“Being a musician enables a person to bend the notes and express things that are inside you, no matter what.” – Neil Young.
For six decades now, Neil Young has defied all musical standards and stood as both an oddity in the industry and a simultaneous tenet of both rock ‘n’ roll and folk. “Give a hippie too much money,” he says, “and anything can happen.” Young is living proof of that pithy little soundbite.
When he first made his way into music, he couldn’t have been more ‘in the industry’. Having left Canada behind to pursue a career, he found himself thrust headlong into the heady days of Los Angeles as a member of the brilliant Buffalo Springfield. Here he would find himself confronted by the likes of Charles Manson and other dangerous miscreants in what he referred to as the dark side of the Maharishi movement. The incense and green pastures of a rather more laidback Laurel Canyon suited him better so off he went.
After the breakup of Buffalo Springfield, Young signed a solo deal but he found the spotlight came with a major glare, he always has, and he always hasn’t — he’s complex like that. For his second solo record, after an underwhelming first, Young welcomed Danny Whitten into the fold. Whitten’s death by an overdose in the coming years would have a dramatic impact on Young as a player and as a person.
Even prior to Whitten’s end, his demise pushed Young into a more introspective realm and soon he was producing undoubted masterpieces with After the Gold Rush and Harvest. Alongside these two astounding albums was his spell in the wildly successful Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. With this run of records, his status as a music great was assured.
Rather than embark on a gaudy career of rock ‘n’ roll trappings, however, he has always walked his own line, absconded off in his fabled ranch, he dabbles in the music industry when he likes, and the rest of the time he works the land and plays with model trains. Likewise, he pours time and effort into various charitable pursuits and activism campaigns, however, he is also guarded against coming off as preachy.
These dichotomies are the inherent characteristics of Young as both a man and a musician. The duality in his music makes his back catalogue soar, capturing the light and dark in this and pronouncing it with great singularity. It also makes his career one of the most varied in music, he happily cuts loose on blistering rock solos with the Crazy Horses in adrenalised shows of sonic deliverance, and then the next minute he is a demure solo stage presence cogitating on things and offering up catharsis with simple beauty. Yes, he’s a hard man to pin down, and it would seem that’s just how he likes it.
No doubt, there are highs and lows in his back catalogue. One minute he can quite inexplicably tread into grunge and produce the masterful Zuma, the next he can waver into big band sounds and somewhat be found wanting, but undoubtedly, no matter where he is, he possesses enough profound individualism that makes him identifiable in an instant. In short, he is what he is, just as he always has been, and he has left a mammoth mark on the industry doing that.
Below we have collated his 40 greatest solo songs (either performed with or without the Crazy Horses). Naturally, all CSNY songs have been omitted, but lord knows we’ll be producing a stellar playlist for them one day too. The tracks below are presented in no particular order (but you can find a previous ranking by clicking here) and they’re all wrapped up in an essential playlist at the bottom. Enjoy…
Neil Young’s 40 greatest solo songs:
- ‘After the Gold Rush’
- ‘Ambulance Blues’
- ‘Be the Rain’
- ‘Cinnamon Girl’
- ‘Cortez the Killer’
- ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’
- ‘Danger Bird’
- ‘Don’t Cry No Tears’
- ‘Don’t Let it Bring You Down’
- ‘Down by the River’
- ‘Everybody Knows This is Nowhere’
- ‘F*!#in’ Up’
- ‘From Hank to Hendrix’
- ‘Goin’ Home’
- ‘Harvest Moon’
- ‘Heart of Gold’
- ‘Hey Hey, My My, (Into the Black)’
- ‘Like a Hurricane’
- ‘Motion Pictures’
- ‘Old Man’
- ‘On the Beach’
- ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’
- ‘Ordinary People’
- ‘Out on the Weekend’
- ‘Razor Love’
- ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’
- ‘Southern Man’
- ‘Sugar Mountain’
- ‘Tell Me Why’
- ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’
- ‘Tired Eyes’
- ‘Unknown Legend’
- ‘Walk Like a Giant’
- ‘Walk On’