10 Best Neil Young Songs – Electric
Neil Young has written far too many classics to warrant one single 10-best-songs list. So we made two: one acoustic, one electric. This one's the latter, brought to you by Old Black, Young’s custom Gibson. Now, compiling Young's top electric jams is bound to spark some controversy, but before you bemoan missing selections, remember that this list has to take into account his time in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, as well as the records he's made with and without Crazy Horse. That’s a lot of Neil, people.
Among those just on the edge that didn't this list of the 10 Best Neil Young Songs (Electric): ‘Ohio’ (historically important but not electrically so), ‘World on a String,’ ‘Words,’ ‘Down to the Wire,’ ‘Powderfinger,’ ‘Sleeps with Angels’ (Neil’s tribute to Kurt Cobain), ‘Walk Like a Giant,’ ‘Burned,’ ‘Flying on the Ground Is Wrong,’ ‘Out of My Mind,’ ‘Vampire Blues’ (featuring members of the Band), ‘Albuquerque,’ ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,’ ‘F---kin’ Up’ and ‘Cowgirl in the Sand.’
Like ‘Cinnamon Girl’ (see below), ‘When You Dance, I Can Really Love’ hangs tight on a gigantic dropped-D tsunami of a guitar riff that sears a hole in your heart from the second it barrels into the song. It's also similar to ‘Cinnamon Girl' in that there’s an inexplicable outro guitar freakout, which raises the stakes (and the goosebumps up and down your arm). It might actually be a more memorable guitar riff than the one in ‘Cinnamon,’ but it's lacking slightly in the lyrical department, and that makes it less of a complete package. But the melody and vocal harmonies are unbeatable, despite the hokey lyrics, so strap in and take the ride. It’s well worth it.
The one glimmer of hope on 1974’s heady ‘On the Beach,’ ‘Walk On’ smacks of Neil Young sitting around, taking tequila shots, smoking grass and listening to the Band’s ‘Big Pink’ on permanent loop. (The Band’s Rick Danko and Levon Helm appear two tracks later on ‘Revolution Blues.’) It’s sloppy in all the right ways, and in some ways, it sets the stage for the follow-up, ‘Tonight’s the Night,’ which was actually recorded prior ‘On the Beach.' Of particular note on this tune: Ben Keith’s lazy-in-all-the-right-ways slide guitar.
Neil Young has been struggling with fame ever since he left that little town in North Ontario. Maybe it’s because his father was a journalist, and he knew what secrets the press uncovers. Beyond that, Neil's just a quiet dude. So No. 8 on our list of the 10 Best Neil Young Songs (Electric), from Buffalo Springfield's second and best album, is about that -- dealing with fame and girls that only want you because you’re famous. That’s some heavy stuff, as most rock stars gladly take the hangers-on and riches and revel in them. Young did the exact opposite. Talking directly to his soul, Young asks, "Why in crowds does a trace of my face seem so pleasing?" (That’s a good question. Have you seen pictures of his dental work back then? Yikes.) But seriously, this song rocks, rages and rolls, and it features one of Young’s best freakout solos. Thanks to a guest appearance from Stephen Stills, it's an example of what happens when two genius guitar players have a gun fight with their instruments. Interestingly, while recording 1993’s ‘Unplugged’ set, Young played ‘Mr. Soul’ as he had originally intended it -- as a dropped-D acoustic blues number. It sounds a whole lot like the Stones’ ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,’ which is likely where Neil got the idea.
As Young explains in his autobiography, ‘Waging Heavy Peace' (glaze through the first few chapters to get to the real meat), he got the phrase that became the song’s title and chorus from Frank “Poncho” Sampedro. The tune appears on ‘Freedom,’ which dropped in 1989, a monumental year Neil was keen to comment on. The Berlin Wall was soon to fall, and the Soviet Union was on the verge of breaking into a million little pieces. President George H.W. Bush had been elected president and given his famous "thousand points of light" inaugural speech. Extremist Muslims had called for a fatwa against writer Salman Rushdie for his 1988 book ‘Satanic Verses.’ The investigation of the bombing of Pan-am Flight 103 was ongoing. Young jumped at the moment and wrote one of his most enduring/explosive rock songs. It references Bush’s speech, delves into the close-to-home subject of drug abuse and generally takes a throwaway phrase and makes it classic.
While ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’ didn’t make the list of Young's best acoustic songs, it’s impossible to not put his electric version on this list. The sludgy distortion is like a mixing bowl filled with chocolate. Young has been called the "Granddaddy of Grunge," and this song may have spawned the movement. It's loosely based on the life of the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten, who Young references near the end of the song, and it deals with the perpetual birth and rebirth of rock 'n' roll -- something he tells us "will never die."
Apparently written in a flu-virus haze -- on the same day as ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’ and ‘Down By the River’ -- ‘Cinnamon Girl’ is early Neil Young & Crazy Horse at their absolute best. As young explains in ‘Waging Heavy Peace,’ original CH guitarist Danny Whitten sang the high part in the lead-vocal harmony line instead of him -- which is as-yet unreleased. Also of note: the majestic use of "D modal," or D-A-D-G-A-D, guitar tuning. Young had recently discovered the turning and used it to develop his signature sound, as it's muddier and dronier than standard tuning. And then there’s that inexplicable guitar freakout at the end. Add in the lyrics, which Neil says are about his wife, Susan, and you get a Molotov Cocktail of electric greatness.
Neil Young is the king of the long, hazy slow jam that never gets tiresome -- no matter how long it draws on. The fact he's not a "jam band" artist makes it all the greater of a feat. ‘Cortez the Killer,’ recorded with Crazy Horse for 1975’s ‘Zuma,’ is a 7:29 epic masterwork of semi-historical, semi-personal lyrics topped off with one of the most unmistakable (and double-drop-D-tuned) melodies in Young’s catalog. The hook is simply meant to house Neil’s soaring, reverb-laden solo, which sounds like it was probably done on the first or second take, though a few minor flubs are noticeable. This is the Sunday night, steak-and-bourbon-and-mound-of-white-powder-dinner of ’70s songs. It's unmissable, and a bevy of alt-rockers have done covers, including Built to Spill, Pearl Jam, Matthew Sweet, Son Volt and Dinosaur Jr.
As far as slow-burners go, ‘Tonight’s the Night,’ next on our list of the 10 Best Neil Young Songs (Electric), is on a whole different level. It exists on a plain of darkness not many recording artists have ever reached. The ‘Night’ in the song’s title is the Grim Reaper -- or in Young’s case, the drug overdoses that claimed the lives of his two closest confidants and friends, Bruce Berry (name-checked in the opening line) and Danny Whitten, who appears in vocal/guitar form on the album. The chorus -- “Tonight’s the night / tonight’s the nigh-igh-igh-ight” -- sounds like a group of wizards sitting around an open fire, conjuring up ghosts with their words. This is the stuff of legend.
Like ‘Cortez the Killer,’ ‘Down By the River’ is a slow-to-unravel sort of song. But unlike ‘Cortez,’ there’s a story you can actually follows, and it's similar in theme to ‘Hey Joe,’ a traditional song that Jimi Hendrix -- the man behind the most famous version -- supposedly discovered thanks to David Crosby. In other versions, “Joe” shoots his “old lady” for being unfaithful. Young’s narrator kills “his lady” for altogether more complex reasons: boredom, rage, deep-seated frustration. Regardless of the depressing theme, this is ‘Masterpiece Theater’ in song form. Check out this amazing live version recorded with cohorts David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash; with drummer Dallas Clark and bassist Greg Reeves.
Another track that seemingly starts sans count-in, ‘Like a Hurricane’ may be the greatest love song in Neil Young’s canon, which is saying a lot. Strangely enough, it’s also on one of his lesser-loved ’70s albums, ‘American Stars ‘N Bars,’ which features a passed-out Neil on the cover, his face smeared against the floor. It's a booze-fest of a record to say the least, and ‘Hurricane’ is the brightest spot. It features a distinctive high-octave intro and some of Young's greatest lyrics, all pegged to that amazing weather metaphor: “You are like a hurricane / there’s calm in your eyes / And I’m getting blown away.” Has there ever been a clearer way to describe the grips of true love in the history of rock? In ‘Waging Heavy Peace,’ Young notes, “The master recording I used for the final version of the track was the run-through when I was showing [Crazy Horse] how the song went. That is why it just cuts at the beginning. There was no beginning.” In other words, the version we’ve been enjoying this entire time was simply a throwaway demo. Wow, this guy’s good.