Monday, June 05, 2006

They Write the Songs

Paste magazine has put together a list of the "100 Greatest Living Songwriters." (The full list, courtesy of the REMs site Murmers is below). The list is interesting, if predictably biased towards your sensitive, indie-skewing, rockism-centered, music snob-type picks, with a few rap artists tossed in for good measure. Some random thoughts:

I found it odd, not so much that Billy Joel was omitted (it's largely a snobby, indie-heavy list, after all, and one that I wouldn't really expect to honor Billy Joel), but that Elton John ranked so high (on this list). High praise for Elton and none for Joel? Is the Elton John/Bernie Taupin combo really that much better a songwriter than Joel?

I was also amused by the inclusion of OutKast and Public Enemy. I don't really have an affinity for rap, although to be fair I haven't really listened to much of it at all. Nonetheless, it does strike me kind of as comparing apples to oranges. I really wish lists like these would be more rigorous with their criteria, more specific about what they're actually rating. Writing a rap song is a completely different activity than writing a regular song, and the skill sets each employs (while of course similar in some ways) are very different; comparing the two is just silly. Along that same line of thinking, note how they toss in the odd country songwriter or the Motown team of Hooland, Dozier, and Holland, while at the same time very largely sticking to indie and classic rock. To my mind, a list like this should either list just "rock" songwriters, in a relatively strict way, or be fair and really open it up to songwriters of all stripes, while at the same time admitting the difficulty in comparing songwriters of differing genres of music. For example, this list includes a grand total of zero musical theater songwriters. That Stephen Sondheim is not one of the 100 greatest living songwriters is just silly.

Also, I actually wouldn't rank U2, who any regular reader knows I pretty much worship, as high. See, to me, a great songwriter is something very specific - it's someone who writes songs that have timeless appeal and that are not dependent on the songwriter's performing personality for success. A great songwriter, even if he or she is a singer/songwriter doing their own stuff, writes songs that can be done by other singers, and, equally importantly, that often benefit from being done by others. And as much as I love U2, the vast majority of their songs aren't translatable - they only work as U2 songs, not just as songs. In other words, most U2 songs are inexorably tied to U2. Not so for, say, Paul Simon, or Dylan - their songs are brilliant songs that many, many people can perform and wring new truths out of. I'd say that Zeppelin (but not as drastically) are like U2 in that sense. Strongly tied to the original performer's strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and overall performing sense. The rap stuff also definitely fits that bill. Also, The Who, actually, to some degree, I'd say. U2 is a great band, that records and performs great songs. But I wouldn't say the band is a great songwriter, really.

Paste Magazine's List of the 100 Greatest Living Songwriters

100 T-Bone Burnett
99 Outkast
98 Jay Farrar
97 Josh Ritter
96 Jimmy Cliff
95 Patti Smith
94 Sam Phillips
93 Joseph Arthur
92 Alejandro Escovedo
91 Drive By Truckers
90 Nick Cave
89 Victoria Williams
88 Parliament
87 Lyle Lovett
86 Sam Beam (Iron & Wine)
85 David Bazan (Pedro the Lion, Headphones)
84 They Might Be Giants
83 Fleetwood Mac (Buckingham, Nicks, McVie)
82 John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats)
81 The Flaming Lips
80 Pink Floyd
79 Stephen Malkmus (Pavement, Silver Jews)
78 Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices)
77 Bruce Cockburn
76 Will Oldham aka Bonnie "Prine" Billy
75 Ron Sexsmith
74 Over the Rhine
73 Julie Miller
72 Michael Jackson
71 Vic Chestnut
70 Alex Chilton (Big Star, The Box Tops)
69 Merle Haggard
68 Allen Toussaint
67 Connor Oberst
66 Charles Thompson (aka Frank Black) (Pixies, The Catholics)
65 Bill Mallonee (Vigilantes of Love)
64 Andy Partridge (XTC)
63 Richard Thompson
62 Sting
61 John Hiatt
60 Jimmy Webb
59 Jack White
58 Sly Stone
57 Morrissey
56 James Brown
55 Dolly Parton
54 Aimee Mann
53 James Taylor
52 Paul Westerberg
51 Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham
50 Public Enemy
49 Cat Stevens
48 Gillian Welch / David Rawlings
47 Sufjan Stevens
46 David Byrne
45 Jackson Browne
44 Al Green
43 Ryan Adams
42 Loretta Lynn
41 Ray Davies
40 Burt Bacharach & Hal David
39 Led Zeppelin
38 Kris Kristofferson
37 Smokey Robinson
36 Beck
35 Steve Earle
34 John Forgarty
33 Pete Townshend
32 Lieber & Stoller
31 Carole King
30 John Prine
29 Tom Petty
28 Robbie Robertson
27 Radiohead
26 REM
25 Chuck Berry
24 Jeff Tweedy
23 Elton John / Bernie Taupin
22 Lucinda Williams
21 Lou Reed
20 Van Morrison
19 Patty Griffin
18 U2
17 Holland - Dozier- Holland
16 David Bowie
15 Willie Nelson
14 Stevie Wonder
13 Paul Simon
12 The Rolling Stones
11 Randy Newman
10 Prince
9 Joni Mitchell
8 Elvis Costello
7 Brian Wilson
6 Leonard Cohen
5 Paul McCartney
4 Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan
3 Bruce Springsteen
2 Neil Young
1 Bob Dylan

Until Whenever


Gordon said...

Personally, though, I would include U2 in that list - only because a lot of their songs are memorable, and have a great way of making themselves known. Even though I'm not a big fan of their mid Zooropa/Pop era, I can't get the chorus of "Lemon" or "Mysterious Ways" out of my head.

I would also quibble with Michael Jackson - other than "Thriller", none of his songs really have that much staying power.

My personal opinions - I'd include Joel (although I'm not a big fan of his work - he's listenable, and I may have an album or two of his), and Graham Parker (a sorely underrated songwriter - just ask him!)

Roger Owen Green said...

I'll make the case that people who are covered (and covered well) ought to be higher: John Hiatt, e.g.

Tosy And Cosh said...

Gordon - First, I love me my U2. I think they are easily one of the five best, and most important, rock bands ever, and I'd name Bono as rock's best-ever vocalist. I'm not shy about heaping superlatives on the band. But - and I know I'm being somewhat pedantic - I really do think there's a difference between great songwriting and great music making. I've had the Mysterious Ways chorus in my head too. But it's always U2 I hear, very clearly. I've had Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah stuck in my head too - but I hear many voices, at different times - Jeff Buckley's, kd lang's, Cohen's own, Rufus Wainwright's. U2 records great songs. They don't write great songs. Look at some U2 sheet music some time. To me, songwriting is something very specific, and it involves the actual writing of music and lyrics. On the page, U2's stuff can be almost laughably simple and repetetive. But in their hands, when they perform it, it's transcendent. It's brilliant. But to me, a great songwriter writes songs that don't depend on his performing personaility to have impact. And U2's (mostly) do.