Toronto born Young has recorded some of the greatest music of the past fifty years both as a solo artist and in tandem with the justly revered Crazy Horse, once described as the greatest bar band in the world. There is also the small matter of his role as one quarter of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and his hippie era recordings with Buffalo Springfield have reached almost mythic status. Young has few peers as a songwriter, and as a guitarist he has influenced scores of acts from the onset of punk through grunge and into the 21st century.
A compulsive touring and recording artist, Young has also directed movies, and has received great acclaim for his environmentalism and social consciousness, and derision and praise in equal measure for his political activism. There have been a few missteps along the way (much of his 80s output) and his more recent releases have perplexed and puzzled some fans, but Young long ago earned the right to set his stall out to go his own way. In 1972, after three classic albums Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After the Gold Rush, and Harvest, plus a number one single in Heart of Gold, Young stood at the height of his critical and commercial fame. Yet, he chose to walk away from it, with the so called doom trilogy of albums (Time Fades Away, On the Beach and Tonight's the Night) that completely eroded his previous success.
As Young himself said at the time, 'Heart of Gold' put me in the middle of the road. Life there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.' Since then, Young has weaved his own idiosyncratic tapestry while remaining fully in control of his career and acutely aware of his role in the grand scheme of things. For Young, it has always been about the music, nothing else matters, not commercial success, nor personal feelings, hence his many fall outs with band mates and his ruthless selfishness where his career is concerned. Young’s ouevre stands comparison with any of his major contemporaries and perhaps only Dylan can rival the sheer quality of his body of work.
Throughout his career Young has refused to be pigeon holed, consistently exploring fresh musical challenges, and as he enters his eighth decade Neil Young remains as vital and relevant as ever. It's a daunting task to pick just twenty songs from Young's vast canon, but here are my twenty greatest Neil Young songs.
20. Old Man (Harvest 1972)
Young in classic sensitive singer/songwriter mode. Aged 24, and so much more to come.
19. Broken Arrow (Buffalo Springfield Again 1967)
Nope, I have no idea what it's about either, but don't let that interfere with the aural pleasure of this surreal masterpiece.
18. Ambulance Blues (On the Beach 1974)
Young reminisces about his early bands and changing times in a rambling Dylanesque acoustic ballad that ends with a devastating condemnation of impeached President, Richard Nixon.
17. Harvest Moon (Harvest Moon 1992)
Beautiful lilting soft shoe shuffle ballad from the so-called follow up to Harvest.
16. Tired Eyes (Tonight's the Night 1975)
One of the most beautifully stark recordings ever made with Neil’s fractured vocal perfectly complemented by Ben Keith’s weeping pedal steel.
15. Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) (Rust Never Sleeps 1979)
Young fires off some snarling, distorted riffs as he name checks Johnny Rotten and asserts that it’s ‘better to burn out than rust away' in response to critics writing him off as the seventies came to an end.
14. Cortez the Killer (Zuma 1976)
Young laments the destruction of the Aztec empire in this rambling seven and a half minute Crazy Horse jam which could have been much longer but was cut short when a circuit blew.
13. Expecting To Fly (Buffalo Springfield Again 1967)
21 year old Young conceived this haunting mini symphony with the aid of ace arranger Jack Nitzsche.
12. Helpless (Deja Vu 1970)
A huge emotional experience of a song and the perfect vehicle for the harmonic splendour CSN&Y.
11. Like A Hurricane (American Stars 'n Bars (1977)
Yet another hypnotic guitar epic. Savage, ferocious, and brilliant.
10. Down by the River (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere 1969)
Featuring some memorable imaginary ('I shot my baby'), this is the quintessential Young guitar jam and the first flowering of the Young/Crazy Horse sound.
9 Heart of Gold (Harvest 1972)
Both a blessing and a curse for Young, a U.S. number one single that inspired his famous quote and made Bob Dylan very jealous indeed.
8. Cowgirl in the Sand (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere 1969)
Originally conceived on acoustic guitar, the song soon morphed into an electronic tour de force and features wonderful interplay with second guitarist Danny Whitten.
7. Mr Soul (Buffalo Springfield Again 1967)
One of Young’s first examinations of the trappings of fame and a live favourite to this day.
6. Southern Man (After the Gold Rush 1970)
Searing rocker, a visceral attack on the American South and its’ mores. Famously inspired the great Lynyrd Skynyrd reposte, Sweet Home Alabama.
5. Only Love Can Break Your Heart (After the Gold Rush 1970)
Young’s greatest ballad, written for and about his friend Graham Nash after his split from Joni Mitchell.
4. The Needle and the Damage Done (Harvest 1972)
One of the greatest anti-drug songs was inspired by the heroin addiction of Crazy Horse’s Danny Whitten (the writer of I Don’t Want To Talk About It) and recorded live in concert for Harvest.
3. Ohio (CSN&Y single 1970)
An outraged David Crosby exhorted Young to write this iconic protest song after four students were killed by the National Guard at Kent State University in Ohio. Young reputedly picked up his guitar and composed the song on the spot.
2. Cinnamon Girl (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere 1969)
This justly famous guitar anthem helped establish Young as one of the great axemen in rock.
1. After the Gold Rush (After the Gold Rush 1970)
Other worldly surrealistic plea to save the planet, as relevant now as when it was first recorded, incorporating space ships, aliens and time travel. A song like no other, with a fabulous, plaintive vocal, and illuminated by a fantastic horn solo.