“If I was your one and only friend, would you run to me if somebody hurt you / Even
if that somebody was me? Sometimes I trip on how happy we could be”
Prince was absolutely the greatest artist of the 1980s. He had a run of amazing albums from ’80 to ’87 that ranks among the modern era’s greatest string of classics. He sold a ton of records and was constantly in the news for various exploits. He was heralded as a trendsetter, a chameleon presence and an incredibly versatile musician. What has often been overlooked, though, is the stellar quality of his better songs.
Beginning with his third album, 1980’s stripped-down Dirty Mind, and building through his 1987 masterpiece, Sign O’ The Times His brain became a musical melting pot of different styles and varied influences, yet all of his songs were unmistakably Prince. The funk of James Brown and the rock of Jimi Hendrix mixed with Joni Mitchell’s wordplay and Curtis Mayfield’s social commentary. Influences as varied as The Beatles, The Stylistics, Funkadelic, Brill Building formulaic pop and ’70s art-rock all meshed together into an otherworldly musical stew. His mixing of gospel with carnal sexuality took what Ray Charles had done a quarter of a century earlier to some higher plane.
In my favorite Prince song, 1983’s masterpiece single, “Little Red Corvette,” he took the tired old rock-’n’-roll-car-song cliché to such grand heights, it was the greatest single of the entire decade. Every note of the song, from its minimalist opening to its transcendent guitar solo was picture-perfect and has yet to be improved upon.
In later years, he was much less successful in trying to adapt to changing styles and his attempts to incorporate hip-hop into the mix made him seem outdated and ridiculous, but none of that (nor his bizarre attempt of a name change or any of his tabloid shenanigans) should ever detract from the greatness of his classic ’80s output. Patterson Hood
GET»“Little Red Corvette” (1982), “Sign O’ The Times” (1987), “If I Was Your Girlfriend” (1987)
“He told me all romantics meet the same fate someday / Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café / You laugh, he said you think you’re immune, go look at your eyes / They’re full of moon”
If Joni Mitchell only wrote the songs on one seminal album—Blue—she’d still have a claim as one of our great songwriters. But Blue came smack in the middle of a dazzling career that gave this towering icon of popular music many faces: Folk singer. Rock star. Jazz bandleader. Collaborator with CSN&Y, Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius. Auteur. Pop idol.
She towers above most other confessional singer/songwriters because her voice and playing style are so unique. It’s hard to think of Joni Mitchell’s writing, in fact, without the music and her gifted voice. It’s like thinking about Duke Ellington’s writing without Billy Strayhorn’s arrangements.
Yes, Joni Mitchell crafted songs cut by other artists—“Both Sides Now,” “Chelsea Morning,” “Woodstock.” She had hits of her own—“Free Man in Paris,” “Big Yellow Taxi.” And Mitchell dove headlong and headfirst into jazz, leading bands that counted Wayne Shorter and Pat Metheny as members. Compositions on Hejira, Mingus and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter I watched the American Masters Series documentary about Joni and was stunned by how fully formed her talent was so early. She takes the stage on some folkie TV show, appearing gangly, physically awkward. Then she starts to play and sing. And she suddenly morphs into… well, Joni Mitchell. Her eyes focus. She cares nothing for the camera or working the audience. She’s just so fully confident and so fully there in the moment. She’s Ella Fitzgerald in from the Canadian prairie, armed with an acoustic guitar dropped all the way down to the key of C. Will Kimbrough
GET»“Big Yellow Taxi” (1970), “Case Of You” (1971), “River” (1971)
“You snatch a tune, you match a cigarette / She pulls the eyes out with a face like a
magnet / I don’t know how much more of this I can take. / She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake”
The master of densely layered wordplay and unforgettable melodic hooks, Elvis Costello is his era’s Lennon/McCartney rolled into one. Over the past 30 years, the breadth of his body of work is nothing short of stunning. From the beginning, Costello the songwriter has remained true to his own idiosyncratic vision and musical curiosity, no matter the stylistic trends swirling around him. His debut, 1977’s My Aim Is True From the brash Young Turk years of “Radio Radio” and “Pump It Up,” with their quips and barbs, Costello segued into heart-on-sleeve honky-tonk worthy of George Jones (“Stranger in the House”) and collaborated with the Cute Beatle himself on an “Eleanor Rigby” update, the perky “Veronica.”
His sonic experimentation has ranged from a wry, sophisticated homage to Cole Porter (Imperial Bedroom) to a song cycle inspired by Shakespeare (The Juliet Letters) that was performed with the Brodsky Quartet, to a rootsy Americana romp (The King of America), to timeless popcraft, including co-writes with Burt Bacharach (a superb one-off “God Give Me Strength,” followed by the masterful Painted From Memory).
Through it all, Costello’s never-ceasing passion for music has remained palpable: His 2004 album, The Delivery Man, found him madly in love with the Dirty South, documented in the cinematic title track and the N’awlins R&B-inspired “Monkey to Man.” The Katrina catastrophe fueled his most recent collaborative effort, the magnificent The River in Reverse, with legendary Big Easy songwriter and artist Allen Toussaint.
Twenty-six years ago, he read us the “Riot Act”: “Don’t put your heart out on your sleeve / When your remarks are off the cuff.” Today, with “The River in Reverse,” “Broken Promise Land” and “The Sharpest Thorn” (all rating among his best work), Costello continues to use his eloquence and musical genius to turn anger into poetry.Holly George-Warren
GET»“Alison” (1977), “Everyday I Write the Book” (1983), “God Give Me Strength” (with Burt Bacharach, 1996), “The Sharpest Thorn” (with Allen Toussaint, 2006)
“Each time things start to happen again / I think I got something good goin’ for myself / But what goes wrong”
“A teenage symphony to God.” That’s how Brian Wilson described Smile The album pushed The Beatles to their greatest work—“it blew me out of the water,” Paul McCartney said in 1990, “it’s unbeatable in many ways.” Pet SoundsBrian Wilson has never been a topical or confessional songwriter in the way we typically use those terms; his writing has more in common with Tin Pan Alley or American classical composition than with the blues- and folk-based traditions associated with most rock ’n’ roll. But those tools give him a power that his more shoot-from-the-hip counterparts can’t match. Wilson’s songs are even more than just flawlessly constructed, genuinely moving pop moments—they’re timeless hymns to the promise of love and mercy. Alan Light GET»“Surfer Girl” (1963), “God Only Knows” (with Tony Asher, 1966), “Heroes And Villains” (with Van Dyke Parks, 1967)
“I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch / He said to me, you must not ask for so much / And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door / She cried to me, hey, why not ask for more?”
When making a case for the greatness of any particular songwriter, instinct urges us to cast a broad net across that songwriter’s oeuvre. But Leonard Cohen’s significance accrues in the finely wrought, deceptively simple details that ornament his songs like scrimshaw. As we learned from 1977’s Death of a Ladies’ Man—an overproduced disaster with Phil Spector lurking behind the arras—Cohen’s music founders when it attempts to amplify instead of condense. His most enduring work is all essences and vapors, fleeting wisps of insight and longing. So instead of taking the wider view, it behooves us to lean in close and listen to his pianissimo prophecies.
Like all great songs, Cohen’s transcend their deeply personal concerns to achieve a timeless eloquence and relevance—their individual subject matters are just occasions for conjuring the human experience in all its boundless complexity. Nowhere does Cohen attain this metonymical alchemy more fully than on the flawless “The Stranger Song,” from his 1968 debut Songs of Leonard Cohen. Cohen’s world, paradoxically, is too large to take in panoramically, yet it’s small enough to fit inside a hotel room, and “Stranger Song” is the keyhole through we which we glimpse the furniture he minutely repositions time and again to achieve this stunning effect.
“The Stranger Song,” like all of Cohen’s best, is brutally spare—his fingertips dance lightly and monochromatically across the guitar strings, evoking the quiet urgency of a life given over to unstinting attention. His iconic baritone is a colorless solution of melancholy and desperation, weariness and sophistication, hope and dread. With this translucence established, Cohen’s lyrical genius beams out unmediated as he enumerates the tensions between security and freedom using striking, precisely hallucinatory images that unfurl with the clipped photorealism of a slide show: “You’ve seen that man before / His golden arm dispatching cards / But now it’s rusted from the elbows to the finger.”
The titular stranger who “wants to trade the game he knows for shelter”—a stand-in for the famously restless Cohen (“I have tried in my way to be free,” he understated in “Bird on the Wire”)—passes through the song like a phantom flickering between presence and absence. In the same breath, while “taking from his wallet an old schedule of trains,” Cohen’s stranger professes that his will to roam is broken; he “talks his dreams to sleep” even as the highway is “curling just like smoke above his shoulder.” Raised Jewish, and later in life a Buddhist, Cohen often uses religious imagery to offset his more worldly concerns, and the stranger, despite the selfishness inherent in “watching for the card that is so high and wild, he’ll never need to deal another,” is redeemed: “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.”
This precarious balance of sonic simplicity and thematic complexity, religious faith and apostate cynicism; piety and sexuality, is writ large across all Cohen’s most lasting achievements. One “Suzanne” cancels out an album’s worth of tepid mid-career synth pop; one “Last Year’s Man” would be enough to merit Cohen’s placement on this list even if he’d never written another note. “Please understand I never had a secret chart / To get me to the heart of this or any other matter,” Cohen says in “Stranger Song,” a typically humble assertion from a man who pierces that secret heart so deeply and often, both his own and ours. Brian Howe
GET»“Suzanne” (1966), “Bird on the Wire” (1968),“Stranger Song” (1968), “Last Year’s Man” (1971), “Hallelujah” (1984)
5»PAUL MCCARTNEY (The Beatles, Wings)
“And when the broken-hearted people / Living in the world agree / There will be an answer, let it be”
Although no slouch when it comes to tonsil-tearing rock ’n’ roll (“I’m Down,” “Birthday”) or brutal minimalism (“Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?,” “Helter Skelter”) Paul McCartney will always be best known for his inventive melodies, romantic lyrics and ability to create genre-crossing pop classics.
What made the Lennon/McCartney team so dynamic were their complementary songwriting gifts and artistic rivalry. During The Beatles’ early years, they worked in genuine collaboration (as on “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand”). In the middle period they edited each others’ songs, often changing lines or adding a chorus (as on “We Can Work It Out,” “Drive My Car” and “I Feel Fine”). Following Sgt. Pepper, they were solo songwriters who happened to share a credit because of an old publishing agreement. Lennon had nothing to do with “The Long and Winding Road” or “Let It Be,” just as he’d had nothing to do with “Yesterday.”
McCartney’s father had played in a Liverpool jazz band, and the family’s home had a piano and a gramophone with a library of 78-rpm records. So Paul grew up with an appreciation for the music of Broadway shows, big bands and the music hall, as well as for old-fashioned party singalongs. This led to his love of melody, popular sentiment and ear-grabbing hooks.
Although his lyrics were never as self-revelatory and culturally engaged as Lennon’s, McCartney had an uncanny ability to tell stories (“Yellow Submarine,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”), create characters (Desmond, Molly, Rocky Racoon) and come up with striking images (“Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door.”) Lennon later criticized him for his reticence to explore himself and for writing commercially successful but artistically lightweight material. McCartney’s response was to write “Silly Love Songs,” a song that asked “What’s wrong with that? I’d like to know.”
With his most recent album, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, he’s back in form. Remarriage and abandoning the weed appear to have sharpened his visions. The career of The Beatles is bound to cast a shadow over everything he does, but there are songs on this album that, if they’d have been released in 1968, would be considered Beatles classics. Steve Turner
GET»“I’ve Just Seen A Face” (1965), “The Fool On The Hill” (1967), “Let it Be” (1970), “Two Of Us” (1970)
4»TOM WAITS, KATHLEEN BRENNAN
“If there’s one thing you can say about mankind / There’s nothing kind about man /
You can drive out nature with a pitchfork / But it always comes roaring back again”
In literature, only a handful of writers have pulled off the near-impossible. In music, it happens on every Tom Waits recording.
What I admire most about Mr. Waits concerns his carefully reckless approach to each new project: traditional blues, jazz, waltzes and dissonant primal screams, to name a few. He cannot be pigeonholed. And it doesn’t matter what genre he chooses, or how eclectically he surges onward. Waits and his wife/writing partner Kathleen Brennan understand Samuel Beckett’s notion that there’s nothing funnier than human misery, and Gilles Deleuze’s idea that every society needs a madman. Their desperate lyrics make us feel better about ourselves. When we hear the poor lovelorn narrator of Waits’ “Muriel” croon, “How many times I’ve left this town / To hide from your memory … I only get as far as the next whiskey bar,” there’s nothing left to do but say, “That’s exactly what I went through. Well, not that bad, poor fool.”
And when Waits rants in “Step Right Up”—“That’s right, it filets, it chops, it dices, slices / Never stops, lasts a lifetime, mows your lawn … and it picks up the kids from school,” we can only nod our heads, laugh and blurt out, “Damn advertising industry. I’ve done some questionable things, but at least I’m not lying to the buying public nonstop.”
Fifteen albums since 1973, not counting soundtracks, compilations and anthologies. A pure-tee oeuvre worthy of every American Time Capsule, every decade. George Singleton GET»“San Diego Serenade” (1974), “Innocent When You Dream” (1987), “Chocolate Jesus” (1999), “Hoist That Rag” (2004)
“Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold but with you forever I’ll stay / We’re goin’ out where the sand’s turnin’ to gold so put on your stockin’s baby ’cause the night’s getting cold / And maybe everything dies baby that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back”
has resolved this dilemma better than any songwriter of the rock ’n’ roll era. Yes, he makes a lot of money and, yes, he surrounds himself with unavoidable show-business filters, but he has managed to stay in touch with enough representatives of his audience—mostly the kids he grew up with in Nowhere, New Jersey—that he can still act as their translator and mirror. More importantly, he realizes his job is not to write songs for himself—any more than a baker would bake bread only for herself, or a plumber would fix only his own pipes—but to write the songs his listeners would if they only had the talent and the tools.
The phrase “pop music” is usually understood as shorthand for “popular music”—whatever music sells the most recordings, concert tickets and radio ads. But the phrase has an alternate meaning—“populist music,” music that not only gives an audience what it wants but also what it needs. Popular music treats the listener as an object, as an ATM machine that will spit out money if you punch the right buttons. Populist music treats the listener as a subject, as a protagonist whose struggles deserve the catharsis of a musical mini-drama. Springsteen has lived up to the ideal of populist music better than anyone of his generation.
Few songs evoke a whole life in a few lines as effectively as Springsteen’s “The River”—“I come from down in the valley where, mister, when you’re young, they bring you up to do like your daddy done … I got Mary pregnant and, man, that was all she wrote. And for my 19th birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat.” This is not Springsteen’s own story any more than the Joad Family is John Steinbeck’s story or the Snopes Family is William Faulkner’s story, but the issue of biographical authenticity shouldn’t matter in pop songwriting any more than it does in literary fiction.
What does matter is whether the character in the song is fully imagined and is recognized by the audience as one of its own. This one is. The larger life implied by the terse lyrics is fleshed out by the melancholy music—richly melodic and tense with unresolved harmonies. Words are only half of the songwriter’s craft, and the music here focuses the character’s shifting emotions as he sits on the river bank pondering his choices: Suicide? Submission? Flight? Fight?
On the same album as “The River” is “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” the story of a very similar character with very similar frustrations, though told this time for laughs rather than angst. This time a salesman yells at a poor kid in torn jeans who bumps a lamp in the mall; a cop yells at the kid as he’s feeling up his girlfriend on lover’s lane. The revved-up guitars and circus organ reinforce the suggestion that the character is Wile E. Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon. In the middle verse the kid watches Olivia Newton-John on MTV and realizes that someone is telling him he can’t touch that either.
The verse hints at the separation between artist and audience that Springsteen has defied his whole career. Whether it was the tragedy of “The River,” “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Atlantic City,” the comedy of “You Can Look,” “Glory Days” and “Fire,” or the dozens of brilliant songs in between, Springsteen has never kept his fans outside the song, gazing in at a fantasy life as if their noses were pressed up against a store window; he puts his listeners inside the song where their losses and triumphs, blunders and hopes become the subject matter. There’s no greater songwriting accomplishment than that. Geoffrey Himes
GET»“Blinded By the Light” (1973), “Born To Run” (1975), “Atlantic City” (1982), “My City Of Ruins” (2002)
2»NEIL YOUNG (Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills Nash & Young)
“I guess I’ll call it sickness gone / It’s hard to say the meaning of this song / An
ambulance can only go so fast / It’s easy to get buried in the past / When you try to make a good thing last”
The book on Neil Young says he’s only got two personas: quiet, folksy, acoustic Neil, and hair-flinging, knee-bending Crazy Horse Neil. But nobody can build a career that’s been genuinely, impossibly vital for four decades by just alternating these extremes. No, much of the pleasure in Neil Young’s voluminous catalog comes from the in-between material: the apocalyptic folk of On the Beach, the tequila catharsis of Tonight’s the Night Though the Godfather of Grunge tag was something of a misnomer, Neil Young’s influence can be seen everywhere in modern music, from the haunted Midwestern country-rock of Magnolia Electric Co. to the bleak, fractured laments of Cat Power. Neil himself continues making worthy albums while other classic-rock survivors erode their legacies with every cash-in tour and half-hearted comeback; last year’s post-aneurysm Prairie Wind contained some of his most eloquent songs in years. It may all be one song but, 40 years in, it hasn’t yet faded away. Rob Mitchum
GET»“Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” (1969), “Motion Pictures” (1974), “Pocahontas” (1979), “Unknown Legend (1992), “No Wonder” (2005)
“Crimson flames tied through my ears / Rollin’ high and mighty traps / Pounced with fire on flaming roads / Using ideas as my maps / "We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I / Proud ’neath heated brow / Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now”
It’s 1963. Bob Dylan is a young man who’s got a lot going on, and so does the U.S.A.—self-professed beacon of liberty, it’s finally trying to face the racism, terror, and violence that saturates it. In the last verse of “Masters of War,” Dylan tells the war profiteers, “I hope that you die.” He’s genuinely upset by injustice and war, but he’s also full of hate and he wants to feel good about hating, and political self-righteousness allows him to. But his brain won’t sit with this.
In “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” he chants, “Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison / Where the executioner’s face is always hidden,” as if the home in the valley were itself wielding the destructive blade. A step from there is to feel complicit, to think that the violence of the valley makes its home in your body, and to take yourself out (“home” being a metaphor for whatever beliefs previously held you together). Then in 1965, in “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan sings, “Nobody’s ever taught you how to live out on the street.” But nobody ever taught anyone how to live out on the street. You end up dying on the street. Dylan lays an impossible demand on us, on himself: to totally overthrow ourselves, betting that on the other side of this overthrow we find authenticity. “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.” (But Dylan knows better, knows that “failure’s no success at all.”) At least Dylan gives Miss Lonely a friend at the end, Napoleon in Rags. At the end of “Visions of Johanna” all he’s got is an exploding conscience, and at the end of “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” he’s got despair. “Here I sit so patiently / Waiting to find out what price / You have to pay to get out of / Going through all these things twice.”
Except hearing it as despair mistakes a piece of the story for the whole—because there’s no way to listen to “Memphis Blues Again” without wallowing in the absolute joy of the wordplay, without splashing around in the metaphors and in the bubbling grotesquerie.
Dylan writes lucky, gathering what he can from coincidence, throwing any old thing into the gale and watching it fly. He’s like a man directing and organizing a whirlwind.
The words of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” provide a rhythm on top: LOOK OUT KID, you’re GONna GET HIT. If you think of his mouth as a drum set, he’s hitting almost every beat with the snare, whack whack whack, a rhythm that reflects the violence in the lyrics. And underneath, the rest of the music is doing a dance, coming up from the juke joints and sock hops.
Like Elvis before him, like Ashlee Simpson now, Dylan simply did not know his place—meaning both that he was uppity (“How much do I know / To talk out of turn / You might say that I’m young / You might say I’m unlearned”) and that he was lost, that he had no place. He stretched and he twisted every song form he touched. This is because no form felt like home, and he had to expand them so that he could pile in content that hadn’t previously been welcome. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” elongates to 18 bars and for practical purposes feels like one long vamp, a never-ending groove. It contains a critique and a party. The album notes say, “I know there’re some people terrified of the bomb. But there are other people terrified to be seen carrying a Modern Screen magazine.” Dylan pulled together worlds that want to remain separate but mustn’t be allowed to: carney trash hucksters, self-serious ruminators, glamour pusses, street scrappers. And since Dylan didn’t know who he was, he became all of them. Frank Kogan
GET» “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (1963), “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965), It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding”) (1965), “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965), “Visions of Johanna” (1966), “Simple Twist of Fate” (1975), “Cold Irons Bound” (1997)