You know the drill – a dozen (or so) great songs, from a dozen different albums by the incomparable Neil Young. Of course, as always, this is dealer’s choice…
The Song: ‘Mr. Soul’ (from the album Retrospective: The Best Of Buffalo Springfield)
What makes it great: Hinting at Young’s uneasy future ride with fame, and sporting the kind of totally indecipherable lyrics that would grace his best work, ‘Mr. Soul’ is arguably his first great song.
Key lyrics: “In a while will the smile on my face turn to plaster?/Stick around while the clown who is sick does the trick of disaster”
The song: ‘After The Gold Rush’ (from the album After The Gold Rush)
What makes it great: A sad, weird, environmentally conscious tune that features french horn – quintessential Neil.
Key lyrics: “There was a fanfare blowing/To the sun/That was floating on the breeze/Look at Mother Nature on the run/In the nineteen seventies”
The song: ‘Are You Ready For The Country?’ (from the album Harvest)
What makes it great: If you boiled all of Neil’s songs down into a single ur-song, this would be the one.
Key lyrics: “I was talkin’ to the preacher, said God was on my side/Then I ran into the hangman, he said it’s time to die”
The song: ‘Ambulance Blues’ (from the album On The Beach)
What makes it great: Rusty Kershaw’s mournful fiddle adds a dirge-like air to this outstanding cut from the great, long lost album On The Beach.
Key lyrics: “So all you critics sit alone/You’re no better than me for what you’ve shown/With your stomach pump and your hook and ladder dreams/We could get together for some scenes”
The song: ‘Cortez The Killer’ (from the album Zuma)
What makes it great: Neil the primitive meets Neil the conqueror. His heaviest moment on wax comes courtesy of the reconstituted Crazy Horse, with Frank Sampedro on guitar.
Key lyrics: “He came dancing across the water/With his galleons and guns/Looking for the new world/In that palace in the sun”
The song: ‘Will To Love’ (from the album American Stars ‘N Bars)
What makes it great: Neil compares himself to a fish swimming upstream in this epic that has plenty of “the spook” he and producer David Briggs were always looking for. Neil has frequently cited it as one of his best pieces of work.
Key lyrics: “But somewhere someone calls my name/I’m a harpoon dodger, and I can’t, won’t be tamed”
The song: ‘Thrasher’ (from the album Rust Never Sleeps)
What makes it great: Performed with acoustic guitar and harmonica, this is nonetheless Neil’s rallying cry against complacency – and a big middle finger to his old pals Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Key lyrics: “So I got bored and left them there/They were just deadweight to me/Better down the road without that load”
The song: ‘The Needle And The Damage Done’ (from the album Live Rust)
What makes it great: One of Neil’s most gut-wrenching songs, this was written for the late Danny Whitten, onetime guitarist for Crazy Horse. This version just edges the original from After The Gold Rush, which was also recorded live.
Key lyrics: “I’ve seen the needle and the damage done/A little part of it in everyone/But every junkie’s like a settin’ sun”
The song: ‘Transformer Man’ (from the album Trans)
What makes it great: Generally dismissed as a vocoder novelty, this is perhaps Young’s most autobiographical song. It was written for his son Ben, who has cerebral palsy and is cast here as a super hero.
Key lyrics: “Transformer man, transformer man/Unlock the secrets/Let us throw off the chains that hold you down”
The song: ‘Ten Men Workin’ (from the album This Note’s For You)
What makes it great: Hearing Neil with horns is enough to make this worth a listen – the fact that it cooks is what makes it great. After soaking this one in, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had released a rap album.
Key lyrics: “We are men at work/We got a job to do/We gotta keep you rockin’/To keep your soul from the blue”
The song: ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ (from the album Freedom)
What makes it great: A deliciously ambiguous take on that shitty (and fantastic!) place that is America.
Key lyrics: “There’s colors on the street/Red, white and blue/People shufflin’ their feet/People sleepin’ in their shoes”
The song: ‘Sleeps With Angels’ (from the album Sleeps With Angels)
What makes it great: Neil’s nod to Kurt Cobain is full of prowling menace and emotionally raw power. Backing band Crazy Horse proved that after two decades, they could still take Neil’s music to a higher place.
Key lyrics: “He sleeps with angels/Too soon/He’s always on someone’s mind”
The song: ‘Silver & Gold’ (from the album Silver & Gold)
What makes it great: This song had been kicking around Neil’s archives in various forms for a couple of decades before he made it the title track of his 2000 album. Not only was it worth the wait, it proved to be one of his best ballads.
Key lyrics: “I used to have a treasure chest/Got so heavy that I had to rest/I let it slip away from me/Didn’t need it anyway”
Tags: Neil Young