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:
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 JulieThe Kinks, Waterloo Sunset
Every Friday night
But I am so lazy, don’t want to wander
I stay at home at night
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 napalmManic Street Preachers, Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart
Grenada – Haiti – Poland – Nicaragua
Who shall we choose for our morality
I’m thinking right now of Hollywood tragedy
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,Genesis, The Lamia
Silent sorrow in empty boats.
A sickly sourness fills the room,
The bitter harvest of a dying bloom.
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 skiesDon Henley, The End of the Innocence
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
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 hatredKendrick Lamar, The Blacker the Berry
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
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 standingLaura Nyro, The Beads of Sweat
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
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 goesJohn Prine, Sam Stone
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
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, flyingPaul Simon, Graceland
Or tumbling in turmoil I say
“Whoa, so this is what she means”
She means we’re bouncing into 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 worldThe Fall, The Classical
The rest are paste
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 weekTaylor Swift, All Too Well
‘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
Any more suggestions for a part four?
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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