Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in July 2015. It’s being republished today as Neil Young’s new album, Peace Trail, prepares to drop later this week.
You may have caught our Neil Young’s Top 10 Songs earlier this week. As exciting and challenging as it was to pluck 10 of his finest tunes from such a daunting discography, it was only the tip of the iceberg. So we decided to delve a little deeper into his work for a few more superlatives. Disagree with our choices? Of course you do. That’s part of the fun of these kinds of features. Let us know your own picks (and possibly some additional categories) in the comments section below. This is the very best of Neil Young.
We’ve talked exhaustively on this very site about the different faces of Neil Young — the old folkie, the grungy nihilist, the weirdo experimentalist, etc. After the Gold Rush works so well because it combines so many of these sides of him. On one hand, the record’s fairly straightforward, from the plaintive yearning on “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” to the critique of Mason-Dixon racism on “Southern Man”. On the flip side, Young gets abstract in his environmentalism on the title track, whose surreal tone can be attributed to the un-filmed Dean Stockwell script on which several of the songs are based. Hell, we even get a taste of his work with CSN&Y and Buffalo Springfield when Stephen Stills pops up on opener “Tell Me Why”.
All of this makes After the Gold Rush sound more all over the place than it actually is. Part of its charm also lies in its sonic cohesion, courtesy of a crack backing band consisting of Crazy Horse, Jack Nitzche, and an 18-year-old Nils Lofgren, who learned to play piano just for this album. Together, they manage to be introspective without being boring and — an especially impressive feat for Crazy Horse — rock without going on too long. With that in mind, it’s almost a blessing that the erratic script for After the Gold Rush got lost. If Young had pulled from its entirety for this quasi-soundtrack, the whole thing may have gone off the rails. Instead, we get just the right amount of everything. –Dan Caffrey
Neil Young’s voluminous catalog is made up of literally thousands of songs across more than 40 studio records, which should seem to make picking a best song something akin to pulling a needle out of a haystack. It would be, that is, if one song (two, if we’re being technical) didn’t perfectly sum up not only Young’s sound, but his fierce iconoclasm.
Regardless of whether you prefer the stripped-down “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” or its more full-bodied companion, “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”, together both versions capture the two sides of Young’s split musical personality — rocker thrash on the one hand and the contemplative singer-songwriter on the other. Musically, both songs cover Young’s sonic spectrum, but it’s the lyrics that really nail his uncompromising ethos dead to rights. The song is checkered with bits and phrases that spell out his principled credo. When he pleads that “Rock and Roll will never die,” it’s a promise he’s still making good on more than 35 years later.
Young also wasn’t mindlessly throwing words on the page when he posited that “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” a line that speaks pretty deliberately to the singer’s fighting spirit. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a line that’s been championed as a rally cry for generations of principled musicians who followed him. Some maybe took the singer’s words a bit too much to heart (Kurt Cobain famously quoted the line in his suicide note), but considering the remarkable ripple effect Young made with a quick turn of phrase, it’s hard to find another song that matches the one-two punch that bookends Rust Never Sleeps. –Ryan Bray