40- John Fogerty
“In 1968 I always used to say that I wanted to make records they would still play on the radio in ten years,” Creedence Clearwater Revival architect John Fogerty told Rolling Stone in 1993. Try 50 years. CCR were the catchy, hard-driving dance band amidst the psychedelic San Francisco ballroom scene of the late Sixties, scoring 12 Top 40 hits during their run while releasing an incredible five albums between 1968 and 1970. Fogerty’s songwriting process reflected the blue-collar worldview of a guy who wrote his first Top 10 hit (1969’s “Proud Mary”) just two days after being discharged from the Army Reserves: “Just sitting very late at night,” he said. “It was quiet, the lights were low. There was no extra stimulus, no alcohol or drugs or anything. It was purely mental. . .I had discovered what all writers discover, whether they’re told or not, that you could do anything.” Fogerty later admitted to envying the critical adulation received by Bob Dylan and the Band, but he tapped the tenor of his times as well as anyone, whether on the class conscious Vietnam protest anthem “Fortunate Son” or “Bad Moon Rising,” which channeled America’s sense of impending apocalyptic into two-and-a-half choogling minutes.
39- David Bowie
The first time most people heard David Bowie, he was playing an astronaut named Major Tom, floating through space, completely cut off from civilization. Within a couple of years Bowie was channeling that sense of cosmic alienation into albums like 1971’s Hunky Dory and the 1972’s classic The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, emerging as one of the most creative (and unpredictable) songwriting forces of the 1970s. Early on, Bowie specialized in offering an indelible vision of the Seventies glam-rock demimonde. Lyrically, his use of William Burroughs-style cut and paste made for fascinating, if at times, baffling flows of image and ideas. “You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects creating a kind of story ingredients-list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix ’em up and reconnect them,” he once said, describing a process that sometimes involves literally pulling phrases out of a hat. “You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this.” Bowie is also one of rock’s great collaborators, whether he’s working with Brian Eno, Mick Ronson or Iggy Pop. On timeless songs like “Life on Mars” or “Changes” or “Heroes,” his ability to combine accessibility and idiosyncrasy makes for music that marries art and pop and transfigures culture itself.
38- Al Green
He didn’t start writing songs in earnest until he’d recorded a few albums, and his songwriting gifts have been overshadowed by his vocal mastery. Still, Al Green’s best original material isn’t just a showcase for his voice. Starting in the early Seventies, Green, working with Hi Records producer Willie Mitchell and guitarist/co-writer Teenie Hodges, created a rich catalog of songs that mixed sacred and profane like no other soul singer of any era. Green sang about romantic ecstasy and failings and deeper longings for divine love (the language of Scripture has never been far from his lyrics, even when he was writing secular material). And you could put together a rock-solid compilation of Green’s songs that became hits in the hands of other artists: Syl Johnson’s (or Talking Heads’) “Take Me to the River,” Tina Turner’s “Let’s Stay Together,” UB40’s “Here I Am (Come and Take Me),” Meli’sa Morgan’s “Still in Love With You,” Earnest Jackson’s “Love and Happiness,” and on and on. His songs weren’t as political as Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway,” Justin Timberlake wrote in Rolling Stone, “But if those guys were speaking to you, Al Green was speaking for you.”
37- Jackson Browne
He may sound (and look) like the prototypical SoCal balladeer, but Browne has spent his career pushing the singer-songwriter envelope. He’s written some of rock’s most finely observed songs not just about his journey through life (from the prematurely wise “These Days,” penned when he was 16 years old, through more recent songs like “The Night Inside Me”), but has also ventured into social critiques (“Lawyers in Love”) and political protest (“Lives in the Balance”). Whatever the subject, Browne brings the same probing, thoughtful take on what he called, in “Looking East,” “the search for the truth.” “The nature of my music has to do with dealing with very fundamental things by depicting my own experience,” he told Rolling Stone in 1976. “There’s nothing that isn’t pretty fundamental.” And in “Running on Empty,” “Boulevard” and others, he also knew, far more than most of his peers, the value in rocking out. “I learned through Jackson’s ceiling and my floor how to write songs,” Glenn Frey recalled of a period when he lived in an apartment one floor above Browne, “elbow grease, time, thought, persistence.”
36- Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter
Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, the writing partners at the center of the Grateful Dead, are the psychedelic Rodgers and Hart. The duo charted deep space — inner and outer—on early collaborations like “Dark Star.” But beginning with 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, and hitting stride with the 1970 doubleheader of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, they uncorked a vividly mythic America full of crooked gamblers, coked-up train engineers, strange sea-captains, story-telling crows, card-playing wolves, and — fittingly— transcendence-seeking musicians. “You’d see Hunter standing over in the corner,” drummer Mickey Hart said of the time Hunter joined up with the Dead. “He had this little dance he’d do. He had one foot off the ground and he’d be writing in his notebooks. He was communing with the music. And all of a sudden, we had songs.” The storytelling was always a delight, but it was Hunter’s way with a homey-cosmic aphorism that made Dead lyrics so tattoo-able, bobbing and bouncing on Garcia’s sweet, sad melody lines like glinting revelations. “Let there be songs to fill the air,” insists the singer on “Ripple,” one of the duo’s most indelible numbers. And voila: there they are.
35- Bono and the Edge
When they first got started in the 1970s, the ambitious lads in U2 made a deal to split all their publishing money evenly. But as important to U2’s sound as Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. may be, Bono and the Edge have been the primary songwriting team in the band from day one. Bono brings the grand vision and uncanny ear for heroic hooks, and the Edge brings his sonic mastery and an eagerness to push boundaries. Working together, the duo have pursued their expansive vision from the adolescent cry of “Out of Control” to political anthems like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to the stadium-shaking roar of “Where the Streets Have No Name” to the funky, danceable “Mysterious Ways” and “Discotheque” all the way through the highly-personable “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” from last year’s Songs of Innocence. As the band’s charismatic frontman, Bono may soak up a lot of the credit, but he’s the first to admit how important the Edge is to their songwriting. “Smart people know what [the Edge] does, and he doesn’t care about the rest of the world,” Bono told Rolling Stone in 2005. “I get annoyed and I say, ‘How do people not know?'”
34- Michael Jackson
Jackson’s innate musical genius could be heard on the earliest Jackson 5 chart-toppers. And he came into his own with the sterling disco pop of 1979’s Off the Wall and the monumental Thriller, where he got sole writing credit on “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” By Bad in 1987, he was getting a writing credit on nearly every song on the record. Jackson’s collaborators and co-writers marvel at the way his dance-floor classics sprang full-formed from their creator’s head. That, Michael said, was the only way he could write: “If I sat down at a piano, if I sat here and played some chords. . .nothing happens.” Even more remarkably, the singer imagined the full arrangements for these songs as he wrote them, working from the basic rhythmic elements all the way up to the smallest ornamentations. “He would sing us an entire string arrangement, every part,” engineer Rob Hoffman recalls. “Had it all in his head; harmony and everything. Not just little eight-bar loop ideas. He would actually sing the entire arrangement into a micro-cassette recorder complete with stops and fills.”
33- Merle Haggard
“Hag, you’re the guy people think I am,” said Johnny Cash to Merle Haggard, whose life and lyrics intertwined magnificently. Among Haggard’s 38 Number One country hits, signature tunes like “Okie From Muskogee,” “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home” mixed autobiography and attitude with a honky-tonk spirit in the tradition of Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. As he told American Songwriter in 2010, “Sometimes the songs got to coming too fast for me to write, and sometimes they still do.” The prolific Haggard, who once released eight albums in a three-year period, is an icon of country conservatism thanks to his hippie-baiting classic “Okie From Muskogee.” Yet, his music directly influenced rock touchstones like the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead and the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, and Hag has been influenced right back. “I’m a rock & roller,” he recently told Rolling Stone. “I’m a country guy because of my raisin’, but I’m a Chuck Berry man. I love Fats Domino just as much as I like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell.”
32- Burt Bacharach and Hal David
Burt Bacharach studied classical composition with French composer Darius Milhaud and was part of avant-garde icon John Cage’s circle. But he chose pop music as a career and started writing songs with lyricist Hal David, who had a knack for matching wistful sentiments to Bacharach’s unconventional jazz chords and constantly shifting time signatures. (“It all counts,” Bacharach said. “There is no filler in a three-and-a-half-minute song.”) Their first hit came in 1957, but their partnership really took off five years later, when they started working with singer Dionne Warwick. Between 1962 and 1971, Warwick charted with dozens of Bacharach/David songs like “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Walk on By” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” Their songs were hits for other artists, too: Richard Carpenter of the Carpenters, who went to Number One with “Close to You,” called Bacharach “one of the most gifted composers who ever drew a breath. . .unorthodox never sounded lovelier or more clever.”
31- Dolly Parton
With 3,000 songs to her name — including more than 20 Number One country singles —Dolly Parton has enjoyed one of country’s most impressive songwriting careers. Parton tapped her hardscrabble Tennessee-hills upbringing on songs like “Coat of Many Colors” and “The Bargain Store,” and throughout the Seventies, her songs broke new ground in describing romantic heartache and marital hardship. On “Travelin’ Man,” from her 1971 masterpiece Coat of Many Colors, Parton’s mom runs off with her man, and on the gut-wrenching “If I Lose My Mind,” also on that album, Parton watches while her boyfriend has sex with another woman. Over the years, her songs have been covered by everyone from the White Stripes to LeAnn Rimes to Whitney Houston, who had an enormous hit with her version of Parton’s ballad “I Will Always Love You.” Parton has always had a self-deprecating sense of humor (she once described her voice as “a cross between Tiny Tim and a nanny goat”). But she doesn’t do much joking around when it comes to the art of songwriting. “I’ve always prided myself as a songwriter more than anything else” she once said, adding “nothing is more sacred and more precious to me than when I really can get in that zone where it’s just God and me.”