Exclusive Features

Anniversaries, Cover Stories, Editorials,
Interviews, Lists, and Comprehensive Rankings

The 25 Best Neil Young Covers

on December 09, 2016, 2:00am
view all

This feature originally ran in June 2012. We’re reposting it today in celebration of Neil Young’s new album, Peace Trail.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse recently issued Americana, their first album in nine years, comprised entirely of reworked classic, American folk songs. In celebration of its release, Consequence of Sound decided to turn the tables and put together a list of our favorite covers of Young’s exhausting back catalog. There are plenty — hundreds of them — and they stretch back as far as the ’60s and ’70s. Because we couldn’t include them all, the list has been cut to a healthy collection of 25 solid inclusions.

Something to take away from this project: It’s an eccentric group of names, to be sure. Everyone from Smashing Pumpkins to Roxy Music, Patti Smith to Radiohead are included here, and that only speaks volumes to Young’s expansive influence. So, while you’re trekking through track after track, just think: This all goes back to one man.

Pretty wild.

–Michael Roffman


“After the Gold Rush”

Artist: Thom Yorke
Originally On: After the Gold Rush (1970)

Though both singers are more often than not soaring above the proverbial clouds, their vocals straddling the otherwise thick lines between anthemic and whiny, rarely are the two compared. For most, it takes hearing Thom Yorke’s reverential cover of Young’s “After the Goldrush”, live from the 2002 Bridge School Benefit, to really elucidate the similarities. Bringing in just enough Yorkian melodrama to split the difference, the Radiohead frontman nervously plays a personal hero’s song on the instrument it was written on, with its writer watching from the sidelines. -Drew Litowitz



Artist: Phish
Originally On: Tonight’s the Night (1975)

Most Phish songs, even their slower ballads, exude positivity. All the more reason Young’s haunting ballad is a rare moment of sparse desolation in the otherwise exuberant Phish live experience. In hindsight, “Albuquerque” seems to have been an indication of how dark things were starting to get for Phish. You get the sense that guitarist Trey Anastasio, just before a decade that would include a band breakup and a battle with drug addiction, really meant it when he sang, “I’ve been starving to be alone.” –Jake Cohen


“Broken Arrow”

Artist: Wilco
Originally On: Buffalo Springfield Again (1967)

One way to nail a cover song is to imitate to perfection. “Our whole angle with learning that was to do it as exact as possible,” explained drummer Glen Kotche. Wilco’s spot-on take of “Broken Arrow” first debuted at the MusiCares Tribute to Neil Young, complete with the “Mr. Soul” false start, the “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” organ riff, and the eerie jazz piano outro, honors Young’s Buffalo Springfield opus while exposing what now seems like an obvious inspiration behind the disjointed, aching world of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot–Jon Bernstein


“Cortez the Killer”

Artist: Slint
Originally On: Zuma (1975)

Many have taken a stab at the epic scope of “Cortez the Killer”, but few have the dark muscle of post-rock godfathers Slint. Captured in a Chicago set in 1989, vocalist Brian McMahan’s unaffected, cracking voice carries the intensity, and Dave Pajo’s churning guitar licks burn the edges. The smoky intensity of the then soon-to-come Spiderland is on fine display here, and the whole thing culminates in a fittingly feedbacky fade. –Adam Kivel


“Cinnamon Girl”

Artist: Smashing Pumpkins
Originally On: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)

Back in the late ’80s, just as they were kicking up dust in The Windy City, the Smashing Pumpkins gave Neil Young’s thunderous classic a shot during a session at Chicago’s Reel Time Studios. Sans the denim jacket, Billy Corgan channels Young’s raspy twang and spins out an anthemic solo towards the end, the likes of which would be all over Crazy Horse’s sets around the same time — after all, they held the original trademarks in distortion. –Michael Roffman


“Don’t Cry No Tears”

Artist: Matthew Sweet
Originally On: Zuma (1975)

Power-pop luminary Matthew Sweet doesn’t veer far from the source material on his live rendition of Zuma’s lead track. The original is a mid-tempo country rocker with a pop-song underbelly; Sweet interprets it as such, adding a hint of distortion. His sound owes a great deal to Neil Young, and he faithfully pays homage to his predecessor with this cover. —Jon Hadusek


“Down by the River”

Artist: Low & Dirty Three
Originally On: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)

The delicate slow-core of Low coupled with the melancholy of the Dirty Three turn Young’s Southern Gothic tale of murder into an even darker, more haunting number. Opening under staggered brushing on a snare, atmospheric guitar work ebbs and flows giving breathing room for Warren Ellis’ violin. The song is virtually unrecognizable for the first six minutes, gaining in volume, teasing a collapse, until Low vocalist Mimi Parker enters with “Be on my side, and I’ll be on your side.” Next to Buddy Miles’ funk version, this is perhaps the most unique rendition of Young’s song. –Len Comaratta


“F*!#in’ Up”

Artist: Pearl Jam
Originally On: Ragged Glory (1990)

There aren’t many artists who can say they’ve earned the right to call Young “Uncle Neil”, but Pearl Jam definitely have. Their reverential appreciation for his grunge-shaping material is most evident when they close a lengthy set with a song like “F*!#in’ Up”, famously captured on 1998’s Live on Two Legs. And what exactly is up with the hanging doll Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready go bat$#!% over at the end of this video from their native Seattle? -Gilles LeBlanc



Artist: James Mercer (of The Shins)
Originally On: Harvest (1972)

The great thing about this cover is the personal way James Mercer delivers the lines. It’s almost like he wrote them himself, which adds an edge to the song that’s somewhat lacking in Young’s more understated original. The classic harmonica break also underlines the song’s wistful precision. –Tony Hardy


“Harvest Moon”

Artist: Del Barber
Originally On: Harvest Moon (1992)

Del Barber sings about a diner waitress on his most recent album, Headwaters. Perhaps he’s singing about an unlucky “Unknown Legend”, a less fortunate woman still waiting to get swept away, still waiting to get out of town on the back of someone’s Harley.  Here, Barber tackles another song off Harvest Moon, the widely covered, entrancing title track. His Canadian country twang is the perfect fit for “Harvest Moon”, and Barber injects the plaintive song with a fresh sense of urgency while staying faithful to the original. –Jon Bernstein


“Heart of Gold”

Artist: Charles Bradley
Originally On: Harvest (1972)

Charles Bradley’s version of “Heart of Gold”, marked with his highly personal brand of 1970s funky soul, carries more conscious weightiness than Young’s reflective version. No surprise, considering how his debut LP, No Time for Dreaming, sounds like it could be right out of the post-Civil Rights era. With the funky, staccato horns of the Menahan Street Band and the wondrous analog sound of Daptone production, Bradley turns it into something all his own, funky and fun but somehow very serious. –Jake Cohen



Artist: Buffy Sainte-Marie
Originally On: Déjà Vu (1970)

The brilliance of this 1971 version lies in Sainte-Marie’s soulful delivery and in the background vocals. Whereas the original features soaring, drawn-out vocals, Sainte-Marie’s backup singers belt out the word “helpless” with a quick desperation that calls listeners to stand up in solidarity instead of sitting down in concession. -Matthew Kauffman-Smith


“Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”

Artist: Chromatics
Originally On: Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

Neil Young’s original feels somber; Chromatics’ take just haunts you. That stark guitar line, Ruth Radelet’s glassy vocals, and Johnny Jewels’ religious synths add a few signature notes on what might be Young’s most fragile track to date — which, let’s be honest, is saying quite a lot. Also, thanks to its vintage, analog instrumentation, the whole thing has this late ’70s sheen to it, keeping it even closer to the original. –Michael Roffman


“It’s a Dream”

Artist: Patti Smith
Originally On: Prairie Wind (2005)

Patti Smith must have brought the Carnegie Hall Tribute to Neil Young to a grinding halt. “It’s a Dream” is the centerpiece of Prairie Wind, Neil Young’s cozy, reflective, loving album quietly released, with no proper tour to follow, after a surviving a near-lethal aneurysm in 2005. Only a singer like Smith would have the audacity to cover a song like “It’s a Dream”, which is part biography, part love-letter, and part reverie. She gently sways through the song with the heavy sincerity it demands, leaving few dry eyes along the way. –Jon Bernstein


“Like a Hurricane”

Artist: Roxy Music
Originally On: American Stars N’ Bars (1977)

In 1983, Roxy Music reworked “Like a Hurricane” for their live set, which wound up on their live EP The High Road. It carries all the sexed-up swagger that Bryan Ferry typically brings, and thanks to support from a wall of expert musicians, there’s this highly danceable groove in lieu of Young’s fist-pumping drive. Both draw different reactions, yet both are classic and epic in their own way. –Ryan Staskel


“Long May You Run”

Artist: Nils Lofgren
Originally On: Long May You Run (1976)

Though known nowadays as a member of the E Street Band, Nils Lofgren got his big break when he sang and played piano on Young’s After the Gold Rush album. Taken in that context, Lofgren’s covers album The Loner: Nils Sings Neil comes across as a heartfelt tribute. Nowhere is that more evident than on “Long May You Run”, where Lofgren, with only his voice and acoustic guitar, gives a beautifully sparse homage to Young’s longstanding legacy. –Matthew Kauffman-Smith


“Lotta Love”

Artist: Nicolette Larson
Originally On: Comes a Time (1978) 

While Nicolette Larson contributed backing vocals to several of the acoustic-flavored songs on Comes a Time, her hopeful voice remained absent from “Lotta Love” — strange, considering she went on to release her own solo version of the song a mere month later (with Young’s blessing, of course). What was once melancholy becomes optimistic as the tune transforms into a disco smash driven by funk bass, decadent saxophone, and an extended flute solo. Young was no stranger to genre-bending and reportedly appreciated the cover, which became even more bittersweet when Larson tragically died of liver failure in 1997. –Dan Caffrey


“Old Man”

Artist: Bob Dylan
Originally On: Harvest (1972)

Neil Young wrote “Old Man” when he was 27. Forty years later, hearing Bob Dylan run through his ragged, reverential take on Young’s song is a strange thrill. Dylan debuted this one-off performance during a run of shows at Madison Square Garden. He transforms the song, changing the line “doesn’t mean that much to me, to mean that much to you” into a question, a challenge, perhaps to himself, perhaps to Young, his contemporary, friend, and rival: “Doesn’t mean that much to me. Does it mean that much to you?” –Jon Bernstein


“On the Beach”

Artist: Radiohead
Originally On: On the Beach (1974)

Of all the talented artists on this list who’ve put their own spin on Mr. Young’s canon of work, Thom Yorke may be the one most perfectly suited to honor the folksy, more downbeat Neil Young of the mid-’70s. With minimal accompaniment (even compared to the original), Yorke absolutely nails “On the Beach”, which can be found on the Radiohead bootleg Gagging Order: Acoustic Recordings. Give it a quality listen, and your world will turn, too. –Gilles LeBlanc


“Only Love Can Break Your Heart”

Artist: Bradford Cox (of Atlas Sound)
Originally On: After the Gold Rush (1970)

This cover dates back to summer of 2007, when Atlas Sound’s Bradford Cox woke up one morning and couldn’t shake the song out of his head. As he says, “To me, the song captures the solitude you feel when you’re a kid and how it can be comforting … then you get older and solitude loses its magic.” Cox enlightens the song’s country sensibilities by adding ghostly bathwater harmonies, rusty acoustics, and vocals that echo the creepiest melodies of Donovan. Oddly enough, it’s actually really peaceful. –Michael Roffman



Artist: Cowboy Junkies
Originally On: Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

The Canadian country rockers covered this on their 1990 album, The Caution Horses. It’s hard to outdo Neil Young for axemanship so the Cowboy Junkies opted instead for a more contemplative treatment. The mandolin and accordion, along with Margot Timmins’ hangdog delivery, bring an air of sad reflection to a memorable tune. –Tony Hardy


“Rockin in the Free World”

Artist: Drive-By Truckers
Originally On: Freedom (1989)

Much like Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, Young’s stadium rocker “Rockin’ in the Free World” is darker than its chorus implies. There’s perhaps no better band to shed light on this ominous cautionary tale of capitalism than the Drive-By Truckers, who have made a living out of creating gloomy material that also happens to rock. Complete with Muscle Shoals-influenced horns and their usual multi-guitar assault, the Truckers take a Canadian anthem and turn it into a Southern one. –Matthew Kauffman-Smith


“Tell Me Why”

Artist: Norah Jones
Originally On: After the Gold Rush (1970)

Here’s another cut from MusiCares Tribute to Neil Young, a treasure trove of truly affectionate covers in itself. Here, Norah Jones plays a straight bat on this version, remaining faithful to the original. The beauty is in the way her languid, velveteen tones wrap themselves tenderly around Young’s words and the subtle change of pace that emphasizes the message in the chorus. –Tony Hardy


“Walk On”

Artist: The Bottle Rockets w/Jeff Tweedy
Originally On: On the Beach (1974)

“I remember the good old days,” sings Brian Henneman after taking the mic from Jeff Tweedy in this loose, on-point performance of “Walk On”, the upbeat exception that begins On the Beach. Maybe it’s because “Walk On” sounds like an A.M.-era Wilco song or that he’s playing with fellow 90’s Mid-Western Alt Country contemporaries The Bottle Rockets, but Tweedy is at his loosest here, singing the tell-off with the enthusiasm of a young kid getting to play one of his hero’s great songs. –Jon Bernstein



Artist: Pixies
Originally On: Decade (1977)

This wildly inventive cover dates back to October of 1990, when it first surfaced as a B-side to Bossanova single “Dig for Me”. Black Francis’ snarl circles back to Young’s signature timbre, and while the original has plenty of grime on it, there’s a thick sludge of fuzz here, courtesy of Joey Santiago, that makes it sound more like a Pixies original. Isn’t that the sign of a true cover? –Michael Roffman

view all