“By the time I get to Phoenix she’ll be risin’ / She’ll find the note that I left hangin’ on her door / And she will laugh to read the part that says I’m leavin’ / ’Cause I left that girl too many times before”
You can always tell a Jimmy Webb song—it doesn’t matter who happens to be singing it or how it was arranged or produced, though he’s been fortunate enough on these counts. There’s a strangeness lurking in the center of his perfect songs—usually a specific, peculiar image that might seem arbitrary at first, but later reveals itself to be the song’s soul. A phone ringing off the wall, the whine of electrical wires—just the sort of seemingly random detail you might notice during the saddest moments of your life. The effect is cinematic and startling, and you think to yourself, “How the hell does this guy know me so well?” Dan Messé GET»“By The Time I Get To Phoenix” (1964), “Wichita Lineman” (1966)
“If there’s anything good about me / I’m the only one who knows”
Jack White has every reason to hide his songs behind the “act”—the peppermint iconography, the ex-wife-turned-“sister” and the purebred-analog-recording ultimatum. But the myth of The White Stripes can in no way match the mystery of White’s songs. The Detroit native seamlessly blends establishment-friendly punk, sugary garage and modernist blues into a batter of neo-traditionalism. This isn’t to suggest White’s music is benign. His best songs are like firecrackers in a shoebox, short-fused and minimalist (“The Hardest Button to Button”) but ever likely to explode into frenetic, rapid-fire guitar wails, guided only by his voices—sometimes the boyish lament (“You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket”), other times the uninhibited howl (“Fell in Love With a Girl”). Palmer Houchins GET»“Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” (2001), “The Hardest Button to Button” (2003)
“There’s a mickie in the tastin’ of disaster”
Sly Stone—born Sylvester Stewart in Denton, Texas—is the musician, songwriter and producer who fronted influential ’60s rock group Sly & The Family Stone. Due to his indelible impact on the post-Summer of Love direction of rock, funk, soul, jazz and pop (not to mention style, speech and social worldviews), many people consider Stone the most key figure of postwar music. And with my ear tuned to Stevie Wonder’s mature sonic experiments, Herbie Hancock, The Jackson 5, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Prince, Human League, World Party, Arrested Development and The Family Stand, my opinion is—they ain’t lyin’. Among my favorites are thornier Sly tunes like “Jane Is a Groupee” and “Run, Run, Run,” and the challenging album Small Talk. We’re all richer for Stone’s template of white and black together, twang meshing with gospel, and gals and guys all getting funky in flash threads. Kandia Crazy Horse
GET»“Stand!” (1969), “Time For Livin’” (1974)
“Irish blood, English heart, this I’m made of / There is no one on earth I’m afraid of /
And I will die with both of my hands untied”
Why bother attempting to separate Morrissey the lyricist from Morrissey the meme? Life is too nasty, brutish and short. Steven Patrick’s whole super-idiom is based on reckless blendings: of Wildean wit with the melodrama of a Keats cultist; of humble, other-directed story singing with status-obsessed self-mythologizing; of James Dean/rockabilly style with blousey, glam foppery; of the timeless (Joan Of Arc) with the ephemeral (her Walkman); of soggy sensitivity toward animals and the meek with murderous aggression toward DJs and the powerful; of randy flamboyance with puritanical abstinence; of andro-pop advocacy (yay New York Dolls) with andro-pop dissuasion (boo Elton John); of sagacious subtlety with cretinous bluntness. Prancing and athletic, his insistence on his own significance—and his ability to pen couplets defined by universal desires—make him appealing to the most machismo-driven Mancs and Mexican-Americans, as well as the prissiest. (Unfrustrated, normative boys love him, too. Not to mention the ladies.) He’s intellectual cheesecake, a reactionary libertine, a solitary populist, an effete aristocrat with the heart of a dole-bound vandal. He transcends gender differentials, and milks them for all that they’re worth. He’s an evergreen rake, and a bit of a dinosaur—which is no diss: what other fossil inspires such immediate awe?
Even his physiognomy—that famous jutjaw—suggests invulnerable defiance and a weak spot ripe for cheap shots. Throngs of emotionally over-invested fans analyze his compositions like bankers divining a Federal Reserve Chair’s prophecy, and yet a compilation disc could be filled with songs defaming him (though The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle has retracted his, and even inscribed a copy of his zine for me with, “William it was really nothing”). Johnny Marr apologists may bemoan how much harder-to-dance-to the solo career has been, as if The Smiths’ legacy isn’t unassailable, but the Morrissey freed up to sermonize can be just as interesting as the Morrissey shackled to impulse (which is to say that a pulpit in a salon is just as interesting as a “Vicar In A Tutu”). Homemade topical boxsets could divide his songs into numerous fascinating categories—Shaming The Proles, or Cryptically About VD—and still only be scratching the surface of the work of this postmodern relic, who kicked off his first post-Smiths singles collection with the lines, “Off the rails I was, and / Off the rails I was happy to stay.” Get out of his way. William Bowers
GET»“Ask” (with Johnny Marr, 1986), “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” (with Johnny Marr, 1986), “Everyday is Like Sunday” (with Stephen Street, 1988)
“Now we demand a chance to do things for ourself / We’re tired of beatin’ our head
against the wall / And workin’ for someone else / We’re people, we’re just like the birds and the bees / We’d rather die on our feet / Than be livin’ on our knees"
It’s funny. When one thinks about James Brown, the term songwriter just doesn’t come to mind. Dancer? Hey, the man invented the moves that Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger and Prince made a fortune replicating. Sex symbol? With his package-snuggling tight jumpsuits, brilliantine ’do and powerful physique, the Augusta, Ga., native fit the bill. Bandleader? Even with instrumentalists like Bobby Byrd, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker and Bootsy Collins backing him, it was Mr. Brown who ruled with total artistic control. Promoter? Brown picked the venues and marketed himself with the sobriquets “The Hardest Working Man In Show Business” and “The Godfather Of Soul.” Singer, arranger and musician—he plays a mean organ—this multi-hyphenate can do it all. But Brown’s most important, most underrated talent has always been his eclectic songwriting. Let’s not forget that the man who invented funk with his 1965 single “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” had nine years prior penned (with Johnny Terry) the greatest begging soul song of all time—and still a showstopper—“Please Please Please.” Want a pleading ballad? How about “Try Me (I Need You)”? Macho romanticism? “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” Protest songs? C’mon now. James—Mr. Brown to his face—heralded the ’60s Black Power movement with “Say It Loud—I’m Black And I’m Proud,” “Soul Power” and “It’s A New Day.’ He championed Black self-determination with “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothin’ (Open Up The Door, I’ll Get It Myself)” and “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved.” He railed against drug abuse with “King Heroin” as well as phony African-American politicians who exploit their own people on “Talkin’ Loud And Sayin’ Nothing.” And, despite lengthy song titles that threatened to run off the album label and right onto the vinyl, Brown always kept his lyrics simple and direct (his song titles were usually his hooks). At his absolute peak—1965 to 1976—his words formed the perfect yin to the yang of his mega-funky backdrops. Through the years, Brown has been accused of self-aggrandizement at the expense of his band’s talents. So what? So did Duke Ellington, George Clinton and any other bandleader of note. It’s the music that counts. And what music! Brown and company generated a slew of improvisational-sounding jams that can still cold rock a party. And above the bustling mix were the punchy, raspy, percussive vocals of the man known as “Soul Brother Number One,” always pushing, preaching, prodding his band to greater rhythmic heights. These songs—these anthems—not only inspired everyone from Sly Stone to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Usher but they laid the bedrock, the foundation, for hip-hop. I mean, take James Brown’s music away from rap and what’s left? Vanilla Ice? Clay Aiken? “Make It Funky,” Brown commanded on his hit 1971 single. Thanks to his unique genius, we did and still love “Doing It To Death.” Richard Torres
GET»“Try Me” (1959), “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (1965), “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” (with Betty Jean Newsome, 1966)
“It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world”
With 25 country #1s and more than 4,000 published songs covered by, among others, The White Stripes, Whitney Houston and The Sisters of Mercy, Dolly Parton occupies a strange position as a songwriter: the underrated major leaguer. Does she want us to take her seriously? The cartoonish, self-deprecating image makes her hard to read. What a contradiction, simultaneously clown and sage, singing hard-luck stories in her high birdsong warble and winking playfully as she tugs your heartstrings. Her songs blend plain language, high melodrama and sugarsweet imagery without losing their core sincerity.
Parton tells small tales of dirt-poor rural lives (“Coat of Many Colors”), working women (“9 to 5") and abandoned pregnant teenagers (“Down from Dover”). Listen to “My Tennessee Mountain Home” and you swing on the porch with her. At her best, she makes the everyday seem magical—and for that we could always love her. Sally Timms
GET»“Jolene” (1974), “Wildflowers” (1987)
“Now that I’ve met you / Would you object to / Never seeing each other again”
How many songwriters can claim to have helped inspire a movie? When director Paul Thomas Anderson heard several of Aimee Mann’s insightful, melancholic tunes, he was so moved that he crafted a few of the characters in his film Magnolia around her lyrics and included eight Mann originals on the film’s soundtrack, earning her an Academy Award nomination. With five fantastic, sparse, solo albums—in addition to her work with ’80s New Wave group ’Til Tuesday—Mann has enjoyed a rich career, due to her ability to deliver consistently earnest tunes that are as moving as they are meaningful. ,b>Carter Davis
GET»“Wise Up” (1999), “Deathly” (1999), “Humpty Dumpty” (2002)
“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain / I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end / I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend / but I always thought that I’d see you again.”
In the early ’70s, before sentiment was sappy and belief was unbelievable, James Taylor was pumping out songs so unconscious, so soul-baring and honest you have to wonder how he survived the following decades when the world all but down-spiraled into a cynical ball of bitterness. But survive he did (and especially well in the soft-focused Me Decade), thus helping us handle the world with him. After three decades, he’s sold more than 35 million albums, won multiple Grammy Awards and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and won a Billboard Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998. Hollis Gillespie
GET»“Fire and Rain” (1970), “Country Road” (1970)
“I ain’t got no idols, I ain’t got much taste / I’m shiftless when I’m idle / And I got time to waste”
So many songwriters take the mundane and polish it with melodrama until it passes for sublime. The magic of Paul Westerberg is that he casually takes the sublime and cloaks it in the unassuming garb and cadence of everyday life. As a band, Westerberg’s Replacements were like your favorite college drinking buddy: just enough octane in the tank to make things a little dangerous, but with a sincerity that lent a certain shabby glory to even their most embarrassing moments of excess. Obscured at times by all the booze and pratfalls are the masterstrokes of alternative rock’s most natural and compelling storyteller.
Here’s the Westerberg to revere: A guy who could humbly chuckle at the miscues of love and destiny in “Skyway.” A guy who could slice through the pretensions of indie rock with six strings and a smirk on “Color Me Impressed,” only to salvage its remaining virtues on “Left of the Dial.” A guy who could bottle the unflagging pain of unrequited love on “Within Your Reach,” but still back off the emotive intensity long enough to tell a joke (“Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out,” among many others). A guy who could wed lyrics to music whose every twist and throb supports the story—witness the cold mechanical riff of “Answering Machine,” or the fluttery heart-skips of “I Will Dare.” Taken as a whole, Westerberg’s range as a writer is incredible, and his songs are nothing short of genius, genius, genius. Jeff Leven GET»“Bastards of Young” (1985), “Alex Chilton” (with Chris Mars and Tommy Stinson, 1987), “Gun Shy” (2004)
“She made a mountain of love / From a little grain of sand / And out of left field / Out of left field / Came a lover and a friend”
I don’t know how they did it. Hell, to hear them talk, they don’t know how they did it, either. How could a couple of hillbillies like Dan Penn and Linden “Spooner” Oldham have—time and time again—written songs that evoke the deepest black-gospel roots? Songs that—when taken up by singers who themselves had these roots from their upbringings—came to epitomize the mid-’60s movement called “soul.” It’s uncanny.
Unlike many songwriting teams, one wasn’t responsible for the music and the other the lyrics, but a Penn/Oldham co-write will have a melody using all the best gospel tricks, while the lyrics will hang on a Southern phrase: “It Tears Me Up;” “Sweet Inspiration.” Ed Ward GET»“Out of Left Field” (Performed by Percy Sledge, 1967), “Cry Like a Baby” (The Box Tops, 1968)