50- Billy Joel
From a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island, rode a boy with a six-pack in his hand — Billy Joel, in real life a piano man from Hicksville. Joel started out playing in rock & roll bands before returning to the piano at the beginning of the Seventies. “After seven years of trying to make it as a rock star, I decided to do what I always wanted to do — write about my own experiences,” he said in 1971, around the time of his debut album, Cold Spring Harbor. Joel has always had a heart in Tin Pan Alley, first hitting it big in the Seventies with the semi-confessional tale of wasting away as a lounge performer, “Piano Man.” But he’s applied his old-school craft to a host of rock styles, scoring hits as a blue-collar balladeer (“She’s Always a Woman”) or a doo-wop soul man (“The Longest Time”), trying out jazzy Scorcese-like streetlife serenades (“Zanzibar,” “Stiletto”). His signature song, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” is an epic seven-minute tale of suburban dreams biting the dust down at the Parkway Diner. Happy 50th anniversary, Brenda and Eddie.
49- Don Henley and Glenn Frey
The two future Eagles were lucky to meet up in L.A. in the early Seventies, but in their hunger for success, they were even more fortunate to have formidable competition. “In the beginning, we were the underdogs,” Frey once said. “Being in close proximity to Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, this unspoken thing was created between Henley and me, which said, ‘If we want to be up here with the big boys, we’d better write some fucking good songs.'” They proceeded to do just that: Whether composing together (“Desperado,” “One of These Nights,” “Tequila Sunrise,” “Lyin’ Eyes”) or with other band members (“Hotel California,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” “New Kid in Town”), Henley and Frey knew that songs — and fastidiously produced recordings of them— would be the key to their success far more so than their harmonies or lack of flashy showmanship. And those songs, soaked in world-weariness, cynicism, resentment and the occasional happy ending, were so precisely crafted that, decades later, they keep people returning to the records and seeing the band’s seemingly endless reunion tour.
48- Elton John and Bernie Taupin
In 1967, a clever record company executive paired lyricist Bernie Taupin and a young piano player named Reginald Kenneth Dwight. Their partnership has endured for nearly 50 years, putting 57 songs in the Top 40. “Without [Bernie] the journey would not have been possible,” Elton said in 1994. “I let all my expressions and my love and my pain and my anger come out with my melodies. I had someone to write my words for me. Without him, the journey would not have been possible.” Their process has remained nearly identical from day one: Bernie writes a lyric and sends it to Elton, who sits down at a piano and turns it into a song. They first hit it big in the Seventies with “Your Song,” a tune that Taupin now calls “one of the most naïve and childish lyrics in the entire repertoire of music.” But it quickly lead to more advanced work like “Madman Across the Water,” “Levon” and “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” along with goofy fun tunes like “Bennie and the Jets” and “Crocodile Rock.” “Andy Warhol never explained what his paintings were about,” Taupin said said in 2013. “He’d just say, ‘What does it mean to you?’ That’s how I feel about songs.”
47- Neil Diamond
There’s a reason Diamond’s songs have been covered by everyone from the Monkees and Smash Mouth to Sinatra. First are the meaty, hooky melodies, dating back to early Diamond sing-alongs like “Cherry, Cherry” and “Sweet Caroline” and extending into later, more brooding angst-a-thons like “I Am. . .I Said” and “Song Sung Blue.” The all-ages appeal of his music also has to do with the way Diamond has sketched out his life — and the lives of many of his fans. From his early, frisky Brill Building pop (“I’m a Believer”) to the later-life love songs about his latest wife, few singers brood and contemplate life in song the way Diamond has. And let’s not forget the ebullient “Cracklin’ Rosie,” the vaguely salacious “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” just two of the more than 50 songs he’s placed in the Billboard Top 100 during his half-century-plus career. “I’m motivated to find myself,” he told Rolling Stone in 1976. “I do it in a very silly way. I write these little songs and go and sing them. . .It seems like an odd way to gain an inner sense of acceptance of the self. But it’s what I do.”
46- Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
Barrett Strong sang Motown’s first big hit, 1959’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” but found an even greater success as a lyricist. For a six-year stretch beginning with 1967’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” he and composer/producer Norman Whitfield were a mighty songwriting team at Motown. Working most famously with the Temptations, they created “psychedelic soul,” built on Whitfield’s expansively experimental production and Strong’s downbeat, socially conscious lyrics. As far away from pop convention as Whitfield and Strong’s music could be — several of the artists they worked with grew frustrated with their freakiness — their sound found its audience: the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion,” the Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes” and Edwin Starr’s vehement protest diatribe “War” were all huge hits. “Norman Whitfield was the visionary,” Motown guitarist Dennis Coffey recalled. “He was always building up layers, making breakdowns, creating this searing funk with amazing dynamic changes.”
45- Robbie Robertson
At a time when many rock songwriters were interested in psychedelic escapism, the Band’s Robbie Robertson looked for inspiration in America — its history, its myths and its music. Songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” were, as Greil Marcus wrote in Mystery Train, “committed to the very idea of America: complicated, dangerous and alive.” Robinson’s songwriting grounded the Band, influencing generations of back-to-the-land rockers. Yet, he was content to play a kind of behind-the-scenes role, passing out songs for the Band’s three distinct vocalists — Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel — in an act of generosity that enhanced the Band’s theme of communal progress and spirit. “I had almost like a theater workshop,” he said, “where you’re casting people in these parts, and that’s what my job was then.” Since the Band ended its run, Robinson has only released albums sporadically; his most recent, 2013’s How to Become Clairvoyant, delivered vintage American idioms with a 21st Century feel.
44- Jimmy Webb
“[Songwriting] is hell on Earth,” Jimmy Webb wrote in his book, Tunesmith. “If it isn’t, then you’re doing it wrong.” Born in Oklahoma in 1946, Webb is an heir to the Great American Songbook. Sixties hits like “Up, Up and Away,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and “Wichita Lineman” marked him as an MOR master, a pigeonhole that irked him no end: According to Linda Ronstadt, Webb “was shunned and castigated for what was perceived as his lack of hipness.” While he’s recognized today for his unique explorations themes of loneliness and individuality in the American landscape, his most popular song remains an abiding enigma. “I don’t think it’s a very good song,” he said of “MacArthur Park,” the much-covered 1968 hit he penned for singer Richard Harris. “But the American people appear to have developed an incredible fascination with the one image of the cake out in the rain.”
43- Johnny Cash
His voice had the authority of experience, and so did his songs. In them, he was the man who taught the weeping willow how to cry, the solitary figure who wore black for the poor and beaten-down, the stone-cold killer who boasted he’d “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” At Sun Records and later at Columbia — in songs like “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Big River,” “Five Feet High and Rising” and “I Still Miss Someone” — he married the language of country, blues and gospel to the emerging snap of rock & roll. He recognized emerging talent, recording Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and one of his signature songs was written by his future wife, June Carter, about their emerging love. And he never stopped, recording “The Wanderer” with U2 in 1993, and a series of albums with Rick Rubin in his final years as he battled the effects of Shy-Dragger Syndrome. “Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul,” Dylan wrote after Cash’s death in 2003. “This is a miraculous and humbling thing. Listen to him, and he always brings you to your senses.”
42- Sly Stone
“My only weapon is my pen/And the frame of mind I’m in,” Sly Stone muttered on “Poet,” his clearest public statement on the art of songwriting. In his late-Sixties/early-Seventies prime, it was a potent combination: composer/producer David Axelrod called him “the greatest talent in pop music history.” Born Sylvester Stewart, Sly was a DJ and record producer with an equal love for soul music ands the Beatles. When he convened Sly and the Family Stone in the late Sixties, he deployed a fast-talking radio jock’s ear for aphorism (“different strokes for different folks,” “I want to take you higher”) and an ability to make tricky arrangements seem natural (“Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin” builds raw funk out of everyone in the band playing radically different parts). From the optimism of “Everyday People” to the funky angst of 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, his music mapped the flower-power era’s journey from utopian promise to catastrophic meltdown as well as anyone, and his grooves and riffs have been endlessly sampled by the hip-hop artists to arrive in his wake. “I have no doubt about my music,” Sly said in 1970. “The truth sustains.”
41- Max Martin
Every pop era has at least one songwriter who effortlessly taps into the zeitgeist, and for the last roughly 15 years, that person has been this Swedish writer-producer. Starting in the Nineties with the Backstreet Boy’s “I Want It That Way” and Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time,” among others, Martin helped create the whooshing, hyper-energized sound of modern pop — a talent that has extended to a mind-boggling list of recent collaborations that include Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night” and “Teenage Dream,” Ariana Grande’s “Problem,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and Adam Lambert’s “Whataya Want from Me.” “I try to make the songs as good as I can — the way I like it, you know?” Martin has said. “And I guess my taste sometimes happens to be what other people, particularly radio programmers, like, too. As you know, a lot of the stuff that was once considered rubbish or ‘for kids’ is now considered classic.”