Paste's 100 Best Living Songwriters #71-80

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80»PINK FLOYD (Syd Barrett, Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Richard Wright, Nick Mason)

“When I was a child I had a fever / My hands felt just like two balloons”

After they lost Syd Barrett to a drug-induced meltdown, Pink Floyd had no lead songwriter. Barrett’s witty, childlike songs were exercises in brilliant, mad simplicity, and they were much of the reason for the band’s early success. But during The Floyd’s post-Barrett ’70s heyday, the remaining members stepped it up. From Atom Heart Mother to The Wall, their concept albums and most of their biggest hits came from collaboration: where would Roger Waters’ wallowing monologues be without David Gilmour’s cathartic riffs, or the soothing backdrops of the under-recognized (and under-credited) Richard Wright? This lineup spent its last days turning dystopian horrors into giant inflatable balloons, but the cure to its cynical visions lay right in the creative process: that in spite of the conflicts and cussedness that would eventually wreck the band, Pink Floyd wrote its best music by working as a team. Chris Dahlen

GET»“Arnold Layne” (1967), “Wish You Were Here” (1975), “Comfortably Numb” (1979)

79»STEPHEN MALKMUS (Pavement, Silver Jews)

“You’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation of the sequel to your life”

As leader of seminal ’90s band Pavement, Stephen Malkmus ensured that rock music stayed dirty following the death of grunge. The band’s early albums sounded as rough as basement demos, the concerts as informal as soundchecks. This refreshing lo-? aesthetic became a selling point but, as Malkmus once told me post facto, “it was making a virtue out of necessity.” Pavement was an indie band when the word “indie” still meant “independent.” As its spokesperson, Malkmus was an artistic outlaw, representing corporate freedom—here was a performing songwriter whose talents rivaled, probably even surpassed, many of the day’s top-grossing artists. Yet, by choice, Pavement took the high road… er, the low road… um, the road that had no manager or major label but was paved with “come-what-may” instead. Integrity and merit filled the spaces where platinum records and Grammy Awards could’ve gone. But if the band’s ironic indifference earned millions in hipster cred, Malkmus’ talents in the songwriting department paid its keep. This became increasingly evident after Pavement officially disbanded in 2000. When Malkmus went solo, the song remained the same. His tunes are architectural riddles—multi-faceted compositions presented with garage-rock simplicity. Lyrically Malkmus is the quiet one in study hall—clever but mischievous; he’s what happens when the smartest kid in the room decides to impress the class clown. With lines like, “One of us is a cigar stand / And one of us is a lovely blue incandescent guillotine,” his songs have been called both literate and unintelligible (often in the same review). Pavement’s massive impact on indie rock continues to ripple—you can hear the influence everywhere—but Malkmus refuses to be shadowcast. His most recent albums, Pig Lib (2003) and Face the Truth (2005) rank among his most artistic works to date. Benjy Eisen

GET»“Major Leagues” (with Pavement, 1999), “Jenny & The Ess-Dog” (2001)

78»ROBERT POLLARD (Guided by Voices)

“I met a non-dairy creamer explicitly laid out like a fruitcake / with a wet spot bigger than a great lake”

A modern-day pop-music genius, Robert Pollard generates more material than any sane person can absorb, sprinkling oh-so-many tossed-off diamonds across an ocean of songwriting. With Guided by Voices (RIP, 1985-2004) and his solo career (1996-?), he’s proven himself indie rock’s most prolific/alcoholic song-churning robot of the last 20 years, along the way creating some stone-cold classic records (like Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand). Whether from a dirty, lo-? track or a song barely stretching past the 30-second mark, you can rest assured Pollard’s bizarre lyrics and melodic barbs will snag your brain like a wriggling salmon. Austin L. Ray

GET»“Hot Freaks” (with Tobin Sprout, 1994), “Game of Pricks” (1995)


“Situation desperate, echoes of the victim’s cry / If I had a rocket launcher... / Some son of a bitch would die”

Hugely popular in his native Canada, Bruce Cockburn is that country’s godfather of soul. Soul in the metaphysical sense, that is—his songs are infused with an unceasing morality and relaxed, spiritual consciousness. Berklee-trained, Cockburn’s guitar prowess is matched only by his haunting lyrics, which span themes from local Ottawa life to global conflict. He penned his 1984 single, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” after visiting Guatemalan Refugee camps in Mexico. His biggest hit, 1979’s “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” is a loping, nautical reflection on eternity and “thousand-year-old petroglyphs.” He also wrote “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” a song that brought success to fellow Canucks The Barenaked Ladies. As long as Bruce wants to keep preaching to the crowds, we’re ready to hear his sermons. Rachel Syme

GET»“Tokyo” (1980), “Closer to the Light” (1994), “Open” (2003)

76»WILL OLDHAM (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Palace Music, etc.)

“O he will come / And make me have a baby / Then I foresee we all, us three, will ride and all together”

The first time I heard Will Oldham sing “We All, Us Three, Will Ride,” I had to pull over. I didn’t swerve off the road or slam on my brakes, and it’s not that I was crying too hard to drive—I just knew that the song was going to require my undivided attention. Oldham’s music is important. He takes familiar emotions out of context, using strange riddles and natural rhymes that leave you feeling small. His shamelessly vulnerable voice and sparsely dressed melodies make the music hard to swallow and unspeakably gratifying at the same time. I still can’t listen while I’m doing anything else—working, getting dressed, talking to a friend or driving. It just doesn’t feel right. Kate Kiefer

GET»“The Brute Choir” (1995), “I See A Darkness” (1999)


“As far as I can tell / The dark as well wears a thinly veiled disguise”

With his first major-label release, Canada’s Ron Sexsmith established himself as a songwriter’s songwriter. Little has changed in the decade since. While on a stylistic level he continues to display rich gifts for pop charm and rootsy twang, it’s the sly invention he employs in his lyrics that truly sets Sexsmith apart. Whether brightly ruminating on the ephemeral nature of happiness or capturing the shared pathos of a man advertising a carwash in a clown suit, his songs consistently display a keen eye for detail and a brilliant economy of language. That’s how you’ll know a Sexsmith song, even when it’s being covered by another artist, as is often the case. Tim Sheridan

GET»“Strawberry Blonde” (1997), “Disappearing Act” (2002)

74»OVER THE RHINE (Linford Detweiler, Karin Bergquist)

“I know I’m not a martyr / I’ve never died for anyone but me / The last frontier is only / The stranger in the mirror that I see”

Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist belong in a rare strata of artists who mine a deep Christian faith, but use it as a lens to view the world and fashion their music rather than telegraph a stiff religious agenda. Over the Rhine’s music is redolent of brokenness: personal, spiritual and emotional, sometimes redeemed, other times unresolved, but paradoxically uplifting. Recalling the likes of Daniel Lanois, mellower Neil Young, The Innocence Mission and 10,000 Maniacs, the duo retains an understated writing style that constantly puts the maxim “less is more” to the test—and succeeds. Louis R. Carlozo

GET»“All I Need Is Everything” (1996), “Ohio” (2003), “Jesus In New Orleans” (2003)


“Princes, paupers, criminals and saints are all the same / no more or less than God’s beloved child aboard this train”

Although she debuted as a solo artist in the 1990s, Julie Miller has largely been defined by her personal and professional marriage to Americana rocker Buddy Miller. But that doesn’t mean her songwriting takes a supporting role. Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless and Lee Ann Womack have all been drawn to her confident words of unwavering spirituality. Whether addressing an estranged lover (“Does My Ring Burn Your Finger”) or craving a love better than morphine (“I Need You”), Miller’s blunt statements of self-awareness work overtime to demolish any notion of women as doormats. Cory Albertson

GET»“All My Tears (Be Washed Away)” (1993), “Orphan Train” (1999)


“Let the madness in the music get to you / Life ain’t so bad at all / If you live it off the wall”

You may now know him as Wacko Jacko, the child-dangling, nose-shrinking monstrosity, but there was a time when this man was the indisputable King of Pop. One could argue that MJ, like Elvis before him, belongs more on a list of Best Entertainers, but Jackson was so much more. Truth is, as a songwriter, he had the gift—not of gab necessarily, but of guile, as in the uncanny ability to blur truth and fiction, love and lust, celebrity and civilian. “Dirty Diana” ventured into uncharted territory for pop music, with its viciously lurid portrayal of the groupie/artist dynamic. And “Billie Jean” shatters the rosy perception of celebrity culture—its staggered bassline and Jackson’s primordial yelps reminding us that it’s the desperate, damaged ones who also write the most infectious songs. Chi Tung

GET»“Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” (1979), “Billie Jean” (1982)


“I’m a reluctant rebel / I just want to be Aaron Neville”

He was killing himself to live before the notion was a bumper sticker, and now he’s a living legend the world at large never quite found out about (even though he’s been covered by Madonna). Chesnutt is a rolling contradiction. His songs scan like nursery rhymes but stick—as he sings, “like a flounder gig”—on polysyllabic turns of phrase that tease the ear as they beg for the Oxford English Dictionary. Elegant and ungainly. Impish and morbidly depressed. Flat-assed drunk and piercingly sober. His salient obsessions circle around private peculiarities and public personae, scrawled like graffiti on the wall of a gas station, glimpsed through the Spanish moss. His wounded warble is an epic surprise, too: sweeping like Marvin Gaye, in its way, and teetering with uncertainty—like a bastard Wallenda, who defies gravity out of sheer heart. Steve Dollar

GET»“Gravity of the Situation” (1995), “Lucinda Williams” (1992)

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