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The Ten Best Singer-Songwriters Ever

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

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?
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

Jackson Browne, Late For The Sky

Bob Dylan

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 voices.

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.

Paul Kelly

Kelly’s obscure outside of the South Pacific, but has been producing high quality work for decades. Check out fellow blogger Cincinatti Babyhead’s take on early classic ‘To Her Door‘. 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 money
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

Paul Kelly, To Her Door

Carole King

Carole King Tapestry

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 hue
An everlasting vision of the ever-changing view

Carole King, Tapestry

Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell Blue

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 said
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

Joni Mitchell, A Case Of You

Will Oldham

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 friend
It’s what you told me
And can you see
What’s inside of me?

Bonnie “Prince” Billy, I See A Darkness

John Prine

Prine’s eponymous 1971 debut is lost in the shuffle of singer-songwriters from the era, but it’s my favourite album from the genre. Prine’s music is too country and rough-hewn for the mainstream, but many of his songs have been covered by more mainstream 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 County
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

John Prine, Paradise

Townes Van Zandt

Townes Van Zandt Live at the Old Quarter

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 plain
A warm bed just ain’t worth the pain
And I will go and you’ll remain
With the bitterness we tasted

Townes Van Zandt, Tower Song

Suzanne Vega

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 me
I’m fighting things I cannot see
I think it’s called my destiny
That I am changing

Suzanne Vega, Marlene on the Wall

Neil Young

Neil Young After The Goldrush

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 silver
Space ships flying
In the yellow haze of the sun

Neil Young, After The Gold Rush

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Did I leave out your favourite singer-songwriter? Maybe they’ll be in part two….

37 thoughts on “The Ten Best Singer-Songwriters Ever Leave a comment

    • I love Paul Simon but I don’t always think of him as a singer-songwriter – he dabbles in a lot of different things. James Taylor has some amazing songs but feels like an underachiever for me – great guitarist and great voice, but not a great run of albums. Cat Stevens is a shoo-in for part 2 – Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat are excellent.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Joni Mitchell is a great choice, btw.

        Recently, I watched the new documentary about David Crosby who called her the best of all singer-songwriters. While it felt like a genuine statement, of course, Crosby may be a bit biased, given Mitchell was one of his many lovers!😀

        The one thing that I sometimes find to be a bit of an acquired taste is her voice, especially when she sings very high. But once you get beyond this, you really have a great artist with remarkable versatility.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I agree with Crosby – Mitchell has a ton of musicality and lots to say lyrically. She only really has a couple of singer songwriter albums – her early stuff is more folk, it hasn’t dated as well and I imagine that’s where she sings very high. Then she switched to jazz. But Blue and For The Roses are excellent.

          There are a lot of mediocre vocalists on my list too, but Mitchell is an excellent singer.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Glad you included John Prine…He does get overlooked at times. I have a few in mind but I’m not sure if they are considered in that genre. Warren Zevon and Cat Stevens…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One of the reasons I like this blog thing is hearing about peoples favorites. You always follow your ear Aph. You have 3 of my favorites on here Kelly, Prine and Townes. Both Prine and Kelly are way over due on my station for a take. I have been into Paul’s music for a long time. He really is a special talent. After I seen your piece I busted out his ‘Comedy’ album for a listen. It’s like a visit with an old friend. Man does he have a truck load of good songs off of a bunch of good albums. I have ‘Blue stranger stuck in my head now. Thanks. It’s a good thing.
    Willl have to give Will some time. Who’s that Bob Dylan guy? Was he in a band?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great choices! I don’t know Paul Kelly, I see he’s Australian and has been active for a long time. Adding How To Make Gravy to my Xmas playlist. To Her Door (the song) I agree is very good. Nick Drake, T Waits, L Cohen, & Emmylou Harris I’m guessing will appear in P2.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Paul Kelly rules – it’s worth checking out the compilation Songs From the South or 1986’s Gossip if you want to hear more.

      I don’t know if those guys will make part 2 actually – maybe Drake? I don’t really think of Waits or Harris as singer-songwriters – even though Waits’ very early stuff or Harris’ 21st century stuff kind of qualify. I don’t enjoy Leonard Cohen very much.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Good list. I’d add Sweet Baby James and Paul Simon as well. Oddly, I’d had had Vega in mind to do a piece on in the not-too-distant future. I have a sort of personal connection to that band that I’ll expound on one day .

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you might have mentioned your connection with Vega before somewhere – like you know the bass player or something? I might have claim to two degrees of musical separation from Joe Walsh – I played in Church band with a guy who apparently used to be in Herbs. Herbs is a long-standing Kiwi reggae band, and Walsh was a member for a while in the late 1980s.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Kelly and Oldham are new to me (maybe because I’m a Yank?). Vega is a bit surprising, but the others I have no argument with. You Brits have a bumper crop of great singer-songwriters, yourselves (Drake, Thompson, Jansch, Denny, Archie Fisher, Van Morrison, Kevin Ayers etc.)

    BTW, Steve Earle idolized Van Zandt, and I read that he made that creative Dylan comparison in a flash of passion. I could be wrong, but I think he withdrew it later on!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m actually from New Zealand. We do have a really good young singer-songwriter named Nadia Reid, but I couldn’t really justify putting someone with two albums on the list. Oldham’s a Yank too, just works in more of an indie sphere and is more recent.

      I looked up Steve Earle, and I found an interview where he said that he made that quote for a CD release – he didn’t believe that Van Zandt was better than Dylan, but thought that Van Zandt needed the help.

      Like

  6. Cool list, and I’m a huge Joni Mitchell fan! The artist I would offer for you to consider is Bruce Cockburn. He is quoted by Bono of U2 in their song “God Part II” with one of the coolest lyrics ever, IMHO: “I’m going to kick the darkness until it bleeds daylight”. Now, maybe Bruce is not the best fit for the singer songwriter category, but possibly others are thinking of him too. He’s also a phenomenal guitarist (see, “Circles In The Stream”, 1977 live concert album).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for writing in!

      The list is actually in alphabetical order. I love Springsteen but much prefer him in E-Street Band mode, which doesn’t really qualify him as a singer songwriter. Zevon will be in part 2 – he seems a bit of a loose fit as he’s often electric and often telling story songs.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on Serving Musicians and commented:
    This post does a great job of highlighting some of the best singer songwriters. I really like the way this post is put together especially with each artist showcasing some of their best lyrics. I agree will almost all these choices, and it was an excellent read. The author seems to be very informed about music and it’s particulars.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Yes in the singer-songwriter category. I saw that. Just making the point that in lists like this its nearly impossible to include artists we don’t like – which precludes many of the options. Best usually just equals ‘stuff I like’. But maybe you managed to include some of your selections on reputation/popularity/influence alone…I know I wouldn’t though!

    Like

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