Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Neil Young
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 back seat and let the band take the praise.
We’re looking back at purely Young’s solo career and giving him the spotlight that he deserves. Aside from being a powerful and poignant guitar player, Young is also a behemoth in songwriting and the ‘Six Definitive Songs’ effort is a testament to that.
Few artists have been as prolific as Neil Young in their career. Never deterred by workload or expectation, Young has always been his own master and has made sure that everything he has done has been an accurate reflection of him. Whether that’s being involved with Farm Aid from the beginning or working hard for The Bridge School, Young is normally the ageing rocker that makes you feel good about rock and roll.
:I don’t like to be labeled, to be anything. I’ve made the mistake before myself of labelling my music, but it’s counter-productive,” Young once said in a quote which typifies his approach to music. “The thing about my music is, there really is no point,” he added, nonchalantly. “I just do what I do. I like to make music.”
Taking a look at his back catalogue and you can see both how and why Young garnered so many fans during his time in the limelight.
Below, we’ve pulled together six songs which tell Young’s vast and impressive story.
Six definitive songs of Neil Young:
‘After The Gold Rush’ – After The Gold Rush (1970)
‘After The Gold Rush’ may well be one of Young’s most well-known songs but there’s a very good reason for that—it is easily understandable and digestible, providing the perfect distillation of Young’s talent.
The songwriter here uses purposefully baffling lyrics aligned with a simple piano-led tone to create an all-encompassing sound that feels both captivating and inescapable. The song is actually built on three different motifs. “[It’s] about three times in history,” Young once said. “There’s a Robin Hood scene, there’s a fire scene in the present and there’s the future… the air is yellow and red, ships are leaving, certain people can go and certain people can’t… I think it’s going to happen.”
The lyrics may have become more clear if the project they were originally intended for came to fruition. Sadly, Dean Stockwell’s project never got off the ground. Nevertheless, we have one of Young’s finest compositions as compensation, despite its confusion.
When Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris were recording the song they too were baffled by its actual meaning: “So we called Neil Young, and he didn’t know. We asked him, flat out, what it meant, and he said, ‘Hell, I don’t know. I just wrote it. It just depends on what I was taking at the time. I guess every verse has something different I’d taken.'”
‘Old Man’ – Harvest (1972)
By 1970, Young had shaken off the shackles of working within Buffalo Springfield and was quickly marking himself out as a contender for the title of America’s songwriter. It was during this time that Young made the move and bought a plot of land in Northern California and turned it into Broken Arrow Ranch, where he still lives to this day.
When he was buying a plot of land he met Louis Avila, who showed him around the estate: “Louis took me for a ride in this blue Jeep,” Young said in 2005.
“He gets me up there on the top side of the place, and there’s this lake up there that fed all the pastures, and he says, ‘Well, tell me, how does a young man like yourself have enough money to buy a place like this?’ And I said, ‘Well, just lucky, Louie, just real lucky.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s the darndest thing I ever heard.’ And I wrote this song for him.”
Despite Young now being older than Avila was in the song, the track still feels as ageless and timeless as when he first wrote it. This is pure Youngian lyricism at its finest.
‘Heart of Gold’ – Harvest (1972)
If one song sealed Neil Young’s transformation from counter-culture stalwart to a new rock and roll poster boy then it has to be ‘Heart of Gold’. Another brilliant song from the Harvest album, which could have easily dominated this list, sees Young transcend rock and roll and turn pop, if only for a short while.
Featuring backing vocals from none other than James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, the song shot Young into stardom and was later despised by the songwriter. It’s a song that Bob Dylan saw as purposely copying him: “The only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, in about ’72 and the big song at the time was ‘Heart of Gold’,” he once commented.
“I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to ‘Heart of Gold.’ I think it was up at number one for a long time, and I’d say, ‘Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me’.”
It’s a sentiment Young shared in his famous 1977 liner notes for compilation album Decade, saying: “This song put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”
Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact the song shot to number one and still remains to this day as one of Young’s most beloved songs.
‘Powderfinger’ – Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
It’s not often that rock and roller can create songs about such unattainable things as Neil Young consistently does. On ‘Powderfinger’, somehow, Young takes us all on a vivid and imagined trip to the bootlegging backwaters of old America and the frightening feeling of isolation.
The premise of the song is that the family of bootleggers, living out near the river, can see a police boat making its way to their house. A Young man is expected to lead the family because “Daddy’s gone,” “brother’s out hunting in the mountains” and “Big John’s been drinking since the river took Emmy-Lou.” The young man stands on the deck when the boat begins firing at him as he raises his own rifle to shoot the gun backfires and kills him instantly.
The fact that young can seamlessly integrate such a vibrant and unusual story into his music and still wrap it up in one of the most vulnerable and touching melodies is proof of his unstoppable talent.
‘Harvest Moon’ – Harvest Moon (1992)
The sequel to Neil Young’s seminal album, 1972 classic Harvest, saw the songwriter welcome back the same studio band who had helped him cultivate his sound some twenty years prior. He even invited Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor to contribute backing vocals as they had done before.
Not often cited as one of Young’s greatest tracks, we’ve picked it in his most definitive songs because of the moment of reflection it provides. Allowing Young to look back at his previous work provides a powerful and succinct statement, the singer couldn’t have done it without the love of his friends and family.
As such, the song is dedicated to his then-wife Pegi Young. The video sees he and Pegi dancing in the middle of a bar and works as the perfect moment of respite in Young’s back catalogue.
‘Ordinary People’ – Chrome Dreams II (2007)
A long-time live staple for Young fans ever since the late 1980s the track ‘Ordinary People’ finally got its full release in 2007 and took up much of side three of Chrome Dreams II doing it.
At 18 minutes long, the length of the track is somehow more than justified. It sees Young open fire on several areas of society, most notably, Ronald Reagan. Young takes aim at the former President’s administration over nine verses of visceral imagery which depicts ordinary people coping with the financial hardship his administration presided over.
Between these real stories, Young comes alive with his powerful and shaking guitar solos. It’s like the songwriter is using his instrument to fire lasers across the waves toward the White House.
Young sings proudly, “I got faith in the regular kind/ Hard-workin’ people/ Patch-of-ground people,” and you believe every single word of it.