Paste's 100 Best Living Songwriters #61-70

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70»ALEX CHILTON (Big Star, The Box Tops)

“Would you be an outlaw for my love?”

It makes sense that Alex Chilton nearly drowned in New Orleans. He’s a songwriter accustomed to sinking in others’ hurricanes—most often uncovered by those searching for him, rather than those hoping to catch him bobbing obviously on the surface. Chilton topped charts early with The Box Tops, but he’s better remembered for his obscurity. Big Star’s clash with ’70s commercialism made it necessary for more well-known artists to later introduce his confessional lyrics against jangly pop as something new. From the youthful doom of “Big Black Car” to Chilton’s portrayal of lechery as beautiful in “Thirteen,” this musician’s musician made unsafe pop safer. Courtney Ryan Fitzgerald

GET»“The Ballad of El Goodo” (with Chris Bell, 1972), “September Gurls” (1973)


“Things I learned in a hobo jungle / Were things they never taught me in a classroom ... I’m not braggin’ or complainin’ / Just talkin’ to myself man to man / This ole’ mental fat I’m chewin’ didn’t take alot of doin’ / But I take alot of pride in what I am”

For a while there, when he’d made it with “Mama Tried” and “Hungry Eyes,” I was hanging out so often with Merle Haggard that I felt like a member of the band. Needing the company of friends as he played Nixon’s White House, he put me on his guest list; same deal when he became the first pure-country act to work Harrah’s in Reno. Later, I rode along with him and The Strangers as they worked Ohio with “Okie from Muskogee.” We drank a lot of whiskey while he spoke of being raised in a boxcar, doing time and writing about it. No meeting, though, was as revealing as the first. Haggard was playing for the homefolks—profits to draw the state bowling tournament to the county—and I followed him at intermission to the basement of the auditorium. He was sharing bourbon with some teenager. “My book’s The Nashville Sound,” I said, “but you’ve never recorded there.” The kid blurted, “Tell him what you always say, Merle.” Hag leaned back. “It don’t matter where you cut it at,” he said. “It’s what you put in the groove.” He was too young to look so old, I thought (he was 32), and what’s with the gnarled fingernails? And why didn’t he live among the stars? And how come he walked off The Ed Sullivan Show when he needed it most? It was all of a piece, really. Sullivan wanted him to sing “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” They cut cookies in Nashville. The nails got eaten in the San Quentin laundry. He looked worn out because, well, it had been a hard life. He’s his own man, in short. And—because he stays true to it—he is, I think, the greatest country songwriter in history. Right next to Hank. Paul Hemphill

GET»“Mama Tried” (1968), “Sing Me Back Home” (1968), “I Take A Lot of Pride In What I am” (1969)


“Lord I am so tired, how long can this go on?”

Allen Toussaint is one of the most respected producers in R&B history—and with good reason, as his New Orleans-funk-defining work with The Meters and his tasteful horn arrangements for The Band and Dr. John will attest. But often overshadowed by this epic body of work is Toussaint’s brilliant songwriting. With tunes like “Working in the Coal Mine”—from his prolific writing partnership with Lee Dorsey—and “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On),” Toussaint continuously reinvented the Crescent City sound. He created worlds within the structure of his original compositions, though their performance was often left to other artists. “Southern Nights”—a song Toussaint wrote while reflecting on the web-like tales woven on the porch of his New Orleans childhood, was a simultaneous #1 hit for Glen Campbell on the pop, country and adult-contemporary charts in 1977. Toussaint is a torchbearer who’s kept the soul of New Orleans alive in contemporary music for five decades, and his songs are still being covered by a spectrum of artists so wide that his influence will continue for years. Jon Tonge

GET»“Get Out of My Life Woman” (Performed by Lee Dorsey, 1966), “Holy Cow” (Performed by The Band, 1973)

67»CONOR OBERST (aka Bright Eyes)

“While my mother waters plants my father loads his gun / He says, ‘Death will give us back to God / Just like the setting sun / Is returned to the lonesome ocean’”

Conor Oberst, prolific, reluctant emo posterchild (and justifiably so since—musically and lyrically—he’s grown up lifetimes over the last few albums), sings tragic, hope-lined poetry in his shaky warble that’ll knock you into an abyss of contemplation. No one writing today has their inner EKG better fixed on the pulse of the current lot of American twentysomethings; whether he’s tackling politics, relationships, existential malaise or spiritual awakening, his songs are seismographs charting both the tiny and vast rumblings of his soul-searching generation. Steve LaBate

GET»“Let’s Not Shit Ourselves” (2002), “At The Bottom of Everything” (2005)

66»CHARLES THOMPSON (aka Frank Black) Pixies

“Dead sea make it float / One sip from the salty wine / Dead sea make you choke”

Frank Black. Black Francis. Whatever you call him, Charles Thompson’s hilariously bizarre, instantly memorable tunes—bolstered by Joey Santiago’s epic guitar hooks—made the Pixies one of underground rock’s catchiest bands. In spite of their odd rhythms and mad shrieking about Andalusian dogs, the Pixies had a soft-pop center; they wrapped their sonic shredding and absurdist-Spanglish/mermaid/alien odes to Neptune and teenage love in the assonance of Beatles melodies and classic-soul chord changes. It’s what makes Thompson such a magical musical enigma—the juxtaposition of the odd and the familiar, the ugly and the enchanting. Even amidst his newer, impressively mature (if slightly more conventional) solo work—you can always find a little of that endearing, deliberate insanity. Jennifer Cohn

GET»“Wave of Mutilation” (UK Surf) (1989), “Debaser” (1989), “I Burn Today” (2005)

65»BILL MALLONEE (Vigilantes of Love)

“Well I may be confused but I’ll play my hunch / Did it feel like a kiss or a counter-punch?”

His best songs managed to come off bookish and literate without sacrificing the humanity of his subjects. And there was always a flicker of hope tickling up from catastrophe’s underbelly. In “I Can’t Remember”—after the narrator’s train derails and hits a snowbank, flinging his beloved to her death—he has a vision of some spectral Jesus gathering her body and wiping the snowflakes from her face. Voice barely above a whisper, Mallonee sings, “That white dress you were wearing, darling, like a billion stars did shine.” The first time I heard that song, I swear the lump in my throat felt like a chunk of granite. Jason Killingsworth

GET»“America” (1990), “I Can’t Remember” (1992), “Skin” (1995)

64»ANDY PARTRIDGE (XTC, The Dukes of Stratosphear)

“I’m 12 o’clock / All daylight hours / I’ll warm your bed / I’ll grow your ?owers / Like I’m a miniature sun / This ball ignited when she told me I was her only one.”

Bursting from England’s polyglot punk movement with jittery energy, Swindon’s XTC shed its genre-bound genesis to reveal a beating heart of classic pop songcraft. Led by the stubborn, brilliant and prolific Andy Partridge (with Colin Moulding, who also contributed key tunes to the band’s catalog), the songs drew on England’s pastoral tradition (“River Of Orchids”) and railed against the absurdities of modern life (“Scarecrow People,” “The Last Balloon”). Partridge’s songs, brimming with Technicolor imagery, jaw-dropping extended metaphors and some of the catchiest (and quirkiest) pop melodies this side of the Fab Four, earned the band an enduring cult despite no public performances since 1982. Reid Davis

GET»“The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” (1986), “The Mayor of Simpleton” (1989)

63»RICHARD THOMPSON (Fairport Convention)

“And I’ve seen you at the corners and cafés it seems / Red hair and black leather, my favorite color schemes / And he pulled her on behind / And down Box Hill they did ride”

How many songwriters can pull off this swagger of a lyric: “I feel so good I’m gonna break somebody’s heart tonight?” Intrinsically masculine, whether his protagonists are looking for trouble (“I Feel So Good”) or love on a motorcycle (“1952 Vincent Black Lightning”), Richard Thompson wields the guitar like a weapon, creating intricate riffs that are alternately beautiful and scorching. From his days with Fairport Convention to albums with ex-wife Linda (including Shoot Out the Lights), and his solo work, Thompson wryly charts the course of his heart and the vicissitudes of human nature. A songwriter’s songwriter, Bonnie Raitt, David Byrne, Bob Mould and the indie duo Ida all have all covered his tunes. Carrie Havranek

GET»“Wall of Death” (1982), “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (1991)

62»STING (The Police)

“Only hope can keep me together / Love can mend your life but love can break your heart”

Maybe it’s because of that early image, cloaked and playful, in The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” video, but Sting seemingly always embodied the role of the cunning-yet-sensitive, smirking professor. Who else could unload didactic odes to Shakespeare and Chilean travesties and make us grab encyclopedias to look up St. Augustine or “Charybdis,” all while wrapping such heady references in chart-friendly pop melodies? Born Gordon Sumner (a name now hard to reconcile with the public persona), few others have so successfully stepped into a nickname and regal bearing, offering songs that continually make us feel worldly and smart, even if he’ll always know a little bit more. Sarah Schmelling

GET»“Roxanne” (1978), “King of Pain” (1983)


“It’s a lonely picture of an empty glass / It’s a still life study of a drunken ass”

From Nashville songsmith to New Wave rocker, John Hiatt didn’t really find his true voice until 1987—when he enlisted Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner in a four-day session that produced the modern masterpiece, Bring the Family. An album about crawling from the wreckage of alcoholism to become a better man as a husband and father, the songs mostly leave behind Hiatt’s penchant for cutesy word play and go straight to the heart of love, lust, loss and redemption. And besides being Hiatt’s best work, the single, “Thing Called Love,” helped resurrect Bonnie Raitt’s career. Bob Townsend

GET»“Have A Little Faith In Me” (1987), “Memphis in the Meantime” (1987)

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