100- Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson
Benny and Björn had already been a songwriting duo for six years when they teamed up with their girlfriends Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fältskog — who were both Swedish pop stars already — to form Abba. The two of them were hardcore about songwriting: they bought a cottage on the island of Viggsö where they could focus on making their music and lyrics as catchy as humanly possible. “Each song had to be different,” Andersson said in 2002, “because, in the Sixties, that’s what the Beatles had done. The challenge was to not do another ‘Mamma Mia’ or ‘Waterloo.'” Ulvaeus’s lyrics grew progressively darker over the course of Abba’s career, even as the band became so unbelievably popular that they were able to release an 18-song greatest hits album simply called Number Ones. After the band split up, Ulvaeus and Andersson went on to collaborate on several musicals — including the Abba jukebox musical, Mamma Mia!, one of the most successful in Broadway history.
99- Tom T. Hall
Hall was an English major who said he learned to write songs by osmosis, soaking up everything from Dickens to Hemingway. His best work was charged with literary irony but unfolded with the ease of spoken language, as when the mini-skirted heroine of “Harper Valley P.T.A.” struts into the local junior high and exposes small-town hypocrisy by asking why Mrs. Taylor uses so much ice when her husband’s out of town. A Number One pop and country hit for Jeannie C. Riley in 1968, it freed Hall to record his own work, which included songs about burying a man who owed him 40 dollars, mourning the death of the local hero who taught him how to drink and play guitar, and “Trip to Hyden,” a journalistic tale of a drive to the scene of a mining disaster that was part Woody Guthrie, part Studs Turkel. One of Nashville’s most overtly political songwriters, he was a liberal who recorded “Watergate Blues” and turned a drink in a bar after the 1972 Democratic convention into a Number One country hit called “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine.” “I couldn’t write the ‘Darling, you left alone and blue’ or ‘I’m drunk in this bar and crying’ [songs]— I just didn’t get it,” he once said. “And so I started writing these story songs.”
98- Otis Blackwell
A Brooklynite who was equally entranced by R&B and country (claiming his favorite singer was C&W mainstay Tex Ritter), Otis Blackwell began his career with 1953’s “Daddy Rollin’ Stone,” which has been covered repeatedly. But large-scale success as a performer eluded him. “I didn’t dig it. Got more into writing,” he said. When Elvis Presley recorded one of his songs, the result was 1956’s epochal “Don’t Be Cruel,” which was simultaneously Number One on the pop, R&B and country charts. Blackwell subsequently gave Elvis “All Shook Up” and “Return to Sender,” and wrote a cluster of hits for other artists, including “Great Balls of Fire” for Jerry Lee Lewis. And even though Blackwell’s own singing career never took off, it’s been noted that his vocals on demos of songs that Presley recorded were followed faithfully by the King. “At certain tempo, the way Elvis sang was the result of copying Otis’ demos,” said Blackwell’s friend Doc Pomus. Oddly, Blackwell and Presley never met.
97- Taylor Swift
Many singer-songwriters reach the point where they have too many great tunes to fit into a live show. Taylor Swift reached that peak before she turned 21. And then she just kept going. She might be the youngest artist on this list — as you may have heard, she was born in 1989, the year Green Day released their first record. But she’s already written two or three careers’ worth of keepers. “Hi, I’m Taylor,” she told the crowds on her Red tour. “I write songs about my feelings. I’m told I have a lot of feelings.” Swift’s first three albums display her emotional yet uncommonly inventive country style — even early hits like “Our Song” and “Tim McGraw” sound like nobody else. (Only she could slip the line “Any snide remarks from my father about your tattoos will be ignored” into a teen romance like “Ours.”) But she’s really hit her stride with the pop mastery of Red and 1989, especially on confessional ballads like “Clean” and “All Too Well.” There’s no limit to where she can go from here.
96- Timbaland and Missy Elliott
“If you listen to my songs, they tell stories,” Missy Elliott has said. “I write almost as if I’m in conversation with somebody.” The crucible of her collaboration with Timbaland was the Swing Mob, a loose constellation of performers and producers who worked with Jodeci’s DeVante Swing in the early Nineties. Tim and Missy started working in earnest as a writing team in 1996, when they collaborated on most of Aaliyah’s One in a Million. That was followed by Missy’s 1997 breakthrough Supa Dupa Fly — a set of cool, witty, deceptively minimal tracks that flipped between hip-hop, R&B and electronica with finger-snapping ease — and a string of genre-melting records like “Get Ur Freak On” and “Work It” that lasted until the early 2000s. The duo has also penned hits for other artists including SWV’s “Can We,” Total’s “Trippin'” and Tweet’s “Call Me.” Missy hasn’t released a new album for 10 years, but she and Timbaland have dropped hints that they’ve got something brewing.
95- The Bee Gees
America first discovered the Bee Gees with the 1977 disco soundtrack Saturday Night Fever. But that multiplatinum triumph was just the tip of the iceberg: Australian brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb were massively successful songwriters for decades. Elton John has called them “a huge influence on me as a songwriter”; Bono has said their catalog makes him “ill with envy.” The Bee Gees’ earliest hits (“New York Mining Disaster 1941,” “To Love Somebody”) were melancholy psychedelia, and their first U.S. Number One single, “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” was promptly covered by Al Green. But when they took a stab at disco with 1975’s “Jive Talkin’,” their career kicked into an even higher gear. Besides their own hits (including a string of six consecutive Number Ones), the brothers wrote the title song for Grease, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream,” Barbra Streisand’s “Guilty,” and Destiny’s Child’s “Emotion.” “We see ourselves first and foremost as composers, writing for ourselves and other people,” Robin Gibb said.
94- John Prine
Maybe it’s his family’s blue-collar background or the years he spent delivering mail before becoming a full-time musician. But John Prine has always had the innate ability to emphatically capture the highs, lows and occasional laughs of everyday Americans and fringe characters: the drug-addled vet in “Sam Stone,” the lonely older folks in “Angel from Montgomery” and “Hello in There.” One of a group of early Seventies singer-songwriters to get pegged with the unfortunate tag “New Dylan,” Prine has written poignant songs of romantic despair (“Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”), songs that sound like centuries-old mountain ballads (“Paradise”) and ribald comic masterpieces aimed at advice columns and various crazies. “You write a song about something that you think might be taboo, you sing it for other people and they immediately recognize themselves in it,” Prine says. “I call it optimistic pessimism. You admit everything that’s wrong and you talk about it in the sharpest terms, in the keenest way you can.”
93- Billie Joe Armstrong
“Back then, I just wanted to write songs I could be proud of and be able to play in five years,” Billie Joe Armstrong said last year of his attitude while creating Green Day’s 1994 pop-punk breakthrough Dookie. The LP went on to sell millions and Armstrong — who didn’t get the credit he deserved as a writer back in the days of more serious-minded bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam — has amassed one of the most impressive song books of the last 20 years. His 1996 acoustic ballad “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” has become a standard and a pop cultural touchstone; the Who-scale ambition of 2004’s American Idiot made for a rock-opera that remains a totemic response to the Bush era; and Green Day’s recent three-album trilogy, Uno!, Dos!, Tre!), displayed a mastery of styles from throughout rock & roll history. And Armstrong is a punk through and through: the whole band gets songwriting credit on its hugely successful catalog.
92- Paul Westerberg
Paul Westerberg wasn’t precious about his craft (“I hate music/It’s got too many notes,” he sang on the first Replacements album in 1981). But he become the American punk-rock poet laureate of the Eighties, reeling off shabbily rousing underdog anthems like “I Will Dare” and “Bastards of Young,” as well as beautifully afflicted songs like “Swinging Party” and “Here Comes a Regular.” A high-school dropout, Westerberg spoke for a nation of smart, wiseacre misfits, paving the way for Green Day and Nirvana, both of which were led by avowed Replacements fans. “Westerberg could be barreling along and do ‘Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out’ or ‘Gary’s Got a Boner,’ and then he could slide into ‘Unsatisfied’ or ‘Sixteen Blue,’ says Craig Finn of the Hold Steady. “So you think this guy was this drunk, punkish dude and all the sudden he’s really sensitive and really vulnerable. Because he’s got you looking both ways, it’s bigger, it hits harder. Or softer, depending on how you look at it.” Westerberg has his own explanation for his unique underdog genius: “I think the opposite when I see something,” he once said. “I have dyslexia, and I’ve used it to its best advantage.”
With a talent for wordplay that can be as head-spinning as it is disturbing, and a knack for incessant sing-song choruses that suggest he might’ve thrived in a Brill Building cubicle, Eminem crams hugely popular songs with more internal rhymes and lyrical trickery than anyone else in contemporary pop. His most recent Number One, “The Monster,” features bonkers couplets like “Straw into gold chump, I will spin/Rumpelstiltskin in a haystack/Maybe I need a straight jacket, face facts.” Like his character in the 2002 biopic 8 Mile, Eminem honed his formidable skills in Detroit rap battles, then polished his rhymes in the studio over springy Dr. Dre tracks that gave him room to freak out as agilely and aggressively as he liked. “Even as a kid, I always wanted the most words to rhyme,” Eminem told Rolling Stone. “Say I saw a word like ‘transcendalistic tendencies.’ I would write it out on a piece of paper and underneath, I’d line a word up with each syllable: ‘and bend all mystic sentence trees.’ Even if it didn’t make sense, that’s the kind of drill I would do to practice.”
Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds rose to fame for his work with Antonio “L.A.” Reid on Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel, reinforcing taut R&B songwriting with hard hip-hop beats to help create New Jack Swing. But Edmonds’ true legacy is as a craftsman of thoughtful ballads and mid-tempo romantic material, with his own solid career as a performer often overshadowed by the huge successes he’s enabled other artists to enjoy: “End of the Road,” which he wrote for Boyz II Men, broke records with its 13-week run as the Number One song on the Billboard Hot 100. Edmonds has said, “I don’t just come in with songs. I talk with the artist and find out what they will or won’t sing about.” That technique has helped him develop an unrivaled gift for matching a lyric and a mood with a particular singer, especially a particular female singer. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Whitney Houston giving shape to “Exhale (Shoop Shoop),” anyone but Mary J. Blige taking a stand with “Not Gon’ Cry,” anyone but Toni Braxton lending the necessary sultry edge to the many songs he’s written for her over the past quarter-century.
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