Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time — 80-71

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Inspired by a girl who “could party and rock harder than anyone I’d known,” John Scott Sherrill wrote this song while separating from his wife. The first country chart-topper for both singer John Anderson and Sherrill, “Wild and Blue” is a hauntingly beautiful account of a cheating woman, told from the POV of her cuckolded man. Anderson’s syrupy drawl and mournful wail is intensified by sister Donna’s Hill Country harmonizing. Lloyd Green’s pedal steel and twin fiddles paint a long, bleak evening of waiting for honey to come home, but in the end the singer’s resigned forgiveness is hardly cause for celebration. Big-voiced Sally Timms gave Anderson’s 1982 hit a straight, strong reading when British country-punks the Mekons covered it on 1991’s Curse of the Mekons. 

The second Number One single off Garth Brooks’ debut LP, “The Dance” is a better-to-have-loved-and-lost slow jam that co-writer Tony Arata had been playing to open mic nights since he had moved to Nashville a few years earlier. “The only folks listening, however, were other songwriters,” remembers Arata. When Brooks first heard him play “The Dance,” he swore he would record the song if he ever got signed.

78. Roger Miller, ‘King of the Road’ (1964)

Inspired by a sign in Chicago that read “Trailers for Sale or Rent,” Roger Miller’s finger-snapping, bass-walking 1965 hit sold 2.5 million copies and became the Texas-born songwriter’s signature tune. Miller’s deliciously detailed masterpiece describes a happy-go-lucky vagrant’s existential tradeoff: “Two hours of pushin’ a broom / Buys an eight-by-12 four-bit room.” A perfectly modulated chorus sketches the hobo’s sunny familiarity with train engineers’ families before sneakily adding his similar acquaintance with “every door that ain’t locked when no one’s around.” Later in ’65, singer Jody Miller (no relation) answered with “Queen of the House,” a similarly ironic ode to domestic royalty. Roger released his own sequel of sorts in 1970 when he opened Nashville’s King of the Road Motor Inn.

Songwriter Gretchen Peters wrote “Independence Day” from the point of view of an eight-year-old girl who watched her mother get abused by her alcoholic father, until her mother burns down their house. Its popularity – intrinsically tied to its subject matter – helped McBride become a spokesperson for domestic abuse awareness and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity. But conservative host Sean Hannity wasn’t in on the track’s deeper meaning, using it as the theme song for his 2001 political radio show. “I know he [was] completely disregarding what the song’s about,” said Peters, “but… as long as they pay me, that gives me the wherewithal to support causes I believe in, and it all works out.”

Addiction, divorce, despair: Jamey Johnson spilled his demons on 2008’s, That Lonesome Song, an album that positioned the Alabamian as an able heir to the outlaw country throne. “I was trying to reach that dude at the bar going through what I was going through,” he told Rolling Stone. But where he truly shines is on “In Color,” a bittersweet ballad about man trying to convince his grandson that his photos – and his life – were more vibrant than just black and white, displaying a delicate sense for narrative and an emotive voice that’s both calloused and vulnerable. Written with James Otto and Lee Thomas Miller, the song was originally cut by Trace Adkins, for whom Johnson had earlier penned the American-as-apple-bottom anthem “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” “Trace was gracious,” Miller later explained. “He told me, ‘The guy wrote the song. What am I gonna do?'”

Charlie Rich had been struggling to find a niche between his rocking, jazz-picker roots and the Music Row mainstream for two decades. Then “Behind Closed Doors” gave the so-called Silver Fox the biggest hit of his career. “The jocks had been complaining that [Rich] was too bluesy for country,” producer Billy Sherill explained toBillboard in September of 1974. “Others said he was too country for anything else. We just needed the right song.” To create that right song, Sherill and Co. started with a riff that writer Kevin O’Dell had been humming for years, and then balanced traditional country flourishes with the dramatic orchestral instrumentation of an 11-piece string section. Rich won two Grammys and his only CMA Entertainer of the Year award.

After recording a pair of acoustic blues albums for Folkways, Lucinda Williams found her rightful audience with her eponymous 1988 Rough Trade debut. It contained this hoarse-voiced pop-rock anthem about not only wanting but deserving a comfortable bed, bath, and emotional beyond. Williams was broke and turning 40 when Mary Chapin Carpenter softened the song’s edges, added a stirring guitar arrangement and took “Passionate Kisses” close to the top of the Billboard country chart in 1993, winning Grammys for both herself and its author.

73. Dolly Parton, ‘Coat of Many Colors’ (1971)

Parton’s most homespun hit (and her frequently avowed favorite) effortlessly transplants the biblical story of Joseph to the postwar Tennessee of Dolly’s girlhood, celebrating the unselfconscious pride in a patchwork garment her mama fashioned out of rags. Parton wrote the song on Porter Wagoner’s tour bus – and on Porter Wagoner’s dry cleaning receipt, the only paper handy when inspiration struck. Wagoner later framed that receipt. The coat itself (or, as Coat Truthers insist, a latter-day recreation) hangs in the Chasing Rainbows Museum at Parton’s theme park, Dollywood.

72. D.L. Menard, ‘The Back Door (La Porte en Arrière)’ (1962)

Born into a Cajun farming family in Erath, Louisiana, in 1932, Doris Leon Menard based this regional hit on “Honky Tonk Blues” by Hank Williams, to whom he always bore a musical resemblance. Written during his shift at a service station, and recorded with Elias Badeaux and the Louisiana Aces, Menard’s catchy two-step satirizes a Cajun stereotype, the hard-drinking spendthrift whose late-night escapades lead to an early-morning return through the back door (and ultimately prison). “La Porte d’en Arrière” sold out its initial 300-copy run within days, then sold half a million more while becoming Cajun music’s most frequently covered song not titled “Jole Blon.” Although Menard soon “came to where I couldn’t bear to even hear the name of that song, I got so tired of it,” he still manages to perform “La Porte” to this day.

Years before his band become the most successful country group of the 1980s, Randy Owen spent his childhood days on Lookout Mountain, where his family ran a small cotton farm. 1982’s “Mountain Music” paid tribute to those southern roots, setting Owen’s adolescent hobbies – river-swimming, tree-climbing, raft-building – to a soundtrack of classic-rock guitar riffs, country harmonies and fiddle-fueled breakdowns. “We did ‘Mountain Music’ in two cuts,” he told CMT. “Back when we had a chance to rehearse and arrange stuff, we just went in and did the song like we’d rehearsed it.” Released during a time when country stars rarely played on their own records, “Mountain Music” was the work of a true band, and was proof that no one has to rely on the Nashville hit machine.

Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Songwriters 30-21

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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.

Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Songwriters 40-31

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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.”

This Day in Music History — December 19

1965 : Keith Moon collapses during a Who concert in Ontario.

1975 : Ronnie Wood leaves The Faces and joins The Rolling Stones.

1980 : Nine To Five, starring Dolly Parton and featuring the classic theme song by the singer (where she uses her fingernails as an instrument) opens in theaters.

2012 : Madonna gets angry at fans at a concert in Santiago, Chile, for smoking cigarettes near her against her wishes. The singer lectures the audience: “If you’re going to smoke cigarettes, I’m not doing a show. You don’t care about me, I don’t care about you. All right? Are we going to play that game? I’m not kidding. I can’t sing if you smoke.”

2014 : Darlene Love sings “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on David Letterman’s show for the final time, as the host has announced his retirement. When Love first performed the song on Letterman in 1986, it went so well that Dave made it a Christmas tradition, and every year she would come back to sing it.

This Day in Music History — October 26

1935 : The NBC Radio show Lux Radio Theatre presents its newest find — a 12-year-old girl singer named Judy Garland.

1965 : The Beatles are awarded Members of the British Empire (MBE) medals from Queen Elizabeth II in a ceremony held at Buckingham Palace. John Lennon claims they smoked marijuana in the bathroom before receiving the awards, although George Harrison said it was just tobacco. Harrison and Paul McCartney put the awards on their jackets for the Sgt. Pepper album cover; Lennon sent his back in 1969.

1980 : Paul Kantner of Jefferson Starship is taken to LA’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after he (correctly) suspects he’s having a brain hemorrhage. His wife initially doesn’t believe him, but eventually calls the hospital’s front desk, requesting “would you please get an ambulance for this asshole?”

1993 : Michael Jackson is awarded a patent for the system that allows him to lean in unnatural angles during performances of “Smooth Criminal.” To recreate the video on stage, Jackson and his dancers wore special shoes that they could insert into pegs set up on stage for the famous lean.

2010 : Keith Richards releases his autobiography, which is called Life. His drug use is a big topic – here’s a quote: “I loved a good high. And if you stay up, you get the songs that everyone else misses because they’re asleep.”

This Day in Music History — October 25

1983 : “Islands in the Stream,” written by The Bee Gees, becomes a #1 Pop hit in a duet by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.

1996 : The first Ozzfest is held as a two-day festival in Phoenix, Arizona and Devore, California.

1997 : During a concert in Flint, Michigan, Johnny Cash tells the crowd he has Parkinson’s Disease after he falls over trying to pick up a guitar pick. The crowd thinks he’s joking, but Cash’s manager confirms it in a statement two days later.

2000 : Billy Ray Cyrus lends his support to two causes when his tour bus stops in 16 different locations on Nashville’s Music Row throughout the day to collect food for Second Harvest Food Bank’s Harvest 2000; and later the same night, headlines a concert benefiting the charity

2006 : Forbes announces that Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain is now the Top-Earning Dead Celebrity, beating out Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Johnny Cash, George Harrison, Ray Charles, and Bob Marley.