Jan 312019

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10. Cassandra Wilson – Harvest Moon

In recording a “sequel” to 1972’s Harvest, one of Young’s most popular and iconic albums, he could have done a lot worse than 1992’s Harvest Moon, an acoustic record prompted by the tinnitus that Young’s developed from the loud Ragged Glory tour. The title song was a gentle love song to his then-wife Pegi (who just died on New Year’s Day, a few years after the couple divorced), and features Linda Ronstadt on backing vocals. Cassandra Wilson’s cover, on her also lunar-titled album New Moon Daughter, slows the song down to a contemplative crawl, backed in part by what sounds like the insects that you might hear when you’re lying outside on a warm night, staring at the moon. – Jordan Becker

9. The Walkabouts – Like a Hurricane (Live)

No band competed more with itself for a spot on this list. If they hadn’t recorded “Like a Hurricane,” we would have included their stunning “On the Beach.” If that didn’t exist either, their “Albuquerque” would be a shoo-in. The fact that they never recorded a full Neil tribute album seems a minor crime. What pushed “Like a Hurricane” (the live version on their Death Valley Days compilation, not the album cut) to the top was the ferocity and stamina they pummel into it – a requirement with a song this long – as well as a surprising addition I didn’t notice for years. At a certain point, they switch into “Smoke on the Water.” Not the riff or the chorus you’d more easily recognize. Instead, they seamlessly work in a reinterpretation of that song’s opening verse as this song’s bridge, culminating in repeating “some stupid with a flare gun” hollers that brilliantly lead back into “Like a Hurricane.” A huge song, made even huger. – Ray Padgett

8. The Bluebeaters – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Apart from when Neil himself ill-advisedly started playing “Cortez the Killer” with a reggae backbeat, there can’t be many Neil Young covers in this style. Arguably with good reason. But this is no novelty; it does work, again proclaiming the truth of a good tune. Throw in a production faithful to the sound of Studio One in Kingston, Jamaica, and it might surprise you that this group are Italian, based in Turin. However, rather than the frantic ska-punk thrashing around so common to sweaty fratboys, the Bluebeaters seem a more studied institution. They have played at proper reggae festivals like Sun Splash, being given the nod by Jamaican artists like Ken Boothe and the Skatalites. Their 20-year track record of covers ranges from this to Kraftwerk. – Seuras Og

7. Pixies – Winterlong

Both Young and the Pixies are known for using fuzzy electric guitars, yet in very different contexts. However, their similar differences pay off wonderfully in this cover of Young’s “Winterlong.” An unreleased track given an official release on 1977’s great Decade compilation, the original has an almost ’60s girl group feel with a country rock overlay. Meanwhile, the Pixies version, originally released on 1989’s tribute album The Bridge, tends toward the band’s mellower side and is sung as a duet between Kim Deal and Black Francis. Both versions, in different ways, capture the melancholic yearning of the song. – Jordan Becker

6. Merry Clayton – Southern Man

Merry Clayton will forever be known as the singer who rocked the Rolling Stones’ world and out-sung Mick Jagger on “Gimme Shelter.” Beyond her legendary work as a backing vocalist, Clayton is an accomplished frontwoman in her own right. On her self-titled 1971 record, she recorded a blistering, funky cover of Young’s “Southern Man.” As an African-American woman with an earth-shattering voice, Clayton turns the song in full-fledged call to political action. Hearing her belt “How long is it gonna last?” is enough to make you want take to the streets. It’s an exceptional cover that remains as relevant today as the day it was recorded. – Curtis Zimmermann

5. Emmylou Harris – Wrecking Ball

Neil Young himself came to New Orleans to be a part of the Emmylou Harris album Wrecking Ball. When he first heard the title track, a cover from his Freedom album, he wordlessly got up and began slow dancing with his wife Pegi. Said producer Daniel Lanois, “I was touched and took it as a sign that Neil approved of our rendition.” And well he should. Filled with Lanois-gonna-Lanois atmospherics, the song/album took Harris out of the midtempo country-pop sound she was so known for and planted her squarely in a trembly, shimmering world, one which she took to like corn to butter. – Patrick Robbins

4. The Hard Lessons – Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) (Lansing Rock City Version)

There’s a famous moment in “Gimme Shelter” where backup singer Merry Clayton (from two spots above) screams so loud her voice cracks. If you listen close, you can hear Mick Jagger holler “woo!” at that moment. That’s my favorite voice-cracking moment in music, but a close runner-up comes in Detroit garage-rock trio the Hard Lessons’ utterly floor-rattling “Hey Hey, My My.” Over the course of seven and a half minutes, the band pushes things well past 11. Co-frontperson Augie Visocchi’s vocals start thing off comparatively restrained, but once his wife Korin Visocchi takes over, the brakes are truly off. Squalling distortion mixes with machine-gun drums as gradually whips herself into a vocal frenzy, pushing her voice to its limits and then beyond, cracking and fracturing as she hollers as loud as Neil ever has. It’s a true rock and roll tour de force. I can’t imagine after this she had enough left for a second take. – Ray Padgett

3. Charles Bradley – Heart of Gold

Whether he was covering Black Sabbath or the Grateful Dead, Charles Bradley was one of those rare artists who could take any song and make it his own. In late 2018, a year after “The Screaming Eagle of Soul” passed away, his label released a posthumous album Black Velvet. It brought this stunning cover of Young’s “Heart of Gold,” originally a 2011 single, to a wider audience. First, a full set of blazing horns sound out the opening melody. Hearing Bradley sing the tune is like stepping into a time warp. It’s as if Bradley is alive again and laying down the vocals for what surely would have been a Stax Records classic back in the ‘70s. – Curtis Zimmermann

2. Saint Etienne – Only Love Can Break Your Heart

If you ever thought of Neil Young’s original “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” as a dance number, you were probably thinking about a slow waltz around the barn. Saint Etienne, barely into their teething stage, changed that with their first single, a cover of the song that took it clubbing, but kept it singable. Their pop-house sound proved highly influential, not least because of how it launched Saint Etienne’s career, but also served to show how strong the song was, in that it could be pulled so far from its home and still thrive. – Patrick Robbins

1. The Isley Brothers – Ohio/Machine Gun

From their 1971 album Givin’ It Back, this cover of “Ohio” features the Isley Brothers doing what they do best with their cover songs: Take a rock or pop masterpiece and recreate as an epic, long-form soul jam. In this version, the Isleys capture the full range of emotions that defined that awful day at Kent State in 1970, including fear, rage and even regret. It begins with a march of drums as if to emulate a line of troops walking across the green to meet their targets. Then comes the piano, soft at first, then the words “Can’t you see the soldiers, I see them marching.” The guitar comes in next, slowly picking up speed as they sing the intro. The song keeps building until the group calls out “Four dead in Ohio!” again and again as if their lives depended on it. They blend the song together with Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” and include a few biblical verses, the most pertinent being, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The song ends with a long, slow fade-out as they sing “Four dead … ” again, as if the moment were already passing into history itself. – Curtis Zimmermann

Check out other installments in our ‘Best Covers Ever’ series, including Talking Heads, the Rolling Stones, and Madonna.

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  29 Responses to “The Best Neil Young Covers Ever”

Comments (27) Pingbacks (2)
  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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