Neil Young: The Best Song from Every Album

Warning: "Heart of Gold," "Cinnamon Girl" and "Rockin' in the Free World" are not on this list.

By Brian Ives 

December marks the 50th anniversary of the debut album by Buffalo Springfield, the band that made Neil Young (as well as his bandmate, Stephen Stills) a star. In the decades since, Young has recorded and toured prolifically, rarely going more than a year without a new release.

We thought this would be a good time to look back at some of the highlights of his discography as a solo artist, with Crosby Stills Nash and Young, the Stills Young Band and with Buffalo Springfield. 

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“Out of My Mind” from Buffalo Springfield’s Buffalo Springfield (1966) – Young wrote five songs for Buffalo Springfield’s debut album, and they’re all winners.  This one is lovely psychedelic ballad that also features Young’s plaintive lead vocals (three of the songs that he wrote on Buffalo Springfield featured bandmate Richie Furay as lead singer).

“Mr. Soul” from Buffalo Springfield’s Buffalo Springfield Again (1967) –  Probably Young’s most famous Buffalo Springfield song, it’s also one of the most durable tunes in his catalog, showing up in his set lists in different arrangements, decade after decade. He’s done harder rock versions of it over the years, but also did an acoustic take for MTV Unplugged, and even re-recorded a synth-heavy version for Trans.

“On the Way Home” from Buffalo Springfield’s Last Time Around (1968) – One of Young’s most pop-friendly, highly orchestrated moments, this one features horns, strings and his bandmate Richie Furay on lead vocals.

“I’ve Been Waiting for You” from Neil Young (1969) – First off, the best song here should be “Sugar Mountain,” but that song was relegated the b-side status (it was the flipside of “The Loner”). “I’ve Been Waiting for You,” though, was  one of the more rocking moments from Young’s self-titled debut. Decades later, David Bowie covered the song (with Dave Grohl on guitar!) for his 2002 album, Heathen, and he actually improved on the original.

“Down By the River” from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) – This was Young’s second post-Springfield album, but his first with Crazy Horse. This album is a classic and pretty flawless, and contains a number of great songs, including “Cinnamon Girl,” “Cowgirl in the Sand” and the title track. “Down By The River” points towards the raging, ragged, exploring guitar solos that would be an essential part of his electric music for decades to come.

“Helpless” from Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s Deja Vu (1970) –  Legend has it that he wrote this one with Crazy Horse in mind, but clearly, it belongs to CSNY, whose backing vocals bring an extra layer of beauty to the song. However, Young’s solo piano versions that he’s played at his acoustic concerts over the years show that he doesn’t need anyone’s help to make this song work.

“After the Gold Rush” from After the Gold Rush (1970) – After the Gold Rush may well be Young’s finest album, and there’s not a bad moment on it. The album yielded some of Young’s biggest classics, including “Southern Man,” “When You Dance I Can Really Love” and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” This piano ballad is a plea for us to care a bit more about the environment, and the song gets more relevant every year, although Young has to change “look at mother nature on the run in the nineteen-seventies” to fit whatever decade he’s in.

“Harvest” from Harvest (1972) The title track of Young’s best-selling album, this lovely ballad may have gotten lost, what with “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “The Needle and the Damage Done” and “A Man Needs a Maid” on the same album. But “Harvest” stands among his best songs.

“Don’t Be Denied” from Time Fades Away (1973) Time Fades Away has been out of print for decades; Young reportedly doesn’t like the album. That’s a shame; it’s a great from start to finish. But maybe Young is warming to it; he’s played “Don’t Be Denied” in concert in recent years. Norah Jones, whose band Puss N Boots opened for Young at a number of shows when he played it, was inspired to cover it for her new album, Day Breaks.

“For the Turnstiles” from On the Beach (1974) – Young has always had an ambivalent relationship with fame, and this acoustic number, from one of Young’s most underrated albums, voices that: “Though your confidence may be shattered/it doesn’t matter.” You still gotta make those turnstiles turn.

“Tonight’s the Night” from Tonight’s the Night (1975) On Tonight’s the Night, the title track laments the deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry; the album as a whole combined Young’s Crazy Horse and country sides into a mournful woozy garage country brew.

“Don’t Cry No Tears” from Zuma (1975) From the first album that featured Crazy Horse’s new guitarist Frank “Pancho” Sampdero, this is a rollicking garage rock jam that saw the Horse in lean, mean form.

“Long May You Run” from the Stills Young Band’s Long May You Run (1976) Long May You Run isn’t one of the highlights of Young’s or Stills’ career; it’s one of the weakest in the Young discography. But Young’s title track is gorgeous.

“Homegrown” from American Stars ‘n Bars (1977) – A Crazy Horse stomper, this one has become a staple of Young’s Farm Aid sets over the years. Although everyone dancing in the aisles to the song may not be thinking about homegrown vegetables. We’ll give this one a slight edge over the Crazy Horse rocker from the same album, “Like a Hurricane.”

“Comes a Time” from Comes a Time (1978) – He returned to high production values for much of this album, including a string section, and a whole bunch of acoustic guitarists. The album had “Lotta Love,” which would be a huge hit for Linda Ronstadt, but “Comes a Time” is the album’s most enduring song.

“My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” and “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”  from Rust Never Sleeps (1979) (tie) – Like Tonight’s the NightRust Never Sleeps began and ended with different takes on the same song, but these two songs are arranged radically differently; the first is Neil playing solo acoustic, and the latter is Young raging with Crazy Horse. Both versions got their share of radio play and they’re both classics.

“Captain Kennedy” from Hawks and Doves (1980) – Young has never been easy to pin down, and that was never more true than this album; side one, “Doves,” had songs recorded in the ’70s (including “Captain Kennedy”); side two, the “Hawks” side, had a much more right-wing patriotic bent, alienating some of his fans. Politics aside, “Captain Kennedy” was the highlight of this album.

“Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze” from Re*Ac*Tor (1981) – The ’80s were a weird, exploratory decade for Young. This album saw Young and Crazy Horse taking on more of a new wave sound, something that Young would delve further into on his next album.

“Transformer Man” from Trans (1982) – Young went deep into the world of synthesizers, synclaviers and vocoders on this album, all but burying the songs under (then-) modern sounding production. Years later, he performed this song at his MTV Unplugged; it that arrangement, it was revealed to be a lovely, and underrated, gem.

“Wonderin'” from Everybody’s Rockin’ (1983) – By 1983, no one knew what to expect from Neil Young; even still, a rockabilly album (credited to “Neil and the Shocking Pink”) was a surprise. This song, though, was more of a doo-wop arrangement of a song he wrote in the ’70s; the bizarre music video actually got some play on the then-fledgling MTV.

“Are There Any More Real Cowboys? (featuring Willie Nelson)” from Old Ways (1985) – Young’s next stylistic experimentation was to go full-on country on Old Ways. This album featured a collaboration with Waylon Jennings, but his duet with Willie Nelson was the true highlight.

“Hippie Dream” from Landing on Water (1986) – Young returned to a more modern sound on his next album. During an era where many of his peers were feeling nostalgic for the ’60s, Young looks back on that decade with near-disdain, even name-dropping a CSN classic: “But the wooden ships/were a hippie dream.”

“When Your Lonely Heart Breaks” from Life (1987) – Young reunited with Crazy Horse here, and this album was something of a bridge between Re*Ac*Tor and the band’s classic sound. The band resurrected this one in their set about a decade later, and the version on the live album Year of the Horse is a much stronger take on the song.

“This Note’s For You” from This Note’s For You (1988) – For once, Young’s song transcended his stylistic mode. This Note’s For You saw Young backing himself with a large R&B band, including a horn section. This song was a withering attack on other major artists who took huge checks for being in commercials, including Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston; the video opens with what seems to be a parody of Glenn Frey’s “You Belong to the Night.” The video was immediately banned from MTV, which got the song more publicity than playing it on the air would have.

“Got it Made” from Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s American Dream (1988) – American Dream was a well-intended reunion; Young promised he’d rejoin CSNY if Crosby got clean. But the album wasn’t too inspired; this adult-contemporary number, co-written by Stills and Young and sung by Stills, was one of the bright spots, even though it would have benefitted from a less synthy arrangement.

“Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero, Part One)” from Freedom (1989) – Freedom was something of a return to form for Young; it included a lot of acoustic moments, as well as country-tinged songs and raging Crazy Horse-style rockers (although the Horse wasn’t on the album). This song, though, was something different: it combined an acoustic setup with his Bluenotes horn section from This Note’s For You. You could practically write a screenplay from this song And yes, we chose this over two great versions of “Rockin’ in the Free World” that bookend the album.

“Love and Only Love” from Ragged Glory (1990) – This was the Crazy Horse reunion people were waiting for. As Kurt Loder wrote in his album review for Rolling Stone, “Yes, kids, here’s a guy grizzled enough to be your own quaint, ex-hippie dad, and he and his equally antique pals are blasting out a tune called ‘F—in’ Up’ that would singe the curls of any corporate-metal act currently on the charts. It really is inspiring.” And while “F—in’ Up” is a classic, “Love and Only Love” is the album’s best moment.

“Unknown Legend” from Harvest Moon (1992) – After the Ragged Glory tour, Young began suffering from tinnitus (that’s probably true of most of the audiences from that tour). So he returned to acoustic music for the next album, and while the title track was the album’s closest thing to a hit, the opening song is the album’s best song.  “From Hank to Hendrix” is a close second.

“Change Your Mind” from Sleeps with Angels (1994) – Young’s reaction to Kurt Cobain’s death (Cobain quoted Young in his suicide note) was a dark album that veered between anger and depression. This near-fifteen-minute jam did a better job of expressing sorrow and regret in the guitar solos than the lyrics, which were still pretty potent.

“Downtown” from Mirror Ball (1995) – By the ’90s, Young was seen as an icon to a younger generation of rock bands; he was the one guy who never seemed to sell out; he never made you embarrassed to be a fan. On Mirror Ball, Pearl Jam — the biggest rock group in the world at that moment — paid him the ultimate tribute by acting as his backing band. This song, in an earlier era, would have been a hit, and it’s a shame it wasn’t in ’95.

“Slip Away” from Broken Arrow (1996) – If you stopped following Young’s albums by the mid-’90s, check yourself; this Crazy Horse album is maybe his most underrated, and there’s plenty of great songs there. But “Slip Away,” clocking in at almost 10 minutes, is the Horse at its finest.

“Slowpoke” from Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s Looking Forward (1999) – Looking Forward wasn’t so much a CSNY album as an album of CSN songs that Young added guitar and vocals to, or (as on this song) a Neil Young album that featured CSN on backing vocals. This is Young’s strongest contribution to the album.

“Buffalo Springfield Again” from Silver and Gold (2000) – This was the album Young was working on when he decided to reunite with CSNY; he gave them their pick of songs from the album. It would have been cool to hear Young and Stills on this song; alas that wasn’t to be. But this wistful look back at his early band was the highlight of the album.

“She’s a Healer” from Are You Passionate? (2002) – A strange album for Young; he put together a band that combined Booker T. Jones and Donald “Duck” Dunn from Booker T. & the MGs (who he’d toured with in the ’90s) and Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Pancho” Sampdero. The album included the 9/11 reaction “Let’s Roll,” but this nearly ten-minute jam was the best song from these sessions.

“Bandit” from Greendale (2003) – Greendale, a post-9/11 rock opera, was a critique of the Bush administration, and was a harsh look at life in the new millennium. The album was ambitious but didn’t really work; this acoustic number is probably the only song from the album that would hold up in concert outside of the context of the story.

“Prairie Wind” from Prairie Wind (2005) – Young went from one of his most political albums to one of his most personal; much of this album, and this song, was inspired by his father’s battle with dementia. Prairie Wind went for a big country soul sound, using strings, horns and backing vocals, and this was of the album’s best songs.

“Roger and Out” from Living With War (2006) – Here, he went back to politics (the album included the anti-Bush anthem, “Let’s Impeach the President”). Most of the songs don’t really transcend this era, but this song about a pair of vets is timeless.

“Spirit Road” from Chrome Dreams II (2007) – A sequel to an album that never came out; how “Neil” is that? This one sounds like a Crazy Horse rocker, and in fact featured the Horse’s drummer Ralph Molina.

“Get Behind the Wheel” from Fork in the Road (2009) – Not one of his stronger albums. During the same era, Young guested on Booker T. Jones’ solo album Potato Hole, which included a cover of Tom Waits’ “Get Behind the Mule,” a song which quite obviously influenced this one.

“Walk With Me” from Le Noise (2010) – Ostensibly a true “solo” album, which only featured Young, the album was actually a collaboration with producer Daniel Lanois (one of the few people from outside Young’s camp to produce an album for him). It’s one of his most experimental records; this song, in particular would probably work well in a band format (and he tried it, live, with Pearl Jam once).

“Oh Susannah” from Americana (2012) – Young reunited with Crazy Horse for this collection of garage rock versions of American classics. This imagines the song from the 1800s as a early ’60s rocker.

“Psychedelic Pill” from Psychedelic Pill (2012) – Young and Crazy Horse began working on new songs after their Americana experience, and bashed out a double album of lengthy, lengthy jams. The album’s opening track, “Driftin’ Back,” stretches to nearly a half hour. The title track’s strength is in its brevity; it would hold its own on earlier Crazy Horse albums.

“Needle of Death” from A Letter Home (2014) – Here, Young went to Jack White’s Third Man Records to record a solo acoustic album of covers. He recorded the album in White’s recording booth. Young mic-ed the room and recorded songs, and read a few letters to his deceased mom. “Needle of Death” is a song by folk legend Bert Jansch, and Young practically ripped off the entire song decades earlier for On the Beach‘s “Ambulance Blues.” A great song, but “Needle” cuts even deeper.

“When I Watch You Sleeping” from Storytone (2014) – His second album of 2014 was a complete about-face from A Letter HomeStorytone saw Young writing new songs, and featured his vocals. He didn’t even play guitar. Instead, he was backed by a symphony orchestra or a big band on every song. This is one of Young’s sweetest love songs.

“A New Day for Love” from The Monsanto Years (2015) – The Monsanto Years, like Greendale or Fork in the Road could sometimes crumble under the weight of Young’s lyrics. But Monsanto teamed Young with Promise of the Real, a younger band (no pun intended) led by Willie Nelson’s son Lukas, had some inspired jams, including this one.

 

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