The Ten Next Best Singer-Songwriters Ever

Welcome back for a listen to ten more talented singer-songwriters – you can read part one here.

As before, 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 interpret it as artists who record as solo acts, who write their own self-examining songs, and accompany themselves on piano or acoustic guitar.

Here are ten more excellent singer-songwriters:

Sandy Denny

After leaving powerhouse folk-rock ensemble Fairport Convention, Denny explored a more contemporary sound with her solo career. Denny accompanied herself on piano and acoustic guitar on early 1970s records Sandy and Like An Old Fashioned Waltz, allowing her sumptuous vocals to shine.

I’ve always lived in a mansion
On the other side of the moon
I’ve always kept a unicorn
And I never sing out of tune.

Sandy Denny, Solo

Nick Drake

Nick Drake‘s pretty finger-picking and gentle vocals presaged the indie of the early 21st century. All three of his studio albums – 1969’s Five Leaves Left, 1970’s Bryter Layter, and 1972’s Pink Moon – are masterpieces.

I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Brighten my northern sky.

Nick Drake, Northern Sky

Freedy Johnston

Kansas born singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston sold the family farm to finance his second album. Fortunately 1992’s Can You Fly, was a huge critical success – Robert Christgau anointed it “a perfect album”. Johnston continued making strong albums, especially through the 1990s. He’s notable for his distinctive lyrical touch, where he can tell an evocative story in a few expertly-crafted words.

Well I sold the dirt to feed the band
Falling right through my hands

Freedy Johnston, Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know

Mark Kozelek

Mark Kozelek first emerged as the leader of slow-core band Red House Painters in the early 1990s. He’s charted an erratic path through popular music ever since, from an acoustic AC/DC cover album to his recent rough hewn stream-of-consciousness style. But he’s capable of gorgeous acoustic beauty – 2008’s ‘Lost Verses’ is written after the passing of his former muse, who also inspired the lovelorn ‘Katy Song’ from 1993’s Red House Painters. Ben Gibbard contributes beautiful harmony vocals, while the song ends with a Neil Young-style electric freak out.

I feel you, oh so near
When morning doves appear
And gusts of April rain
Echo the refrain
Soon finding a place
In these lost verses

They fill the foggy day
They hide the hills away
That steal our time
They are the picturesque night
The casting city lights
On the bay flowing into the ocean glowing

Mark Kozelek, Lost Verses

John Martyn

The late John Martyn is unfairly obscure. Born Iain David McGeachy and growing up in Glasgow, he started his career in folk. His distinctive slurred vocals and his interest in guitar effects – U2’s The Edge later cited him as an influence – gave him distinctive tools. 1973’s Solid Air is an acclaimed singer-songwriter album, 1977’s One World experiments with dub, while 1980’s Grace and Danger is an emotionally affecting divorce album.

It’s not the letters that you just don’t write
It’s not the arms of some new friend
It’s not the crying in the dead of the night
That keeps me hanging on, waiting for the end

Just that sweet little mystery that’s in your heart
Just that sweet little mystery makes me cry

John Martyn, Sweet Little Mystery

Nadia Reid

It may seem premature to include New Zealand’s Nadia Reid on this list, but she’s already made two very strong records – Preservation was rated as 2017’s second best album by Mojo magazine. Reid’s writing is economical and evocative, as though she sees the world differently than everyone else.

Richard liked the sound of his own voice
By the kitchen in the mirror
It extracted all of our teeth
Filled the sink with blood

Nadia Reid, Richard

Josh Rouse

Nebraskan Josh Rouse emerged in the late 1990s, but would have fitted in more comfortably a couple of decades earlier. One of his best-loved albums is 1972, a throwback to the mellow grooves and melodious flute of the singer-songwriter era. The story arc of 2002’s Under Cold Blue Stars and 2005’s emotionally charged Nashville are also fine records. Rouse’s music is breezy but memorable.

She was feelin’ 1972
Groovin’ to a Carole King tune
Is it too late baby?
It it too late?

Josh Rouse, 1972

Cat Stevens

Cat Stevens started his career as a teen idol and dabbled in different styles, but his legacy is centered on two albums he recorded in the early 1970s – Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat. Both are singer-songwriter classics, and full of hits like ‘Father and Son’, ‘Morning Has Broken’, and ‘Wild World’.

I built my house from barley rice
Green pepper walls and water ice
Tables of paper wood, windows of light
And everything emptying into white.

Cat Stevens, Into White

Sufjan Stevens

Not related to Cat Stevens, Detroit-born Sufjan Stevens is excellent at low-key heart-wrenching acoustic songs. He’s made stunning singer-songwriter albums, particularly 2015’s Carrie and Lowell. Stevens’ love of the minimal music of composer Steve Reich informed albums like the expansive 2005 album Illinois.

I should have wrote a letter
And grieve what I happen to grieve
My black shroud
I never trust my feelings
I waited for the remedy

When I was three, three maybe four
She left us at that video store
Be my rest, be my fantasy
Be my rest, be my fantasy

Josh Rouse, Should Have Known Better

Warren Zevon

Zevon subverted the usual LA soft-rock cliches, marrying a smooth sound to deeply disturbing lyrics. He’s inconsistent, but 1976’s self-titled record and 1978’s Excitable Boy are full of great songs like ‘The French Inhaler’ and ‘Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner’.

How’re you going to make your way in the world
When you weren’t cut out for working
When your fingers are slender and frail
How’re you going to get around
In this sleazy bedroom town
If you don’t put yourself up for sale

Warren Zevon, The French Inhaler

Did you favourite singer-songwriter miss the list? Any suggestions for part three?


  1. So this list is the usual mix of ‘Agreed’, ‘Not Sure’ and ‘Who?’ So, I know Sandy Denny to some extent but not well enough to comment on her songwriting prowess. And let us not overlook her singing with R. Plant which inevitably led to his duets with Alison Krauss. I know everybody raves about Nick Drake but I’ve never taken the time to delve deep. Johnston, Kozelek – don’t know. Martyn I know OF. I probably should know him better as he has a reputation as quite the skilled guitarist and his name pops up every now and again on the blogosphere. Nadia and Rouse I don’t know or maybe you’ve mentioned them before, can’t remember. Cat Stevens big yes. Like what I’ve heard from Sufjan on the radio. And of course the mad troubadour, Warren Zevon.

  2. You included Josh Rouse and “1972.” What a beautiful song. I first heard it when my dad died, and it stirs a lot of emotion whenever I hear it now. Great to see John Martyn, as he’s so talented, yet so under-appreciated, especially here in the states. Cat Stevens was, however, enormously popular over here (probably everywhere), but for me he was kindergarten. (Sorry about that, Cat Stevens fans.) And I love Sandy Denny, but where’s Richard Thompson?
    Look forward to Part 3, when you include my man Bert Jansch!

    • I wasn’t sure about Richard Thompson as I often like him best electric, but songs like ‘Beeswing’, ‘King of Bohemia’ and ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ certainly fit the singer-songwriter tradition. Jansch works too.
      Stevens is a little bit light-weight compared to some of the other guys – I used to dismiss him as second-tier, but I do think his tunefulness and accessibility is a good thing. Tea for the Tillerman is a very solid album, but his hits outside his singer-songwriter phase are often not very enjoyable (‘I Love My Dog’, ‘Another Saturday Night’).

  3. Four of those artists I’ve never heard of (Johnston/Martyn/Reid/Rouse) and that is exactly why your post is great to read and see a different perspective than my own!

    • Martyn has a couple of albums in 1001 Albums You Must Before You Die, so he’s relatively well canonised. Reid got a lot of good press with her second album a couple of years back – hopefully she has something new out soon.

      • I correct myself, I have stumbled upon Martyn, I see I added him to my ‘discographies to explore’ when you shared your Ten Best Songs Ever. Happy Nick Drake made the cut and I like you are not shy to include music from this century.Carrie and Lowell (2015) might appear on my best albums of the decade I’m working on.

  4. Glad you included Freedy Johnston…he fits well…I wouldn’t have thought of him because when I think of singer-songwriter my mind automatically goes to the early seventies…which is not right. Cat Stevens, Zevon, and Drake I know pretty well. Denny, I know some Fairport Convention but the others I will have to explore.

  5. Wow, I have to say except for Cat Stevens who I like, I hardly know anyone on this list! But that’s quite alright with me, since it means there’s more to explore. Based on the clips you included, all these singer-songwriter look worthwile to further check out.

    • Christian, you may want to start with Nick Drake. He only made three LPs in his short life (and a few non-LP songs). But he has incredible depth, and guitarists still scratch their heads over his unique tunings and fretboard work to this day. I discovered him in the late 1980s, and he led me into many other artists, some mentioned above. And like the great English romantic poets, he has that tragic element. Today, there’s a large cult that practically worships him.

      • Thanks! After I started checking out “Pink Moon”, I noticed I had listened to some of Drake’s music before. His voice has a bit of Donovan’s airy feel to it.
        In any case, Drake sounds great, and with only three records, he looks fairly easy to explore.

  6. I’ve never heard of Freedy Johnston, so that’s one I need to check out. I’ve been slowly digging into Martyn’s stuff… taking my time with it as it’s not my usual vibes. Cat Stevens is one I’ve never connected with at all.
    Good to see Rouse here, although I don’t love anything as much as I love 1972. Perfect album, that one. I also dig Sufjan. I saw him around the time of Illinoise and like his stuff a lot… though I haven’t heard his last one (need to rectify that).
    Kozelek is one of the best, even if he seems to veer of course occasionally.

  7. As usual you eclectic listening comes through. Some i know and some i don’t. I know you are a Townes guy. Have you ever checked out his buddy Guy Clark? A bunch of those Texas guys know how to spin the words and lay down some good guitar with them.

  8. Some great stuff here. Happy to see Josh Rouse – hadn’t thought of his music for a while. John Martyn is a solid choice and sad end. Look forward to pt 3

  9. Thanks for these great posts. My suggestion for part three would be Buffy Saint-Marie. I recently went through her catalogue and was stunned by songs like Until it’s time for you to go and Sometimes when I get to thinking. She has such a powerful voice, too!

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