- "The Needle and the Damage Done" is one of the saddest songs about drug addiction there is.
- Even sadder is the story behind it. The subject of the song was the guitarist of Crazy Horse, Danny Whitten, aged 27 at the time. Whitten had chronic pain due to arthritis, had found that only heroin helped, and had become addicted. Between the pain, the stiffness and the drug, Whitten's life and playing were ruined. With a doctor's help he quit heroin but was prescribed Valium for the pain, and may have become addicted to that. Neil, who recognized Whitten's immense talent, hoped to get him back on track by inviting him to the sessions of his album Harvest (which the song is featured on, even if it was recorded earlier). The drugs had ruined him so much that he couldn't even keep in rhythm, much less play or contribute. Neil dismissed him, hoping to get Danny's life back on track gave him $50 and a plane ticket to LA to sort things out. The same night he received a call that Whitten had taken a combination of Valium and alcohol that proved to be fatal. Young says it took him decades to stop blaming himself for his death. So much so that the next album he wrote Tonight's the Night focuses grief around the death of Whitten and Bruce Berry, a roadie and friend of Young who Whitten also turned to heroin, who died only months after Whitten. Young waited two years before releasing it.
- "Old Man". The song was originally written for the elderly caretaker who sold Young his ranch, so it likely wasn't intended to be as sorrowful as it turned out to be, but the music has such a melancholic tone that it can't help eliciting feelings of nostalgia, despondence, and a deep sense of longing. The haunting guitar motif instantly dispels any notion of "Old Man" being an uplifting song.
- "Philadelphia", particularly combined with the footage at the end of the film of the same name.
- "Sugar Mountain". Contrary to popular belief, this song is not about drugs — but, rather, is pretty much a Growing Up Sucks song. The real Sugar Mountain was a nightclub for people under 20. Can make anyone feel wistful and nostalgic for their youth.
- "Transformer Man" sounds like a silly vocoder experiment, until you find out that it's about Neil desperately trying to find a way for his son Ben to communicate. Ben suffers from very severe cerebral palsy and cannot speak. The version from the MTV Unplugged album can be particularly affecting, since without the vocoder, the lyrics are naturally easier to understand.
Old man crossing the road — you've got to let him go.
- Similarly, "Daddy Went Walkin'" which sounds like a nice going-on trite little ditty... About Neil's father disappearing into dementia. Which, as he notes in his autobiography, may well be hereditary. The most gentle, loving Sanity Slippage Song you'll ever hear.
- "Birds". Just listen to it...
- "After the Gold Rush", a song more or less about mankind's adverse effect on the environment. Sadly, the situation has worsened considerably since the 1970s.
- "A Man Needs a Maid" is a very melancholy one specially in his 1971 BBC performance.
- "Heart of Gold" is one of his most well known acoustic titles, and for good reason. Especially when one hears his live version, a sense of loneliness can be instilled into the listener if they also are searching for a heart of gold.
- "Sleeps with Angels". It's about Kurt Cobain, and it can make you cry.
- Neil wrote 2006's Living with War at a time when criticizing President Bush and the Iraq War was "endangering national security". He had seen a USA Today article praising the great scientific and medical advances the war had made possible... not a word about the pain and suffering being endured by the injured troops in the photos accompanying the article. He wrote "Families" — about a dead soldier's spirit reaching out to his loved ones — and three other songs that day. By the time he called his wife to hear them, he was crying so hard he couldn't sing or even speak. On the "Raw" edition of the record, he is singing "Families" through tears.
- "Ambulance Blues", the almost nine-minute long closing song of his album On the Beach, is depressing in an almost existential way.
- The entire album On the Beach is this in spades, which is part of the reason it remained unreleased in CD format until 2003. Other tear jerkers on that album include "Motion Pictures" and the title track.
- There's also "Thrasher", which is beautiful, but so sad.
- "Borrowed Tune", though most of Tonight's the Night is depressing. Even the upbeat "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown" is thoroughly depressing in the context of the album, since it was co-written and sung by Danny Whitten, whose death (alongside Bruce Berry's) is the subject of the entire album.
I'm singing this borrowed tuneAlone in this empty roomToo wasted to write my own
- "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" lives up to its title.
- "Cortez the Killer" from Zuma is absolutely heartbreaking, featuring thoroughly depressing lyrics and some of Young's most lyrical guitar solos ever. Alongside "Like a Hurricane" from American Stars 'n Bars, it's often cited as Exhibit A for why Neil is a great guitar player.
- The intro for his album A Letter Home may sound like a typical warm message to his folks back home, but then you realize he's essentially talking to his deceased mother and is basically lamenting about how unfortunate his divorced parents never made up before their deaths. To know that a divorce can cause someone psychological harm that intense, even in their elderly years, is downright heartbreaking.
- "Powderfinger", coming as it does after the acoustic side of Rust Never Sleeps, is the musical equivalent of "the shot you never saw coming", as Allmusic critic Jason Ankeny puts it. Then the climax of the song comes. It goes from bad to worse.
Shelter me from the powder and the fingerCover me with the thought that pulled the triggerJust think of me as one you never figuredWould fade away so youngWith so much left undoneRemember me to my love; I know I'll miss her
- "Prairie Wind" especially during a live special where he introduces the song first by talking about his father, who in his later years struggled with Alzheimer's.
Trying to remember what my daddy saidBefore too much time took away his head
- Probably at least half of Greendale, but especially "Carmichael", "Bringin' Down Dinner", and "Be the Rain". The former two describe the aftermaths of major character deaths and the latter is just awe-inspiringly beautiful. The acoustic versions on Live at Vicar St. are, if anything, even more tear-inducing.
Tear Jerker / Neil Young
This Canadian musician has a few very emotional songs.