Essentials by the Dozen — Neil Young in 12 Tracks
Never Mind the Top 10, Here’s 12 Great Neil Young Songs
With respect to Canadian icon Neil Young, if you’ve ever made statements worthy of a solid facepalm, such as “That guy can’t sing if his life depended on it”, or found yourself listening in on some conversation that had you asking “Was there any other musician in history who was more of a brooding recluse?”, then this next list should serve as a good starting point if you wish to expand your knowledge on one of music’s most celebrated singers.
[NOTE: This list is not a definite top 12 of Neil Young’s all-time greatest songs. Rather, it should be viewed as a strong collection in his catalogue that would essentially allow to have an efficient overview of his entire career. As a Neil Young fan myself, I also firmly believe that you should at the very least know every single one of these songs if you ever wish to debate the brilliance of his music. If at the moment you do not, RELAX, SIT BACK & ENJOY THE MAGIC OF ROCK.]
1. Sugar Mountain (1969)
One of Young’s earliest songs, “Sugar Mountain” was actually composed on the singer’s nineteenth birthday, five years prior to being released as the B-side to another single. It is highly representative of Young’s solo career, for a good part of the early 70’s at the very least, in that it has one man with a tender heart disclosing his emotional turmoil over the delicate sounds of an acoustic guitar. Although this might be immensely subjective on my behalf, Neil Young is undoubtedly my favourite solo artist of all-time if for the previous statement only. For example, as much as I admire Bob Dylan for arguably being the most poetic singer/songwriter of the 20th century, I applaud Neil Young that much more due to his absurd ability to connect to the very core of my identity, and no other solo artist has achieved this as strikingly as him. “Sugar Mountain” deals with the regretful truth that as people inevitably grow older, they unwillingly need to abandon certain places and activities from their youth, in Young’s case, a club named Sugar Mountain.
“Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you’re thinking that you’re leaving there too soon
You’re leaving there too soon”
2. Cinnamon Girl (1969)
Neil Young was part of a few successful projects at the start of his career. There were Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and there was Neil Young & Crazy Horse. On this list of essentials, I ultimately made the tough decision to disregard the first two but add his collaborations with Crazy Horse, nonetheless. The reason is that, with Crazy Horse, Young was the clear leader, and the backing band mostly served to his needs whereas it was not the case for the other two projects. Everybody Knows This is Nowherewas Young’s first album with the band, and the sound of “Cinnamon Girl” is also quite representative of the upbeat harder tunes Young penned in the 70’s. It is important to remember that Young was equally a master of two genres: a much softer folk rock and hard rock. There is a reason Young is considered the Godfather of Grunge, and “Cinnamon Girl” is an extremely early example of the harder sounds he would later develop to allow him the right to such an esteemed title.
“A dreamer of pictures, I run in the night
You see us together chasing the moonlight
My cinnamon girl”
3. After the Goldrush (1970)
It proved practically impossible for me to single out two tracks from Neil Young’s acclaimed After the Goldrush, his third solo LP and my personal favourite of all his albums. I ultimately opted to include the titular track, for I believe “After the Goldrush” to be the most beautiful song he ever wrote. Although I must have heard it hundreds of times, I still cannot confirm exactly what it means, but it oddly speaks to me on such an enormous level, and I know I’m not alone in thinking this. When I was about fourteen, it played on the radio one morning, as my father was driving me to school, and after the very first note, he immediately cranked up the volume and yelled: “Oh my God! I love this song!” It was unlike any “radio” tune I heard at the time, and we sat in silence listening to this heartbreaking performance delivered by a singer who spoke of knights in armor and silver spaceships. It’s funny to know that even most of the comments written beneath its YouTube link have the listeners discuss the song having either saved their lives or magically brought them back to some sanguine era of their youth. Once admitting he could not recall the true meaning of his own song, Young later confirmed it dealt with the passage of time, beginning with a celebration held in the medieval era, transitioning to a man managing his present thoughts, and concluding with the end of humanity. Whatever “After the Goldrush” truly represents is beyond me, and I will listen to it a hundred times more without ever fulling comprehending it and still be blown away by its heavenly aura.
“Well, I dreamed I saw the silver spaceships lying
In the yellow haze of the sun
There were children crying and colors flying
All around the chosen ones”
4. Don’t Let it Bring You Down (1970)
I have forever been employing the line “it’s only castles burning” since that very moment I first listened to this track. Neil Young’s broken voice seems so immensely appropriate with his subject matter, I do not see how any other singer could do his work justice. Another track off the renowned After the Goldrush, “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” is a tour de force, and it truly pains me I could not add the entire album on this list. The first two times Young utters the song’s chorus, the music seems somewhat downbeat, and the verses with which they are accompanied present rather bleak situations. However, by the conclusion of the track, when Young repeats the same chorus twice more, those words oddly don’t seem as bad anymore; rather, they leave the listener feeling hopeful amid all the negativity previously depicted.
“Old man lying by the side of the road
With the lorries rolling by
Blue moon sinking from the weight of the load
And the buildings scrape the sky
Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning
Find someone who’s turning
And you will come around”
5. Old Man (1972)
The following might seem like a strange statement, but Neil Young’s fourth album Harvest might just be the most Canadian-sounding album of all time. Although I have travelled to the Eastern provinces and to Ontario many times, I myself am only representative of Montreal, so this statement might mean absolutely nothing. However, having studied our history and learned of the culture of all the provinces, I stand by what I said, and if I’m wrong, sue me. It was voted by a portion of the Canadian population as the greatest Canadian album of all time in 2007, and it is widely considered to be Neil Young’s magnum opus. The album contains his only single that ever (surprisingly) rose to the top of the Billboard charts, entitled “Heart of Gold”, and the remainder of the LP serves as one fantastic collection of formidable songs, many of which have become fan favourites. Although “Heart of Gold” is considered Young’s signature song, I believe “Old Man” to represent the peak of the album of which its tragically content ambience is perfectly captured.
“Lullabies, look in your eyes
Run around the same old town
Doesn’t mean that much to me
To mean that much to you
Old man, take a look at my life
I’m a lot like you
I need someone to love me
The whole day through”
6. The Needle and the Damage Done (1972)
The misconception that Neil Young was an oversensitive saddened man might have stemmed upon the release of tracks like this. In the early 70’s, Neil Young knew quite a few people whose lives took a nasty turn due to drug addiction. Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten was one of them, and he unfortunately struggled with heroin for a good portion of his later years. Young wrote “The Needle and the Damage Done” as a depiction of the dreadful effects of heroin addiction and its unruly control over his friends. The track appears near the end of Harvest and is but two minutes in length. This feels like unsurpassed poetry in the highest degree, and when Young sings that “some of [us] don’t understand milk blood to keep from running out”, he could not be more right, but my inexplicable need to understand is very much present, nonetheless. Several months following the release of the track, Danny Whitten tragically overdosed on the drug, and Young’s follow-up albums considerably deal with loss and grief because of the terrible incident.
“I sing the song because I love the man
I know that some of you don’t understand
Milk blood to keep from running out
I’ve seen the needle and the damage done
A little part of it in everyone
But every junkie’s like a setting sun”
7. On the Beach (1974)
Considered amongst the most despairing albums of the decade, On the Beach is Neil Young at his most alienated. This whole album serves as another prime example as to why people tend to disregard Young as that dispirited figure who sings about the meaninglessness of life. Prior to releasing On the Beach, which does indeed deal with themes of desolation and loneliness, Neil Young had actually recorded Tonight’s the Night, an entire album dedicated to those he lost to heroin but deemed too disheartening by the record label to put on shelves. Therefore, On the Beach can irrationally be thought of as a more uplifting LP in comparison. Unless I am completely off, I think it quite normal for people to feel alone every once in a while, either due to a series of hapless events or simply due to some nihilistic thought that emerges within their minds. On the Beach is that album to which I want to listen whenever those thoughts do make their appearance, and its titular track is surely an excellent starting point for those who wish to understand just how isolated people can feel, as if they’re living out on a beach, staring ahead at a great big nothing.
“I need a crowd of people
But I can’t face them day to day
Though my problems are meaningless
That don’t make them go away”
8. Albuquerque (1975)
In 1975, the record label decided to go ahead and release the previously recorded Tonight’s the Night. After having listened to it, I can honestly say it’s probably the most depressing-sounding album I’ve ever come across. Young sounds like he no longer has the strength nor energy to sing his songs, and the music is as defeatist as it can get. “Albuquerque” is one of the highlights of the album, a confession from the artist whose desire is to isolate himself in some unknown town, away from all the fame and chaos, so he could be at peace with himself once more. Seeing your friends go in such a short span of time, especially at an early age to something as horrid as a heroin overdose, is something I cannot and wish not to imagine. Tonight’s the Night seems to perfectly represent Neil Young’s torment at the time of his loss, and my heart cannot help but break with every single one of its tracks. Supposedly, on its original vinyl packaging in the liner notes, Young included the following message: “I’m sorry. You don’t know these people. This means nothing to you.”
“I’ve been flyin’ down the road
And I’ve been starvin’ to be alone
And independent from the scene that I’ve known
9. Tired Eyes (1975)
To my father who has repeatedly claimed that “anyone can do a better job singing Neil Young’s songs, and the only reason people think of him as a good singer is because he was the first to release them”, you are wrong. “Tired Eyes” is Neil Young’s vocal performance at his very best. Considering the content of such a track and the musical melancholy accompanying it, I actually do not see how anyone could have done a better job singing this song if not Neil Young. I don’t want no flawless nonsensical Céline Dion rendition of this. I want to hear the voice cracks. I want to feel the heartbreak. I want to know that the ultimate reason the singer at one point skips the chorus is because he is unable to go through with it. This track is imperfectly perfect, and it is the highlight of Young’s “tragic era” (also referred to as his Ditch Trilogy of albums). When I was twenty-one years old, the day I came home woefully knowing I had to end things with my then four-year girlfriend was the day I finally gave Tonight’s the Night a listen, as I deemed it might be appropriate given my overwhelming distress. By its conclusion, I had “Tired Eyes” on repeat for an hour at the very least, until it was time for me to head to my girl’s house and make what was by far the hardest decision of my life. Thank you, Neil Young. How much harder it would have been without you. “What do you mean, he had bullet holes in his mirrors?” is amongst the greatest lines in popular music, and my eyes often tear up upon hearing those words being spoken.
“Well tell me more, tell me more, 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?
He tried to do his best, but he could not.
Please take my advice. Please take my advice.”
10. Cortez the Killer (1975)
Neil Young’s mental anguish thoroughly discharged onto his three previous albums (Time Fades Away, On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night), his follow-up Zuma saw a return to form with his recognizable hard rock and folk rock sounds. “Cortez the Killer” is often considered the highlight of the album. It is a seven-minute track that the singer supposedly wrote while in high school upon learning of Hernan Cortes, a conquistador a proud Mexican friend of mine will forever praise (reminding me of that Sopranos episode where the gang fights for the rights to celebrate Columbus Day), much to my and Neil Young’s dismay. Anyhow, with the very first guitar chords heard on “Cortez the Killer”, it can immediately be recognized as a Neil Young song, for the sound is so representative of the man, some fans even tend to place this one at the very top of their list of Young favourites. It takes nearly three-and-a-half minutes before Neil Young utters the first word of the track, but when he does, every line seems that much more enticing and important to the story. This is of those songs that could be three times as lengthy, and I would honestly not even realize, for I find myself totally immersed in its melody every second of the way.
“He came dancing across the water
With his galleons and guns
Looking for the new world
And the palace in the sun”
11. Thrasher (1979)
Although the task of concocting a list of but twelve essential Neil Young songs proved exceedingly difficult, the final two come from the same album, the last he released before the start of the 80’s. The album is entitled Rust Never Sleeps and is thematically separated into two distinct parts. While Side A presents a folksier sound, the flip side presents Young’s transition into much heavier territory. “Thrasher” can be found on Side A. It was and still is to this day my all-time favourite Neil Young song, and I would place this track near (if not, at) the very top of my list of poems to which I most related in my life. I believe it to be a Neil Young deep cut, so to all those who know it, I salute you. One of the biggest revelations for me occurred one day when I was working a night shift on a production line in a food industry at the age of eighteen. One boy (an exceptionally nice guy my age who came from the Quebec farmlands and who I have not seen in over five years) was working the same shift as me, and we got to talking. I don’t know how the conversation turned to this, but the moment we both admitted knowing every word to every line of Neil Young’s “Thrasher”, we became the best of work buddies. Once we quit our jobs a year later, we both went our separate ways, and other than at the start of COVID when I wished him “happy birthday”, I have not heard from him since. I sincerely hope this guy is doing well right now and found his way in the world, just as we said we would all those years back, like the protagonist in the song.
“But me, I’m not stopping there
Got my own row left to hoe
Just another line in the field of time
When the thrasher comes, I’ll be stuck in the sun
Like the dinosaurs in shrines
But I’ll know the time has come
To give what’s mine”
12. Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black) (1979)
Side B of Rust Never Sleeps is exactly what the title of this entry suggests: Neil Young’s music is taking a sharp turn into the black. It is the rough version of the album’s soft opener entitled “My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)” and announces the advent of a new and heavier Neil Young. The line “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust” has been the subject of much debate over the years to follow. John Lennon openly criticized its meaning, and Kurt Cobain (of legendary grunge band Nirvana) actually cited it in his suicide letter. In the following decades, Young’s career saw its ups and downs, and there are many notable projects of his which I believe are just as worthy as the albums found within his early catalogue. As there are way too many to mention, this list of essentials ends here, with a song that concludes one phase in his career and introduces another.
“Hey, Hey, My, My
Rock and roll will never die
It’s better to burn out
Than meets the eye
Hey, Hey, My, My”
- “The Loner”
- “Down by the River”
- “Tell Me Why”
- “Cripple Creek Ferry”
- “Out on the Weekend”
- “Ambulance Blues”
- “Borrowed Tune”
- “Danger Bird”
- “Like a Hurricane”