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The 100 Greatest Neil Young Songs

From tender ballads to raging grunge, the songwriter’s nearly 60-year career has produced some of rock’s most enduring music

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“I’d rather keep changing and lose a lot of people along the way,” Neil Young told Rolling Stone in 1975. “If that’s the price, I’ll pay it. I don’t give a shit if my audience is a hundred or a hundred million.” Over the years, Young has turned that unapologetic sentiment into one of rock’s most durable credos, following his ornery muse wherever it leads him. He’s been a folk-rock superstar and a synth-rock pioneer, a country singer and a rockabilly revivalist, a left-leaning environmental activist and a Reagan supporter, a guy who’s been filling arenas since the Seventies even as he drives his fans nuts with his maverick musical detours. But whether he’s the tender soul singing “Heart of Gold” or the rangy crusader giving us a concept album about his awesome new electric car in 2009, Neil Young is always Neil Young – same creaky voice, same searching lyrics, placing him among the greatest songwriters in rock history.

Young first hit the scene with Buffalo Springfield in 1966, not long before Rolling Stone first hit newsstands. He’s been a regular in our pages ever since. We’ve covered his music for decades — hundreds and hundreds of songs spread over studio LPs, live albums, bootlegs, and tapes that Young has only recently begun to release on his Archives website. Some of them are beloved folk-rock hits; some sound like the work of a cult artist with little interest in hooks or high fidelity; some are just really fucking loud. We’ve narrowed that down to his 100 greatest songs, and tell the inside stories behind each one. Our list draws from every point in his career, proving, among other things, that Young is part of an elite group of Sixties rockers who’ve kept making great music long after their supposed glory days.

All these years later, Neil Young has neither burned out nor faded away. Instead, he’s built one of rock’s great careers by doing whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.

From Rolling Stone US

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“Helpless” is a heart-rending highlight from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s Déjà Vu, a slow, beautiful country-rock reverie in which Young spools through childhood images of rural Canada. He did, as the lyrics tell us, grow up in a small town in Ontario (Omemee; population in 1950: 750), but he insists “Helpless” isn’t a simple autobiographical tale. “It’s not literally a specific town,” he said, “so much as a feeling.” The gentle, sweetly nostalgic song was imagined by Young as a thrashed-out Crazy Horse jam, but when a studio technician forgot to press “record” on the band’s best take, Young tried a radically different direction: “I took it as an omen. That’s why I did it with CSN.” It’s the finest song he recorded with the trio; they add lush harmonies, but the rest is strictly Neil. Young has played “Helpless” more than 400 times live, most memorably with the Band at the Last Waltz, where he had so much cocaine visible in his nostrils that director Martin Scorsese had to take it out frame by frame while editing footage for the concert film.

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‘Tonight’s the Night’

The dark inspiration for “Tonight’s the Night” was two almost simultaneous drug deaths in the Crazy Horse family, as Young put it, “The whole thing is about life, dope, and death.” Heroin took the life of guitarist Danny Whitten in 1972, and, less than a year later, their beloved roadie Bruce Berry; Young’s response was this harrowing dead-junkie lament. He mourns Berry as a rock & roll workingman whose honest passion for life was corrupted by drugs. As you can hear, Young and the entire band are in rough shape — drunk, off-key, enraged, wracked by grief and tequila. “We played Bruce and Danny on their way all through the night,” Young told Rolling Stone in 1975. “It was spooky.” Young began and ended Tonight’s the Night, one of his most emotionally intense albums, with ravaged versions of the theme song. “Tonight’s the Night” became an unlikely stadium-shaking rock anthem — the definitive version is the big climax of 1979’s Live Rust, where you can hear the fans whoop, cheer, and whistle along with a funeral dirge.

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‘Down by the River’

The prototype for all Young’s massive Crazy Horse guitar jams to come appeared on his second solo LP, his first with the band and the album that fully announced his arrival as a solo artist in the late Sixties. Young wrote the song during a legendary bout with the flu, one of the most musically consequential 103-degree fevers in rock & roll history, which produced three of his career-defining songs: “Cinnamon Girl,” “Cowgirl in the Sand,” and this. “There was a song in E-minor on the radio that I liked, ‘Sunny’ or something like that,” Young wrote in his memoir Waging Heavy Peace, referring to soul singer Bobby Hebb’s 1966 hit. “[It] kept looping in my head, endlessly, like some things do when I’m sick and maybe a little delirious. So I started playing it on the guitar, and then I changed the chords a bit — and it turned into ‘Down by the River.’” He once dismissed the song’s murderous lyrics, saying, “It’s about blowing your thing with a chick.” But Young’s guitar duels with Danny Whitten on this nine-minute spectacle suggest something different — they play like they’re out for blood.

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‘Cortez the Killer’

It’s never been clearly explained why Young decided to write a (wildly unhistorical) song about the 16th-century Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés. Over the years, Young has claimed to have authored it on the spot while writing songs for Zuma, but at a 1996 show in Virginia he swore he wrote it in high school after eating six hamburgers and getting terribly sick. “I was studying history, and in the morning I woke up and I’d written this song,” he said. “I never told anybody else.” Whatever the truth, Young and Crazy Horse cut the song one debauched day at Zuma Beach in 1975. Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro and bassist Billy Talbot smoked angel dust right before the session, but they still managed to help Young create one of the most overpowering guitar epics ever recorded. The electricity went off in the studio midway through recording the song. “We didn’t know and just kept playing and playing,” says Talbot. “We lost a verse, but Neil said it was a good verse to lose.” That explains why the song ends so abruptly. The lost verse has yet to surface anywhere.

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‘Heart of Gold’

Young was all of 27 years old when he sang the chorus of his biggest hit: “Keep me searching for a heart of gold/And I’m gettin’ old.” “Heart of Gold” became his first and only Number One single, the epitome of his mellow, countrified soft-rock phase. Like many songs on the hugely successful Harvest, it was recorded in Nashville with producer Elliot Mazer and a backing band known as the Stray Gators. “Heart of Gold” has Young’s most mournful harmonica-playing, Ben Keith’s steel guitar, and the Tupelo-honey harmonies of Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. Ironically, the song got bumped from the Number One spot by America’s “A Horse With No Name,” the most shameless Neil Young imitation of all time (it even confused his father, who called to congratulate him). But nobody’s ever duplicated the vulnerable twang of “Heart of Gold,” and to Young’s credit, he steadfastly refused to copy it. Indeed, after his big commercial breakthrough, Young avoided Top 40 radio like the plague. “‘Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road,” he wrote in the liner notes to the 1977 anthology, Decade. “Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch.”

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‘Ambulance Blues’

“It’s easy to get buried in the past/When you try to make a good thing last,” Young sings midway through “Ambulance Blues,” an exquisite reconsideration of the dizzying distance he’d traveled — in space, time, and outlook — since his career began in Toronto’s folk clubs a decade earlier. Gently finger-picking an acoustic melody lifted from Sixties folkie Bert Jansch, Young spends nearly nine minutes at the end of On the Beach’s down-and-out Side B reminiscing about his “old folkie days” at the Riverboat Coffee House. There’s an innocence to the way those scenes play out in his memory, a feeling that’s crushed when he starts talking in code about Mother Goose and a kidnapping plot a few verses later. The skeleton key to this dream? When Young resignedly sings “You’re all just pissin’ in the wind,” he’s reportedly quoting his manager Elliot Roberts’ take on the internal acrimony that broke up CSNY. What began as nostalgia has lapsed into weary bitterness.

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Young’s greatest song contains just about everything that makes Neil Young great: It’s a monster Crazy Horse guitar anthem that has the coming-of-age poignancy of his bittersweet acoustic ballads, channeling themes that have shown up in his work for decades (the myth of the West, the individual’s lonely struggle, mortality, freedom, American violence, and community) into music that’s at once rousing and devastating. Lyrically, Young manages to cram a two-hour Western into a five-minute song. It’s the story of a family of outlaws and the 22-year-old son who has to fend off government troops now that Daddy’s gone. “Neil told me the story came to him in a seizure dream,” says Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro. “He felt he was out there visiting these people. So that made it all the more vivid.” The song was originally recorded for the aborted Chrome Dreams album in 1975, and was resurrected four years later for Rust Never Sleeps, where it kicks off the roaring electric Side Two. Only at the end of “Powderfinger” do we learn that the tune’s narrator is dead, killed by soldiers as he stood on a dock aiming his gun at their boat in a pathetic attempt to defend his family. “I think the crux of it is anti-violent,” Young wrote. “It shows the futility of violence.” The track wasn’t a single and has never gotten much radio play, but it’s clear Young agrees that “Powderfinger” is one of his finest works. He has played it more than any song in his catalog besides “Cinnamon Girl” and “Heart of Gold.”