The 100 Greatest songwriters of All Time
“A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true. They’re like strange countries that you have to enter.”
Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson
Benny and Björn had already been a songwriting duo for six years when they teamed up with their girlfriends Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog — who were both Swedish pop stars already — to form Abba. The two of them were hardcore about songwriting: they bought a cottage on the island of Viggsö where they could focus on making their music and lyrics as catchy as humanly possible. “Each song had to be different,” Andersson said in 2002, “because, in the Sixties, that’s what the Beatles had done. The challenge was to not do another ‘Mamma Mia’ or ‘Waterloo.'” Ulvaeus’s lyrics grew progressively darker over the course of Abba’s career, even as the band became so unbelievably popular that they were able to release an 18-song greatest hits album simply called Number Ones. After the band split up, Ulvaeus and Andersson went on to collaborate on several musicals — including the Abba jukebox musical, Mamma Mia!, one of the most successful in Broadway history.
Tom T. Hall
Hall was an English major who said he learned to write songs by osmosis, soaking up everything from Dickens to Hemingway. His best work was charged with literary irony but unfolded with the ease of spoken language, as when the mini-skirted heroine of “Harper Valley P.T.A.” struts into the local junior high and exposes small-town hypocrisy by asking why Mrs. Taylor uses so much ice when her husband’s out of town. A Number One pop and country hit for Jeannie C. Riley in 1968, it freed Hall to record his own work, which included songs about burying a man who owed him 40 dollars, mourning the death of the local hero who taught him how to drink and play guitar, and “Trip to Hyden,” a journalistic tale of a drive to the scene of a mining disaster that was part Woody Guthrie, part Studs Turkel. One of Nashville’s most overtly political songwriters, he was a liberal who recorded “Watergate Blues” and turned a drink in a bar after the 1972 Democratic convention into a Number One country hit called “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine.” “I couldn’t write the ‘Darling, you left alone and blue’ or ‘I’m drunk in this bar and crying’ [songs]— I just didn’t get it,” he once said. “And so I started writing these story songs.”
A Brooklynite who was equally entranced by R&B and country (claiming his favorite singer was C&W mainstay Tex Ritter), Otis Blackwell began his career with 1953’s “Daddy Rollin’ Stone,” which has been covered repeatedly. But large-scale success as a performer eluded him. “I didn’t dig it. Got more into writing,” he said. When Elvis Presley recorded one of his songs, the result was 1956’s epochal “Don’t Be Cruel,” which was simultaneously Number One on the pop, R&B and country charts. Blackwell subsequently gave Elvis “All Shook Up” and “Return to Sender,” and wrote a cluster of hits for other artists, including “Great Balls of Fire” for Jerry Lee Lewis. And even though Blackwell’s own singing career never took off, it’s been noted that his vocals on demos of songs that Presley recorded were followed faithfully by the King. “At certain tempo, the way Elvis sang was the result of copying Otis’ demos,” said Blackwell’s friend Doc Pomus. Oddly, Blackwell and Presley never met.
Many singer-songwriters reach the point where they have too many great tunes to fit into a live show. Taylor Swift reached that peak before she turned 21. And then she just kept going. She might be the youngest artist on this list — as you may have heard, she was born in 1989, the year Green Day released their first record. But she’s already written two or three careers’ worth of keepers. “Hi, I’m Taylor,” she told the crowds on her Red tour. “I write songs about my feelings. I’m told I have a lotof feelings.” Swift’s first three albums display her emotional yet uncommonly inventive country style — even early hits like “Our Song” and “Tim McGraw” sound like nobody else. (Only she could slip the line “Any snide remarks from my father about your tattoos will be ignored” into a teen romance like “Ours.”) But she’s really hit her stride with the pop mastery of Red and 1989, especially on confessional ballads like “Clean” and “All Too Well.” There’s no limit to where she can go from here.
Timbaland and Missy Elliott
“If you listen to my songs, they tell stories,” Missy Elliott has said. “I write almost as if I’m in conversation with somebody.” The crucible of her collaboration with Timbaland was the Swing Mob, a loose constellation of performers and producers who worked with Jodeci’s DeVante Swing in the early Nineties. Tim and Missy started working in earnest as a writing team in 1996, when they collaborated on most of Aaliyah’s One in a Million. That was followed by Missy’s 1997 breakthrough Supa Dupa Fly — a set of cool, witty, deceptively minimal tracks that flipped between hip-hop, R&B and electronica with finger-snapping ease — and a string of genre-melting records like “Get Ur Freak On” and “Work It” that lasted until the early 2000s. The duo has also penned hits for other artists including SWV’s “Can We,” Total’s “Trippin'” and Tweet’s “Call Me.” Missy hasn’t released a new album for 10 years, but she and Timbaland have dropped hints that they’ve got something brewing.
The Bee Gees
America first discovered the Bee Gees with the 1977 disco soundtrack Saturday Night Fever. But that multiplatinum triumph was just the tip of the iceberg: Australian brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb were massively successful songwriters for decades. Elton John has called them “a huge influence on me as a songwriter”; Bono has said their catalog makes him “ill with envy.” The Bee Gees’ earliest hits (“New York Mining Disaster 1941,” “To Love Somebody”) were melancholy psychedelia, and their first U.S. Number One single, “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” was promptly covered by Al Green. But when they took a stab at disco with 1975’s “Jive Talkin’,” their career kicked into an even higher gear. Besides their own hits (including a string of six consecutive Number Ones), the brothers wrote the title song for Grease, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream,” Barbra Streisand’s “Guilty,” and Destiny’s Child’s “Emotion.” “We see ourselves first and foremost as composers, writing for ourselves and other people,” Robin Gibb said.
Maybe it’s his family’s blue-collar background or the years he spent delivering mail before becoming a full-time musician. But John Prine has always had the innate ability to emphatically capture the highs, lows and occasional laughs of everyday Americans and fringe characters: the drug-addled vet in “Sam Stone,” the lonely older folks in “Angel from Montgomery” and “Hello in There.” One of a group of early Seventies singer-songwriters to get pegged with the unfortunate tag “New Dylan,” Prine has written poignant songs of romantic despair (“Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”), songs that sound like centuries-old mountain ballads (“Paradise”) and ribald comic masterpieces aimed at advice columns and various crazies. “You write a song about something that you think might be taboo, you sing it for other people and they immediately recognize themselves in it,” Prine says. “I call it optimistic pessimism. You admit everything that’s wrong and you talk about it in the sharpest terms, in the keenest way you can.”
Billie Joe Armstrong
“Back then, I just wanted to write songs I could be proud of and be able to play in five years,” Billie Joe Armstrong said last year of his attitude while creating Green Day’s 1994 pop-punk breakthrough Dookie. The LP went on to sell millions and Armstrong — who didn’t get the credit he deserved as a writer back in the days of more serious-minded bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam — has amassed one of the most impressive song books of the last 20 years. His 1996 acoustic ballad “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” has become a standard and a pop cultural touchstone; the Who-scale ambition of 2004’s American Idiot made for a rock-opera that remains a totemic response to the Bush era; and Green Day’s recent three-album trilogy, Uno!, Dos!, Tre!), displayed a mastery of styles from throughout rock & roll history. And Armstrong is a punk through and through: the whole band gets songwriting credit on its hugely successful catalog.
Paul Westerberg wasn’t precious about his craft (“I hate music/It’s got too many notes,” he sang on the first Replacements album in 1981). But he become the American punk-rock poet laureate of the Eighties, reeling off shabbily rousing underdog anthems like “I Will Dare” and “Bastards of Young,” as well as beautifully afflicted songs like “Swinging Party” and “Here Comes a Regular.” A high-school dropout, Westerberg spoke for a nation of smart, wiseacre misfits, paving the way for Green Day and Nirvana, both of which were led by avowed Replacements fans. “Westerberg could be barreling along and do ‘Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out’ or ‘Gary’s Got a Boner,’ and then he could slide into ‘Unsatisfied’ or ‘Sixteen Blue,’ says Craig Finn of the Hold Steady. “So you think this guy was this drunk, punkish dude and all the sudden he’s really sensitive and really vulnerable. Because he’s got you looking both ways, it’s bigger, it hits harder. Or softer, depending on how you look at it.” Westerberg has his own explanation for his unique underdog genius: “I think the opposite when I see something,” he once said. “I have dyslexia, and I’ve used it to its best advantage.”
With a talent for wordplay that can be as head-spinning as it is disturbing, and a knack for incessant sing-song choruses that suggest he might’ve thrived in a Brill Building cubicle, Eminem crams hugely popular songs with more internal rhymes and lyrical trickery than anyone else in contemporary pop. His most recent Number One, “The Monster,” features bonkers couplets like “Straw into gold chump, I will spin/Rumpelstiltskin in a haystack/Maybe I need a straight jacket, face facts.” Like his character in the 2002 biopic 8 Mile, Eminem honed his formidable skills in Detroit rap battles, then polished his rhymes in the studio over springy Dr. Dre tracks that gave him room to freak out as agilely and aggressively as he liked. “Even as a kid, I always wanted the most words to rhyme,” Eminem told Rolling Stone. “Say I saw a word like ‘transcendalistic tendencies.’ I would write it out on a piece of paper and underneath, I’d line a word up with each syllable: ‘and bend all mystic sentence trees.’ Even if it didn’t make sense, that’s the kind of drill I would do to practice.”
Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds rose to fame for his work with Antonio “L.A.” Reid on Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel, reinforcing taut R&B songwriting with hard hip-hop beats to help create New Jack Swing. But Edmonds’ true legacy is as a craftsman of thoughtful ballads and mid-tempo romantic material, with his own solid career as a performer often overshadowed by the huge successes he’s enabled other artists to enjoy: “End of the Road,” which he wrote for Boyz II Men, broke records with its 13-week run as the Number One song on the Billboard Hot 100. Edmonds has said, “I don’t just come in with songs. I talk with the artist and find out what they will or won’t sing about.” That technique has helped him develop an unrivaled gift for matching a lyric and a mood with a particular singer, especially a particular female singer. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Whitney Houston giving shape to “Exhale (Shoop Shoop),” anyone but Mary J. Blige taking a stand with “Not Gon’ Cry,” anyone but Toni Braxton lending the necessary sultry edge to the many songs he’s written for her over the past quarter-century.
Felice and Boudleaux Bryant
It took a husband and wife team — married for more than four decades and parted only by death — to write one of rock’s most devastating tales of heartbreak: “Love Hurts.” Originated in 1960 by the Everly Brothers — for whom the Byrants wrote a string of chart toppers, each one a compact novel of teen desire and struggle — and raised to operatic status by Roy Orbison, it became one of the founding documents of alt-country when Gram Parsons covered it in 1974, and a year later was turned into a pioneering power ballad by U.K. hard rockers Nazareth, who took it to Number Eight on theBillboard Hot 100. The Bryants’ breakthrough came when the Everlys seized on a composition that had been turned down more than 30 times, “Bye Bye Love,” and hit Number Two. “Wake Up Little Susie” followed quickly, and went to the top of the chart, as did “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” and their varied work included songs that worked with strings, like Buddy Holly’s “Raining in My Heart,” or with banjo, like “Rocky Top,” made into a bluegrass standard by the Osborne Brothers in 1967. “Pick something more certain, like chasing the white whale or eradicating the common housefly,” Boudleaux once said of songwriting as a profession. “We didn’t have the benefit of such sage advice. . . We made it. Sometimes it pays to be ignorant.”
Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill
Mann and Weil met in 1960 at the song-publishing company Aldon Music, married in 1961 and have been living and working together ever since. Their songs of struggle and triumph brought class consciousness to Brill Building pop, with hits like “On Broadway” for the Drifters, “Uptown” for the Crystals, and “We Gotta Get Out of the Place” for the Animals, but they are best known for the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” Unique among their peers, they never stopped, writing Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram’s 1986 hit “Somewhere Out There” and Hanson’s 1997 Top 10 single “I Will Come to You.” Mann also had a recording career, including a 1961 Top 10 hit about songwriting “Who Put the Bomp (In the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)”; in 2015, Weil published a YA novel, I’m Glad I Did, about songwriting in the Sixties.
“Everything I ever wrote was a attempt to follow in the footsteps of the best country songwriters I knew,” Kristofferson once said, citing writers like Hank Williams Jr. and Johnny Cash. But Kristofferson did more than succeed them. A former Rhodes scholar, he wrote songs — “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Why Me,” “Me and Bobby McGee” — that borrowed equally from Nashville and the Dylan-influenced singer-songwriter world. Thanks to his writerly skills, Kristofferson’s hang-dog tales of screwups, hangovers, regret and redemption had the epochal feel of novellas, and without him, there would probably be no Steve Earle, Sturgill Simpson or similar country hippies. ‘To me, country, as opposed to Tin Pan Alley, was white man’s soul music,” he once said. “I really didn’t think my songs were any different than what Willie [Nelson] was writing.”
From the start, Sam Cooke knew how to write the kind of song people wanted to hear Sam Cooke sing — his very first pop single, “You Send Me,” was the perfect showcase for his effortlessly gorgeous melismas and easygoing charm. Cooke’s determination to win over mainstream white audiences led him to expand his range as a writer, and he proved equally adept with the starry-eyed pop romance of “Cupid,” the urbane dance floor workout “Twistin’ the Night Away” even the subtle social commentary of “Chain Gang.” But hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” stirred a different sort of ambition in Cooke — a need to write something that more directly addressed his experience as a black man in America. The result was “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a soaring encapsulation of the African-American struggle. Cooke, who died in 1964, didn’t live to see it become a civil rights anthem recorded by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Beyoncé, or to hear the first African-American President of the United States quote it on the night he was elected.
Whether it’s a fleet, planning guitar tune like “Sitting Still” or a luminous ballad like “Nightswimming” or a loopy left-field pop smash like “Stand” the songwriting credit on a golden-era R.E.M. song always read “Berry, Mills, Buck, Stipe.” Peter Buck’s fluid, arpeggiated guitar runs and sunburst riffs were weaved into Mike Mills’ melodic bass lines and Bill Berry’s equally musical drumming, creating an evocative compliment for Michael Stipe’s impressionistic lyrics. “If I hear something that sounds watery I’ll write ‘I’ll Take the Rain’,” Stipe once said. “It can sometimes be stupidly literal.” R.E.M.’s whole-band writing process changed a little when Berry left the band in the mid-Nineties, with Mills and Buck writing separately more often. But the same organic give-and-take governed their later albums as well. As Mills said in 2008, “we gradually shape each other’s songs into R.E.M. songs.”
The definitive hip-hop artist of the last 15 years, Kanye West made his name as a producer with the Doors-sampling beat on Jay Z’s “The Blueprint” and emerged as an unquenchably driven song machine releasing groundbreaking music at a Beatlesque clip. Kanye isn’t afraid to outsource (Chicago rapper Rhymefest co-wrote the lyrics to his first game-changing hit, “Jesus Walks,” and the credits to his albums can often read like veritable productions workshops). Yet, his stamp is unmistakable — a genius for connecting genres and styles, a knack for spinning out Olympian boasts and an ability to make his egomaniacal admissions and conflictions compelling. West claims he didn’t write down any of his rhymes until taking a more craft-oriented approach on 2010’s monumentally ambitious My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.“I can write something that, even someone who hates me the most will have to respect and love the song,” he has said. West has given us the weapons-grade industrial punk of “New Slaves,” the forlorn vocoder balladry of 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak (which paved the way for the confessional hip-hop of J. Cole and Drake) and, this year, the haunting Paul McCartney collaboration “Only You.” “When I wrote with John, he would sit down with a guitar. I would sit down. We’d ping-pong ’til we had a song,” McCartney said. “It was like that [with Kanye].”
Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson
Married songwriting partnerships are hardly rare, but few husband-and-wife teams explored the dynamics of monogamy with the depth and insight of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Their breakthrough was the 1966 Ray Charles party classic “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” but once the duo went to work at Motown, romantic love became their sole topic. (“I get bored when I’m not writing about love,” Ashford once said. “Politics or social commentary don’t inspire me. Love lifts me up.”) The duets they wrote at Motown, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” interweaved male and female perspectives to strengthen their emotional sweep. Ashford and Simpson later built on this technique during their own career as performers, expressing doubt on “Is It Still Good to Ya” and affirmation on “Sold (as a Rock)” with equal brilliance.
In 1983, a year before he died, Marvin Gaye said the goal of music was to “tell the world and the people about the upcoming holocaust and to find all of those of higher consciousness who can be saved.” Initially, though, it took him years before he was allowed to explore his sacred vision. Motown was so overstaffed with great in-house songwriters that Gaye spent much of the Sixties singing other people’s songs. He found his voice as a composer in the Seventies when Four Tops member Obie Benson brought him a song idea that would later blossom into “What’s Going On.” As Benson remembers, “He added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem more like a story than a song. We measured him for the suit, and he tailored it.” But Gaye’s greatest gift might’ve been at raising the bedroom come-on into an art form — whether making a straightforward, playful proposition on 1973’s “Let’s Get It On” or admitting his desperate, almost metaphysical need on 1982’s “Sexual Healing.”
Iceland’s greatest musical export has penned a catalog so tied to her unmatchable accented English and visionary beat-driven arrangements, it’s easy to forget what a tremendous writer she is. Yet there’s a reason cutting-edge jazz instrumentalists —Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, Dave Douglas, Greg Osby — keep covering her tunes, not to mention peers like Thom Yorke, Bon Iver, Death Cab for Cutie, Dirty Projectors, No Age and others. As Björk said in 2007, “I guess I’m quite conservative and romantic about the power of melodies. I try not to record them [when] I first hear them. If I forget all about it and it pops up later on, then I know it’s good enough. I let my subconscious do the editing for me.” From the disco-fizzy 1993 Debut to the bleakly magnificent 2015 Vulnicura, it hasn’t failed her yet.
The mercurial singer-writer-producer’s 25-year track record stands on its own: writing or co-writing 30 Top 20 R&B singles for himself or with the Chicago-based group Public Announcement, chart-topping assistance for Puff Daddy, Sparkle and Kelly Price; and the first song to ever debut at Number One on the Hot 100, Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone.” His ballads fly higher than anyone else’s, his sex jams started evocatively naughty (1993’s “Bump N’ Grind”) and ended up evocatively surreal (2005’s “Sex in the Kitchen” and, of course, the 30-part “Trapped in the Closet”). “My talent is more than just sexual songs,” said the only man who wrote for the Notorious B.I.G. and Celine Dion. “There was a time I desperately needed for the world to know that I was no-category guy. My whole goal in life was to reach that certain success where people will say, ‘Hey, that guy can do anything. He’s the Evel Knievel of music. He’s jumping over 15 buses!'”
Raised in Louisiana, Lucinda Williams grew up listening to Hank Williams and reading Flannery O’Connor and emerged in the late Eighties as the great Southern songwriter of her generation. Yet, unlike most artists with a literary bent, she focuses on sensual detail just as much writerly scenes and imagery. Few songwriters use repetition as skillfully as Williams: on 1988’s “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” she ramped up the song’s sexual obsession by restating the title after every other line, and the title track from her 1998 masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road captures the peculiar rhythms of childhood memory by restating the song’s title at the end of each stanza. Williams learned her sense of concision from her father, poet Miller Williams. “Dad stressed the importance of the economics of writing,” she has said. “Clean it up, edit, edit, revise!”
At a time when most songwriters were still talking about love and heartbreak, Curtis Mayfield was penning sweet, subtle Civil Rights epistles like 1964’s “Keep on Pushing” and 1965’s “People Get Ready” (the latter a favorite of Martin Luther King). As leader of the Impressions, Mayfield’s low-key demeanor matched his lithe tenor and restrained, spacious guitar playing that influenced fellow chitlin’ circuit veteran Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing.” He kept his empathetic light touch even when he transitioned to the realist street tales of the 1973Superfly soundtrack. Beyond hits for himself and the Impressions, Mayfield’s music provided no shortage of Top 10 songs for generations of artists, including Gladys Knight and the Pips (“On and On”), the Staple Singers (“Let’s Do It Again”), Tony Orlando & Dawn (“He Don’t Love You [Like I Love You]”) and En Vogue (“Giving Him Something He Can Feel”). “Everything was a song,” Mayfield said in 1994. “Every conversation, every personal hurt, every observance of people in stress, happiness and love . . . If you could feel it, I could feel it. And I could write a song about it. If you have a good imagination, you can go quite far.”
No one outside of Leiber & Stoller better combined the commercial verities of pop with the deeper-than-dirt hoodoo of the blues than Toussaint did on songs like “Lipstick Traces (on a Cigarette),” “Ride Your Pony” or “Fortune Teller” (covered by the Stones, the Who and a host of other British Invaders). Writing and producing for Irma Thomas (“Ruler of My Heart,” or “Pain in My Heart” when Otis Redding cut it), Benny Spellman (“Mother in Law”), Lee Dorsey (“Working in a Coal Mine”) and Aaron Neville (“Hercules”), he helped define the sound of the city that helped define the sound of rock & roll: New Orleans. “There are some ingredients we share,” Toussaint once said of New Orleans’ unique mix of rhythmic and melodic traditions. “That second line brass band parade thing. The syncopation. The humor. . .We take longer to get to the future than anywhere else in America. . .So we have held on to the old world charm more.”
If the personal is political, Loretta Lynn was Nashville’s down-home feminist revolutionary. “I looked at the songbooks and thought that anyone could do that,” she told American Songwriter, “so I just started writing.” Lynn was also a self-taught guitarist, whose earliest songs were in keys seldom used by Nashville session pros. She always took more pride in her writing than in her perky singing, and much of the lyrical material in her 16 country chart-toppers was drawn from her difficult marriage to Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, whose alcoholism and infidelities inspired domestic dramedies like “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind).” “I had to have a real reason to write a song,” Lynn said. “I wrote them about true things.” These included the benefits of contraception (“The Pill”) and the plight of divorcees (“Rated X”), which were banned by many country stations but became huge sellers nonetheless.
Isaac Hayes and David Porter
“David approached me with the intention of selling me an insurance policy,” Isaac Hayes recalled of his first meeting with the man who would become his songwriting partner — although Porter has vehemently denied that anecdote. Insurance or no, they became an in-house songwriting team at Stax Records, and their collaboration yielded 30 R&B chart hits between 1966 and 1971. (Sometimes Hayes played keyboards on songs they’d written together, or Porter sang backup.) In particular, they were the songwriting masterminds behind Sam and Dave, writing “Soul Man,” “I Thank You,” “Hold On! I’m Comin'” and other classic duets. The team fell apart once Hayes became a hot buttered soul star in his own right, but they were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame together in 2005, three years before Hayes’ death. “We had no set pattern and just each came up with melodies, lyrics and hook lines and phrases,” Porter said, describing a process that could a produce a life-altering balled like “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” in just 15 minutes. “I’m no musician but I was able to relate to Isaac, we could communicate together.”
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” went the opening line of Smith’s 1975 debut, Horses, proclaiming her belief in music as provocation and redemption. A gender-bending poet who kicked open the door for punk while retaining a faith in rock’s Sixties idealism, she drew on her love of Dylan, garage rock and French symbolist poetry (as well guitarist Lenny Kaye’s encyclopedic knowledge) to rewrite rock history in her own image. A collaboration with Bruce Springsteen, “Because the Night,” became a Top 20 hit in 1978, and after a long absence she returned in 1988 with “People Have the Power,” and then again in 1996 with “About a Boy,” a tribute to Kurt Cobain as well as her departed husband Fred “Sonic” Smith and friend Robert Mapplethorpe. The deep passion of her work since shows she’s never lost her faith in what she once called “the right to create, without apology, from a stance beyond gender or social definition, but not beyond the responsibility to create something of worth.”
Singer Thom Yorke, guitarist/electronics whiz/orchestral composer Johnny Greenwood and their Radiohead mates, always credited collectively, have produced some the modern era’s most glorious songs. Veering away from the pop success of “Creep,” the group began deconstructing and abstracting songforms. Yorke and Greenwood have called their process “defacatory,” and Yorke suggests his lyrics are as much stream of consciousness flow, gibberish and “just sounds” as anything confessional. (“It’s like you’re getting beamed it,” Yorke has said, “like with a ouija board”). Yet there’s a reason Frank Ocean, Vampire Weekend, Gillian Welch, Mark Ronson, Regina Spektor, Gnarls Barkley, the Punch Brothers and others cover their compositions: because the best —from the acoustic ballad “Fake Plastic Trees” to the digital kaleidoscope of “Everything in Its Right Place” — are indelible.
Fats Domino and Dave Barthomolew
Singer/pianist Antoine “Fats” Domino and producer/bandleader Dave Bartholomew started working together in 1949. Over the next 14 years, they collaborated on more than 50 charted singles — mostly written by one or both of them — and became the architects of the New Orleans rock & roll sound: two-and-a-half-minute jewels featuring effervescent piano boogie, in-your-face rhythms and lyrics that drew on local vernacular. (“I used to write songs mostly from things you hear people say all the time,” Domino said.) Bartholomew also wrote scores of hits for other New Orleans artists, many of which became rock standards: “I Hear You Knocking,” “One Night,” “I’m Walkin’.” Dr. John told Rolling Stone that, after Lennon and McCartney, Domino and Bartholomew were “probably the greatest team of songwriters ever. They always had a simple melody, a hip set of chord changes and a cool groove.”
Walter Becker and Donald Fagen
When Walter Becker and Donald Fagen met as students at Bard College during the late Sixties, they hit it off over a shared love of jazz, Dylan and the sardonic, post-modern humor of writers like Kurt Vonnegut and John Barth. Thus began the symbiotic relationship that produced a string of sophisticated, acerbic songs that still felt at home amidst the laidback mood of Seventies FM radio — hits like “Do It Again,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Peg.” Setting wry and cryptic, yet oddly poignant, lyrics to music that combined elements of rock and jazz, complex musicianship and smooth melodies, Steely Dan went on a run of near-perfect albums from 1972’sCan’t Buy a Thrill to 1977’s Aja. “I would come up with a basic musical structure, perhaps a hook line and occasionally a story idea,” Fagen once said, recalling their process. “Walter would listen to what I had and come up with some kind of narrative structure. We’d work on music and lyrics together, inventing characters, adding musical and verbal jokes, polishing the arrangements and smoking Turkish cigarettes.” Though they rarely left the studio during the Seventies, they tour a surprising amount today, playing sets dedicated to their classic albums.
Often working with Spooner Oldham, Penn was an integral part of the Southern soul sound that flowed out of Muscle Shoals and Memphis, and their songs about the hard price lovers pay for their desires became classics: “Dark End of the Street” for James Carr, “I’m Your Puppet” for James and Bobby Purify, “Cry Like a Baby” for the Box Tops (it was Penn who produced “The Letter” for Alex Chilton’s first group). The way he could mix the deep grooves of church music and blues with lighter pop melodies electrified his music, but there was nothing light about his greatest work, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” Written with Chips Moman, it was recorded by Aretha Franklin in 1967, and the feminist power of Franklin’s calm preaching about temptation, fidelity and sexual equality was, as Jerry Wexler put it, “perfection.” “I think all the best songs come out of just pure, raw feeling that you can’t quite explain,” Penn once said. “Everything we get is just a gift we can borrow for awhile.”
Taylor was one of the most successful and influential artists to emerge from the “singer-songwriter” scene of the early Seventies. By chronicling every aspect of his life — drug addiction, recovery, marriages and divorces, deaths of friends and family members — he created the mold for confessional balladeers from Cat Stevens to Elliott Smith. “It comes out of a sort of mood of melancholy, somehow,” Taylor once told Rolling Stone of his songwriting process. And like Taylor himself, standards like “Fire and Rain,” “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” and “Copperline” seem delicate yet are as melodically sturdy as oak trees. As his friend and former guitarist Danny Kortchmar has said, “They’re like Christmas carols. It sounds like they were written a hundred years ago.” Taylor himself knows that some people slag him for the first-person aspect of his writing: “If you think it’s sentimental and self-absorbed, then I agree with you, basically. It’s not for everybody. And it doesn’t pretend to be. But to me, there’s still something compelling to me about doing it.”
No hip-hop artist has reached theBillboard Top Ten more times than Jay Z, and none has done more to shape both the culture and music around him. His most indelible songs — “Izzo (Hova),” “99 Problems,” “Big Pimpin'” — mix diamond-sharp rhymes with unshakable hooks. As he notes himself, in the late Nineties and early 2000s, it wasn’t summer without a Jay Z hit blasting out of every car window. Recent highpoints like the Kanye West collaboration “Otis” and 2013’s “Picasso Baby” show that no number of lunches with Warren Buffet or late-night diaper-duty emergency calls can slow down his de Vinci flow and Sinatra roll. He began writing as a childhood hobby — authoring, as he later recalled, “100,000 songs before I had as record deal.” Over the years, his recording-booth ability to conjure intricate verses out of thin air has become legend, but he’s a also master of fitting the right lyric to the right musical mood: “I try to feel the emotion of the track and try to feel what the track is talking about, let that dictate the subject matter,” he has said. “The melody comes second, and then the words.”
Morrissey and Marr
“I really believe he’s one of the best lyricists there’s been,” guitarist Johnny Marr said about his songwriting partner in 1989, just after the Smiths’ breakup. “I don’t think anyone’s got his wit or insight or originality or obsession or overall dedication.” Together, in less than four years, the duo wrote more than 70 songs, with Marr working as arranger and producer and Morrissey navigating whole new worlds of misery and disaffection, often with much more wit than he got credit for at the time. Morrissey’s lyrics went hand-in-glove with Marr’s gorgeously-detailed melodies: the lilting car-wreck fantasy “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” the Bo Diddley-in-space wallflower anthem “How Soon Is Now?,” the homoerotic Afro-pop of “This Charming Man,” the nouvelle vague folk of “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,” and on, and on, and on. The more you listen, the clearer it becomes that Marr isn’t exaggerating.
Kenny Gamble and Leon A. Huff
They scored their first big hit with the Soul Survivors’ “Expressway to Your Heart” in 1967, but by then the team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff had already been working together for five years, and over the following 15, they’d define the sound of Philadelphia soul and help invent disco. Gamble wrote most of their lyrics, and keyboardist Huff most of their music, but their roles were flexible, and so was their style: they wrote poignant love songs (“Me and Mrs. Jones”), rubbery political funk (“For the Love of Money”), and richly orchestrated dance music with the rhythms that became disco tropes (like the Soul Train theme “TSOP”). Gamble and Huff launched Philadelphia International Records in 1971, assembling a crew of musicians and engineers around them, and throughout the Seventies, they were near-permanent fixtures on the R&B charts, working with singers including the O’Jays, Lou Rawls and Teddy Pendergrass.
Harrison wrote one of the Beatles’ earliest openly political songs in 1966’s “Taxman” and one of their prettiest late-period tunes in “Here Comes the Sun.” But his songwriting legacy was sealed for good when Frank Sinatra declared “Something,” the group’s second-most-covered song after “Yesterday,” to be “the greatest love song of the past 50 years.” Harrison described songwriting as a means to “get rid of some subconscious burden,” comparing the process to “going to confession.” After the Beatles split, he let his creative impulses run free on the 1970 triple-album solo debut, All Things Must Pass, and enjoyed a strong Eighties comeback with the pop success of 1987’s Cloud Nine as well his stint with the Traveling Wilburys. “If George had had his own group and was writing his own songs back then, he’d have been probably just as big as anybody,” his fellow Wilbury Bob Dylan said.
A kid from the Bronx who fell in love with black and Latino music and even traveled to Cuba during Fidel Castro’s revolution, Bert Berns got his start in 1960 at age 31 as a Brill Building songwriter and went on a run that included hits like “Twist & Shout,” the Exciters’ “Tell Him” and Salomon Burke’s “Cry to Me.” Where other writers of the time strove for sophistication, Berns’ songs communicated a fierce romantic hunger and longing. After working as a producer at Atlantic Records, he established his own labels Bang and Shout, where he collaborated closely with Van Morrison (most famously on the singer’s biggest hit, “Brown Eyed Girl”) and wrote “Piece of My Heart,” which was covered by Big Brother and the Holding Company. Berns, who suffered from chronic health problems since childhood, died of a heart attack in 1967 at 38. Despite his enormous reputation among other songwriters, he remains a relatively obscure figure in pop history. “Bert deserves to be elevated to his rightful place in the music industry,” Paul McCartney recently said.
As the leader of Pretenders, Hynde linked the start-and-go rhythms and abrasive guitars of post-punk to a heartland rocker’s sense of straightforward melody. Hynde had one of the best runs of the New Wave era: winning over a wide pop audience with sharp tunes like “Brass in Pocket (I’m Special),” “Middle of the Road,” and “Back on the Chain Gang” as well as the buoyant “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and ballads like “2000 Miles.” Despite her innate sense of craft, the brash-sounding singer was actually a bit sheepish about her idiosyncratic song structures, admitting, “People talk about songwriting clinics and how to construct a song and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I didn’t know that!'” Hynde’s lyrics proved even more influential, articulating a complex female toughness that wasn’t just a sexy pose, inspiring guitar-slinging women and self-directed pop stars like Madonna, who said, “It gave me courage, inspiration, to see a woman with that kind of confidence in a man’s world.”
Nilsson was a pioneer of the Los Angeles studio sound, a crucial bridge between the baroque psychedelic pop of the late Sixties and the more personal singer-songwriter era of the Seventies. Overdubbing his flawless voice, he was his own angelic choir on songs like “1941” and the Beatles medley “You Can’t Do That,” and he caught the ear of Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, who bought a box of Nilsson records to send to friends. A lifelong friendship with John Lennon — who produced Nilsson’s Pussy Cats during his Lost Weekend period — followed. In songs like “You’re Breaking My Heart” (“. . .so fuck you”), “Gotta Get Up,” and “I Guess the Lord Must Be In New York City” he applied pop color to the darkness of a shut in, and Three Dog Night turned “One” (“. . .is the loneliest number”), into a Top Five hit in 1969. “He had a gift for melody. Which is a rare, inexplicable talent to have,” Randy Newman once said of Nilsson’s easy way with complex melodies and counterpoint. “People like McCartney have it, Schubert, Elton John has it. Harry had that gift.”
Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman
Jerome Felder was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who’d been on crutches since he’d contracted polio at age six. When he started trying to establish himself as a blues singer, he called himself Doc Pomus. But he gave up his performing career in the late Fifties and formed a songwriting partnership with Mort Shuman. Together their ability to match sweet melodies and multi-faceted lyrics was second only to Leiber and Stoller among early rock & roll songwriters. Between 1958 and 1964, they wrote a string of sly, swaggering hits that bridged the divide between R&B and pop — most famously the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me,” Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister,” Dion’s “A Teenager in Love” and Andy Williams’ “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.” One example of Pomus’ lyrical inventiveness is Ben E. King’s “Young Boy Blues,” a collaboration with Phil Spector, in which every verse is effectively one long sentence. Spector later called Pomus, who died of cancer in 1991, “the greatest songwriter who ever lived.”
Nelson was a struggling Music Row pro when Faron Young cut his ode to an empty room, “Hello Walls,” in 1961. A string of undeniable classics followed — “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and “Crazy,” immortalized by Patsy Cline — and Nelson began his own recording career, to fair results. But in the early Seventies he moved to Austin, Texas, and reinvented himself as a link between Nashville’s tradition and rock’s imperative of personal freedom, making concept albums like Phases and Stages and Red Headed Stranger, helping pioneer the stripped-down Outlaw Country movement and rising as the greatest interpreter of American song outside Frank Sinatra. No one except Dylan has embraced the endless highway with more artistic success — as explained by Nelson in “On the Road Again,” a Top 20 Grammy-winning hit in 1980 — and his studio career is just as endless, ranging from Texas swing to reggae to standards with strings. “Willie sort of creeps up on you,” Keith Richards once said. “Those beautiful mixtures he has between blues and country and mariachi, that Tex-Mex bit, that tradition of a beautiful cross section of music. . .He’s unique.”
“The words just came tumbling out of me,” Petty said of “American Girl,” his greatest song and first hit single. He began as the Seventies and Eighties most commercially potent inheritor of the Sixties songwriting tradition, knocking out hit after hit of compact, hard-jangling rock & roll – from “I Need to Know” to “Refugee” to “The Waiting.” As he’s aged, Petty has movingly explored relationships (1999’s divorce chronicle Echo) and the dark side of the American dream itself (2014’s Hypnotic Eye), always rooting his music in a sense of our common experience (Johnny Cash told Petty that the title track from 1985’s Southern Accents should replace “Dixie” as the region’s unofficial anthem). “When young musicians ask me what the most important thing is, I always say it’s the song,” Petty told Rolling Stone in 2009. “You know, you can chrome a turd, but it’s not going to do any good.”
For all of pioneering funk radical George Clinton’s subversive use of hard grooves, distortion, jamming, Afro-futurism and arena-wowing spaceships, the vast P-Funk canon was built on traditional songwriting chops. Parliament was born as a doo-wop group in the Fifties led by Clinton, a young Leiber and Stoller fan who worked briefly in the Brill Building and later spent time as a Motown songwriter. After his exposure to Hendrix, Vanilla Fudge and copious amounts of psychedelics, Clinton’s pop-wise sense of puns and wordplay helped drive home his interstellar philosophizing. “It was a way of bending people’s minds and showing them that what they took for granted might not be the truth at all,” he wrote in his bio. “In other words, it was classic psychedelic thinking in the sense that you didn’t take no — or yes — for an answer, instead tunneling down a little bit to see what else might be there beyond the binary.” Eventually, Clinton’s songwriting became a foundation for the G-Funk of the Nineties, including songs like Dr. Dre’s “Dre Day” and Snoop Dogg’s “Who Am I (What’s My Name?).”
Joe Strummer and Mick Jones
It isn’t a stretch to call Joe Strummer and Mick Jones the Lennon and McCartney of the U.K. punk explosion. Between their roaring debut in 1977 and their split in 1983, the duo wrote at a feverish pace, often in Jones’ grandmother’s flat in a high-rise council estate, bashing out finished songs together as a full band in their rehearsal space. The Clash’s 1980 watershed London Calling, which Rolling Stone declared the best album of the Eighties, became a double album not by design but because they were writing so many songs so quickly at the time. “Joe, once he learned how to type, would bang the lyrics out at a high rate of good stuff,” Jones recalled. “Then I’d be able to bang out some music while he was hitting the typewriter.” Strummer was the band’s social conscious, taking the lion’s share of the vocals, while Jones came up with the band’s most memorable pop moments — 1980’s “Train In Vain” and their 1982 smash “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” Though they didn’t work together for years after Strummer fired Jones from the Clash, the pair was back collaborating on songs shortly before Strummer’s death in 2002. “We wrote a batch,” said Jones. “We didn’t used to write one, we used to write a batch at a time — like gumbo.”
Before she was a star, Madonna was a songwriter with a sharp ear for a hook and a lyrical catchphrase, playing tracks like “Lucky Star” for record companies in the hope of scoring a contract. Her earliest hits honed the electro beats coming out of the New York club scene into universal radio gold. But songs like her greatest statement, “Like a Prayer,” can also summon an anthemic power to rival Springsteen or U2. Madonna has enlisted numerous collaborators en route to selling more than 300 million albums — she started working with longtime writing partner Patrick Leonard after he brought her “Live to Tell” in 1986, and from Shep Pettibone and William Orbit in the Nineties through Diplo, Avicii and Kanye West on 2015’s Rebel Heart, she’s worked successfully with producers across many genres. Through it all, her songs have been consistently stamped with her own sensibility and inflected with autobiographical detail. “She grew up on Joni Mitchell and Motown and. . . embodies the best of both worlds,” says Rick Nowells, who co-wrote with Madonna on 1998’s Ray of Light. “She is a wonderful confessional songwriter, as well as being a superb hit chorus pop writer.”
Waits began as a throwback, a beatnik jazzbo singing the praises of old cars and barflies and looking for the heart of Saturday night. His early period produced gems like “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” and “Jersey Girl,” made most famous by Bruce Springsteen. But with 1983’s Swordfishtrombones and 1985’s Rain Dogs he blossomed into what he called his “sur-rural” period, drawing on old blues, German cabaret and street-corner R&B to create songs populated by dice-throwing one-armed dwarves, men with missing fingers playing strange guitars and phantom truck-drivers named Big Joe. “You wave your hand and they scatter like crows,” he sang in his rusted plow-blade voice to a Brooklyn girl about her suitors. “They’re just thorns without the rose.” It would be his biggest hit — Rod Stewart took “Downtown Train” to Number Three on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1989. “The creative process is imagination, memories, nightmares and dismantling certain aspects of this world and putting them back together in the dark,” said Waits. “Songs aren’t necessarily verbatim chronicles or necessarily journal entries, they’re like smoke.”
Nirvana’s skull-crushing noise assault would have meant little if not for the deceptively brilliant pop craft underpinning it. Kurt Cobain was raised on Beatles LPs, which you can hear in songs like “About a Girl” and “Something in the Way.” And he employed Dylan-style love-and-theft to left-field pop as well, masterfully distilling indie-rock icons Pixies in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and U.K. post-punks Killing Joke in “Come as You Are.” Lyrically, songs like “Rape Me” and “Stay Away” (with its memorable “God is gay” declaration) brought deep gender studies provocations to a mass audience — one of the most astonishing subversive achievements in rock history. And if lines like “I feel stupid and contagious/here we are now, entertain us” became generational epigrams, it’s in their cryptic ability to nail inarticulate pain. “I don’t like to make things too obvious, because it gets stale,” Cobain said. “It’s the way I like art.”
Fleetwood Mac blew up in the Seventies thanks to three top-notch singer-songwriters — guitarist/producer/mastermind Lindsey Buckingham, bluesy songbird Christine McVie and the gypsy queen herself, Stevie Nicks. Her “Rhiannon,” “Sara” and “Gold Dust Woman” were full of post-hippie witchy imagery, but under the gossamer surface, they were deceptively tough-minded accounts of heartbreak and betrayal in the L.A. heyday of free love and hard drugs. She and Buckingham were a couple when they joined Fleetwood Mac, but some of her greatest songs came out of the wreckage of their relationship — including the Number One “Dreams.” “We write about each other, we have continually written about each other, and we’ll probably keep writing about each other until we’re dead,” she told Rolling Stone last year. She remains undiminished as a writer, as she proved on her 2011 gem In Your Dreams. But her most famous song is still “Landslide,” her acoustic lament for children growing older, written before she’d even turned 30. “I was only 27,” she said. “It was 1973 when I wrote it, about a year before I joined Fleetwood Mac. You can feel really old at 27.”
The Notorious B.I.G.
The greatest rapper ever balanced gangsta realness and R&B playfulness, proving that a self-described “black and ugly” corner kid from Brooklyn could blow up to become a pop superstar through sheer brilliance and charisma. At the heart of Biggie’s music was a gift for rolling off scrolls of buoyant lines that were as singable as they were quotable — “Birthdays were the worst days, now we sip champagne when we’re thirsty,” “Poppa been smooth since days of Underoos” and on and on. Working with pop-savvy producer Sean “Puffy” Combs, Biggie raised his game throughout his brief career —from the social realism of “Things Done Changed” to the euphoric rags-to-riches celebration “Juicy” to effortlessly virtuosic performances like “Hypnotize” and “Ten Crack Commandments,” both from his 1997 swan songLife After Death. “I wanted to release music that let people know he was more than just a gangsta rapper,” Combs said later. “He showed his pain, but in the end he wanted to make people feel good.”
Dixon was a fine performer and bass player, but he made his greatest contribution as house songwriter at Chess Records in the 1950s. Dixon was essential in shaping the sound of post-war Chicago blues, supplying masters like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf with riffs as crisp as the creases in a new suit and lyrics so boastful that they’d be terrifying if half-true. By the early Sixties, as a new generation discovered the blues, plenty of young white men were learning to exaggerate their sexual prowess from Dixon’s songs. It’s possible that no blues writer other than Robert Johnson had had as profound an impact on the development of rock music: Mick Jagger acquired his strut from “Little Red Rooster,” which the Stones faithfully covered in 1964; the Doors did a leering L.A. version of “Back Door Man” on their 1967 debut; and Led Zeppelin belatedly admitted the debt “Whole Lotta Love” owed to Dixon’s “You Need Love” and “Bring It on Home” when they settled a copyright dispute in the Eighties. “He’s the backbone of postwar blues writing,” Keith Richards has said, “the absolute.”
From a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island, rode a boy with a six-pack in his hand — Billy Joel, in real life a piano man from Hicksville. Joel started out playing in rock & roll bands before returning to the piano at the beginning of the Seventies. “After seven years of trying to make it as a rock star, I decided to do what I always wanted to do — write about my own experiences,” he said in 1971, around the time of his debut album, Cold Spring Harbor. Joel has always had a heart in Tin Pan Alley, first hitting it big in the Seventies with the semi-confessional tale of wasting away as a lounge performer, “Piano Man.” But he’s applied his old-school craft to a host of rock styles, scoring hits as a blue-collar balladeer (“She’s Always a Woman”) or a doo-wop soul man (“The Longest Time”), trying out jazzy Scorcese-like streetlife serenades (“Zanzibar,” “Stiletto”). His signature song, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” is an epic seven-minute tale of suburban dreams biting the dust down at the Parkway Diner. Happy 50th anniversary, Brenda and Eddie.
Don Henley and Glenn Frey
The two future Eagles were lucky to meet up in L.A. in the early Seventies, but in their hunger for success, they were even more fortunate to have formidable competition. “In the beginning, we were the underdogs,” Frey once said. “Being in close proximity to Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, this unspoken thing was created between Henley and me, which said, ‘If we want to be up here with the big boys, we’d better write some fucking good songs.'” They proceeded to do just that: Whether composing together (“Desperado,” “One of These Nights,” “Tequila Sunrise,” “Lyin’ Eyes”) or with other band members (“Hotel California,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” “New Kid in Town”), Henley and Frey knew that songs — and fastidiously produced recordings of them— would be the key to their success far more so than their harmonies or lack of flashy showmanship. And those songs, soaked in world-weariness, cynicism, resentment and the occasional happy ending, were so precisely crafted that, decades later, they keep people returning to the records and seeing the band’s seemingly endless reunion tour.
Elton John and Bernie Taupin
In 1967, a clever record company executive paired lyricist Bernie Taupin and a young piano player named Reginald Kenneth Dwight. Their partnership has endured for nearly 50 years, putting 57 songs in the Top 40. “Without [Bernie] the journey would not have been possible,” Elton said in 1994. “I let all my expressions and my love and my pain and my anger come out with my melodies. I had someone to write my words for me. Without him, the journey would not have been possible.” Their process has remained nearly identical from day one: Bernie writes a lyric and sends it to Elton, who sits down at a piano and turns it into a song. They first hit it big in the Seventies with “Your Song,” a tune that Taupin now calls “one of the most naïve and childish lyrics in the entire repertoire of music.” But it quickly lead to more advanced work like “Madman Across the Water,” “Levon” and “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” along with goofy fun tunes like “Bennie and the Jets” and “Crocodile Rock.” “Andy Warhol never explained what his paintings were about,” Taupin said said in 2013. “He’d just say, ‘What does it mean to you?’ That’s how I feel about songs.”
There’s a reason Diamond’s songs have been covered by everyone from the Monkees and Smash Mouth to Sinatra. First are the meaty, hooky melodies, dating back to early Diamond sing-alongs like “Cherry, Cherry” and “Sweet Caroline” and extending into later, more brooding angst-a-thons like “I Am. . .I Said” and “Song Sung Blue.” The all-ages appeal of his music also has to do with the way Diamond has sketched out his life — and the lives of many of his fans. From his early, frisky Brill Building pop (“I’m a Believer”) to the later-life love songs about his latest wife, few singers brood and contemplate life in song the way Diamond has. And let’s not forget the ebullient “Cracklin’ Rosie,” the vaguely salacious “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” just two of the more than 50 songs he’s placed in the Billboard Top 100 during his half-century-plus career. “I’m motivated to find myself,” he told Rolling Stone in 1976. “I do it in a very silly way. I write these little songs and go and sing them. . .It seems like an odd way to gain an inner sense of acceptance of the self. But it’s what I do.”
Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
Barrett Strong sang Motown’s first big hit, 1959’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” but found an even greater success as a lyricist. For a six-year stretch beginning with 1967’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” he and composer/producer Norman Whitfield were a mighty songwriting team at Motown. Working most famously with the Temptations, they created “psychedelic soul,” built on Whitfield’s expansively experimental production and Strong’s downbeat, socially conscious lyrics. As far away from pop convention as Whitfield and Strong’s music could be — several of the artists they worked with grew frustrated with their freakiness — their sound found its audience: the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion,” the Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes” and Edwin Starr’s vehement protest diatribe “War” were all huge hits. “Norman Whitfield was the visionary,” Motown guitarist Dennis Coffey recalled. “He was always building up layers, making breakdowns, creating this searing funk with amazing dynamic changes.”
At a time when many rock songwriters were interested in psychedelic escapism, the Band’s Robbie Robertson looked for inspiration in America — its history, its myths and its music. Songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” were, as Greil Marcus wrote in Mystery Train, “committed to the very idea of America: complicated, dangerous and alive.” Robinson’s songwriting grounded the Band, influencing generations of back-to-the-land rockers. Yet, he was content to play a kind of behind-the-scenes role, passing out songs for the Band’s three distinct vocalists — Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel — in an act of generosity that enhanced the Band’s theme of communal progress and spirit. “I had almost like a theater workshop,” he said, “where you’re casting people in these parts, and that’s what my job was then.” Since the Band ended its run, Robinson has only released albums sporadically; his most recent, 2013’s How to Become Clairvoyant, delivered vintage American idioms with a 21st Century feel.
“[Songwriting] is hell on Earth,” Jimmy Webb wrote in his book,Tunesmith. “If it isn’t, then you’re doing it wrong.” Born in Oklahoma in 1946, Webb is an heir to the Great American Songbook. Sixties hits like “Up, Up and Away,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and “Wichita Lineman” marked him as an MOR master, a pigeonhole that irked him no end: According to Linda Ronstadt, Webb “was shunned and castigated for what was perceived as his lack of hipness.” While he’s recognized today for his unique explorations themes of loneliness and individuality in the American landscape, his most popular song remains an abiding enigma. “I don’t think it’s a very good song,” he said of “MacArthur Park,” the much-covered 1968 hit he penned for singer Richard Harris. “But the American people appear to have developed an incredible fascination with the one image of the cake out in the rain.”
His voice had the authority of experience, and so did his songs. In them, he was the man who taught the weeping willow how to cry, the solitary figure who wore black for the poor and beaten-down, the stone-cold killer who boasted he’d “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” At Sun Records and later at Columbia — in songs like “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Big River,” “Five Feet High and Rising” and “I Still Miss Someone” — he married the language of country, blues and gospel to the emerging snap of rock & roll. He recognized emerging talent, recording Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and one of his signature songs was written by his future wife, June Carter, about their emerging love. And he never stopped, recording “The Wanderer” with U2 in 1993, and a series of albums with Rick Rubin in his final years as he battled the effects of Shy-Dragger Syndrome. “Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul,” Dylan wrote after Cash’s death in 2003. “This is a miraculous and humbling thing. Listen to him, and he always brings you to your senses.”
“My only weapon is my pen/And the frame of mind I’m in,” Sly Stone muttered on “Poet,” his clearest public statement on the art of songwriting. In his late-Sixties/early-Seventies prime, it was a potent combination: composer/producer David Axelrod called him “the greatest talent in pop music history.” Born Sylvester Stewart, Sly was a DJ and record producer with an equal love for soul music ands the Beatles. When he convened Sly and the Family Stone in the late Sixties, he deployed a fast-talking radio jock’s ear for aphorism (“different strokes for different folks,” “I want to take you higher”) and an ability to make tricky arrangements seem natural (“Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin” builds raw funk out of everyone in the band playing radically different parts). From the optimism of “Everyday People” to the funky angst of 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, his music mapped the flower-power era’s journey from utopian promise to catastrophic meltdown as well as anyone, and his grooves and riffs have been endlessly sampled by the hip-hop artists to arrive in his wake. “I have no doubt about my music,” Sly said in 1970. “The truth sustains.”
Every pop era has at least one songwriter who effortlessly taps into the zeitgeist, and for the last roughly 15 years, that person has been this Swedish writer-producer. Starting in the Nineties with the Backstreet Boy’s “I Want It That Way” and Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time,” among others, Martin helped create the whooshing, hyper-energized sound of modern pop — a talent that has extended to a mind-boggling list of recent collaborations that include Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night” and “Teenage Dream,” Ariana Grande’s “Problem,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and Adam Lambert’s “Whataya Want from Me.” “I try to make the songs as good as I can — the way I like it, you know?” Martin has said. “And I guess my taste sometimes happens to be what other people, particularly radio programmers, like, too. As you know, a lot of the stuff that was once considered rubbish or ‘for kids’ is now considered classic.”
“In 1968 I always used to say that I wanted to make records they would still play on the radio in ten years,” Creedence Clearwater Revival architect John Fogerty told Rolling Stone in 1993. Try 50 years. CCR were the catchy, hard-driving dance band amidst the psychedelic San Francisco ballroom scene of the late Sixties, scoring 12 Top 40 hits during their run while releasing an incredible five albums between 1968 and 1970. Fogerty’s songwriting process reflected the blue-collar worldview of a guy who wrote his first Top 10 hit (1969’s “Proud Mary”) just two days after being discharged from the Army Reserves: “Just sitting very late at night,” he said. “It was quiet, the lights were low. There was no extra stimulus, no alcohol or drugs or anything. It was purely mental. . .I had discovered what all writers discover, whether they’re told or not, that you could do anything.” Fogerty later admitted to envying the critical adulation received by Bob Dylan and the Band, but he tapped the tenor of his times as well as anyone, whether on the class conscious Vietnam protest anthem “Fortunate Son” or “Bad Moon Rising,” which channeled America’s sense of impending apocalyptic into two-and-a-half choogling minutes.
The first time most people heard David Bowie, he was playing an astronaut named Major Tom, floating through space, completely cut off from civilization. Within a couple of years Bowie was channeling that sense of cosmic alienation into albums like 1971’s Hunky Doryand the 1972’s classic The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, emerging as one of the most creative (and unpredictable) songwriting forces of the 1970s. Early on, Bowie specialized in offering an indelible vision of the Seventies glam-rock demimonde. Lyrically, his use of William Burroughs-style cut and paste made for fascinating, if at times, baffling flows of image and ideas. “You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects creating a kind of story ingredients-list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix ’em up and reconnect them,” he once said, describing a process that sometimes involves literally pulling phrases out of a hat. “You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this.” Bowie is also one of rock’s great collaborators, whether he’s working with Brian Eno, Mick Ronson or Iggy Pop. On timeless songs like “Life on Mars” or “Changes” or “Heroes,” his ability to combine accessibility and idiosyncrasy makes for music that marries art and pop and transfigures culture itself.
He didn’t start writing songs in earnest until he’d recorded a few albums, and his songwriting gifts have been overshadowed by his vocal mastery. Still, Al Green’s best original material isn’t just a showcase for his voice. Starting in the early Seventies, Green, working with Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell and guitarist/co-writer Teenie Hodges, created a rich catalog of songs that mixed sacred and profane like no other soul singer of any era. Green sang about romantic ecstasy and failings and deeper longings for divine love (the language of Scripture has never been far from his lyrics, even when he was writing secular material). And you could put together a rock-solid compilation of Green’s songs that became hits in the hands of other artists: Syl Johnson’s (or Talking Heads’) “Take Me to the River,” Tina Turner’s “Let’s Stay Together,” UB40’s “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” Meli’sa Morgan’s “Still in Love With You,” Earnest Jackson’s “Love and Happiness,” and on and on. His songs weren’t as political as Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway,” Justin Timberlake wrote inRolling Stone, “But if those guys were speaking to you, Al Green was speaking for you.”
He may sound (and look) like the prototypical SoCal balladeer, but Browne has spent his career pushing the singer-songwriter envelope. He’s written some of rock’s most finely observed songs not just about his journey through life (from the prematurely wise “These Days,” penned when he was 16 years old, through more recent songs like “The Night Inside Me”), but has also ventured into social critiques (“Lawyers in Love”) and political protest (“Lives in the Balance”). Whatever the subject, Browne brings the same probing, thoughtful take on what he called, in “Looking East,” “the search for the truth.” “The nature of my music has to do with dealing with very fundamental things by depicting my own experience,” he told Rolling Stone in 1976. “There’s nothing that isn’t pretty fundamental.” And in “Running on Empty,” “Boulevard” and others, he also knew, far more than most of his peers, the value in rocking out. “I learned through Jackson’s ceiling and my floor how to write songs,” Glenn Frey recalled of a period when he lived in an apartment one floor above Browne, “elbow grease, time, thought, persistence.”
Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter
Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, the writing partners at the center of the Grateful Dead, are the psychedelic Rodgers and Hart. The duo charted deep space — inner and outer—on early collaborations like “Dark Star.” But beginning with 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, and hitting stride with the 1970 doubleheader of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, they uncorked a vividly mythic America full of crooked gamblers, coked-up train engineers, strange sea-captains, story-telling crows, card-playing wolves, and — fittingly— transcendence-seeking musicians. “You’d see Hunter standing over in the corner,” drummer Mickey Hart said of the time Hunter joined up with the Dead. “He had this little dance he’d do. He had one foot off the ground and he’d be writing in his notebooks. He was communing with the music. And all of a sudden, we had songs.” The storytelling was always a delight, but it was Hunter’s way with a homey-cosmic aphorism that made Dead lyrics so tattoo-able, bobbing and bouncing on Garcia’s sweet, sad melody lines like glinting revelations. “Let there be songs to fill the air,” insists the singer on “Ripple,” one of the duo’s most indelible numbers. And voila: there they are.
Bono and the Edge
When they first got started in the 1970s, the ambitious lads in U2 made a deal to split all their publishing money evenly. But as important to U2’s sound as Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. may be, Bono and the Edge have been the primary songwriting team in the band from day one. Bono brings the grand vision and uncanny ear for heroic hooks, and the Edge brings his sonic mastery and an eagerness to push boundaries. Working together, the duo have pursued their expansive vision from the adolescent cry of “Out of Control” to political anthems like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to the stadium-shaking roar of “Where the Streets Have No Name” to the funky, danceable “Mysterious Ways” and “Discotheque” all the way through the highly-personable “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” from last year’s Songs of Innocence. As the band’s charismatic frontman, Bono may soak up a lot of the credit, but he’s the first to admit how important the Edge is to their songwriting. “Smart people know what [the Edge] does, and he doesn’t care about the rest of the world,” Bono told Rolling Stone in 2005. “I get annoyed and I say, ‘How do people not know?'”
Jackson’s innate musical genius could be heard on the earliest Jackson 5 chart-toppers. And he came into his own with the sterling disco pop of 1979’s Off the Wall and the monumentalThriller, where he got sole writing credit on “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” By Bad in 1987, he was getting a writing credit on nearly every song on the record. Jackson’s collaborators and co-writers marvel at the way his dance-floor classics sprang full-formed from their creator’s head. That, Michael said, was the only way he could write: “If I sat down at a piano, if I sat here and played some chords. . .nothing happens.” Even more remarkably, the singer imagined the full arrangements for these songs as he wrote them, working from the basic rhythmic elements all the way up to the smallest ornamentations. “He would sing us an entire string arrangement, every part,” engineer Rob Hoffman recalls. “Had it all in his head; harmony and everything. Not just little eight-bar loop ideas. He would actually sing the entire arrangement into a micro-cassette recorder complete with stops and fills.”
“Hag, you’re the guy people think I am,” said Johnny Cash to Merle Haggard, whose life and lyrics intertwined magnificently. Among Haggard’s 38 Number One country hits, signature tunes like “Okie From Muskogee,” “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home” mixed autobiography and attitude with a honky-tonk spirit in the tradition of Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. As he toldAmerican Songwriter in 2010, “Sometimes the songs got to coming too fast for me to write, and sometimes they still do.” The prolific Haggard, who once released eight albums in a three-year period, is an icon of country conservatism thanks to his hippie-baiting classic “Okie From Muskogee.” Yet, his music directly influenced rock touchstones like the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead and the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, and Hag has been influenced right back. “I’m a rock & roller,” he recently told Rolling Stone. “I’m a country guy because of my raisin’, but I’m a Chuck Berry man. I love Fats Domino just as much as I like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell.”
Burt Bacharach and Hal David
Burt Bacharach studied classical composition with French composer Darius Milhaud and was part of avant-garde icon John Cage’s circle. But he chose pop music as a career and started writing songs with lyricist Hal David, who had a knack for matching wistful sentiments to Bacharach’s unconventional jazz chords and constantly shifting time signatures. (“It all counts,” Bacharach said. “There is no filler in a three-and-a-half-minute song.”) Their first hit came in 1957, but their partnership really took off five years later, when they started working with singer Dionne Warwick. Between 1962 and 1971, Warwick charted with dozens of Bacharach/David songs like “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Walk on By” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” Their songs were hits for other artists, too: Richard Carpenter of the Carpenters, who went to Number One with “Close to You,” called Bacharach “one of the most gifted composers who ever drew a breath. . .unorthodox never sounded lovelier or more clever.”
With 3,000 songs to her name — including more than 20 Number One country singles —Dolly Parton has enjoyed one of country’s most impressive songwriting careers. Parton tapped her hardscrabble Tennessee-hills upbringing on songs like “Coat of Many Colors” and “The Bargain Store,” and throughout the Seventies, her songs broke new ground in describing romantic heartache and marital hardship. On “Travelin’ Man,” from her 1971 masterpiece Coat of Many Colors, Parton’s mom runs off with her man, and on the gut-wrenching “If I Lose My Mind,” also on that album, Parton watches while her boyfriend has sex with another woman. Over the years, her songs have been covered by everyone from the White Stripes to LeAnn Rimes to Whitney Houston, who had an enormous hit with her version of Parton’s ballad “I Will Always Love You.” Parton has always had a self-deprecating sense of humor (she once described her voice as “a cross between Tiny Tim and a nanny goat”). But she doesn’t do much joking around when it comes to the art of songwriting. “I’ve always prided myself as a songwriter more than anything else” she once said, adding “nothing is more sacred and more precious to me than when I really can get in that zone where it’s just God and me.”
The Who had a one-of-a-kind drummer, a brilliant bassist, a towering singer — and their songs featured some pretty impressive guitar playing too. But they would never have gone anywhere if Pete Townshend hadn’t developed into an endlessly innovative songwriter. Early tunes like their debut single “I Can’t Explain” and the epochal anthem “My Generation” were fueled by adolescent angst, but with each passing year, Townshend became more and more ambitious, moving from a loose concept record about a pirate radio station (1967’s The Who Sell Out) to a groundbreaking rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball star (1969’s Tommy) to a double LP about a young mod facing with a form of split personality disorder (1973’s Quadrophenia.) His output slowed down considerably by the mid-1980s and he’s released a scant two albums in the past three decades. But what he accomplished in the Who’s first 15 years transformed the possibilities of rock music. “If I did [release another album], I think I would want it to be something that really addressed everything that’s going on in the world at the moment,” he told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “I’m old enough and wise enough and stupid enough and have done enough dangerous shit to say pretty much whatever I like.”
Chuck Berry wrote about teenage America. Buddy Holly, the other great rock & roll singer-songwriter of the Fifties, embodied it. Holly had only been making records for a little less than two years when he died in a plane crash in 1959 at age 22. Yet, in that brief career, he created an amazing body of work. On songs like “That’ll Be the Day,” “Rave On,” “Everyday,” “Oh Boy,” “Peggy Sue” and “Not Fade Away,” his buoyant, hiccupping vocals and wiry, exuberant guitar playing drove home lyrics that seemed to sum up the hopes, aspirations and fears of the kids buying his records. After a failed attempt to make it in Nashville as a country artist, Holly returned to his native Lubbock, Texas, where he and his band the Crickets drove to producer Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico, to cut a version of “That’ll Day Be the Day” (a song Decca Records had rejected), that became a Number One single. Though Petty often took co-writing credit on his songs, Holly was one of the first rock & roll singers to write his own material, exerting a huge influence on the Beatles and Rolling Stone, among countless others. The Beatles’ name was inspired by the Crickets and, according to legend, when the Fab Four arrived in America to playThe Ed Sullivan Show, John Lennon asked, “Is this the stage Buddy Holly played on?”
The most influential folk singer in American history once described his creative process thusly: “When I’m writing a song and I get the words, I look around for some tune that has proved its popularity with the people.” Born to a relatively prosperous Oklahoma family and radicalized during the Great Depression, the former Woodrow Wilson Guthrie scoured the American musical tradition —from country music to church songs to blues to novelty tunes — and created songs that addressed, and helped shape, the world unfolding around him. (“This Land Is Your Land,” which he recorded in 1940 while on leave from the merchant marines, borrowed its melody from an old gospel tune called “Oh My Loving Brother.”) The scope of his music is almost unparalleled: Guthrie wrote children’s songs and Hanukkah songs, songs supporting unions and World War II and the construction of several dams, songs that celebrated Jesus as an outlaw and criticized Charles Lindbergh as a Nazi sympathizer, even a song about a flying saucer. Guthrie’s music, Bob Dylan wrote in Chronicles, “had the infinite sweep of humanity.”
“In British rock,” said the Who’s Pete Townshend of his onetime rival, “Ray Davies is our only true and natural genius.” The Kinks’ primary songwriter helped invent punk rock with “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night.” But with songs like “Waterloo Sunset,” “A Well Respected Man,” “Sunny Afternoon,” “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” and many more, Davies perfected a uniquely English songcraft, rooted in the sly wit and tunefulness of early music hall tradition but extended with fresh concerns (courting a trans woman in “Lola,” for instance), a storyteller’s exacting eye for realism, and a signature delight in upending British class hierarchies. But it’s his ability to nail emotion that makes simple love songs like “Days” incandescent, and elevates a lonely meditation like “Waterloo Sunset” into what some consider the most beautiful song in the English language. “I think the things I write about are the things I can’t fight for,” he told Rolling Stone in 1970. “There are a lot of things I say that are really commonplace. I can’t get rid of them. I go into something minute, then look at it, then go back into it.”
After scoring R&B hits like “Please Please Please” and recording the greatest live album ever, 1963’s Live at the Apollo, James Brown changed the pop songwriting game forever during the Sixties and early Seventies by flipping the script on songform itself, foregrounding his music in tight, tempestuous rhythm to invent what would eventually be known as funk. “Aretha and Otis and Wilson Pickett were out there and getting big. I was still called a soul singer,” he once recalled. “I still call myself that but musically I had already gone off in a different direction. I had discovered that my strength was not in the horns, it was in the rhythm.” A masterful arranger and composer, Brown also invented a new kind of aphoristic lyrical exhortation that became the lingua franca of hip-hop and dance music. The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business often created on the fly, scrawling lyrics on a paper bag (“Sex Machine”) or a cocktail napkin (“Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud”). “He felt everything he wanted to feel, and he would use us to ‘write it down,'” says Bootsy Collins, Brown’s bassist in the early Seventies. “We were kind of like the interpreters of what he had to say.”
“When you’re going 80 miles an hour down the freeway you’re not necessarily going to notice irony,” Randy Newman has said. “But that’s what I choose to do.” Indeed, he’s the greatest ironist in rock & roll. On classic albums like 1970’s 12 Songs and 1972’sSail Away, Newman developed characters, explored ironies and embodied perspectives no one else of his time had even considered — “Suzanne” was sung from the point of view of a rapist, “God’s Song” surveyed mankind with disgust from the Almighty’s easy chair and “Sail Away” was a sales pitch from an antebellum slave trader to Africans on the wonders of America (“Every man is free to take care of his home and his family”). Newman’s early albums were commercial calamities, but he had a surprise hit with 1977’s “Short People,” a bitingly funny parody of bigotry, and he’s gone on to enjoy a hugely successful second career writing soundtracks for movies like Toy Story andMonsters Inc. Newman’s songs have been covered by countless artists — from Judy Collins to Harry Nilsson to Ray Charles to Manfred Man’s Earth Band to Three Dog Night — and his respect among his peers is universal. T. Bone Burnett calls “Sail Away,” “the greatest satire in the history of American music.”
After springing forth in 1977 as a sneering, splay-legged punk rocker with a knack for motor-mouth lyrics (“I was always into writing a lot of words,” he said in 2008. “I liked the effect of a lot of images passing by quickly”), Elvis Costello evolved into a songwriter of profoundly American sensibilities and almost unparalleled versatility. Following a series of early rock masterpieces like 1978’s searingThis Year’s Model and 1980’s soul-informed tour de force Get Happy!, Costello delivered an album of pure country with 1981’s Almost Blue and then hit another highpoint with the Tin Pan Alley subtlety of 1982’s Imperial Bedroom. Costello’s two-dozen or so best songs — “Beyond Believe,” Radio, Radio,” “New Lace Sleeves,” “Watching the Detectives,” “Oliver’s Army” among them — make all those densely packed images and subtle wordplay roll by with almost Beatles-esque precision. His ability to embrace diverse styles would lead to fruitful album-length collaborations with Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, his wife, jazz singer Diane Krall, and, most recently, hip-hop crew the Roots. “It’s not effortless,” he told Rolling Stone in 2004. “I despaired, for a time, of writing any more words. In ‘This House Is Empty Now’ [on Painted From Memory], I meant this house [points to his head].'”
Many bluesmen talked of sin and redemption. Johnson made it personal, walking side by side with Satan in “Me and the Devil Blues,” rewriting the Book of Revelations as a diary entry in “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” looking for shelter from the storm in “Hell Hound on My Trail” and enacting his own crucifixion in “Cross Road Blues.” His songwriting, like his guitar playing, was at once vivid and phantasmagorical —psychedelic some 30 years before the Acid Tests — and helped set a course for Bob Dylan (who can be seen holding King of the Delta Blues on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home), the Rolling Stones (who covered “Love in Vain” and “Stop Breaking Down) and Eric Clapton (who covered “Ramblin’ on My Mind” and “Cross Road Blues” and then chased Johnson’s hell hounds for decades). “When I heard him for the first time, it was like he was singing only for himself, and now and then, maybe God,” Clapton once said. “It is the finest music I have ever heard. I have always trusted its purity, and I always will.”
Morrison was a hugely successful singer before he began writing songs and he never lost he idea that even the most intricate lyrics are meant to be sung and felt. He began his career with the tough Belfast R&B of Them, and was soon creating a brand of mystic Irish rock & roll that was equally touched by Yeats and Dylan as Jackie Wilson and Leadbelly. Only Van can make a Romantic incantation like “if I ventured in the slipstream/Between the viaducts of your dream” roll out as smooth as Tupelo honey. After becoming disillusioned with commercial pop following the success of his 1967 hit “Brown Eyed Girl,” he went into a brief period of down-and-out seclusion, emerging the following year with his greatest statement, Astral Weeks, singing “poetry and mythical musings channeled from my imagination” over meditative backing that wove folk, jazz, blues and soul. Throughout his career — but especially on a run of albums he recorded during the early Seventies that included 1970’s Moondance and 1974’s Veedon Fleece — Morrison has always rooted his ecstatic visions in a warm, commonplace intimacy perfect for his music’s easy-flowing grandeur. “The songs were somewhat channeled works,” he said when he performed Astral Weeks live in 2008. “As my songwriting has gone on I tend to do the same channeling, so it’s sort of like ‘Astral Decades,’ I guess.”
“I wanted to write the great American novel, but I also loved rock & roll,” Reed told an interviewer in 1987. “I just wanted to cram everything into a record that these people had ignored. . .I wanted to write rock & roll that you could listen to as you got older, that wouldn’t lose anything, that would be timeless, in the subject matter and the literacy of the lyrics.” And so he did. A collegiate creative writing student who played covers in bar bands and briefly held a job writing pop song knockoffs in the Brill Building era, Reed drew inspiration both from literature (Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch) and his own life — for example, the fellow Warhol collaborators that informed quintessential Reed character studies like “Candy Says” and “Walk on the Wild Side.” Besides writing about the psychology of polymorphous sexuality and drug users, he penned some of the most beautiful love songs in history (“Pale Blue Eyes,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror”). Reed was also a sound scientist who, with the Velvet Underground and after, advanced what was possible with simple chords and electric guitars. His creative ambition never flagged: his last major project, Lulu, reimagined a late-19th century play/early 20th-century opera with Metallica, and as always, he took no prisoners.
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Leiber and Stoller are rock & roll’s first great songwriting team, two Jewish kids who turned their love of rhythm and blues into a run of hits marked by their musical inventiveness and lyrical boldness. Leiber, who grew up in Baltimore, and Stoller, who was from Long Island, met in Los Angeles in 1950. With Leiber writing the lyrics and Stoller handling the music, they wrote Top 10 pop hits for Elvis Presley (“Jailhouse Rock”), the Coasters (“Yakety Yak”), Wilbert Harrison (“Kansas City”), the Drifters (“On Broadway”) and Dion (“Ruby Baby”). Their slyly humorous story songs skillfully mixed R&B grooves with clever, often subversive lyrics: “Riot in Cell Block #9,” a Number One R&B hit for the Robins in 1954, was about a prison uprising, while the Coasters’ 1959 chart-topper “Poison Ivy” was a reference to sexually transmitted diseases. The pair’s songs usually emerged from improvisatory writing sessions that began with just a handful of Leiber’s lyrics. “Often I would have a start, two or four lines,” Leiber told writer Robert Palmer in 1978. “Mike would sit at the piano and start to jam, just playing, fooling around, and I’d throw out a line. He’d accommodate the line — metrically, rhythmically.” In addition to achieving huge crossover pop success in the U.S., their work was also a massive influence on the British Invasion: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Hollies and the Searchers were just some of the acts who recorded their songs.
Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry
The Greenwich/Barry team only lasted a few years. They married and started composing songs in the Brill Building in 1962, and split up in 1965. But the dozens of hit songs they wrote for girl groups and teen idols during that time (often with producer Phil Spector pitching in) were as close to raw erotic fervor as you could hear on the radio at the time: the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me,” the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack,” and — near the end of their partnership — Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep – Mountain High.” Even their demo recordings were so fully realized that several charted under the name the Raindrops. “When things were working, and you’re really connecting, what could be better?,” Greenwich recalled. “Here’s the person you’re in love with, and you’re being creative together, and things are going well — it’s the highest high you can imagine. However, when there were disagreements, it was very hard to leave it at the office and go home at night and change hats: ‘Hi honey, what do you want for dinner?'” After the split, Barry continued to write songs for acts including the Archies and Olivia Newton–John; Greenwich developed Leader of the Pack, a musical about her career.
Prince’s talents as a multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger, bandleader and live powerhouse are peerless. But it all builds off his songs, which transform funk, soul, pop and rock into a sound all his own. He’s had 30 Top 40 singles in his career, including five Number Ones. Lyrically, he tends to stick to one freaky subject. But no songwriter has explored sex so ingeniously —from the frisky flirtations of “Little Red Corvette” and “U Got the Look” to more ambitious therapy sessions like “When Doves Cry” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Musically, his stylistic breadth seems limitless: He learned early on to lace a heavy funky jam with an unforgettable pop hook, then mastered every form of rock song — from three-chord bangers (“Let’s Go Crazy”) to straight-up power ballads (“Purple Rain”) — before introducing melodic and harmonic complexities that pushed his increasingly jazzy and experimental compositions beyond ordinary pop constraints. “He knew the balance between innovation and America’s digestive system,” Questlove has said of his idol. “He’s the only artist who was able to, basically, feed babies the most elaborate of foods that you would never give a child and know exactly how to break down the portions so they could digest it.” Prince’s own comments on his craft are even more impressionistic. “Sometimes I hear a melody in my head, and it seems like the first color in a painting,” he said in a 1998 interview. “And then you can build the rest of the song with other added sounds.”
Neil Young’s epic career has veered wildly from folk-rock to country to hard rock to synth-driven New Wave pop to rockabilly to bar-band blues. “Neil doesn’t turn corners,” Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro once said. “He ricochets around them.” And while he’s disappointed more than a few bandmates and fans with his at-times baffling career choices, his songs are always pure Neil. Young’s creakingly lovely acoustic ballads and torrential rockers draw on the same ageless themes: the myths and realities of American community and freedom, the individual’s hard struggle against crushing political and social forces, mortality and violence, chrome dreams, ragged glories and revolution blues. Young has released an astonishing 36 solo albums, five in the last two years. His best work (“Ambulance Blues,” “Powderfinger,” “After the Goldrush”) may have come in the Sixties and Seventies, but every single album comes with more than a few amazing moments. Songs like the 1970 soft-rock classic “Heart of Gold,” his only Number One single, have led to an image of the tireless 69-year-old legend as a lonely troubadour, but Young insists that’s deceptive. “Something about my songs, everyone thinks I’m kind of downbeat,” he said at his 1995 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “But things have been good for me for a long time. So if I look kind of sad, it’s bullshit. Forget it. I’m doing good.”
Leonard Cohen was a dark Canadian eminence among the pantheon of singer-songwriters to emerge in the Sixties. His haunting bass voice, nylon-stringed guitar patterns, and Greek-chorus backing vocals delivered incantatory verses about love and hate, sex and spirituality, war and peace, ecstasy and depression, and other eternal dualities. A perfectionist known for spending years on a tune, Cohen’s genius for details illuminated the oft-covered “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah.” “Being a songwriter is like being a nun,”Rolling Stone reported him saying in 2014. “You’re married to a mystery. It’s not a particularly generous mystery, but other people have that experience with matrimony anyway.” In 1995, Cohen appeared to reject the worldliness reflected in songs like “The Future” and “Democracy” by putting his career on hold and becoming an ordained Buddhist monk. But he relaunched his career at age 74 and has continued to tour the world and make sensually luminous albums into the 2010s. At 80, he’s still our greatest living late-night poet.
Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland
During Motown’s mid-Sixties golden age, Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier were the label’s songwriting and production dream team. All three began their careers as singers, but when they started working together behind the scenes, they made magic. In 1966 alone, Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote and produced 13 Top 10 R&B singles, from the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” to the Four Tops’ “I’ll Be There.” Eddie’s deceptively simple lyrics — written to Brian and Lamont’s completed tracks — often focused on bittersweet, tormented love (“I got a lot of ideas from what I learned talking to women,” he said). But the music was pure delight: melodies that let vocalists’ power and move gracefully through them, neatly cross-stitched into an array of instrumental hooks and forceful dance rhythms. Late in the Sixties, Dozier and the Holland brothers left Motown and launched a few record labels of their own; although many of the hits that followed for the likes of Freda Payne and the Honey Cone were credited to “Edythe Wayne,” there was no mistaking the H-D-H sound.
He was one of rock’s first inheritors, and certainly its greatest, because from the start he saw rock & roll as more than music. “I got tremendous inspiration and a sense of place from the performers who had imagined it before me,” he once told Rolling Stone. “They were searchers — Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, James Brown. The people I loved — Woody Guthrie, Dylan — they were out on the frontier of the American imagination, and they were changing the course of history and our own ideas about who we were.” At the start, he balanced epics — the Dylan word clouds of “Blinded by the Light,” the Wall of Sound sweep of “Jungleland” — with the tightly constructed stories of struggle that delivered even bigger results, like “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run.” Songs like “Badlands” could make a rousing anthem out of existential crisis, and as he focused his sound and narrative, his music continued to gain power and the mass audience he knew it always deserved: Born in the U.S.A.delivered seven Top 10 singles — as many as Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Unafraid of risk, Springsteen followed it with a long period of redefinition, making his sound and his stories ever more intimate on 1987’s Tunnel of Love and later 1996’sThe Ghost of Tom Joad. Since reuniting the E Street Band in 1999 he has been reconnecting to his earliest sense of inspiration and mission. “My songs, they’re all about the American identity and your own identity,” he once explained. “And trying to hold onto what’s worthwhile, what makes it a place that’s special, because I still believe that it is.”
More than six decades after he died at 29 years old in a car wreck on New Year’s Day 1953, Hank Williams is still the most revered country artist of all time, and his impact on the history of rock & roll is just as complete. “To me, Hank Williams is still the best songwriter,” Bob Dylan said in 1991. Between 1947 and 1953, Williams landed 31 songs in the U.S. Country Top Ten, with five more making the Top Ten in the year following his untimely death. His songs ranged from Friday night party starters like “Hey Good Lookin'” and “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” to tales of romantic desolation like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to the redemptive anthem “I Saw the Light” to heart-wrenching depictions of dread and isolation like “Lost Highway” and “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” the last single released during his lifetime. No matter what mood he was channeling, Williams wrote with an economy and concision few songwriters in any genre have touched. “If a song can’t be written in 20 minutes, it ain’t worth writing,” he once said, summing up the no-frills eloquence that makes his songs so fun to sing and easy to cover. “Songs like ‘Lonesome Whistle’ and ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ are wonderful to sing because there is no bullshit in them,” Beck said. “The words, the melodies and the sentiment are all there, clear and true. It takes economy and simplicity to get to an idea or emotion in a song, and there’s no better example of that than Hank Williams.”
The Beach Boys’ resident genius wrote gloriously ecstatic California anthems such as “Fun Fun Fun,” “I Get Around” and “California Girls,” rock & roll’s greatest odes to idyllic summertime freedom. But he also penned darkly introspective masterpieces like “In My Room” and “God Only Knows,” as well as groundbreaking symphonic masterpieces like 1966’s Pet Sounds, which transformed the idea of rock album-making itself and inspired the Beatles’ own masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Wilson would later blame his father and bandmates for the despair in his more somber writing. “They wanted surf music, surf music, surf music,” he said in 2011. “The sadness came from. . .my heart.” Years later, a diagnosis of bipolar schizoaffective disorder would help explain his mood swings, recluse years and bizarre relationship with therapist-manager Eugene Landy. With the completion of his aborted late-Sixties opus Smile in 2004, Wilson reemerged to reclaim his title as a pop eminence who was once again capable of writing with incredible depth and beauty. Yet, despite the heights his music scaled, Wilson’s songwriting methodology was deceptively simple. “[I] sit down at the piano and play chords,” he told American Songwriter. “And then a melody starts to happen, and then the lyrics start to happen, and then you’ve got a song.”
Marley didn’t just introduce reggae to an American audience, he helped transform it from a singles-oriented medium to a social and musical force every bit as powerful as rock & roll at its best. Marley drank deep from American soul music; he briefly lived in Delaware during the late Sixties, where he worked in a factory. On early compositions like dance-floor-filling ska tune “Simmer Down” and the lilting pop gem “Stand Alone” he displayed mastery of sweet melodies and cleverly turned hooks that showed he could’ve easily done time on Berry Gordy’s assembly line as well. As Marley continued to find his voice in the early Seventies, his songs took on an unrivaled breadth and power, especially as he began yoking his skills as an anthemic craftsman to lyrics that raised the banner of Third World struggles against systemic oppression. In reference to his 1972 watershed “Get Up, Stand Up,” he said, “I am doing something because I see the exploitation.” Marley wrote kind invocations of spiritual and herbal uplift (“Lively Up Yourself,” “Stir It Up”), smooth, sensual love songs (“Waiting in Vain,” “Is This Love”) and searing statements of Rasta enlightenment and Pan-African unity (“Exodus,” “Zimbabwe”). In “Redemption Song,” released a year before cancer took his life in 1981, he gave us a protest anthem that still carries the universal power of a true global call to arms. “I carried ‘Redemption Song’ to every meeting I had with a politician, prime minister or president,” Bono said. “It was for me a prophetic utterance.”
“I feel there is so much through music that can be said,” Wonder once observed, and the songs he’s been writing for a half-century have more than lived up to that idea. Whether immersing himself in social commentary (“Higher Ground,” “Living for the City”), unabashed sentimentality (“You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You”), jubilant love (“Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”) or gritty disses (“You Haven’t Done Nothin'”), Wonder has consistently tapped into the sum of human emotions and happenings. He was already writing his own songs as a childhood prodigy at Motown during the Sixties (including the 1966 smash “Uptight (It’s Alright).”
As he hit his artistic stride on albums like 1972’s Talking Book and 1973’s Innervisions, he used the recording studio as his palette to create groundbreaking works of soulful self-discovery. “Like a painter, I get my inspiration from experiences that can be painful or beautiful,” he has said. “I always start from a feeling of profound gratitude — you know, ‘Only by the grace of God am I here’— and write from there. Most songwriters are inspired by an inner voice and spirit.” Combined with melodies that can be jubilant, funky or simply gorgeous, Wonder’s songs are so enduring that they’ve been covered by everyone from Sinatra to the Backstreet Boys.
Like a painter, I get my inspiration from experiences that can be painful or beautiful.
Mitchell came out of the coffee-shop folk culture of the Sixties, and she became the standard bearing star of L.A.’s Laurel Canyon scene. But her restless brilliance couldn’t be confined to one moment or movement. She began with songs that only by her later standards seemed simple: “Clouds,” “Both Sides Now,” “Big Yellow Taxi.” But then, banging on her acoustic guitar in startling ways or playing modernist melodies at the piano, she unfurled starkly personal lyrics that pushed beyond “confessional” songwriting towards an almost confrontational intimacy and rawness. “When I realized how popular I was becoming, it was right before Blue,”she recalled, in reference to her 1971 masterpiece. “I went, ‘Oh my God, a lot of people are listening to me.
Well then they better find out who they’re worshiping. Let’s see if they can take it. Let’s get real.’ So I wrote Blue, which horrified a lot of people, you know.” Mitchell’s run of albums from 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon to 1974’s Court and Spark, on which she perfected a jazz-bent studio pop, rival any streak of record-making in pop history, and her lyrical depictions of the ecstasy and heartbreak that came with being a strong woman availing herself of the sexual independence of the Sixties and Seventies offer a unique emotional travelogue of the era. “I had no personal defenses,” she said of her writing at the time. “I felt like a cellophane rapper on a pack of cigarettes.”
Blue horrified a lot of people.
If Paul Simon’s career had ended with the breakup of Simon & Garfunkel in 1970, he would still have produced some of the most beloved songs ever – including “The Sound of Silence,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” But Simon was just getting started. The quintessential New York singer-songwriter, he switches between styles effortlessly with as much attention to rhythm as melody, a rare quality among artists who came of age in the folk era. Over the decades, his music has incorporated Tin Pan Alley tunecraft, global textures, gentle acoustic reveries, gospel, R&B and electronic music, all without diluting his core appeal as an easeful chronicler of everyday alienation.
Whether he’s operating on a large scale summing up our shared national commitments in 1973’s “American Tune,” or writing a finely wrought personal reflection on lost love like 1986’s “Graceland,” the same wit and literary detail come through. For the generation that came of age during the Sixties and Seventies, he rivaled Bob Dylan in creating a mirror for their journey from youthful innocence to complicated adulthood. “One of my deficiencies is my voice sounds sincere,” Simon told Rolling Stone in 2012. “I’ve tried to sound ironic. I don’t. I can’t. Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He’s telling you the truth and making fun of you at the same time. I sound sincere every time.”
I’ve tried to sound ironic. I don’t. I can’t.
Carole King/Carole King and Gerry Goffin
Goffin and King were pop’s most prolific songwriting partnership –and, even more impressively, they kept their winning streaks going even after their marriage split up. With King handling melodies and Goffin the lyrics, the two former Queens College schoolmates worked a block away from the Brill Building and wrote many of professional songwriting’s most evocative songs: tracks like “Up on the Roof,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and “One Fine Day” that were tender snapshots of the adolescent experience. “When Paul and I first got together, we wanted to be the British Goffin and King,” John Lennon once said. As a solo act after their divorce, King gave voice to a generation of women who were establishing their own lives and identities in the Seventies; her 1971 masterpiece Tapestry remains one of the biggest-selling albums ever.
Goffin, meanwhile, supplied the lyrics for a string of hits including Diana Ross’s “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To),” Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love for You,” and Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination.” For them, there’s nothing crass, and everything earnest, about the art of the pop song. “Once I start to create a song, even if commerce is the motivation, I’m still going to try to write the best song and move people in a way that touches them,” King has said. “People know when you do that. They know that there’s an emotional connection, even if it’s commercial.”
When Paul and I first got together, we wanted to be the British Goffin and King, John Lennon once said.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards defined a rock song’s essential components – nasty wit, an unforgettable riff, an explosive chorus – and established a blueprint for future rockers to follow. Their work was at once primal and complex, charged by conflict, desire and anger, and unafraid to be explicit about it musically or lyrically. They wrote personal manifestos with political dimensions like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Get Off My Cloud”; they brooded on the tumult of the Sixties with “Gimme Shelter” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”; they detailed the connections between societal evil and the individual (and made it rock) with “Brown Sugar” and “Sympathy for the Devil.” And sometimes –”Start Me Up,” “Rip This Joint” – they just kicked the doors in and burned the house down.
One of the many, many things Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have disagreed about over the years is how their songwriting partnership got started. Keith has steadfastly claimed that manager Andrew Loog Oldham locked them in a kitchen until they emerged with “As Tears Go By,” while Jagger says the pressure was merely verbal: “He did mentally lock us in a room, but he didn’t literally lock us in.” Like Lennon/McCartney, Jagger and Richards didn’t always write together – “Happy” was all Keith, while “Brown Sugar” all Mick. But both men had a hand in most of the Stones’ hits. “I think it’s essential,” Jagger once told Rolling Stone of the idea of partnership. “People. . .like partnerships because they can identify with the drama of two people in partnership. They can feed off a partnership, and that keeps people entertained. Besides, if you have a successful partnership, it’s self-sustaining.”
Said Jagger, People. . .like partnerships because they can identify with the drama of two people in partnership.
“Smokey Robinson was like God in our eyes,” Paul McCartney once said. The melodic and lyrical genius behind Motown’s greatest hits is the most influential and innovative R&B tunesmith of all time. Robinson was an elegant, delicate singer and poetic writer whose songs brought new levels of nuance to the Top 40. The son of a truck driver raised in what he called “the suave part of the slums,” Robinson had his first hit in 1960 with the Miracles’ “Shop Around” and went onto pen the Temptations’ “My Girl” and “Get Ready,” Mary Wells’ “My Guy,” the Marvelettes’ “Don’t Mess With Bill,” Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” and many more.
With the Miracles, he had his hand in more than a dozen Top 20 hits (including “The Tracks of My Tears” and “I Second That Emotion”), songs that describe heartbreak with stunning turns of phrase: “Sweetness was only heartache’s camouflage/The love I saw in you was just a mirage,” he rhymed in 1967. Though Bob Dylan’s famous quote calling Smokey “the greatest living poet” might actually be apocryphal, everyone believed it for decades because the songs backed it up perfectly. “My theory of writing is to write a song that has a complete idea and tells a story in the time allotted for a record,” he told Rolling Stone in 1968. “It has to be something that really means something, not just a bunch of words on music.”
My theory of writing is to write a song that has a complete idea and tells a story in the time allotted for a record.
He was rock & roll’s first singer-songwriter, and the music’s first guitar hero, as well. Berry was a Muddy Waters fan who quickly learned the power of his own boundary-crossing “songs of novelties and feelings of fun and frolic” when he transformed a country song, “Ida Red,” into his first single, “Maybellene,” a Top Five pop hit. His songs were concise and mythic, celebrating uniquely American freedoms – fast cars in “Maybellene,” class mobility in “No Money Down,” the country itself in “Back in the U.S.A.” – or protesting their denial in coded race parables like “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Promised Land,” which he wrote while in jail inspired by the Freedom Riders, consulting an almanac for the route.
Bob Dylan based the meter of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” on “Too Much Monkey Business,” Mick Jagger and Keith Richards soaked up the idea of no satisfaction from “30 Days,” and John Lennon once summed up his immeasurable impact by saying, “If you gave rock & roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
His songs were concise and mythic, celebrating uniquely American freedoms or protesting their denial.
John Lennon’s command of songwriting was both absolute and radically original: that was clear from his earliest collaborations with Paul McCartney, which revolutionized not just music, but the world. “They were doing things nobody was doing,” Bob Dylan once remembered of a drive through Colorado when the Beatles ruled the radio. “I knew they were pointing the direction where music had to go.” That meant first reconnecting pop music to the awesome power of early rock & roll – Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Little Richard – then pushing forward with darker, more personal music like “Hard Day’s Night” and “In My Life” that stretched the boundaries of the capabilities of pop, and then diving into the avant garde with music that had only existed in his dreams: “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “A Day in the Life,” “Revolution #9.”
No one better rendered the complexity of personal life or global politics, or better connected the two, than Lennon during his solo career in universal songs like “Watching the Wheels” and “Imagine.” “I’m interested in something that means something for everyone,” he told Rolling Stone in 1970, “not just for a few kids listening to wallpaper.”
They were doing things nobody was doing, Bob Dylan said of the Beatles. I knew they were pointing the direction where music had to go.
“I’m in awe of McCartney,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone in 2007. “He’s about the only one that I’m in awe of.” Sir Paul is pop’s greatest melodist, with a bulging songbook that includes many of the most-performed and best-loved tunes of the past half-century. McCartney has always had a much broader range than silly love songs. He’s the weirdo behind “Temporary Secretary” and the feral basher behind “Helter Skelter.” But part of what he brought to the Beatles was his passion for the wit and complexity of pre-rock songwriting, from Fats Waller to Peggy Lee.
“Even in the early days we used to write things separately, because Paul was always more advanced than I was,” John Lennon once said. Songs like “Yesterday” and “Let It Be” became modern standards, and post-Beatles, McCartney led Wings to six Number One hits, among them “Band on the Run” and “Listen to What the Man Said.” “The truth is the problem’s always been the same, really,” he said earlier this year. “When you think about it, when you’re writing a song, you’re always trying to write something that you love and the people will love.”
When you think about it, when you’re writing a song, you’re always trying to write something that you love and the people will love.
Dylan’s vision of American popular music was transformative. No one set the bar higher, or had greater impact. “You want to write songs that are bigger than life,” he wrote in his memoir, Chronicles. “You want to say something about strange things that have happened to you, strange things you have seen.” Dylan himself saw no difference between modern times and the storied past – reading about the Civil War helped him understand the Sixties –which allowed him to rewire folk ballads passed down through generations into songs that both electrified the current moment and became lasting standards. Early songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” became hits for others –Peter, Paul & Mary took it Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963; Stevie Wonder brought it Number Nine two years later – and reshaped the ambitions of everyone from the Beatles to Johnny Cash.
Then Dylan began to climb the charts on his own with music that turned pop into prophecy: “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Positively Fourth Street,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” His personas shifted, but songs like “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Forever Young” continued to define their eras in lasting ways. And alone among his peers Dylan’s creativity was ceaseless –2000’s Love and Theft returned him to a snarling sound that rivaled his electric youth, marking a renaissance that continues unabated. “A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true,” Dylan wrote. “They’re like strange countries that you have to enter.” And so we do, marveling at the sights, over and over again.