10 Best Neil Diamond Songs

Neil Leslie Diamond is adored by mature women and ironically enjoyed by sports crowds singing ‘Sweet Caroline’. Indoctrinated at an early age, however, I appreciate him as a fascinating character. Diamond is one part sequined stadium-filling entertainer and another part introverted singer-songwriter.

I already made a list of Neil Diamond’s worst peak-era deep cuts, so it’s only fair to look at his best material. Diamond’s albums are inconsistent, but he wrote an impressive volume of memorable songs. I had no room for ‘I’m A Believer’, ‘Red Red Wine’, and ‘Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon’. Some popular Diamond songs are simply too kitsch for me to enjoy – apologies to fans of ‘Song Sung Blue’, ‘Play Me’, and (most controversially of all) ‘Sweet Caroline’.

It’s worth noting that all of these ten songs are about Diamond’s pet subjects – alcohol, existential loneliness, gospel music, and his teenage rendezvous with a “significantly older” woman.

10 Best Neil Diamond Songs

#10 Lady Magdalene

from Serenade, 1974
For a trio of albums in the mid-1970s, Diamond attempted to become a serious artiste. The seven-minute ‘Lady Magdalene’ almost collapses under the weight of its pretensions, but it works for me – Diamond’s sonorous voice sounds gorgeous with the orchestration, and it drips with religious imagery (“Lady Magdelene, make the sound of silent thunder/Calling from the lips of Abraham”).

#9 If You Know What I Mean

from Beautiful Noise, 1976
Diamond’s Malibu neighbour, The Band’s Robbie Robertson, produced 1976’s Beautiful Noise. It’s notable as Diamond’s final album before he plunged into an adult contemporary morass. It’s difficult to detect Robertson’s influence on this song – it’s simply an orchestrated piano ballad with a killer chorus. Both ‘If You Know What I Mean’, and ‘Desiree’ from 1977’s I’m Glad You’re Here with Me Tonight, were written about Diamond’s teenage seduction of a “significantly older” woman.

#8 Cherry Cherry

from The Feel of Neil Diamond, 1966
Diamond’s second single for Bang was written about ….. an early relationship with a “significantly older” woman. Like a lot of Diamond’s material for Bang, ‘Cherry Cherry’ is a three-chord rock and roller. Diamond’s 1966 recording was intended as a demo but it became Diamond’s first big hit, reaching #6 on the charts. Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich produced, as well as providing backing vocals and hand claps.

#7 Walk On Water

from Moods, 1972
Despite his tendency to smother everything in strings, there are some terrific arrangements in Diamond’s catalogue. ‘Walk On Water’ starts gently, cycling through verses while subtly adding layers. When the huge and euphoric chorus hits, it’s a great payoff. ‘Walk on Water’ was Diamond’s last release for the Uni label.

#6 Soolaimón

from Tap Root Manuscript, 1970
Neil Diamond’s not known as an innovator, but he experimented with African music years before Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel. ‘Soolaimón’ is drawn from the suite of African songs on side two of Tap Root Manuscript. It works because of its tension and release, with terse verses opening into an enormous gospel chorus.

#5 Cracklin’ Rosie

from Tap Root Manuscript, 1970
Also from 1970’s Tap Root Manuscript, ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’ was Diamond’s first number-one hit. It featured musicians from the Wrecking Crew, including Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel, and Joe Osborn. Diamond’s never confirmed it, but he presumably derived the title from Crackling Rosé, the name of a cheap Canadian wine.

#4 Solitary Man

from The Feel of Neil Diamond, 1966
Diamond’s first single for Bang records is filled with existential dread – Diamond later told Pete Paphides that “After four years of Freudian analysis, I realized I had written ‘Solitary Man’ about myself.” It helped define Diamond’s career and his unique combination of introspection and showmanship. ‘Solitary Man’ was later covered by a vast array of artists including Johnny Cash, Cliff Richard, and Finnish metal band HIM.

#3 I Am…I Said

from Stones, 1971
Despite one of the most awkward rhymes in popular music – “not even the chair!” – ‘I Am… I Said’ captures a deep existential dread. It came out of therapy sessions, reportedly sparked by Diamond’s unsuccessful audition to play Lenny Bruce in a movie. Diamond told Mojo in 2008 that “It was consciously an attempt on my part to express what my dreams were about, what my aspirations were about and what I was about.” Bonus points for the throat-shredding on the reprise at the end of Stones.

#2 Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show

from Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show, 1969
Diamond opens with the line “Hot August night/And the leaves hanging down/And the grass on the ground smellin’ sweet”; he’d later recycle the phrase for the title of his celebrated 1972 live album. ‘Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show’ is gospel, with Diamond delivering a sermon mid-song. It was initially boycotted by some Southern evangelists before Diamond assured listeners that it wasn’t a parody.

#1 Holly Holy

from Touching You, Touching Me, 1969
‘Holly Holy’ is another of Diamond’s idiosyncratic attempts at gospel. Diamond later told the BBC that “What I tried to do was create a religious experience between a man and a woman, as opposed to a man and a god.”

Did I leave off your favourite Diamond song?

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  1. Neil Diamond up until he jumped the shark with “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”- had a lot of interesting songs. Not something I’d listen to every day [like The Beatles} but I think he is underrated.

    • Jumping the shark happened quickly – 1976’s Beautiful Noise is produced by Robbie Robertson and is one of his best albums. 1977’s I’m Glad has bizarre covers from Pet Sounds and Court and Spark, and is mostly adult contemporary mush.

  2. I’m not a Neil Diamond fan per se but as far as mainstream ‘kinda’ rockers, he’s ok. Talented songwriter but I’ve never spent a dime on him. I’m glad you included Soolaimón. That is one cool tune. I also like Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon, used famously in Pulp Fiction. Thanks for not including Sweet Caroline. You may or may not know this but our Red Sox over here use it to jack the fans up late in the game. Everybody waits for it and sings along. It gets on my very last nerve. I’m a Believer and I Am…I Said are pretty good too. He has rabid fans. My wife used to work with a woman who saw him a million times and, I think, followed his tour to some extent. He is her Bruce Springsteen.

    • He’s in this weird zone where he’s kind of a serious songwriter, but kind of like a late-period Elvis/Tom Jones sequined entertainer.
      Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon is a good one – I felt like I was a bit light on the Bang stuff.
      Sweet Caroline gets used in sports games here too – it’s a big singalong favourite.
      I watched some 1970s videos while writing this and he was a good looking man IMO – not surprising he had a large female following.

      • True. But it’s probably his best composed, best arranged, and best sung record. Followed by Cracklin Rosie I would say. But Solitary Man is still my favorite anyway.

  3. Solitary Man
    Sweet Caroline
    Cracklin Rosie
    I Am..I Said
    He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother
    Kentucky Woman
    Forever in Blue Jeans
    If You Know What I Mean
    (Bonus Tracks)
    Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show
    I’m a Believer
    Song Sung Blue
    You Don’t Bring Me Flowers
    Longfellow Serenade

    • Neil Diamond is one of music’s most underrated artists. People often refer to his sixties and seventies output, but from 1996 onwards (with Tennessee Moon, another underrated album) he really made some terrific stuff with 12 Songs, Home Before Dark and Melody Road. Even Dreams, his 2010 acoustic cover album, is beautiful.

  4. Love love LOVE me some Neil. Some great choices in your list. Mine right now feels like this, but probably different if asked a month from now . . .
    10. Morningside
    9. Crunchy Granola Suite
    8. Shilo
    7. If You Know What I Mean
    6. Longfellow Serenade
    5. Brooklyn Roads
    4. Done Too Soon
    3. Soolaimon
    2. Stones
    1. Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show

  5. I know more Neil Diamond than I thought. I knew 8 out of 10 right off the bat. I’m glad you included Cherry Cherry…a nice little rocker.
    One of the songs out of 10 I didn’t know was Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show…I like it. If I had to pick a favorite it would probably be
    Solitary man.
    It’s not fair but when I think of him I think of the Last Waltz where he didn’t fit in really…but the man is a good songwriter and performer…polyester and all.

    • I think all but one of the songs were singles – I don’t think I’ve ever heard a few of them, like Soolaimon or Walk on Water, on the radio though. Solitary Man does a good job of having a big chorus without all the Vegas sparkle.

    • I’m A Believer probably should be included in a list of his ten best songs – Smash Mouth’s version from Shrek is pretty iconic too, even though I don’t really like Smash Mouth. Diamond’s version is fine, but not one of my favourites from him.

  6. I’m glad there is a lot of love out there for my personal favourite “Brother Love”s Travelling Salvation Show”.
    “Done To Soon” is a fine lesser-known one too that others are liking.
    As for clumsily lyrical rhymes – how about Carly Simon’s
    “You walked into the party
    Like you were walking on to a yacht
    Your hat strategically dipped below one eye
    Your scarf it was AP-ric-OT
    You had one eye in the mirror
    As you watched yourself Gavotte…”
    Or The Style Council’s
    “Until the unity is threatened by
    Those who have and who have not
    Those who are with and those who are without
    And dangle jobs like a donkey’s carr-OT”
    Sorry for diversifying here! I’m off to pick up the babies and grab the old ladies…

    • Done Too Soon is a good one that I’m glad people like.
      I don’t mind that Carly Simon line – I checked out that album based on that song and the rest really doesn’t measure up IMO.

  7. In your review of I Am… I Said, you refer to the line “not even the chair” as one of the most awkward lines in the history of modern music. It makes perfect sense though, because Neil went into psychoanalysis at the time he wrote this song. The chair refers to a certain kind of therapy, called Gestalt therapy, where a patient relays his thoughts to an empty chair while a psychoanalyst attends.

    • Thanks for writing in. That makes sense, and I assumed it was about therapy, but it’s still an awkward line. The verse lyrics are really good IMO –
      But nowadays
      I’m lost between two shores
      L.A.’s fine, but it ain’t home
      New York’s home
      But it ain’t mine no more

  8. Interesting point with Sweet Caroline – when I asked a friend named Caroline what she thought of the song, she had a great line: “I like how it makes other people feel.”
    Such a terrific, diplomatic answer!

  9. I totally agree, Luc. I have never quite understood our friend Aphoristical’s contempt for the line (I have read him mention it elsewhere). I always thought it was a good one – no one was listening, not even the bloody chair!

  10. People always refer to Neil’s sixties and seventies output, but from 1996 onwards (with Tennessee Moon, another one of those underrated albums), he released some terrific stuff like 12 Songs, Home Before Dark and Melody Road. Dreams, an acoustic cover album, is very good too.

  11. Yes, he wrote some great pop songs as part of the legendary Brill Building team that included Neil Sedaka and Goffin&King. The stumbling block for me has always been his voice, which is too grown-up and un-rock’n’roll – I have the same problem with Tom Jones and even Elvis Presley. Too pure and sensible, not enough rasp and dirt. And then there’s his persona. he is simply the most uncool man in pop. Your information that he was Robbie Robertson’s neighbour explains why he managed to get on the bill of The Band’s Last Waltz, where he stuck out like a sore thumb.
    Incidentally, why is Sweet Caroline used when someone scores a six in cricket? Bizarre.

    • I guess it all depends on what someone likes, but I find it thrilling when singers in Rock have a pure voice and do the kind of precision singing that usually isn’t associated with that type of music. I also like the raspy and dirty and messy type singiing you’re talking about, but they are a dime a dozen. I think the best rock singers have always secretly been crooners, but it’s kind of disguised by the style of music they’re doing.

      • We talked about it on a previous Diamond post, but baritones like Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Diamond are pretty uncommon after the 1960s. Unless they sing abrasively like Nick Cave, they basically sound like a bygone relic of earlier times.

        • David Bowie, Jim Morrison , Ian Curtis of Joy Division, and Morrissey most spectacularly, but there’s plenty of rock singers whose basic singing style was a croon. But they were crooners who sang rock music. It’s what made them unique singers.

    • I do think he shreds his voice sometimes – there’s a reprise of ‘I Am I Said’ and a cover of ‘He Ain’t Heavy’ where he lets some grit in.
      ‘Sweet Caroline’ is used because everyone likes to sing “BUM-BUM-BUM”. Best use of music in cricket I’ve seen is Chris Cairns walking out to ‘Back In Black’.

      • An odd choice of image and musical style, I agree, but somehow it worked, and musically/lyrically was immediately adopted by everyone from Humble Pie (second album, Town & Country) and Elton John (Tumbleweed Connection) to The Hollies (The Day That Curly Billy Shot Down Crazy Sam McGhee…you’re missing the point here, guys).And thus was born Americana.

  12. Regarding the Robbie Robertson/Last Waltz thing, Robertson had this to say about Diamond’s presence on the bill-
    “The Tin Pan Alley songwriters in New York crafted brilliant songs for people to record, but they weren’t performers,” Robertson said in the The Last Waltz liner notes. “Neil Diamond bridged that world. When I worked with him on his record, people said, ‘Is this a put-on?’ No, it wasn’t. This guy is really good at what he does and comes from this tradition of songwriting. He wanted to be one of those people – Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Carole King, Gerry Goffin. I thought what he does is as good as anybody who played The Last Waltz.”
    So, there you go. Not just because he was a neighbour.

  13. I like Isaak’s cover of ‘Solitary Man’ the best. Does that count? Never explored big Neil’s output. Liked his turn on ‘The Last Waltz’. I remember sitting in the movie house and seeing Neil in the film, I wasnt expecting much but CB was surprised.

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