Skip to main content

Enter your email below to be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Please enter a valid email address

By submitting my information, I agree to receive personalized updates and marketing messages about WMX based on my information, interests, activities, website visits and device data and in accordance with the Privacy Policy. I understand that I can opt-out at any time by emailing privacypolicy@wmg.com.

Best Neil Young Songs: 20 Classics That Hit Like A Hurricane
Rob Crandall
List & Guides

Best Neil Young Songs: 20 Classics That Hit Like A Hurricane

Full of introspection and emotion, the best Neil Young songs are transcendental works that reach a higher plane.

Back

Born in Toronto, Ontario, on 12 November 1945, Neil Percival Young, who became an American citizen in January 2020 at the age of 74, described his magnificent six-decade career as “quite an evolution”. The singer-songwriter and talented multi-instrumentalist started out with the band Buffalo Springfield before joining Crosby, Stills And Nash. Young forged his own brilliant solo career, and the best Neil Young songs stand as classics full of introspection and emotion.

Young’s songwriting has inspired countless modern musicians and he has always looked for a challenge, experimenting with styles and genres across more than 40 albums. Young once said that listeners get lost in real music “because it sounds like God”. Some of his own transcendental music has been on a higher plane.

20: Pocahontas (1979)

For a time, Neil Young owned a 1949 Buick Roadmaster with a license plate that read “POCAHONTAS”, honouring the Native American woman (her real name was Matoaka) who was captured and held for ransom by the colonists in the early 17th century. In 1975, Young wrote a disturbing, imaginative story-song about the cruelty of colonisation, which finally appeared on the album Rust Never Sleeps. The bleak song, originally titled Marlon Brando, John Ehrlichman, Pocahontas And Me, includes a verse in which a trapper fantasises about giving a thousand pelts to sleep with Pocahontas, “to find out how she felt”. Young’s song is full of surreal images, which the songwriter said flowed from his imagination. Cover versions by Johnny Cash and Gillian Welch have cemented Pocahontas’ place as one of the best Neil Young tracks. Brando, who is referenced in the song, declined an Oscar in 1973 in protest at Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans in film.

19: Comes A Time (1978)

Young said that when he started writing any song, it always began with a particular mood, something he could “hear in his head or feel in his heart”. He described inspiration as “like a wild animal, a living thing”, something you had to be careful not to scare away. As well as his complex, introspective songs, Young was capable of writing mellow, moving numbers, such as the short, sweet country song Comes A Time, the title song of the 1978 album that he personally re-mastered in 2014. JJ Cale played guitar on the album and the strings were arranged by Charles Cochran. One of the best Neil Young songs of the 70s, Comes A Time was a Billboard hit single, reaching No.7.

18: Don’t Be Denied (1973)

Neil Young developed polio as a child, and his parents – his father was a sports journalist – went through a bitter divorce when he was 15. Don’t Be Denied, from the 1973 album Time Fades Away, was an unvarnished autobiographical song dealing with his childhood and his unhappy school days (“the punches came thick and fast”) and how music was his way out after his mother relocated to Winnipeg, Manitoba. Young once said that seeing Roy Orbison in concert in Winnipeg “had a profound effect on my life” and persuaded him to become a musician. Norah Jones, who toured with Young in the 90s, said Don’t be Denied was her favourite Young song. She later recorded her own version, making the protagonist female.

17: Hitchhiker (1976)

The stark, acoustic album Hitchhiker, with just Young on guitar and vocals, included another raw story-song about his own life. Young said the song Hitchhiker, which he called “totally autobiographical”, included his experiences with drugs and his problems with paranoia. The theme of movement and migration was relevant, he said, because “I’ve been running all my life”. The image of a hitchhiker was a metaphor for change. Young revisited the song on his 2010 album, Le Noise, produced by Daniel Lanois. His original version surfaced when the Hitchhiker album was finally released in 2017, four decades after it was recorded.

16: Southern Man (1970)

“Now your crosses are burning fast,” Young sings in the controversial song Southern Man, which appeared on his 1970 album, After the Gold Rush. One of the best Neil Young songs to tackle political issues, Young said it was written in response to countless years of racism in the US, and drew heavily on the evils of slavery in the South. Among the musicians on the track was the talented guitarist Nils Lofgren – who was asked by Young to play piano on the song, an instrument he had never played before. “I used to be an accordion player, so I started doing the accordion thing on piano… he told me that was the sound he was looking for,” Lofgren explained. The song provoked the Lynyrd Skynyrd riposte Sweet Home Alabama, which included the line “Well, I hope Neil Young will remember/A Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow”. In 1995, Young described Sweet Home Alabama as “a great song” and said he had “performed it live a couple of times myself”.

15: Ambulance Blues (1974)

Young was no stranger to extended songs (such as Cowgirl In The Sand or Down By The River) and his sprawling nine-minute Ambulance Blues was the closing track on 1974’s On The Beach. One of the targets of the song was disgraced President Richard Nixon (“I never knew a man could tell so many lies/He had a different story for every set of eyes”), as Young ruminated on post-Watergate America, while touching on everything from a folk club in Toronto to the 1945 movie All Along The Navajo Trail. Young said the sound of the song was heavily influenced by folk musician Bert Jansch, whom he described as “epic… on the same level as Jimi Hendrix”. Young styled the Ambulance Blues guitar part completely on Jansch’s Needle Of Death and brought in the veteran country musician Rusty Kershaw to play fiddle on the track. R.E.M. later performed a version with Young, at the 1998 Bridge School Benefit.

14: My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue) (1979)

Young’s coruscating song about the fleeting nature of fame, and the demands of trying to stay relevant in the modern age, is notable for its memorable line “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”, which was quoted by Kurt Cobain in the note he left before killing himself. Young later dedicated his 1994 album, Sleeps With Angels, to the Nirvana singer. My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue) was the opening track on the album Rust Never Sleeps (Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black) was the companion closing track) and included references to the musicians Danny And The Juniors, Elvis Presley and punk rocker Johnny Rotten. Though one of the best Neil Young songs, the songwriter famously rowed in print about it with John Lennon, who took issue with its message. “The essence of the rock’n’roll spirit to me, is that it’s better to burn out really bright than to sort of decay off into infinity,” insisted Young, who was in his mid-30s at the time of writing the song. it also showed off Young’s skills as a harmonica player.

13: Tonight’s The Night (1975)

Tonight’s The Night was Young’s harrowing, melodramatic elegy to some of rock’s drug victims. Though he commented in the liner notes, “I’m sorry. You don’t know these people. This means nothing to you,” his superb 1975 album of that name was recorded in remembrance to guitarist Danny Whitten, who had died the previous year of a drug overdose at 29, and to the Crosby, Stills And Nash roadie Bruce Berry, who had overdosed “out on the mainline”. As well as the haunting title track, the song Tired Eyes was also a cathartic composition for the musician. Lofgren’s guitar playing, Ralph Molina’s drumming and Ben Keith’s steel guitar added to the despondent feel of an album released with a stark black-and-white cover.

12: Cinnamon Girl (1969)

For his 1969 album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Young was assisted for the first time on record by his longtime backing band Crazy Horse. In one extraordinary afternoon, when he was sick in bed with a 103-degree temperature, Young composed the songs Cowgirl In The Sand, Down By The River and the potent love song Cinnamon Girl. He said the songs came out as if “someone had turned on a tap”. When the song was recorded at Wally Heider Recording in Hollywood, Billy Talbot laid down a pulsating bass guitar line. The real identity of the main character was a subject of intense speculation at the time. The liner notes to Young’s Decade box set included a handwritten note about the song, saying: “Wrote this for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me thru Phil Ochs eyes playing finger cymbals. It was hard to explain to my wife.” At the time, the musician was still with his second wife, Pegi Young. They divorced in 2014 and Young subsequently married the actress Daryl Hannah.

11: Rockin’ In The Free World (1989)

When Young and his guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro were talking about the collapse of their tour to the Soviet Union, Sampedro said, “Man I guess we’re just gonna have to keep on rockin’ in the free world.” Young’s eyes lit up. He said it was such a good line, he was going to use it – resulting in one of the best Neil Young songs of the 80s. Young went straight to his hotel room in Portland and wrote this highly-charged political rocker, which criticises President George HW Bush and references contemporary figures such Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini and civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson, along with the crack cocaine epidemic which hit America in the late 80s. Young said in his memoir Waging Heavy Peace that writing songs about current affairs was “part of his process”, adding, “I just do what I do and keep my ears and eyes open.” Donald Trump has used the song at his campaign rallies.

10: Powderfinger (1979)

From the striking opening line, “Look out, Mama, there’s a white boat coming up the river,” Powderfinger is a song that has enchanted and mystified fans since it appeared on album Rust Never Sleeps. Young admitted there was “anger and angst” behind a composition that he originally offered to Lynyrd Skynyrd before the plane crash that killed three band members in 1977. The song’s protagonist is a 22-year-old who is watching a gunboat approach his riverside home. He dies tragically trying to protect his family. Young was asked by biographer Jimmy McDonough if Powderfinger was an anti-violence song, and replied: “I dunno. Depends on how you interpret it. Might be. I think that the crux of it is anti-violent, because it shows the futility of violence. Guy’s gonna take a shot but gets shot himself. It’s just one of those things. It’s just a scene, you know?”

9: Like A Hurricane (1977)

Young loved cars – a 1950 Plymouth Special Deluxe was one of 35 in his collection at one point – and said, “I’ve written most of my best songs driving on a long journey scribbling lyrics on cigarette packets whilst steering.” The stirring, eight-minute, metaphor-filled love song Like A Hurricane, which appeared on 1977’s American Stars ’N Bars album, was written on a piece of newspaper in the back of a car after he saw an attractive young woman in a bar. It prompted the memorable lines: “You are like a hurricane/There’s calm in your eye/And I’m getting’ blown away.” Young sang both the high and low harmony parts, and backing band Crazy Horse are in full swing with some passionate guitar solos. It is also notable for Sampredo’s synthesiser work. The song has been covered by Roxy Music and Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit.

8: Cortez The Killer (1976)

Young’s Cortez The Killer, from 1976’s Zuma album, caused a stir in Spain, where his song about the violent exploits of 16th-century colonist Hernán Cortés was banned by Franco’s fascist government. Young, who had studied the conquest of the Aztec Empire as a high-school student in Winnipeg, wrote a lyrical account of a man who “came dancing across the water with his galleons and guns”. Earning its place among the best Neil Young Songs, it is notable for a brilliant guitar solo, which prompted Young to say, “Cortez is some of my best guitar playing ever.” In his 2006 memoir, Neil And Me, the musician’s father, Scott Young, said that the reason the song fades out before it reaches eight minutes is that an electrical circuit blew at Young’s Broken Arrow Ranch recording studio, causing the console to die. When producer David Briggs told Young they’d lost the final verse, the songwriter reportedly shrugged and replied, “I never liked that verse anyway.”

7: Old Man (1972)

When Young bought his Broken Arrow Ranch in 1970 – for about £2 million in today’s money – he inherited a 70-something caretaker called Louis Avila, and his wife, Clara. Old Man, on which James Taylor plays a sweet banjo solo, looks at the way different generations have the same essential desires in life. In Jonathan Demme’s 2006 documentary, Heart Of Gold, Young explained that he felt ambiguous about being “a rich hippie” buying all this land. “Louis took me for a ride in his old blue Jeep. He gets me up there on the top side of the place, and there’s this lake up there that fed all the pastures, and he says, ‘Well, tell me, how does a young man like yourself have enough money to buy a place like this?’ And I said, ‘Well, just lucky, Louis, just real lucky.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s the darnedest thing I ever heard.’ And I wrote this song for him.”

6: Helpless (1970)

The supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young – comprising David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Young – were one of the seminal bands of the 20th century. On their 1970 album, Déjà Vu, they featured Young’s haunting song Helpless, which looks back on his childhood in Canada’s North Ontario. Nash said that Young brought a “real edge” to their music with his “moody and deep” lyrics. Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters counted it among his best Neil Yong songs: “There is an honesty and a truth in everything Neil Young has done. You feel the man’s integrity and passion. I can feel the hairs standing up on the back of my neck when he hits the first few notes of Helpless. It is extraordinarily moving and eloquent,” he said on the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs in 2011. Young performed a version with The Band on the Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz.

5: Ohio (1970)

David Crosby inadvertently inspired another of the best Neil Young tracks when he handed the songwriter a copy of Life magazine containing shocking photographs of the brutal killing of four anti-Vietnam war student protestors by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University on 4 May 1970. Young picked up a guitar and wrote Ohio, one of the best protest songs of the 20th century, in just 15 minutes. Crosby and Young flew to Los Angeles the following day to join Nash and Stills, and they recorded the song in a few takes. At the end, according to Young, Crosby was in tears. Young, who put so much emotion into his ten lines, which included an attack on “the tin soldiers” and President Nixon, said he had never written anything like it before. He released a solo version on the album Live At Massey Hall 1971.

4: The Needle And The Damage Done (1972)

When Young introduced his anti-drug song The Needle And The Damage Done at a concert in January 1971, he said he had written this short, powerful song because he had seen so many great musicians die before realising their potential, because of heroin abuse. “That started happening over and over,” he lamented. In 1972, Young recorded the two-minute song for his Harvest album, which featured the London Symphony Orchestra. The song was produced by the great Henry Lewy, who worked with everyone from Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen to Van Morrison and The Doors. One of the musicians Young had in mind for the song, Crazy Horse’s Danny Whitten, died shortly after Harvest was released. Young said once that Whitten “must have known” the song was in part about him.

3: Harvest Moon (1992)

After a decade spent experimenting with different styles, from electronic to rockabilly and hard-edged electric rock, Young returned to his country-folk roots with his gorgeous love song Harvest Moon – dedicated to his then wife, Pegi – which was the title song for a 1992 album that displayed all his multi-instrumentalist skills: Young sang and played harmonica, banjo guitar, pump organ and vibraphone. The flawless melody of Harvest Moon – featuring the soft brush strokes of drummer Kenny Buttrey – was helped by having Linda Ronstadt’s wonderful harmonies on the romantic lyrics. One of the best Neil Young songs to focus on romantic love, it has been streamed more than 200 million times.

2: Heart Of Gold (1972)

Heart Of Gold was the song that transformed Young into a bestselling star. The single, from his Harvest album, spent 14 weeks in the Billboard charts, peaking at No.1. It was played so much on radio that Bob Dylan said, “It bothered me… I’d say, ‘Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.” Young, who was 24 at the time, sang “I’m getting old” in his sentimental song – which also featured Ronstadt on backing vocals – about mining for a heart of gold. Though the song’s hit status brought him even more riches, Young said the commercial success also forced him away from the mainstream. “This song put me in the middle of the road,” he wrote in the liner notes of his 1977 collection, Decade. “Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”

1: After The Gold Rush (1970)

When Dolly Parton recorded a version of Young’s prescient masterpiece, After the Gold Rush, she updated the line “Look at mother nature on the run in the 1970s”, to make it about the 21st century – a change Young has embraced in live performances of the song. Topping our list of the best Neil Young songs, After the Gold Rush is made up of three verses that move forward in time from a medieval celebration to the present (the singer lying in a burned-out basement) and on to the time humanity is rescued by aliens, loaded on to “silver spaceships flying in the yellow haze of the sun” for an exodus from Earth. The original version featured a wonderfully mournful French horn solo from Bill Peterson. When he finally tried to dissect this mesmerising song for biographer McDonough, Young said that, above all, After The Gold Rush “is an environmental song”, adding, “I recognise in it now this thread that goes through a lotta my songs that’s this time-travel thing… When I look out the window, the first thing that comes to my mind is the way this place looked a hundred years ago.”

Neil Young’s long-awaited Archives Vol II is due for release on 20 November. Pre-order it here

More Like This

Best 90s Musicians: 20 Artists Who Ruled The Decade
List & Guides

Best 90s Musicians: 20 Artists Who Ruled The Decade

From grunge agitators to Britpop barnstormers, the best 90s musicians helped define the era by adding colour to the close of the millennium.

Best Summer Songs: 20 Classic Sun-Worshipping Anthems
List & Guides

Best Summer Songs: 20 Classic Sun-Worshipping Anthems

Like the season that inspired them, the best summer songs can be balmy, blissful and sometimes bittersweet…

Sign up to our newsletter

Be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Sign Up