Paste's 100 Best Living Songwriters #21-30

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“I guess that love is like a Christmas card / You decorate a tree, throw it in the yard / It decays and dies and the snowmen melt / Well, I once knew love, I knew how love felt”

As a grad student—a teaching assistant—in English Education at the University of North Carolina in 1974, I was in charge of several high-school student-teachers. One had just given me his plans for teaching a 10th-grade poetry class. I read the words to a poem he was planning to teach: “She was a level-headed dancer on the road to alcohol / I was just a soldier on my way to Montreal… ” “Where’d this come from,” I asked. “John Prine.” “Oh.” “You haven’t heard of John Prine?” “No.” “Well, where have you been?” Back then I’d just started playing music in a bluegrass/folk band called The Davy Circle Howevermany (We practiced at a band member’s house on Davy Circle). I was also just starting to write and sing my own songs—for myself only. I bought that first self-titled Prine album, placed it on the turntable, dropped the needle, and a new room began to build itself onto my little house of musical consciousness—a room that gave me John Prine songs to listen to, love and then sing for other people. And the Prine room is still there, while so many other rooms have been torn down after several years. It’s a musical, poetic, fun, painful, sad, crazy, philosophical, rightfully spiritual room that’s provided songs for me to sing along with my own now—to small groups in bars and other informal places for more than 30 years. I’ve met many other amateur songwriters and singers who own Prine songs in the same way. You feel that they’re yours, and you love to give them away. They delight the children in the room as well as the old folks. There is a way in which they are simple, and simply loved. I believe they’ll last in our culture like stories passed down through a close-knit country family. Clyde Edgerton

GET»“Angel From Montgomery” (1971), “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” (1971), “All the Best” (1991)


“Yeah and it’s over before you know it / It all goes by so fast / Yeah, the bad nights last forever / And the good nights don’t ever seem to last”

The Southern gentleman with the British Invasion ringing in his ears and a permanent Roger McGuinn snarl in his voice, Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers (alongside the E Street Band and Graham Parker’s the Rumour) practically invented a neo-classic brand of rock ’n’ roll based on the organ/guitar duos of Bob Dylan and The Band and songs so simple, direct and familiar that it felt on first listen as if you’d known them your entire life. With a self-titled debut in 1976, Petty began stacking up classic three-minute radio-ready hits—like “American Girl,” “Refugee” and “The Waiting”—with seeming effortlessness. Even experiments, such as 1985’s Southern Accents used elements of rock’s history—in this case, sitar-inspired psychedelia—to cement its focus. Inclusion in supergroup The Traveling Wilburys further perched Petty as an elder statesman. But it was his two solo albums, 1989’s Full Moon Fever and 1994’s Wildflowers, that best displayed Petty’s unerring songwriting instincts. Rob O’Connor

GET»“American Girl” (1976), “The Waiting” (1981), “Free Fallin’” (with Jeff Lynne, 1989)


“Up on Cripple Creek, she sends me / if I spring a leak, she mends me / I don't have to speak, she defends me / a drunkard's dream if I ever did see one”

In the decade between 1967 and 1976, two Canadians were responsible for some of the best Americana. One, Neil Young, would toggle between a solo career and various ensemble projects, while the other, Toronto’s Jaime Robbie Robertson, confined his most definitive songwriting to a Hall of Fame-worthy quintet—grandly named The Band—that defied the era’s characteristic bloat by making creaky little records that resonated with big, outsized truths. A scan of Robertson’s handiwork during that period—the Biblically metaphoric “The Weight,” the sepia-toned reverie of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the neurotically funky “The Shape I’m In”—reads like a Murderer’s Row of rock ’n’ roll craftsmanship, with Robertson’s narrative gifts breathing life into persistent themes of faith, family and the disappearing rural landscape. Since the dissolution of The Band’s original lineup in 1976, Robertson moved on to various film projects and produced at least one classic solo album (his 1987 debut), but rock aficionados will forever cherish his contributions to an ensemble—including Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm, also excellent, if less prolific, writers—that enchanted many with its deceptively simple stories and outsider’s view of an increasingly torn and frayed America. Corey Dubrowa

GET»“The Weight” (1968), “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (1969), “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” (1969)

27»RADIOHEAD (Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O'Brien, Phil Selway)

“Limb by limb and tooth by tooth, tearing up inside of me / Every day every hour / I just wish that I was bullet proof”

Sliding into his chair, apparently deep in introspection, my roommate unearthed a gem. “This is a very important song,” he purred, oddly nonplussed as Thom Yorke rolled into the opening lines of “Everything In Its Right Place.” His nonchalance, however, seemed too fitting; that Yorke and guitarist Jonny Greenwood write “important songs” has become more than truism, it’s an expectation. Radiohead is the public’s private obsession. Each fan boasts a personal encounter with a particular verse that forcefully etched itself into memory’s long abandon. Whether it’s Yorke’s bellowing, “Who are my real friends / Have they all got the bends” from their sophomore release or his maleficent humming “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case” from Amnesiac, Yorke’s falsetto and Greenwood’s guitar (or whatever else he happened to be playing) launched a fleet of imitators and invited critics to guiltlessly wallow in the glut of celebratory hyperbole. It’s the statist narrative of “Karma Police” or the absurdity (and then hope?) of “2 + 2 = 5” that seduces, inviting us to contemplate and enjoy the feedback of Radiohead’s collective brilliance. Jamin Warren

GET»“No Surprises” (1997), “Exit Music (For a Film)” (1997), “Everything In Its Right Place” (2000)

GET26»R.E.M (Peter Buck, Bill Berry, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe)

“Eastern to Mountain, third party call, the lines are down / The wise man built his words upon the rocks / But I'm not bound to follow suit”

Plenty of bands rock my world, but only a handful elevate my soul like R.E.M. Consider the impressionistic dreamscape of “Wolves, Lower,” or the pensive melody of “Fall on Me” (which Stipe and I share as our favorite R.E.M. song) or the melancholy beauty of “Nightswimming,” which Coldplay’s Chris Martin calls “the best song ever written.” Over the course of its 25-plus-year career, R.E.M. has given us countless thought-provoking musings, sometimes even wrapped in shiny-happy pop tunes like “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine),” “Pop Song ’89” and “Stand.” And no matter who composed the tune, Mssrs. Buck, Mills and Stipe—and, before he retired, Berry—have always taken the credit-sharing high road. Democracy lives. Lynne Margolis

GET»“Talk About the Passion” (1983), “Fall On Me” (1986), “Exhuming McCarthy (1987)”


“It then got cloudy and started to rain / I tooted my horn for a passin' lane / The rainwater blowin' all under my hood / I knew that I was doin' my motor good”

Did Brian Wilson and Springsteen nudge him out? Both have borrowed entire melodies, whole song structures, and mountains of thematic material from Mr. Berry, as did The Beatles. Remarkably, a single Chuck Berry number, “You Can’t Catch Me,” lends a dash of lyrics to two cuts on Nebraska (“Open All Night” and “State Trooper”) and provides the very first words we hear on Abbey Road Berry’s wedding tale contains a darkness, too, in the Greek-chorus reiteration of the “old folks” who observe the honeymoon with a certain benevolent detachment. Their “c’est la vie” reaffirms and exalts every shabby detail of the young couple’s love nest, but it’s also a warning about the impermanence of marriage, love, life, everything—a slow poison concealed in an overwhelming burst of momentary sweetness, a double edge worthy of Randy Newman. But what a moment of sweetness, and Berry tosses it out like a lifeline—“But when the sun went down, the rapid tempo of the music fell.” We know exactly what’s going on in that dumpy little apartment, and how beautiful a place it is, a home. Jack Pendarvis

GET»“Johnny B. Goode” (1959), “Thirty Days” (1962), “You Never Can Tell” (1964)

24»JEFF TWEEDY (Wilco, Uncle Tupelo)

“I rest my head on a pillowy star / and a cracked-door moon / that says I haven't gone too far”

“We made it, so it’s ours to destroy,” Jeff Tweedy once said. He was referring to Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—where the Chicago band reconstructed the songwriter’s folk psyche amidst anthemic chaos—but he could be speaking of his career. Emerging from the imploding of Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy—aided by his iconic weathered, cracking voice—has drawn on deep-rooted Americana while continuously evolving with his musical surroundings. His lyrics match his music, often rhyming word-game surreality (“all these telescopic poems”) with pure ache (“it’s good to be alone”). Over the years, he’s established a vast, moody catalog of introspective rockers (“Pot Kettle Black,” “Shot in the Arm”) and heartbroken, abstract ballads (“She’s A Jar,” “Ashes of American Flags”). Since Tweedy hit his stride four albums ago on Being There, he hasn’t faltered, and with new songs like “Maybe the Sun Will Shine Today” and “Walken” debuting on Wilco’s spring tour, plus the hyper-catchy stream-of-consciousness flow of “The Ruling Class” (from his Loose Fur side project), it appears his prime is far from over. Jesse Jarnow

GET»“Sunken Treasure” (1996), “Jesus, Etc.” (with Jay Bennett, 2002), “Hummingbird” (2004)


“And it seems to me you lived your life / Like a candle in the wind / Never knowing who to cling to / When the rain set in”

In the ’70s, Elton John didn’t just wear outrageous spectacles. He was an outrageous spectacle, a true pop-cultural phenomenon in platform boots and garish/lame/sequined/feathered stage outfits that defined a post-metal, pre-punk generation. It was a look that belied the brilliance of the pianist’s music and equally eccentric composing arrangement—his chum Bernie Taupin would submit often painfully personal poetry, which John would then set to rollicking song, culminating in the near-suicide study “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (in retrospect, Elton’s first out-of-the-closet anthem). And while the team never tapped into that same “Captain Fantastic” zeitgeist again—and even splintered for a few years—they’ve approached stunning ’70s form with recent high points like “The One” and “Made In England.” Tom Lanham

GET»“Tiny Dancer” (1971), “My Father’s Gun” (1971), “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (1973)


“Blood spilled out from the hole in your heart / Over the strings of your guitar”

Whether she’s singing about drunken angels or dead boyfriends, this Louisiana-born poet’s daughter has managed to make a five-star career from documenting her failed relationships and personal screw-ups, her distressed country twang veering from intimate, whiskey-drenched whisper to full-blown caterwaul as she lists the wreckage of her past via self-punishing lyrics and faultless, albeit perfectly unpolished musicianship. Strung-out junkies, iconic bluesmen, suicidal friends and abusive lovers are all fair game for Williams’ bluesy, rootsy songwriting style, which falls somewhere between Loretta Lynn’s country-grrl feminist outlook, Lefty Frizzell’s honky-tonk storytelling, Townes Van Zandt’s inventory of self-destruction and Hank Williams’ mournful repertoire. Some fans fall under her spell, others long to fix her broken soul. Regardless which camp you fall in, when wrapped up in the tidal wave of stinging electric-guitar riffs and that sultry, husky voice, Williams’ thoughtful meditations on the frailty of the human condition prove irresistible. Andria Lisle

GET»“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” (1998), “Fruits of my Labor” (2003)

21»LOU REED (The Velvet Underground)

“Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I’ll piss on ’em / that’s what the Statue of Bigotry says / Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death / and get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard”

Lou Reed  always wanted to be seen as more of a literary figure than a rocker. “Instead of making a decision between pop songs and a real story or poem,” Reed said in the liner notes to Between Thought and Expression: The Lou Reed Anthology A native of Freeport, on New York’s Long Island, Reed’s love of early rock ’n’ roll, and his later studies with poet Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University, charted his future. His first job out of college was at Pickwick Records, but Reed soon fell in with a crowd that included avant-garde musician John Cale and the coterie of artists, actors, models and other hangers-on who converged at Andy Warhol’s Factory in the mid 1960s. He and Cale formed The Velvet Underground at Warhol’s suggestion. Reed’s songwriting methodology hasn’t changed much since then. He still mixes short stories and spoken-word tales with simple rock ’n’ roll songs, and often strings them together to form loose concept albums, such as Berlin, Street Hassle, Songs for ’Drella and Magic and Loss. His work never had the mainstream appeal of similarly gritty Northeastern songwriter Bruce Springsteen, but Reed’s songwriting has arguably inspired more younger artists over the years. Without his songs, it’s hard to imagine what alternative music—from R.E.M. to The Strokes—would’ve sounded like. Mark Kemp

GET»“Stephanie Says” (1969), “Sweet Jane” (1970), “Walk on the Wild Side” (1972)

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