Paste's 100 Best Living Songwriters #81-90

Music Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

(Above [L-R]: They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh and John Linnell.)

90>>NICK CAVE (The Birthday Party)

“You race naked through the wilderness / You torment the birds and the bees / You leapt into the abyss, but find / It only goes up to your knees”

One might be tempted to call Aussie songwriter Nick Cave the “Prince of Darkness.” With his doomy baritone, bombastic arrangements and the violence and apocalyptic foreboding in his literate lyrics, Cave has done little to dissuade the impression. But unredeemed darkness, frankly, isn’t all that interesting. (There’s a reason goth-rock became a shrinking fringe subculture after its short season in the discomfiting sun.) No, Cave is about hope, in the same fashion as Tom Waits or Johnny Cash—only by fearlessly spelunking the most forbidding crevasses of the human heart and unsparingly telling the most uncomfortable truths can we ever hope to understand the riddle that is life and perhaps find an answer or two. Reid Davis

GET>> “Where The Wild Roses Grow” (1996), “Get Ready For Love” (with Jim Sclavunos, Warren Ellis and Martyn Casey, 2004)


“Once in a while / You open up just like a child and see things fresh and new / I wish this for you”

Louisiana-born Victoria Williams’ music paints impressionistic, personal portraits of nature (“Century Plant”), of the spiritual (“Holy Spirit”) and of common folk (“Crazy Mary”). Her songs—as distinctive as her high vibrato—dip heavily into the musical palettes of country, folk, rock, gospel and jazz. Although her debut Happy Come Home was released in 1987, Williams was largely overlooked until artists like Soul Asylum and Pearl Jam recorded her tunes for the 1993 Sweet Relief tribute/benefit CD, which helped pay medical bills in her battle against multiple sclerosis. Christine N. Ziemba

GET>> “Lights” (1987), “Crazy Mary” (1994)

88>>PARLIAMENT (George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell)

“The desired effect is what you get / When you improve your Interplanetary Funksmanship”

The P-Funk mob could afford to be prolific in the 1970s because of the buffet of musical talent at ringleader George Clinton’s disposal. Classically trained keyboardist Bernie Worrell, James Brown-trained bassist William “Bootsy” Collins, cosmically fire-baptized guitarist Eddie Hazel—each (and many more) contributed to a multi-spiced stew of rich musical, personal and emotional experience. Their songs ran the gamut from social commentary to farce, pain to pleasure, love to lust. Sometimes, you could gather their message just from the album covers, cartoon depictions of man’s final frontiers: space and sex. And remember, “Soul is a hamhock in your corn flakes.” Dominique Leone

GET>> “Chocolate City” (1975), “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)” (1976)


“Now, there is nothing so deep as the ocean / And there is nothing so high as the sky / And there is nothing unwavering as a woman / When she’s already made up her mind”

Drawing at the well alongside Randy Newman and Townes Van Zandt, the laconic, demure Lovett is a hard-luck romantic unopposed to good humor—see “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)”—or the occasional murder ballad (“L.A. County”). Rarely eliciting emotional extremes, he’s a superb magician nonetheless; with a quick turn of phrase listeners are transported into new skin. When Lovett sings, “put down that flyswatter, and pour me some ice water” on the five-star Joshua Judges Ruth, I’m rising early for carpenter’s work on a hot July morning in southeast Texas. Lovett’s wry wit dresses songs of dubious relationships dating back to “Why I Don’t Know” from his debut. His prospects improve somewhat with “Her First Mistake” from 1996’s The Road to Ensenada, wherein Lovett continues “chasing the happily I am ever after.” Jeff Elbel

GET>> “God Will” (1986), “If I Had A Boat” (1988)

86>>SAM BEAM (Iron & Wine)

“So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten / Sons are like birds, flying upward over the mountain”

Sam Beam’s acoustic-guitar- and banjo-inflected vignettes appeared like field recordings from a bygone era on Iron & Wine’s hypnotic 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle. Raised in South Carolina, Beam sculpts his lilting melodies and haunted balladry from rich Southern-narrative loam, his characters making their own moral way in a world where the familiar—love, family, religion, tradition—exists mostly in memories. Our Endless Numbered Days (2004) found Beam subtly fleshing out his trellis-like arrangements, and his 2005 elegiac country-rock collaboration with Calexico, In the Reins, offered convincing proof that his wistful tales transcend time and easy classification. John Schacht

GET>> “Free Until They Cut Me Down” (2004), “Sixteen, Maybe Less” (with Calexico, 2005)

85>>DAVID BAZAN (Pedro the Lion, Headphones)

“Power can be such a tease / You’re always wanting more / It’s good to know that just like sex it can be paid for”

principal player in Pedro the Lion and Headphones, his music summons up an atmosphere of absolute candor and first-thought confession. On the occasion of a baby being born, if the father’s initial feeling is one of dread and regret, Bazan’s song will say so. His lyrics puncture all forms of defensive optimism and unmask the ways our use of words (winners, success, progress, going places) often appear engineered to avoid perception. He chronicles the subtle forms manipulation assumes, and the moving target of his satire is the brainwash we often administer unto ourselves. Like a Dostoevsky for our all-at-once world, Bazan tells the truth and tells it slant. David Dark

GET>> “When They Really Get To Know You, They Will Run” (1998), “Simple Economics” (2000)


“Sleeping is a gateway drug to being awake again”

Spinal Tap frontman David St. Hubbins so wisely characterizes the artistic balancing act by saying, “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” They Might Be Giants have made a career out of obliterating that line. Writing bizarre tales of narcotic statues, birdhouse-filled souls and toothy shoehorns, it would appear that songwriting partners John Linnell and John Flansburgh are the Lennon/McCartney of an alternate universe. Their gift is in making inescapably catchy melodies, endearingly nerdy vocals and wildly entertaining arrangements play the straight man to their nontraditional subject matter. Grant Shellen

GET>> “Birdhouse In Your Soul” (1990), “AKA Driver” (1994)

83>>FLEETWOOD MAC (Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie)

“I’ll follow you down till the sound of my voice will haunt you”

Amidst the tumult of two heart-wrenching breakups, Fleetwood Mac’s three capable songwriters penned the aptly named 1976 release Rumours. In exposing their pain to the world, the two sets of ex-lovers (Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, Christine and John McVie) also managed to produce an album so authentically sorrowful, angry and hurt—yet naively hopeful—that it became the second-best-selling album of all time. Nicks’ soft chords and sharp lyrical sense could put a man in his place with one carefully crafted line (“Players only love you when they’re playing”) in contrast with Buckingham’s more blunt approach (“You can go your own way”). McVie was a bit more optimistic, with stay-strong songs like “Don’t Stop.” The result was an album that ran the gamut of emotional turmoil, and ensured the feuding pairs plenty more years more to lash out at each other with one chart-topper after another. Allie Goolrick

GET>> “Dreams” (1976), “Beautiful Child” (1979)

82>>JOHN DARNIELLE (Mountain Goats)

“I’m in the living room watching the Watergate hearings / While my stepfather yells at my mother, launches a glass across the room straight at her head / And I dash upstairs to take cover / Leaning close to my little record player on the floor / So this is what the volume knob’s for”

John Darnielle’s stock of wit is the modern-day equivalent to Poor Richard’s Almanack. Playing in various incarnations with the Mountain Goats (of which he’s the only constant), his songs fit snugly into the finicky underbelly of sophisticated folk music. They’re eccentric gems he uses to work out his lyrical muscles—concise tunes with matter-of-fact lines that tell simple but captivating stories, steadfastly proclaimed in his geek-who-lived-to-tell wail. Though the Mountain Goats have gotten more professional over the years, abandoning their beloved lo-fi aesthetic several albums ago, the main attraction is still Darnielle’s passionate, detailed and vividly cinematic writing; if it hadn’t been so intriguing from the get-go, no one would’ve bothered listening to all those boom-box-recorded songs. Steven Bevilaqua

GET>> “Fall of the Star High School Running Back” (2002), “Dance Music” (2005)

THE FLAMING LIPS (Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd)

“Being drunk on their plan / They lifted up the sun”

On early Flaming Lips albums, Wayne Coyne’s lyrics were just another freaky attraction in the band’s chaotic psychedelic circus, but beginning with 1992’s Hit To Death In The Future Head, Coyne started toning down the shock and reverting to wide-eyed, childlike wonder. Coyne and his multi-instrumentalist writing partner Steven Drozd had their breakthrough with the grand, orchestral 1999 prog-pop masterpiece The Soft Bulletin, an extended meditation on mortality that explored the limits of humans and superhumans. And with 2002’s positivist Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, they explained the post-9/11 world to a generation raised on comic books and Star Wars—atop a sound that improbably balanced The Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, Neil Young and technophilic hip-hop. Noel Murray

GET>> “Race For The Prize” (1999), “Do You Realize?? (2002)

Check back next week for #71-80 from Paste's 100 Best Living Songwriter's list, or—better yet—head to newsstands and pick up your own copy of this special collector's issue while it's still in stock!

Also in Music