Few people would dispute that Neil Young reached the peak of his critical and commercial career in the 1970s. But that doesn’t mean his output since then has been underwhelming. He’s maintained a tireless work ethic over the past 36 years, boldly leaping from genre to genre with little regard for what seems like a safe bet in the marketplace. This June he will release Earth, his sixth album in just five years. We figured it was a perfect time to poll our readers and determine their favorite Young tunes since the 1970s.
When Neil Young released “Ordinary People” as the leadoff single from his 2007 LP Chrome Dreams II, it probably seemed a little odd to people. After all, he sounded about20 years younger in the 18-minute track and was singing about long-retired Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca. Hardcore fans knew the song dated from the 1988 Bluenotes tour. “I think now is the right time for that song,” Young said, “and it lives well with the new songs I have written in the past few months.” The horn-heavy epic was a great way to kick off Chrome Dreams II, which was a sequel to an album he shelved in 1977 despite the fact they have no real connection, sonic or otherwise. The world of Neil Young gets confusing sometimes. But blast “Ordinary People” loud and admire the guy for releasing a nearly 20-minute single in 2007 that he threw onto the cutting room floor two decades earlier.
“From Hank to Hendrix”
Neil Young reached his commercial zenith with 1972’s Harvest. Most artists in that position would have spent the rest of their career copying the formula that worked so well, but it took Young 20 years to finally surrender and get the Harvest band back together for another go-round. He didn’t half-ass it, even bringing back James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt to do backing vocals again. One of the highlights was “From Hank to Hendrix,” which is about an old couple “heading for the big divorce California-style.” It has served as the opening song at many Young shows over the past two decades, even in 2014 when the prophetic lyrics came true in his personal life.
Philadelphia is one of the greatest tearjerkers of the 1990s cinema, and no scene is more upsetting than the very end when the family of AIDS survivor Andrew Beckett gathers to watch home movies from his childhood. Neil Young’s mournful “Philadelphia” plays in the background, infusing the moment with even more sorrow. The song was nominated for on Oscar, but it couldn’t compete with Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.” He did perform it at the ceremony, which also marked his wife Pegi’s debut as his background singer.
“Change Your Mind”
Neil Young recorded the vast majority of Sleeps With Angels before Kurt Cobain’s death, but since it came out just four months later and the Nirvana singer quoted “Hey Hey, My My” in his suicide note, it was widely-seen as a response to the tragedy. The 14-plus minute “Change Your Mind” pre-dated Cobain’s death, but many heard it as Young pleading with the singer to change his mind and spare his own life.
“Crime in the City”
Not long after Neil Young settled his nasty lawsuit with David Geffen in 1987, something inside him seemed to bloom and amazing new tunes began pouring out again. The timing could have been coincidental, but it was clear he had little interest in giving Geffen top-shelf material when he didn’t feel respected at the label. One of great new tunes emerged in August of 1988 when Young was on tour with the Bluenotes. First called “Sixty to Zero” and then “Crime in the City,” the song is a frantic screed about people slowly losing their minds in a wild city. He hasn’t played it a single time since the 2003 Greendale tour.
The back-to-back success of This Note’s for You and Freedom gave Neil Young a lot of momentum when he brought Crazy Hose back into the studio to begin work on Ragged Glory. The first two tracks from the album date from the 1970s, but then the LP jumps right to the present with “Fuckin’ Up.” In the grand tradition of “Welfare Mothers,” it’s a wild song that repeats a single, subversive phrase over and over. It became a live favorite, and Pearl Jam adapted it as their own in the 1990s. When the two acts toured together in 1995, the song was always a highlight of their set.
Not long after Neil Young split up with actress Carrie Snodgress, he became enchanted with a waitress named Pegi at a diner near his ranch. They married in August of 1978, and 14 years later, he turned their love story in the leadoff track on Harvest Moon. “She used to work in a diner,” he sang. “Never saw a woman look finer/I used to order just to watch her float across the floor.” Fans worried their divorce might mean he’d never do the song again (sort of like Bob Dylan with “Sara”), but it’s been a regular highlight of the 2015 tour with Promise of the Real.
“I’m the Ocean”
Pearl Jam were one of the biggest bands in the world in 1995 when they teamed up with Neil Young, one of their largest influences, to record Mirror Ball. Eddie Vedder’s involvement was extremely minimal and Pearl Jam’s label wouldn’t allow their name to appear on the cover, but this was very much a collaborative project. In typical Young fashion, it was tossed together in a matter of days and is somewhat of a mixed bag. The clear highlight is “I’m the Ocean,” a seven-minute epic in which Young reflects on his fast-paced life. “I’m not present, I’m a drug that makes you dream,” he sings. “I’m an Aerostar, I’m a Cutlass Supreme/In the wrong lane, trying to turn against the flow.” He hasn’t played it since he took Crazy Horse on the HORDE tour in 1997.
“I’m not trying to go back and recreate where I was when I did Harvest,” Neil Young said around the time Harvest Moon came out. “The idea is to sing about the same subject matter with 20 years more experience. I’m stronger than I was then.” He was also happily married, and the album is packed full of songs about his devotion to Pegi. The title track wasn’t a huge hit, but it’s become of his most beloved tunes from any era, and he’s performed it at least 275 times. He also shot a sweet video for it where he dances in a bar with Pegi.
“Rockin’ in the Free World”
Neil Young was on tour with the Restless – which included Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro – in February of 1989 when word came down that a planned performance in Russia had fallen apart. “Neil was like, ‘Damn, I really wanted to go,'” Sampedro told Rolling Stone in 2013. “I said, ‘Me, too. I guess we’ll have to keep on rockin’ in the free world.'” The phrase stuck in Young’s head, and he quickly fleshed it out into a whole song that references everything from Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign (“Keep Hope Alive”) to George H.W. Bush’s RNC speech (“we have a thousand points of light”) and the crack epidemic that was ravaging America’s inner cities. They debuted it onstage at a Seattle show the very next day and it became a key track on 1989’s Freedom. It’s been played live with nearly every band Young has toured with in the past 25 years, but the best version may come from Saturday Night Live backed by Steve Jordan, Charlie Drayton and Poncho.