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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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‘Opera Star’

Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina called Young’s 1981 album Re-ac-tor “a turkey, a one-legged turkey.” With its stark red-and-black cover and grinding, malformed songs, it struck fans as the punk-like rawness of Rust Never Sleeps gone horribly awry. Yet the album does have its enjoyably cranky moments, including its opening track, “Opera Star,” a nagging, perverse riff-crusher in which Young sings about a rock & roll fan whose girlfriend leaves him to go to the opera with “some highbrow.” In 2013, when Young and Crazy Horse started including it in their live sets (often coupled with “Prisoners of Rock ’n’ Roll,” another hard-driving Eighties orphan), it was a welcome surprise that didn’t seem all that out of place among his beloved guitar classics.

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‘Borrowed Tune’

One of the many bummed-out ballads on Tonight’s the Night. Young wrote this in a Wisconsin hotel room during the ill-fated 1973 Time Fades Away tour. He recorded it solo, just piano and harmonica, copping his melody from the Rolling Stones’ 1966 “Lady Jane.” “I’m singing this borrowed tune/I took from the Rolling Stones/Alone in this empty room/Too wasted to write my own.”

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‘Pushed It Over the End’

On May 16, 1974, Young played a surprise set at New York’s Bottom Line featuring many unreleased songs. The legendary show opened up with a dreamy song he introduced as “Citizen Kane Jr. Blues,” and later retitled “Pushed It Over the End” when it resurfaced that summer on CSNY’s stadium reunion tour. Supposedly inspired by Patty Hearst, it would have been a highlight for most songwriters — Young hasn’t played it since.

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Harvest is Young’s biggest album, but its title track remains a lesser-known gem in his catalog. That might be because the lyrics are oblique even by his standards: “Dream up, dream up/Let me fill your cup with the promise of a man.” But the music is the essence of easygoing stoner country, led by the straightforward piano of John Harris. As Young once put it, “’Harvest’ is one of my best songs. That’s the best thing on Harvest.”

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A high point of the acoustic side of Rust Never Sleeps — just Young and his guitar, brooding over his compulsive need to keep hitting the road. Still only 32, he worries about turning into a dinosaur and has a few harsh words for Crosby, Stills, and Nash (“They were just dead weight to me”). Young knows the thrasher is coming for him someday, but he faces mortality with no sentimentality, just a shrug.

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‘Look Out for My Love’

This paranoid, menacing acoustic stomp is a Crazy Horse recording like no other. They cut it at Young’s ranch in 1976, at the tail end of a massive drug binge. “It was a marathon,” Frank “Poncho” Sampedro recalled. “Girls were there, makin’ us Mexican coffees, choppin’ lines.” They blew through this take at 6 a.m. As producer David Briggs said, “We knew we had nailed it. It had the spook.”

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‘Roll Another Number (For the Road)’

Woodstock was a mere four years in the past when Young debuted “Roll Another Number” while on tour in 1973, but there was already plenty of longing for that bygone era. “I’m a million miles away from that helicopter day,” he sang. The song became a defiant statement, closing out many gigs, perhaps as a kiss-off to fans who came expecting a night of hits.

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“Even Richard Nixon has got soul,” Young sang in “Campaigner.” He wrote this acoustic ballad while on tour, after watching a TV news bulletin about Nixon’s wife, Pat, being hospitalized, and debuted it onstage hours later. “Guess I felt sorry for [Nixon] that night,” he said. In the Decade liner notes, Young had a droll explanation for his surprising pardon: “Sort of a modern-day Cortez, you know.”

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“There is no dearer friend of mine/That I know in this life,” Young sings on this moving piano ballad, originally written during 1976 sessions with the Stills-Young Band. Some have speculated that it’s about his at-times-tenuous friendship with Stephen Stills, but Young has said it’s about producer Jack Nitzsche, then struggling with drugs and personal issues. A live version with ghostly backing vocals and faint electric guitar was widely bootlegged. But it didn’t get officially released until Young performed it on Unplugged in 1993, showing new listeners an example of his songwriting at its most somberly powerful, while offering a gift to die-hard fans.

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‘Comes a Time’

The homespun folk album Comes a Time arrived after a run of anguished rock records like Tonight’s the Night and Zuma, offering fans some of Young’s most amiable music in years. “It’s the first record I’ve released,” said Young, “where I’m actually facing the audience on the jacket and smiling.” Originally recorded solo-acoustic before being recut with a full band, the album’s title track features Rufus Thibodeaux’s lilting fiddle and Nicolette Larson’s warm backing vocal, which add porch-y ambience to Young’s wistful melody. When he sings “This old world/Keeps spinning round,” it’s resignation with a touch of contentment.

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‘Be the Rain’

In 2003, at the height of America’s mood of blinkered Iraq War–era jingoism, Young released Greendale, a politically charged concept album he also spun into a graphic novel and film. It told the story of a fictional American town and a family struggling there. “I don’t think Americans felt holier-than-thou in the 20th century,” Young told Rolling Stone during the 2003 tour with Crazy Horse to support the album. “Something else is going on now. That’s what Greendale is about.” Greendale’s finale and highlight is a latter-day combination of a socially aware CSNY homily and a wailing Crazy Horse guitar jam. Leading a chorus in a call-and-response while hollering through what sounds like a megaphone, Young declares the need to “save Mother Earth” against Big Oil and corporate farms that are dumping toxic waste into rivers. “Don’t care what the governments say/They’re all bought and paid for anyway,” he shouts. “The energy [in “Be the Rain”], that’s youth rising out of this,” Young said, adding, “This period is the biggest breeding ground for revolution in this country since the mid-Sixties.”

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‘Sample and Hold’

The experimentation of “Sample and Hold” is precisely the sort of gesture that inspired David Geffen to sue Young for releasing “unrepresentative” music. The Kraftwerk-inspired, synth-heavy tune, on which he sang through a vocoder, was unlike anything he had recorded up until that point. But he wasn’t just being an anti-corporate contrarian: Trans was inspired by his young son Ben, who has cerebral palsy and can’t communicate with language; Young wanted people to feel what it’s like to hear words without understanding them. “Sample and Hold” was partially inspired by a new digital system for controlling toy trains, a hobby Young would later share with his son.