The following is a top 10 list for a band to which you've probably paid little to no attention, so let's do a brief listening guide before we get started.
Neil Young's catalog spans some 50-ish albums through six decades. His repertoire winds its way through rock, folk, punk, pop, blues, country and even electronic and rockabilly. The man is nothing if not musically restless and daring. This list is restricted only to the music Young has recorded with his backing band, Crazy Horse, which narrows down the scope quite a bit, but encompasses some of his best work.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse is not the most musically talented band in the world, but you'd be an idiot to underestimate their abilities. The band is dedicated to making very loud rock n' roll music, and that's how I'd recommend listening to all of these songs. Do not play these songs through a set of laptop speakers — you're going to need full-sized speakers or decent headphones to get the real effect here.
Most of these songs are roughly 10 minutes long. The band's signature style is to pound away on their instruments as they build and grind their way through verses, choruses, and drawn out jams. This is music for the patient (and/or stoned) listener.
My advice is to grab a beer, turn the volume way up and pretend you're sitting on a low-slung couch in a garage with a bunch of old burnouts wearing flannels and hiking boots.
10. Love and Only Love (Ragged Glory, 1990)
Three important things to note from this song: (1) The fucking bass. It's like three notes just thump-thump-thumping for 10 minutes, but it makes the whole song. (2) Pay attention to the harmonies in the chorus. The Horse are able to harmonize with Neil's unique, shaky voice in a way that only Crosby, Stills and Nash have been able to match. (3) One of my favorite things about Neil is how he never seems to lose his Hippie Dream philosophy no matter what style of music he's playing — Love and only love will endure/Hate is everything you think it is.
9. Ramada Inn (Psychedelic Pill, 2012)
Hey, did you know Neil and the Horse released an album of all-new material only one year ago? It's true. And the music on it is as good as anything they've ever done. This track is long as fuck, but it's worth the listen. It's a melancholy tale of a couple who've raised a family and are growing old together, but drifting apart and struggling with drinking and finding purpose. These are some heavy verses woven together with some fantastic guitar work by Neil.
8. F*!#in' Up (Ragged Glory, 1990)
This is probably the song that most earned Neil the nickname "the Godfather of Grunge." When this album came out, in 1990, most rock music was being played by guys wearing leopard print tights on neon pink, flying V guitars. Ragged Glory, and the critical acclaim it received, helped usher in the grunge era. Fuckin' Up is straight up, hard driving rock 'n' roll with some pretty great lyrics to go along with it.
7. Danger Bird (Zuma, 1975)
Zuma was Neil's second album with Crazy Horse and the first since the passing of the Horse's original guitarist, Danny Whitten, who died of a heroin overdose. In Danger Bird you can hear the fully matured style of guitar playing that Neil had started to develop on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. To the untrained ear, the scratches, squeals, fuzz and feedback coming from Young's guitar may at first seem extraneous or unintentional, but the more you listen, the more you start to realize that this is Neil's artistry. Throughout his entire career, Young has experimented with feedback, overdrive, distortion, and playing the guitar in just about any way that would make an interesting noise (he once released a 35 minute album of nothing but feedback). Danger Bird is a prime example of that.
6. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, 1969)
The title track to an absolute masterpiece of an album. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is an anomaly in that it crams all of the soulful messiness of the Horse into a neat two-and-a-half minute package.
5. Powderfinger (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979)
This song is like watching a snippet from an action movie. The context doesn't really matter... it's just riveting and exciting and terrifying. The lyrics are told from the perspective of a young man who's died defending his family against an unknown invading enemy.
Look out, Mama, there's a white boat comin' up the river
With a big red beacon, and a flag, and a man on the rail
I think you'd better call John,
'Cause it don't look like they're here to deliver the mail
We never find out exactly who is in the boat. All we know is that shots start hitting the dock and our hero takes one in the head. Easily one of Neil's best narrative songs. Fun fact: This song was originally recorded for an album Neil ended up never releasing. Since the album never came out, he gave the song to his friend Ronnie Van Zandt and it was going to be recorded and released on a Lynyrd Skynyrd album. But Van Zandt died in a plane crash and Skynyrd never recorded the song, so Neil included it on Rust Never Sleeps.
4. Cowgirl In The Sand (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, 1969)
The guitar in this song. I mean. No one should have to explain this to you.
3. Down By The River (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, 1969)
One of my favorite guitarists, Trey Anastasio from Phish (ducks) once said something to the effect of: if I were to teach a guitar class I would start by playing the first notes of Neil Young's solo in Down By The River to show just how much you can convey by playing a single note.
2. Walk Like A Giant (Psychedelic Pill, 2012)
I can't stop listening to this song. It's a lament by an older Neil, looking back at his hippie generation and regretting that they never changed the world the way that had hoped they would. It's a song about aging, greed, the inevitability of the world, and realizing the power you have. But despite the heaviness of the lyrics, it's a damn good tune to turn way up and stomp around to.
1. Cortez The Killer (Zuma, 1975)
Cortez The Killer represents the absolute best of Neil's guitar playing and lyricism. On the surface, the song is about Cortez sailing across the Atlantic and killing all the Aztecs when he got here. But I think this is really a love story at its heart. At the end of the song Neil abruptly switches from the narrative about the Aztec people to a thought about a girl he loved:
They carried them
to the flatlands
And they died along the way
But they built up
with their bare hands
What we still can't do today.
And I know she's living there
And she loves me to this day
I still can't remember when
Or how I lost my way.
Listen to the guitar, to the tone. Listen to the mood. This is never a song about Cortez. It's a song about regret. It's about lost love and feeling like you've let something slip from your grasp.
Whatever the hell this song is about it's fucking awesome and it's the best Neil Young and Crazy Horse song there is.
Songs that didn't make the cut: