Thursday, August 06, 2009

Greatest Songwriters

Cat StevensAnd a late hello to you too.

No excuses for my tardiness (at least none that you'd like to hear) but summer is starting to take its toll on me and I'm counting down those last few days until school starts.

And I'm listening to music. Which is why today I ask the question: "Why are there so many 'music artists' (and I use the term 'artist' rather loosely) while there are so few songwriters?" In my humble yet rather pointed opinion the world doesn't need any more "artists" but in fact needs more "songwriters."

Maybe it's the American Idol mentality that says if your face is pretty enough and your voice is passable and you have enough trauma in your life to capture the fancy of the public then you too can be a full-fledged diva. As for me? I don't watch songs I listen to them. The music is everything which is why I'm going to get all mushy sentimental about how there used to be so many great songwriters back in my day.

And if you know of new masters that should rightly be added to the list please enlighten me because I'm afraid we're facing a famine here.

Paul Simon1. Paul Simon
I'm not listing these in any particular order but Paul Simon is probably number one on my list. Poor Mr. Garfunkle. While he could decently harmonize it really was Simon who got (and deserved) all the credit.

"Bridge over Troubled Water," "Cecilia," "The Boxer," "The Sound of Silence." His list of amazing songs is longer than my arm and each one I never tire of hearing--or singing along with in my crummy harmonizations. I think my favorite is "The Boxer" but as for strictly amazing lyrics that's a tough call. "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" is that perfect blend of humor and cheek that sticks in your mind forever.

2. Cat Stevens
Another hippy-era writer who deserves a mention (that's him above). While his career was somewhat short-lived before converting to Islam and disappearing into anonymity (now he calls himself Yusaf Islam--tuck that away for a night of Trivial Pursuit) Cat Stevens had time to whip out "Father and Son," "The First Cut Is the Deepest," "Morning Has Broken," "Moon Shadow," "Peace Train" and "Cat's in the Cradle."

Ah, it's like a retro trip through the 70s it is.

And as an interesting note, he was actually born "Steven Demetrios Somebody or Rather (insert Eastern European name here)" he seems to change his moniker more than his socks.

Cole Porter3. Cole Porter
I'm breaking with Woodstock here to mention the man who needs no introduction. If you haven't heard "I Get a Kick Out of You" or "Day and Night" then you just haven't lived.

In fact, I'd highly recommend watching the classic movie "Day and Night" which is a fictionalized biography of Porter, with Cary Grant as the mighty man himself. Though it's kind of funny, apparently the man lived a rather quiet life (unless you count going to war an epic thing, which it is) and they really had to stretch to make a film about him. It's really more of a showcase for his great tunes rather than a strictly observed story.

So take it for what it's worth: a great musical with Cary Grant. What more do you need when your husband is out of town on business?

John Denver4. John Denver
The man who came up with "Calypso," "Rocky Mountain High," "Annie's Song" and "Take Me Home, Country Roads" holds a spot in my heart.

As a bit of trivia (more trivia?) he was not only born in Roswell, New Mexico--probably raised by a pack of ferrel aliens--he was also the poet laureate of Colorado.

Who knew Colorado was so darn classy? If you think they're just about skiing and fresh air and swanky resorts you obviously got another think coming.

Andrew Lloyd Webber5. Andrew Lloyd Webber
Yes, I am a child of the 80s. And yes, I loved Cats. And yes, I would sing along with "Memory" as it played on my push-button cassette player and think in my little preteen-psycho way that my voice was a dead-ringer for Sarah Brightman.

Ah, how soon we learn.

But his career is long and illustrious with plays that in many ways represent a soundtrack for our times with Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and others. Hard to imagine 80s theater without him.

6. John Lennon/Paul McCartney
I mention them as a duo because in fairness I don't think either is the greater songwriter. They're the yin and the yang, the two sides of the coin, the two balancing forces that kept each other in the paths of genius. A perfect case of synergy. It's as if, once they separated, no one else had the guts to say "I'm sorry, uh, Mr. McCartney, but that there song STINKS!"

I kind of wondered why he formed Wings in the first place, I mean there was only one direction to go, you could not get higher than the Beatles so it was doomed to be inferior or did the man really think that the power of the Beatles was all in him?

And John--while I know I'll get rotten tomatoes thrown to say that his solo career was lackluster his anthem "Imagine" isn't as good a song as "Something." It's sappy and political and 60s so it gets the press but it's not as good as his earlier stuff.

But at any rate, Lennon and McCartney were possibly the greatest duo ever. Although, interestingly enough the handful of songs written by George Harrison are probably my favorites. So somewhere in there is the shadow of George that needs a shout out.

Norah Jones7. Norah Jones
Kind of anticlamactic to list her after the Beatles isn't it? Sounds funny but she has to go somewhere and I'm afraid there are too few women represented on this list. So many of the "greatest songstresses" are the Liz Phair types who are angry and aggressive which, to me, is a turn-off. If I wanted to listen to Mr. T sing man-hating ballads then I'd do so. But I don't.

Ms. Jones, however, has the soul of Cole Porter or Hoagey Carmichael and not only has a great voice and a nice presence but she's a fabulous songwriter. "Come Away with Me," "Painter Song," "Don't Know Why" and other instant classics are the songs Sinatra would have sung if he were around today. Or better yet, Ella.

Dolly Parton8. Dolly Parton
Another woman! Anything to get more female representation here.

But even without the female bias on this one her music transcends genres (which is a good thing because I hate country).

"Jolene" is what they call a "soulful" (that's the catchword you know) ballad and "Smoky Mountain Memories" along with "Coat of Many Colors" are about as American as you can get.

She's one of those strange celebrities that you never hear anything about. She's everywhere but her private life is pretty private--did you know she's been married to the same guy since 1966 and he runs an asphalt paving business? You don't get that in Hollywood.

Anyway, there's a reason she's the "Queen of Country" because her music speaks.

James Taylor9. James Taylor
An interesting picture of Mr. Taylor--it almost doesn't look like him but he's there somewhere under those brooding eyebrows.

He's one of those guys who doesn't have too many songs that aren't hits--can't swing a dead cat and all that--but my favorite, hands down, is "Mexico" which makes you really feel as if you're on the beach, wandering among the waves and thinking about home.

"Fire and Rain," "Carolina on My Mind" and "Country Road" are acoustic delights and there's plenty more where they came from when it comes to Taylor.

George and Ira Gershwin10. George and Ira Gershwin
Again, I'm fudging and including a duo because, like the Brothers Grimm, you really don't know which is which and who did what so you just include them as a package because neither would be anything without the other.

Actually, Ira was the lyricist (and don't ask me which one he is in the picture, I haven't a clue) and George wrote the music. "Swanee," "Someone to Watch over Me," "I Got Rhythm," "Lady Be Good!" An American in Paris, Porgy and Bess and the absolute pinnacle of 20th century music, "Rhapsody in Blue" all came from the brothers' collaboration (though of course that last one doesn't have lyrics, so I'm kind of cheating there).

I need say no more, their works speak for themselves.

Neil Diamond11. Neil Diamond
Yes, yes, I know it's like including Barry Manilow (pthewey!) on a list but stick with me here, you have to admit he's quite the man.

Before there was Smashmouth and a fat cartoon ogre there was Neil. His songs are catchy, they're beautiful and they'll be around forever. "Sweet Caroline, "September Morn," "I'm a Believer," "Kentucky Woman," "Cracklin' Rosie" and (my personal favorite, if yet unknown) "Porcupine Pie" never get old.

He seems like a genuinely nice guy, from what little I've seen and--more trivia--he originally started out his educational career as a biology/premed student in a lab when he was offered a job singing for change on weekends. That was all it took and the rest is history.

Billy Joel12. Billy Joel
My father will cringe on this one, I don't think he cares much for the Piano Man but I still have to give him the nod because if we're talking greatest songwriters you have to include the man who brought us "She's Always a Woman," "We Didn't Start the Fire," "My Life," "Movin' Out," and "Only the Good Die Young."

My personal favorite is "And So it Goes" which is absolutely beautiful and (I believe the word is) "haunting" but it's a hard pick against "Downeaster Alexa" which probably wins out by a nose.

Oh how I listened to Stormfront over and over my sophomore year at college. . . .

Howard Ashman13. Howard Ashman
When you start to look at this man's career it's really startling how prolific he was in film. You can start with Little Shop of Horrors (which I don't really like, to tell you the truth but you must notice it nonetheless) and work you way into his Disney masterpieces and it starts to get kind of creepy how many tunes of his are running through my head.

If you're talking quality then you can't get much more than from what you get with the Little Mermaid. Clever lyrics, sweet melodies, emotion and drama wrapped in a cute package--that alone should get him the award but then you add Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast and it gets downright spooky.

They don't make them like this anymore do they?

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Mrs. Organic said...

I absolutely love this list, although I don't really know #13, just a bit of his work.

Paul Simon, James Taylor, John Denver, Dolly, and Norah Jones are all up there for me.

liz said...

Love this list! I might have to add Elton John and Willie Nelson, maybe? I love everyone on your list, and definitely would put Paul Simon at the top as well. I was just organizing our CDs today-- need to listen to a few of them, I think!

Peruby said...

Elton didn't write them (the popular ones) it was Bernie Taupin. Check out all the songs Bernie wrote on Wikipedia! Elton was the music and the voice. And a very talented one.

Jackson Brown was one of my fav's.

Lis Garrett said...

Truly great list, Michelle! Paul Simon's, The Boxer, is my favorite, too. And Billy Joel - who can resist turning the radio up when he's on?

Edi said...

I would add Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot...totally agree on Nora.

Susan said...

Great choices, it doesn't get much better than James Taylor. And as a lover of John Denver since 1973, I totally agree with you! Of course Paul Simon is a genius, remember listening to him starting in high school and ever since. And Cat Stevens, heaven. Of course Dolly is brilliant in so many ways, including songwriting. Thanks for the memories!

Kathy G said...

Great list. I'd add John Prine; although he doesn't have the name recognition of the other people, he's been cranking out funny and poignant tunes for decades.

One teeny mistake in your list-Cat Stevens didn't write Morning Has Broken. He just covered it. The song is a hymn that goes back to the 1930s. I'm always happy when we sing it at Mass.

Lori said...

Ditto on Dylan! And while I grew up with Wings songs, and my husband's and my wedding rings have lyrics from "Maybe I'm Amazed" engraved in them, I even agree that nothing could top the Beatles but to say, "I kind of wondered why he formed Wings in the first place"--so harsh! And "Calico Skies" while a bit political is one of my favorite love songs.

Ranting done!

Wendy said...

I enjoyed this list too. I also would add Willie Nelson. Remember the movie Wag the Dog where he plays the man who can write a song about anything. He really is. And Dylan too. If lyrics rule there is a group called "Lost and Found" that is great. But looking at the rest of your also musically great list you would find something to be desired about their singing. See them in concert and then you get it. My guess is that they never come to Alaska though. Almost never to Oklahoma either.

Mercy's Maid said...

I sure do love Norah Jones. I went to one of her concerts once and thought I was going to have to call security on myself to make sure I didn't stow away on her tour bus. She's amazing.

Motherboard said...

I heart Norah Jones! If you like her, you would probably like Amos Lee. She plays in his band. Some of the critics refer to him as the "Male Norah Jones".

Jeni said...

You've got some of my favorites on here - Paul Simon & Billy Joel. Though I must confess that my favorite song by Billy Joel isn't that great of a song - but I MUST sing along whenever it comes on the radio. It's "For The Longest Time." (O-o-oh...for the longest time...)

Leslie said...

This is a great list. Many of these songwriters are my favorites, too, though I'd have to add a shout out to Lionel Richie.

Beth said...

It is a good list, but Harry Chapin wrote "Cat's in the Cradle," not Cat Stevens. And "Something" is a better song than "Imagine," probably because George Harrison wrote "Something," not Lennon and McCartney.

Headless Mom said...

I would add Jimmy Buffet/Mac Macanally to the list. Mostly because I love their music; but it totally takes me away to a beach every.time.

LLG said...

i will admit I don't know half of the people on your list, but I do LOVE Billy Joel. I think he is fanatastic. I also think Dolly Parton is great. While I am not a fan of all her music, I like her attitude and spunk! Good picks!

CountessLaurie said...

Dang Cat Stevens was HOTTTT! Oh, sorry! Great list. I love Howard Ashman! I was (and still am) a total Disney freak and I think it's because the songs were so entertaining.

Nicky said...

I was going to suggest Elton John but it looks like someone already did.

Chrissy Johnson said...

Norah is perfect after the Beatles, since she's Ravi Shankar's daughter. :)

Chrissy Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vivacemusica said...

Wonderful list! I agree with your choices, but would definitely have to add my favourite, Joni Mitchell.

april said...

She's pretty eccentric and sometimes downright weird, but I just LOVE Regina Spektor. Even if you don't like her style, you have to admit she is extremely talented. She writes and composes all of her songs by herself, and they're so interesting!

Patricia Linehan said...

Couple of things: Paul Simon's favorite iPod song for no particular reason other than I just like it. Also, I agree with most of your picks...James Taylor and Neil Diamond were always on the record player (dating things a bit, I know). Where's Freddie Mercury? Did I miss him or did he not make the cut?

Carina said...

My husband is related to John Denver. There is a picture at my mother-in-laws house of John D at a family reunion holding my husband when he was a baby.

I'm having a feeling of deja vu. Have I told you this before maybe?

Anonymous said...

Does Mariah Carey fit in there somewhere. She's written more hit songs than anyone and some of them are really good. I'm not into pop music, so that is just an observation. Frankly, my #1 songwriter is Schubert and Mozart is #2. MOMM

Daisy said...

Oh, Billy Joel! I was thrilled to see a singer/ songwriter who played piano instead of guitar. I learned so many of his songs...

J at said...

I'll agree with those who say Bob Dylan, and I'll add Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann, Mark Knopfler, and Jewel.

Boy, Paul Simon could write, huh? But what's with that stupid "getting old" song? I like his stuff with Art SO much better. And his old stuff as well. To the person who said they like Kodachrome? Me too. That song sticks in my head for weeks.

Jolene said...

I feel like we are kindred music spirits!!

Pam D said...

Apart from Howard Ashman (who I don't know), I think your list is fabulous. I would definitely add Willie Nelson to the list, and John Prine (oh, the college memories), AND Jimmy Buffet. There's a female from Nashville whose name will NOT come to mind right now; she's not a big-name performer but is a fabulous song-writer. I'll come back and comment if I can think of her name. Anyway, great list... I'm with you on needing great music and voice vs. looks and drama!

Tim Appleton (Applehead) said...

I started reading and thought she better have the Gershwins on here.... and sure enough, you always come through in the end.

Janet said...

I agree with all those - I'm so pleased you included Ashman. But I would have to add Jimmy Webb.

The LIbrary Lady said...

This is a pretty youthful list. I know he's not hip anymore, but how can anyone leave off Irving Berlin?
Or Richard Rodgers whether with or without Hammerstein or Hart?

I mean, I LIKE Norah Jones, but she's not exactly for the ages yet, is she?

And I can't leave out Pete Seeger. Ever!

Janelle said...

Another movie about Cole Porter that you might like is De-Lovely, starring Kevin Kline as Cole Porter. It dabbles quite a bit, however, in his bi-sexuality, so I wouldn't watch it with the kids, at least not the first time through.

Of those on your list, I really enjoy Paul Simon, the Beatles boys, Norah Jones (my husband loves her music; and what a pretty picture of her!), Dolly, James Taylor, Neil Diamond, and Billy Joel.

A couple others that come to mind (since people are suggesting) are Johnny Cash and Carly Simon. And I have a girlfriend who just put out her first CD of songs she's written herself. She's a non-angry songstress.

Kaitrin said...

Hi there!
I found your blog through another friend who "follows" you (is that correct blogspeak?)Vivian who I met when we both lived in D.C.--Anyway, thought I'd take a look at your postings since I'm "Alaskan" for the summer---doing a travel nursing assignment at the hospital in Fairbanks. I've had a GREAT summer and I've fallen in love with Alaska and all it's beauty! Just wanted to say I enjoyed reading several pages of your blog and wanted to reply with an AMEN to this post in particular... SUCH GOOD MUSIC FROM THE PAST.. I remember (I'm 27) in highschool thinking I was born in the wrong decade---I owned all of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Simon and Garfunkel's albums by age 16. But, I wanted to share with you some maybe hope-giving news. There does seem to be an underground state, surfacing more and more, of new singer/songwriters today. Some of my favorites are Ingrid Michaelson, Priscilla Ahn, Patty Griffin, Hem, The Wailin' Jennys (great trio from Canada--lots of harmony kind of a bluegrassy folk mix)and two male artists (woops, songwriters) that I've fallen in love with over the last few years are Ray Lamontagne and Amos Lee. I've seen both of them in concert and it's just one of those almost spiritual moments of GOODNESS!
And, for a personal plug, a singer-songwriter that I happen to know very well, my younger sister Colleen McCarron is (we hope!) a rising star! She went to music school in Nashville, TN, and is moving to DC this month (where I'll re-locate after my job assignment is up in September)to live with her and be the captain of her "fan-club" by listening to her play in coffeehouses around the DC region. Here's her website if you want to take a listen to her songs :) (left hand side has 6 tracks you can listen to from her cd she'll put out, God-willing, at the end of this month!)
Take care and God Bless!

Tess said...

You compared "Imagine" with "Something" as a way to say that John Lennon's songwriting peaked with the Beatles, but (I could be wrong) didn't George write "Something"? I'm glad you did mention the underrated Mr. Harrison too.

Fantastic list. I'd add Mr. Gordon Sumner (that's Sting). Check out the lyrics to "A Thousand Years" and "Book of My Life."

Also, I'm a big fan of the quirky songs written by the Bare Naked Ladies. They have a lot of fun with words, those guys.


charrette said...

I loved your nod to songwriting greats! Seems like a dying breed.

Don't forget Sondheim.
And, on a smaller scale, I'm a fan of Dar Williams.

Ann said...

Wonderful list, with great additions by your commenters, too. Don't forget Sondheim---for sure, and one of the United State's most prolific songwriters ever, Johnny Mercer.

perilloparodies said...

this was a very enjoyable post! Thank you!!! I haven't had a lot of access to newcomers, so I do not know Norah Jones, but my curiosity is peeking to know what she sounds like. Not easy being out of the loop. I agree with you... we do need more amazing song writers who know what they are doing and do it well. wish i had a talent like that. :-)

On a different note, I also like Stephen Curtis Chapman and Michael W. Smith... and many others not listed here. There was also Keith Green who died many years back in a plane crash, and 2nd Chapter of Acts... namely Matthew Ward... and so many others.

perilloparodies said...

Oh, and Sara Groves is one of my favorites... and Casting Crowns, though I forget the name of the guy who writes their music... :-)

Laurie said...

I left a comment somewhere about Cat Stevens. Did u know that National Vinyl Day is this Saturday. Dust off those album covers. I don't have my albums with me in Central America so I won't be writing about it this year.

Gina said...

Cat Stevens is actually trying to revamp his career. I saw something, I think on the Sunday morning News program, on him a while back; he has a "new" album out and it sounds like his old stuff. Budda and the chocolate box rocks :-)

Alice Wills Gold said...

Love them all...were we built from the same mold or something. kinda freaky.

Laura S. said...

I would add Jim Croce to the list of short career/not very prolific, but very beatiful songs. Also Harry Chapin for great story songs. And my personal favorite, Bruce Springsteen-beautiful lyrics and melodies. Not my fave performer, but Dylan should be high on a list of songwriters-many of my favorites by other people werre written by him.