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Best Songwriters: 50 Great Artists Who Have Soundtracked Our Lives
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Best Songwriters: 50 Great Artists Who Have Soundtracked Our Lives

Penning timeless songs that have lasted the ages, the world’s best songwriters continue to inspire all who follow in their footsteps.

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It helps all great pop and rock acts to have a unique sound and a memorable image, but ultimately it’s the quality of their songs that rewards them with longevity. Here we pay tribute to those who have flipped music’s script, and countdown the 50 best songwriters of all time.

Listen to our Rock Classics playlist here, and check out our 30 best songwriters, below.

50: Daniel Johnston

Daniel Johnston is known as true original among the world’s best songwriters. He is a pioneer of what is termed “outsider music” – records made both outside of large record companies and current trends, often by artists with no formal musical knowledge. In the 80s, Johnston created a touching discography of hope, yearning, honesty and dreams, all initially recorded to cassette and distributed to people he knew. Later on, he gained greater recognition and even, in 1994, released his album Fun on a major label. As Johnston lived with serious mental-health issues and (in later years) significant physical health problems, too, his lyrics were unparalleled in speaking to those who found their own challenges in relating to mainstream society.

“Dylan was an important influence,” Johnston said in 2006, when speaking of how he wrote his songs. “A lot of my record Songs Of Pain was inspired by listening to Dylan, Desire and Shot Of Love especially. Then Slow Train Coming, with that religious conversion, really blew my mind. But The Beatles are tops for me. I study everything they do. I have around 2000 Beatles bootlegs… Everything they did is supreme art.”

Must hear: Life In Vain

49: Sia

Sia is not only a superstar artist, whose love of performance art mixes seamlessly with her nose for immense pop bangers, but a virtuoso songwriter both for herself and in collaboration with others. She has the ability to create songs for her fellow performers – such as Rihanna’s Diamonds, Rita Ora’s Radioactive, or Beyoncé’s Pretty Hurts – that fit their characters perfectly. “It’s really difficult to find a song with such a strong message that doesn’t feel preachy,” Beyoncé said of Pretty Hurts. “Sia is such a genius. The second I heard the song I’m like, I have to sing this song. I don’t care how hard I have to fight for the song, this is my song!”

Sia herself has said that her songwriting pace is fast, up to 14 minutes per song. This is part of what keeps her writing so up-to-the-minute in its feel. While her work rate is a result of her hyper-quick mind, it’s also a practical response to a ravenous music industry that demands high output. “I love the idea of how fast can we make the song, but I don’t think that I’m necessarily like a super-talented songwriter,” Sia modestly said in 2016. “I think I’m just really productive. One out of ten songs is a hit. So where a lot of people will spend three weeks on one song, I will write ten in three weeks. Maybe the song that they sculpt is going to be as successful as just one of the ten that I wrote.”

Must hear: Chandelier

48: Rakim

Eric B & Rakim created some of the greatest rap records of all time, and were a defining act of hip-hop’s “Golden Age”, securing their place in hip-hop history by relentlessly pushing the stylistic barriers of the genre. A very big part of their lasting influence is found in Rakim’s words; he is considered one of rap’s finest lyricists, and earns his place in the best songwriters of all time due to the legacy of his razor-sharp compositions. As he rapped in Follow The Leader, “I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard/Flip it, now it’s a daily word.”

“The dictionary was my best friend,” Rakim said in 2020. He was a voracious reader of poetry, history and theology, too, and combined this insatiable linguistic thirst with a deep knowledge of non-rap styles of music, particularly jazz. “When I started writing rhymes, the closest thing I could identify as being like what I was trying to do was Coltrane,” Rakim has said. “I started incorporating into my delivery how Coltrane played the sax. Like, I tried to rhyme so you couldn’t hear me take a breath.”

Must hear: Paid In Full

47: Warren Zevon

Once described by The Guardian as “the artist’s artist”, Chicago-born singer-songwriter Warren Zevon only enjoyed a relatively brief brush with mainstream fame, but he remains one of music’s most revered figures, with a fan club including iconic figures such as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

The latter said that Zevon wrote about “the good, the bad and the ugly in life”, and that’s entirely true of his catalogue, which includes songs full of biting satire, but also gloriously touching ballads such as Searching For A Heart and Reconsider Me. His profile was at its highest during the late 70s, when he scored a platinum certification for 1978’s Excitable Boy album (featuring his signature hit, Werewolves Of London), but, despite lengthy battles against various personal demons, the best Warren Zevon songs rarely dipped in quality. Indeed, his final album, The Wind, recorded after Zevon was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, attracted some of the best reviews of his career and won two posthumous Grammy Awards in 2004.

Must hear: Werewolves Of London

46: Billie Joe Armstrong

When he was young, Billie Joe Armstrong asked his guitar teacher how to write a song. “All he said was, ‘It’s verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus – mix it up any way you want,’” Armstrong recalled in 2020. It was a revelatory piece of advice. In his work with Green Day, Armstrong took this approach and honed it into pop-punk perfection; yet there was also alchemy in his songs, which always went beyond a simple formula. “It’s so important to try and be as honest as you possibly can with your audience,” Armstrong has said. “When people find a deep connection, it’s because you’re trying to find your own connection inside of yourself. I think that that’s the thing that actually ends up transcending.”

From their breakthrough album, Dookie, via the classic American Idiot and right up to 2024’s Saviours, Armstrong’s words have offered a voice to the alienated, the cynical and the smart outsiders of the world. “The older you get as a songwriter, the more you second-guess yourself,” he said in 2024. “When you’re younger, you have no audience. You say anything you want. And then suddenly you have an audience, and you want them to be stoked on what you’re doing. But at the same time, you have to challenge yourself.”

Must hear: Wake Me Up When September Ends

45 : Chrissie Hynde

Chrissie Hynde might be dismissive of her inclusion among the world’s very best songwriters. She’s a team player through and through and rates the idea of being in a band above an individual’s input. Yet while Hynde has skilfully chosen collaborators from James Honeyman-Scott through to Pretenders’ latter-day lead guitarist, James Walbourne, it’s her talents as a songsmith which have ensured her band has thrived for over four decades.

Hynde first launched Pretenders in the aftermath of punk, and that music’s aggression and attitude has often seeped into the group’s harder-edged songs, not least the likes of Precious, The Adultress and Middle Of The Road. However, early classics such as Lovers Of Today and the county-tinged Kid showed that the best Pretenders songs had far more to offer than sass and sarcasm. Indeed, it’s this singular ability to balance the tough with the tender which has led Hynde to writing career-defining hits such as 2000 Miles, Brass In Pocket and I’ll Stand By You, securing her place in this august company.

Must hear: I’ll Stand By You

44: George Clinton

George Clinton redefined funk music. He made it space-age, multicoloured, humorous and surreal – heavily influencing later artists, including Prince, Kendrick Lamar and Janelle Monáe. Starting out in doo-wop, Clinton then found work as a staff songwriter at Motown (“That’s where I learned everything: producing, arranging, promoting,” he later said), and, as the 60s wore on, he became enamoured with the new avenues opening up for musicians. “Music began to change: rock’n’roll, you know, psychedelic rock’n’roll became the thing,” Clinton said.

Using copious amounts of LSD, Funkadelic could veer between Velvet Underground-style hypnotism, Isaac Hayes-influenced progressive soul, and the sheer disorganised joy of a jam session. However, despite initial impressions of chaos, Clinton is incredibly skilled at mixing politics and fantasy in songs peopled by a memorable cast of characters. “I’m from the same generation as Pink Floyd and The Beatles, who also thought in terms of big theatrical productions where you didn’t necessarily have to go from point A to point B,” Clinton said in 2018. “Exploring my own cartoon world came natural to me. And what I realised was that artists don’t last forever, but characters do.”

Must hear: Mommy, What’s A Funkadelic? (Funkadelic)

43: Jackson Browne

Composing the classic track These Days when he was just 16, Jackson Browne was a precocious talent that, over the years, has never quite settled down – and gloriously so. He is adept at bringing in the unconventional (Nico and Tim Buckley were collaborators when Browne was a teen) into his strong political and emotional songwriting. As part of the classic 70s era of singer-songwriters, Browne has explored personal and societal changes with a breathtaking clarity that’s rare among even the best songwriters.

He has been open about the work a songwriter must put in to perfect his craft, and is dismissive of the idea of pure inspiration without creating conditions for that inspiration to thrive. “You have to be in form,” he has said of songwriting. “That is, you have to be used to doing it, to get the most out of the inspiration. Although, I wish it was just like a big old huge voltage switch that gets switched on, and keeps you completely caught up in what you’re doing until you’re done. It’s been that way many times, but it’s unreliable.

“I relegate everything to the creative act as being what I’m here to do,” he continued. “And so anything that helps is something that I incorporate into my lifestyle.”

Must hear: Doctor, My Eyes

42: Mark E Smith

Asked in 2017 whether it was important for him to remain angry, Mark E Smith said, “Yeah. People still cross the road from me; I’ve still got that. I can clear a pub when I want to. It’s a talent.”

The band Smith formed in 1976, The Fall, was the main outlet for his much-imitated, never-bettered style of songwriting. He could be as vicious as a saltwater crocodile and as witty as Dorothy Parker, his snappy lyrics delivered through a fug of cigarette smoke to an audience that loved him no matter how much he affronted them.

In 1983, Smith revealed what he dubbed his “Mark E Smith ‘Guide To Writing’ Guide” (the extraneous “Guide” being very much in the Smith character). He broke down his process as follows:

Day One: Hang around house all day writing bits of useless information on bits of paper.

Day Two: Decide lack of inspiration due to too much isolation and non-fraternisation. Go to pub. Have drinks.

Day Three: Get up and go to pub. Hold on in there, a style is on its way. Through sheer boredom and drunkenness, talk to people in pub.

Day Four: By now, people in the pub should be continually getting on your nerves. Write things about them on backs of beer mats.

Day Five: Go to pub. This is where true penmanship stamina comes into its own as by now, guilt, drunkenness, the people in the pub and the fact you’re one of them should combine to enable you to write out of sheer vexation. To write out of sheer vexation.

Day Six: If possible, stay home. And write. If not go to pub.

Must hear: English Scheme

41: Kendrick Lamar

“Before I even got into ‘lyricists’, I was deep into songwriting,” Kendrick Lamar said in 2023. “I always loved the structure of songs – bridges and choruses, melodies. I was exercising that skill way before I even got into writing rhymes super heavy.” Particularly on 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly and 2017’s DAMN., Lamar’s songwriting is some of the best in modern music. He has described his process as a cerebral and solitary one, in order for him to fully reflect on the themes he wants to explore. “It felt like I was always in my own head [as a kid],” he has said. “I still got that nature. I’m always thinking. I’m always meditating on the present or the future.”

Lamar’s power partly comes from his discipline and his devotion to a theme, apparent particularly on To Pimp A Butterfly, which is a conscious exploration of race, racial trauma, and African American culture. He has said, because of this desire for unity, he has rejected many of his own songs for an album, even if they screamed “hit” at him. “Sometimes you’ve gotta look for the long run, rather than what’s right in front of you,” he said in 2017, revealing how he sought to secure his legacy as one of the best songwriters of all time. “I care about the body of work, not just a big single. I come from that era. I can’t shake it, either, no matter how big streaming gets.”

Must hear: HUMBLE.

40: Buddy Holly

Elvis Presley may be crowned “The King Of Rock’n’Roll”, but in terms of influencing the future course of modern music, Texan-born Buddy Holly trumps him every time. Arguably the most pioneering figure of his era, Holly not only defined the traditional rock’n’roll line-up of two guitars, bass and drums with his band, The Crickets, but he also placed the emphasis on writing his own material at a time when such a thing was virtually unheard of.

Influenced by the country and gospel music of the US South, as well as rhythm’n’blues, Holly was a skilled and highly prolific singer-songwriter who scored massive hits with evergreens such as That’ll Be The Day, Peggy Sue and Oh! Boy, and he left a wealth of unfinished material behind after his tragically early death, aged just 22, in a plane crash, on 3 February 1959.

Artistically, Holly’s songwriting skills were prodigious, and his final studio session – with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, in New York City, in October 1958 – yielded sophisticated material such as his True Love Ways. It’s impossible not to wonder what Buddy Holly might have achieved had he lived, but future superstars such as Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones have long since paid tribute to his influence on their own careers, with Stones guitarist Keith Richards even telling Holly biographer Ellis Amburn, “Holly passed it on via The Beatles and via us… He’s in everybody.”

Must hear: That’ll Be The Day

39: Carly Simon

Carly Simon is one of the world’s smartest songwriters, effortlessly tapping into a prevalent musical mood. The gentle folkishness of her debut album, Carly Simon, and its follow-up, Anticipation, concealed a sharp bite to her lyrics; as one of the best female songwriters, her work consistently challenged gender stereotypes and the hypocrisies of conventional society. On her third album, 1972’s No Secrets, and in particular its supernova single You’re So Vain, she completely bossed the emerging soft-rock sound, creating memorable lyrical characters that drew from her own colourful life. Into the 80s, Simon proved just how dextrous she was, creating Coming Around Again, a song which spoke to both her grown-up fans and a newer, younger audience.

“When I’m feeling anxious or depressed, I do find it helps to reach for a pen and paper,” Simon said in 2010 about writing. “There is something about writing things down, that hand-eye combination, that makes me feel calmer. Seeing things that are bothering you written down takes away their power. It gives you a perspective. Helps you contain them.”

Must hear: That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be

38: Paul Simon

In an interview with American Songwriter, New Jersey-born Paul Simon revealed that he breaks his catalogue down into three chunks: “I think you could look at my work as divided into three distinct periods: Simon And Garfunkel, pre-Graceland solo albums and Graceland to the present.”

It’s a good way to get to grips with Simon’s sprawling, yet seismic, 60-year catalogue of work, which began with his apprenticeship as a producer and songwriter for Amy Records before he hit paydirt as the songwriting half of folk-pop duo Simon And Garfunkel. Releasing five multi-million-selling albums together during the late 60s, the pair were responsible for evergreen hits such as The Sound Of Silence, America, Mrs Robinson, The Boxer and Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Had his career ended with Simon And Garfunkel’s dissolution in 1970, Simon would still be ranked among the world’s best songwriters, but he’s since gone on to enjoy a stellar solo career, with his 70s output yielding hits including Mother And Child Reunion, Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard and 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover. During the 80s, Simon helped bring what is often referred to as “world music” into the mainstream with his multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning Graceland album, which was inspired by the songs and rhythms of the townships of South Africa.

Simon has since added notable titles such as You’re The One, Surprise and 2016’s much-acclaimed Stranger To Stranger to his illustrious canon, and his eclectic approach to his craft continues to score plaudits, something which Rolling Stone acknowledged in 2016, when they wrote, “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.”

Must hear: You Can Call Me Al

37: Stevie Nicks

Stevie Nicks is an icon for multiple generations of songwriters, inspiring everyone from Sheryl Crow to Courtney Love, the Haim sisters, Lorde and Lana Del Rey, all of whom speak of her reverently. Indeed, at the 52nd Grammy Awards, in 2010, no less a figure than Taylor Swift said, “It’s a fairy tale and an honour to share the stage with Stevie Nicks.”

Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Nicks first fell in love with the aching vocal hooks of classic girl groups such as The Ronettes and The Crystals, and the Brill Building pop of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. She wrote her first single, I’ve Loved And I’ve Lost, aged 15, but she began to change the future of pop after she met fellow singer-songwriter Lindsey Buckingham. Initially operating as folk duo Buckingham Nicks, the pair relocated to Los Angeles, where an impressed Mick Fleetwood invited them to join his then down-on-their luck band, Fleetwood Mac.

This move kick-started arguably the most tempestuous offstage saga in pop history, but as era-defining, multi-platinum albums such as Rumours and Tango In The Night have long since proved, the music was always somehow impervious to the soap opera that was Fleetwood Mac’s personal lives. Nicks brought remarkable songs full of poetry, mysticism and depth (Gold Dust Woman, I Don’t Want To Know, Dreams, Seven Wonders) to the table for these records, while her solo career has also yielded major critical and commercial success, with her 1981 debut album, Bella Donna, topping the Billboard 200 and provoking Rolling Stone to dub her the “Reigning Queen Of Rock’n’Roll”.

Must hear: Dreams

36: Ed Sheeran

It’s often said that the ability to network is the key to success in the modern world, and, if that’s the case, then Ed Sheeran has availed himself of one of rock and pop’s most star-studded address books. One of the best songwriters of his generation, the Yorkshire-born, Suffolk-raised singer-songwriter’s stream of hits (You Need Me, I Don’t Need You; Shape Of You; Castle On The Hill; Bad Habits; Shivers; and the Grammy-winning Thinking Out Loud are just a few of the best Ed Sheeran songs) is seemingly unstoppable, yet his solo success is only the tip of a truly colossal iceberg. Indeed, such is the ubiquity of his craft that most people are completely unaware that Sheeran has either written or co-written a slew of hits for other artists, too, with chartbusters ranging from Little Mix’s Woman Like Me (featuring Nicki Minaj) to Rita Ora’s Your Song and Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself providing just the merest sample from a CV which is arguably now the most covetable in modern pop music.

Must hear: Shape Of You

35: John Fogerty

The songs John Fogerty wrote for Creedence Clearwater Revival were never about fashion or hype. Indeed, right from the start, with his pre-CCR outfit The Golliwogs, Fogerty worked on blending rockabilly, R&B, swamp-rock and country music into a potent mix that became something all his own

To the uninitiated, CCR songs such as Born On The Bayou and the band’s signature hit, Proud Mary, sounded like they were the product of a band from North America’s Deep South, yet they actually hailed from Oakland, just outside San Francisco. Unlike most of their acid-fried late-60s neighbours, such as Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, CCR were all about the songs – and Fogerty wrote some of the very best of his era. Concise, hooky and easy to digest, the likes of Lodi, Who’ll Stop The Rain?, Bad Moon Rising and the fierce anti-Vietnam protest song Fortunate Son struck a chord with blue-collar America and led to the band selling almost 30 million records in the US.

CCR split acrimoniously in 1972 and they have never reformed. However, they had already made their mark – one which has been noticed by subsequent generations, with Bruce Springsteen telling the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, “Creedence wasn’t the hippest band in the world, but they were the best.”

Must hear: Fortunate Son

34: Taylor Swift

In her own way, Taylor Swift rivals David Bowie in her chameleonic ability to reinvent herself and suss out music’s coming trends. Having signed to the Nashville-based Big Machine label at the age of 15, she initially identified as a country artist, but more pop-oriented hits such as Love Story and You Belong To Me, from her 2008 album, Fearless, became the first country songs to top the US pop and all-genre airplay charts, introducing her to a far wider audience.

Since then, Swift has repeatedly shown that she’s not only one of the best songwriters out there, but also one of the most versatile, with big-hitting albums such as Red, Reputation and folklore exploring genres as disparate as electronica, hip-hop and guitar-driven indie-pop without sacrificing her vice-like grip on the charts. Indeed, despite her regular bouts of reinvention, Swift seems incapable of putting a foot wrong, with Clash magazine noting that her stellar career has been “one of transcendence and covert boundary-pushing” and suggesting “Taylor Swift is just Taylor Swift” – an artist free from genre restrictions.

Must hear: Love Story

33: Ray Davies

Rolling Stone once referred to The Kinks as “the most adamantly British of the Brit Invasion bands”, and it’s certainly hard to think of another singer-songwriter who can match their leader, Ray Davies, when it comes to writing songs about the British way of life – both then and now.

The Kinks initially made their name while inadvertently inventing both garage rock and heavy metal with their storming early singles, You Really Got Me and All Day And All Of The Night, but the quality of Davies’ songwriting really shifted up a gear in 1965 when he began writing songs which explored the lives of the English working-class, such as A Well-Respected Man and Where Have All The Good Times Gone?

Over the next five years, Davies developed a highly distinctive style of songcraft, which took in elements of narrative, observation and wry social commentary on a ream of classic songs, including Sunny Afternoon, Days, Waterloo Sunset, Autumn Almanac and David Watts – tracks which have fascinated successive generations of pop lyricists and directly influenced younger English stars such as Paul Weller, Andy Partridge, Damon Albarn and Pete Doherty.

Must hear: Waterloo Sunset

32: Mark Hollis

Often, the greatest achievement Mark Hollis brought to his songwriting was absence. By removing, paring down, he took his band, Talk Talk – particularly on their final two albums, Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock – to a music of pure possibility. Few groups go from a kind of psychedelic pop in their very earliest days, through synths and chart success, to pioneers of post-rock within a decade. And it was Hollis’ songwriting that underpinned this incredible transformation.

A private person, Hollis didn’t often speak publicly about his art, but he did open up just a little in a 1998 interview with The Wire magazine. “More than anything, it was just not wanting to repeat what you’ve done,” he said. “All the time, you’re getting older and everything, and nothing is static. It feels far more bizarre to me that there should be no change. That feels really very weird to me.”

“With lyrics,” he continued, “they’re totally important in one way but equally they’re not of any importance at all because they’ve got to be secondary to the way the thing moves physically.”

Must hear: I Believe In You

31: Missy Elliott and Timbaland

“Me and Timbaland, ooh, we sang a jangle,” Missy Elliott rapped on her debut single, The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly). “We so tight that you get our styles tangled.”

Elliott and Timbaland were originally part of Swing Mob, the label and creative stable helmed by DeVante Swing of Jodeci. Swing Mob also included Ginuwine, Playa and Tweet, and the 20-plus-strong collective worked on their own projects, collaborated with each other and honed their craft together. “Missy has always been a rock and she’s been the toughest business person I’ve ever met,” said Magoo, another member of the collective. “She will tell you that won’t work and it literally won’t work… she saw the future for what Tim’s production could do.”

It was the start of a firm partnership that began by working for others, notably Aaliyah, and then progressed through Elliott’s incredible career, the pair constructing every Elliott album together, from her debut album, 1997’s Supa Dupa Fly, up until 2005’s The Cookbook. In 2023, Timbaland revealed the pair were working on new material together. “I want it to sound how she looks,” he said, “[and] she looks incredible right now. We both look like we 19 again. I know how Missy works: It’s got to be new and fun – or maybe not so much new as kind of underground, and everything is upbeat.”

Must hear: Get Ur Freak On

30: Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry

Husband-and-wife songwriting partners Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry were among the most successful songwriters of the 60s, scoring 17 pop hits in 1964 alone. Both hailing from the New York City borough of Brooklyn, the pair had a lot in common (they were both accomplished pianists who wrote songs and loved pop music) and they wrote a few songs pseudonymously while Greenwich was still at college.

Fellow songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller united them officially in 1962, when they offered Greenwich and Barry an office at New York’s famous hit factory, The Brill Building. The pair separated just three years later, but prior to that assembled a voluminous catalogue including five songs which topped the US Billboard charts: Chapel Of Love (The Dixie Cups), Do Wah Diddy Diddy (Manfred Mann), Leader Of The Pack (The Shangri-La’s), Hanky Panky (Tommy James And The Shondells) and Da Doo Ron Ron (Shaun Cassidy, later covered by Billy J Kramer, among others).

These successes were just the tip of the iceberg, as the duo composed hundreds of songs recorded by a variety of artists during their relatively brief but prolific union. They wrote much of the material for Leiber and Stoller’s Red Bird label and also teamed up with producer Phil Spector, who by then had his own Philles label. Writing as a trio, Spector, Greenwich and Barry also shared a by-line on such formidable classics as The Ronettes’ Be My Baby and Ike And Tina Turner’s River Deep – Mountain High.

Must hear: Da Doo Ron Ron (Billy J Kramer)

29: Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

The songs written by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen can convey cynicism, decayed society, obsession, ennui. Yet their unique genius is in juxtaposing these pessimistic themes with incredibly smooth, snag-free, technically innovative music.

Becker and Fagen met in 1967 and, soon after, began writing songs together. They gravitated to New York City’s Brill Building in order to sell their wares; eventually they both became staff songwriters at ABC Records. “I don’t think Walter and I were songwriters in the traditional sense, neither the Tin Pan Alley Broadway variety nor the ‘staffer’ type of the 50s and 60s,” Fagen later reflected. “An attentive listening to our early attempts at normal genre-writing will certainly bear me out. It soon became more interesting to exploit and subvert traditional elements of popular songwriting and to combine this material with the jazz-based music we had grown up with.”

Unsurprisingly, given how their work was developing, the pair’s songs were deemed “too complex” for other performers. Instead, the producer Gary Katz suggested they form their own band as a vehicle for the material that just wouldn’t fit other artists. Steely Dan was born shortly afterwards and, thereafter, Becker and Fagen’s days of writing for others was over, as they established themselves on their own creative terms among the best songwriters of the era. “Most of our tunes were written to be performed only by Steely Dan,” Fagan said. “They don’t lend themselves very well to cover renditions. The lyrics are not the sort that would inspire singers to cover them.”

Must hear: Peg

28: Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson

Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson bucked the trend at the Motown hit factory, in that they wrote some of the label’s most significant hits, yet they largely operated out of their native New York, rather than Detroit.

Having met at the Harlem church where Simpson sang gospel, their pair scored their first hit with Ray Charles’ Let’s Go Get Stoned, before Motown’s writing and production team Holland-Dozier-Holland hooked up with the pair while on a songwriting scouting mission in New York. The partnership worked well for many years, with Ashford and Simpson penning perennials such as Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and Chaka Khan’s I’m Every Woman (later covered by Whitney Houston in the box-office blockbuster The Bodyguard), in addition to writing and producing for Diana Ross. The husband-and-wife duo later enjoyed a career as recording artists under their own steam, racking up numerous hits in the late 70s and early 80s, with their biggest hit, Solid, peaking at No.12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1984. Ashford died of cancer in 2011, but Simpson has remained active, releasing a solo album, Dinosaurs Are Coming Back Again, in 2012 and writing for artists including Corinne Bailey Rae and Felicia Collins.

Must hear: I’m Every Woman (Chaka Khan)

27: Neil Young

Neil Young’s desire to follow his muse has sometimes tested the patience of fans and record companies alike, but the Canadian legend has still assembled the kind of catalogue that even the best songwriters would sell significant family members and/or their most prized possessions for.

Young initially came to prominence with the LA-based Buffalo Springfield, whose Stephen Stills-penned For What It’s Worth became a breakout hit in 1966. After the band split, in 1969, Young pursued a parallel career, flitting between rock records made in tow with his long-running backing group Crazy Horse, and a rootsier solo career which has also seen him collaborate sporadically with Crosby, Stills And Nash. Young has made some genre-defying records (Trans, Landing On Water) which have mystified critics, but his catalogue is liberally laced with classics both solo (Harvest, After The Goldrush, On The Beach) and with Crazy Horse (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Zuma, Rust Never Sleeps), which mark this singular musician’s territory among the world’s very best songwriters.

Must hear: Powderfinger

26: Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye was a songwriter almost as soon as he was a singer. On his first hit, Stubborn Kind Of Fellow, in 1962, he’s credited as co-writer; that same year he wrote Beechwood 4-5789 for The Marvelettes. He mixed these original compositions with material from other Motown songwriters (such as Smokey Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland) during the 60s, creating an enviable catalogue of smooth, romantic soul music. But Gaye was increasingly feeling a disconnect between the music he was releasing and the wider strife in the world.

“It was a very trying period for me at Motown,” he reflected in the early 80s. “I was struggling for independence, and some sort of recognition as a producer, and trying to let the artist in me come to the forefront.” The result was What’s Going On, his 1971 masterpiece, on which he wrote or co-wrote every track. From that point on, the artist in him definitely did come to the forefront, and suffused every subsequent album.

“I write my music according to my lifestyle,” Gaye said in 1984, during his last on-camera interview. “If I’m sad, I write sad music; if I’m being divorced, I write divorced. If I’m sexy, if I feel hot, or horny – I’ll write a horny album.”

Must hear: Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)

25: Bee Gees

Not content with their own incredible career – which saw them move from 60s sunshine-pop through disco and on to world-conquering pop in the 80s – Bee Gees wrote for many, many other artists, too. Their work was particularly successful with female singers, including some of the biggest names of all time: Diana Ross, Olivia Newton-John, Barbra Streisand and Dionne Warwick have all recorded Bee Gees’ compositions.

Music engineer John Merchant, who worked on Bee Gees’ 1989 album, One, commented on how intense the Gibb brothers’ songwriting process was. He said that they would spend marathon periods in the studio, “toss[ing] around musical ideas for hours. Barry might play guitar while Maurice would play keyboard, and Robin would sing and come up with melodic or lyrical ideas.”

It’s estimated that Barry Gibb, the sole surviving member of Bee Gees, has written more hit songs than almost anyone else, writing or co-writing in excess of 1,000 tunes. Easily one of the best songwriters of all time, he has called songwriting “a barrel full of thoughts. I would just jiggle around and look for another title,” he said. “All I had was my imagination. I emptied my mind and allowed it to come in.”

Must hear: Chain Reaction (Diana Ross)

24: Curtis Mayfield

Armed with a distinctive tenor vocal, an enduring catalogue of pop and soul classics, and a prominent place in the pantheon of US music, Curtis Mayfield is without question one of the best songwriters of his time.

Born in Chicago in 1942, Mayfield absorbed the city’s rich heritage of blues and gospel music, and his 1958 breakout hit with The Impressions, For Your Precious Love, was the first of a lengthy string of Mayfield-penned songs to hit high positions on the charts. The hits kept on coming during the 60s, with Talking About My Baby, I’m So Proud, Keep On Pushing, You Must Believe Me, Amen, Woman’s Got Soul and the immortal People Get Ready all keeping The Impressions in the public eye.

During the late 60s, Mayfield began to tune into the social and political issues of the era, with songs such as We’re A Winner reflecting the issues affecting the Black community. He co-founded the Curtom label in 1967 and embarked on a fruitful solo career shaping 60s and 70s Black music, with his debut solo album, Curtis, including the classic hit Move On Up. Mayfield also wrote, produced and recorded Superfly, one of the outstanding soundtracks of the era. Decrying the violence and drug use depicted in the film, Superfly combined Mayfield’s proven songwriting skills with a powerful social consciousness on such hits as the title track and Freddie’s Dead, both of which were certified million-sellers. The album itself spent four weeks at the top of the charts.

Mayfield also later collaborated with stars such as Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Freddy Fender, and would no doubt have had far more to give, but he was cruelly paralysed in 1990 when a lighting rig, loosened by a high gust of wind, toppled onto the stage during a rainswept concert in Brooklyn, striking Mayfield on its way down. Nonetheless, a star-studded tribute album, All Men Are Brothers, encouraged Mayfield to record again, and he released his final album, the Grammy-nominated New World Order, three years before his death in 1999.

Must hear: Move On Up

23: Max Martin

Max Martin may not be a household name, but the stellar Swedish musician and producer has been recognised as one of the best songwriters in pop for over two decades.

Starting out on the other side of the studio glass with Stockholm-based glam-rock act It’s Alive during the mid-80s, Martin first manned the console on Ace Of Base’s multi-platinum second album, The Bridge, in 1995. His career as a songwriter really took off in the latter part of that decade when he penned big-selling hits for Robyn (Show Me Love) and Céline Dion (That’s The Way It Is) – Billboard chart successes which led Martin to write a succession of hits for Backstreet Boys, plus Britney Spears’ global chart-topping debut single, … Baby One More Time.

Martin’s triumph with Spears led him to becoming the first non-US citizen ever to win ASCAP’s prestigious Songwriter Of The Year award, in 1999, before going on to win it again in 2000 and 2001. He’s since become one of the most in-demand names in pop, and his involvement in some of the world’s biggest hits in recent years (Ed Sheeran’s Beautiful People and The Weeknd’s Blinding Lights, to name just two) suggests there’s plenty more to come from Max Martin.

Must hear: Beautiful People (Ed Sheeran, featuring Khalid)

22: Smokey Robinson

The US Songwriters’ Hall Of Fame refers to Smokey Robinson as “Mr Motown” for good reason. Yes, the powerhouse US soul man penned and performed classic hits such as I Second That Emotion and The Tracks Of My Tears for his own vocal group, The Miracles, but as one of the best songwriters in the Motown stable, he also wrote some of the label’s most enduring hits – not least Mary Wells’ My Guy, Marvin Gaye’s Ain’t That Peculiar and The Marvelettes’ The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game.

Robinson’s subsequent solo career has also produced gold, with evergreen hits including Cruisin’, Ebony Eyes and the UK chart-topping Being With You, leading the Sheffield synth-pop group ABC to pay tribute to his achievements with their 1987 hit, When Smokey Sings. Robinson has since become the only man in musical history to be simultaneously inducted into in the Songwriters Hall Of Fame and the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and he’s still going strong, with Gasms, his first new album in a decade, which was released in April 2023.

Must hear: The Tracks Of My Tears (The Miracles)

21: Tori Amos

Tori Amos sees herself less as a working writer, and more of a channel or catalyst for her songs. “Chasing [the muses] doesn’t work out so well,” she said in 2017. “You’re trying to achieve alignment with emotion and the muses, and they don’t come when I snap my fingers, it doesn’t work like that.”

On the best Tori Amos albums it’s her deep connection with the characters or sensations she’s writing about that makes her songwriting so beloved. She has described her songs as living beings (particularly on 1998’s from the choirgirl hotel, where her songs were literal guests at the hotel of the album’s title), and they grow just as humans do. Her relationship changes with them, as both she and they understand one another in different ways. Winter, one of Amos’ earliest solo songs, is a perfect example. “Years later, I saw my daughter, Tash, and her father, running in the snow, and I would sing that song, and there would be that film running, of her putting her hand in her father’s glove. I wasn’t the little girl anymore. But I was. Both those films were running as I was playing it.”

Must hear: Winter

20: Randy Newman

Like Lou Reed, LA-based Randy Newman began his career as a songsmith for hire, though he found much of his early success in the UK, where songs such as I’ve Been Wrong Before, Just One Smile and Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear (written for Cilla Black, Gene Pitney and The Alan Price Set, respectively) all cracked the Top 20 during the mid-60s.

Running more or less concurrently with his film-score credits, Newman’s solo career began with the release of his self-titled debut album, in 1968, with subsequent albums, such as Sail Away, Good Old Boys and Trouble In Paradise, containing numerous examples of the best Randy Newman songs: smart, sardonic, yet eminently hummable tunes that have become synonymous with this singular singer-songwriter.

In more recent times, Newman’s focus has been primarily on his film compositions (a whole new audience discovered him through the Toy Story franchise, thanks to the movies’ theme song, You’ve Got A Friend In Me), and most of his Academy Award nominations are for his soundtrack work on animated classics such as Monsters, Inc. and A Bug’s Life. However, Newman’s most-recent studio album, 2017’s Dark Matter, proved that his muse remained in rude health.

Must hear: Lonely At The Top

19: Stevie Wonder

A one-of-a-kind child prodigy who was only 11 years old when he signed with Motown, Stevie Wonder has spent much of the last six decades showing us there’s little he can’t accomplish.

Scoring his first Billboard chart-topper at the age of 13, with Fingertips – Part 2, in 1963, Wonder enjoyed further 60s success with hits such as Uptight (Everything’s Alright) and For Once In My Life, but he really came into his own in the 70s. 1972’s acclaimed Talking Book featured the evergreen US No.1 Superstition, while the consecutive albums Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs In The Key Of Life all won Grammy Awards thanks to Wonder’s groundbreaking use of synthesisers. Albums such as Hotter Than July and the Woman In Red soundtrack album kept the plaudits coming throughout the 80s, while massive hit singles, ranging from the Paul McCartney collaboration Ebony And Ivory through to the plaintive I Just Called To Say I Love You, have long since secured Wonder’s legend not only among the very best songwriters, but also the greatest live performers of the modern era.

Must hear: Superstition

18: The Notorious B.I.G.

The Notorious B.I.G. was incredibly versatile as a lyricist, and is hip-hop’s greatest storyteller. He mixed up tales of his own past – hustling, mental health, crime, sex – with a novelist’s style and a folk hero’s frankness. He was a technically brilliant lyricist and an incredibly authentic presence, and his debut album, Ready To Die is still one of the world’s greatest albums of any genre.

“He sits there for a second, and there’s a hook,” said DJ Clark Kent, who worked with Biggie and got to witness first-hand the creative process that earns the rapper a spot among the best songwriters of all time. “If he comes up with a hook, and it’s instantaneous that he comes up with a hook, we get on a plane and we go back home. And we do the song.”

Even though Biggie’s life was short, he already knew the importance of evolution as a writer. “On Ready to Die, I was dead, yo,” he said in one of his final interviews, in early 1997. “There was nothing but anger coming out, about everything. But now, I can’t do that no more. People know that Biggie ain’t on the corner selling drugs. Why would anyone want to hear about that? I got other problems, now.”

Must hear: Everyday Struggle

17: David Bowie

Rock and pop’s ultimate master of reinvention, David Bowie is arguably still most associated with the glam-rock genre, thanks to his legendary Ziggy Stardust persona. However, his range of reference as both a songwriter and a performing artist was vast, and every era of his career has its contenders for a place among the best David Bowie songs. His dystopian Diamond Dogs album, for example, presaged punk a whole two years ahead of time, while his widely-acclaimed “Berlin trio” of Low, “Heroes” and Lodger, made in conjunction with Brian Eno, effectively drew the blueprint for post-punk and for much of 80s pop, too. Indeed, maintaining his status as one of the world’s best songwriters, Bowie remained an innovative presence through to the very end of his life, with his remarkable final album, Blackstar, creating something entirely unique and forward-looking from seemingly disparate strands of art-rock and jazz.

Speaking to journalist Bill DeMain in 2003, Bowie admitted that writing songs “wasn’t immediate, by any means”, but added that “around the late 60s/early 70s – it really started to all come together for me as to what it is that I like doing and what satisfied me the most. And it was a collision of musical styles as much as anything else. I found that I couldn’t easily adopt brand loyalty, or genre loyalty. I wasn’t an R&B artist, and I was this artist or that kind of artist, and I didn’t really see the point in trying to be that purist about it. What my true style was is that I loved the idea of putting Little Richard with Jacques Brel, and The Velvet Underground backing them – what would that sound like? That for me was really interesting. It really seemed, for me, what I was good at doing. What I enjoyed was being able to hybridise these different kinds of music.”

Must hear: “Heroes”

16: Ian Curtis

While Joy Division’s music – and Ian Curtis’ lyrics – are unparalleled dives into anguish and the head’s most difficult emotions, the brilliance of the band’s songs is that they are not only that. Joy Division’s debut album, Unknown Pleasures, was called “the album that most perfectly evoked the spirit of 1979” by journalist Mick Middles – and for good reason. Its aural evocation of a desolate cityscape, and a desperate Britain wracked by high inflation, political indifference (particularly towards the North, where Joy Division lived) and street violence, were palpable qualities. That Curtis was able to express all this without explicitly naming the issues or inviting social commentary was a key part of his talent.

“There were just too many Ians to cope with,” said his bandmate Peter Hook. “The perfect friend or partner for Ian would have combined all those things, but if that person exists they were nowhere near our social scene, so he had to be a chameleon… Thinking about it, I bet even Ian didn’t know who the ‘real’ Ian was.” By all accounts, Curtis could be funny, laddish, caring – as well as gloomy, poetic, ill. All the complexity of the human condition can be found in his words, and the best Joy Division songs remain as powerful as ever.

Must hear: Transmission

15: Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman

Another towering duo among the world’s best songwriters. Even allowing for stiff competition from the likes of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, New York team Jerome Felder (aka Doc Pomus) and Mort Shuman kept a tighter grip on the transatlantic charts than any other songwriters from 1958 through to the mid-60s. During this golden period, the pair produced an eye-popping selection of hits, with the likes of Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas, Andy Williams’ Can’t Get Used To Losing You, Ray Charles’ You Are My Baby and The Drifters’ Save The Last Dance For Me barely even scratching the surface.

Collectively, the songs co-written by Pomus and Shuman sold around 30 million copies, yet even after the two men went their separate ways their influence continued to permeate the music industry. Shuman penned hits for Billy J Kramer, The Hollies and Small Faces before creating the hugely-popular off-Broadway musical Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris, while Pomus played a significant role in the creation of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s The Blues Brothers, and co-wrote BB King’s Grammy-winning There Must Be A Better World Somewhere album with Dr John. Pomus and Shuman died of cancer within months of each other in 1991.

Must hear: Save The Last Dance For Me (The Drifters)

14: Nina Simone

Dr Nina Simone – as she preferred to be called – wrote of racism as a weeping sore in society. She was contemptuous of politicians and cynical of those who promised change; her songs advocated personal, sometimes direct action. “You’re all gonna die, and die like flies,” she sang on Mississippi Goddam, a song about the racist bombing of an Alabama church which murdered four children.

Yet this was not all she was. She claimed the title “Obeah Woman”, declaring herself capable of being able to “eat thunder and drink the rain”, and many of her songs were tough-yet-passionate reclamations of African and African American identity that celebrated the joy of Blackness. Her immense knowledge of classical music and songwriting craft (she was a particular fan of Brecht and Weill) meant that she could carefully calibrate spine-chilling and romantic moods, too, should she choose to do so.

“It’s a good time for Black people to be alive,” Simone said in 1968. “It’s a lot of hell. A lot of violence, but I feel more alive now than I ever have in my life. I have a chance to live, as I’ve dreamed.”

Must hear: Mississippi Goddam

13: Prince

You’d do better trying to work out what Prince Rogers Nelson didn’t do in terms of musical innovation, as opposed to what he did. Renowned for his flamboyant, androgynous persona, wide vocal range and dextrous multi-instrumental capabilities, he pioneered the “Minneapolis sound” (a synthesised take on funk and pop music, which, Rolling Stone observed, “loomed over mid-80s R&B and pop, not to mention the next two decades’ worth of electro, house, and techno”), and was described by The Los Angeles Times as “a master architect of funk, rock, R&B and pop” who defied any and all labels people tried to place on him.

Unlike many pioneering artists, quality kept pace with quantity for much of Prince’s career, and while his reputation rests on his legendary 80s releases such as Purple Rain, Parade and Sign O’ The Times, he continued to innovate throughout the 90s and into the 21st century with widely acclaimed albums such as Diamonds And Pearls, the record dubbed “Love Symbol”, 1995’s The Gold Experience and 2004’s Musicology. One of the biggest-selling artists of all time, Prince is estimated to have sold around 150 million albums globally, while the songs that he gave to other artists (not least The Bangles’ Manic Monday and Sinéad O’Connor’s sublime reading of Nothing Compares 2 U) continue to ensure his name remains mandatory among the world’s very best songwriters.

Must hear: Purple Rain

12: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller

Lyricist Jerome “Jerry” Leiber and composer Mike Stoller masterminded many of the most seismic pop (and early rock) records of the 50s and 60s. Though both were born on North America’s Eastern Seaboard, they met in Los Angeles in 1950 and bonded over a love of R&B music, scoring their first hit with Charles Brown’s Hard Times, in 1952.

The duo’s career really took an upturn when they scored crossover hits with songs such as Hound Dog, which they originally wrote for Big Mama Thornton that same year. Thornton’s version moved half a million copies, though Elvis Presley’s 1956 recording of the song (now regarded as the definitive version) sold ten million.

Leiber and Stoller then wrote further 50s-era standouts for Elvis, including Love Me, Jailhouse Rock, Loving You, Don’t and King Creole. They also put their stamp on that decade with a string of hits for other artists, among them Young Blood, Searchin’ and Yakety Yak for The Coasters – songs that used the vernacular of late-50s teenagers sung in a style that was openly theatrical rather than personal.

In addition, the songwriting duo also collaborated with other writers on standards such as On Broadway, written with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; Stand By Me, written with Ben E King; and Spanish Harlem, co-written by Leiber and Phil Spector. During the 60s, Leiber and Stoller founded the Red Bird imprint, scoring successes with girl groups The Shangri-La’s and The Dixie Cups, and their influence could still be detected during the 70s, when they wrote hits for artists as disparate as Stealers Wheel, Elkie Brooks and Peggy Lee.

Must hear: On Broadway (The Drifters)

11: Kate Bush

“Each song has a different personality,” Kate Bush said, speaking of her album The Sensual World, in 1989. “So they each need a bit of something here, a bit of that there. Just like people. Some people you can’t walk up to because you know that they’re a bit edgy first thing in the morning, so you have to come up sideways to them. And it’s kind of like how the songs are, too. They all have their own personalities and if it doesn’t want you to do it, it won’t let you.”

Bush began writing songs when she was a teenager, filling up tape after tape with her compositions. Her potential to become one of the best songwriters of all time was noticed by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who paid for Bush to record a more professional demo recording (one song from this demo, Passing Through Air, was later released as the B-side to 1980’s Army Dreamers). Now that the quality of her songs wasn’t dampened by her basic cassette recorder, Bush was soon signed to EMI.

The pace of her songwriting has ebbed and flowed over the years, but the quality has always been the defining factor of her work. “I have a level of dissatisfaction around everything I do, really,” Bush once said. “I don’t think I’d want to keep doing it if I didn’t. It’s, in a way, the desire to do something that you’re pleased with that keeps you motivated.”

Must hear: The Man With The Child In His Eyes

10: Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton has written over 700 songs. Within the country genre in which she first established herself, she was incredibly versatile: her songs could accurately replicate very traditional, down-home sounds, or push at their restrictions. Her words were suffused with deep sympathy for her characters, often drawing from her own childhood of destitution and want.

During the 70s, Parton moved towards pop music, and was often asked about the transition. “I’m not leaving country,” she said. “I’m just taking it with me.” Creating enormous hits such as Jolene and Love Is Like A Butterfly, she wrote with wisdom and humanity, teasing out stories that touched the deepest aspects of her listeners’ lives. And, underneath it all, there’s still a DIY spirit to Parton’s work that makes every song feel special, coming straight from her heart. “I think all writers do that, serious songwriters,” she said of how she keeps the spontaneity in her work. “We’ll write on a tablecloth, we’ll write on a napkin, on a Kleenex box, whatever is handy. And I’ll use a Maybelline pencil, anything I get my hands on, ’cause I know if I don’t do it right then, I will forget it, and then I’ll want to kill myself later to think, What was that great idea? I know it was great!”

Must hear: Coat Of Many Colors

9: Bob Dylan

“You want to write songs that are bigger than life,” Bob Dylan wrote in his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One. “You want to say something about strange things that have happened to you, strange things you have seen.” Certainly, few writers have done this quite so effectively as Bob Dylan, of whom Rolling Stone once said, “No one set the bar higher, or had greater impact,” in terms of songwriting.

That’s certainly a tribute which is hard to refute, for during rock’s most transformative decade, the 60s, Dylan was at the heart of almost every evolution in the rapidly-developing rock scene. Initially, the Zelig-like Minnesota singer-songwriter retooled ancient ballads passed down through generations into songs that both electrified the current moment and became lasting standards. Early landmarks such as Blowin’ In The Wind became hits for others (Peter, Paul And Mary took it No.2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963; Stevie Wonder returned it to the Top 10 two years later) while he also helped reshape the ambitions of everyone from The Beatles to The Byrds and Johnny Cash.

In the process of his critics-dividing desire to embrace electric rock’n’roll, Dylan began to climb the charts on his own with remarkable, enigmatic, era-defying songs as Subterranean Homesick Blues, Like A Rolling Stone, Positively 4th Street and Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, and he inadvertently helped invent Americana by dint of his late 60s work in conjunction with The Band, which led that group to strike out on their own with their magnificent debut album, Music From Big Pink.

Dylan shifted styles during the following decades, but he kept returning with classic songs, such as Tangled Up In Blue, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door and Forever Young, which continued to define their eras in lasting ways. His 2001 album, “Love And Theft”, revealed an at-times snarling pre-rock’n’roll sound that rivalled that of his electric youth, marking a renaissance that continued throughout the rest of his work.

Must hear: Like A Rolling Stone

8: Brian Holland, Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier

Songwriting and production team Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier (usually credited as Holland-Dozier-Holland) wrote, arranged and produced many songs that helped define the soul, funk and R&B-infused sound of Motown Recordings, placing them among the Detroit-based label’s best songwriters throughout its golden age.

While at Motown Records, from 1962 to 1967, Holland-Dozier-Holland were the composers and producers for each of the trio’s songs, while Eddie Holland wrote the lyrics and arranged the vocals. Their most celebrated productions were singles for Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells and The Supremes – indeed, their work accounted for ten of The Supremes’ 12 US No.1 singles, among them such era-defining songs as Baby Love, Stop! In The Name Of Love and You Keep Me Hangin’ On.

Due to a legal dispute with Motown which lasted from 1969 through to 1972, Holland-Dozier-Holland temporarily stopped writing material under their own names, but instead used the collective pseudonym “Edythe Wayne”. When they left the label, they continued to work as a production team (with Eddie Holland being added to the producer credits), and as a songwriting unit until 1974. The trio were later inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 1988, and the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1990.

For a “one-time only reunion”, the three came together again in 2006, to compose the score for the musical production of The First Wives Club, based on the novel by Olivia Goldsmith, and later a hit film. The musical included 22 new songs from the Holland-Dozier-Holland pen, with a book by Rupert Holmes. The musical was produced by Paul Lambert and Jonas Neilson and premiered in July 2009 at The Old Globe Theater in San Diego.

Must hear: You Keep Me Hangin’ On (The Supremes)

7: Leonard Cohen

One of the truly gifted songwriters who are also poets, Leonard Cohen was a writer of poetry and prose long before he was a singer. Even when he began songwriting, he initially wrote for others; in particular, female artists were enormously important to his development as a lyricist. The first artist to record his work, Judy Collins, gave him early exposure, recording Suzanne and Dress Rehearsal Rag for her 1966 album, In My Life. Soon, Cohen’s songwriting – particularly when he sang his own words – grew in depth, humour, strangeness and frankness.

During Cohen’s early period, he would compose on guitar, in tried-and-tested singer-songwriter fashion. Because he was so comfortable with literature, he first saw the music primarily as a framing device for lyrical ideas. But his songwriting innovation would soon develop beyond his skills as a lyricist, and, beginning with 1974’s New Skin For The Old Ceremony, Cohen began to envision other instruments in his songs; in the 80s the possibilities of synthesisers transformed his writing once again.

Cohen’s catalogue is intense, incorporating extreme nihilism, black humour and featherlight sensitivity (often in the space of a few verses). He was always looking for perfection in his work, terrified that – as he put it – people would think “that the guy was putting you on”. And this is one of the main reasons why Cohen is one of the best songwriters of all time. He is an artist who never denigrates nor undervalues his audience.

Must hear: Everybody Knows

6: Brian Wilson

The line between genius and madness proved to be especially thin in the case of The Beach Boys’ legendary leader, Brian Wilson. After signing with Capitol Records in 1962, Wilson became the first pop artist credited for writing, arranging, producing and performing his own material, and his output was prodigious: including songs written and produced for artists outside of The Beach Boys, he chalked up more than two dozen US Top 40 hits by the mid-60s.

Success, however, came at a price. Having set the bar as one of the best songwriters of the 60s,
Wilson experienced a nervous breakdown in 1964 and retired from touring with The Beach Boys. This retirement meant that Wilson spent more time in the studio, creating ever-more sophisticated work such as The Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds, and the infamously unfinished SMilE. But with drug use damaging his already precarious mental health, Wilson’s contributions to his band’s work petered out. He staged a comeback of sorts with the synth-heavy The Beach Boys Love You, in 1977, but a further 11 years elapsed before Wilson returned with his self-titled debut album.

5: Burt Bacharach and Hal David

Though never credited with bringing about any social, political or fashion revolutions, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s music was as much a part of the 60s as The Beatles, the Stones or Dylan. Indeed, between 1962 and 1972, their songs were everywhere. Rarely did a week pass without at least one Bacharach/David number appearing in the Billboard singles chart.

The pair first met at the Famous Music publishing company in 1957, where former New York Times journalist David was working as a lyricist. Bacharach, a McGill University graduate, had worked as Marlene Dietrich’s musical director for three years, but he agreed to work with David, and together they chalked up early successes with hits such as Marty Robbins’ The Story Of My Life and Perry Como’s easy-listening classic, Magic Moments.

The duo’s collaborations became more regular over the next few years and, from 1962 onwards, they scored massive successes with beautifully crafted, often lushly orchestrated pop standards such as Dionne Warwick’s Walk On By (1964), Jackie DeShannon’s What The World Needs Now Is Love (1965), Herb Alpert’s This Guy’s In Love With You (1968) and BJ Thomas’ Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head (1970).

Bacharach and David’s chart heyday ended by the mid-70s, but Bacharach, in particular, has remained an influential presence among the world’s best songwriters. He won a Grammy Award for his Elvis Costello collaboration, Painted From Memory, in 1998, released an acclaimed solo set, At This Time, in 2005, and even played to an adoring audience at Glastonbury in 2015.

“I’ve always looked at songs as three-and-a-half-minute movies,” Bacharach said of his craft in the book Their Own Words: Songwriters Talk. “They have peak moments and not just one intensity level the whole way through.”

Must hear: Walk On By (Dionne Warwick)

4: Joni Mitchell

No less a publication than Rolling Stone has dubbed Joni Mitchell “one of the greatest songwriters ever”, and we can only concur with their verdict, for the Canadian-born songsmith is responsible for one of the late-20th-century’s truly great bodies of work.

Born in Alberta, Canada, and signing with Warners offshoot Reprise in 1967, on the recommendations of David Crosby and Buffy Sainte-Marie, Mitchell released her first album, Song To A Seagull, in 1968, while her second, Clouds, yielded her first Grammy Award. Featuring her original version of Woodstock (a hit popularised by Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young), and her famous proto-eco anthem, Big Yellow Taxi, Mitchell’s third album, Ladies Of The Canyon, moved her ever closer to the mainstream, but her fourth, 1971’s Blue, set her legend in stone. Written after the breakdown of Mitchell’s relationship with Graham Nash, and while she was romantically involved with songwriter James Taylor, Blue was a sumptuous, sophisticated – but also intensely personal – game-changer that also included many of the best Joni Mitchell songs.

Pushing ever forward, Mitchell continued to release potent and highly acclaimed albums, with records such as Court And Spark, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Hejira drawing from jazz and more experimental sources. Throughout the 70s, Mitchell also worked with noted jazz musicians, including Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny, as well as Charles Mingus, who asked her to collaborate on his final recordings. She later turned to pop and electronic music, engaged in political protest and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 44th Annual Grammy Awards, in 2002.

Must hear: A Case Of You

3: Gerry Goffin and Carole King

A truly dynamic husband-and-wife songwriting team, New York-based Gerry Goffin and Carole King co-wrote a slew of the most popular pop hits of the 60s. Their breakthrough was The Shirelles’ 1960 US chart-topper, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, which opened the door for a whole host of hits such as Little Eva’s The Loco-Motion, Herman’s Hermits’ I’m Into Something Good, Dusty Springfield’s Goin’ Back and The Monkees’ Pleasant Valley Sunday.

Goffin and King separated in 1969, but they continued to make significant contributions to rock and pop on their own terms. Goffin later scored a worldwide hit with Whitney Houston’s Saving All My Love For You and co-wrote songs for the soundtrack to Grace Of My Heart, a 1996 movie whose principal character’s life paralleled that of Carole King in many ways. King, meanwhile, launched a successful solo career, with her second album, Tapestry, topping the US album chart for 15 weeks in 1971 and remaining on the charts for over six years, more than earning its reputation as one of the best breakup albums of all time. She also became the recipient of the 2013 Library Of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song – the first female songwriter to be awarded the honour.

Must hear: Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees)

2. Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson

Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson are the studious songwriting team behind Swedish superstars ABBA, one of most commercially successful acts in the history of popular music, whose records topped charts all over the world from 1974 to 1983, yielding 48 hit singles in the process.

ABBA’s career famously took off after they won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with their pop blockbuster Waterloo, but the seeds for the band’s success were sown some years earlier by Ulvaeus and Andersson. Keyboard player Andersson had already tasted domestic success in the mid-60s with his band The Hep Stars (known to many as “the Swedish Beatles”), for whom he penned the No.1 hits Sunny Girl and Consolation. Andersson crossed paths with Ulvaeus when The Hep Stars toured with Ulvaeus’ combo, The Hootenanny Singers, and the pair’s putative songwriting partnership first produced hits for Swedish stars such as Brita Borg in the late 60s.

Easily two of the best songwriters of all time, both Ulvaeus and Andersson are known as perfectionists in the studio, and while ABBA certainly toured during their late-70s heyday, the band spent much of their time recording music. However, their clinical methods paid dividends, for ABBA have long since been ranked as one of the most successful groups in pop history, having sold an estimated 350 million albums worldwide – a figure that only continued to rise following the release of the Swedish stars’ long-awaited comeback album, The Voyage.

Must hear: Mamma Mia

1: John Lennon and Paul McCartney

Showing that they were more than aware of the potentially illusory nature of Beatlemania, John Lennon said in 1963 that he hoped he and Paul McCartney might become “the Goffin-King of England”, by which he meant that the Liverpudlian duo could perhaps supply hit songs for other stars when The Beatles’ hits dried up.

That crisis never came to pass, for The Beatles spent the next seven years of their lives creating what is now arguably the most exalted catalogue in rock music. In terms of their songwriting, while the records’ credits carried the democratic banner of “Lennon-McCartney”, the two writers only really collaborated on songs in The Beatles’ early days, though they did encourage each other and make suggestions to bring latter-day tunes to completion.

As to their different styles of writing, it’s often been suggested that Lennon wrote the more abrasive material, with McCartney excelling with softer melodies and ballads, but, in truth, both were impressive all-rounders. Lennon’s body of work includes everything from the scabrous Yer Blues to the reflective Nowhere Man, while McCartney may have penned the seemingly ubiquitous Yesterday, but he was also the prime mover behind proto-metal screamer Helter Skelter. With hindsight, it’s fair to say Lennon and McCartney both had all bases covered, and they deserve equal billing at the head of our list of the world’s best songwriters.

Must hear: A Day In The Life

You’ve seen the best songwriters of all time. Now find out our pick of the best rock songs ever.

Original article: 27 November 2021

Updated: 30 March 2023, 28 April 2023. Words: Alan York | 21 March 2024. Words: Jeanette Leech

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