10 Additional Excellent Lyricists

In my opinion, rock music has four literary giants (Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Nick Cave, and Leonard Cohen) and then a whole bunch of other excellent writer. I’m covering ten more of them on this list, and but essentially it’s an excuse to throw ten excellent lyricists together and quote a favourite line from each. You can read part one and part two here,

Thanks to readers for all your excellent suggestions – I still couldn’t fit John Lennon on this list, so it looks like there’ll need to be a part four sometime.

Here are ten more excellent lyricists, in alphabetical order:

Ray Davies

The Kinks’ Ray Davies brought normalcy to rock lyrics in the 1960s. While his contemporaries were straying into psychedelia, Davies wrote vignettes about everyday life in England and pined for the simpler life of the past in ‘Village Green Preservation Society’.

Terry meets Julie
Waterloo station
Every Friday night
But I am so lazy, don’t want to wander
I stay at home at night

The Kinks, Waterloo Sunset

Richey Edwards

When he disappeared in 1995, Manic Street Preacher Richie Edwards had perhaps not reached his full potential as a lyricist. He could write articulately about both politics and his own personal pain, peaking on the 1994 masterpiece The Holy Bible.

Images of perfection, suntan and napalm
Grenada – Haiti – Poland – Nicaragua
Who shall we choose for our morality
I’m thinking right now of Hollywood tragedy

Manic Street Preachers, Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart

Peter Gabriel


Whether he’s embarking on flights of fancy in his early prog work with Genesis, or writing socially conscious and personal words in his solo career, Peter Gabriel‘s wordplay is consistently fascinating. Gabriel almost left Genesis before The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway when Exorcist director William Friedkin invited him to write a screenplay.

Each empty snakelike body floats,
Silent sorrow in empty boats.
A sickly sourness fills the room,
The bitter harvest of a dying bloom.

Genesis, The Lamia

Don Henley

Henley’s early work in the Eagles suffers from collaborating in a writing team with Glenn “Chug All Night” Frey. When Henley took control over most of the band’s words around the time of Hotel California, his lyrics started picking away at the dark underbelly of the American dream on songs like ‘The Last Resort’. This continued with his solo career, on notable songs like ‘The Boys of Summer’ and ‘The End of the Innocence’.

O’ beautiful, for spacious skies
But now those skies are threatening
They’re beating plowshares into swords
For this tired old man that we elected king
Armchair warriors often fail
And they’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales
The lawyers clean up all details
Since daddy had to lie

Don Henley, The End of the Innocence

Kendrick Lamar


Compton’s Kendrick Lamar raised eyebrows when he won a Pulitzer Prize for music in 2018 – the first non-classical or jazz artist to earn the award. He’s a contender for the most significant musical artist of the last decade, releasing a string of critically acclaimed rap records.

This plot is bigger than me, it’s generational hatred
It’s genocism, it’s grimy, little justification
I’m African-American, I’m African
I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan
I’m black as the name of Tyrone and Darius

Kendrick Lamar, The Blacker the Berry

Laura Nyro

New York’s Laura Nyro was never a big selling artist, and she’s better known as the writer of 1960s hits for like ‘Eli’s Coming’ and ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’. Her albums from the late 1960s and early 1970s are gorgeous, however – her words and music are impressionistic and unique.

Five boys standing
On the banks of the river
Waiting for the virgin snow
Searching for a miracle
A pearl in an oyster
And we all looked out to God
Although He is the colour of the wind
Listen to the wailing
Of the rain in the river

Laura Nyro, The Beads of Sweat

John Prine

The late John Prine released a lot of great country-folk records, but it’s difficult to go past his stone-cold classic 1971 debut. Prine was extremely empathetic, able to write from the perspective of an old person in ‘Hello In There’ and a heroin addict addled by the Vietnam War in ‘Sam Stone’.

There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes
Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose
Little pitchers have big ears
Don’t stop to count the years
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios

John Prine, Sam Stone

Paul Simon

Paul Simon Graceland

Paul Simon‘s songs contain phrases that have passed from his pen into the common vernacular – “slip sliding away”, “bridge over troubled water”. Simon’s early lyrics in Simon and Garfunkel are sometimes overly pretentious (“And you read your Emily Dickinson/And I my Robert Frost/And we note our place with book markers/That measure what we’ve lost” is an awkward early couplet), but by the late 1960s he’d developed his own voice. In the 1980s, with the phenomenally successful Graceland, Simon’s lyric writing had developed into a freer, impressionistic style.

And sometimes when I’m falling, flying
Or tumbling in turmoil I say
“Whoa, so this is what she means”
She means we’re bouncing into Graceland

Paul Simon, Graceland

Mark E. Smith

The Fall’s Mark Edward Smith was a distinctive vocalist, delivering his words in a drunken Mancunian slur and ending most lines with a derisive “-uh”. But there were gems of poetic insight among his rambling – he was a prolific writer who recorded his words in notebooks, ready to be shaped into Fall lyrics.

There are twelve people in the world
The rest are paste

The Fall, The Classical

Taylor Swift

Country and pop star Taylor Swift is often an object of derision among older music fans. But she’s an excellent lyricist, peppering her words with specific details that stick in the listener’s mind. Swift has stated that if she wasn’t a songwriter, she would have chosen a career writing advertising slogans.

But you keep my old scarf from that very first week
‘Cause it reminds you of innocence and it smells like me
You can’t get rid of it, ’cause you remember it all too well

Taylor Swift, All Too Well

Any more suggestions for a part four?

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  1. I have to admit when it comes to songs, I generally pay much more attention to the music than the lyrics. Usually, it’s stuff like guitar riffs, bass lines, or great solos that attract me. I’m also really into vocals. While I realize vocals are typically connected to lyrics, primarily, it’s melody and features like harmony singing that grab me. If on top of all a song has great lyrics, even better!
    Following are five spontaneous examples of lyrics I find cool:
    – The Inner Light (The Beatles/George Harrison): …Without going out of your door/You can know all things on earth/Without looking out of your window/You could know the ways of heaven/The farther one travels/The less one knows/The less one really knows…
    – Have a Cigar (Pink Floyd/Roger Waters):..I’ve always had a deep respect and I mean that most sincere/The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think/Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink?…
    – Allentown (Billy Joel):..Well we’re waiting here in Allentown/For the Pennsylvania we never found/For the promises our teachers gave/If we worked hard/If we behaved…
    – Sunday Morning Coming Down (Kris Kristofferson):…Well, I woke up Sunday morning/ With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt/And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad/So I had one more for dessert…
    – Drowning on Dry Land/Fish Soup (Manfred Mann’s Earth Band/ Chris Slate, Dave Flett & Manfred Mann): Sitting in a silent room/The walls around me screaming/Rely on nothing wait on no one/Standing between light and dark/Watch the mirrors gleaming/Shine on nothing showing no one…

    • Thanks for the thorough response!
      I couldn’t quite squeeze Waters in to part 3 – maybe part 4.
      Harrison has some good lines for sure – I like the opening to Taxman – “Let me tell you how it will be/There’s one for you, nineteen for me.”
      Joel has some lines in his songs that I really hate, but Allentown is really good. I barely know Kristofferson, but that’s an iconic line.

      • Of course, I realize while you discussed lyricists overall, I just pulled some random lines I dig. I agree, btw, “Taxman” is another great George Harrison song.
        As for Kristofferson, I know very little about his music, but I’ve really come to love this particular song. I think it’s great cinematic story-telling.
        Last but not least, I hear you regarding Billy Joel. “Allentown” is perhaps an exception, though I also like “Goodnight Saigon”.

        • I wasn’t too scientific either – if I was doing it properly I would have made a big ranked list at the start and fed it out methodically. Although I think it’s fine to just have a top 4 and a whole bunch of runner ups.
          Even Goodnight Saigon has some awkward lines. I think it’s great overall, but lines like “They heard the hum of the motors
          They counted the rotors
          And waited for us to arrive” are pretty clunky. I heard that, unlike most writers, Joel writes the music first and then makes lyrics to fit.

  2. Good list…I’m glad to see John Prine.
    I thought about a name the last time you did this but he may not fit with what you are looking for… Hank Williams. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry is a great example.

  3. Lyrics in general mean very little to me. Even a good lyric doesn’t really add anything to somebody’s music. However, a good-natured lyric that describes an amusing person or an amusing place or an amusing situation can do wonders for somebody’s music. Your mentioning of Ray Davies made me think about this. And the mid-sixties Kinks and Beatles are a good example of what I mean. The way they sketch out a certain place or a certain time that sets your imagination going so that you actually develop a picture in your head of what these people and places actually look like. It’s usually kind of sentimental, but it leaves you with a really good feeling. A lot of 60s music was like this where it just gave you enough information for you to picture it in your mind. That’s probably my favorite kind of lyrics.

  4. Paul Simon would be further up my list, if only for I Do It For Your Love from Still Crazy. It’s a love song about a young couple getting together in the city: no money, crummy apartment, the story of many of our lives. Then, having built this relationship up for us over a few evocative verses, he kills it off in three lines:
    The sting of reason, the splash of tears
    The northern and the southern hemispheres
    Love emerges and it disappears.

    • Those are good lines – I’m not so fond of
      I like to sleep with the window open
      And you keep the window closed
      So goodbye, goodbye, goodbye…
      from the same album, although the banality of the lyrics does kind of work.

  5. I know it seems a little cliché, but maybe he’s cliché for a reason. I’m suggesting adding Conor Oberst to a future list. There’s a reason Rolling Stone once referred to him as the “Bob Dylan of our generation.” If you’re familiar, I know suggestions aren’t necessary, but if you aren’t, check out Bright Eyes’s “Classic Cars” or “No Lies, Just Love” or “Bowl of Oranges” or literally anything off the “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” album.

    • Thanks for writing in!
      Basically my experience with Oberst is that I heard some songs back when he was huge (around 2005) but I didn’t really like his voice and didn’t listen further. But I really like that album he made with Phoebe Bridgers last year, so I’ve been meaning to explore him further. Sounds like I should check out I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.

  6. To think of all the genuinely talented lyricists that weren’t included, yet Taylor Swift was. Good lord. Could have at least mentioned her first so I would’ve known not to waste my time reading it.

  7. So you think Taylor Swift is a better Lyricist than Gord Downie??
    I know music is subjective art but that’s an insane proposition

  8. Three lists. No Morrissey. Sigh. Don Henley and Taylor Swift. No Morrissey.
    Here’s the lyrics to the Smiths “The Queen Is Dead”
    Farewell… to this land’s cheerless marshes
    Hemmed in like a boar between archers1
    Her very Lowness with her head in a sling
    I’m truely sorry but it sounds like a wonderful thing
    “I say, Charles, don’t you ever crave
    To appear on the front of the Daily Mail
    Dressed in your Mother’s bridal veil?”
    And so I checked all the registered historical facts
    And I was shocked into shame to discover
    How I’m the 18th pale descendent
    Of some old queen or other
    Oh has the world changed or have I changed?
    Oh has the world changed or have I changed?
    As some 9-year old tough who peddles drugs
    (I swear to God, I swear)
    I never even knew what drugs were
    So I broke into the Palace
    With a sponge and a rusty spanner
    She said: “Eh, I know and you cannot sing!”
    I said: “That’s nothing, you should hear me play piano!”
    We can go for a walk where it’s quiet and dry
    And talk about precious things
    But when you’re tied to your Mother’s apron
    No one talks about castration
    We can go for a walk where it’s quiet and dry
    And talk about precious things
    Like Love and Law and Poverty
    These are the things that kill me
    We can go for a walk where it’s quiet and dry
    And talk about precious things
    But the rain that flattens my hair
    These are the things that kill me
    Pass the Pub that saps your body
    And the church who’ll snatch your money
    The Queen is dead, boys
    And it’s so lonely on a limb
    Pass the Pub that wrecks your body
    And the church – all they want is your money
    The Queen is dead, boys
    And it’s so lonely on a limb
    Life is very long when you’re lonely
    Life is very long when you’re lonely
    Life is very long when you’re lonely
    Life is very long when you’re lonely

  9. When you think he’s in self pity mode, he’s probably not. He has always been about turning the love song on its head. He writes with a strong sense of irony, which Americans struggle with. The Brits are the masters of irony. The reputation Morrissey has for being depressing or self pitying comes from people who don’t understand his music. I can find some humor in nearly every Smith’s song. Part of Morrissey’s brilliance is that what appears on the surface is rarely what you find if you dig a little deeper.

  10. I really dug this list of 30, though to me there’s one glaring omission. I’d have had many of these (Dylan, Prine, Browne, Costello, Joni etc.) Those are pretty universal i think. I loved your inclusion of Gillian Welch. Incredibly underrated, criminally so I’d say. I’d have included nick Drake and Kristen Hirsh of Throwing Muses. My biggest gripe is no Pete Townshend!! He’s probably my #1. “Can’t Explain” may be the best 2 and a half minute song of all time with accessible but not pandering lyrics of teenage angst. “My Generation” is sheer perfection. “Substitute”, “pictures of Lily” are perfect lyrics too!! I’m biased as I am a Who superfan but Pete words things in simple yet profound ways that no other artist ever has!!

    • Townshend is a good point as a lyricist actually – Quadrophenia is a very interesting concept. I’m not the biggest Who fan, although I should cover them sometime.

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Graham Fyfe has been writing this website since his late teens. Now in his forties, he's been obsessively listening to albums for years. He works as a web editor and plays the piano.

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