10 Best Dead Songwriters

Music Features

A couple months ago, we here at Paste gave you our list of The 100 Best Living Songwriters. Several readers wrote in to remind us that a certain part of the songwriting population was left out—the dead part. So, we took another look at our list, and we have to admit that our dissatisfied correspondents have a point. Very few non-living songwriters were represented. Here, to correct that mistake, is a brand new list voted on by over 11 people we met in a bar:

10»Gilbert & Sullivan

“The Lennon/McCartney of the Victorian era,” as they often referred to themselves, William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were pop tunesmiths for the generation that wore painful restraints on their genitalia to prevent bad thoughts. And indeed it’s hard to think a bad thought when grooving out to the infectious bubblegum beat of “Three Little Maids from School Are We” or kicking back with that special someone to “Poor Wand’ring One,” which single-handedly changed the way we apostrophize and redefined the high-pitched, cloying ballad for generations to come.

9»Gilbert O’Sullivan

I cried for three hours in a row after I heard that song about being lonesome. According to Gilbert O’Sullivan, we’re all going to die one day, which I didn’t actually realize before I heard it couched in his amazing pop groove. Sometimes we look to popular music, which gets its name from being popular, for the answers to life’s toughest questions. This is one such case. O’Sullivan’s attitude may not be the most comforting, but his uncompromising nihilistic vision remains stubbornly consistent, doggedly sticking to the most insipid melody in the history of man to bring home his point about the unbearable travesty that is life. Look, he seems to be saying, even this song sucks. And indeed it does.


Sometimes called the mythological Greek Lennon/McCartney, Orpheus was some dude going around playing a lyre in Greek mythology. Then he did some stuff I can’t remember. I think he was supposed to be some kind of badass. I really should Google him. One time I dreamed I was at this weird party, and I think there were a bunch of rabbits everywhere, and it was like it was my house, but it wasn’t, you know what I mean? And anyway, there was a guy who wouldn’t let me have any punch, and somehow in my dream I knew it was Orpheus, but he looked like my downstairs neighbor, which is weird, because I don’t even really know my downstairs neighbor. He was kind of moving his mouth but not saying anything, which totally creeped me out. That has nothing to do with songwriting, but I kind of casually wanted to drop in the notion that I’m the kind of dude who dreams he’s hanging out with Orpheus. This one’s more about me than the songwriter, and I think that’s OK.

7»Those Monks You Always Hear Chanting

Let’s face it. Nothing rocks harder than the chanting of anonymous dead monks. Whether it’s a TV commercial about the Internet or a TV commercial about an awesome new candy bar, you can always count on the chanting of dead monks to provide a humorous backdrop for the part where one monk loves the product so much he can’t help yelling in an inappropriate way. Monks rule!

6»William Blake

This talented 18th-century crackpot combined the very British blue-collar wit of Ray Davies with the social outrage of Tracy Chapman, the psychedelic trippiness of Andy Partridge, the wide-ranging eclecticism of Elvis Costello and the insouciant playfulness of “Weird Al” Yankovic… all of whom he would periodically visit during his mystical journeys to other planes. Such a heady wealth of influences threatened to overwhelm Blake early in his career. Somehow, however, with his masterful double LP/concept album Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, he managed to rise above mere imitation to create something very much his own. Then he totally died.


Even if he’d written only one hit, the classic “Theme from Die Hard,” we would still look upon Beethoven as a seminal songwriter, if just for the jamming tunes in Fidelio, his lone opera. Other songwriters would probably be like, “I need to write another opera so everyone will like me.” But Beethoven was like, “whatever.” Plus he was deaf, which rocks.

4»Robert Johnson Along with his still-living songwriting partner, the Devil, Robert Johnson is responsible for some of the catchiest riffs about wife-beating in the English language.


Best remembered today as a supporting character in that old movie where Gwyneth Paltrow gets some other chick to tie up her boobs real tight, Shakespeare was also a playwright whose works often contained some tasty licks. From the spooky teenage-lambada-to-the-cosmos that is “Full Fathom Five My Father Lies,” to the goofy “Hey nonny nonny” of “It Was a Lover and His Lass,” Shakespeare is the quintessential song craftsman. And who can sing “Where the Bee Sucks, There Suck I” without giggling? That’s freaking hilarious. He refused to take himself seriously, which perhaps in some ways makes him the most serious of all. That makes no sense, actually. Why would not being serious make you serious? I don’t know, I’m just stringing words together.

2»King David

The little shepherd boy with the big beats, David started out strumming his harp for his father’s sheep. Even without the scandals (putting the make on Bathsheba, smacking a guy in the head with a rock) “Diamond Dave” would be known for one thing: his psalms. From the balls-to-the-wall party raver “Psalm 100,” with its unforgettable command to “Make a joyful noise,” to the more somber slow reggae bounce of “By the Rivers of Babylon,” David’s extensive catalog contains something for literally every mood. It’s good to be the king, indeed.

1»Bob Dylan

We kept explaining that he’s still alive, and that he was already #1 on our list of living songwriters, but that couldn’t stop everyone from voting for “Zimmy.” From the time he pretended to be poor to the time he went crazy and started believing in Jesus, Dylan has always had something up his sleeve. “Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, dressed in green,” he admonished us in “Wiggle Wiggle” from Under a Red Sky. And wiggle we shall.

Share Tweet Submit Pin