10 Sophisticated Pop Songwriters

The chords underpinning a song are like the tune’s bones. Some genres, like country or punk, routinely have very simple chord changes, using two or three simple chords. The Ramones’ ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ uses the three power chords B5, E5, and F#5. Other genres, like musicals, often feature dazzlingly sophisticated chords, like G♯dim7 and Bbsus4.

Here are ten songwriters who often built fancy chords and unexpected changes into their songs. Not every genre suits fancy chords, but unexpected changes are an important device for keeping your music interesting. Music can be interesting in other ways, like emotional connection or instrumental virtuosity, but building sophisticated chords into a coherent song is an art-form, and here are some of my favourite pop writers. Honorable mentions include Michael Brown (The Left Banke), Steely Dan, Rod Argent, and Joe Jackson.

Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello gained a record deal in the class of 1977, an angry young man with short, sharp songs. But his songs were far more sophisticated than the three chords of punk rock – not unexpected given that his father was a jazz trumpeter who sang with the Joe Loss Orchestra. Costello was musically ambitious enough to attempt guise albums like the brilliant Beatles baroque-pop of Imperial Bedroom and the Americana of King of America.

Paddy McAloon

Prefab Sprout Swoon

The leader of Prefab Sprout was a teenager in the 1970s, listening to Steely Dan and sending demos to Brian Eno’s label. Prefab Sprout’s debut album Swoon is the most harmonically dense pop record I’ve ever heard, stuffed with ridiculously ornate chord changes, as well as verbose lyrics – the band still hoped that it would be bigger than Thriller. Once he reined his ambition in for 1985’s Steve McQueen, McAloon was revealed as a brilliant pop composer.

Paul McCartney

McCartney thrived in the era of baroque-pop in the mid 1960s – like Costello, he was the son of a trumpeter. He wrote sophisticated pop songs for The Beatles like ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’, and his effortless musicality was a perfect foil for John Lennon’s experimental streak.

Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell Hejira

Joni Mitchell used alternate guitar tunings after a childhood bout of polio left her unable to play guitar conventionally. These tunings coloured her early folk tunes, along with her use of the dulcimer. Around 1972’s For The Roses, her songwriting became more sophisticated; a song like ‘Blonde in the Bleachers’ is a huge step forward in complexity from the critically acclaimed but plain Blue album. Mitchell released a series of fascinating, ornate albums in the 1970s like Court and Spark and Hejira.

Carl Newman

The leader of indie pop band The New Pornographers, Carl Newman’s songs are complex and layered. While some power pop is harmonically straightforward, the New Pornographers’ records feature unexpected chord changes as well as painstakingly arranged harmonies. Newman said that “When I first started writing songs, I was looking to Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach/Hal David, and Jimmy Webb. If you look at their songs and try to play them – they’re very strange and complex.”

Randy Newman

Although he’s not related to Carl Newman, Randy Newman has plenty of prominent relatives – he’s part of a famous film composing family. While Newman’s gone into the family business, with scores for Pixar titles like Toy Story, he’s also a notable pop songwriter with brilliant, sophisticated albums like Sail Away and Good Old Boys.

Andy Partridge

Like Costello, XTC’s Andy Partridge arrived with punk and new wave, and like Costello he outgrew the genre, revealing himself as a sophisticated songwriter who wanted to emulate 1960s heroes like The Beatles and The Beach Boys. Once XTC stopped playing live and became a studio-based band, Partridge wrote sophisticated masterpieces like ‘Chalkhills and Children’ and ‘Earn Enough For Us’.

Jimmy Webb

Jimmy Webb Ten Easy Pieces

Jimmy Webb never cracked the mainstream as a solo artist, but his songs are beloved. He grew up in Oklahoma, the son of a Baptist minister, and his songs have been compared to Baptist hymns. In the 1960s his writing launched the career of Glen Campbell, and he wrote enduring hits like ‘Wichita Lineman’ and ‘The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress’.

Brian Wilson

The leader of The Beach Boys pumped out a ton of musically sophisticated but lyrically simple hits in the first half of the 1960s. “Jesus, that ear. He should donate it to The Smithsonian.” – Bob Dylan

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder Hotter Than July

Stevie Wonder was able to deliver incredibly sophisticated pop songs without losing his audience, an incredible feat. Also a brilliant vocalist, keyboard player, harmonica player, and drummer, he peaked with an incredible series of albums in the 1970s like Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale.

Did I miss your favourite sophisticated songwriter?


  1. Burt Bacharach is Pop with a capital “P,” he’s just not part of rock culture. Sophisticated chords and changes are his stock and trade. Check out “Promises, Promises.”

    Nice to see Paddy McAloon and Jimmy Webb on your list!

    • Yeah, I definitely thought about Bacharach, especially as he was mentioned in a quote that I used. I like his songs individually, but I got a CD out from the library once of Bacharach songs and found it too saccharine. He’s too close to Rodgers and Hammerstein territory to fit the list, I think.

      • Yes, he’s probably closer to Rodgers and Hammerstein than the Beatles. “Saccharine” is a somewhat negative word, I’d go more with “romantic.” While I’ve always loved him, I really sat up in my chair after buying the 3-CD set The Look of Love. Many folks associate him with Dionne Warwick only, but he composed dozens of little-known songs that run the gamut from early crooner rock (Gene Pitney) to light country (Marty Robbins), and even novelty (the theme from The Blob).

  2. All fantastic selections for this topic. It’s especially nice to see Paddy McAloon here, as Prefab Sprout doesn’t get enough love in the blogosphere (or elsewhere). Off the top of my head the only additions I would make to the list are Becker & Fagen (Steely Dan, obviously), Gary Clark from the short-lived & sadly forgotten Danny Wilson (who have been described as a cross between Bacharach & Steely Dan, and both albums are brilliant), Mick Hucknall (Simply Red, at least the first 3-4 albums), Eric Matthews (Cardinal and solo) and Joe Pernice (The Pernice Brothers, Scud Mountain Boys, The New Mendicants & several other projects).

    Ooh, and just before I clicked “post comment” I remembered one of my all-time heroes, Joe Jackson. Like Elvis Costello, not everything in his catalog would be considered “sophisticated pop,” but just on the basis of Night & Day and Body & Soul he belongs here.

    • I did mention Jackson and Becker/Fagen in the intro, so they were on my radar.

      Joe Pernice is a good call – I like the Pernice Brothers a lot. Never would have thought of Hucknall as a writer, but looks like he wrote ‘Holding Back The Years’ when he was 17, which is a pretty sophisticated songwriting. Gary Clark sounds interesting.

      • I read the whole post for for some reason my brain didn’t process your mentions of SD and JJ. Sorry about that. Of course, I think they should be at or near the top of the list so much more than honorable mentions. Yep, Mick Hucknall was an incredible writer. For me it never got better than “A New Flame,” which is one of those albums I know by heart from top to bottom. If you ever check out Danny Wilson I’d love to hear your thoughts. They had one huge hit (“Mary’s Prayer”) but they were so much more than that one song.

    • Simon’s interesting as I think some of his stuff is pretty simple – I have a sheet music book of Simon and Garfunkel and a lot of it’s pretty simple chord-wise (and not fun to play on piano as a result). But definitely has some more complex stuff too, like Bridge Over Troubled Water or Still Crazy.

      • Yeah, as a non-songwriter it’s hard for me to gauge the level of sophistication. At least of the non-Steely Dan variety. (And putting aside the Broadway guys.) But I’m a big Simon fan, so maybe I’m considering the words+music combo.

      • I would love to play Still Crazy on guitar but I can’t get anywhere near it: it’s not a busker’s song. I once saw a Simon interview in which he said he was surprised when he wrote Bridge Over Troubled Water because he realized “It’s considerably better than the songs I usually write.”

    • He is a good call, actually. He’s a little bit off to the side – most of the people on the list are pretty big selling, mainstream artists. And The New Pornographers should be – just at the wrong time.

    • McCartney, Wilson, and Wonder all showed up young in the early 1960s, and there’ve been very few musicians since who can match their all around musicality. They’re all great musicians, songwriters, and vocalists, and there are maybe just a handful of others of their caliber – maybe Prince? Hard not to sound like a boring old person when making that argument though.

  3. As a singer/guitarist I grew up on Neil Young, who is almost as clumsy and unsophisticated as me. His approach to chords goes something like, “Play a D shape, then try taking one finger off at a time and see what you get.” Repeat with A, E, C etc. and you find yourself playing what sound like fancy chords, even if you don’t know what they’re called. At the other extreme, Becker and Fagen are so sophisticated they’re hardly rock at all.
    And back at the singer-songwriters, Jack Johnson sounds like a good idea until you try to play the stuff. As Ian Dury said, there ain’t half been some clever bastards.

    • Young’s one note solo on ‘Down By The River’ is magical. Feel like he was referring to himself when he said “It’s old but it’s good. Like any other primitive would” on ‘Ride My Llama’.

  4. Totally seconded on all of your entries — but definitely Joni Mitchell!! I would also add Laura Nyro, Carole King, Burt Bacharach (my childhood!), and Brian Wilson…and for sophisticated pop singers, perhaps Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick!

    • I had Wilson on there, and I like Nyro a lot. A lot of King’s early Brill Building stuff is pretty simple, but she got more complex on her solo stuff I reckon.

      • Oh haha, I apologise for not noticing Brian Wilson (I seem to skim-read too much for my own good at the minute)!! Agreed re. King — her beginnings were small (though no less musically effective!), but there is such a majestic, all-encompassing air of “cool” to ‘Tapestry’! (It might be one of my favourite albums of all-time.) I’m so glad you like Nyro as well, so few people have heard of her!

        • Nyro’s really good – she gets overshadowed by people like Joni Mitchell, but she was in there first making expressive, free-form music. That trio of albums from Eli, Tendaberry, Christmas is excellent.

    • Rock fans sometimes get sniffy about Burt Bacharach (and let’s not forget Hal David’s lyrics). They come from a different era, but very much part of my 60s musical upbringing.

      • I’m not so much sniffy about it as it’s just not on my radar. I enjoy the songs individually, but hearing them all at once is too much. Jimmy Webb is in similar territory, but a bit more rock.

      • I have never had any patience for people who are snobby about mid century pop music! The Bacharach-David songs, although perhaps not as conventionally “cool” as the equally incredible rock music of the time, are so exquisitely and masterfully crafted — they have such intricate, well-written harmonies and chord progressions, and the lyrics encapsulate what it is like to be in love in a way rock music rarely does. They were very much a part of my upbringing as well, so I’ve always loved them, but they really appeal to me as a classically-trained musician as well!

        • I agree that there’s a lot of sophistication in Bacharach-David, as well as mid-20th century musicals, I’m not necessarily snobby, it’s just outside my musical interests. I’d say that that most of the musicians on my list were influenced by them to some extent – there’s definitely a bit of show-tune in McCartney, and Paddy McAloon said he was basically trying to write show-tunes in the late 1980s.

  5. Glad to see you had New Pornographers on your list as that is the first band I thought of as I started reading this. I’ve always been amazed at the number of musical ideas and melodies Newman crams into the songs and it almost always works. And for me it’s definitely the music as I find his lyrics undecipherable meaning wise – no clue what his trying to say most times.

    • I think indecipherable lyrics work well sometimes – makes it all about music. Often bands that are too focused on getting a message across end up being musically boring.

  6. I imagine the ‘Paul Simon problem’ might have been responsible for his exclusion, but (like Jim) as a musician of extremely limited means, I’ve always admired Neil Finn’s ability to arrange the standard components into interesting shapes.

    • I remember hearing an interview of a female NZ singer, and she said she was impressed by Finn, because he was able to write songs that were so simple. Not so easy yo come up with simple, original songs.

      • The other person who I’d have in my short list (that has Becker and Fagen at the top) would be Tim Buckley. Not the first two albums, which are basically US folk/acoustic, but after that his restlessness and exploration of song were amazing. Lorca, Starsailor, Greetings from LA… It tailed off on the last two albums, but still.

        • Buckley’s a little different from the people on my list – he’s the explorer who’s never going to retain a mass audience, while my list were mainly people who retained a mass audience despite using weird chords. Probably a different list would be in order for experimental writers.

    • Cohen’s a bit of a blind spot for me – I only really know the debut, which is ultra-simple musically (and probably the reason I haven’t gone further). He might well have got more sophisticated musically later – he was obviously a late bloomer as a musician, and a very sophisticated lyricist.

  7. Not sure where you are from, but have you heard of Sarah Blasko? You should earmark Sarah Blasko’s last album ‘Depth of Field’. She is one of Australia’s best sophisticated pop musicians. I absolutely love her music.

    • I’m from New Zealand. I’ve checked Sarah Blasko out a little bit – mainly because I was reading Robert Forster’s book of music essays, and he enjoyed one of her records. It was on a plane, but I should go back and check more.

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