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Best Songwriters: 30 Great Artists Who Have Soundtracked Our Lives
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List & Guides

Best Songwriters: 30 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.


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 20 best songwriters of all time.

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

30: 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

29 : 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

28: 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

27: Lou Reed

Thanks to his poetic yet acerbic lyrics and his distinctive deadpan vocal delivery, most music bearing Lou Reed’s stamp is instantly recognisable. Reed remains one of rock’s most influential musicians, due to his work with alt-rock pioneers The Velvet Underground (whose albums range from the avant-garde rock of The Velvet Underground And Nico to the pioneering indie-pop of his final outing with the group, Loaded), along with the best of his solo catalogue (not least the David Bowie-produced glam-rock classic Transformer and 1989’s widely acclaimed New York). Reed had more bases covered than most people realise. After graduating from upstate New York’s Syracuse University, Reed began his career as a Brill Building-esque staff songwriter and session musician with the Pickwick label, and he thrived as a collaborator during his later career. Indeed, material either written for or cut in tandem with artists as diverse as KISS; Metallica; and his wife, Laurie Anderson; plus the brilliant Andy Warhol tribute Songs For Drella, with his old Velvets bandmate John Cale, all show why Reed is right up there with the best (and most fearless) songwriters of all time.

Must hear: Dirty BLVD

26: 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

25: 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

24: 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

23: 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

22: 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

21: 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

20: 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)

19: 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)

18: 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

17: 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

16: 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)

15: 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)

14: 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

13: 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

12: 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”

11: 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)

10: 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

9: 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)

8: 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

7: 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)

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 suffered a nervous breakdown in 1964 and retired from touring with The Beach Boys. This initially had an upside, as 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.

Must hear: God Only Knows

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

Bjorn 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

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