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Readers Poll: The Best Neil Young Songs

Selections include ‘Cortez The Killer,’ ‘Powderfinger’ and ‘Harvest Moon’

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Last year Neil Young released the stellar Daniel Lanois-produced "Le Noise" and toured it around America. This year he seems to be more focused on looking back. He's on tour right now with Buffalo Springfield, and on the verge of releasing a live album recorded on his country tours of the mid-Eighties – hence our decision to poll our readers and see what their favorite Neil Young songs are.

Unsurprisingly, you're quite keen on his Seventies catalog. We can't blame you: Between 1969's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and 1978's Rust Never Sleeps Young reached a level of genius that few songwriters have ever topped. Click through to watch videos of your top 10 tracks. 

By Andy Greene

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9. ‘Powderfinger’

For 33 years Neil Young fans have been arguing over what exactly "Powderfinger" is about. Nobody disputes that it's one of his best songs. Young must agree, because he's played it 666 times. (Only "Cinnamon Girl" has been performed more). Neil has never explained the song in detail, but here's the general interpretation: It's about a family of bootleggers (or some other kind of backwoods criminals) somewhere up in the mountains. They've been through many tragedies, and now the authorities are moving in on them – explaining why the approaching boat has "numbers on the side." The 22-year-old son has been forced to deal with the situation because "Daddy's gone," "brother's out hunting in the mountains" and "Big John's been drinking since the river took Emmy-Lou." The young man is standing on the dock with a rifle in his hand when the boat begins firing, so he raises the gun to return fire – but it backfires and blows his head off. Whatever it's about, only Young could write a song so bizarre and brilliant. Somebody should turn it into a movie. 

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8. ‘Cortez The Killer’

In a previous list we explained why "Cortez The Killer" isn't exactly the most accurate take on the life of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. That doesn't mean the song isn't absolutely brilliant. Young cut the track with Crazy Horse for 1975's Zuma while some members of the band were high on angel dust. When they finished, producer David Briggs told the band that the electric circuits blew during the take and they lost the entire final verse. According to legend, Young merely shrugged and said, "I never liked that verse anyway." The lyrics of the supposed final verse have never surfaced. 

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7. ‘After The Goldrush’

The lyrics to this song make "Powderfinger" seem as easy to understand as "Ohio." It might have made more sense had Young's friend Dean Stockwell (better known as Al from Quantum Leap) ever completed work on the movie the song was written for. In Jimmy McDonough's fabulous Neil Young biography Shakey, he spoke with Stockwell about the project. "I was gonna write a movie that was personal, a Jungian self-discovery of the gnosis," Stockwell said. "It involved the Kabala, it involved a lot of arcane stuff." 

The movie never happened, but Young did compose "After The Goldrush" and "Cripple Creek Ferry" for the soundtrack. In a 1992 interview, Young attempted to explain the lyrics. "[It's] about three times in history," he said. "There's a Robin Hood scene, there's a fire scene in the present and there's the future . . . the air is yellow and red, ships are leaving, certain people can go and certain people can't . . . I think it's going to happen."

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6. ‘Ohio’

Neil Young wrote "Ohio" days after the tragedy at Kent State in which the National Guard shot into the middle of a protest and killed four students. He wrote the song in just 15 minutes after seeing a devastating photo portfolio of the incident in Life magazine. As Rolling Stone contributing editor David Browne recounts in his new book Fire and Rain, Crosby called Graham Nash right after the song was written. "You wouldn't believe this fucking song Neil's written," he said. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young met up at a Warner Bros. soundstage the very next day to record the fiery protest anthem.

The song has very few lines, and Stephen Stills thought it needed another verse. "I thought there has to be more to this," he said. "I'm sure a lot of the guys in that platoon were told they didn't have live rounds. Part of me went, 'Guys just don't do that – that's too much like the Germans. We're more honorable than firing into unarmed civilians."

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5. ‘Harvest Moon’

The only song on our list not released in the Seventies is the title track to Harvest Moon, a sequel to his 1972 classic Harvest. Young reformed the same studio band from the original Harvest, and even got James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt to contribute backing vocals – as they did on the original. The song is as tribute to his wife Pegi, and in the video for the song the couple dances in a bar – even as another Neil Young is onstage singing the song. It's not nearly as trippy as it sounds. 

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4. ‘Like A Hurricane’

Neil Young has played "Like A Hurricane" countless different ways. On 1992's Unplugged he played a solemn version on the organ, while on tours with Crazy Horse he's stretched it out for upwards of 15 minutes. On those tours, Crazy Horse guitarist Frank "Pancho" Sampedro often plays organ while Young and bassist Billy Talbot fall into a beautiful trance. Just when it seems like he's done, Young often turns a minute or two of guitar feedback into a coda. Watching this 2001 performance of the song with Crazy Horse it's clear that they remain his single greatest backing band. Here's hoping he finally gives them a call next year for a tour. It's been way, way, waaaaaaay too long. 

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3. ‘Heart Of Gold’

"Heart of Gold" transformed Neil Young from a beloved rock figure into an international superstar. In 1972 the song was inescapable, peaking at Number One on the Billboard Hot 100. During that time, Bob Dylan was living with his family in seclusion in Arizona.  "I used to hate it when it came on the radio," Dylan said in 1985. "I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to 'Heart of Gold.' I think it was up at Number One for a long time, and I'd say, 'Shit, that's me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.'"

Young didn't like his transformation into a mainstream pop act either, and over the next few years did everything he could to make sure it wouldn't happen again. "This song put me in the middle of the road," Young famously wrote in the liner notes of his 1977 LP Decade. "Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there."

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2. ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’

When Neil Young first played "The Needle And The Damage Done" in January of 1971, Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten was nearly two years away from dying of a heroin overdose – but Young could already see where Whitten's horrible addiction was heading. Whitten wasn't the only one in Young's circle of friends who had succumbed to a heroin addiction in the early 1970s, and this song addresses all of them. When Young's roadie Bruce Berry died of a heroin overdose just seven months after Whitten, Young went into a depression and wrote Tonight's The Night about the tragedies. 

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1. ‘Old Man’

In 1970 Neil Young bought a giant plot of land in Northern California. He dubbed the place Broken Arrow Ranch and he's lived there to this day. When he moved in, the land was overseen by a man named Louis Avila. "Louis took me for a ride in this blue Jeep," Young said in 2005. "He gets me up there on the top side of the place, and there's this lake up there that fed all the pastures, and he says, 'Well, tell me, how does a young man like yourself have enough money to buy a place like this?' And I said, 'Well, just lucky, Louie, just real lucky.' And he said, 'Well, that's the darndest thing I ever heard.'" Young wrote the song about him. Sidenote: Young is older now than Avila was when they first met. 

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