Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Songwriters 60-51

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60- Willie Nelson

Nelson was a struggling Music Row pro when Faron Young cut his ode to an empty room, “Hello Walls,” in 1961. A string of undeniable classics followed — “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and “Crazy,” immortalized by Patsy Cline — and Nelson began his own recording career, to fair results. But in the early Seventies he moved to Austin, Texas, and reinvented himself as a link between Nashville’s tradition and rock’s imperative of personal freedom, making concept albums like Phases and Stages and Red Headed Stranger, helping pioneer the stripped-down Outlaw Country movement and rising as the greatest interpreter of American song outside Frank Sinatra. No one except Dylan has embraced the endless highway with more artistic success — as explained by Nelson in “On the Road Again,” a Top 20 Grammy-winning hit in 1980 — and his studio career is just as endless, ranging from Texas swing to reggae to standards with strings. “Willie sort of creeps up on you,” Keith Richards once said. “Those beautiful mixtures he has between blues and country and mariachi, that Tex-Mex bit, that tradition of a beautiful cross section of music. . .He’s unique.”

59- Tom Petty

“The words just came tumbling out of me,” Petty said of “American Girl,” his greatest song and first hit single. He began as the Seventies and Eighties most commercially potent inheritor of the Sixties songwriting tradition, knocking out hit after hit of compact, hard-jangling rock & roll – from “I Need to Know” to “Refugee” to “The Waiting.” As he’s aged, Petty has movingly explored relationships (1999’s divorce chronicle Echo) and the dark side of the American dream itself (2014’s Hypnotic Eye), always rooting his music in a sense of our common experience (Johnny Cash told Petty that the title track from 1985’s Southern Accents should replace “Dixie” as the region’s unofficial anthem). “When young musicians ask me what the most important thing is, I always say it’s the song,” Petty told Rolling Stone in 2009. “You know, you can chrome a turd, but it’s not going to do any good.”

58- George Clinton

For all of pioneering funk radical George Clinton’s subversive use of hard grooves, distortion, jamming, Afro-futurism and arena-wowing spaceships, the vast P-Funk canon was built on traditional songwriting chops. Parliament was born as a doo-wop group in the Fifties led by Clinton, a young Leiber and Stoller fan who worked briefly in the Brill Building and later spent time as a Motown songwriter. After his exposure to Hendrix, Vanilla Fudge and copious amounts of psychedelics, Clinton’s pop-wise sense of puns and wordplay helped drive home his interstellar philosophizing. “It was a way of bending people’s minds and showing them that what they took for granted might not be the truth at all,” he wrote in his bio. “In other words, it was classic psychedelic thinking in the sense that you didn’t take no — or yes — for an answer, instead tunneling down a little bit to see what else might be there beyond the binary.” Eventually, Clinton’s songwriting became a foundation for the G-Funk of the Nineties, including songs like Dr. Dre’s “Dre Day” and Snoop Dogg’s “Who Am I (What’s My Name?).”

57- Joe Strummer and Mick Jones

It isn’t a stretch to call Joe Strummer and Mick Jones the Lennon and McCartney of the U.K. punk explosion. Between their roaring debut in 1977 and their split in 1983, the duo wrote at a feverish pace, often in Jones’ grandmother’s flat in a high-rise council estate, bashing out finished songs together as a full band in their rehearsal space. The Clash’s 1980 watershed London Calling, which Rolling Stone declared the best album of the Eighties, became a double album not by design but because they were writing so many songs so quickly at the time. “Joe, once he learned how to type, would bang the lyrics out at a high rate of good stuff,” Jones recalled. “Then I’d be able to bang out some music while he was hitting the typewriter.” Strummer was the band’s social conscious, taking the lion’s share of the vocals, while Jones came up with the band’s most memorable pop moments — 1980’s “Train In Vain” and their 1982 smash “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” Though they didn’t work together for years after Strummer fired Jones from the Clash, the pair was back collaborating on songs shortly before Strummer’s death in 2002. “We wrote a batch,” said Jones. “We didn’t used to write one, we used to write a batch at a time — like gumbo.”

56- Madonna

Before she was a star, Madonna was a songwriter with a sharp ear for a hook and a lyrical catchphrase, playing tracks like “Lucky Star” for record companies in the hope of scoring a contract. Her earliest hits honed the electro beats coming out of the New York club scene into universal radio gold. But songs like her greatest statement, “Like a Prayer,” can also summon an anthemic power to rival Springsteen or U2. Madonna has enlisted numerous collaborators en route to selling more than 300 million albums — she started working with longtime writing partner Patrick Leonard after he brought her “Live to Tell” in 1986, and from Shep Pettibone and William Orbit in the Nineties through Diplo, Avicii and Kanye West on 2015’s Rebel Heart, she’s worked successfully with producers across many genres. Through it all, her songs have been consistently stamped with her own sensibility and inflected with autobiographical detail. “She grew up on Joni Mitchell and Motown and. . . embodies the best of both worlds,” says Rick Nowells, who co-wrote with Madonna on 1998’s Ray of Light. “She is a wonderful confessional songwriter, as well as being a superb hit chorus pop writer.”

55- Tom Waits

Waits began as a throwback, a beatnik jazzbo singing the praises of old cars and barflies and looking for the heart of Saturday night. His early period produced gems like “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” and “Jersey Girl,” made most famous by Bruce Springsteen. But with 1983’s Swordfishtrombones and 1985’s Rain Dogs he blossomed into what he called his “sur-rural” period, drawing on old blues, German cabaret and street-corner R&B to create songs populated by dice-throwing one-armed dwarves, men with missing fingers playing strange guitars and phantom truck-drivers named Big Joe. “You wave your hand and they scatter like crows,” he sang in his rusted plow-blade voice to a Brooklyn girl about her suitors. “They’re just thorns without the rose.” It would be his biggest hit — Rod Stewart took “Downtown Train” to Number Three on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1989. “The creative process is imagination, memories, nightmares and dismantling certain aspects of this world and putting them back together in the dark,” said Waits. “Songs aren’t necessarily verbatim chronicles or necessarily journal entries, they’re like smoke.”

54- Kurt Cobain

Nirvana’s skull-crushing noise assault would have meant little if not for the deceptively brilliant pop craft underpinning it. Kurt Cobain was raised on Beatles LPs, which you can hear in songs like “About a Girl” and “Something in the Way.” And he employed Dylan-style love-and-theft to left-field pop as well, masterfully distilling indie-rock icons Pixies in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and U.K. post-punks Killing Joke in “Come as You Are.” Lyrically, songs like “Rape Me” and “Stay Away” (with its memorable “God is gay” declaration) brought deep gender studies provocations to a mass audience — one of the most astonishing subversive achievements in rock history. And if lines like “I feel stupid and contagious/here we are now, entertain us” became generational epigrams, it’s in their cryptic ability to nail inarticulate pain. “I don’t like to make things too obvious, because it gets stale,” Cobain said. “It’s the way I like art.”

53- Stevie Nicks

Fleetwood Mac blew up in the Seventies thanks to three top-notch singer-songwriters — guitarist/producer/mastermind Lindsey Buckingham, bluesy songbird Christine McVie and the gypsy queen herself, Stevie Nicks. Her “Rhiannon,” “Sara” and “Gold Dust Woman” were full of post-hippie witchy imagery, but under the gossamer surface, they were deceptively tough-minded accounts of heartbreak and betrayal in the L.A. heyday of free love and hard drugs. She and Buckingham were a couple when they joined Fleetwood Mac, but some of her greatest songs came out of the wreckage of their relationship — including the Number One “Dreams.” “We write about each other, we have continually written about each other, and we’ll probably keep writing about each other until we’re dead,” she told Rolling Stone last year. She remains undiminished as a writer, as she proved on her 2011 gem In Your Dreams. But her most famous song is still “Landslide,” her acoustic lament for children growing older, written before she’d even turned 30. “I was only 27,” she said. “It was 1973 when I wrote it, about a year before I joined Fleetwood Mac. You can feel really old at 27.”

52- The Notorious B.I.G.

The greatest rapper ever balanced gangsta realness and R&B playfulness, proving that a self-described “black and ugly” corner kid from Brooklyn could blow up to become a pop superstar through sheer brilliance and charisma. At the heart of Biggie’s music was a gift for rolling off scrolls of buoyant lines that were as singable as they were quotable — “Birthdays were the worst days, now we sip champagne when we’re thirsty,” “Poppa been smooth since days of Underoos” and on and on. Working with pop-savvy producer Sean “Puffy” Combs, Biggie raised his game throughout his brief career —from the social realism of “Things Done Changed” to the euphoric rags-to-riches celebration “Juicy” to effortlessly virtuosic performances like “Hypnotize” and “Ten Crack Commandments,” both from his 1997 swan song Life After Death. “I wanted to release music that let people know he was more than just a gang­sta rapper,” Combs said later. “He showed his pain, but in the end he wanted to make people feel good.”

51- Willie Dixon

Dixon was a fine performer and bass player, but he made his greatest contribution as house songwriter at Chess Records in the 1950s. Dixon was essential in shaping the sound of post-war Chicago blues, supplying masters like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf with riffs as crisp as the creases in a new suit and lyrics so boastful that they’d be terrifying if half-true. By the early Sixties, as a new generation discovered the blues, plenty of young white men were learning to exaggerate their sexual prowess from Dixon’s songs. It’s possible that no blues writer other than Robert Johnson had had as profound an impact on the development of rock music: Mick Jagger acquired his strut from “Little Red Rooster,” which the Stones faithfully covered in 1964; the Doors did a leering L.A. version of “Back Door Man” on their 1967 debut; and Led Zeppelin belatedly admitted the debt “Whole Lotta Love” owed to Dixon’s “You Need Love” and “Bring It on Home” when they settled a copyright dispute in the Eighties. “He’s the backbone of postwar blues writing,” Keith Richards has said, “the absolute.”

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