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10 Best Lyricists of All Time

In popular music, lyrics are less important than the music. Often the words of popular songs float past innocuously. Stringing together meaningless words that sound good together can be an effective strategy – ask Jon Anderson or A.C. Newman. Bad lyrics can be a deal-breaker; I enjoy Flea’s bass playing but I can’t get past Anthony Kiedis’ lack of subtlety.

Some lyricists are genuinely talented writers. Here are ten lyricists from the rock era who, in my opinion, write legitimately good lyrics. Also-rans include Warren Zevon, Paddy McAloon, Chuck D., Paul Simon, and Bruce Springsteen.

Nick Cave

Australian musician Nick Cave writes on a typewriter. He’s published two novels – And the Ass Saw the Angel and The Death of Bunny Munro – but his literary streak carries over to his music. His words are often filled with Old Testament Biblical imagery and darkness.

And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of truth
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die

Nick Cave

Leonard Cohen

Cohen only switched to a musical career at the age of 33, after disillusionment at his lack of financial success as a writer. His literary abilities translated over to his songwriting, fuelling acclaimed records like The Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs of Love and Hate.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Anthem

Bob Dylan

Early rock’n’roll lyrics were often simplistic, about subjects like puppy love and cars. Robert Zimmerman came from folk and initially wrote protest songs. When he switched to rock and roll, he was influenced by writers like Arthur Rimbaud and Allen Ginsberg, and his surreal imagery expanded the vocabulary of rock and roll. In 2016 Dylan won a Nobel Prize in Literature.

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,
Oh, do they think could bury you?

Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

Craig Finn

The Hold Steady play bar-band rock, reminiscent of Springsteen and The Replacements, but front-man Craig Finn is clearly indebted to hip-hop. His lyrics are full of quickfire cultural references and narratives that cross over between albums, of Catholic guilt and youthful hedonism in the twin cities.

Lost in fog and love and faithless fear
I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere.

Citrus

Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell‘s music is sophisticated, particularly in her peak years between 1971 and 1976. Her accompanying lyrics are introspective and elegant. Coincidentally, the song quoted below (‘A Case of You’) is rumoured to be about another writer on this list, Leonard Cohen.

Oh, you are in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter
And so sweet, oh
I could drink a case of you darling, and I would
Still be on my feet

A Case of You

Nas

New York rapper Nasir Jones emerged with 1994’s Illmatic, a contender for the best debut album of all time. Writer William Jelani Cobb later referred to Nas as the “poetic sage of the Queensbridge projects”.

My window faces shootouts, drug overdoses.
Live amongst no roses, only the drama, for real.
A nickel-plate is my fate, my medicine is the ganja.
Here’s my basis my razor embraces, many faces.
Your telephone-blown, Black, stitches or fat shoelaces

Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)

Randy Newman

Randy Newman’s satirical streak puts him among rock music’s preeminent lyrics. He had a hit satirising discrimination, focusing on short people. His songs have covered a variety of unsavoury subjects; an advertising jingle for a slave ship, a conman convincing parents to let their large son join the circus, and more recently, a skewering of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Asia’s crowded
And Europe’s too old
Africa’s far too hot
And Canada’s too cold
And South America stole our name
Let’s drop the big one
There’ll be no one left to blame us

Political Science

Lou Reed

Like Bob Dylan, Reed was fascinated by literature. His lyrics with The Velvet Underground bought seediness into rock and roll; key track ‘Venus in Furs’ was based on a novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Reed later released a entire solo album, The Raven, based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe.

Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather
Whiplash girl child in the dark
Comes in bells, your servant, don’t forsake him
Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart

Venus In Furs

Gillian Welch

Gillian Welch‘s Americana is economical and unassuming, but she’s a talented wordsmith. She’s able to recreate the atmosphere of a haunted, early 20th century Appalachia with her words, and she’s just as eloquent writing about herself.

I met a lovesick daughter of the San Joaquin.
She showed me colors I’d never seen
And drank the bottom out of my canteen
Then left me in the fall
Like a wrecking ball.

Wrecking Ball

Paul Westerberg

Stereo Paul Westerberg Review

The Replacements were a shambolic and drunken outfit, but their front-man had the heart of a sensitive poet. Westerberg clearly enjoys playing with words, as titles like ‘What a Day (For a Night)’ and ‘Best Thing That Never Happened’ demonstrate. I don’t know what’s in the water in Minnesota, but Westerberg is the state’s third entry in this list.

Well you wish upon a star that turns into a plane
And I guess that’s right on par
Who’s left to blame?

Valentine

Did I leave out your favourite lyricist? Any suggestions?

41 thoughts on “10 Best Lyricists of All Time Leave a comment

  1. We agree on a couple of these. I listed Lennon/McCartney as one. You always knew who the primary songwriter was but they typically always contributed at least something to each other’s songs. Honorable mention – Smokey Robinson, Laura Nyro

    Bob Dylan
    Paul Simon
    Lennon/McCartney
    Bruce Springsteen
    Joni Mitchell
    Bernie Taupin
    Billy Joel
    Neil Young
    Chuck Berry
    Randy Newman

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nyro and Berry are good calls.

      I would like to quibble wwith a couple of your choices though. I find McCartney problematic when he doesn’t have Lennon to rein him in:
      Want a horse, I want a sheep
      I want to get me a good night’s sleep

      Taupin comes up with some really interesting imagery, but also some clunkers:
      Someone’s always playing corporation games
      Who cares they’re always changing corporation names

      I like Joel a lot, but wouldn’t let him anywhere near a list of greatest lyricists. In particular, I hate this couplet from early song ‘You’re My Home’:
      “You’re my castle, you’re my cabin
      And my instant pleasure dome”

      Instant? Doesn’t sound great for Mrs Joel.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Like Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle all dressed in green
          Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle till the moon is blue
          Wiggle till the moon sees you

          I guess it was unfair to call out McCartney’s solo stuff when you specified Lennon and McCartney together. And Taupin does have some interesting words, although for me he’s very all over the place. I do struggle with Joel thought- he writes music before lyrics, and lyrics often feel secondary for him.

          Liked by 1 person

        • A song I love ,”Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Dylan. These lyrics are meaningless

          “Don’t want to be a bum
          You better chew gum
          The pump don’t work
          ‘Cause the vandals took the handles

          I can agree on much of Paul’s solo stuff. But I can’t separate Lennon/McCartney in Beatles.

          “For No One” (largely, if not entirely, written by McCartney)

          our day breaks, your mind aches
          You find that all the words of kindness linger on
          When she no longer needs you
          She wakes up, she makes up
          She takes her time and doesn’t feel she has to hurry
          She no longer needs you
          And in her eyes you see nothing
          No sign of love behind the tears
          Cried for no one
          A love that should have lasted years!
          You want her, you need her
          And yet you don’t believe her when she says her love is dead
          You think she needs you
          And in her eyes you see nothing
          No sign of love behind the tears
          Cried for no one
          A love that should have lasted years!
          You stay home, she goes out
          She says that long ago she knew someone but now he’s gone
          She doesn’t need him
          Your day breaks, your mind aches
          There will be times when all the things she said will fill your head
          You won’t forget her
          And in her eyes you see nothing
          No sign of love behind the tears
          Cried for no one
          A love that should have lasted years!

          Liked by 1 person

        • I feel like McCartney’s smart guy who’s well capable of writing good lyrics, but his ability largely disappeared under a large, sweet smelling cloud of smoke in the early 1970s.

          Like

        • Alas, to a large extent, so did Lennon’s. I don’t believe either of them separately were as good as they were together. But over time I have found Paul’s stuff more listenable. And yes, I am eliminating crap like “Silly Love Songs.”

          I also don’t put Billy Joel in the category of Mitchell or Dylan. But some of his songs cut deep like “Innocent Man” or “Matter of Trust.”

          Oh, I just remembered somebody, dammit. Elvis Costello. How could I forget? Take Joel off and put him on and make Joel an also-ran.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Good review! It is difficult to find someone who combines cool music with great lyrics. When The Byrds took Dylan’s songs in the he 60s, it was magic.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent mix – Cohen would be up there for me too (Gord Downie & Stephen Malkmus would probably be my #1 & #2).
    I’ve only heard the one Gillian Welch album so far but I was really impressed by it!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I would have to have the 3 “S’s” Springsteen, Simon,and Smokey. I cannot disagree with who you have though. I know of most of them but one.

    I saw the earlier comments. Lennon and McCartney…if you take their songs from Rubber Soul on… they contend. Yes you have Maxwell and a few bad ones… but you also have I Am The Walrus, Happiness is a Warm Gun and Fool On The Hill.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Way too many for me to narrow it down. I do like some of your choices. Welch/Westerberg string some good ones together. Randy Newman has so many that i dig. “Big nasty redhead at my side”. Don’t forget ‘Be Bop a Lula’ by Gene Vincent. I’ll stop now.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oooft. That’s a fine list… best of all time, eh? For me, maybe a few changes, but only to fit in Joe Henry (you knew that was coming, right?), Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Richard Buckner, and Greg Dulli… Mark Lanegan, Neko Case… too tough to pick 10.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Great list. Can’t argue with some of your choices. I too, believe John Lennon and Paul McCartney deserve to be considered the very best. What about Don Henley and Glen Frey? They gave us some real gems in songs during the 70s, particularly Hotel California and its cryptic undertones. Also love Lyin Eyes. I’m also a big fan of Billie Joe Armstrong’s songwriting. Moreover, Dolly Parton doesn’t get enough love. Also a fan of Johnny Cash and Van Morrison’s songwriting chops.

    Liked by 1 person

    • With both of those writing duos, I’d probably zero in on one member – Henley’s a very good lyricist IMO. For some reason I love that line in ‘Boys of Summer’ – “Out on the road today, I saw a deadhead sticker on a cadillac,
      A little voice inside my head said: “Don’t look back, you can never look back.””

      Like

  8. Fun list. But any vest lyricist lust that excludes Paul Simon and Chuck Berry is incomplete IMO. A good case could also be made for Springsteen, Roger Waters, Pete Townsend, & Ray Davies too. Love Lou, Paul, & Gillian but maybe a bit further down this particular poll.
    I remember seeing Lou on a best guitarist list and I realized that its probably best for me to ignore all lists…ha!

    Liked by 1 person

    • IMO, there’s a Mt Rushmore of rock lyricists – Cohen, Newman, Dylan, and Cave. Then there’s basically a pool of worthy contenders, any of whom are good choices. I should do a part 2 sometime with 10 more choices.

      Lou on a best guitarist list is pretty outlandish….

      Liked by 1 person

  9. The worst kind of lyrics are the kind that are meant to have meaning, or meant to tell us something important, or meant to tell us something about the person writing and singing them. In other words, the kind that are meant to be taken seriously. Music is not literature or sociology, or poetry or philosophy. More often than not music is ruined by lyrics. The best kind of lyrics are nonsense style lyrics. The kind that at first appear to be saying something but on closer examination are really just a bunch of unrelated phrases and thoughts strung together. These are the best kind because you have to let the music itself create the meaning. Which is the way it’s supposed to be anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    • IMO the worst kind of lyrics is where the message takes priority over the music – examples for me include overtly political music (like Rage Against The Machine) or religious music.

      Like

      • Exactly. Only a very few people are able to come up with both the lyrics and the music to support that kind of songwriting. Most people who attempt it come up with neither lyrics or music that are good enough.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think the approach of trying to write impressionist poetry like Nick Drake generally works well. It’s quite genre dependent too, IMO. What works in metal doesn’t work in pop.

          Like

  10. And of course, the only real valuable function
    of lyrics is to give you something to sing so you don’t have to hum along to the music. Because it’s more fun to sing than to hum.

    Liked by 1 person

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