Google’s dictionary defines singer-songwriter as “a person who sings and writes popular songs, especially professionally.” The term’s come to have a more specific meaning – I understand it to mean artists who record as solo acts, who write their own lyrics and tunes, and usually accompany themselves on piano or acoustic guitar.
The singer-songwriter movement peaked in the early 1970s, with James Taylor’s cover story on Time Magazine helping to define the genre. It’s not surprising that many of my choices came from the early 1970s, but great new singer-songwriters have continued to emerge.
Here are my ten favourite singer-songwriters – there were many great artists who I couldn’t squeeze onto this list, so I’m planning a sequel for next month.
The Ten Best Singer-Songwriters Ever
Jackson Browne‘s songs were confessional, personal, and poetic. He arrived a little late in the early 1970s singer-songwriter boom – his debut album, known as Saturate Before Using, was released in 1972. Browne was the quintessential sensitive Californian singer-songwriter, especially on his masterpiece, 1974’s Late For The Sky.
Recommended Singer-Songwriter Album: Late For The Sky
How long have I been sleeping?Jackson Browne, Late For The Sky
How long have I been drifting alone through the night
How long have I been running for that morning flight
Through the whispered promises and the changing light
Of the bed where we both lie
Late for the sky
Bob Dylan‘s covered an enormous amount of musical territory in his iconic career. During his mid-1960s peak, Dylan often communicated in inscrutable beatnik poetry. But there’s enough straightforward honesty in songs like the early classic ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ and the relationship dramas of Blood on the Tracks ensure Dylan’s legacy as a singer-songwriter. Dylan took the influence of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, and opened the door for other musicians with great songs and limited vocal ability.
Recommended Singer-Songwriter Album: Blood on the Tracks
I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul.Bob Dylan, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.
Melbourne’s Paul Kelly is obscure outside of the South Pacific, but has been producing high quality work for decades. You know you’re a great songwriter when there’s an entire Twitter account dedicated to one of your iconic songs (https://twitter.com/itsthegravyman?lang=en).
Recommended Singer-Songwriter Album: Gossip
They got married early, never had no moneyPaul Kelly, To Her Door
Then when he got laid off, they really hit the skids
He started up his drinking, then they started fighting
He took it pretty badly, she took both the kids
Carole King was a prolific and successful songwriter in the 1960s, writing hits like ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ and ‘Up On The Roof’ with then-husband Gerry Goffin. When she struck out on her own, 1971’s Tapestry was the quintessential singer-songwriter album, packed with classic compositions like ‘So Far Away’ and ‘It’s Too Late’. King’s unremarkable voice only added to the intimate charm, and she reclaimed 1960s hit ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ as her own.
Recommended Singer-Songwriter Album: Tapestry
My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hueCarole King, Tapestry
An everlasting vision of the ever-changing view
Joni Mitchell started her career in the 1960s as a folk singer, with compositions like ‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘The Circle Game’. When personal, low-key songs became the zeitgeist, Mitchell released the classic Blue. She was emotionally naked on songs like ‘Little Green’, about the daughter she gave up for adoption, and ‘A Case Of You’. Mitchell was too talented to stay in one genre, and her jazz-infused work from the mid-1970s is also brilliant.
Recommended Singer-Songwriter Album: Blue (and For The Roses)
Just before our love got lost you saidJoni Mitchell, A Case Of You
I am as constant as a northern star” and I said
Constantly in the darkness
Where’s that at
If you want me I’ll be in the bar
Oldham has recorded under a variety of monikers – he started in the 1990s as Palace Brothers, before recording as Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Oldham’s delicate voice delivers dark folk songs. Oldham’s most revered work is 1999’s I See A Darkness; Pitchfork rated it as the 9th best album of the 1990s, while Johnny Cash covered the title track.
Recommended Singer-Songwriter Album: I See A Darkness
Well you’re my friendBonnie “Prince” Billy, I See A Darkness
It’s what you told me
And can you see
What’s inside of me?
Prine’s eponymous 1971 debut is lost in the shuffle of singer-songwriters from the era, but it’s one of the strongest albums the genre has to offer. Prine’s music is too country and rough-hewn for the mainstream, but many of his songs have been covered by high-selling artists. Prine’s a fascinating lyricist – as well as the then-topical Vietnam War, Prine also discusses masturbation, the loneliness of the elderly, drug addiction, and environmental concerns.
Recommended Singer-Songwriter Album: John Prine
And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg CountyJohn Prine, Paradise
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away
Townes Van Zandt
Townes Van Zandt is classified as Texas folk, but his simple, poetic songs qualify him as a singer-songwriter. Van Zandt’s songs were often tinged with melancholy; he’s quoted as saying “There’s only two kinds of music: the blues and zippety doo-dah.” Famously, Steve Earle endorsed him with the quote “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Van Zandt’s studio catalogue is sometimes frustrating, and he’s best heard on 1977’s Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas, delivering unadorned versions of classics like ‘Pancho and Lefty’ and ‘To Live Is To Fly’.
Recommended Singer-Songwriter Album: Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas
The end is coming soon, it’s plainTownes Van Zandt, Tower Song
A warm bed just ain’t worth the pain
And I will go and you’ll remain
With the bitterness we tasted
Vega emerged in the middle of the 1980s, hardly the ideal time for a singer-songwriter to prosper. She established herself with songs like ‘Marlene on the Wall’ and ‘Luka’, and continued to find success with her wistful, introspective songs. Vega explained about ‘Marlene on the Wall’ to SongTalk magazine: “That was a truthful song. The lines came out of my life. But you want to be careful, too, because you don’t want to get into ‘Oh, my boyfriend left me…’ I have a problem with specifically confessional songwriting. I think you have to craft it in some way. I don’t think you can come on stage and blurt out your innermost feelings. My niece can blurt out her innermost feelings. She’s four years old. I wouldn’t want to pay $25 to go see her do that. You need to put it in a form.”
Recommended Singer-Songwriter Album: Suzanne Vega
Marlene watches from the wall
Her mocking smile says it all
As the records the rise and fall
Of every soldier passing
But the only soldier now is meSuzanne Vega, Marlene on the Wall
I’m fighting things I cannot see
I think it’s called my destiny
That I am changing
Neil Young liked to play primitive rock and roll with Crazy Horse, but he also delivered some great material in singer-songwriter mode. His vulnerable, high-pitched voice suited his personal songs. Highlights from his catalogue include the environmental concerns and piano of ‘After The Gold Rush’, the heroin lament of ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’, and the Crosby, Stills, and Nash dissection of ‘Thrasher’.
Recommended Singer-Songwriter Album: After The Gold Rush
Well, I dreamed I saw the silverNeil Young, After The Gold Rush
Space ships flying
In the yellow haze of the sun
Did I leave out your favourite singer-songwriter? Maybe they’ll be in part two….