10- Stevie Wonder
“I feel there is so much through music that can be said,” Wonder once observed, and the songs he’s been writing for a half-century have more than lived up to that idea. Whether immersing himself in social commentary (“Higher Ground,” “Living for the City”), unabashed sentimentality (“You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You”), jubilant love (“Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”) or gritty disses (“You Haven’t Done Nothin'”), Wonder has consistently tapped into the sum of human emotions and happenings. He was already writing his own songs as a childhood prodigy at Motown during the Sixties (including the 1966 smash “Uptight (It’s Alright).”
As he hit his artistic stride on albums like 1972’s Talking Book and 1973’s Innervisions, he used the recording studio as his palette to create groundbreaking works of soulful self-discovery. “Like a painter, I get my inspiration from experiences that can be painful or beautiful,” he has said. “I always start from a feeling of profound gratitude — you know, ‘Only by the grace of God am I here’— and write from there. Most songwriters are inspired by an inner voice and spirit.” Combined with melodies that can be jubilant, funky or simply gorgeous, Wonder’s songs are so enduring that they’ve been covered by everyone from Sinatra to the Backstreet Boys.
9- Joni Mitchell
Mitchell came out of the coffee-shop folk culture of the Sixties, and she became the standard bearing star of L.A.’s Laurel Canyon scene. But her restless brilliance couldn’t be confined to one moment or movement. She began with songs that only by her later standards seemed simple: “Clouds,” “Both Sides Now,” “Big Yellow Taxi.” But then, banging on her acoustic guitar in startling ways or playing modernist melodies at the piano, she unfurled starkly personal lyrics that pushed beyond “confessional” songwriting towards an almost confrontational intimacy and rawness. “When I realized how popular I was becoming, it was right before Blue,” she recalled, in reference to her 1971 masterpiece. “I went, ‘Oh my God, a lot of people are listening to me.
Well then they better find out who they’re worshiping. Let’s see if they can take it. Let’s get real.’ So I wrote Blue, which horrified a lot of people, you know.” Mitchell’s run of albums from 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon to 1974’s Court and Spark, on which she perfected a jazz-bent studio pop, rival any streak of record-making in pop history, and her lyrical depictions of the ecstasy and heartbreak that came with being a strong woman availing herself of the sexual independence of the Sixties and Seventies offer a unique emotional travelogue of the era. “I had no personal defenses,” she said of her writing at the time. “I felt like a cellophane rapper on a pack of cigarettes.”
8- Paul Simon
If Paul Simon’s career had ended with the breakup of Simon & Garfunkel in 1970, he would still have produced some of the most beloved songs ever – including “The Sound of Silence,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” But Simon was just getting started. The quintessential New York singer-songwriter, he switches between styles effortlessly with as much attention to rhythm as melody, a rare quality among artists who came of age in the folk era. Over the decades, his music has incorporated Tin Pan Alley tunecraft, global textures, gentle acoustic reveries, gospel, R&B and electronic music, all without diluting his core appeal as an easeful chronicler of everyday alienation.
Whether he’s operating on a large scale summing up our shared national commitments in 1973’s “American Tune,” or writing a finely wrought personal reflection on lost love like 1986’s “Graceland,” the same wit and literary detail come through. For the generation that came of age during the Sixties and Seventies, he rivaled Bob Dylan in creating a mirror for their journey from youthful innocence to complicated adulthood. “One of my deficiencies is my voice sounds sincere,” Simon told Rolling Stone in 2012. “I’ve tried to sound ironic. I don’t. I can’t. Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He’s telling you the truth and making fun of you at the same time. I sound sincere every time.”
7- Carole King/Carole King and Gerry Goffin
Goffin and King were pop’s most prolific songwriting partnership –and, even more impressively, they kept their winning streaks going even after their marriage split up. With King handling melodies and Goffin the lyrics, the two former Queens College schoolmates worked a block away from the Brill Building and wrote many of professional songwriting’s most evocative songs: tracks like “Up on the Roof,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and “One Fine Day” that were tender snapshots of the adolescent experience. “When Paul and I first got together, we wanted to be the British Goffin and King,” John Lennon once said. As a solo act after their divorce, King gave voice to a generation of women who were establishing their own lives and identities in the Seventies; her 1971 masterpiece Tapestry remains one of the biggest-selling albums ever.
Goffin, meanwhile, supplied the lyrics for a string of hits including Diana Ross’s “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To),” Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love for You,” and Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination.” For them, there’s nothing crass, and everything earnest, about the art of the pop song. “Once I start to create a song, even if commerce is the motivation, I’m still going to try to write the best song and move people in a way that touches them,” King has said. “People know when you do that. They know that there’s an emotional connection, even if it’s commercial.”
6- Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards defined a rock song’s essential components – nasty wit, an unforgettable riff, an explosive chorus – and established a blueprint for future rockers to follow. Their work was at once primal and complex, charged by conflict, desire and anger, and unafraid to be explicit about it musically or lyrically. They wrote personal manifestos with political dimensions like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Get Off My Cloud”; they brooded on the tumult of the Sixties with “Gimme Shelter” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”; they detailed the connections between societal evil and the individual (and made it rock) with “Brown Sugar” and “Sympathy for the Devil.” And sometimes –”Start Me Up,” “Rip This Joint” – they just kicked the doors in and burned the house down.
One of the many, many things Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have disagreed about over the years is how their songwriting partnership got started. Keith has steadfastly claimed that manager Andrew Loog Oldham locked them in a kitchen until they emerged with “As Tears Go By,” while Jagger says the pressure was merely verbal: “He did mentally lock us in a room, but he didn’t literally lock us in.” Like Lennon/McCartney, Jagger and Richards didn’t always write together – “Happy” was all Keith, while “Brown Sugar” all Mick. But both men had a hand in most of the Stones’ hits. “I think it’s essential,” Jagger once told Rolling Stone of the idea of partnership. “People. . .like partnerships because they can identify with the drama of two people in partnership. They can feed off a partnership, and that keeps people entertained. Besides, if you have a successful partnership, it’s self-sustaining.”
5- Smokey Robinson
“Smokey Robinson was like God in our eyes,” Paul McCartney once said. The melodic and lyrical genius behind Motown’s greatest hits is the most influential and innovative R&B tunesmith of all time. Robinson was an elegant, delicate singer and poetic writer whose songs brought new levels of nuance to the Top 40. The son of a truck driver raised in what he called “the suave part of the slums,” Robinson had his first hit in 1960 with the Miracles’ “Shop Around” and went onto pen the Temptations’ “My Girl” and “Get Ready,” Mary Wells’ “My Guy,” the Marvelettes’ “Don’t Mess With Bill,” Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” and many more.
With the Miracles, he had his hand in more than a dozen Top 20 hits (including “The Tracks of My Tears” and “I Second That Emotion”), songs that describe heartbreak with stunning turns of phrase: “Sweetness was only heartache’s camouflage/The love I saw in you was just a mirage,” he rhymed in 1967. Though Bob Dylan’s famous quote calling Smokey “the greatest living poet” might actually be apocryphal, everyone believed it for decades because the songs backed it up perfectly. “My theory of writing is to write a song that has a complete idea and tells a story in the time allotted for a record,” he told Rolling Stone in 1968. “It has to be something that really means something, not just a bunch of words on music.”
4- Chuck Berry
He was rock & roll’s first singer-songwriter, and the music’s first guitar hero, as well. Berry was a Muddy Waters fan who quickly learned the power of his own boundary-crossing “songs of novelties and feelings of fun and frolic” when he transformed a country song, “Ida Red,” into his first single, “Maybellene,” a Top Five pop hit. His songs were concise and mythic, celebrating uniquely American freedoms – fast cars in “Maybellene,” class mobility in “No Money Down,” the country itself in “Back in the U.S.A.” – or protesting their denial in coded race parables like “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Promised Land,” which he wrote while in jail inspired by the freedom marches, consulting an almanac for the route.
Bob Dylan based the meter of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” on “Too Much Monkey Business,” Mick Jagger and Keith Richards soaked up the idea of no satisfaction from “30 Days,” and John Lennon once summed up his immeasurable impact by saying, “If you gave rock & roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.”
3- John Lennon
John Lennon’s command of songwriting was both absolute and radically original: that was clear from his earliest collaborations with Paul McCartney, which revolutionized not just music, but the world. “They were doing things nobody was doing,” Bob Dylan once remembered of a drive through Colorado when the Beatles ruled the radio. “I knew they were pointing the direction where music had to go.” That meant first reconnecting pop music to the awesome power of early rock & roll – Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Little Richard – then pushing forward with darker, more personal music like “Hard Day’s Night” and “In My Life” that stretched the boundaries of the capabilities of pop, and then diving into the avant garde with music that had only existed in his dreams: “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “A Day in the Life,” “Revolution #9.”
No one better rendered the complexity of personal life or global politics, or better connected the two, than Lennon during his solo career in universal songs like “Watching the Wheels” and “Imagine.” “I’m interested in something that means something for everyone,” he told Rolling Stone in 1970, “not just for a few kids listening to wallpaper.”
2- Paul McCartney
“I’m in awe of McCartney,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone in 2007. “He’s about the only one that I’m in awe of.” Sir Paul is pop’s greatest melodist, with a bulging songbook that includes many of the most-performed and best-loved tunes of the past half-century. McCartney has always had a much broader range than silly love songs. He’s the weirdo behind “Temporary Secretary” and the feral basher behind “Helter Skelter.” But part of what he brought to the Beatles was his passion for the wit and complexity of pre-rock songwriting, from Fats Waller to Peggy Lee.
“Even in the early days we used to write things separately, because Paul was always more advanced than I was,” John Lennon once said. Songs like “Yesterday” and “Let It Be” became modern standards, and post-Beatles, McCartney led Wings to six Number One hits, among them “Band on the Run” and “Listen to What the Man Said.” “The truth is the problem’s always been the same, really,” he said earlier this year. “When you think about it, when you’re writing a song, you’re always trying to write something that you love and the people will love.”
1- Bob Dylan
Dylan’s vision of American popular music was transformative. No one set the bar higher, or had greater impact. “You want to write songs that are bigger than life,” he wrote in his memoir, Chronicles. “You want to say something about strange things that have happened to you, strange things you have seen.” Dylan himself saw no difference between modern times and the storied past – reading about the Civil War helped him understand the Sixties –which allowed him to rewire folk ballads passed down through generations into songs that both electrified the current moment and became lasting standards. Early songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” became hits for others –Peter, Paul & Mary took it Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963; Stevie Wonder brought it Number Nine two years later – and reshaped the ambitions of everyone from the Beatles to Johnny Cash.
Then Dylan began to climb the charts on his own with music that turned pop into prophecy: “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Positively Fourth Street,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” His personas shifted, but songs like “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Forever Young” continued to define their eras in lasting ways. And alone among his peers Dylan’s creativity was ceaseless –2000’s Love and Theft returned him to a snarling sound that rivaled his electric youth, marking a renaissance that continues unabated. “A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true,” Dylan wrote. “They’re like strange countries that you have to enter.” And so we do, marveling at the sights, over and over again.