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I think it would have been good for me to list down who I think are the best in the last 50 years. There’s only so much I can explain about songwriting, and it’s better if people just listened to the works of the greats and figure it out themselves. So there are two approaches to writing about songwriting. First is to walk through a song and point out the parts that I like, and the other approach is to make lists of stuff I think is great and let people work it out themselves. The standard music journalism approach has its limits.

To save myself trouble I came across a list which I think is pretty accurate. Although I’m more impressed with how they managed to identify the great ones than I am with how they explained their choices.

I wouldn’t argue too much about this list, although, there are a few that I would add in:
Paddy McAloon (Prefab Sprout)
Ian Brown / John Squire (Stone Roses)
Jarvis Cocker (and Pulp)
Love / McGinlay / Blake (Teenage Fanclub)
Radiohead
Difford / Tilbrook (Squeeze)
Wire
Holder / Lea (Slade)
Syd Barrett (and to a lesser extent the post Barrett Pink Floyd)
Rod Temperton (Heatwave / Michael Jackson)
Cocteau Twins
Massive Attack

There are a few that I haven’t heard of, so I can’t comment (Bill Fay, Noel Coward, Ivor Novello) but I think that generally that list is pretty sound. Van Morrison is Irish. Now even if he were Northern Irish, it means that he’s from the UK. He’s not “British”. British means England Scotland Wales. I don’t think Hot Chip are great songwriters, but maybe I haven’t listened to them closely enough. Amy Winehouse may have penned a few good tunes but she only had one proper album out before she expired. Similarly I’m not familiar enough with the Arctic Monkeys and the Libertines to judge whether they should be included here. But generally the list is sound.

With these lists, you always have the Lennon McCartney problem: do you list one entry as Lennon/McCartney? Or do you put them as two? Or do you put them as three? Fortunately, it’s more sensible to consider John Lennon and Paul McCartney as two different songwriters. Most of the Lennon / McCartney Beatles songs had one principal songwriter and the other guy was just offering comments, although you can tell by the finished product that they were not only great writers of songs, they were also great editors. Many people still have the impression that John Lennon was a better writer than Paul McCartney. Yes, John Lennon had one album great enough to be put alongside the Beatles works (Plastic Ono) and Paul McCartney’s solo career was basically a few gems scattered amongst a lot more filler. But when you draw up a list of the Lennon Beatles songs and the McCartney Beatles songs there’s no difference in quality. In fact, the McCartney ones were often more complex. Lennon wrote many of the most striking ones (“Across the Universe”, “A Hard Day’s Night”, “In My Life”, “Revolution No. 9”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Dear Prudence”, “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”). But the McCartney ones were equally good (“Fool on the Hill”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “You Never Give Me Your Money”, “She’s Leaving Home”, “Yesterday”, “Blackbird”, “Drive My Car”, “I’ll Follow the Sun”, “All My Loving”, “Let it Be”, “I’ve Just Seen a Face”). Paul McCartney gets a lot of flak for being the “cute” Beatle instead of the “rebellious” one, for being less anti-establishment than John Lennon. But his achievements as a songwriter should speak for themselves.

What is true, though, is that many of the stinkers released by the Beatles were written by Paul. (“Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, “Martha My Dear”, “When I’m 64”, “Lovely Rita”)

“A Day in the Life” was split down the middle – there was a Lennon part and a McCartney part.

Also, I’ve tried to come up with a list of 50 great American songwriters. I hadn’t included those of the jazz age or the Tin Pan Alley / great American songbook era. I excluded the Duke Ellingtons and the Thelonious Monks whose songwriting abilities would have landed themselves on this list with one hand tied behind their backs.

And I used as a yardstick: did the songwriters come up with melodies whose ingenuity struck me? As it turns out, there were fewer purer tunesmiths. But I think that the Americans made a lot of innovations that didn’t necessarily have to do with melodic invention. Inventions like funk, disco and hip hop had more to do with texture and rhythm than great melodies, although we find that George Clinton and Sly Stone can still mix it with the best of the tunesmiths. There are innovators like Hendrix, Sonic Youth and Velvet Underground whose main contributions were the ability to meld the avant-garde 20th century music with existing pop music, and at the same time still write great pop songs underneath all that rubble. No mean feat.

I think while there are relatively fewer great songwriters amongst the Americans than amongst the British, there are a lot of capable, second tier songwriters (I have not included Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna or Mariah Carey). Michael Jackson is a borderline case. Prince – well he couldn’t even figure out that “Nothing Compares 2 U” was his greatest song. Tells you everything. Bon Jovi is also another botherline case, and also Chrissie Hynde. There are football teams which have great Gerd Muller style goalscoring machines and the British songwriters are like that. There are other football teams which score plenty of goals, but they are shared around, and even the fullbacks contribute 10 goals a season. I think the Americans are like that. There are plenty good American songwriters who miss the cut of being great.

I think that a lot of the Americans tend to innovate in ways that don’t necessarily have to do with songwriting. Velvet Underground had a great songwriter at the peak of his powers in Lou Reed, but they are primarily remembered for pioneering a sound. The Stooges aren’t terribly sophisticated, but their innovation was putting together a formula which was so successful and widely copied but rarely equalled. Patti Smith and Television were great innovators in their own way. Soul and Funk music is also about pioneering certain sounds. Metal is not about tunes but creating a certain sound: in fact once Metallica started writing proper songs on the Black album, they were denounced as being sell outs. In the 80s you had hardcore acts like Husker Du, Black Flag, Minor Threat, Fugazi. All about the sound. There was hip hop. All about the sound.

In the 90s, you had people like the grunge bands, the slacker bands like Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Pavement, Archers of Loaf, Dinosaur Jr, Sebadoh. Many of these bands eschewed melody for sonic innovations. There was a strand of power pop in the 70s and the 80s which was self-consciously arty, like the Big Star / Cheap Trick / Raspberries / Rick Springfield thread. But they were also noted for following a very British tradition of songwriting. Even American punk is less melodic and more arty. Among the notable exceptions is the Ramones, which self-consciously descends from Motown.

Yet another thread in the 90s is post-rock, and Tortoise and Slint represent different aspects of that.

American songwriters
Brian Wilson (Beach Boys)
Sonic Youth
Fagan / Becker (Steely Dan)
Bob Dylan
Holland / Dozier / Holland (Motown)
Kurt Cobain (Nirvana)
Laura Nyro
Marvin Gaye
Stevie Wonder
Gamble / Huff (Philly sound)
Whitfield / Strong (psychedelic era Temptations)
Burt Bacharach / Hal David
King / Goffin
Jimi Hendrix
Mould / Hart (Husker Du)
REM
Buckingham / Nicks / McVie (Fleetwood Mac)
Paul Simon
The-Dream
Timbaland
Buddy Holly
Leiber and Stoller
Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry
Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil
Lou Reed
Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick)
Bell / Chilton (Big Star)
Tim Buckley
Arthur Lee / Bryan McLean (Love)
Crosby Stills Nash
Sly Stone
John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
Randy Newman
Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices)
Parliament / Funkadelic
Earth Wind and Fire
Neil Diamond
James Brown
Chuck Berry
John Phillips (Papas and Mamas)
Bruce Springsteen
McGuinn / Clark / Crosby (Byrds)
David Byrne (Talking Heads)
Mark Eitzel (American Music Club)
Jeff Tweedy (Uncle Tupelo and Wilco)
Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins)
Smoky Robinson
Matthew Sweet
Black Francis (Pixies)
Paul Westerberg
Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards

There are a lot of great songwriters outside of these two countries:

Great songwriters outside of Britain and the US
U2
Robbie Robertson and the Band
Leonard Cohen
Neil Young
Joni Mitchell
Neil Finn / Tim Finn (Crowded House)
Leslie Low (I’m not kidding)
Bob Marley
Serge Gainsbourg
Andersson / Ulvaeus / Anderson (ABBA)
Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine)
Undertones
Antonio Carlos Jobim

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