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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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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.”