It’s nearly impossible to overstate the artistic influence and value of Neil Young. Born in Toronto, Ontario, in November 1945, he spent his first 20 years or so digesting as much rock ‘n’ roll, country, and doo-wop as possible in the midst of living a somewhat tumultuous life (including suffering from polio, moving around a lot, and becoming a child of divorce). As with many iconic musicians, he dedicated much of his teenage years to playing in multiple fledgling bands. That is, until fate introduced him to another singer-songwriter, Stephen Stills, with whom he’d form the beloved folk-country rock troupe Buffalo Springfield in 1966. (Of course, the two would also help start the arguably even more significant Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young a few years later.)
As wonderful and enduring as those albums remain, though, Young’s solo work — often credited alongside his backing band Crazy Horse — has likely had a stronger impact on both the sounds and sentiments of rock music. After all, his impassioned yet somewhat imperfect playing — which often runs the gamut from seductively raucous to softly remorseful — has become just as much a staple of the genre as his personal narratives and outspoken sociopolitical commentaries. While the sheer breadth of his catalog makes it hard to choose a single favorite or superlative effort, it’s hard to deny that his third collection, After the Gold Rush, is among his chief works.
Released on September 19, 1970, After the Gold Rush sits in-between two other seminal LPs: 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and 1972’s Harvest. It features many of the same players as its predecessor — namely, guitarist Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot, and drummer Ralph Molina — as well as Stills, bassist Greg Reeves (who’d just played on CSNY’s incredible Déjà Vu), and a few other vast talents. Despite some surprisingly mixed reviews upon release, it’s almost unanimously considered not only one of Young’s finest records, but also one of the greatest albums of all time.
It undoubtedly contains some of his most timeless and representative tunes, such as “Southern Man”, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”, and the remarkable title track. Naturally, then, it was only a matter of time before other artists would put their own spin on such classic material. In fact, there have been literally dozens of official covers of songs from After the Gold Rush, and in celebration of its 50th anniversary, we thought we’d round up 10 of the best. Whether immensely authentic or unpredictably dissimilar, the following picks represent some of the top takes on Young’s tracks.
Pick up a copy of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush here.
The Meters – “Birds” (1972)
Young’s version is almost gospel in its downtrodden yet serene delivery and sparse arrangement. It’s easily among his most beautiful compositions, so you’d think that it’d be outright sacrilegious to change anything about it. Nevertheless, what funk sextet The Meters do here — a mere year and a half after After the Gold Rush was released, on their album Cabbage Alley — is quite laudable. It represents the perfect balance between emulation and innovation, upholding the song’s core purity, heartache, and momentum in the midst of adding flair and vibrancy (twangy guitar licks, choral keyboard chords, and a richer — though not necessarily superior — lead vocal). It’s a clear and successful attempt to honor rather than surpass the original, and it demonstrates how universal and adaptable Young’s songwriting can be.
Sylvester and the Hot Band – “Southern Man” (1973)
Likewise, R&B/soul singer Sylvester — already an established artist — offered this bitingly colorful and dense rendition on his 1973 self-titled debut with the Hot Band. In a sense, he combines the six-string flair of Jimi Hendrix, the bouncy layers of Sly and the Family Stone, and the falsetto croons of the Bee Gees to yield an infectiously playful and lively variation. True, it lacks the resentment and grit of its inspiration — and the vocals border on silly at times — but you have to respect how intricate and daring it is. Plus, it kind of feels appropriate for a song about the injustices of slavery (and the need for the titular “Southern man” to “pay them back”) to be reimagined through a blend of several Black genres.
Last Exit – “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” (feat. Sting) (1974)
Like Young, English virtuoso Sting has also dabbled in many styles while establishing himself as an important creative force. Even so, this jazz fusion framing of what was a considerably somber, patient, and unassuming piece is arresting and impressive. Recorded a few years before he joined The Police (with one of his earlier bands, Last Exit) and never released on an official studio album, it speeds up the tempo and adds a Steve Miller/yacht rock smoothness to the composition. It does come off as a bit amateurish and unfocused, so it’s by no means on par with its forebearer, but it’s nonetheless a fascinating modification with some lovely instrumentation (especially the keyboard solo halfway through). Plus, it houses Sting’s characteristic knack for rhythmic intricacy and sleek singing.
Died Pretty – “When You Dance I Can Really Love” (1988)
Whereas the previous entries strayed significantly from the After the Gold Rush template, Australian rockers Died Pretty copy more than anything else. That’s not a bad thing, though, since their slightly more proto-punk/alternative rock alteration — released in 1988, as a B-side to “Out of My Hands” from their second LP, Lost — is plenty satisfying. It’s a fair amount dreamier and more melodic, actually, so it seems youthful and contemporary. Sure, the folky nature and heavenly harmonies are missed, but the changes are quite enjoyable and respectable. In addition, there’s a killer guitar solo, and in general, it’s nice to hear how a subsequent generation can revise a classic.
Natalie Merchant – “After the Gold Rush” (1999)
New York native Natalie Merchant was among the most recognizable vocalists of the 1980s and ’90s (be it with alternative/college rockers 10,000 Maniacs or on her own). With this captivating cover from 1999’s Live in Concert (where she also takes a stab at David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”), it’s easy to hear why. Her tender and endearing vibrato adds a refreshing flavor that almost matches Young’s fragile honesty and relatability. Around her, the band replaces his mournful piano ballad aesthetic — which must’ve directly inspired Bruce Springsteen’s “Backstreets” five years later — with a mellower and jazzier environment emblematic of the era. Like many tracks on this list, some essential elements are lost in translation, but what’s there instead just about justifies the exchange.
Click ahead for more awesome Neil Young covers…
Seal – “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” (2006)
As spectacular as some of these other picks are, this one may be the most staggeringly ambitious and atypical but alluring. This amendment to “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” comes from 2016’s live LP, One Night to Remember, and immediately demonstrates why Seal — whose career unjustly diminished following his 1990s dominance — is an incredible vocalist. True, he lacks the quirky thinness of Young, but he’s surely a stronger singer on a technical level, with a powerful and empathetic delivery for each line. As a result, glorious orchestration is wisely chosen over the subdued rock foundation on After the Gold Rush, leading to a thunderously triumphant and entertaining vision that, in its own ways, stands toe-to-toe with its precursor.
Julie Peel – “I Believe in You” (2008)
Taken from a 2008 compilation called Cinnamon Girl – Women Artists Cover Neil Young for Charity, folk-pop singer Julie Peel presents perhaps the most faithful facsimile of them all. Virtually every part is either identical or very similar; however, there’s a significant modern edge, too, thanks to some sharper timbres and a tasteful guitar solo that evokes the one from The Beatles’ “Let It Be”. The most striking change is her voice, as it replaces Young’s broken-down desperation with a somewhat creamier, more passive-aggressive and lackadaisical cadence. That’s not really a dig against Peel, as it helps distinguish and legitimize her version, but it’s a discernible deviation all the same. In any case, Peel does a great job altering the original just enough to make it stand out.
Norah Jones Feat. Sasha Dobson – “Tell Me Why” (2010)
Performed live alongside Sasha Dobson for A MusiCares Tribute to Neil Young, this one feels a tinge more bare, slow, and country-rock compared to its forebearer’s lusher folk-rock bliss. That’s to Jones and Dobson’s benefit, though, since it allows their synchronized strumming and singing to seize the spotlight. Specifically, Dobson’s backing is appropriately angelic and faint, whereas Jones’ lead is ever so rustic and hardened. Overall, this interpretation feels more like a light duet than the full-bodied dirge, so one wonders what could’ve been done if the musicians behind them added accompaniment. On the other hand, this less energetic and divine experience is made more enchanting because of its emptiness.
Thom Yorke – “After the Gold Rush” (2011)
Thom Yorke — and Radiohead by association — isn’t really known for covering other artists’ material, but as this piece from The Bridge School Concert’s 25th Anniversary Edition proves, he does it as exceptionally as you’d expect. In fact, arguably no other singer working today captures Young’s idiosyncratically brittle but immeasurably moving singing style like Yorke. To be honest, his performance may even be more spellbindingly affective (which is why it’s not so bad that his voice seems prioritized over the backing piano a bit more than Young’s voice was on After the Gold Rush). Wisely, nothing else is added because nothing else needs to be — well, unless you count the cheers from the crowd that symbolize how beloved both Young and Yorke are at once.
Florence + the Machine – “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” (2016)
Reportedly, Young wrote this one after his friends — and two equally important singer-songwriters — Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell broke up. As such, there’s palpable pathos in the verses and chorus harmonies that aren’t fully replicated here. Even so, Florence + the Machine effectively move away from their more recognizable styles to bring an Americana warmth to this rendition (released as the Record Store Day 2016 B-side to “Delilah”). English vocalist Florence Welch nails her Southern coating, and the arrangement — slow-building horns and all — help her evoke the yesteryear glory of icons like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynne (both of whom have also covered tracks from After the Gold Rush). All in all, it’s a gorgeous homage.