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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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 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’.
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 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?