Stones, alone in this empty room, too wasted to write my own,” he sings in the fourth verse, admitting to plagiarism but not caring—given the erosion happening all around him. You can hear the sadness caked over his vocal cords, especially when he sings “an ocean of shaking hands that grab at the sky.” On a record set adrift with many tokens of mourning and anger, “Borrowed Tune” is buoyed by a perplexing desire to feel decent or alive once again. In the wake of many deaths and a lingering melancholy, making art seems futile—but, once Young confronts his own mortality with a healthy dose of nihilism, he continues climbing the latter.
4. “Ambulance Blues” (On the Beach, 1974)
“Ambulance Blues”—the closing track from On the Beach, Neil Young’s fifth record and the follow-up to Harvest—is a nine-minute acoustic ballad that paints a stark, painful portrait of how death, fame and drugs had upended Young’s life. There is no chorus on the track, just 10 verses and some harmonica breaks. At its core, it is a story that rivals Dylan’s “Desolation Row” (and, in my opinion, outshines it) and is unrelenting in its posturing of grief and condemnation of critics who perpetuate narratives. “I guess I’ll call it sickness gone. It’s hard to say the meaning of this song,” Young sings. “An ambulance can only go so fast. It’s easy to get buried in the past, when you try to make a good thing last.” He wrote the melody of “Ambulance Blues” as an homage to “Needle of Death” by Bert Jansch, but what really sticks out about the track is Rusty Kershaw’s fiddle-playing. Ralph Molina and Ben Keith are also featured, but their contributions are subdued in the name of letting Young and Kershaw bounce off of each other’s damning instrumentations.
3. “Helpless” (The Last Waltz, 1977)
Initially written by Young for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s sophomore album Déjà Vu in 1970, “Helpless” has become the quintessential ballad in the songwriter’s canon. While the original version is incredible and top-drawer, I’m much more zeroed in on the rendition Young plays with Joni Mitchell and The Band at the group’s farewell gig in San Francisco in 1976 for this list. That moment in the setlist, in which a strung-out Young turns his solemn composition into an epic, unwavering anthem, is, maybe, the single greatest live rendition of a song ever. Mitchell sings background vocals from behind a curtain, as if to show that her harmonies are descending down onto the Winterland Ballroom from some kind of Heaven—as fellow Canadian Young laments a lost innocence he left back home in Ontario. “And in my mind, I still need a place to go,” he croons. “All my changes were there.” Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko offer a backing instrumental that Crosby, Stills and Nash just never could. It’s how this track should have sounded from the jump, and I’m so thankful we’ve got it forever.
2. “Down By the River” (Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, 1969)
The meaning of “Down By the River” has changed over the years, and even Young himself has switched up his story. In 1970, he rejected the claims that it’s a murder ballad and said it was about “blowing your thing with a chick. It’s a plea, a desperate cry.” 14 years later, he said that the song is about a man “who had a lot of trouble controlling himself” and shoots his lover after discovering she’s been cheating on him. No matter what “Down By the River” is about, one thing is for sure: It’s one of the best rock ‘n’ roll songs of its era and of all time. The track is the crown jewel of Young’s first record with Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, and runs a massive nine minutes long—and it’s not even the longest song on the album!
“Down By the River” is fused together by one of the greatest guitar solos ever procured. Young plays the same guitar note 19 times with a viciousness that remains unprecedented. And then, he went ahead and repeated it again in the final breakdown of the track—bringing the number up to 38 total times across nine minutes. “You take my hand, I’ll take your hand, together we may get away,” Young croons. “This much madness is too much sorrow, it’s impossible to make it today.” As he shreds, Danny Whitten becomes the track’s metronome, performing an incomparable rhythm guitar that keeps time with the arrangement’s momentum. The staccato of “Down By the River” is as eruptive as gunfire—and, even 54 years later, the song feels lightyears ahead of its time.
1. “Powderfinger” (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)
I think you can make the argument that “Powderfinger” is not just Neil Young’s greatest song, but one of the greatest songs ever made. At five-and-a-half minutes on the dot, the track is shouldered by a two-part guitar solo from Young, who careens his Les Paul into a heat-seeking missile of mythical rock ‘n’ roll. The story of the song is a harrowing one, as Young sings of a young man who must protect his family from the onslaught of a forthcoming gunboat. The disastrous mortality of having to act alone in the wake of other men’s inactions is a timeless anecdote that still reads pristine 35 years later. “You fade away so young, there’s so much left undone,” Young laments. “Remember me for my love, I know I miss her.”
“Powderfinger” was offered by Young to Lynyrd Skynyrd for Street Survivors in 1977, but frontman Ronnie Van Zant and other members died in a plane crash that October before it could come to fruition. It’s tough to imagine what that version might have sounded like, given how perfect Young’s version on Rust Never Sleeps is. Poncho Sampedro, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina perform one of their best instrumentals behind Young, who steps into the limelight and embellishes his own stardom greater than ever before. Few rock songs have ever felt so explosive, and Young’s ability to turn a folklore-style narrative into massive, remarkable instrumentation is what helps “Powderfinger” endure as one of music’s most righteous epics.
Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from his home in Columbus, Ohio.