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“Dolby’s Top 50 Neil Young Songs”

50 “Mellow My Mind” (Tonight’s the Night/1975)
“Mellow My Mind” comes in the easy-hearted, groovin’ mid-section of Tonight’s the Night, with such a natural, organic feel of rock and roll, but still brings some complex emotions nonetheless, with the guileless desire to slow down and relax laced with the crazy disposition of “Lonesome whistle on the railroad track / Ain’t got nothing on those feelings I had”.
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49 “For the Turnstiles” (On the Beach/1974)
At its best, On the Beach has the ability to be hauntingly spare while also broaching champion styles in basic Americana, as on “For the Turnstiles,” which is a straight-ahead banjo ditty about some vague sort of apocalypse happening, the type of thing that’s more common in Neil Young’s catalogue than some might think.
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48 “Love is a Rose” (Decade/1977)
Really, on the whole Decade is a pretty worthy vinyl investment if you’ve got the scratch to swing it, as is just internalizing the whole thing on digital which will include the excellent “Soldier” from Young’s self-penned movie and accompanying soundtrack Journey through the Past, and this love song that it seems is just dedicated to the CONCEPT of love, endearingly and musically beautiful enough, rather than handling some specific love interest of his.
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47 “Harvest Moon” (Harvest Moon/1992)
Built on an honest croon and an easy, steady-rocking groove, Young’s 1992 title track is quintessential unto his catalogue, shirking the current fuzzy guitar feedback and nihilistic lyrical doom of its early ’90s contemporaries and resting on his own welcome subservience to the moment and to life itself, a resignation and humility that was undoubtedly always one of his endearing strengths.
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46 “Sedan Delivery” (Rust Never Sleeps/1979)
Young is called by some the “godfather of grunge” and side b of Rust Never Sleeps is undeniably the bastion within his catalogue most responsible for this purported distinction, in part with “Sedan Delivery” rocking straight ahead in punk power chords but a rockabilly drum beat, and a sort of reckless abandon in the lyricism itself too: “Sedan delivery is a job I know I’ll keep / It sure was hard to find”.
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45 “Revolution Blues” (On the Beach/1974)
When Neil Young really keeled back and rocked straight ahead with crazy horse, one thing you always got was adamant highlighting of his own instrumental virtuosity, as is the case with the incessant guitar licks and solos on this relentless 12-bar blues-rock dirge, disarmingly dark in all its Western compunction and glory: “And in this land of conditions / I’m not above suspicion / I won’t attack you / But I won’t back you”.
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44 “Tired Eyes” (Tonight’s the Night/1975)
“Tired Eyes” rounds out the latter end of Tonight’s the Night save for the title track part two, crawling along at a snail’s pace and with moribund energy and spirits, expending all of its force to desultorily point out the caustic disposition before a drug overdose: “Tell me more / Was he a heavy doper / Or maybe a loser / He was a friend of yours”. This is all compelling enough but the song is still sewn together by Young’s vocal moxie, his ability to craft a memorable melodic statement in the primary part of a song and even throw in a strange phrasing wrinkle, tossing an extra beat into the third bar of the chorus for no apparent reason other than making a singular impression.
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43 “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” (After the Gold Rush/1979)
On After the Gold Rush, Young really started hitting his songwriting stride: the songs became markedly, significantly briefer, the turns, themes and statements rendered therein more closely and full of immediate climax. But the beauty of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” hits you as a very lead-in to the song, a piano intro with a celestial chord progression and a mix that, though gentle, is still full of a rustic rock and roll authenticity, true to the wild West he called home.
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42 “The Needle and the Damage Done” (Harvest/1972)
On “The Needle and the Damage Done,” Young’s got a spooky way of slipping in and out of the crosshairs of his own subject matter, opening the song with “I hear you knocking on my cellar door / I love you baby can I have some more”, which of course could be construed as a plea for a romantic conquest or for such a thing as an exchange for hard drugs. The guitar/vox instrumentation speaks volumes of bare confidence on the part of the songwriter and also you’ve gotta love the line “But every junkie’s like a setting sun”.
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41 “Think of Me” (Colorado/2019)
Colorado got sprung on us with pretty short notice this past fall — upon a close listen though it reveals an amazing, expedited similarity to the holistic totality of Young’s catalogue, similar to the way Harvest Moon does in the rockabilly songwriting department but instead taking on the form of the expansive grunge of Tonight’s the Night or Rust Never Sleeps. Also, Young’s voice sounds remarkably unchanged by time (thank the West Coast where they don’t smoke cigarettes, in stark contrast to Dylan’s New York).
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40 “Welfare Mothers” (Rust Never Sleeps/1979)
For some reason this seems to be a pretty popular favorite from Rust Never Sleeps’ unscrupulous, freewheeling side b — well I guess it’s easy to see with the simple but direct declaration that “Welfare mothers make better lovers”, as well as with the cranked-up, electric swagger of the music itself compared to side a and the wolverine pipes Young shows off all over this track on the vocals themselves.
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39 “Star of Bethlehem” (American Stars ’n Bars/1977)
Here we get another glimpse into Young’s genius in the department of fragile, simple songwriting, with no extraneous noises, no moments wasted and punctilious attention to lyrical detail, which in this case goes from personal (“Ain’t it hard when you wake up in the morning / And you find out that those other days are gone”) to universal (“And still a light it shines / From that land on down the hall / Maybe the star of Bethlehem / Wasn’t a star at all”).
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38 “Tonight’s the Night” (Tonight’s the Night/1975)
The inspiration and primary artistic impetus for the deep, brooding Crazy Horse album Tonight’s the Night, the title track is an emotional paean dedicated to the late Bruce Barry, one of Neil Young’s roadies who succumbed to a heroin overdose in the midst of the artist’s career. I’m a personal sucker for the sort of vague account of Barry masquerading as an avocational musician: “Late at night when the people were gone / He used to pick up my guitar / And sing a song in a shaky voice / That was real as the
day is long”.
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37 “Unknown Legend” (Harvest Moon/1992)
The sublime opener to Young’s 1992 return to form Harvest Moon, “Unknown Legend” conjures literally images of motorcycles, wide open spaces and generally immense freedom, with this music unfurling the
disarming simplicity of American folk and rockabilly, the subject’s undisclosed location of “Somewhere on the desert highway” only adding to the feeling of liberation. This song, though gentle, seems to say loudly: “Don’t live your life in shackles.”
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36 “Driftin’ back” (Psychedelic Pill/2013)
“Driftin’ back” is certainly a formidable beast at 27 minutes in anatomy, but pleasingly playful in all its lyrical faux pas and most importantly proviso of a serious Crazy Horse groove and some textural shredding, the way we used to get on the proud late-’70s stuff like Zuma and American Stars ’n Bars.
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35 “Pocahontas” (Rust Never Sleeps/1979)
The acoustic “Pocahontas” sort of postures as a political protest song against Manifest Destiny, its semantic infrastructure perhaps disintegrating somewhat around the lines “I wish I was a trapper / I would give a thousand pelts / To sleep with Pocahontas / And find out how she felt”. Whether or not accusing their goddess figure of doubling as a prostitute was a good idea, though, it’s a nice gentle folk song to sew together side a of Rust Never Sleeps, full of stark imagery and memorable melodies.
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34 “Like a Hurricane” (American Stars ’n Bars/1977)
It’s probably not an overstatement to describe the caterwauling electric guitar sound that ushers in “Like a Hurricane” as “ugly” and really I think that’s part of its appeal – that metallic squall gives it character and makes for a more comforting listen full of character when you’re enjoying the music in solitary moments. It’s the exact opposite of overproduced — every sound seems to have moxie, attitude and life all of its own, and to stand as a unique voice in the crowd, albeit competing with other voices.
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33 “Walk on” (On the Beach/1974)
“Walk on” kicks off the underrated On the Beach in style, a little 101 lesson on his life: “I remember the good ol’ days / Stayin’ up all night gettin’ crazed”; “I heard some people been talkin’ me down / Bring up my name pass it ’round”; but all congealing around the classic chorus of “Some get strong / Some get strange / Sooner or later it all gets real / Walk on”. The song itself is beautifully median in volume and energy, rocking surely and steadily as an apt album opener to give way to a bevy of variations on its
mojo.
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32 “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” (Tonight’s the Night/1975)
Co-written and co-sung by Neil Young and Danny Whitten, “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” stands as a rare collaboration within Neil Young’s oeuvre, but reinstatement that he’s drawn to junkies and users: “Sure enough they’ll be sellin’ stuff / When the moon begins to rise / Pretty bad when you’re dealin’ with the man / And the light’s shinin’ in your eyes”. Anyway, it’s one of the freer rockers on this excellent album and a fine sort of co-centerpiece with a couple of others to sew together the album’s
groove.
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31 “Tell Me Why” (After the Gold Rush/1970)
All but cementing After the Gold Rush singlehandedly as a folk album, its opener saunters in casually free of percussion but still hoisting a sort of catchy appeal and fully showcasing Young’s burgeoning ability to make a memorable artistic statement in three and a half minutes or less. The lyrics seem wise beyond their years too: “Tell me why / Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself / When you’re old enough to repay / But young enough to sell?”
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30 “Cinnamon Girl” (Everybody Knows This is Nowhere/1969)
“Cinnamon Girl” remains one of Young’s most popular songs and it’s easy to see why, with its easy but incessant, chugging guitar riff and full-band gallop, and its catchy, spicy guitar riff and intricate background vocals. Here goes that “Pocahontas” thing again, I guess.
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29 “Soldier” (Journey through the Past/1972)
Wikipedia describes Neil Young’s 1974 critically scathed film Journey through the Past as “a self-directed combination of concert footage from 1966 onward, backstage footage and semi-fantastic art film-like sequences.” It might be as perplexing that it was poorly received, too, as it is that a song as spare and dainty as “Soldier” would grace a concert film at all — I think this song is best meant for smoking to and staring out into space to on a cloudy, chilly Autumn afternoon, as really lots of Neil Young songs are, for
that matter.
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28 “Lotta Love” (Comes a Time/1978)
“Lotta Love” is a special song in a way in that it was written and recorded by Young in 1978 and then covered later that same year by one Nicolette Larson, to the magnanimous results of a #8 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. The obvious semantic parallel in pop music would seem to of course be Jackie DeShannon’s “What the World Needs Now is Love,” another Herculean mainstream tune tasked with singlehandedly reforming the souls and morality levels of the entire nation, for better or worse.
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27 “Vampire Blues” (On the Beach/1974)
Neil Young’s sense of humor is in full effect on “Vampire Blues”: “I’m a vampire babe / Suckin’ blood from the Earth / I’m a vampire babe / I’ll sell you 20 barrels worth”. Then of course there’s the stylish fusion with the “Good times are comin’ / But they’re sure comin’ slow”, perhaps positioning Neil Young as a progenitor in slackerdom, as well as just grunge. Either way, if it’s not a classic song it’s at least an amusing and apt conduit on On the Beach, a haunting and singular achievement in LP gallantry.
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26 “Are You Ready for the Country?” (Harvest/1972)
For how much praise Harvest gets as being Neil Young’s crowning achievement, I’ve probably rated it pretty low by comparison on this list — to be honest it’s pretty full of interludes, breaks in the energy and just segments that are so down and lugubrious that it’s hard to get too excited about them sometimes. I almost threw this track on by obligation, but then I put it on and remember the enticingly laid back groove he and his band lay down here, which is refreshingly bulwarked by piano more than any other instrument (and hey this album preceded “Piano Man” by all of one year).
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25 “Ride My Llama” (Rust Never Sleeps/1979)
The absolute deluge of wide-open, Western American imagery storms back in full force right away on this one: “Remember the Alamo / When help was on the way / It’s better here and now / I feel that good today”, the theme of time discrepancy reciprocated too then with a tale of getting taken away by a pot-smoking alien. “Ride My Llama” institutes Young’s commendable knack for packing a furious amount of melody and strangeness into a song that on its surface is bare, gentle and acoustic.
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24 “Cowgirl in the Sand” (Everybody Knows This is Nowhere/1969)
For some reason it never occurred to me that going down the row of these songs would basically represent an exact travelogue through the pastoral American West. Perhaps it’s the case that I pick a lot of imagistic tunes and I’ve conspicuously left off “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” which seems to abandon the pastoral for the urban. Anyway, here the scenes become more generic, and in that way cinematic too, like a 10-minute audio movie directed by Young that was good enough that I think CSN started covering it before they even heard the entire 10 minutes.
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23 “Harvest” (Harvest/1972)
I’ve ranked this song perhaps a tad bit low just for how spare and gentle it is, which is sort of problematic since those exact things are also what makes it such a success — how it’s in the style of rustic folk but it’s pared and boiled down to a statement concise enough that would allow millions of people to hear it around the world and for this album to reach #1 on the Billboard charts.
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22 “Albuquerque” (Tonight’s the Night/1975)
“Albuquerque” follows one of my favorite Neil Young songs on Tonight’s the Night, so it was easy for me for a while to miss a lot of parts of its prowess, like the line “I’ll find somewhere where they don’t care who I am” or the dual guitar attack that kicks things off of the strummed electric and lead steel. Piano and harmonica elsewhere round out the elite instrumentation that Crazy Horse would employ on this nice album tune about the beauty of anonymity.
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21 “Sugar Mountain” (Live Rust/1979)
Listening to the opening track again on this 1979 live album [1] Live Rust, which for some reason isn’t listed in his discography on Wikipedia, the overwhelming thing that hits me is the sheer volume of the crowd noise. I’ve literally never heard a crowd erupt like this live recorded setting does for this opener, which then goes on to furnish some amazing-sounding guitar and this simple ditty that almost doubles as a nursery rhyme for yours truly, with how much my mom used to sing it to me when I was little.
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20 “Down by the River” (Everybody Knows This is Nowhere/1969)
Played against the remainder of his catalogue, “Down by the River” certainly comes off a tad bit primitive and simplistic, but still seminal, covered by umpteen pub bands the nation over and proviso of that simple and mantra-like, if certainly disconcerting, main chorus. The song appears right in the middle of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and rounds out the underrated sophomore LP in fitting style, with folk rock that stretches out with copious improvisation and ballooning of moments.
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19 “Saddle up the Palomino” (American Stars ’n Bars/1977)
My take on American Stars ’n Bars in general is that it’s just got a relentless energy about it, coming in a very prolific period wedged right between Tonight’s the Night, Comes a Time and of course Long May You Run, his collaborative album with Stephen Stills. More than any track, “Saddle up the Palomino” is where Young seemed to let loose and allow his inner rock hound to bark, belting out some straight-ahead muscle that doesn’t even need blues for its infrastructure and equally doesn’t need linear lyrical
narrative to hit home.
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18 “Lookout Joe” (Tonight’s the Night/1975)
What hits you right away on this stellar Tonight’s the Night album track is that thick guitar sound, in part, that indeed seems like part of what ushered in the “grunge” tag that Young and others would begin to garner. Compared with ’90s alt-rock or ’00s indie, too, it’s astonishingly bare, bespeaking
strident songwriting confidence for what as always seem like Young’s nonsensical lyrical rants, which are certainly charming anyways.
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17 “Four Strong Winds” (Comes a Time/1978)
“Four Strong Winds” without question tends to be one of Young’s more famous songs. In my mind I was thinking it was another tune Young wrote for other people to capitalize on but Wikipedia actually indicates that it’s a Canadian folk traditional penned in 1961 by Ian Tyson, Young then giving it its folky due with some astoundingly textured acoustic guitar and methodical, professional vocal.
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16 “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” (Rust Never Sleeps/1979)
The kickoff tune on what might be Young’s proudest work, Rust Never Sleeps, “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” initiates the acoustic side a with some beautiful hollow-body strumming and a curious sort of emotion that seems to mix joy and freedom with a quintessentially Young-ian sort of contemplation and poignancy. And of course we get the famous line “Rock and roll will never die”, which insanely might be true, as long as it’s alive in the mind of the listener of the founding stuff like this.
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15 “Don’t Cry No Tears” (Zuma/1975)
This Zuma album is still a conundrum I’m trying to figure out in my mind, to an extent, but “Don’t Cry No Tears” is an undeniable, straight-ahead and rocking opener, with the destabilizing central chant of “Don’t cry no tears around me”. It’s the type of song Young writes as if it’s about a real person, all lyrical evidence indicating such, but still leaves general enough that it could be piping from an imaginary third person perspective.
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14 “Southern Man” (After the Gold Rush/1970)
After the Gold Rush in general was a remarkable step forward in Neil Young’s songwriting which would find him stripping things down from the raucous, electric Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and getting intimate and immediate with some piano and beautiful, percussion-free, melodic tunes. “Southern Man” is the obvious exception to this rule, a folk-rock dirge similar in style to “Down by the River” and which equally tackles dark subject matter, this time geographical racism. Lynyrd Skynyrd would famous quip back in “Sweet Home Alabama”: “I hope Neil Young will remember / A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow”.
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13 “Sail away” (Rust Never Sleeps/1979)
Nicolette Larson helps out with vocals on the beautiful “Sail away,” a song which as far as I can tell was originally scribed by Neil Young himself, but certainly has that old, folky, traditional feel to it, a testament to Young’s ability to produce something immediately permanent in this regard.
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12 “New Mama” (Tonight’s the Night/1975)
The gorgeousness of the plucked acoustic guitar hits me big time when I gloss back over this trusty side b tune on Tonight’s the Night, as well as the percussion technique of… a foot tapping against the floor? That’s what it sounds like, with the song’s anatomy more than compensated by the spicy riff written by Young and some strong background vocals from David Briggs.
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11 “See the Sky about to Rain” (On the Beach/1974)
WHOA, now that is some guitar sound, giving way to a deceptively simple song, probably written within one little scene of changing weather which for whatever reason hit Young in a piercing way that he had to emit through songwriting. I recommend actually hearing this song when it’s about to rain out, but if that’s not an option, then at least observing Young’s dizzying ability to go from small picture to big picture to personal past tense, within a lyrical ride that carries much of this song’s gravity.
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10 “From Hank to Hendrix” (Harvest Moon/1992)
Harvest Moon was very well received in ’92, with good reason, Classic Rock Review naming it the album of the year and the Juno Awards reaching out to it in their ensuing ceremony. Indeed, the album, while maybe not pushing forward the benchmark for Young’s songwriting or instrumentation techniques, at least rests as a playable LP of the artist, with tunes like this one beautifully blending harmonica, steel guitar and imagistic lyrics for a catchy evening listen to rival all.
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9 “After the Gold Rush” (After the Gold Rush/1970)
The title track of After the Gold Rush was arguably Young’s finest song to date up to that point, a celestial piano ballad with the sort of apocalyptic, expressionist lyrics we’d come to associate with the songwriter, but still grafted around a disarmingly simple structure and set of core melodies. Linda Ronstadt would pick it up for covers material down the road and I think every Young fan agrees that, even more than being a classic, was the first real sign of Young’s exorbitant songwriting confidence and poignancy that would come to be his calling card for the next few decades.
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8 “Long May You Run” (Stills-Young Band – Long May You Run/1976)
It’s very ironic that both I and Neil Young himself tend to cast off this recent vinyl record craze as a weightless money-grabbing hoax, but easily my favorite vinyl listening experience of all time was hearing the beauty of this mix that closes out my mom’s Decade LP. Make no mistake: it’s credited to the Stills- Young band but this song has Neil Young’s fingerprints all over it, with the catchiness, approachability and the ability to infuse a viable radio rock song with a personal message that cuts deep, too, emotionally.
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7 “Thrasher” (Rust Never Sleeps/1979)
“Thrasher” is a near life-changing staple of Rust Never Sleeps’ acoustic side a, a disarming, voluminous narrative with no chorus, packed to the gills with original lyrics about everything from rural energy, his old friends Crosby, Stills and Nash, getting old and achieving wisdom either comfortable or acerbic. With Young’s choice instrumentation at work of really clean-sounding acoustic guitar and harmonica, it’s the song structure itself, with its no chorus and continuous lyrical outpour, that marks the primary step forward within his overall repertoire.
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6 “Heart of Gold” (Harvest/1972)
It’s pretty much a toss-up for best radio single from Harvest, this one certainly vying, with its memorable, distinct chorus and commendable harmonica work. More than anything, I think, “Heart of Gold” set the groundwork for some of Young’s narrative songwriting which would constitute a love song bemoaning his own LACK of love, which in a way is the ultimate endorsement of the extant, readily assembled self, when you think about it.
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5 “Roll Another Number (For the Road)” (Tonight’s the Night/1975)
This is one beery, haphazard tune here, with lyrics in the second verse that sound unfinished and a ridiculously nasal, filthy sound to Young’s voice, but more than anything conjeals around an unforgettable and singable chorus that ties together Tonight’s the Night in perfect intoxicated oblivion. I
first heard it on a PA in Twist and Shout Records in Denver and have been in love since.
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4 “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” (Everybody Knows This is Nowhere/1969)
Famously placed in that scene in Almost Famous where they’re partying with those random people from Topeka, Kansas (“real Topeka people”), this ferocious title track was Young’s first truly great mark of songwriting, showcasing his ability to use rhythm to bolster a folk-rock song, something a lot of folkies probably hadn’t signed in on yet, if they ever would.
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3 “Ambulance Blues” (On the Beach/1974)
The show-stopping closeur on On the Beach, “Ambulance Blues” is a work of singular rock and roll originality, letting methodical acoustic guitar and purposeful, politically biting lyricism carry the song’s velocity, flanked by a beautiful, remarkable, word-free chorus complete with an aching harmonica working in tandem with a bleeding, descending string riff. This is organic, from-the-ground-up Neil Young songwriting at its very finest.
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2 “Old Man” (Harvest/1972)
What makes “Old Man” so good? It’s sort of hard to explain, in a way — it’s just classic, a time-honored tune that you’re bound to hear at almost any acoustic open mic. More than anything, I’d say it’s the humility, the ability to lay his burden down when he’s only “24 / And there’s so much more” and admit that he’s ALREADY only human, to the exact extent that an “old man” also is. “Old Man” hit #4 in Young’s native Canada and #31 in the U.S. — not bad for a guileless tune sung in a shaky voice about imminent mortality.
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1 “Powderfinger” (Rust Never Sleeps/1979)
The remarkable Rust Never Sleeps live album almost explodes into its vanguard, style-informing electric portion with the dizzying, intimidating “Powderfinger,” a maniacal tune about a sociologically maligned, armed 22 year old making one bad, tragedy-informed decision, instituting death and violence without ever really truly knowing what he was doing. For all Young’s eclecticism in instrumentation, at times, this is as straight-ahead rock and roll as you get, that signature bald, no-frills Crazy Horse drum beat expediting some solid guitar virtuosity on the part of Young, and a song that indulges in life’s combustive, volatile tendencies for a celebration of their permanence through live rock and roll.
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[1] You’re not hallucinating: this is a live album by Neil Young called Live Rust that came the same year that another Neil Young live album Rust Never Sleeps issued — they are two different live albums from
the same artist and the same year.

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