The first week of 2021 saw Neil Young become the latest rock legend to go into business with ever-expanding publishing behemoth Hipgnosis Songs, with the song management accompany acquiring a 50% stake in the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s back catalog. Coming hot on the heels of similar deals reached by Hipgnosis with Bob Dylan and Lindsey Buckingham, the terms of the agreement were not shared, but the cost of such a share in Young’s 1,180-song catalog has been estimated to be worth tens and potentially even hundreds of millions.
It’s not shocking that Young’s work would carry such a hefty price tag, considering that he’s served as one of North America’s preeminent singer-songwriters for well over half a century now. Going back to his days as a core member of ’60s psych-folk outfit Buffalo Springfield, and a late add to vocal powerhouse quartet Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at the turn of the ’70s, Young has endured as one of rock’s most recognizable voices — both in terms of his emotive, piercing countertenor, his gorgeously messy guitar work, and his singularly purposeful and uncompromising writing.
However, Young is still best-remembered for his lead work — as a solo artist, and as frontman of backing groups as renowned as Crazy Horse, Promise of the Real and fellow RNRHOFers Pearl Jam. Dating from 1969’s self-titled set and classic breakthrough Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere all the way up to 2019’s Colorado, Young’s catalog has provided popular music with some of its most searing protest anthems, its most swooning love songs, its most righteous rockers and its most leveling ballads. It’s all resulted in Young’s truly incalculable influence on multiple generations of future musicians, as well as a handful of the most acclaimed albums of the entire rock era, and even a No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100.
It’s far too grand and wide a catalog to capture the scope of in one best-of list, but we here at Billboard wanted to pay tribute to one of the all-time greats with our list of the best Neil Young songs (not counting his work in groups like Buffalo Springfield and CSNY). Here are our 25 favorite examples of ol’ Neil putting it down.
25. “The Needle and the Damage Done” (Harvest, 1972)
Hard to believe this gut-punch of a song is a scant two minutes, as Young’s harrowing vignette about heroin feels like a fully realized epic of addiction, despair and decay. Less than 10 months after Harvest (which features a live performance of “The Needle and the Damage Done” from 1971 sandwiched among the studio cuts) came out, Crazy Horse’s Danny Whitten — one of the addicts likened to a “setting sun” — died of a heroin overdose at age 29. — JOE LYNCH
24. “Like an Inca” (Trans, 1982)
The ten-minute closer to Neil’s controversial Trans album, “Like an Inca” doesn’t share the electronic affectations of much of the album, but still rides a fixed groove reminiscent of Kraftwerk’s motorik pulse to soundtrack a sprawling lyric seemingly overwhelmed by personal and/or global oblivion (“The gypsy told my fortune/ She said that nothin’ showed.”) It’s a confusing but transfixing blend, demonstrating that — despite his possible concerns — Young’s future in middle age remained as rich as his past. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
23. “Walk Like a Giant” (Psychedelic Pill, 2012)
A guitar epic of social conscience the way Uncle Neil and the boys used to make ’em, “Walk Like a Giant” was the towering 16-minute climax to 2012’s Psychedelic Pill, full of six-string passages equally soaring and tumultuous — and a whistle hook more brain-sticking than any of the distorted riffing — as Young laments the turning tides: “It breaks my heart/ To think about how close we came.” He could still get there in his own way, at least. — A.U.
22. “Comes a Time” (Comes a Time, 1978)
As punk pointed the way to rock’s immediate future in 1978, Young – certainly no stranger to raucous guitar fury – instead went full-on honky-tonk cornball with the title track to that year’s LP. Giddy fiddlin’, unironic countrypolitan strings and gorgeous harmonies from Nicolette Larson give a sweet earnestness to this bucolic breather from his tumultuous ’70s heyday. — J.L.
21. “Walk On” (On the Beach, 1974)
On the Beach‘s opening track “Walk On” is probably the kindest clapback in rock history. “I hear some people been talkin’ me down,” sings Young, presumably referring to counterculture types bemoaning his Harvest commercial breakthrough: “They do their thing, I’ll do mine.” Strident guitar chords, ringing out like yowling alley cats, serve as a more forceful counterpart to the recording’s ambling rhythm and rough mix, both of which are just as laid-back as the lyrics. Lesser talents might’ve bitten back harder, but when you’re smack in the midst of a classic streak like Young was in 1974, you can just shrug it off and walk on. — J.L.
20. “Sleeps With Angels” (Sleeps With Angels, 1994)
By 1994, grunge had largely run its course as the decade’s dominant rock sub-genre, and the truly haunting “Sleeps With Angels” sounds like Neil Young’s elegy for the movement his mucky ’70s riffers helped inspire, his vocals buried under echoes of distortion as he moans, “He sleeps with angels,” and backing vocals chime in, “Too late/ Too soon.” That Young’s own work had recently been quoted in the suicide note of the moment’s most iconic figure was of course not lost on him. — A.U.
19. “Let’s Impeach the President” (Living With War, 2006)
Political missives like this one typically don’t age all that well, but Young’s righteous rallying cry against George W. Bush at the height of the Iraq War is more than a ripped-from-the-headlines riposte to a divisive leader: It’s an invigorating anthem against the excess of American leaders, whether that means blood for oil or spying on citizens in the name of national security. The damning Dubya audio snippets might confuse listeners who didn’t live through it, but his line about a leader “dividing our country into colors and still leaving Black people neglected” continues to ring depressingly true. — J.L.
18. “Cowgirl in the Sand” (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, 1969)
The ten-minute exploration of lusty fascination that caps Neil Young’s first classic album is indeed one of his greatest six-string exercises, as scorching and feverish as Neil himself on the famously flu-stricken day where he originally wrote it. But for all Young’s majesty shredding, it’s the limber bass work of Billy Talbot that really electrifies, anchoring the song with a roaming curiosity that matches the sensuality and intrigue of the lyric. — A.U.
17. “Old Man” (Harvest, 1972)
Ask Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey: Old age is a risky subject to tackle in song if you have any aims to live long enough to eventually be referred to in “-genarian” terms. Luckily for Neil Young, his hit conversation with one of his then-elders was one of unusual empathy for a sneering 20-something rocker, recognizing the things that ultimately unite men of all ages: “Old man, take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you/ I need someone to love me the whole day through.” Nearly 50 years later, Young undoubtedly has his regrets, but writing this classic rock staple probably isn’t one of them. — A.U.
16. “Will to Love” (American Stars ‘N Bars, 1977)
Grandpa Grunge’s impact on ’90s alt-rock is a matter of public record, but Young’s influence on the lo-fi scene was no less significant thanks to his minimalist musical detours, of which 1977’s “Will to Love” is a quietly towering achievement. Meandering yet mesmerizing, Young’s hazy acoustic strumming and the sound of a fireplace crackling in the background are dwarfed by a sense of enormous emptiness, as if this seven-minute fever dream is wafting across a silent canyon on a peaceful, lonely night. — J.L.
15. “Cortez the Killer” (Zuma, 1975)
An admittedly flawed retelling of Mesoamerican history and lore — Young claimed to have written the song in high school after a binge-eating blackout — “Cortez” endures as one of Young’s signature epics for its bluesy drop-D soloing, reaching notes of yearning and melancholy previously unheard in guitar-rock history. Performed at a near-somnambulist lurch, “Free Bird” it ain’t, but it’s inspired nearly as many axe-slingers in the decades since, having been covered by more renowned alt-rockers than you can skip a stone at. — A.U.
14. “Wrecking Ball” (Freedom, 1989)
No Terry Richardson video needed here: Neil’s Freedom ballad doesn’t swing in like a force of unstoppable destruction, but rather as one of his most tender, twinkling ballads, all but predicting Adam Granduciel’s entire career with its hazy, last-call piano-led grandeur. “Meet me at the wrecking ball,” Young coos in an irresistible near-whisper, “Wear something pretty and white/ And we’ll go dancing tonight.” Hmm, wonder what kind of moon will be out for that. — A.U.
13. “F*!#in’ Up” (Ragged Glory, 1990)
With the Seattle sound about to spill over into the mainstream, the Godfather returned to remind that there were still none grungier with 1990’s aptly named Ragged Glory. The record’s filthiest cut even put the F-word in its title, living up to the name with a shambolic rave-up that both blew the roof off and shook the earth below the new decade. Really: Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro told SPIN in 1999 that an earthquake happened during the recording — but, of course, the band barely even noticed. — A.U.
12. “Albuquerque” (Tonight’s the Night, 1975)
When Neil Young gets tired of the traps of fame and rigors of the road, he frequently retreats to the comforts of country music for spiritual solace. On “Albuquerque,” perhaps his finest ode to rural regeneration, the enervated rocker flees his troubles (and the otherwise shambolic sounds of parent album Tonight’s the Night) for a soothing pedal steel, harmonica and people who “don’t care who I am” but can still serve up “fried eggs and country ham.” Who says you can’t enjoy weltschmerz just a little? As a treat. — J.L.
11. “After the Gold Rush” (After the Gold Rush, 1970)
One of Young’s most-covered compositions, this unadorned (save for a muted French horn solo) piano ballad about humanity’s self-sabotaging approach to the environment came out in 1970, and serves as a telling marker of the year when the socially conscious optimism of the ’60s segued into a realization that very little was actually changing. Young’s weary, fragile countertenor is perfectly suited for this time-hopping narrative that goes from the Middle Ages to a future when the “chosen ones” of humanity are forced to escape an ecologically wrecked earth to start “a new home in the sun.” It’s a cry for action from a hazy hallucination, one rendered more disturbing and damning by painting our current state as one where we all sit around “hoping” that impending catastrophe is just “a lie.” Sound familiar? — J.L.
10. “Cinnamon Girl” (Everybody Knows This Nowhere, 1969)
While Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere may be best-remembered for its brilliantly meandering guitar throwdowns, Young led off the set with this proto-power-pop gem to let ’em know there was no f–king with Neil when it came to writing perfect pop A-sides, either. Chiming riffs, verses that double as choruses, handclaps — so many handclaps! — “Cinnamon Girl” should’ve been as big as the 1910 Fruitgum Company, though for unexplained reasons it stalled at No. 55 on the Hot 100. The true crossover hits would come soon enough. — A.U.
9. “Sugar Mountain” (“The Loner” B-side, 1969)
A gentle folk strummer about watching the signifiers of childhood recede in the rearview mirror as you speed toward the uncertainties of adulthood, “Sugar Mountain” is an uncharacteristically sweet, straightforward tune from Young. Written in 1965 before he turned 20, popping up as a B-side in 1969 and functioning as a live favorite for years, “Sugar Mountain” never gets too gooey thanks to Young’s hushed, melancholy delivery and the molasses-drip pacing, which provides just enough of a sour taste to temper this lovely, wistful ode to lost adolescence. — J.L.
8. “Like a Hurricane” (American Stars ‘N Bars, 1977)
“Like a Hurricane” begins mid-downpour, sheets of guitar already raining down before we get to anything resembling a verse or a hook. Chances are you might only remember one lyric from this song anyway — the good-not-great refrain simile “You are like a hurricane/ There is calm in your eye” — because memory of the rest of “Hurricane” is so overwhelmed by that elemental six-string, gusting and spurting and just drenching you with some of the most awe-inspiring fretwork you’ve ever heard. It’s so raw in its translation from emotion to instrument that you can truly feel the blistering, both in Young’s heart and on his fingertips. — A.U.
7. “Harvest Moon” (Harvest Moon, 1992)
Coming 20 years after Young’s best-loved album Harvest, spiritual sequel Harvest Moon tapped many of the same players from that 1972 classic. Of course, decreeing an album to be a follow-up to an established fan favorite is no guarantee of quality, which is why Harvest Moon is a rarer occurrence than the lunar event it’s named after. The title track, in particular, is astonishing in its gorgeous simplicity; the delicate acoustic strumming gently paints that massive orange orb in the mind’s eye, while the soft brush strokes on the drum bring to mind the feet of an old couple shuffling across an empty dancefloor in a warm embrace. You know a song is flawless when Linda Ronstadt’s backing vocals are like the third best thing about it. — J.L.
6. “Powderfinger” (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)
Rust works hard, but Neil Young works harder, and this folk-ballad-with-way-better-riffs powers through a decade’s decay to deliver one of Shakey’s most transcendent story songs. Over gorgeous backing “ooh“s and possibly the most anthemic guitar tone he’s ever achieved, Young moans about being an unsure 22-year-old left to protect his family from oncoming raiders and getting his face blown off in the process, ultimately providing his own epitaph from beyond the grave. It’s a stunning statement from one of rock’s greatest premature olds, both a sort of eulogy to his younger self and a promise that his current self wasn’t going to sleep anytime soon. — A.U.
5. “Rockin’ in the Free World” (Freedom, 1989)
It’s the cross to bear of any socially conscious rock icon that no matter how ironically you write about America, 50% of the population tunes out 95% of the lyrics and assumes you’ve written the next “God Bless America.” Such is the tragedy of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” a bitter look at desperate lives in the George H.W. Bush era that has been co-opted by the very politicians (soft on pollution, hard on the homeless) it targets. Never matter: The chugging, snowballing guitar riff and Young’s sneering delivery as he tosses off trenchant grievances (“We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand”) make “Rockin'” one of the most gutting and enduring political screeds in rock n’ roll. And even though you know it’s coming, the line “There’s one more kid that’ll never go to school/ Never get to fall in love, never get to be cool” somehow manages to kick the wind out of your esophagus every time. — J.L.
4. “Southern Man” (After the Gold Rush, 1970)
The tracklist of After the Gold Rush is mostly reserved for lilting ballads and folky interludes, but there’s one big clear out toward the end of side one for five and a half minutes of Neil Young’s most righteous raging in the form of “Southern Man.” He’d later apologize for the simplistic and condescending nature of the lyrics, but it’s hard to begrudge the fury he feels at the shock that even at the end of a supposed age of peace, love and understanding, racism could still permeate so much of North America — and as usual, the guitars scream louder than Young himself ever could, with the song’s double-time shuffle prodding him to ever-further electric indignation. Plus, the South got a pretty good response song out of it. — A.U.
3. “Heart of Gold” (Harvest, 1972)
While Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and his breakthrough After the Gold Rush album established Young as a major talent at the top of the ’70s, his Billboard 200 topper Harvest and its Hot 100 No. 1 “Heart of Gold” made the reedy-voiced, lanky Canadian one of the decade’s unlikeliest stars. It’s not hard to see why: an irresistible alchemy of early 20th century Appalachia and the California folk boom, few songs are as immediately melodic as this soft, bittersweet country-folk lament. As the pedal steel lilts and Young’s lonely harmonica moans, pals Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor provide backup vocals stronger than a California redwood. If Neil knew this one was going to be his radio juggernaut, he certainly didn’t sing it that way; “Heart of Gold” is crooned with the same meditative self-effacement and lack of pretense that characterizes most of his acoustic material, demonstrating that for Young, integrity was never up for negotiation. — J.L.
2. “Hey Hey, My My (Out of the Blue)” (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)
Few songs can claim to provide as much of the connective tissue for rock n’ roll history as Neil Young’s crunching Rust Never Sleeps closer, reaching across the decades between early rock and punk and grunge and ensuring timeline continuity, for better and for worse. Young might’ve thought he was writing the story of Elvis Presley or Johnny Rotten with “Hey Hey, My My,” but of course it turned that it was really Kurt Cobain’s tragedy that he was penning, validating the eventual Alternative Nation paragon’s belief that it was indeed better to burn out than to fade away. Undoubtedly Young never meant to be taken so literally at his word, but delivered amidst the stomping chaos of Crazy Horse’s all-time most immersive guitar-rock frenzy, the truest lesson may be about just how hard it is for any rocker to see things clearly when they’re out of the blue and into the black. — A.U.
1. “Down By the River” (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, 1969)
The centerpiece of his solo career-establishing second album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the nine minutes of grinding delirium that constitute “Down By the River” pointed to a trailblazing future for Young beyond his stilted self-titled debut and Buffalo Springfield tenure. When that rough-around-the-edges riff shuffles in at the top of the song and quickly falls into a dark, confident country groove, it’s clear the chemistry between Young and newly formed backing trio Crazy Horse (Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina) is headed to hallucinatory, harrowing heights.
And like any confused rant from a bone fide backwoods madman, “Down By the River” takes its time getting there, moving from mumbled olive branches (“there is no reason for you to hide”) to the homicidal chorus (“dead, shot her dead”) with the whiplash logic of a fevered brain (Young, in fact, was running a temp over well over a hundred when he wrote the lyrics). But it’s the instrumental detours that give this “River” its divine rush: as scratchy and unpredictable as a detour through an overgrown off-road path, Young’s freeform guitar passages are contemplative one second, mean and ornery the next; at one point, he hammers away on the same spiky note with such beguiling force that you can’t help but get caught up in the obsessive mania. When it arrived in 1969, Young and Crazy Horse were mere foals, but they damn near put the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse out of business with this swampy proto-grunge epic. — J.L.