Who are the best songwriters? There are many to choose from. There are some great songwriting teams, but I am only going to talk about individuals who write both music and lyrics.
These are in no particular order.
Bob Dylan – Bob has been at it for nearly 60 years. He is not a great player or singer, but he is an incredible writer and interpreter. He is well-deserving of his Nobel Prize for his song lyrics. Bob has the depth of folk singer and the vision of pop star.
Bruce Springsteen – The Boss may be the deepest driller in the American psyche. He does not just reference themes of the American spirit, he takes you inside the legends, the dreams and the journey. He is the closest thing to the lyrical intelligence of early Bob Dylan in contemporary music.
Billy Joel – The Piano Man was a chart monster in the 1970s and 1980s. He wrote all of his own songs, which early in his career were story songs. As he gradually gained success, his songs became tighter, easier to play on the radio, but he kept his focus on contemporary topics and his arrangements and orchestration matured with impressive production. Each time out, you knew you would get a couple of social significant songs, several radio friendly relationship songs, a solo performance and one that had dense instrumentation.
Paul McCartney – Macca’s success is fairly equally split between his Beatle and post-Beatle career. Arguably the most covered and honored composer in history, his success is undeniable. Pegged as the soft, romantic writer of the Beatles, he also wrote many faster, hard rocking songs.
John Lennon – Often called the rocker and innovative Beatle, Lennon shifted his songwriter focus later in the Beatles away from love songs to contemporary subjects and mystical pursuits. His solo career reflected his political beliefs and his inner conflicts. Lennon was never one to be categorized, his vision was wide and his focus was intense.
Neil Young – There are two Youngs: the godfather of grunge; and the soulful folk singer. Both are good. From an early age, Young could capture folk tapestries in his lyrics, turning to love, loss and disappearing dreams. His guitar work ranges from simplistic but thunderous, and melodically complex. As a Canadian, he is one of the best interpreters of the American experience.
Joni Mitchell – She never really fit the singer-songwriter mold, even though her music was deeply personal, almost confessional, and her early work offered marginal musical accompaniment. She quickly grew beyond her folk beginnings, incorporating jazz chord structures and open guitar tunings. Her sound was totally original. Her music became more complex and too challenging for radio. She tried bending to contemporary sounds, but it seemed to betray her style. She found challenge in writing and painting.
Paul Simon – Arguably the most successful pop songwriter of the 1960s. His lyrics were topical and insightful, his melodies tight and ringing. Starting out as a folk songwriter he adapted a broader style and backing with a fuller musical sound. He continued his success past the Simon & Garfunkel years, with peaks and valleys, but continued incorporating different genres of music.
Ray Davies – There are two sides of the Kink’s Ray Davies, the rowdy rocker and the nostalgic English dancehall singer. Davies might be the best transcriber of English life, from the dreams and frustrations of youth (“You Really Got Me”, “Tired of Waiting For You”), and the sentimental and reflective memories of a senior (“Waterloo Sunset”, “Come Dancing”).
Karl Wallinger – The foundation of World Party, Wallinger is probably the best songwriter you have never heard of. His best known song, “She’s the One”, was covered by Robbie Williams and topped the charts in several countries. Wallinger’s writing is a cross between Jeff Lynne and Paul McCartney.
Harry Nilsson – Nilsson covered other people’s songs (“Without Out”, “Everybody’s Talkin'”), had others cover his songs (“One”, “Jump Into the Fire”) and enjoyed some hits of his own (“Coconut”, “I Guess the Lord Lives in New York City”, “Me and My Arrow”). Nilsson abhorred convention and his variety of musical styles reflects his maverick style. His song catalogue includes many treasures of songs not destined to be chart hits, but ooze his songwriting humor and ability to pen memorable melodies.
Willie Dixon – Rock and roll would not be what it is without the Chicago blues riffs of Dixon. His songs have been copied and plagiarized for decades. Jimmy Page (“Whole Lotta Love”) and others have borrowed his licks, and thankfully, Dixon received royalties and credit.
Jimmy Webb – Like Burt Bacharach, artists wanted a Jimmy Webb-penned song. From the 5th Dimension (“Up, Up and Away”) to Richard Harris (“MacArthur Park”) to Glen Campbell (“Wichita Lineman”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”) to Art Garfunkel (“All I Know”, “Scissors Cut”), Webb’s songs were at the top of the charts. His lyrics were as confusing as the times and his melodies were sharp and haunting. Webb never found success as a solo artist like he did as a songwriter.
David Bowie – Bowie sometimes teamed with others like Brian Eno, but he shaped the various personas that drove his music. From the glam to the Berlin synth to the R&B to the stark industrial sounds, Bowie set the mood and built his stories around them. Bowie never stopped evolving, occasionally embracing current trends but putting his own spin to them.
Jackson Browne – From a teenage kid trying to get his songs covered, to breaking out as a singer-songwriter, Browne was not your typical songwriter. Mature beyond his years, Gregg Allman covered “These Days” which told the story of someone reflecting humbly on mistakes and missed opportunities. He could write the pop hit (“Somebody’s Baby”) but preferred songs rich in story and thought, often reflecting his own views and philosophy.
Tom Petty – Petty often wrote with guitarist Mike Campbell, but he composed at least half of his material by himself. Petty had a knack for taking a phrase and turning it into something anyone could relate to. “I Won’t Back Down” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” are examples of experiences we can understand. Petty was a prolific writer, composing songs with and for many other artists.
Dolly Parton – From “Jolene” to “I Will Always Love You”, Dolly Parton wrote thousands of songs in her continuing career, and recognized with every musical award imaginable. Her songs spoke directly from the heart and experiences common to most of us.
Brian Wilson – The Beach Boys catalogue is mostly Wilson penned songs. He wrote solo and teamed with others like Mike Love, Tony Asher and Van Dyke Parks. His formidable musical talent overshadowed his lyrical skill.
Prince – One of the most versatile songwriters, Prince blended variations of soul, funk, rock R&B and dance music that cut across generations and demographics. You might not groove to “Controversy” but did to “Little Red Corvette.” Like David Bowie, Prince adopted various personalities and it powered his music.
Elvis Costello – Starting out as a geeky, New Wave artist, Costello quickly proved his talent for writing quirky and pointed songs. He was quite prolific, producing an album a year and many more songs in reserve. While contemporaries fell by the wayside, it was Costello’s writing and experimentation that kept his music in public view. Other artists appreciated the complexity of his music and the deepness of his lyrics. Costello branched out into folk, country and classic pop, collaborating with Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and others as partners.
Jeff Lynne – Known primarily for the Electric Light Orchestra, churning out hits in the 1970s and early 1980s, Lynne shifted to songwriting and producing for others. His work with Tom Petty, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Joe Walsh, Del Shannon and the Traveling Wilburys produced many hits as Lynne released only two solo albums and two ELO albums in thirty years. Lynne wrote virtually all of the songs for ELO.
I’m very light on country, soul/R&B and female songwriters. I looked at length of career, songs covered by other artists, and if the writer worked solo or collaborated with others. Again, I focused on solo work, the ability to write lyrics and compose music. I left out some fine writers like Carole King, James Taylor, Randy Newman, Don Henley, Pete Townshend, Robbie Robertson, John Fogerty, John Prine, Van Morrison, John Mellencamp, Mark Knopfler, Paul Westerberg and others.