Paste’s 100 Best Living Songwriters: The List

Music Features

FOR CHILDREN OF THE 20th CENTURY, a fairly standard variation on the verse-chorus verse-chorus-bridge-chorus formula becomes our most important poetry. This marriage of sound and language dominates our commutes, assaults us while we buy our jeans, accompanies us while we walk our dogs, and brings to life that final montage sequence on nearly every episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

Songs can feed our souls with beauty, mystery and wisdom, or grate on us with sappy sentiment, mindless clichés, tired riffs and overwrought melodies—it all depends on the men and women creating them, and the following 100 have become our favorites. They range in age from Conor Oberst (26 at the time of publication) to Hal David (85); in style from the aggressive politi-hop of Public Enemy to the cheeky twang of Dolly Parton; in outlook from the brooding, internal tumult of Morrissey to the unfettered, existential exuberance of The Flaming Lips.

These are very personal choices. Though a collection of 50 writers and musicians helped compile the list, they were encouraged to vote for the songwriters they treasured the most, not the ones with the highest sales, the biggest impact on culture or even the greatest influence on other songwriters. In the same way, we’ve enlisted a different writer to investigate each of these 100; to find out what makes them such intriguing, affecting and effective songsmiths. So welcome to the latest chapter in Paste’s conversation about art; we hope it inspires some heated debates, new discoveries and lots of listening.

(Above: Neil Young)

100. T Bone Burnett

99. Andre Benjamin & Antwan Patton (Outkast)

98. Jay Farrar (Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo)

97. Josh Ritter

96. Jimmy Cliff

95. Patti Smith

94. Sam Phillips

93. Joseph Arthur

92. Alejandro Escovedo

91. Drive By Truckers (Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, Jason Isbell)

Read 91-100

90. Nick Cave

89. Victoria Williams

88. Parliament (George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell)

87. Lyle Lovett

86. Sam Beam (Iron & Wine)

85. David Bazan (Pedro the Lion, Headphones)

84. John Linnel & John Flansburgh (They Might Be Giants)

83. Fleetwood Mac (Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie)

82. John Darnielle (Mountain Goats)

81. Wayne Coyne & Steven Drozd (Flaming Lips)

Read 81-90

80. Pink Floyd (Syd Barrett, Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Richard Wright, Nick Mason)

79. Stephen Malkmus (Pavement, Silver Jews)

78. Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices)

77. Bruce Cockburn

76. Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Palace Music, etc.)

75. Ron Sexsmith

74. Linford Detweiler & Karin Bergquist (Over the Rhine)

73. Julie Miller

72. Michael Jackson

71. Vic Chesnutt

Read 71-80

70. Alex Chilton (Big Star, The Box Tops)

69. Merle Haggard

68. Allen Tousaint

67. Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes)

66. Charles Thompson (aka Frank Black, Black Francis) (Pixies)

65. Bill Mallonee (Vigilantes of Love)

64. Andy Partridge (XTC, Dukes of Stratosphear)

63. Richard Thompson (Fairport Convention)

62. Sting (The Police)

61. John Hiatt

Read 61-70

60. Jimmy Webb

59. Jack White (White Stripes, Raconteurs)

58. Sly Stone (Sly & the Family Stone)

57. Morrissey (The Smiths)

56. James Brown

55. Dolly Parton

54. Aimee Mann

53. James Taylor

52. Paul Westerberg (The Replacements)

51. Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham

Read 51-60

50. Public Enemy (Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Hank Shocklee, Eric Sadler, et al)

49. Cat Stevens

48. Gillian Welch & David Rawlings

47. Sufjan Stevens

46. David Byrne (Talking Heads)

45. Jackson Browne

44. Al Green

43. Ryan Adams (Whiskeytown)

42. Loretta Lynn

41. Ray Davies (The Kinks)

Read 41-50

40. Burt Bacharach & Hal David
39. Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, John Bonham)

38. Kris Kristofferson

37. Smokey Robinson

36. Beck Hansen

35. Steve Earle

34. John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival)

33. Pete Townshend (The Who)

32. Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller

31. Carole King

Read 31-40

30. John Prine

29. Tom Petty

28. Robbie Robertson (The Band)

27. Radiohead (Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Phil Selway)

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

25. Chuck Berry

24. Jeff Tweedy (Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, Golden Smog, Loose Fur, etc.)

23. Elton John & Bernie Taupin

22. Lucinda Williams

21. Lou Reed (Velvet Underground)

Read 21-30

20. Van Morrison

19. Patty Griffin

18. U2 (Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., Adam Clayton)

17. Holland-Dozier-Holland

16. David Bowie

15. Willie Nelson

14. Stevie Wonder

13. Paul Simon

12. Mick Jagger & Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones)

11. Randy Newman

Read 11-20

The Top 10

10. Prince

9. Joni Mitchell

8. Elvis Costello

7. Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys)

6. Leonard Cohen

5. Paul McCartney (The Beatles, Wings)

4. Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennan
3. Bruce Springsteen

2. Neil Young (Buffalo Sprinfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)

1. Bob Dylan

Read the Top 10

Share Tweet Submit Pin