10 More Excellent Lyricists

Last month’s post on best lyricists provoked lots of interesting discussion.The dialogue helped to crystalise my thinking that there’s a Mount Rushmore of rock lyricists (Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, and Leonard Cohen) and then a bunch of worthy runner-ups. I’d like to discuss ten more of those runner-ups in this post.

Thanks to readers for all your intelligent suggestions – I’ve included some in this list, and saved some others for a third episode.

Here are ten more excellent lyricists, in alphabetical order:

Chuck Berry

Early rock and roll often stuck to simple themes – subjects like puppy love, cars, and surfing. Early rock and roller Chuck Berry didn’t deviate far from this territory, but he wrote great lyrics within the simple framework:

Deep down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans
Way back in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B Goode

Jonny B Goode – Chuck Berry

Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne is an accomplished writer, perhaps epitomising the sensitive Californian singer-songwriter. He’s articulate, whether he’s analysing relationships or America’s foreign policy.

All the words had all been spoken
And somehow the feeling still wasn’t right
And still we continued on through the night
Tracing our steps from the beginning
Until they vanished into the air
Trying to understand how our lives has led us there

Late for the Sky – Jackson Browne

Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello is a sophisticated operator. He augmented the virtuosity of The Attractions with lyrics that dazzled with their clever wordplay (if you could understand Costello’s strained voice and English accent). This chorus, from 1980’s Get Happy, is jam-packed with puns:

New Amsterdam it’s become much too much
Till I have the possession of everything she touches
Till I step on the brake to get out of her clutches
Till I speak double dutch to a real double duchess

New Amsterdam – Elvis Costello

Chuck D

When New York collective Public Enemy arrived on the scene, they helped to politically charge hip hop. Hype man Flavor Flav provided comic relief while Chuck D gave intelligent discourse on political and cultural consciousness.

But I’ll give ’em a chance, ’cause I’m civilized
As for the rest of the world, they can’t realize
A cell is hell, I’m a rebel so I rebel
Between bars, got me thinkin’ like an animal

Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos – Public Enemy

John Darnielle

Indie folk band The Mountain Goats have been making records since the early 1990s, Leader Darnielle has written consistently thoughtful lyrics on records like The Life of the World to Come where every song is themed after a specific Bible verse. Critic Sasha Frere-Jones has described Darnielle as “America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist”.

The best ever death metal band out of Denton
Never settled on a name.
But the top three contenders, after weeks of debate,
Were Satan’s Fingers, and the Killers, and the Hospital Bombers.

The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton – The Mountain Goats

Paddy McAloon

In 1990’s ‘Paris Smith’, Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon announced his intention to be the “Fred Astaire of words”. His lyrics show a unique artistic voice, as do reports of many unfinished concept albums. Producer Thomas Dolby recalls visiting Paddy McAloon’s family home and watching him pull stacks of lyrics from under his bed.

Life’s a drive through a dust bowl, what’s it do, do to a young soul?
We are deeply concerned
Someone stops for directions, something responds deep in our engines
We have all been burned
Will heaven wait all heavenly over the next horizon ?

Cars and Girls – Prefab Sprout

Patti Smith

In her early song ‘Piss Factory’, New York’s Patti Smith wrote about her frustrations working in an assembly line. Her life changed when she shoplifted a copy of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations. Smith later said that “Rimbaud was like my boyfriend”, and it led her on the road to become a “punk poet laureate.”

Here I go when I don’t know why
I spin so ceaselessly
‘Til I lose my sense of gravity

Dancing Barefoot – Patti Smith

Bruce Springsteen

New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen has had two distinct phases in his career. He wrote free-spirited street poetry on his first three records, then simplified his words as he streamlined his sound from 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. One interesting feature in Springsteen’s lyric-writing is his use of the unreliable narrator – the shady dealer in ‘Meeting Across The River’ and the family deserter in ‘Hungry Heart’ are two notable examples.

Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back
Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going

Hungry Heart – Bruce Springsteen

Joe Strummer

The Clash Sandinista!

The Clash‘s primary vocalist and rhythm guitarist was born John Graham Mellor. Joe Strummer bought thoughtful political lyrics to the nihilism of punk. Strummer was a committed socialist and his father was in the foreign service, giving him an informed international perspective.

And if you can find a Afghan rebel
That the Moscow bullets missed
Ask him what he thinks of voting Communist
Ask the Dalai Lama in the hills of Tibet,
How many monks did the Chinese get?
In a war-torn swamp stop any mercenary,
and check the British bullets in his armory
Que? Sandinista!

Washington Bullets – The Clash

Warren Zevon

Zevon came from the same West Coast, singer-songwriter scene as Jackson Browne. His music was smooth, but his lyrics were laced with black humour. He’s sometimes thought of as a one-hit wonder, for ‘Werewolves of London’, but in particular 1976’s Warren Zevon and 1978’s Excitable Boy are terrific albums.

I went home with a waitress the way I always do
How was I to know she was with the Russians, too?

Lawyers, Guns and Money – Warren Zevon

Do you enjoy any of these lyricists? Any suggestions for the next episode?

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    • Thanks for the suggestions. Lennon is pencilled in for volume 3. Sting bugs me as he overreaches sometimes, like when he rhymes America and Hysteria on Russians.

  1. I’m reading this post and it occurred to me that I didn’t remember reading the original. Not sure how that happened. Well, I remedied that and have to agree with you on many of your choices on your top ten. There’s some good ones here too. And though he might not stack up with some of these icons, I really like Frank Turner’s lyrics. Some of my other personal faves include Miles Hunt (The Wonder Stuff), John K. Samson (The Weakerthans), and more recently, Phoebe Bridgers.

    • It’s pretty hard to go past the icons sometimes – older stuff has more time for the cream to rise to the top. I don’t know Turner and Hunt very well, but I’m a big Bridgers fan – I think she’s pretty much good at everything.

  2. One word: Morrissey. I missed your first list, but I don’t suppose he was on that either. Love him or hate him (and I know he is regarded as a berk, a misanthrope, a ponce and all the rest of it) he is one of the few rock lyricists who, if he’d been born centuries earlier, would have been a poet. He shot himself in the foot with Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, but by that time I think he knew the masses would never understand him. But the point is, he deals with subjects other writers wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. And he can be very funny – well, droll. Listen to Paint a Vulgar Picture, which is about a record company’s reaction when it has “on their hands a dead star.” And the hangers-on: “The sycophantic slags all say ‘I knew him first and I knew him well.'” Unhappy Birthday, directed at a former lover, “Cos you’re evil and you lie and if you should die, I may feel slightly sad but I won’t cry.” You don’t think that’s funny? He’s laughing bitterly at himself.
    In End of the Family Line he proclaims that’s the end of his family because he’s an only child and he’s never going to have children. Sheer class, sheer inventiveness of subjects.
    Sorry, Aphoristical, I’m abusing your hospitality. I will take this up on my recently-revived windingroadblog.com.

    • I like The Smiths a lot, although Marr is the main attraction for me.
      Morrissey is often brilliant – when Morrissey’s funny, they’re amazing. I actually think ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ has a light enough touch to work fine – the ones that drive me crazy are songs like ‘Never Had No One Ever’ when the humour’s gone and it’s just self-pity. He’s brilliant when he’s on song though.
      I noticed you recommended a solo Morrissey song on your blog recently – just don’t know enough about Morrissey’s solo career to make an intelligent comment.

      • I know what you mean about the self-pitying ones. You have to pick and choose with him. The one I featured on my blog was Every Day Is Like Sunday, which is pretty bleak. For a refreshing Morrissey cocktail, try The Lazy Sunbathers followed by Hairdresser on Fire.

  3. I agree with Enrique Chadicov…Lennon came to my mind. I also might add Ray Davies.
    Your list is good…I don’t know two of them very well but I agree with the ones I know.

  4. My top 5
    Peter Hammill
    Neil Peart
    Robert Hunter
    Neil Young
    Not to leave out Bob Dylan, but there are vast gaps in his career where he wrote anything of note, at least up until Blood on the Tracks there probably is no better songwriter.

    • I like this Dylan lyric from 1981 – I think it was more the music that suffered as his career went on.
      Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear
      Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer
      The sun beams down upon the steps of time to light the way
      To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay

  5. Damn. Ray Davies. Did I not mention him last time? I should have. Thirty lashes at the Whipping Post if I did not. Great, great songwriter. As to the rest of your list, I’ll take your word for it on Chuck D. A lot of people think of rappers as poets, street poets and maybe they are. I’m not familiar with Darnielle, McAloon. Never much thought of Strummer in terms of lyrics, but yeah. The rest, big thumbs up. My two favorites here are EC and the Boss. (Who, BTW, have been friends for years in a mutual admiration society.) Elvis’ lyrics are cleverer (“I said I’m so happy I could die, she said ‘drop dead; then left with another guy”), “Springsteen’s more poignant (“There’s a girl across the bar
    I get the message she’s sendin’, Mmm she ain’t lookin’ too married. And me well honey I’m pretending”)

    • I think with hip hop, there’s a lot more lyrical density than in a song, and I should probably have more than one hip-hop artist per list, but that’s a fair reflection of my listening habits.
      Davies (and Paul Simon and John Lennon) will be in the next edition. I think Strummer’s very good at getting leftist politics into music – I enjoy him a lot more than Zach de la Rocha, for example.
      I think there was a lot of interconnectedness between different people on this list. Jackson Browne wrote ‘For a Rocker’ about Springsteen, and produced Zevon’s breakthrough album. McAloon wrote ‘Cars and Girls’ as a kind of back-handed tribute to Springsteen.

  6. Paddy McAloon’s solo LP is going on the listen list. He doesn’t lack ambition saying he wants to be the “Fred Astaire of words”

  7. Favorite Springsteen lyric from the early years from Jungleland:
    Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain. damn does that paint a picture or what?
    Suggestion for future installment – John Hiatt – he has a real flair for the descriptive turn of phrase that can be poignant or hilarious. Probably my favorite artist after Springsteen.
    Would second an earlier comment re: Frank Turner as well.

  8. Nice post I too missed the first one, so many great lyricists out there, I would add Roy Harper for sure, Ray Davies, Townes Van Zandt, Richard Thompson, John Martyn, Sandy Denny, Joni, the list could quite literally go on and on.

    • Yeah it’s had me realising that there are a lot of good lyricists out there- Joni was on the first list, and Davies and Van Zandt should make the next one. Thompson’s a good call too.

  9. I’ve been thinking about this since your first post and I’ve come to the conclusion that where someone is a ‘singer songwriter’ we make more of an effort to listen to the lyrics. With that in mind I would add Kate bush and Peter Hammill. However sometimes members of bands are excellent lyricists but the miss out a bit because there’s other band stuff going on ie with the Smiths. How about Mark e Smith of the Fall? I know there’s a lot of drunken off the cuff rambling but through his lyrics he really did creat a wonderful and frightening world.

    • Yes, I definitely think lyrics are more crucial in genres where there are less layers musically – they’re right up at the forefront and impossible to ignore. Mark E Smith’s a great idea – hadn’t really thought about him at all, but lots of quotable lines.

  10. I think it’s odd that the most memorable lyrics were the ones by the early rock and rollers like Chuck Berry Buddy Holly or Jerry Lee Lewis and people like that. And a little later some of the Brill Building writers. And a little bit later Lennon / McCartney or Jagger /Richards. It’s really hard to say why . It could just be that they were fun to sing. And even when they occasionally wrote so-called meaningful lyrics , they didnt make you cringe. My other personal favorites are the writers in the 60’s pop rock bands Lovin’ Spoonful and The Turtles and The Rascals. All these so-called serious writers wish they could write songs that good. The only intellectual type songwriter with lyrics that
    I think are worth reading is Joni Mitchell. She actually had a flare for it.

  11. I like your lyricist lists and the eclectic range. Some suggestions: paul heaton, Pete Townsend, Davids Byrne, Tattersall (of the amazing wave pictures) and Bowie and Robyn Hitchcock

  12. Top 10 Favorite Lyricists
    Hal David (Bacharach/ David)
    Jim Morrison (The Doors)
    Paul McCartney (Beatles)
    Ray Davies (Kinks)
    Cynthia Weil (Brill Building)
    Joni Mitchell
    Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (Rolling Stones)
    John Sebastian (Lovin’ Spoonful)
    Smokey Robinson (Motown)
    Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots)
    Eddie Brigati/Felix Cavalieri (The Rascals)
    Neil Diamond
    David Bowie
    Richard Butler (The Psychedelic Furs)
    James Taylor

    • Some unconventional choices there, which is cool. I find too much Bacharach at once a tough slog, even even though I acknowledge he’s very clever. Ray Davies is obviously excellent, I’m surprised he didn’t crop up in the first installment.

      • I guess they are conventional choices, but the only criteria I really used is how pleasing they are when you sing along with them. Which probably has more to do with the music part and melody part of the song, but you know what I mean. lol.

    • I love him but never really think of him as a lyricist for some reason. His lyrics are often front-and-centre though.

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