To celebrate the new release of Neil Young’s new album The Visitor and the opening of the Neil Young Archives to the public, ILYOS presents 10 of its favourite Neil Young covers. Yes, there are plenty more out there – let us know what your favourites are on our Facebook page.
1. k.d. lang "Helpless"
Can’t not start with this one. From one Canadian to another, Lang imbues one of Young’s greatest songs with real power and palpable yearning.
2. Emmylou Harris “Wrecking Ball”
Another landmark track, Emmylou Harris’s version of this tune from Young’s 1989 album Freedom was the title track – and a true highlight – of an album that reinvented American folk and county music in the ’90s. The combination of Emmylou’s voice at its most ethereal and Danial Lanois’ guitar and production was like the invention of a new language.
3. Johnny Cash “Heart of Gold”
Speaking of reinventions, Cash not only reinvented himself under the production of Rick Rubin in the 90s and early ‘00s, he damn near reinvented people’s idea of what the idea of the “American Songbook” could mean, as he found the emotion and shared-humanity in the material of a wide range of writers, from Neil Young to Trent Reznor.
3a. Tori Amos “Heart of Gold”
And more reinvention: on her 2001 album Strange Little Girls, Tori Amos took a dozen songs written by men and reinterpreted them from a female point of view. She went a few steps further with Neil’s tune, turning it into a dark and noisy squall of guitars and lust.
4. Pearl Jam “Fucking Up”
With Freedom and the great Ragged Glory with Crazy Horse, Young found himself a hero for a new generation – the early grunge generation – who loathed ‘70s soft rock and hippy sentimentality but loved the abandon and noise of Young’s more electric work (with Crazy Horse in particular.) “Fucking Up” could almost have been written as some sort of slacker anthem – it definitely spoke to a lot of young guys in flannelette! Of course, Neil and Pearl Jam would start something of a working relationship around the time this live version was recorded in ‘94.
5. Smashing Pumpkins "Cinnamon Girl"
Of all successful grunge-era bands, none had a vocalist whose voice matched the pitch of Neil Young quite like Billy Corgan. This was an early live favourite for the band.
6. Patti Smith “After The Gold Rush”
The Queen of the New York Punk was also a fan, showing that even in his mellower days – and 1970’s “After the Gold Rush” is certainly one of his prettier melodies - Neil was influencing artists who seemingly thrived more on rebellion and high energy.
6a. Linda Ronstadt & Dolly Parton & Emmylou Harris “After the Gold Rush”
… although, of course, the same song could inspire harmonies from three of Country Music’s most heavenly voices...
7. Nicolette Larson “Lotta Love”
… and inspire classic smooth ‘70s West Coast sounds, like on this 1978 smash from Nicolette Larson.
8. Drive-By Truckers “Rocking in the Free World”
Despite his public stoush with Lynyrd Skynyrd in the early ‘70s – and the fact he’s from so far North he’s not even American - Neil Young has remained a huge influence on Southern musicians of all sorts over the decades. We’ve heard country covers, but it’s the Southern rockers who are perhaps best suited to take advantage of the racket laid down by Neil when he wants to get wild, and here we have the band who perhaps kicked off the new century resurgence in Southern Rock cranking out one of his wildest.
9. Jason Isbell & Dawes “Cortez the Killer”
Indeed, the Drive-By Truckers were the band in which current Americana hero Jason Isbell got his big break, and Jason’s been known to cover Neil too. Indeed, he’s done a bunch of Neil’s songs live; here’s a great one, with assistance from LA band Dawes.
10. Pretenders "The Needle & The Damage Done"
I don’t think there are any popular bands who’ve been quite impacted by the ravages of drug abuse quite like the Pretenders, who lost half their original line-up – guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon - in quick succession in the early ‘80s. So no surprises which Neil Young song they’ve covered. They recorded it in 1999; curiously Duran Duran also recorded it, in 1995.
- Dave Laing