From Johnny Cash to Radiohead: The 10 best Neil Young covers of all time
There are few artists that feel as authentic as Neil Young. Not plagued by ego or individualism, Young hasn’t just been one of the starring songwriters of his five decades in the limelight but he’s also been just as happy to take a backseat and let the band take the praise. That’s because, for Young, it’s all about the music.
It has been an authenticity which has permeated nearly everything he has ever done and continues to do. While he takes on the highest office in the land on regular occasions, Young never feels far from the working-class culture from which he grew. It is a sentiment that has seen him stay permanently aligned with musicians of the day.
As such, Neil Young has never been too far away from being covered by an incredible artist and below we have ten of our favourites. From the mercurial talent of Thom Yorke and Patti Smith to the powerhouse Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash—everybody loves to cover the man, Neil Young.
What’s more, there are countless efforts that could have made this list too, Whether it was K.D. Lang’s reinvention of ‘Helpless’ or Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris’ version of ‘After The Gold Rush’ there were no small amount of entries for consideration.
However, we whittled them down to our favourite ten and you can listen to them all below.
The 10 best Neil Young covers of all time:
10. ‘Heart of Gold’ – Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash may well be one of the best singers to ever pick up the song of another. Cash, largely through his Rick Rubin project from the ’90s American Recordings has taken on pretty much any artist worth their salt. So it’s no surprise he’s also got a Neil Young cover up his sleeve.
This version of the beautiful ‘Heart of gold’ is given extra gravitas but Cash’s rumbling vocal. While it doesn’t quite re-write the song as he did for the Trent Reznor track ‘Hurt’, it’s hard to deny the unique quality Cash adds to this number. It showcased the singer as a legend and only added extra weight to Young’s credibility.
9. ‘Down By The River’ – Low & Dirty Three
Low and Dirty Three may not necessarily be bands you are completely aligned with but the slowcore giants, Low, take on this track with devastating effect. A tale of southern gothic tendencies, ‘Down By The River’ is given an extra kick of brilliance when Warren Ellis’ incredible violin rears its head.
The first minutes of the cover is unrecognisable as a Young song but as it gains volume Mimi Parker, Low’s vocalist, provides an ethereal moment of resplendence. It’s about as far away from a Young original as you can find and it’s a real beauty.
8. ‘Heart of Gold’ – Charles Bradley
Another version of the same song that couldn’t be further from Cash’s attempt. This one comes from the late, great Charles Bradley and is drenched in the funky soul of the 1970s. While Neil Young’s version is certainly weighted with society’s ills, Bradley takes these reflections to a new level.
The song feels like it could leap right out of history and define a generation. There’s a beautiful production on the song too, largely dipped in analogue nostalgia it’s a testament to Bradley’s ability that he has made such a serious song sound so fresh and funky.
7. ‘Cinnamon Girl’ – Smashing Pumpkins
Taken from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the 1969 track ‘Cinnamon Girl’ is often lauded as one of Young’s finest simply for the unique guitar sound. It’s something we imagine first attracted Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins to the track too.
Corgan does a fine job of channelling the sentiment of Young in this rough cut form the early days of the band. In fact, the band do such a great job that they even throw on an extra noodling solo too. It’s the kind of jam that Young and his band Crazy Horse would certainly be proud of.
6. ‘After The Gold Rush’ – Patti Smith
Singing songs by other people has been a longtime passion of Patti Smith’s. The punk poet has found the expression of others equally as liberating as her own on stage and she’s never shied away from taking the mic to sing another’s song. This performance of ‘After The Gold Rush’ may well be our favourite.
Having alose taken on the track this year following a performance on Jimmy Fallon’s show, this 2012 version is far superior and sees the punk pioneer take on one of Young’s prettiest melodies. While Smith may have thrived on intense energy before, on this performance she was happy to let the music carry her away,
5. ‘Winterlong’ – Pixies
Another inventive cover this time arrives from Black Francis and his band the Pixies. It dates back to October 1990 and sees the alt-rock group in their creative peak, delivering this, a quite sensational cover of a Neil Young rarity.
The track was originally released by Pixies as the b-side to the Bossanova single ‘Dig For Me’ and has become a fan favourite ever since. Naturally far more sludgy than the original what Francis even does a grand job of matching up to Young’s snarling moments on this record. Without doubt, it is one of the most original cover son the list.
4. ‘Fucking Up’ – Pearl Jam
Few bands are as intrinsically connected with Neil Young as Pearl Jam. Often seen as The Godfather of Grunge, Eddie Vedder and co.’s love of Young can never be underestimated. During a period of Pearl Jam’s rise to the top of the rock pile, the band would even close out their sets with a Young classic.
Naturally, that song would be ‘Fucking Up’ a track the group performed as their final number on 1988’s Live on Two Legs. It’s one of the most searing performances of the whole night and shows that the band’s love of Neil Young runs far deeper than anyone else on this list.
3. ‘Like A Hurricane’ – Roxy Music
Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music have always had fun with covers. In fact, Ferry’s covers album These Foolish Things may well be one of the best to ever be recorded. But on their 1983 live EP The High Road, Roxy Music lay down one of the definitive covers of Neil Young.
As it is Bryan Ferry, the singer naturally brings a heavy dose of suaveness and sexiness to proceedings as well as a plethora of expertly talented musicians. That means there is an undeniable groove to the song that marries up with the driving rhythm of Young’s original. As ever, it’s hard not to be charmed by Ferry’s version of events.
2. ‘Old Man’ – Bob Dylan
One of Neil Young’s most poignant songs sees the then 27-year-old singer write a track about himself as an old man. As time has passed it has become a potent moment in Young’s sets as he gradually draws closer and closer to becoming the vision of himself he originally laid out. It’s a sentiment that was compounded by Bob Dylan’s performance of the song some 40 years after it was written.
Dylan was performing at Madison Square Garden when he paid homage to his longtime friend Neil Young. As Bob Dylan tends to do, the songwriter naturally makes a few amends to the lines in the song with one particularly challenging moment where he turns Young’s fabled lines into a question, one perhaps directed at both himself and Young: “Doesn’t mean that much to me. Does it mean that much to you?”
1. ‘After The Gold Rush’ – Radiohead
We could have easily included Thom Yorke’s solo effort on this song from 2002 on this list but with such a rare performance from Radiohead in our canon, we thought we’d save the dose of Yorke until the end. After all, Yorke is a huge fan. The singer’s adoration for Young came about in a curious manner. As a 16-year-old he sent some home recordings into the BBC in the hopes of gaining some attention for his songs. “They said, ‘This guy sounds like Neil Young,’” Yorke told the BBC in 2008. “I was like, ‘Who is Neil Young?’”
The singer soon found himself a nearby record shop trying to right his wrongs and picked up Young’s 1970 LP After The Gold Rush. “I immediately fell in love with his music,” said Yorke. “He has that soft vibrato that nobody else has. More than that, it was his attitude toward the way he laid songs down. It’s always about laying down whatever is in your head at the time and staying completely true to that, no matter what it is.”
So when he and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood were at the Electric Ladyland Studios with an audience and a set to fill, there was only ever going to be one man who they’d cover. Yorke decided he would play a song that had been “going round in my head” during the recording of the new record. Amply backed by Greenwood the duo performs Young’s ‘After The Gold Rush’ with arresting beauty.