89- Felice and Boudleaux Bryant
It took a husband and wife team — married for more than four decades and parted only by death — to write one of rock’s most devastating tales of heartbreak: “Love Hurts.” Originated in 1960 by the Everly Brothers — for whom the Byrants wrote a string of chart toppers, each one a compact novel of teen desire and struggle — and raised to operatic status by Roy Orbison, it became one of the founding documents of alt-country when Gram Parsons covered it in 1974, and a year later was turned into a pioneering power ballad by U.K. hard rockers Nazareth, who took it to Number Eight on the Billboard Hot 100. The Bryants’ breakthrough came when the Everlys seized on a composition that had been turned down more than 30 times, “Bye Bye Love,” and hit Number Two. “Wake Up Little Susie” followed quickly, and went to the top of the chart, as did “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” and their varied work included songs that worked with strings, like Buddy Holly’s “Raining in My Heart,” or with banjo, like “Rocky Top,” made into a bluegrass standard by the Osborne Brothers in 1967. “Pick something more certain, like chasing the white whale or eradicating the common housefly,” Boudleaux once said of songwriting as a profession. “We didn’t have the benefit of such sage advice. . . We made it. Sometimes it pays to be ignorant.”
88- Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill
Mann and Weil met in 1960 at the song-publishing company Aldon Music, married in 1961 and have been living and working together ever since. Their songs of struggle and triumph brought class consciousness to Brill Building pop, with hits like “On Broadway” for the Drifters, “Uptown” for the Crystals, and “We Gotta Get Out of the Place” for the Animals, but they are best known for the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” Unique among their peers, they never stopped, writing Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram’s 1986 hit “Somewhere Out There” and Hanson’s 1997 Top 10 single “I Will Come to You.” Mann also had a recording career, including a 1961 Top 10 hit about songwriting “Who Put the Bomp (In the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)”; in 2015, Weil published a YA novel, I’m Glad I Did, about songwriting in the Sixties.
87- Kris Kristofferson
“Everything I ever wrote was a attempt to follow in the footsteps of the best country songwriters I knew,” Kristofferson once said, citing writers like Hank Williams Jr. and Johnny Cash. But Kristofferson did more than succeed them. A former Rhodes scholar, he wrote songs — “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Why Me,” “Me and Bobby McGee” — that borrowed equally from Nashville and the Dylan-influenced singer-songwriter world. Thanks to his writerly skills, Kristofferson’s hang-dog tales of screwups, hangovers, regret and redemption had the epochal feel of novellas, and without him, there would probably be no Steve Earle, Sturgill Simpson or similar country hippies. ‘To me, country, as opposed to Tin Pan Alley, was white man’s soul music,” he once said. “I really didn’t think my songs were any different than what Willie [Nelson\ was writing.”
86- Sam Cooke
From the start, Sam Cooke knew how to write the kind of song people wanted to hear Sam Cooke sing — his very first pop single, “You Send Me,” was the perfect showcase for his effortlessly gorgeous melismas and easygoing charm. Cooke’s determination to win over mainstream white audiences led him to expand his range as a writer, and he proved equally adept with the starry-eyed pop romance of “Cupid,” the urbane dance floor workout “Twistin’ the Night Away” even the subtle social commentary of “Chain Gang.” But hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” stirred a different sort of ambition in Cooke — a need to write something that more directly addressed his experience as a black man in America. The result was “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a soaring encapsulation of the African-American struggle. Cooke, who died in 1964, didn’t live to see it become a civil rights anthem recorded by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Beyoncé, or to hear the first African-American President of the United States quote it on the night he was elected.
Whether it’s a fleet, planning guitar tune like “Sitting Still” or a luminous ballad like “Nightswimming” or a loopy left-field pop smash like “Stand” the songwriting credit on a golden-era R.E.M. song always read “Berry, Mills, Buck, Stipe.” Peter Buck’s fluid, arpeggiated guitar runs and sunburst riffs were weaved into Mike Mills’ melodic bass lines and Bill Berry’s equally musical drumming, creating an evocative compliment for Michael Stipe’s impressionistic lyrics. “If I hear something that sounds watery I’ll write ‘I’ll Take the Rain’,” Stipe once said. “It can sometimes be stupidly literal.” R.E.M.’s whole-band writing process changed a little when Berry left the band in the mid-Nineties, with Mills and Buck writing separately more often. But the same organic give-and-take governed their later albums as well. As Mills said in 2008, “we gradually shape each other’s songs into R.E.M. songs.”
84- Kanye West
The definitive hip-hop artist of the last 15 years, Kanye West made his name as a producer with the Doors-sampling beat on Jay Z’s “The Blueprint” and emerged as an unquenchably driven song machine releasing groundbreaking music at a Beatlesque clip. Kanye isn’t afraid to outsource (Chicago rapper Rhymefest co-wrote the lyrics to his first game-changing hit, “Jesus Walks,” and the credits to his albums can often read like veritable productions workshops). Yet, his stamp is unmistakable — a genius for connecting genres and styles, a knack for spinning out Olympian boasts and an ability to make his egomaniacal admissions and conflictions compelling. West claims he didn’t write down any of his rhymes until taking a more craft-oriented approach on 2010’s monumentally ambitious My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “I can write something that, even someone who hates me the most will have to respect and love the song,” he has said. West has given us the weapons-grade industrial punk of “New Slaves,” the forlorn vocoder balladry of 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak (which paved the way for the confessional hip-hop of J. Cole and Drake) and, this year, the haunting Paul McCartney collaboration “Only You.” “When I wrote with John, he would sit down with a guitar. I would sit down. We’d ping-pong ’til we had a song,” McCartney said. “It was like that [with Kanye].”
83- Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson
Married songwriting partnerships are hardly rare, but few husband-and-wife teams explored the dynamics of monogamy with the depth and insight of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Their breakthrough was the 1966 Ray Charles party classic “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” but once the duo went to work at Motown, romantic love became their sole topic. (“I get bored when I’m not writing about love,” Ashford once said. “Politics or social commentary don’t inspire me. Love lifts me up.”) The duets they wrote at Motown, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” interweaved male and female perspectives to strengthen their emotional sweep. Ashford and Simpson later built on this technique during their own career as performers, expressing doubt on “Is It Still Good to Ya” and affirmation on “Sold (as a Rock)” with equal brilliance.
82- Marvin Gaye
In 1983, a year before he died, Marvin Gaye said the goal of music was to “tell the world and the people about the upcoming holocaust and to find all of those of higher consciousness who can be saved.” Initially, though, it took him years before he was allowed to explore his sacred vision. Motown was so overstaffed with great in-house songwriters that Gaye spent much of the Sixties singing other people’s songs. He found his voice as a composer in the Seventies when Four Tops member Obie Benson brought him a song idea that would later blossom into “What’s Going On.” As Benson remembers, “He added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem more like a story than a song. We measured him for the suit, and he tailored it.” But Gaye’s greatest gift might’ve been at raising the bedroom come-on into an art form — whether making a straightforward, playful proposition on 1973’s “Let’s Get It On” or admitting his desperate, almost metaphysical need on 1982’s “Sexual Healing.”
Iceland’s greatest musical export has penned a catalog so tied to her unmatchable accented English and visionary beat-driven arrangements, it’s easy to forget what a tremendous writer she is. Yet there’s a reason cutting-edge jazz instrumentalists —Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, Dave Douglas, Greg Osby — keep covering her tunes, not to mention peers like Thom Yorke, Bon Iver, Death Cab for Cutie, Dirty Projectors, No Age and others. As Björk said in 2007, “I guess I’m quite conservative and romantic about the power of melodies. I try not to record them [when] I first hear them. If I forget all about it and it pops up later on, then I know it’s good enough. I let my subconscious do the editing for me.” From the disco-fizzy 1993 Debut to the bleakly magnificent 2015 Vulnicura, it hasn’t failed her yet.