80- R. Kelly
The mercurial singer-writer-producer’s 25-year track record stands on its own: writing or co-writing 30 Top 20 R&B singles for himself or with the Chicago-based group Public Announcement, chart-topping assistance for Puff Daddy, Sparkle and Kelly Price; and the first song to ever debut at Number One on the Hot 100, Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone.” His ballads fly higher than anyone else’s, his sex jams started evocatively naughty (1993’s “Bump N’ Grind”) and ended up evocatively surreal (2005’s “Sex in the Kitchen” and, of course, the 30-part “Trapped in the Closet”). “My talent is more than just sexual songs,” said the only man who wrote for the Notorious B.I.G. and Celine Dion. “There was a time I desperately needed for the world to know that I was no-category guy. My whole goal in life was to reach that certain success where people will say, ‘Hey, that guy can do anything. He’s the Evel Knievel of music. He’s jumping over 15 buses!'”
79- Lucinda Williams
Raised in Louisiana, Lucinda Williams grew up listening to Hank Williams and reading Flannery O’Connor and emerged in the late Eighties as the great Southern songwriter of her generation. Yet, unlike most artists with a literary bent, she focuses on sensual detail just as much writerly scenes and imagery. Few songwriters use repetition as skillfully as Williams: on 1988’s “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” she ramped up the song’s sexual obsession by restating the title after every other line, and the title track from her 1998 masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road captures the peculiar rhythms of childhood memory by restating the song’s title at the end of each stanza. Williams learned her sense of concision from her father, poet Miller Williams. “Dad stressed the importance of the economics of writing,” she has said. “Clean it up, edit, edit, revise!”
78- Curtis Mayfield
At a time when most songwriters were still talking about love and heartbreak, Curtis Mayfield was penning sweet, subtle Civil Rights epistles like 1964’s “Keep on Pushing” and 1965’s “People Get Ready” (the latter a favorite of Martin Luther King). As leader of the Impressions, Mayfield’s low-key demeanor matched his lithe tenor and restrained, spacious guitar playing that influenced fellow chitlin’ circuit veteran Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing.” He kept his empathetic light touch even when he transitioned to the realist street tales of the 1973 Superfly soundtrack. Beyond hits for himself and the Impressions, Mayfield’s music provided no shortage of Top 10 songs for generations of artists, including Gladys Knight and the Pips (“On and On”), the Staple Singers (“Let’s Do It Again”), Tony Orlando & Dawn (“He Don’t Love You [Like I Love You]”) and En Vogue (“Giving Him Something He Can Feel”). “Everything was a song,” Mayfield said in 1994. “Every conversation, every personal hurt, every observance of people in stress, happiness and love . . . If you could feel it, I could feel it. And I could write a song about it. If you have a good imagination, you can go quite far.”
77- Allen Toussaint
No one outside of Leiber & Stoller better combined the commercial verities of pop with the deeper-than-dirt hoodoo of the blues than Toussaint did on songs like “Lipstick Traces (on a Cigarette),” “Ride Your Pony” or “Fortune Teller” (covered by the Stones, the Who and a host of other British Invaders). Writing and producing for Irma Thomas (“Ruler of My Heart,” or “Pain in My Heart” when Otis Redding cut it), Benny Spellman (“Mother in Law”), Lee Dorsey (“Working in a Coal Mine”) and Aaron Neville (“Hercules”), he helped define the sound of the city that helped define the sound of rock & roll: New Orleans. “There are some ingredients we share,” Toussaint once said of New Orleans’ unique mix of rhythmic and melodic traditions. “That second line brass band parade thing. The syncopation. The humor. . .We take longer to get to the future than anywhere else in America. . .So we have held on to the old world charm more.”
76- Loretta Lynn
If the personal is political, Loretta Lynn was Nashville’s down-home feminist revolutionary. “I looked at the songbooks and thought that anyone could do that,” she told American Songwriter, “so I just started writing.” Lynn was also a self-taught guitarist, whose earliest songs were in keys seldom used by Nashville session pros. She always took more pride in her writing than in her perky singing, and much of the lyrical material in her 16 country chart-toppers was drawn from her difficult marriage to Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn, whose alcoholism and infidelities inspired domestic dramedies like “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind).” “I had to have a real reason to write a song,” Lynn said. “I wrote them about true things.” These included the benefits of contraception (“The Pill”) and the plight of divorcees (“Rated X”), which were banned by many country stations but became huge sellers nonetheless.
75- Isaac Hayes and David Porter
“David approached me with the intention of selling me an insurance policy,” Isaac Hayes recalled of his first meeting with the man who would become his songwriting partner — although Porter has vehemently denied that anecdote. Insurance or no, they became an in-house songwriting team at Stax Records, and their collaboration yielded 30 R&B chart hits between 1966 and 1971. (Sometimes Hayes played keyboards on songs they’d written together, or Porter sang backup.) In particular, they were the songwriting masterminds behind Sam and Dave, writing “Soul Man,” “I Thank You,” “Hold On! I’m Comin'” and other classic duets. The team fell apart once Hayes became a hot buttered soul star in his own right, but they were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame together in 2005, three years before Hayes’ death. “We had no set pattern and just each came up with melodies, lyrics and hook lines and phrases,” Porter said, describing a process that could a produce a life-altering balled like “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” in just 15 minutes. “I’m no musician but I was able to relate to Isaac, we could communicate together.”
74- Patti Smith
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” went the opening line of Smith’s 1975 debut, Horses, proclaiming her belief in music as provocation and redemption. A gender-bending poet who kicked open the door for punk while retaining a faith in rock’s Sixties idealism, she drew on her love of Dylan, garage rock and French symbolist poetry (as well guitarist Lenny Kaye’s encyclopedic knowledge) to rewrite rock history in her own image. A collaboration with Bruce Springsteen, “Because the Night,” became a Top 20 hit in 1978, and after a long absence she returned in 1988 with “People Have the Power,” and then again in 1996 with “About a Boy,” a tribute to Kurt Cobain as well as her departed husband Fred “Sonic” Smith and friend Robert Mapplethorpe. The deep passion of her work since shows she’s never lost her faith in what she once called “the right to create, without apology, from a stance beyond gender or social definition, but not beyond the responsibility to create something of worth.”
Singer Thom Yorke, guitarist/electronics whiz/orchestral composer Johnny Greenwood and their Radiohead mates, always credited collectively, have produced some the modern era’s most glorious songs. Veering away from the pop success of “Creep,” the group began deconstructing and abstracting songforms. Yorke and Greenwood have called their process “defacatory,” and Yorke suggests his lyrics are as much stream of consciousness flow, gibberish and “just sounds” as anything confessional. (“It’s like you’re getting beamed it,” Yorke has said, “like with a ouija board”). Yet there’s a reason Frank Ocean, Vampire Weekend, Gillian Welch, Mark Ronson, Regina Spektor, Gnarls Barkley, the Punch Brothers and others cover their compositions: because the best —from the acoustic ballad “Fake Plastic Trees” to the digital kaleidoscope of “Everything in Its Right Place” — are indelible.
72- Fats Domino and Dave Barthomolew
Singer/pianist Antoine “Fats” Domino and producer/bandleader Dave Bartholomew started working together in 1949. Over the next 14 years, they collaborated on more than 50 charted singles — mostly written by one or both of them — and became the architects of the New Orleans rock & roll sound: two-and-a-half-minute jewels featuring effervescent piano boogie, in-your-face rhythms and lyrics that drew on local vernacular. (“I used to write songs mostly from things you hear people say all the time,” Domino said.) Bartholomew also wrote scores of hits for other New Orleans artists, many of which became rock standards: “I Hear You Knocking,” “One Night,” “I’m Walkin’.” Dr. John told Rolling Stone that, after Lennon and McCartney, Domino and Bartholomew were “probably the greatest team of songwriters ever. They always had a simple melody, a hip set of chord changes and a cool groove.”
71- Walter Becker and Donald Fagen
When Walter Becker and Donald Fagen met as students at Bard College during the late Sixties, they hit it off over a shared love of jazz, Dylan and the sardonic, post-modern humor of writers like Kurt Vonnegut and John Barth. Thus began the symbiotic relationship that produced a string of sophisticated, acerbic songs that still felt at home amidst the laidback mood of Seventies FM radio — hits like “Do It Again,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Peg.” Setting wry and cryptic, yet oddly poignant, lyrics to music that combined elements of rock and jazz, complex musicianship and smooth melodies, Steely Dan went on a run of near-perfect albums from 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill to 1977’s Aja. “I would come up with a basic musical structure, perhaps a hook line and occasionally a story idea,” Fagen once said, recalling their process. “Walter would listen to what I had and come up with some kind of narrative structure. We’d work on music and lyrics together, inventing characters, adding musical and verbal jokes, polishing the arrangements and smoking Turkish cigarettes.” Though they rarely left the studio during the Seventies, they tour a surprising amount today, playing sets dedicated to their classic albums.