10 Greatest Male Songwriters of All Time

In undertaking the task of ranking the greatest songwriters ever, regardless of how large the list is, there are going to be those who deserve kudos but don’t make the cut. American Songwriter’s readers collectively took on the difficult job of ranking the greatest female songwriters of all time and came up with a stellar list. This time—without benefit of a poll—we’re turning our attention to the greatest male songwriters. While dozens of worthy candidates did not make this list (Stones over Beatles fans, feel free to state your case in the comments below!), it’s hard to dispute the contributions that each of these 10 songwriters have made.

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10 (tie). Elton John and Bernie Taupin

We’ll just call this one a tie, since all of John’s best work was co-written with lyricist Taupin. The duo wrote an endless string of hits in the ‘70s, with tunes like “Your Song,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Rocket Man,” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” still very much in the public consciousness. John’s best hits from the ‘80s, like “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)” and “I’m Still Standing” were also co-written with Taupin.

9. Johnny Cash

The word “iconic” gets thrown around a lot, but it’s no stretch to call Cash one of the most iconic figures in country music history, or even popular music history. He has become known to later generations due to his series of albums on Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label, which heavily feature covers of other artists’ songs. But Cash’s own compositions, such as “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” and “What Is Truth,” are an important part of both the country and pop landscape.

8. Burt Bacharach

Bacharach’s compositions started charting in the late ‘50s, and he and his writing partners continued to pen hits through the late ‘90s. He and lyricist Hal David were an unstoppable force in the ‘60s, with songs like Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By” and “I Say a Little Prayer,” Tom Jones’ “What’s New Pussycat,” Herb Alpert’s “This Guy’s in Love with You,” and B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” He also wrote several hits in the ‘80s with Carole Bayer Sager, who was also Bacharach’s third wife. Bacharach played an enormous role in shaping the easy listening sound that was such a central part of popular music in the ‘60s.

7. Cole Porter

Porter’s scores for Broadway shows, particularly in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, made a substantial contribution to the Great American Songbook. From “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love),” written for Paris (1928), to “Too Darn Hot” from Kiss Me, Kate (1948)—and countless songs during and even after this stretch—Porter provided a trove of memorable songs that are still beloved classics today.

6. Robert Johnson

Before there was rock and roll, there were the Delta blues. Johnson’s music and lyrics shaped the sound of classic rock, especially, despite the fact that he recorded just 29 songs and died at the age of 27. Johnson’s influence can be seen directly in several popular classic rock tracks. Most notably, Cream included a live version of Eric Clapton’s arrangement of “Cross Road Blues” (which they called “Crossroads”) on Wheels of Fire, and The Rolling Stones covered “Love in Vain” on Let It Bleed and “Stop Breaking Down” on Exile on Main St.

5. Stevie Wonder

Wonder made a significant contribution to the soundtrack of the late ‘60s, but he gained even greater popularity in the ‘70s when he started writing or co-writing (and playing most of the instruments on) entire albums. He began this string of masterworks with Music of My Mind in 1972, and then the following four albums—Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974), and Songs in the Key of Life (1976)—were laden with hits and quickly came to be considered among the very best albums of the decade.

4. John Lennon

As the primary songwriters for The Beatles, Lennon and Paul McCartney etched their place firmly in music history. While credited jointly as “Lennon/McCartney,” Lennon was largely or entirely responsible for several of the band’s most enduring songs, including “Help!,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Revolution,” and “Come Together.” Despite taking a five-year hiatus from music in the latter half of the ‘70s, Lennon wrote and recorded numerous hits between his departure from The Beatles and his murder on December 8, 1980, with “Imagine” having a particularly enduring impact.

3. Smokey Robinson

Just on the basis of the hits he wrote or co-wrote for The Miracles alone, Robinson’s storied career could be considered legendary. Those numbers include “Shop Around,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “Going to a Go-Go,” and “The Tears of a Clown” (for which Stevie Wonder also had a writing credit). Then there are the songs he wrote that were hits for other artists, like “My Guy” (Mary Wells), “My Girl” (The Temptations), “Ain’t That Peculiar” (Marvin Gaye), and “More Love” (Kim Carnes). Robinson’s songs didn’t enjoy the same level of success once he left The Miracles, but by that point, he would have been merely padding an already-lengthy and lofty résumé.

2. Bob Dylan

By the time Dylan “went electric” in 1965 with Bringing It All Back Home, he had already established his songwriting credentials in just a few years with songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” Though controversy ensued when Dylan electrified his sound, he emerged as one of the most prolific and profound songwriters in the history of popular music. His late ‘60s output was particularly impactful, with “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “All Along the Watchtower” (popularized by The Jimi Hendrix Experience) still striking a chord with music fans all these decades later.

[RELATED: The Meaning of “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan]

1. Paul McCartney

The “Paul versus John” debate rages on, but regardless which side one might take, McCartney’s contributions to popular music are undeniable. “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Yesterday,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” and “Band on the Run” are just a few of the classics penned entirely or primarily by McCartney. And only he could get a tune like “Temporary Secretary” on a “greatest songs of all time” list.

Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images

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