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:
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 OrleansJonny B Goode – Chuck Berry
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
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 spokenLate for the Sky – Jackson Browne
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
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 muchNew Amsterdam – Elvis Costello
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
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 civilizedBlack Steel in the Hour of Chaos – Public Enemy
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
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 DentonThe Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton – The Mountain Goats
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.
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?Cars and Girls – Prefab Sprout
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 ?
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 whyDancing Barefoot – Patti Smith
I spin so ceaselessly
‘Til I lose my sense of gravity
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, JackHungry Heart – Bruce Springsteen
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
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 rebelWashington Bullets – The Clash
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
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 doLawyers, Guns and Money – Warren Zevon
How was I to know she was with the Russians, too?
Do you enjoy any of these lyricists? Any suggestions for the next episode?