The Best Songwriters Of All Time

Paste Magazine, which is a magazine I read and respect, has just published a list of the 100 best living songwriters. Without a doubt there are some great artists on their list, yet also without doubt is the fact that this list is extremely subjective and more than a little capricious. OK, so Bob Dylan is their greatest living songwriter… I’m sure a lot of people will agree with that and a lot more will choke on it. My question is who cares? Why even bother with something like this? Aside from being a great way to stir up a shitstorm of reader opinion does ranking songwriters in this way have any real value? Isn’t this sort of numerical listing at odds with what music and art are really all about? Is the use of superlative in this sense responsible cultural analysis or is it just a cheap behavioral experiment?

I know that my personal favorites, who I consider to be the greatest, changes on an almost daily basis. I sure as shit wouldn’t want to be tied down to any given opinion on any given day. Some days Dylan is so heartbreakingly profound that I can’t stand it and other days he seems just a little too coarse for my ears. At times I could swear that Robert Hunter (who is curiously missing from this list) is the reincarnation of Shakespeare, while at others he’s just a little too much of a hippie romantic for me. The point is this: the human experience and the art experience are largely contextual… what plays like a masterpiece today may seem trite tomorrow and then be a masterpiece again on Friday. The quality of work has the ability to change as the world around it revolves. To try and cement that quality into place comes off as a little bit foolish.


3 thoughts on “The Best Songwriters Of All Time

  1. I get your point about the inherent problems with compiling a listing of such artists – objectifying the subjective is oh so tricky. But I don’t get why in making the point you include a link to the damned list? I mean you are inviting people to peruse and comment on the list that you decry as “foolish.”

    Anywho – I did peruse the list, and have 2 comments to make…

    1. Flaming Lips made the list – I bet they are the only ones on the list that have played at Sun Tan Lake (where I saw them circa 95?)

    2. Stephen Malkmus is 79, while Kris Kristofferson is 38? Come ON PEOPLE…

  2. Possibly the best ever songwriter is Steven Patrick Morrissey. Check his opinion on lyricism in the words of the Smiths song ‘Cemetry Gates’ 😉

    Still Bono of U2 has done some amazing modern poetry comparable to Keats and Yeats …and even comparable to (weird lover) Wilde.

    “I remember when we could sleep on stones.
    And now we lie together in whispers and in moans.

    When I was all messed up and I heard opera in my head.
    Your love was a light bulb hanging over my bed.”

  3. I don’t like the way the list is confined to living songwriters. Some of the greatest names in music – John Lennon, Elliott Smith, and Kurt Cobain for instance – are not given their due because of such a silly technicality. The fact that they have passed on does not devalue their music. Also i think the inclusion of sufjan stevens is bullshit – the man has been making records for a very short time and has in no way proved himself to be an amazing songwriter. There are standout songs on his new album – John Wayne Gacy, Jr. and Casimir Pulaski Day – but a remarkable degree of it is filler.

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