Jan 312019

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20. Poolside – Harvest Moon

“Harvest Moon” is completely re-envisioned in the Poolside cover. Unlike the easy, rocking-chair-on-the-back-porch feel of the original, the Poolside version takes place in a swanky SoCal midcentury modern home (poolside, naturally). You hear that vibe immediately with the hand claps, synth, and sound effects on beat one. It’s a worthy cover, though we lose the nostalgia of the original. – Angela Hughey

19. Wire Train – Mr. Soul (Buffalo Springfield)

In 1984, Bono – about as big a rising star as there was in music at the time – dubbed Wire Train’s debut In a Chamber the best album of the year. It wasn’t, although it was pretty good, but Wire Train never really took off the way some of us thought they might. Listening to them now, you can hear an amalgam of other 1980s bands, like Translator, The Alarm, Echo and The Bunnymen, The Psychedelic Furs, or even U2, but they still have a distinctive sound. Wire Train’s cover of “Mr. Soul,” a Buffalo Springfield song written by Young about his disinterest in fame, following an epilepsy attack on stage, was a bonus track on an expanded edition of their debut. It turns the original twangy rocker into a classic ’80s indie-rock stomp. – Jordan Becker

18. Sonic Youth – Computer Age

How’s this for a what-could-have-been: In 1992, Neil Young was asked about rumors that he’d recorded with Sonic Youth shortly after their tour together. Fake news, apparently. “That sounds like it came from a news story that was in fact wrong,” Young said. “Hell, if they wanted to play, I’d be there. It sounds like too much fun to pass by. Sonic Youth are great… I’d love to work with [them] if the right conditions prevailed.” God, I would have loved to hear that. I guess the right conditions never did prevail, and a couple years later he was off working with Pearl Jam. Sonic Youth’s killer “Computer Age” cover will have to suffice. – Jane Callaway

17. Dala – A Man Needs a Maid

In the early 1970s, when “A Man Needs a Maid” was released at the height of second-wave feminism, many pilloried Young for this song, which they interpreted as the worst kind of male chauvinism. Yet, on a harder view, it seems that this criticism was unwarranted. Written at a time when Young was literally bedridden due to back surgery, recovering from the breakup of his first marriage and starting a relationship with actress Carrie Snodgrass, the song takes Young’s literal need for a maid as a launching pad to lay bare Young’s concern that he is incapable of a truly equal relationship with a woman. Some critics have also called its use of the London Symphony Orchestra bombastic, while others appreciated the drama they add. Dala, an acoustic duo from Young’s native Ontario featuring the fine harmonies of Amanda Walther and Sheila Carabine, covered the song with somewhat less bombast on their 2005 album Angels & Thieves. This version also appeared on 2008’s aforementioned Cinnamon Girl tribute album, which supported Casting For Recovery, whose mission is to enhance the quality of life of women with breast cancer through a retreat program combining breast cancer education and peer support with fly fishing. – Jordan Becker

16. Blue Rodeo – I’ve Been Waiting For You

One of a spate of 1990s Neil Young tributes during his Godfather-of-Grunge phase, Borrowed Tunes features the usual song contenders, from “Heart of Gold” to “Tonight’s the Night.” But the highlight is a deeper cut: “I’ve Been Waiting for You.” The near-forgotten song on Young’s debut got a second life when David Bowie covered it for 2002’s Heathen, but Canadian alt-country vets Blue Rodeo got there first. Their nearly seven-minute recording skips by, nursing barely-there vocals on the verses into crashing, cathartic choruses. Kim Deschamps’ echoing backing vocals steal the show, before Greg Keelor’s demented guitar solo steals it back. – Ray Padgett

15. Caitlin Canty – Unknown Legend

Young was cagey about who “Unknown Legend” was about – “It’s inspired by some people I know and some people I don’t know and all kinds of things put together” – but much more direct about what it was about – “not losing what it is you were when you were young, but take it with you, take it with you into your own age. Don’t leave it behind.” There’s a reason that chorus is written in the present tense. Caitlin Canty gets it, and her version doesn’t sound like she’s trying to hold onto her youth so much as she’s infused with it. – Patrick Robbins

14. Great Lake Swimmers – Don’t Cry No Tears

Following a dark period in his life and music, Young’s 1975 album Zuma with a reunited Crazy Horse kicks off with a twangy rocker that sets the album’s generally brighter and less self-pitying tone. The song is based on one of Young’s earliest compositions, “I Wonder,” which he wrote in high school and recorded with The Squires, and thus there’s an early 60’s pop feel under the twang. Fellow Ontarians Great Lake Swimmers recorded a cover of the song for 2007’s Borrowed Tunes II, a second helping of Young covers recorded by Canadian artists for charities selected by Young—The Bridge School and Toronto-based Safehaven. Their version is folkier, more atmospheric, and more wistful than Young’s more declarative original. – Jordan Becker

13. Ann Vriend – Rockin’ in the Free World

The only “Rockin’ in the Free World” cover I’ve heard that wasn’t, well, rockin’. Canadian singer-songwriter Ann Vriend dispenses with the endless guitar solos and hollering that characterize pretty much every other cover. But don’t mistake this for some soft ballad. In her own way, Vriend rocks, putting piss and vinegar into her vocals that still roar over the lush orchestral production. Her cover may be kinder and gentler, but the machine-gun hand remains. – Ray Padgett

12. Norah Jones – Don’t Be Denied

I’ll be honest here: I didn’t know this was a cover the first time I heard it. I wasn’t familiar with Young’s original yet, but once you know it you can’t miss it. His song has his signature way of finding a groove and hitting it again and again. Some of the verses just have too many syllables, but still work. The chorus comes in too early on the last go round… and it works even better. On her cover, Jones replaces the sparse guitar with piano licks and some heavy bass lines throughout. Her voice is incredible, as usual, and she manages to handle the idiosyncrasies of Young’s delivery while maintaining her own style. The song has a sluggish feel, which melds perfectly with the lounge feel of Jones’s voice. It stood out to me as one of her best songs even though I had no idea it was a cover, which is exactly what the best covers can do. – Mike Misch

11. The Meters – Birds

How this was ever dreamt up as even a possibility continues to amaze me. How can the (official) funkiest band ever pick this, arguably one of Neil’s wimpiest songs? (To be fair, it’s also one of his best, even if dripping in no small spoonful of sentimentality.) But they did, coming on like a way way hipper version of The Commodores in full Lionel mode. Plus I think that the true mettle of songsmanship is how a song can totally transcend its origins and be interpreted in any genre. And, yes, should you not recognize him in a slightly lower timbre than usual, that is Art Neville, then a member of this New Orleans institution, on vocals. – Seuras Og

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  29 Responses to “The Best Neil Young Covers Ever”

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  1. Surprised not to see the Polyphonic Spree’s Heart of Gold on the list.

  2. What about Type O Negative’s take on Cinnamon Girl..?

  3. Not one Widespread Panic Neil cover “Don’t Be Denied” “Mr. Soul” “Vampire Blues” “Walk On” and no Byrd’s “See the Sky About to Rain”

  4. Kudos on ranking Emmylou’s version of Wrecking Ball so high. I agree about the Byrds’ See the Sky About to Rain. Also, Linda Ronstadt did a beautiful version of Birds early in her career, and a nice version of Love Is a Rose.

  5. I hit the wrong button and almost missed the 2nd page of this post — was incredulous that Roxy Music’s rendition of “Like a Hurricane” didn’t make the cut. Luckily, I went back through the list to check again. That version is my all time favorite, and luckily, iTunes came along when it did, b/c the cassette tape I’d been dragging around with me for years was on its last legs.

  6. How about Type-O Negative’s Cinnamon Girl? Awesome cover that gives that song a pair of balls!

  7. I like this version of “New Mama” very much: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kova_IEojBw

  8. my second best version – beside Nick Cave – of Helpless – k.d. Lang

  9. The Isley Bros version of Ohio is massive. Thank you for posting.

  10. Soul Asylum version for Barstool Blues is the best!

  11. Just for understanding: “Pocahontas” isn’t the insult, it’s “Fauxcahontas” to point out the hack politician who stole Native American identity for academic and career benefit. It’s too bad the joke is being mistold by that other dope.
    Cool list, BTW.

  12. Maybe you’d like to hear my version of “Harvest Moon” – solo, acoustic HARP!

  13. KD Lang’s version of Helpless is far superior to Black Label Society. She makes the words bleed with sincerity.

  14. Did I miss Grace Potter’s Cortez the Killer

  15. How about Linda Ronstadt’s “Look out for my love”?

  16. The Isley Brothers’ Live version of “Ohio/Machine Gun” gives one shivers. Ten times greater than the studio version, which is also great.

  17. No “After the Gold Rush” by Dolly, Linda, an Emmylou? Ouch.

  18. Poolside , Harvest Moon

  19. Wow, I expected Built to Spills live version of Cortez the Killer at #1, minimum top 10. UNLISTED?? wow.. No accounting for taste I guess, though we’re all Young fans, so maybe just ignorance? Very few, if any bands can match the emotional intensity of Crazy Horse, Doug Martsch/Built to Spill come the closest

  20. There’s also Annie Lennox’s cover of “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” from the movie American Beauty. Sonic Youth should be closer to the top.

  21. It’s criminal that Trio’s (Dolly Parton/Linda Ronstadt/Emmylou Harris) version of “After the Gold Rush isn’t on this list. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykMzS6ugnPI
    And I have a fond spot for The Constantines version of “Shots”, which I can’t find online.

  22. What about C.C. Grace’s tribute album? I actually like a couple of her covers better than Neil’s versions!


  23. Here are a few more.

    The Be Good Tanyas//For the Turnstiles

    Jeff Healey//Like a Hurricane

    Johnny Cash//Four Strong Winds (technically, not a Neil song, but he owns it)

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