70- Dan Penn
Often working with Spooner Oldham, Penn was an integral part of the Southern soul sound that flowed out of Muscle Shoals and Memphis, and their songs about the hard price lovers pay for their desires became classics: “Dark End of the Street” for James Carr, “I’m Your Puppet” for James and Bobby Purify, “Cry Like a Baby” for the Box Tops (it was Penn who produced “The Letter” for Alex Chilton’s first group). The way he could mix the deep grooves of church music and blues with lighter pop melodies electrified his music, but there was nothing light about his greatest work, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” Written with Chips Moman, it was recorded by Aretha Franklin in 1967, and the feminist power of Franklin’s calm preaching about temptation, fidelity and sexual equality was, as Jerry Wexler put it, “perfection.” “I think all the best songs come out of just pure, raw feeling that you can’t quite explain,” Penn once said. “Everything we get is just a gift we can borrow for awhile.”
69- James Taylor
Taylor was one of the most successful and influential artists to emerge from the “singer-songwriter” scene of the early Seventies. By chronicling every aspect of his life — drug addiction, recovery, marriages and divorces, deaths of friends and family members — he created the mold for confessional balladeers from Cat Stevens to Elliott Smith. “It comes out of a sort of mood of melancholy, somehow,” Taylor once told Rolling Stone of his songwriting process. And like Taylor himself, standards like “Fire and Rain,” “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” and “Copperline” seem delicate yet are as melodically sturdy as oak trees. As his friend and former guitarist Danny Kortchmar has said, “They’re like Christmas carols. It sounds like they were written a hundred years ago.” Taylor himself knows that some people slag him for the first-person aspect of his writing: “If you think it’s sentimental and self-absorbed, then I agree with you, basically. It’s not for everybody. And it doesn’t pretend to be. But to me, there’s still something compelling to me about doing it.”
68- Jay Z
No hip-hop artist has reached the Billboard Top Ten more times than Jay Z, and none has done more to shape both the culture and music around him. His most indelible songs — “Izzo (Hova),” “99 Problems,” “Big Pimpin'” — mix diamond-sharp rhymes with unshakable hooks. As he notes himself, in the late Nineties and early 2000s, it wasn’t summer without a Jay Z hit blasting out of every car window. Recent highpoints like the Kanye West collaboration “Otis” and 2013’s “Picasso Baby” show that no number of lunches with Warren Buffet or late-night diaper-duty emergency calls can slow down his de Vinci flow and Sinatra roll. He began writing as a childhood hobby — authoring, as he later recalled, “100,000 songs before I had as record deal.” Over the years, his recording-booth ability to conjure intricate verses out of thin air has become legend, but he’s a also master of fitting the right lyric to the right musical mood: “I try to feel the emotion of the track and try to feel what the track is talking about, let that dictate the subject matter,” he has said. “The melody comes second, and then the words.”
67- Morrissey and Marr
“I really believe he’s one of the best lyricists there’s been,” guitarist Johnny Marr said about his songwriting partner in 1989, just after the Smiths’ breakup. “I don’t think anyone’s got his wit or insight or originality or obsession or overall dedication.” Together, in less than four years, the duo wrote more than 70 songs, with Marr working as arranger and producer and Morrissey navigating whole new worlds of misery and disaffection, often with much more wit than he got credit for at the time. Morrissey’s lyrics went hand-in-glove with Marr’s gorgeously-detailed melodies: the lilting car-wreck fantasy “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” the Bo Diddley-in-space wallflower anthem “How Soon Is Now?,” the homoerotic Afro-pop of “This Charming Man,” the nouvelle vague folk of “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,” and on, and on, and on. The more you listen, the clearer it becomes that Marr isn’t exaggerating.
66- Kenny Gamble and Leon A. Huff
They scored their first big hit with the Soul Survivors’ “Expressway to Your Heart” in 1967, but by then the team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff had already been working together for five years, and over the following 15, they’d define the sound of Philadelphia soul and help invent disco. Gamble wrote most of their lyrics, and keyboardist Huff most of their music, but their roles were flexible, and so was their style: they wrote poignant love songs (“Me and Mrs. Jones”), rubbery political funk (“For the Love of Money”), and richly orchestrated dance music with the rhythms that became disco tropes (like the Soul Train theme “TSOP”). Gamble and Huff launched Philadelphia International Records in 1971, assembling a crew of musicians and engineers around them, and throughout the Seventies, they were near-permanent fixtures on the R&B charts, working with singers including the O’Jays, Lou Rawls and Teddy Pendergrass.
65- George Harrison
Harrison wrote one of the Beatles’ earliest openly political songs in 1966’s “Taxman” and one of their prettiest late-period tunes in “Here Comes the Sun.” But his songwriting legacy was sealed for good when Frank Sinatra declared “Something,” the group’s second-most-covered song after “Yesterday,” to be “the greatest love song of the past 50 years.” Harrison described songwriting as a means to “get rid of some subconscious burden,” comparing the process to “going to confession.” After the Beatles split, he let his creative impulses run free on the 1970 triple-album solo debut, All Things Must Pass, and enjoyed a strong Eighties comeback with the pop success of 1987’s Cloud Nine as well his stint with the Traveling Wilburys. “If George had had his own group and was writing his own songs back then, he’d have been probably just as big as anybody,” his fellow Wilbury Bob Dylan said.
64- Bert Berns
A kid from the Bronx who fell in love with black and Latino music and even traveled to Cuba during Fidel Castro’s revolution, Bert Berns got his start in 1960 at age 31 as a Brill Building songwriter and went on a run that included hits like “Twist & Shout,” the Exciters’ “Tell Him” and Salomon Burke’s “Cry to Me.” Where other writers of the time strove for sophistication, Berns’ songs communicated a fierce romantic hunger and longing. After working as a producer at Atlantic Records, he established his own labels Bang and Shout, where he collaborated closely with Van Morrison (most famously on the singer’s biggest hit, “Brown Eyed Girl”) and wrote “Piece of My Heart,” which was covered by Big Brother and the Holding Company. Berns, who suffered from chronic health problems since childhood, died of a heart attack in 1967 at 38. Despite his enormous reputation among other songwriters, he remains a relatively obscure figure in pop history. “Bert deserves to be elevated to his rightful place in the music industry,” Paul McCartney recently said.
63- Chrissie Hynde
As the leader of Pretenders, Hynde linked the start-and-go rhythms and abrasive guitars of post-punk to a heartland rocker’s sense of straightforward melody. Hynde had one of the best runs of the New Wave era: winning over a wide pop audience with sharp tunes like “Brass in Pocket (I’m Special),” “Middle of the Road,” and “Back on the Chain Gang” as well as the buoyant “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and ballads like “2000 Miles.” Despite her innate sense of craft, the brash-sounding singer was actually a bit sheepish about her idiosyncratic song structures, admitting, “People talk about songwriting clinics and how to construct a song and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I didn’t know that!'” Hynde’s lyrics proved even more influential, articulating a complex female toughness that wasn’t just a sexy pose, inspiring guitar-slinging women and self-directed pop stars like Madonna, who said, “It gave me courage, inspiration, to see a woman with that kind of confidence in a man’s world.”
62- Harry Nilsson
Nilsson was a pioneer of the Los Angeles studio sound, a crucial bridge between the baroque psychedelic pop of the late Sixties and the more personal singer-songwriter era of the Seventies. Overdubbing his flawless voice, he was his own angelic choir on songs like “1941” and the Beatles medley “You Can’t Do That,” and he caught the ear of Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, who bought a box of Nilsson records to send to friends. A lifelong friendship with John Lennon — who produced Nilsson’s Pussy Cats during his Lost Weekend period — followed. In songs like “You’re Breaking My Heart” (“. . .so fuck you”), “Gotta Get Up,” and “I Guess the Lord Must Be In New York City” he applied pop color to the darkness of a shut in, and Three Dog Night turned “One” (“. . .is the loneliest number”), into a Top Five hit in 1969. “He had a gift for melody. Which is a rare, inexplicable talent to have,” Randy Newman once said of Nilsson’s easy way with complex melodies and counterpoint. “People like McCartney have it, Schubert, Elton John has it. Harry had that gift.”
61- Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman
Jerome Felder was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who’d been on crutches since he’d contracted polio at age six. When he started trying to establish himself as a blues singer, he called himself Doc Pomus. But he gave up his performing career in the late Fifties and formed a songwriting partnership with Mort Shuman. Together their ability to match sweet melodies and multi-faceted lyrics was second only to Leiber and Stoller among early rock & roll songwriters. Between 1958 and 1964, they wrote a string of sly, swaggering hits that bridged the divide between R&B and pop — most famously the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me,” Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister,” Dion’s “A Teenager in Love” and Andy Williams’ “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.” One example of Pomus’ lyrical inventiveness is Ben E. King’s “Young Boy Blues,” a collaboration with Phil Spector, in which every verse is effectively one long sentence. Spector later called Pomus, who died of cancer in 1991, “the greatest songwriter who ever lived.”
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