Five Best Living Songwriters
Grant started it.
Then I got talking to Iaan Hughes from KBCS 91.3 here in Seattle about it, and he invited me on his show to further the debate, among other things. So, whether or not you tuned in today, I figured I’d post my Top 5 Living Songwriters list here so you can tell me how wrong I am and share your own. Because this debate can go on forever.
Just in the past 48 hours since I started sharing my ideas with friends, I’ve had people call me up from their road trips to tell me I should really consider Elvis Costello. Others have IMd me out of nowhere to say “Oh no, you can’t leave off Nick Drake.”
Oh yes. Yes, I can.
So without further ado, my list, with explanations:
1) Bob Dylan – You can’t argue with the man’s influence, which is not for nothing. You can listen to a Bob Dylan song 100 times and think it’s about 100 different things each time. He’s tackled folk, rock, the blues, and beyond. He’s well-rounded. His melodies are mostly boring and his voice is totally shot at this point, but there’s something about his songs. I recognize it more quickly when I hear other people do them. There’s something to be said about a songwriter whose songs are so accessible and true in so many different context that almost anyone can pick them up and make them mean something, even if it’s not what Dylan initially intended.
2) Dolly Parton – Her melodies are what sell me. But she’s a great guitar picker and a great lyricist. The songs are about her, but there’s no ego. You know when it’s a Dolly song, but even with all her plastic surgeries and the showmanship of her persona, the songs are simple and earnest. She can nail a good heartbreak song, a good swoony love tune, an honest tale about growing up poor and basic salt-of-the-earth American values, gospel tunes, working man’s songs (of which “9 to 5” is possibly one of the best ever, next to Mellencamp’s “Little Pink Houses,” in my opinion).
3) Paul Simon – Originally this spot was filled with Ani DiFranco, but I swapped her out for Paul Simon. That was a difficult decision for me. Anyone who knows me knows the influence that Ani’s outside-the-box songwriting has had on my own. But this is about Paul Simon, and I was swayed by a friend’s argument. He simply quoted me a line from “Graceland”: “She said losing love is like a window in your heart / everyone can see it torn apart / everyone can see the wind blow.” Good stuff. And then there’s the fact that Paul Simon wrote one of my favorite songs of all time, “Homeward Bound,” which is definitely the best among the swath of American songs about being an American songwriter. Like DiFranco, Simon is a great manipulator of musical styles. He’s dabbled in almost all of them, more consistently, and for a longer time. Like Billy Joel below, his songs are full of complicated stories, which I love.
4) Patty Griffin – Her songs give me chills. Her melodies swoop and soar. The lyrics sing themselves, she so understands the inherent musicality of words. She never lets an experimental rhythm or instrumental part get in the way of what the song itself is reaching for. Like I said today, it doesn’t hurt that she can sing the heck out of them, either.
5) Billy Joel – He was the first artist in the world who really mattered to me. I loved his music when I was a child and had no way to understand the complexity of it all. He’s a master of manipulating unconventional chord progressions and his songs surprise me, in terms of music theory. That’s something I always appreciated, since I too came from classical music. He also wrote probably the world’s greatest pickup line from a song, “You may be right. I may be crazy, but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.” Think about all the great styles he incorporates, from roots rock to R&B and beyond. It’s easy to turn his tunes into country songs because they’re so full of stories. But the stories are complicated, from the point of view of a blue collar man trying to figure out where he fits. Whether he’s talking about the industry shutting down in the rust belt with “Allentown,” transcending the Cold War lessons of his youth to make friends with a Russian clown in “Leningrad,” paying homage to Long Island fishermen with “Downeaster Alexa,” coping with severe anxiety in “Pressure,” or singing a love song to a complicated woman with “She’s Got a Way.”
I could, clearly, go on and on. But now it’s your turn. Make your case. Call me out.