20- Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Leiber and Stoller are rock & roll’s first great songwriting team, two Jewish kids who turned their love of rhythm and blues into a run of hits marked by their musical inventiveness and lyrical boldness. Leiber, who grew up in Baltimore, and Stoller, who was from Long Island, met in Los Angeles in 1950. With Leiber writing the lyrics and Stoller handling the music, they wrote Top 10 pop hits for Elvis Presley (“Jailhouse Rock”), the Coasters (“Yakety Yak”), Wilbert Harrison (“Kansas City”), the Drifters (“On Broadway”) and Dion (“Ruby Baby”). Their slyly humorous story songs skillfully mixed R&B grooves with clever, often subversive lyrics: “Riot in Cell Block #9,” a Number One R&B hit for the Robins in 1954, was about a prison uprising, while the Coasters’ 1959 chart-topper “Poison Ivy” was a reference to sexually transmitted diseases. The pair’s songs usually emerged from improvisatory writing sessions that began with just a handful of Leiber’s lyrics. “Often I would have a start, two or four lines,” Leiber told writer Robert Palmer in 1978. “Mike would sit at the piano and start to jam, just playing, fooling around, and I’d throw out a line. He’d accommodate the line — metrically, rhythmically.” In addition to achieving huge crossover pop success in the U.S., their work was also a massive influence on the British Invasion: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Hollies and the Searchers were just some of the acts who recorded their songs.
19- Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry
The Greenwich/Barry team only lasted a few years. They married and started composing songs in the Brill Building in 1962, and split up in 1965. But the dozens of hit songs they wrote for girl groups and teen idols during that time (often with producer Phil Spector pitching in) were as close to raw erotic fervor as you could hear on the radio at the time: the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me,” the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack,” and — near the end of their partnership — Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep – Mountain High.” Even their demo recordings were so fully realized that several charted under the name the Raindrops. “When things were working, and you’re really connecting, what could be better?,” Greenwich recalled. “Here’s the person you’re in love with, and you’re being creative together, and things are going well — it’s the highest high you can imagine. However, when there were disagreements, it was very hard to leave it at the office and go home at night and change hats: ‘Hi honey, what do you want for dinner?'” After the split, Barry continued to write songs for acts including the Archies and Olivia Newton–John; Greenwich developed Leader of the Pack, a musical about her career.
Prince’s talents as a multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger, bandleader and live powerhouse are peerless. But it all builds off his songs, which transform funk, soul, pop and rock into a sound all his own. He’s had 30 Top 40 singles in his career, including five Number Ones. Lyrically, he tends to stick to one freaky subject. But no songwriter has explored sex so ingeniously —from the frisky flirtations of “Little Red Corvette” and “U Got the Look” to more ambitious therapy sessions like “When Doves Cry” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Musically, his stylistic breadth seems limitless: He learned early on to lace a heavy funky jam with an unforgettable pop hook, then mastered every form of rock song — from three-chord bangers (“Let’s Go Crazy”) to straight-up power ballads (“Purple Rain”) — before introducing melodic and harmonic complexities that pushed his increasingly jazzy and experimental compositions beyond ordinary pop constraints. “He knew the balance between innovation and America’s digestive system,” Questlove has said of his idol. “He’s the only artist who was able to, basically, feed babies the most elaborate of foods that you would never give a child and know exactly how to break down the portions so they could digest it.” Prince’s own comments on his craft are even more impressionistic. “Sometimes I hear a melody in my head, and it seems like the first color in a painting,” he said in a 1998 interview. “And then you can build the rest of the song with other added sounds.”
17- Neil Young
Neil Young’s epic career has veered wildly from folk-rock to country to hard rock to synth-driven New Wave pop to rockabilly to bar-band blues. “Neil doesn’t turn corners,” Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro once said. “He ricochets around them.” And while he’s disappointed more than a few bandmates and fans with his at-times baffling career choices, his songs are always pure Neil. Young’s creakingly lovely acoustic ballads and torrential rockers draw on the same ageless themes: the myths and realities of American community and freedom, the individual’s hard struggle against crushing political and social forces, mortality and violence, chrome dreams, ragged glories and revolution blues. Young has released an astonishing 36 solo albums, five in the last two years. His best work (“Ambulance Blues,” “Powderfinger,” “After the Goldrush”) may have come in the Sixties and Seventies, but every single album comes with more than a few amazing moments. Songs like the 1970 soft-rock classic “Heart of Gold,” his only Number One single, have led to an image of the tireless 69-year-old legend as a lonely troubadour, but Young insists that’s deceptive. “Something about my songs, everyone thinks I’m kind of downbeat,” he said at his 1995 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “But things have been good for me for a long time. So if I look kind of sad, it’s bullshit. Forget it. I’m doing good.”
16- Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen was a dark Canadian eminence among the pantheon of singer-songwriters to emerge in the Sixties. His haunting bass voice, nylon-stringed guitar patterns, and Greek-chorus backing vocals delivered incantatory verses about love and hate, sex and spirituality, war and peace, ecstasy and depression, and other eternal dualities. A perfectionist known for spending years on a tune, Cohen’s genius for details illuminated the oft-covered “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah.” “Being a songwriter is like being a nun,” Rolling Stone reported him saying in 2014. “You’re married to a mystery. It’s not a particularly generous mystery, but other people have that experience with matrimony anyway.” In 1995, Cohen appeared to reject the worldliness reflected in songs like “The Future” and “Democracy” by putting his career on hold and becoming an ordained Buddhist monk. But he relaunched his career at age 74 and has continued to tour the world and make sensually luminous albums into the 2010s. At 80, he’s still our greatest living late-night poet.
15- Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland
During Motown’s mid-Sixties golden age, Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier were the label’s songwriting and production dream team. All three began their careers as singers, but when they started working together behind the scenes, they made magic. In 1966 alone, Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote and produced 13 Top 10 R&B singles, from the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” to the Four Tops’ “I’ll Be There.” Eddie’s deceptively simple lyrics — written to Brian and Lamont’s completed tracks — often focused on bittersweet, tormented love (“I got a lot of ideas from what I learned talking to women,” he said). But the music was pure delight: melodies that let vocalists’ power and move gracefully through them, neatly cross-stitched into an array of instrumental hooks and forceful dance rhythms. Late in the Sixties, Dozier and the Holland brothers left Motown and launched a few record labels of their own; although many of the hits that followed for the likes of Freda Payne and the Honey Cone were credited to “Edythe Wayne,” there was no mistaking the H-D-H sound.
14- Bruce Springsteen
He was one of rock’s first inheritors, and certainly its greatest, because from the start he saw rock & roll as more than music. “I got tremendous inspiration and a sense of place from the performers who had imagined it before me,” he once told Rolling Stone. “They were searchers — Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, James Brown. The people I loved — Woody Guthrie, Dylan — they were out on the frontier of the American imagination, and they were changing the course of history and our own ideas about who we were.” At the start, he balanced epics — the Dylan word clouds of “Blinded by the Light,” the Wall of Sound sweep of “Jungleland” — with the tightly constructed stories of struggle that delivered even bigger results, like “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run.” Songs like “Badlands” could make a rousing anthem out of existential crisis, and as he focused his sound and narrative, his music continued to gain power and the mass audience he knew it always deserved: Born in the U.S.A. delivered seven Top 10 singles — as many as Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Unafraid of risk, Springsteen followed it with a long period of redefinition, making his sound and his stories ever more intimate on 1987’s Tunnel of Love and later 1996’s The Ghost of Tom Joad. Since reuniting the E Street Band in 1999 he has been reconnecting to his earliest sense of inspiration and mission. “My songs, they’re all about the American identity and your own identity,” he once explained. “And trying to hold onto what’s worthwhile, what makes it a place that’s special, because I still believe that it is.”
13- Hank Williams
More than six decades after he died at 29 years old in a car wreck on New Year’s Day 1953, Hank Williams is still the most revered country artist of all time, and his impact on the history of rock & roll is just as complete. “To me, Hank Williams is still the best songwriter,” Bob Dylan said in 1991. Between 1947 and 1953, Williams landed 31 songs in the U.S. Country Top Ten, with five more making the Top Ten in the year following his untimely death. His songs ranged from Friday night party starters like “Hey Good Lookin'” and “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” to tales of romantic desolation like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to the redemptive anthem “I Saw the Light” to heart-wrenching depictions of dread and isolation like “Lost Highway” and “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” the last single released during his lifetime. No matter what mood he was channeling, Williams wrote with an economy and concision few songwriters in any genre have touched. “If a song can’t be written in 20 minutes, it ain’t worth writing,” he once said, summing up the no-frills eloquence that makes his songs so fun to sing and easy to cover. “Songs like ‘Lonesome Whistle’ and ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ are wonderful to sing because there is no bullshit in them,” Beck said. “The words, the melodies and the sentiment are all there, clear and true. It takes economy and simplicity to get to an idea or emotion in a song, and there’s no better example of that than Hank Williams.”
12- Brian Wilson
The Beach Boys’ resident genius wrote gloriously ecstatic California anthems such as “Fun Fun Fun,” “I Get Around” and “California Girls,” rock & roll’s greatest odes to idyllic summertime freedom. But he also penned darkly introspective masterpieces like “In My Room” and “God Only Knows,” as well as groundbreaking symphonic masterpieces like 1966’s Pet Sounds, which transformed the idea of rock album-making itself and inspired the Beatles’ own masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Wilson would later blame his father and bandmates for the despair in his more somber writing. “They wanted surf music, surf music, surf music,” he said in 2011. “The sadness came from. . .my heart.” Years later, a diagnosis of bipolar schizoaffective disorder would help explain his mood swings, recluse years and bizarre relationship with therapist-manager Eugene Landy. With the completion of his aborted late-Sixties opus Smile in 2004, Wilson reemerged to reclaim his title as a pop eminence who was once again capable of writing with incredible depth and beauty. Yet, despite the heights his music scaled, Wilson’s songwriting methodology was deceptively simple. “[I] sit down at the piano and play chords,” he told American Songwriter. “And then a melody starts to happen, and then the lyrics start to happen, and then you’ve got a song.”
11- Bob Marley
Marley didn’t just introduce reggae to an American audience, he helped transform it from a singles-oriented medium to a social and musical force every bit as powerful as rock & roll at its best. Marley drank deep from American soul music; he briefly lived in Delaware during the late Sixties, where he worked in a factory. On early compositions like dance-floor-filling ska tune “Simmer Down” and the lilting pop gem “Stand Alone” he displayed mastery of sweet melodies and cleverly turned hooks that showed he could’ve easily done time on Berry Gordy’s assembly line as well. As Marley continued to find his voice in the early Seventies, his songs took on an unrivaled breadth and power, especially as he began yoking his skills as an anthemic craftsman to lyrics that raised the banner of Third World struggles against systemic oppression. In reference to his 1972 watershed “Get Up, Stand Up,” he said, “I am doing something because I see the exploitation.” Marley wrote kind invocations of spiritual and herbal uplift (“Lively Up Yourself,” “Stir It Up”), smooth, sensual love songs (“Waiting in Vain,” “Is This Love”) and searing statements of Rasta enlightenment and Pan-African unity (“Exodus,” “Zimbabwe”). In “Redemption Song,” released a year before cancer took his life in 1981, he gave us a protest anthem that still carries the universal power of a true global call to arms. “I carried ‘Redemption Song’ to every meeting I had with a politician, prime minister or president,” Bono said. “It was for me a prophetic utterance.”