Thursday, August 03, 2006

Favorite Songwriters

This week I've been thinking a great deal about songwriting and the skill that is necessary in this process. There are two types of songwriters in my mind -- those that use powerful imagery in lyrics to get their point/story across, and those that ilicit the same response with music.

Many times the best songwriters are strong on one skill only, mixing subpar or not that exciting music with punchy lyrics (or vice versa). Though certainly we have seen the rare songwriter who consistently blows our mind with both lyrics and music.

The quickest way to identify into which camp a songwriter falls is to mentally scan the artists catalogue and identify whether you are remembering words/stories or guitar riffs/chord progressions.

It's interesting to think whether this is the songwriter's ability or the listeners paradigm...When I listen to music I more often than not hear lyrics, and only when a song is GREAT musically I take notice. This is definitely because I couldn't identify chord progressions or discuss music theory much beyond Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (and couldn't describe that at gunpoint either).

What do you hear? List your 5 favorite songwriters and why. Here are mine.
1. Blake Schwarzenbach - Jawbreaker/Jets to Brazil -- My first taste of indie music was the lyric "I'm just a question knowing my answer, hope I'm wrong" Smart, punchy lyrics with tons of double entendre.

2. David Bazan - Pedro the Lion/Headphones/Solo -- If the first time you listened to the "Whole EP" alone didn't come close to crying you are heartless. Genuine storyteller. Also, wins award for "most likely to send letter bomb" with this pic.

3. Jack White - The White Stripes/The Raconteurs -- One of the only songwriters who makes me hear music first.

4. Gord Downie - The Tragically Hip -- More of a poet than a songwriter and the imagery he uses makes me wish I could write like that.

5. Pending further development -- Regina Spektor and Sufjan Stevens. Both have a keen understanding of music and lyrics that make me feel stupid, but write songs that have heart so I feel better after.


JohnLDrury said...

I definitely hear music first, but it is the lyrics that keep me coming back for more years after hearing it the first time.

As for the term "songwriter," I save it for those individuals with great lyrics (stories, imagery, word play, content) set to great music (melodies, riffs, tone, space, style). Thus I would exclude those writing teams where one writes the lyrics and the other the music who nevertheless wrote some of the greatest rock songs ever (e.g., Bono/The Edge of U2 and Page/Plant of Led Zeppelin)

Here's my roughshod list of Top 10 favorite songwriters per my definition:

1. Lennon/McCartney (The Beatles)

2. Bob Dylan

3. Roger Waters (Pink Floyd)

4. David Bazan (Pedro the Lion)

5. Neil Young (Buffalo Springfield/ Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young/ Neil Young and Crazy Horse)

6. Pete Townsend (The Who)

7. Bruce Springsteen

8. Blake Schwarzenbach (Jawbreaker/ Jets to Brazil)

9. Noel Gallagher (Oasis)

10. Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie/ The Postal Service)

If you are surprise by any of these entries or interested in further comment, please say so.

Tim said...

Gibbard -- really? I mean the earlier stuff is stellar, but recently, he has delved deep into the heart of a 14 year old girl...

I would also appreciate further comment on Gallagher. Even though my disdain for Britpop is widely known, I appreciate several of Oasis' songs, however, for Gallagher to make a short list is a stretch...

And didn't Waters only record, like, three albums...comment please.

JohnLDrury said...


Placing Gibbard comes from guilt about not having enough contemporary writers on my list, so I sat and thought "Who has written the best songs in the last few years?" and I immediately thought of The Postal Service, the one CD that is the most constant rotation for me over the past two years. So that's the justification there; we'll see if it persists.

As for Noel Gallagher, he seems to me to represent the essence of good song writing: unforgettable melodies that are inherently singable without being cheezy, and catchy lyrics that concretely describe their content without hitting you over the head with their meaning. I love it. He wrote the best songs of the 90's in my opinion.


JohnLDrury said...


You also asks about Roger Waters. He wrote all the lyrics for Pink Floyd, and a good bulk of the music. He is behind all their conceptual albums (being one of the few bands that could pull off concept albums and have it work). His lyrics are striking and unforgettable; and the musical vision of the Floyd is monumental. I am not, of course, referring to his solo material, which is weaker.


danszombathy said...

1. Bob Dylan (No one will ever beat Highway 61 Revisted)

2. Lennon/McCartney (Lennon first; McCartney second)

3. Bono (Atomic Bomb was humanistic crap, but the double entendres of Achtung Baby made it the best album of the 90s)

4. Blake Schwarzenbach (It was more than my indie conscience that made me put him on this list)

5. Brandon Flowers of the Killers(my new favorite band, Brandon is Bono's heir, check out the brillance of the new single 'When You Were Young')