The 10 Greatest Songwriters, or Songwriting Teams, of All Time

Only choose 10 songwriters out of all the countless, brilliant tunesmiths who have given music fans so much wonderful music for so many years? That’s seems like a fool’s errand. There will be some of your favorites missing, and you might get steamed about that. Come to think of it, it’s hard to believe, some of the names absent from this list.

Videos by American Songwriter

But let’s think of it not in terms of who’s been excluded. Think of it instead as a celebration of the music legends who did make this particular list. (By the way, we’re sticking with the rock era from the ‘50s onward, so no Cole Porter, Robert Johnson, or deserving folks like that.)

1. Bob Dylan

Dylan gets the nod as top overall because he essentially opened up the doors to what a popular song could be. It didn’t have to be just trite observations about young love. Instead, it could be poetic and personal, full of ugly emotions as well as beautiful, a true reflection of the outer world at large or the inner world of just one person. We might have gotten there without him. But he certainly sped up the journey with his fearlessness and incendiary talent.

2. John Lennon/Paul McCartney

You can make a case for either on their own, of course. Still, it’s fair to say that their finest moments came as architects of the towering Beatles songbook, burnishing each other’s ideas, finishing each other’s musical sentences. (Paul: It’s getting better all the time; John: It can’t get no worse.) They deserve massive credit as well for their artistic restlessness, pushing the musical boundaries of what a pop song could be until those boundaries ceased to exist. 

3. Holland-Dozier-Holland

Smokey Robinson should also be mentioned here as the other driving force behind the Motown sound. But it was Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland writing the music, and Eddie Holland taking care of the lyrics, who made Motown what it became more than any other songwriting force. They occasionally splintered off to write with others, but as a trio, their work was unassailable. The music balanced elegance and grit, and the effortlessness of the wordplay is still unmatched. No songs could embed themselves into your head, heart, and hips like the ones this trio produced.

4. Joni Mitchell

Mitchell arrived amidst the singer/songwriter movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, but she largely left that scene behind in terms of her refusal to settle for anything bordering on easy or trite. Instead, she challenged her audiences with the complexities of her melodies and the unvarnished truths of her words. Adorning all that goodness with her ethereally beautiful vocals made it an almost unfair fight against the contemporaries hoping to hang with her.

[RELATED: Review: More Insights and Articulation from Joni Mitchell]

5. Leonard Cohen

Cohen never had a single one of his songs do much of anything on the charts. Yet his diehard fans and songwriting peers speak of him with a kind of mystic reverence. No songwriter has ever quite captured the contradictions inherent in every heart and mind like Cohen. His songs could go from funny to tragic, his concerns from sensual to spiritual, his narrators from sympathetic to foolish, all on a dime. His music was revelatory—ancient truths elucidated by a modern oracle.

6. Paul Simon

Simon excels with the poetic connections he can draw within his songs, both as a solo artist and with Art Garfunkel harmonizing. But he also understands the importance of something just sounding good, such as the playful melody and mellifluous wordplay of “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” Like many of the artists on this list, his adventurousness paid off, with folk music eventually giving way to worldly sounds, the common denominator being how Simon’s seemingly offhanded ruminations always hit so hard.

7. Mick Jagger/Keith Richards

Yes, they’ve always been a part of and abetted by an incredible band, with various musicians coming along at just the right time to add something new to their muscular blues-based sound. But nothing would have come of that without the marvelous songs. The image of the Rolling Stones often overshadows just how insightful Mick and Keith have always been in their writing.

8. Bruce Springsteen

Whether you prefer the street poet of the early days, the superstar everyman with all the big hits, or the veteran truth-teller of recent times, there’s a Boss for every one of us. And that’s the thing about Springsteen: perhaps more than anyone on this list, he writes as if he’s the personal mouthpiece for everyone in his massive fan base. No easy task, but he has risen triumphantly to that challenge and responsibility with practically every release of his career.

9. Stevie Wonder

No one else on this list can point to a stretch of songwriting brilliance like what Wonder managed on his stretch of ‘70s albums. When you start to contemplate that was just one fragment of a monumental career, most of which was catalyzed by his songwriting pen, it only begins to become clear what a staggeringly great writer—on top of his limitless talents as a performer—Wonder has been.

10. Elvis Costello 

Pigeonholed early on as an angrily literate young man armed with bright New Wave melodies, Costello ended up ticking off more genre boxes than anybody else on this list. Who else could sound just as comfortable collaborating with The Roots as with Burt Bacharach? His tendency to stray far from what brought him his first flush of success, and then return to it when the mood strikes him, is all made possible by the consistent excellence of his writing.

Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

Creed Announces Summer of ’99 Tour with 3 Doors Down, Daughtry, Finger Eleven, and More

The Story Behind Starship’s Final Hit with Grace Slick “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”