Paste magazine published its list of 100 best living songwriters, and Robin Hilton on NPR’s Mixed Signals followed with a rewritten version of the 10 best living songwriters. It seems to me that the Paste list skews a bit older and hippier, whereas the NPR list skews a bit younger and edgier.

Compare Paste’s top 10:

1. Bob Dylan
2. Neil Young (Buffalo Sprinfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
3. Bruce Springsteen
4. Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennan
5. Paul McCartney (The Beatles, Wings)
6. Leonard Cohen
7. Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys)
8. Elvis Costello
9. Joni Mitchell
10. Prince

with NPR’s:
1. Bob Dylan
2. Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennan
3. Paul McCartney (The Beatles, Wings)
4. Bruce Springsteen
5. Vic Chestnutt
6. Stephin Merritt
7. Sufjan Stevens
8. Aimee Mann
9. PJ Harvey
10. David Dondero

Personally, there are points on both lists I agree and disagree with: “Joni Mitchell feels like a token pick“? Huh? But the inclusion of Aimee Mann in the top 10 feels right to me, so maybe we’re even on that one.

And it’s unclear what some of the criteria for inclusion on either list are. In the NPR list, the notes on PJ Harvey include “Anyway, I really think if she were a man she’d get a lot more credit than she does. She plays guitar and rocks better than most. And her sound is so distinctive. Listen to the crunch of the opening guitar in ‘One Time Too Many’.” Are we still talking about songwriting? There’s surely a blurry line between songwriting and instrumental performance for singer-songwriters who use their primary instrument to convey melody and message, but a good chunk of that spills over into musicianship, arrangement, and production rather than songwriting, per se.

Anyway, I’m very happy to see some of my absolute favorite songwriters represented in the Paste list, like Bob Dylan (#1), Elvis Costello (#8), Joni Mitchell (#9), Paul Simon (#13), Holland-Dozier-Holland (#17), Lou Reed (#21), Elton John & Bernie Taupin (#23), Tom Petty (#29), Kris Kristofferson (#38), Ryan Adams (#43), David Byrne (#46), James Taylor (#53), Aimee Mann (#54), Morrissey (#57), Conor Oberst (#67), and Lyle Lovett (#87).

Though honestly, I’ve been influenced at some level by almost every single name on that list.

And to that list, I would add at least the following, if not a few more (though I’d have a tough time deciding who would get cut to make room):

Daryl Hall (& John Oates sometimes & Sara Allen sometimes) on the incredible merit of songs like “Dreamtime” and “She’s Gone” alone, if not the entire balance of the H&O catalog.

Tori Amos for the sweet melancholy and plaintive lyrics of “Sleeps With Butterflies,” “Tear In Your Hand,” “1000 Oceans,” and so many others. She’s every bit the songwriter anyone else on this list is.

Don Schlitz for sincere, down-to-earth songs like “The Gambler” and “When You Say Nothing At All.”

What about you? Who would you add? Who are you especially glad to see represented?

Best songwriters, via Paste and NPR

20 thoughts on “Best songwriters, via Paste and NPR

  • July 6, 2006 at 12:12 pm
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    Weird Al Yankovic
    Billy Joel
    Mark Mothersbaugh (DEVO)
    Danny Elfman (Oingo Boingo)
    Will Smith when he was writting for “DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince”
    Johnny Cash
    Moxy Fruvous

    But I don’t know what other people are looking for in song lyrics. I look for cleverness or beauty or emotional conveyance.

    This seems like something very difficult to judge to me, I don’t know enough about the technical side of song writting to grasp the skillz, so I’d have to judge subjectively by my own feelings. And at some point quantity has to come into play. Bradley Norwell of Sublime wrote some impressively well written songs, but he didn’t write very many.

    What about Arlo Guthrie? Beck? The Smothers Brothers? “I don’t know, I can’t figure it all out tonight sir, right now I’m just gonna hang with your daughter.”–Lloyd

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  • July 6, 2006 at 1:39 pm
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    I am in total agreement with the first commenter on the NPR list. Sufjan is annoying and pretentious to me, and Lucinda Williams should be on that list.

    I could argue the inclusion of Ani Difranco as well, if she hadn’t rewritten the same album over and over for the last few.

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  • July 6, 2006 at 2:11 pm
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    I like Lucinda Williams, but I like her placement on the Paste list (#22). That seems like a more than respectable showing for her — she way outranks Lyle Lovett (#87) on that list, who’s had a much longer and more critically acclaimed career than she has.

    And yeah, Ani’s a tough sell for me. She belongs on some kind of top 100 list, but I don’t think it’s for songwriting. Top 100 People Who’ve Influenced Current Music Business Trends & Thinking, perhaps, alongside Madonna.

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  • July 6, 2006 at 2:20 pm
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    But I don’t know what other people are looking for in song lyrics. […] This seems like something very difficult to judge to me […].

    Yeah, that’s what I meant when I said their criteria are unclear. As a songwriter myself, one of the best tools I have for evaluating other people’s songwriting is the “I wish I’d written that” feeling I get in my gut. But there are more objective criteria, and based on the quality of the names in the list, I think they’re using some kind of objective measure.

    For example, one of the more enviable aspects of some songwriters’ output is the ability to make a series of evocative statements in a completely conversational way… and then make them feel like they just happened to rhyme. Paul Simon has done this consistently throughout his career. That may not be the most important element of tight songwriting for everyone, but it impresses the hell out of me when I hear it.

    And…

    Weird Al? Really? 🙂

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  • July 6, 2006 at 2:23 pm
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    That is an impressive thing about Paul Simon, definitely.

    Hell yeah Weird Al. The man wrote a song with a good set up and rhyme for mitichlorians. Brilliant.

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  • July 6, 2006 at 2:25 pm
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    Yeah, where does “piano seat grinding ability” add to the songwriter ability. Cause that’s gotta be taken into account somewhere.

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  • July 6, 2006 at 2:31 pm
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    Hmm, yes. Good point. Perhaps it’s the ability to write songs that lend themselves to piano seat grinding. And I can’t think of anyone else who is more capable of that than Tori.

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  • July 6, 2006 at 2:40 pm
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    I suppose this takes the discussion in a direction that has probably been done to death by fans of fanfiction — which is similar to what derivative novelty songs are, IMO. Nothing wrong with fanfiction or derivative novelty songs, but I don’t think creators of either are likely to be included by many critics among “best of” lists that include the original artists and creators. But I’m open to hearing why they should be.

    (I know the “original” vs. “derivative” terms could get me in trouble with folks who would argue that everything is derivative in some way, etc. But I’m using the terms here to distinguish substantially original material from material that is substantially derived from some other work.)

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  • July 6, 2006 at 2:45 pm
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    It’s true, Weird Al doesn’t really count because he doesn’t write very many of his songs, just new lyrics. But he does write some of them, including one which is a fantastic send up of Bob Dylan which uses nothing but palindrome sentences for it’s lyrics. I don’t know, I just think that what Weird Al does with music is impressive. Like the Germs song, which isn’t a Nine Inch Nails song because Weird Al couldn’t get permission, but it sounds so much like a Nine Inch Nails song, I had to go look it up to find out he wrote it.

    But like you said…the derivative part is where it becomes questionable. Either way, he’s a damned clever man and his polka skillz are not to be dismissed.

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  • July 6, 2006 at 3:08 pm
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    John Hiatt. Totally underrated.

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  • July 6, 2006 at 3:19 pm
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    John Hiatt seconded. And Johnny Cash as well, except he’s, well, dead.

    The criteria is a good question, because there are many great country songwriters who aren’t on this list. But country music is so vapid most of the time that I think “serious” music critics dismiss it. But Bruce Robison should surely be on here somewhere.

    Also, no mention of Gary Louris or the Jayhawks. Which brings up another point: songwriting duos. It looks like a couple were included, but Carole King gets her own number while Gerry Goffin gets left off. Weird.

    Other than that, I’d question rank more than anything. Jackson Browne should be higher, John Prine should be higher, Hiatt should definitely be higher. But ranking this stuff is sort of dumb anyway, isn’t it?

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  • July 6, 2006 at 3:24 pm
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    Yeah, did you see the comment on the NPR site about ranking ten reasons why these lists are so dumb?

    I’ll start with: because there isn’t one right way to write a song.

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  • July 6, 2006 at 3:26 pm
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    Indeed.

    But you know what’s amazing? Despite all the objectivity involved, Dylan is ALWAYS number one. Some things are not debatable.

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  • July 6, 2006 at 3:50 pm
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    Well, yeah… but you don’t hear anyone saying “Dylan is HAWT.”

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  • July 6, 2006 at 3:58 pm
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    Like I said, some things are not up for debate!

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  • July 6, 2006 at 4:57 pm
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    I thought I could leave this alone, but I can’t. I think Ani has to be on this list somewhere. Three reasons:

    1) she redefined political writing in the post-Vietnam era. No one has done it better, and the only one who comes close is Don Henley (by the way, is he on this list?? He should be).

    2) she made it okay to sing about homosexual and bisexual relationships in songs without trying to be funny or flippant or pretentious.

    3) nobody writes from a more vulnerable place, at least not when she is in top form.

    I haven’t liked much of her stuff since the Revelling/Reckoning album, but all of her earlier work is nothing short of amazing. Even without the impact she’s had on the business and on any number of social movements, I think she’s worthy of this list.

    And seriously, Don Henley is not on this list. For shame!

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  • July 6, 2006 at 7:26 pm
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    Paste‘s list seemed…very Paste. Very predictable, in terms of percentages of members emeritus, upstart and just-quirky-enough, with a whiff of advertiser support to color the whole thing suspect – like all such lists.

    Bob Dylan’s placement does not resonate with me. I’m hardly a kid, but I think I know only about six Dylan songs, and none of them are particular favorites. That he could be a #1 influence on other songwriters is an entirely different thing than being the #1 songwriter, IMO. I was actually expecting to see Elvis Costello in that spot, which is probably where I’d put him.

    I’d put Lucinda Williams high – she’s definitely in my top 10. I’d also put Tori in the list, but I can understand why these folks don’t have her listed: she’s a divinely inspired CRAZY PERSON and her lyrics make mostly only intuitive sense until these last couple albums. But still, Hey Jupiter, Northern Lad and Winter are perfectly accessible (I think) and heart-wrenching. And while performance isn’t songwriting, all three of these songs make thousands of people shut up and sob quietly when she does them live. Of course, that’s not all about writing.

    Those two write songs that only they can sing, however, and maybe that’s a minus in the opinions of some listmakers. While both of them can cover other people’s songs and make them their own, I’ve yet to hear a decent cover of either’s work.

    I’ve definitely got Nick Cave and Thom Yorke/Radiohead on my list, and I grudgingly include Aimee Mann – she’s written amazing lyrics, but she was such a smug twit and dull performer when seen live that I now hold a grudge against her recordings.

    I don’t see room for PJ Harvey in a top 10, though if I were going to list 100, I suppose I’d start needing filler sooner or later. Inconsistent, at best. I loved Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, but didn’t see the “happiness” she and all reviewers/interviewers said was there; rather, the opposite. Hated Uh Huh Her, though admittedly it only got two listens before I gave up. Frankly, that Who the Fuck? song should disqualify her from any such “best” lists.

    Rachael Yamagata writes excellent pop songs, and is an amazing performer who, based upon her set lists, should have had at least one more record out by now. Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel) deserves a place in my list. I was very impressed by Cory Branan’s startlingly vulnerable lyrics at a recent live show, and I’ve never understood why Mack Starks isn’t famous (though, hopefully, that will change sooner rather than later).

    There are a lot of dead people in my “favorites” column, which disqualifies them for the Paste and NPR lists. So, no Billy Strayhorn, and no Marc Bolan, among others.

    I’m perplexed by the non-presence of H&O/Daryl Hall. There are about 40 names I could see booting from the Paste list to make room.

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  • July 7, 2006 at 7:50 am
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    Hee! I thought you’d be here sooner or later with a nice, well-thought-out reply. Thanks — it’s good to see your take.

    Good points on Tori — those are three more of her best. And I think if Paste is using the “divinely inspired crazy person” excuse to keep Tori off the list, they need to revisit who they have ON the list. Sheesh. Almost every songwriter interview I’ve ever read or heard includes some acknowledgement that you have to be at least a little bit crazy to be able to do this stuff and do it well. These are people who talk about channeling some cosmic consciousness, who talk about driving away loved ones so they can feel bad and write about it. Some of the best ones are some of the craziest — it should practically be a requirement for admission to the list!

    On Bob Dylan’s ranking, I guess it goes back to his place in musical history. His songwriting helped redefine American (and consequently non-American) music into something much more intelligent, meaningful, and engaging. It’s true that a lot of that is due to influence on other songwriters, rather than influence on non-songwriting listeners per se. But if he hadn’t been resonating with non-songwriting listeners, he wouldn’t have made nearly the platform for himself that he did.

    And as much as I agree about the greatness of Elvis Costello, I wouldn’t put him above Dylan & McCartney. And Dylan HAS to come before McCartney — the student shouldn’t be listed ahead of the master unless it’s really the case that McCartney surpassed Dylan’s greatness in what he learned from him, and I don’t think that’s the case.

    Rachael Yamagata writes pleasant enough songs, but I don’t know that I’d include her in a top 100 list just yet. But it sounds like you’ve heard more of her material than I have, so I look forward to the next album.

    And:
    I’m perplexed by the non-presence of H&O/Daryl Hall. There are about 40 names I could see booting from the Paste list to make room.

    Yes! I’m glad I don’t sound like a whiny fangirl about that.

    And ‘s observed omission is weird, too: where’s Don Henley?

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  • July 7, 2006 at 7:53 am
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    Good points, all, on Ani. You’d have convinced me if we were writing/editing the article.

    (I remember we used to get into these lively debates when I worked at Netflix about what movies to include in various lists, and they were always full of these kinds of debates. So even if the making of the lists is kind of stupid, the discussions to be had from them are always kind of fun.)

    Don Henley is a big omission. I wonder why they overlooked him.

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