Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Songwriters 30-21

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See Part 1Part 2,Part 3Part 4, Part 5Part 6 and Part 7

30- 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.”

29- Pete Townshend

The Who had a one-of-a-kind drummer, a brilliant bassist, a towering singer — and their songs featured some pretty impressive guitar playing too. But they would never have gone anywhere if Pete Townshend hadn’t developed into an endlessly innovative songwriter. Early tunes like their debut single “I Can’t Explain” and the epochal anthem “My Generation” were fueled by adolescent angst, but with each passing year, Townshend became more and more ambitious, moving from a loose concept record about a pirate radio station (1967’s The Who Sell Out) to a groundbreaking rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball star (1969’s Tommy) to a double LP about a young mod facing with a form of split personality disorder (1973’s Quadrophenia.) His output slowed down considerably by the mid-1980s and he’s released a scant two albums in the past three decades. But what he accomplished in the Who’s first 15 years transformed the possibilities of rock music. “If I did [release another album], I think I would want it to be something that really addressed everything that’s going on in the world at the moment,” he told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “I’m old enough and wise enough and stupid enough and have done enough dangerous shit to say pretty much whatever I like.”

29- Buddy Holly

Chuck Berry wrote about teenage America. Buddy Holly, the other great rock & roll singer-songwriter of the Fifties, embodied it. Holly had only been making records for a little less than two years when he died in a plane crash in 1959 at age 22. Yet, in that brief career, he created an amazing body of work. On songs like “That’ll Be the Day,” “Rave On,” “Everyday,” “Oh Boy,” “Peggy Sue” and “Not Fade Away,” his buoyant, hiccupping vocals and wiry, exuberant guitar playing drove home lyrics that seemed to sum up the hopes, aspirations and fears of the kids buying his records. After a failed attempt to make it in Nashville as a country artist, Holly returned to his native Lubbock, Texas, where he and his band the Crickets drove to producer Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico, to cut a version of “That’ll Day Be the Day” (a song Decca Records had rejected), that became a Number One single. Though Petty often took co-writing credit on his songs, Holly was one of the first rock & roll singers to write his own material, exerting a huge influence on the Beatles and Rolling Stone, among countless others. The Beatles’ name was inspired by the Crickets and, according to legend, when the Fab Four arrived in America to play The Ed Sullivan Show, John Lennon asked, “Is this the stage Buddy Holly played on?”

28- Woody Guthrie

The most influential folk singer in American history once described his creative process thusly: “When I’m writing a song and I get the words, I look around for some tune that has proved its popularity with the people.” Born to a relatively prosperous Oklahoma family and radicalized during the Great Depression, the former Woodrow Wilson Guthrie scoured the American musical tradition —from country music to church songs to blues to novelty tunes — and created songs that addressed, and helped shape, the world unfolding around him. (“This Land Is Your Land,” which he recorded in 1940 while on leave from the merchant marines, borrowed its melody from an old gospel tune called “Oh My Loving Brother.”) The scope of his music is almost unparalleled: Guthrie wrote children’s songs and Hanukkah songs, songs supporting unions and World War II and the construction of several dams, songs that celebrated Jesus as an outlaw and criticized Charles Lindbergh as a Nazi sympathizer, even a song about a flying saucer. Guthrie’s music, Bob Dylan wrote in Chronicles, “had the infinite sweep of humanity.”

27- Ray Davies

“In British rock,” said the Who’s Pete Townshend of his onetime rival, “Ray Davies is our only true and natural genius.” The Kinks’ primary songwriter helped invent punk rock with “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night.” But with songs like “Waterloo Sunset,” “A Well Respected Man,” “Sunny Afternoon,” “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” and many more, Davies perfected a uniquely English songcraft, rooted in the sly wit and tunefulness of early music hall tradition but extended with fresh concerns (courting a trans woman in “Lola,” for instance), a storyteller’s exacting eye for realism, and a signature delight in upending British class hierarchies. But it’s his ability to nail emotion that makes simple love songs like “Days” incandescent, and elevates a lonely meditation like “Waterloo Sunset” into what some consider the most beautiful song in the English language. “I think the things I write about are the things I can’t fight for,” he told Rolling Stone in 1970. “There are a lot of things I say that are really commonplace. I can’t get rid of them. I go into something minute, then look at it, then go back into it.”

26- James Brown

After scoring R&B hits like “Please Please Please” and recording the greatest live album ever, 1963’s Live at the Apollo, James Brown changed the pop songwriting game forever during the Sixties and early Seventies by flipping the script on songform itself, foregrounding his music in tight, tempestuous rhythm to invent what would eventually be known as funk. “Aretha and Otis and Wilson Pickett were out there and getting big. I was still called a soul singer,” he once recalled. “I still call myself that but musically I had already gone off in a different direction. I had discovered that my strength was not in the horns, it was in the rhythm.” A masterful arranger and composer, Brown also invented a new kind of aphoristic lyrical exhortation that became the lingua franca of hip-hop and dance music. The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business often created on the fly, scrawling lyrics on a paper bag (“Sex Machine”) or a cocktail napkin (“Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud”). “He felt everything he wanted to feel, and he would use us to ‘write it down,'” says Bootsy Collins, Brown’s bassist in the early Seventies. “We were kind of like the interpreters of what he had to say.”

25- Randy Newman

“When you’re going 80 miles an hour down the freeway you’re not necessarily going to notice irony,” Randy Newman has said. “But that’s what I choose to do.” Indeed, he’s the greatest ironist in rock & roll. On classic albums like 1970’s 12 Songs and 1972’s Sail Away, Newman developed characters, explored ironies and embodied perspectives no one else of his time had even considered — “Suzanne” was sung from the point of view of a rapist, “God’s Song” surveyed mankind with disgust from the Almighty’s easy chair and “Sail Away” was a sales pitch from an antebellum slave trader to Africans on the wonders of America (“Every man is free to take care of his home and his family”). Newman’s early albums were commercial calamities, but he had a surprise hit with 1977’s “Short People,” a bitingly funny parody of bigotry, and he’s gone on to enjoy a hugely successful second career writing soundtracks for movies like Toy Story and Monsters Inc. Newman’s songs have been covered by countless artists — from Judy Collins to Harry Nilsson to Ray Charles to Manfred Man’s Earth Band to Three Dog Night — and his respect among his peers is universal. T. Bone Burnett calls “Sail Away,” “the greatest satire in the history of American music.”

24- Elvis Costello

After springing forth in 1977 as a sneering, splay-legged punk rocker with a knack for motor-mouth lyrics (“I was always into writing a lot of words,” he said in 2008. “I liked the effect of a lot of images passing by quickly”), Elvis Costello evolved into a songwriter of profoundly American sensibilities and almost unparalleled versatility. Following a series of early rock masterpieces like 1978’s searing This Year’s Model and 1980’s soul-informed tour de force Get Happy!, Costello delivered an album of pure country with 1981’s Almost Blue and then hit another highpoint with the Tin Pan Alley subtlety of 1982’s Imperial Bedroom. Costello’s two-dozen or so best songs — “Beyond Believe,” Radio, Radio,” “New Lace Sleeves,” “Watching the Detectives,” “Oliver’s Army” among them — make all those densely packed images and subtle wordplay roll by with almost Beatles-esque precision. His ability to embrace diverse styles would lead to fruitful album-length collaborations with Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, his wife, jazz singer Diane Krall, and, most recently, hip-hop crew the Roots. “It’s not effortless,” he told Rolling Stone in 2004. “I despaired, for a time, of writing any more words. In ‘This House Is Empty Now’ [on Painted From Memory], I meant this house [points to his head].'”

23- Robert Johnson

Many bluesmen talked of sin and redemption. Johnson made it personal, walking side by side with Satan in “Me and the Devil Blues,” rewriting the Book of Revelations as a diary entry in “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” looking for shelter from the storm in “Hell Hound on My Trail” and enacting his own crucifixion in “Cross Road Blues.” His songwriting, like his guitar playing, was at once vivid and phantasmagorical —psychedelic some 30 years before the Acid Tests — and helped set a course for Bob Dylan (who can be seen holding King of the Delta Blues on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home), the Rolling Stones (who covered “Love in Vain” and “Stop Breaking Down) and Eric Clapton (who covered “Ramblin’ on My Mind” and “Cross Road Blues” and then chased Johnson’s hell hounds for decades). “When I heard him for the first time, it was like he was singing only for himself, and now and then, maybe God,” Clapton once said. “It is the finest music I have ever heard. I have always trusted its purity, and I always will.”

22- Van Morrison

Morrison was a hugely successful singer before he began writing songs and he never lost he idea that even the most intricate lyrics are meant to be sung and felt. He began his career with the tough Belfast R&B of Them, and was soon creating a brand of mystic Irish rock & roll that was equally touched by Yeats and Dylan as Jackie Wilson and Leadbelly. Only Van can make a Romantic incantation like “if I ventured in the slipstream/Between the viaducts of your dream” roll out as smooth as Tupelo honey. After becoming disillusioned with commercial pop following the success of his 1967 hit “Brown Eyed Girl,” he went into a brief period of down-and-out seclusion, emerging the following year with his greatest statement, Astral Weeks, singing “poetry and mythical musings channeled from my imagination” over meditative backing that wove folk, jazz, blues and soul. Throughout his career — but especially on a run of albums he recorded during the early Seventies that included 1970’s Moondance and 1974’s Veedon Fleece — Morrison has always rooted his ecstatic visions in a warm, commonplace intimacy perfect for his music’s easy-flowing grandeur. “The songs were somewhat channeled works,” he said when he performed Astral Weeks live in 2008. “As my songwriting has gone on I tend to do the same channeling, so it’s sort of like ‘Astral Decades,’ I guess.”

21- Lou Reed

“I wanted to write the great American novel, but I also loved rock & roll,” Reed told an interviewer in 1987. “I just wanted to cram everything into a record that these people had ignored. . .I wanted to write rock & roll that you could listen to as you got older, that wouldn’t lose anything, that would be timeless, in the subject matter and the literacy of the lyrics.” And so he did. A collegiate creative writing student who played covers in bar bands and briefly held a job writing pop song knockoffs in the Brill Building era, Reed drew inspiration both from literature (Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch) and his own life — for example, the fellow Warhol collaborators that informed quintessential Reed character studies like “Candy Says” and “Walk on the Wild Side.” Besides writing about the psychology of polymorphous sexuality and drug users, he penned some of the most beautiful love songs in history (“Pale Blue Eyes,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror”). Reed was also a sound scientist who, with the Velvet Underground and after, advanced what was possible with simple chords and electric guitars. His creative ambition never flagged: his last major project, Lulu, reimagined a late-19th century play/early 20th-century opera with Metallica, and as always, he took no prisoners.

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