10 Best Neil Young Songs – Acoustic
Neil Young is too prolific for one best-songs list, so we split it into two, as the man himself would probably do it live. There’s this set of unplugged, acoustic numbers, and another of plugged-in electric ones. But even narrowing down Young’s outpout to two lists is difficult, because he’s literally written hundreds of great songs. (He’s probably written 10 since we wrote that last sentence.) Even his least-liked, most commercially unsuccessful albums contain one or two enjoyable songs. Sure, he’s put out a whole lotta crap, too — but that’s a whole other list. Here are the 10 Best Neil Young Songs (Acoustic).
‘I Am a Child’
As is the case with ‘Sugar Mountain’ (see below), ‘I Am a Child’ is one of the earliest versions of the harmonica-and-acoustic-guitar Neil Young we’d hear fully formed on albums like ‘Harvest,’ ‘After the Gold Rush’ and ‘Comes a Time.’ It’s also got that playful, tongue-in-cheek air Young has a knack for writing into his songs — especially when he’s paradoxically trying to be serious. This one is about being a manchild — young but feelings the impending grips of adulthood — and that makes it one of Young’s most enduring numbers.
You want depressing? Well, you’ve got it here. It’s not at all surprising that there’s a song about rain on 1974’s ‘On the Beach,’ because despite the fairly upbeat sound of the opening number, ‘Walk On,’ the album feels like something that would be on permanent rotation in Oscar the Grouch’s trashcan. Young was fed up, regularly drunk and/or stoned, dealing with press pressures and mourning the loss of his friends Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry. This, the last song on the album, is the nail in the coffin. It clocks in at a staggering 8:57, but if you stick around for its entirety, you’ll find one of Young’s greatest acoustic gems.
‘Comes a Time’
When people look at Neil Young’s career, they’ll praise his lead guitar heroics, bendy solos and prodigious use of distortion. They might also cite a few acoustic numbers from ‘Harvest’ or ‘After the Gold Rush,’ but true fans know that ‘Comes a Time’ is absolutely essential. The album’s title track is Bakersfield-style country, with swirling fiddles and pitch-perfect harmonies by Nicolette Larson. Check out an amazing live version of the tune on 1979’s ‘Live Rust.’
The song that would appear on the 1967 artistic high-water mark ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’ is an odd one, to say the least. The lyrics tell of several interconnected stories, one involving a Buffalo Springfield show and its aftermath (complete with screaming fans, a la the Byrds’ ‘So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’), another (the second verse) centering on a suburban family that includes a son, a brother and their mother. The last verse is a fairy-tale fantasy complete with queen and king. One interpretation is that it’s a history of Neil Young’s life to that point — a portrait of a guy who struggled mightily with fame and often shunned the public eye. Young was also known for a look heavily influenced by Native Americans, which might help explain the content of the chorus. Despite it’s odd structure and length (the song clocks in at 6:14), it’s one of Young’s best Springfield cuts. Look out for an early demo of the song, at the time called ‘Down, Down, Down,’ on Young’s ‘Archives Vol. 1.’
‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’
If this song seems too underrated or non-commerical for this list, take a good, long, hard listen. Put it on a loop. Where else have you heard an acoustic song move like this one or exude such intensity without any lyrics? Nowhere — not on any albums of the era, and not on any of Young’s other albums. This song is about as close to genius as Young gets in acoustic mode. And it sounds great with electricity, too, as Annie Lennox did a spooky synth-rock cover for the ‘American Beauty’ soundtrack.
‘The Needle and the Damage Done’
Like ‘Helpless,’ ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ is one of Neil Young’s deeply personal songs. In the early ’70s, Young dealt with the high-profile drug-related deaths of two friends: roadie Bruce Berry and original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten. This one’s part road story, part warning. It’s stark and simple in its message: If you do drugs and let them get the better of you, you’ll die.
Neil Young’s “follow-up” to 1972 ‘Harvest’ was hailed as a return to form for the aging rocker, proving he still had an XXL-sized sweater’s worth of yarns left to spin. The title track, No. 4 on our list of the 10 Best Neil Young Songs (Acoustic), eclipses (no pun intended) anything on ‘Harvest’ alone (chew on that one for a second). It’s got a perfect melody, and the harmonic-hitting accompaniment prior to each verse is highly creative. It’s like Neil’s mimicking a dulcimer on his guitar neck.
You can tell that this one — the near-flawless fourth track on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 1970 album ‘Déjà Vu’ — means as much to Neil as it does to his fans. It’s written with the care of a songwriter doing his best to pay homage to his home. It’s an age-old topic for folkies, but it’s hardly ever handled with as much patience and grace as Young shows here. Of course, one of the greatest versions of the song appears in the Band’s concert film ‘The Last Waltz,’ as the group backs up Neil and Joni Mitchell pages the angels from the sidelines.
No. 2 on our list of the 10 Best Neil Young Songs (Acoustic) — and maybe ‘I Am a Child,’ which landed on the last Buffalo Springfield album — marks the beginning of Young’s folkie solo career. The most amazing part of this song may be how young Young was when he wrote it — just 19. Most likely his own take on the old traditional ‘Candy Mountain’ (check out an old-timey-sounding version on the ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ soundtrack), the simple, repeating acoustic number features different fleeting images of a life lived. It’s broken into four distinct sections, a bit like ‘Broken Arrow,’ only way less weird. Originally released as a B-side to ‘The Loner’ and then included on ‘Cinnamon Girl,’ ‘Sugar Mountain’ may be best known for its inclusion on 1977’s ‘Decade’ compilation. It has since been given some context, released as part of a complete 1968 live album recorded at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Mich. The history and the sheer strength of the melody make this one for the ages.
‘After the Goldrush’
We’re calling this “acoustic” even though it’s technically a piano ballad. But it’s one of Neil Young’s finest songwriting moments. It’s the title track to an album that began when Young, himself something of a filmmaker was given a screenplay for a movie called ‘After the Goldrush,’ co-written by ‘Quantum Leap’ co-star Dean Stockwell. It opened something in Young’s mind, and while the movie never saw the light of day, Neil’s insanely good album did. Like ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down,’ ‘After the Goldrush’ has an immediately memorable melody and lyrics that weave a winding tale in triad form, much like the story structures in ‘Broken Arrow’ and ‘Candy Mountain.’ The first verse is a fairy tale. The second is post-apocalyptic. The last might as well be stripped from the pages of an Isaac Asimov sci-fi novel. The song builds and builds and builds but never really has to get loud to say what it needs to. It’s one of the loudest soft songs of all time.