This post is just my opinion. Many readers will have their own top ten, most based on their preferred music genre and probably to do with the decades they have lived through.
My top ten is definitely an era based list. I entered my teen years in the 1950s, the years when rock was beginning to become mainstream much to the disgust of my father who loathed any music that had a beat. Apart from Dylan who is my personal number one, the following list is in no particular order of importance. They are just my top nine after Dylan.
The number one spot has to go to Bob Dylan. When you listen to the lyrics of songs like Times They Are A-Changing, Desolation Row, Visions of Johanna, This Dream of You, Girl From the Red River Shore and Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts to name just a tiny few from the vast number of songs Dylan has written to date, you get a sense of Dylan’s innate composing skills, his poetic style, the message in so many of his songs and the brilliance of his music composing.
Most all; Dylan’s total disregard for convention. As an example; you hear Thunder on the Mountain for the first time. You fall in love with the song, maybe learn to play it if you have some guitar or piano licks, and look forward to Dylan singing it live at a concert. Good luck. The next version he sings maybe in a minor key with different chord changes, different tempo, perhaps different lyrics in the chorus or in some of the lines. It depends on what he is feeling at that particular time. And that is the main reason I love Dylan. He is not bound by convention. He marches to his own drummer and is not entertaining to please his fans.
Though he is now 79, he shows no sign of slowing down. I have had the joy of seeing him three times on stage. With Bob Dylan, what you see is what you get. Each performance is a unique musical experience. Dylan does not cater to his fans or the audience; he caters to some mysterious force that exists inside his astonishing depth of talent. He is no cookie-cutter songwriter or musician. His Nobel Prize was well justified and well deserved.
Ah, John, we miss you. I remember the first time I saw John Prine back in the early 70s. A group of us had booked tickets to see him at a theatrical venue and then a few weeks before the concert date, the staff went on strike and the promoters had to scramble for a new venue. This ended up being a large meeting room in a downtown hotel with folding chairs bought in for the audience. So, it was a close-up and personal glimpse of John Prine who was accompanied by his good friend and another very talented musician, the late Steve Goodman.
John Prine was known as the songwriter’s songwriter with his lyrical honesty, a sly sense of humor, and wit that drew comparisons to Mark Twain. High praise came from Bob Dylan who placed Prine in his all-time favorite top five songwriters.
His sense of humor came out loud and clear in a song he penned with Steve Goodman called You Never Even Call Me By My Name and billed as the greatest country song ever written with references to dead dogs, trains, prisons, mothers, and drunks. Many of his songs invoked pathos such as Sam Stone and many were simply direct and honest observances of daily life such as Grandpa Was a Carpenter and My Old Kentucky, Goodnight. Then there were his cheeky, poking-fun-at songs like Jesus, The Missing Years and The Salesman Song.
What can be said about Paul Simon that has not been said before? I have seen Simon and Garfunkel in a concert that evoked memories of the Everly Brothers and their wonderful harmony. Since they split up, I have seen Paul Simon in concert twice and both times have been a memorable experience with each concert as different from the other as pork and beans. First was after the release of his Graceland album. He was backed up by a full complement of African musicians that included half a dozen drummers, African backup singers all combining with Paul Simon’s haunting lyrics and incomparable melodies to create an everlasting musical memory.
Simon was a little like Dylan in as much as he sang his songs based not on how they sounded when first released but based on new musical experiences he encountered along the way and new partners he produced with.
Paul Simon’s music extends from whimsical numbers such as You Can Call Me Al to driving rock numbers like Graceland and everything in between including the acclaimed, The Boxer.
Joni Mitchell has been on a musical journey from the time she penned her first number Day After Day after traveling for three days to the Mariposa Folk Festival to see Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Saskatchewan-born Cree singer who had inspired her.
For over 50 years, Mitchell has in turn inspired musicians and fans around the world with her meaningful, poetic storytelling, whether busking on the streets of Toronto or singing in front of thousands on the big stage. Her words have connected with generations of music fans, and people young and old continue to discover and fall in love with her music today.
I saw Joni in Vancouver at the time she was leaving her “old” musical life behind and embarking on a musical exploratory journey with roots in jazz recording and performing with artists such as bassist Jaco Pastorius, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and pianist Herbie Hancock. Though Joni has written only around 200 songs, many of her compositions are timeless; numbers such as Big Yellow Taxi and Coyote.
Take a bow, boys. This team writing duo of John Lennon and Paul McCartney broke new grounds after achieving universal fame with early pop numbers such I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Please, Please Me and She Loves You. Lennon wrote 61 songs credited to ‘Lennon-McCartney’ entirely by himself. McCartney composed 43 on his own. All told, Lennon had a hand in composing 84 of the 209 songs recorded by the Beatles and McCartney.
Arguably, the top pop group in the world even though they only lasted as a group for from their first studio contract in 1962 until 1970 when they split after providing Londoners with the unforgettable roof-top concert above the Apple Studios. However, over that time span the songs they wrote ranged from pop songs in the early days through to ballads such as Yesterday; the goofy I am The Walrus to some gritty rock such as Helter Skelter and Get Back to psychedelic rock including Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.
There are a number of opinions that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the most important rock & roll album ever made. It is an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art, and studio technology by the Beatles who some consider to be the top rock group of all time.
Had the band not split up and had John Lennon not been murdered, who knows to what heights the duo would have risen.
I have been a fan of Van Morrison from his early days with Them and such songs as Gloria and Baby, Please Don’t Go. The group Them was a mishmash of musicians forming and reforming with no less than nine different line-ups between the years 1964 through to 1966.
My love affair with the music of Van Morrison began with the album Van Morrison, His Band and Street Choir and the song Blue Money that was released in 1970. Though a big fan of the “Van”, I did not see him live until 1998 when he toured with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.
His writing is mystical, spiritual and soul pleasing from such songs as Into the Mystic, The enigmatic Cleaning Windows through to the blues Roll With The Punches album. He has a unique voice and one of my favorite Van Morrison pieces is when he teamed up with the king of skiffle music, Lonnie Donnegan to create the Skiffle Sessions. To date, Van Morrison has released 41 studio albums, 6 live albums, 6 compilation albums, 4 video albums, and 71 singles. Like Dylan, Morrison has little to no stage presence. Who cares. Their music is just plain great!
Carole King is undoubtedly one of the most prolific women songwriters in modern music history. Not only has she written or co-written 116 top music songs, but she also wrote 61 hits that charted in the UK, making her the most successful female songwriter on the British singles charts between 1952 and 2005. One of her most famous album creations, Tapestry, is ranked number 36 on Rolling Stone list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Not only is Carole King an exquisite lyricist, she also has a mastery of the keyboard. Her mother had learned to play piano as a child. Carol had an insatiable curiosity about music from the time she was about three years old, so her mother began teaching her some very basic piano skills, but did not give Carol actual lessons. When Carol was four years old, her parents discovered she had absolute pitch which enabled her to name a note correctly by just hearing it. She wrote her first song Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow at age 17 that became a number one hit for the female group The Shirrels.
Willie has written and co-written 337 songs, many of them crossovers; songs such as Crazy and Remember The Good Times. One of his bests selling albums is Red Headed Stranger, an almost story-like album, produced on a very small budget and featuring Willie’s unique guitar playing style on his faithful guitar named Trigger.
Released in May of 1975, Red Headed Stranger became a runaway hit, landing at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart and eventually selling more than 2 million copies with Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, a top ten single.
In his early years, Willie tried everything he could to sell his songs, at one point even offering a bandleader the full rights to a dozen of his tunes including Crazy for ten dollars each. Then, almost out of nowhere, his song Hello Walls became a million-seller for Faron Young in 1961. Shortly thereafter, Crazy did the same for Patsy Cline and Willie became a sought-after songwriter-for-hire. One of the great country groups was Willie, teamed up with Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash to create the Highway Men, each member of the group an accomplished songwriter in their own right.
A country icon and a fan favorite all around the world Dolly Parton has written over 3,000 songs, including I Will Always, Love You, a two-time U.S. country chart-topper, as well as an international pop hit for Whitney Houston. Three of her timeless top songs are Jolene, Coat of Many Colors, and 9 to 5.
Dolly has a huge following and has made 44 Top 10 country albums, and 25 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Country charts. There has never been any doubt about her songwriting talents and in fact, she wrote Jolene and I Will Always Love You on the same night. Parton has often spoken about growing up without a television. She says: “Writing songs was like making my own little movies with my guitar.”
Leonard Cohen released 14 studio albums and eight live albums during the course of a recording career lasting almost 50 years. Throughout this time he remained an active poet and has had numerous books of fiction and poetry published.
There is so much to say about this brilliant poet/songwriter that I will leave it up to the reader to check out his lengthy profile on Wikipedia. Such songs as Suzzane, So Long Marianne, and Hallelujah are as timeless as the music itself and have been covered by many other artists.
There have been and still are many great songwriters not included on this list. These 10 were a great influence on my musical tastes writing lyrics that resonated with me.
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