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Rust's Favorite Neil Songs
(poll conducted by Lee Grove and Randy Lohr)
(Posted to The Rust List on September 20, 1998.)
Six months ago I asked you all to list the top 20 Neil songs of all time. This was due in part to a series of articles my brother in law Randy has had under way for a while... In short, he was tired of professional "critical" feedback about Neil's work and wanted to get some real feedback from other Neil devotees. Enjoy...

Neil's 20 Greatest Songs: A Rust Survey

With a catalogue of nearly 40 officially-released albums, innumerable bootlegs, and over a hundred unreleased songs, asking folks with a good handle on Neil Young's music to choose what they consider to be his twenty finest songs was asking a lot and was not done lightly. In the six months that we had the survey out there in cyberspace, we received fifty-five lists, all of them unique and obviously seriously thought out, and all together covering 211 of Neil's songs.

We thank everyone who contributed (especially those who included annotations to their lists), recognizing that there are more lists out there where these came from and that if we asked everyone to do it over, a whole different set of songs would probably be submitted. But on the whole, the final list presented indicates that there are a handful of songs (6 or 7) that a majority of people consider essential and then an assortment of about 20 songs that sort of orbit around the core (all of which spent some time in the top 20). To acknowledge this situation, we have included an appended list of the ten honorable mentions that have rounded out the top 20 throughout the process.

The "finalists" were culled according to three criteria:

  1. the number of lists on which each song appeared;
  2. the sum total of all the placement values (i.e. where on each list a song appeared);
  3. the number of times a song may have been ranked #1.
Based on these statistics, we compiled the list, using our best judgment when dealing with songs that were very closely ranked, in order to give the list a measure of balance. (Note: When it comes to point totals, the lower the number, the higher the rank.)

A quick glance at the list indicates a preference at the top for the extended electric workouts with Crazy Horse -- the so-called "epic songs" (although many contributors preferred the live and acoustic versions).

Also interesting is the clustering of songs from decade-ending albums -- three from 1979's Rust Never Sleeps (four if you include Pocahontas), three from 1969's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and two from 1989's Freedom. No song from the 1990s made the top 20, but three made the Honorable Mention list.

Although many lists included songs from Neil's 80's albums (Hawks & Doves through American Dream), none garnered sufficient support to rise to the top. None, that is, save Ordinary People, the single unreleased song in the top 20 and certainly one of Neil's most extraordinary compositions.

Otherwise, the list is dominated by Neil's 1970s work (no surprise, really), unquestionably his most consistent and critically-acclaimed period. In fact, 12 of the top 20 are songs that Neil himself chose for his mid-career overview, Decade, which might strike some people as either too predictable or being very faithful to the artist's own sense of his work. The songs that keep the list from simply being a Xerox of Decade (Don't Be Denied, Ambulance Blues, Ordinary People, Thrasher and the rest of the songs off Rust Never Sleeps and Freedom are representative of the kinds of gems that one will know only if they, like Neil himself, stop travelling in the middle of the road and head for the ditch.

In the end, the question we have is: How do these 20+ songs hold up when placed next to the 20-song lists of the other great artists of rock and roll, such as Dylan, Springsteen, the Beatles and the Stones? Is it only a matter of personal taste? Or does the breadth and depth of Neil's work -- in subject matter, style, and longevity -- make him the most essential rock and roll artist of all? And if so, how is it that he is all but ignored in Marsh's Rock Lists and ends up ranked number 30 in the VH-1 top 100 poll, behind the likes of The Police and Fleetwood Mac?

Or, if it is the ditch we're talking about, will Neil Young always be marginal for most folks? And if so, why make a big fuss about it? Interesting questions... I'm hoping the Rusties might have some answers.

With that said, and with no further ado, allow us to present The 20 Greatest Songs by Neil Young for your enjoyment and evaluation...

  1. Like A Hurricane, American Stars'n'Bars, (1977)
        33 lists, 175 pts., 11 #1s
  2. Down By The River, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, (1969)
        34 lists, 224 pts., 2 #1s
  3. Powderfinger, Rust Never Sleeps, (1979)
        30 lists, 205 pts., 3 #1s
  4. Cowgirl In The Sand, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, (1969)
        29 lists, 181 pts., 5 #1s
  5. Rockin' In The Free World, Freedom, (1989)
        29 lists, 232 pts., 4 #1s
  6. Cortez the Killer, Zuma, (1975)
        29 lists, 229 pts., 3 #1s
  7. Ohio, single with CSN, (1970)
        24 lists, 209 pts., 3 #1s
  8. Tonight's The Night, Tonight's The Night, (1975)
        22 lists, 206 pts.
  9. Ordinary People, unreleased, (c. 1988)
        18 lists, 116 pts., 4 #1s
  10. Thrasher, Rust Never Sleeps, (1979)
        17 lists, 129 pts., 2 #1s
  11. Southern Man, After The Gold Rush, (1970)
        18 lists, 138 pts., 2 #1s
  12. Cinnamon Girl, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, (1969)
        19 lists, 184 pts., 2 #1s
  13. Ambulance Blues, On The Beach, (1974)
        17 lists, 136 pts., 1 #1
  14. Crime In The City, Freedom, (1989)
        14 lists, 119 pts., 1 #1 (includes full Sixty to Zero version)
  15. Heart of Gold, Harvest, (1972)
        14 lists, 123 pts., 1 #1
  16. Hey Hey My My (Into The Black), Rust Never Sleeps, (1979)
        17 lists, 170 pts.
  17. The Needle and The Damage Done, Harvest, (1972)
        17 lists, 192 pts.
  18. Mr. Soul, Buffalo Springfield Again, (1967)
        16 lists, 195 pts.
  19. Don't Be Denied, Time Fades Away, (1973)
        15 lists, 170 pts.
  20. Long May You Run, Long May You Run, (1976)
        15 lists, 192 pts.
Honorable Mentions
  • After The Gold Rush (1970)
  • Pocahontas (1979)
  • Change Your Mind (1994)
  • The Loner (1968)
  • Expecting To Fly (1967)
  • Old Man (1972)
  • Out On The Weekend (1972)
  • I'm The Ocean (1995)
  • Tell Me Why (1970)
  • Big Time (1996)
  • This Note's For You (1988)
Thanks again for everyone's contribution and patience.

Already one,
Randy Lohr

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