What makes a great lyricist? A particularly great lyricists makes you care about the song., making you invest in it’s characters and plot. However, a good lyricists, as you’ll see from my list, does not necessarily have to make sense. Even if you’ve never heard of some of these guys (which shouldn’t be a lot, I’ve tried to keep it pretty mainstream) I encourage you to at least Google the lyrics to the songs I have noted.
10. Jimmy Buffett – His main reason for cracking the list is his incredible storytelling ability. Some of his song unravel as they go, giving listeners reasons to sit through the choruses–often the killing point where listeners change the station because, after all, it’s the most repetitive part of the song. He gets a bad rap because most people think of him as that crazy beachbum who wrote a song about cheeseburgers. Let me ask you this though: how many people have the talent to take a song about cheeseburgers and make it their legacy on American music? Exactly.
9. Freddie Mercury (Queen) – A straight-up legend and hoss, not only is he a great songwriter, but he’s arguably the most talented singer on this list. While not all his songs make sense at first glance (see: Bo Rhap), often times there a deeper metaphors hidden inside. He can also make fairly standard tunes infectious with careful use of rhyme and repetition.
8. “Weird Al” Yankovic – If you think about how his entire career is based off of, not musical prowess, but how well he can add new lyrics to old tunes, it’s obvious why he’s on this list. Not only are his parodies legendary, his original songs even take on cult status. His timing and comedic skill play a large role in every song he writes. Oh, and I’m going to see him in August. =]
7. Bob Dylan – The dude makes Led Zeppelin and The Beatles seem like one-hit wonders. Most people don’t know just how many songs he wrote that other people became famous for covering. A quick Google search at the Dylan Cover Database says that there are over 21,000 recorded covers of his work. 21,000 can’t be wrong. From Jimi Hendrix to William Shatner, every musicians eventually takes at crack at one of his songs. And it’s not because of the music. He came at a time in the ’60’s where it became popular to infuse your music with political statements and blazed the path for 40+ years of Kanye’s and Green Day’s.
6. Bret McKenzie / Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) – Even I realize as I write this that I’m overrating them. And yet, with lyrics like “I saw a man lying on the street half-dead / with knives and forks stickin’ out of his leg, he said… / ‘Could somebody please remove these cutleries from my knees?'” I don’t care. Their talent for rhyme is Seuss-like, and although their discography isn’t that expansive right now, their a band that you can’t afford to miss hearing songs by.
Now we’re getting into the classics.
5. Steve Bays (Hot Hot Heat) – This man has a great voice, but even better songwriting talent. While he does have the occassional annoying tendency of singing inaudibly, he paints visual picture of what he sings about. Songs like “Running Out Of Time” and “My Best Fiend” are poppy, but not built on the lyrical fluff most pop songs have. Instead they are carefully constructed scrapbooks of different feelings and emotions that everyone can identify with.
4. David Bowie – It’s hard to believe the guy who wrote crazy songs like “Life on Mars?” which make next to no sense also penned the epics “Space Oddity” and “Changes”. Bowie has a talent for reinvention that is, outside of Madonna, unrivaled in the music business. He has managed to stay relevant through the maturation of his lyrics from druggie-hazed to cautionary-taled. His songs are windows into what he’s going through, like in “Ashes to Ashes” you can see his battle with addiction.
3. Billy Joel – Another fantastic storyteller, this time coupled with his piano prowess pit him up near the top of the pack. Unlike someone else on this list, Joel often plays the role of the reliable narrator simply documenting the world around him. “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” monitor the lives of Brenda and Eddie, and his ubiquitous “Piano Man” is still, barely, underrated. Though you may not like his music, you cannot deny his skill with a pen. Whether he’s retelling the past (Ballad of Billy the Kid) or predicting our role in a post-apocalyptic world (Miami 2012), he’s always got you by the ear.
2. Sting (The Police) – When you hear Sting’s music you just know he must have a rhyming dictionary with him at all times. After breaking up with the Police and going solo, it almost seems like his lyrics were able to reach their full potential. If you listen and think about what he’s saying instead of just singing along, it can mess with your own emotions. And that’s not even mentioning The Police, who became superstars for their ability to bond music and lyrics so permanently.
1. Bruce Springsteen – Here’s where my dad celebrates. Even though The Boss isn’t one of my favorite musical acts, and even though I can’t quite get how dated he sounds, even on “Radio Nowhere”, I can’t argue with his skill as a songwriter. He can turn a hohum song into an epic, sprawling story. He often plays the role of unreliable narrator, who you can’t help but side with. He’s best known for his songs with little lyrical prose like “Dancing In The Dark” and “I’m On Fire”, which is disappointing because songs like “The River” and “4th of July, Asbury Park” are better examples of how indepth he can make his characters in four minutes or less. Conciseness, the one quality a great songwriter must have, has a nickname. And it’s The Boss.