The 25 Best Rock Lyricists

As someone who rarely hears the words right to any song, it’s always been a challenge for to discern who’s actually any good. After all, I’m going under the notion that the Rolling Stones are insisting you not leave the pizza burning, when, in fact, they don’t wish to be your beast of bourbon! What the heck are they talking about? Those crazy kids.

So, I made it really easy for myself here. I put a bunch of random names in a hat and pulled them out one by one, wrote them down in order, and then deleted the file. Whatever I could remember afterwards was what I figured was worth remembering. Then I double-checked to see if any of these people had actually written songs. And it turns out they all have. What a great coincidence! I love it when it works out like that.

Sure, sure, you want to know where Duane Eddy is, since he did let the music do the talking. And sure, there’s always, “Dude, where’s Aerosmith?,” one of Cincinnati, Ohio’s greatest concerns, since the group technically owns the waterworks there. Other than that, I’d say this list has got it all. Something for everyone and surely something you disagree with.

Hey, it’s almost a new year, so let’s get right to it and be sure to let me know just how wrong I got it this time. And then think just how much worse it would be if I was paying attention.

25. Jackson Browne

His “ice cream vendor” rhyme aside, Browne mostly nails things with an effortless fluency that border on over-earnest sentiments from time to time. Much like himself, sometimes he’s just too damned good-looking for his own good.

24. Jim Morrison

Morrison represents the best and worst of rock lyric-writing. That blue bus is calling all of us and the scream of the butterfly is something we all wish to hear. And who hasn’t felt like an actor out on loan? And when the still sea conspires, I check to make sure the bathroom is clear. What do you do?

23. Nick Cave

His novels could use an editor, but his songs are often filled with the kind of ominous Biblical imagery that make his every move sound like something that matters. Oftentimes it’s a matter of how he delivers the lines as well. I mean, a cheeseburger is OK, but one withal the fixings is a whole ‘nother taste sensation.

22. Ray Davies

He sang about times and places long-gone and about feeling like a true outcast. And he proved it by not selling any records! And then he turned his band into a damn-near heavy metal outfit just so he could sell records. And then he disappeared. And then he came back. And he liked to fight with his brother. And I’ll bet somewhere out there in the Simi Valley there stands a man who still believes in joining the Village Green Preservation Society just on principle alone!

21. Patty Griffin

Patty writes with a permanent tear in her heart. “Useless Desires” is the song Paul Westerberg has never had the discipline to write. But Patty dutifully sticks to her craft and works it out until all the pain and disappointment just stares you in the face, and it isn’t so much what a drag it is getting old, but what a drag it is knowing that you’re getting old. And therein lies the difference.

20. Bruce Springsteen

Springsteen’s written so many different kinds of songs, yet it’s easy to typecast him as a particular kind of writer. Lots of people hear him as a voice of a generation (sorry, Kanye), speaking to people’s generational concerns. I’m just freaked out at how as I get older I observe the lives around me and realize how many of us are doomed to live out a Springsteen song. I just hope mine is a good one and not one of the ones that ends up with me driving through an economically depressed hometown wondering if I can swim in a now dried-out river. That would suck.

19. Joni Mitchell

Joni liked to write confessional and eventually she turned cranky and towards politics and lost much of her audience who get enough of that stuff from cable news. Ironically, while many of her ominous warnings have come true, they’re also sometimes viewed with different assumptions. I mean, paving paradise and putting up parking lots is no longer an environmental concern, but an excellent way for shameless capitalists to get a great return on investment. How much maintenance does a parking lot require? The only thing better would be to own a toll plaza!

18. John Lennon

Lennon had a way of stating the obvious and making it sound profound, which is what we all need. How else can we get a decent yearbook quote? “Life’s what happens when you’re busy ordering junk you don’t need from an online retailer” doesn’t quite have the right ring to it. And I still think he was messing with us when he said a working-class hero is something to be. I think he meant the opposite.

17. Tom Waits

Sure, he’s got a weird voice and his music often sounds like someone found it under the barn, but listen closely and you’ll find all kinds of cool junk. He comes from a lost generation that never existed in the first place, but if you stayed up late enough became completely real. Sorta like when you’re up watching TV and those Real Estate With No Money Down infomercials start to make sense. Go to bed.

16. Momus

Not everyone can write about St. Sebastian and make it stick or discuss earwax and make it sound like something that belongs in the song. His electronic moments don’t allow for the same majesty as his folk-based stuff and he’s gotten to the point where he’s probably written about everything he’s ever dreamed about — twice. But that’s still better than all the hacks working on their countless silly love songs.

15. Chrissie Hynde

Chrissie always had attitude, which in this business is nearly everything. She lost too much when she lost her original band to drugs. She lost their kinetic energy. She lost her youthful enthusiasm and her street-cat persona. The nightlife no longer seemed glamorous just uselessly dangerous and her music turned more conventional. But like a cat, she’s had nine lives and uses them when seen fit.

14. Mark E. Smith

Who knows what this nutcase is rambling on about? Who cares? It sounds right. Smith finds his anger and impatience everywhere. He’s destroyed his brain with enough drinking and touring and who knows what else and his arrogance can be kind of humorous when you consider how tone-deaf he really is. But who better to give us two chords and something that never resembles the truth?

13. Mick Jagger

As the years pass and their impact dilutes, it’s easy to forget that this is the guy who wrote “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Gimme Shelter” and “Rough Justice.”OK, so that last one isn’t one of the keepers. But for pure controversy at the time, he’s at least 20 steps ahead of the Fall Out Boys and whomever Disney is promoting these days.

12. Gil Scott Heron

Lots of Heron’s stuff is dated, since he tied himself to a lot of social issues and politics. Anyone who even notices Richard Nixon in a song is tied to the 1970s. He taught plenty of hip-hoppers how to free their mind so their ass could follow, and he did it with a voice that understood more than just cheap bravado. He sounded like a guy looking for a good fight.

11. Warren Zevon

Zevon looked like a lawyer gone bad and he sang about political and social isolation in a way that only a guy who’d been thrown out of every reputable and disreputable bar could. That he cleaned up and sharpened his focus only made him that much more dangerous. Words don’t kill. People kill. Well, sometimes, it’s that simple.

10. Randy Newman

I’m contractually obligated to include Randy Newman as often as possible in this blog. It just so happens he belongs here. Anyone who takes Newman literally is in big trouble because — like me — he doesn’t always say what he means. He sometimes says the opposite. Or he says something to make a point that isn’t always the point it seems like on the surface. He’s deep like the ocean, man. And if he’s repeating himself, it’s not because he’s old, it’s because he knows you didn’t listen the first time.

9. Shawn Colvin

I know what you’re thinking. “What’s she doing here?” Colvin’s a songwriter I’ve always admired on the page. Her albums are too middle-of-the-road for my taste, but I’ve read her lyric sheets and thought, “It’s a damn shame her music isn’t louder.” She has a poet’s talent for phrases, and and I’ve been meaning to read her memoirs. Or at least collect all her lyrics in one place besides the Internet where the eyestrain can really get to you. Think about it, why are you reading this right now? Shouldn’t you be doing something more productive? I know I should. There are children starving, after all.

8. Mark Eitzel

Mark Eitzel has never met a metaphor he couldn’t twist a million different ways to the point where all of life is just one big emotional pretzel. His use of the rhetorical question is unparalleled. How many other songwriters ask so much of their audience without wanting the answer? He’s never sold many records, mostly because his singles have been ballads, waltzes, and produced by Mitchell Froom. Someday art schools will study this man’s work and realize the mental game of Twister that awaits.

7. Paddy McAloon

When he says, “Hi, this is God here,” you’re thinking, “Could be.” Having never heard God’s voice, I wouldn’t know it without the Caller ID clueing me in. But Paddy’s exceptional ability to write something as profound as “Hot Dog, Jumping Frog, Albuquerque,” notwithstanding, he’s also written songs that can bring tears to your eyes if you’re inclined to go that way. Tod Nelson would agree. His wife wouldn’t.

6. Paul Simon

I’ll take “Hearts And Bones,” “American Tune,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” and “Duncan” to a desert isle. And sneak another two dozen into my ice chest for later. Like Leonard Cohen, you get the sense that every line has been worked over, edited, revised, and carefully redone until nothing resembles the original idea. This guy’s songs are like a home makeover extreme edition and sometimes you wonder, what the hell is anyone going to do with a song that big sitting here amongst all these modest ranches?

5. Isaac Hayes

The late, great Isaac Hayes mastered the art of the endless monologue. He was at his most remarkable best when weaving a story around an already existing song. He had impeccable timing and a way of making love sound like a series of negotiations only a well-heeled salesman could deliver on. That he did so with that big booming voice of his just makes every sale sound so final. And when he says, “I want to bring you back to my childhood,” it’s time to find comfortable spot to relax. We’re going to be here for a while.

4. Elvis Costello

The man describes lyric-writing as being something like a crossword puzzle to him, where he slots in the rhymes to snugly fit. Musically, he’s been all over the map, but lyrically he can never tear himself away from a tense, dense mix of wordplay and dexterity that makes others sound so simple and obvious. He might benefit from a little strip-down here and there, but mostly, let’s just leave him be.

3. Morrissey

Probably the most daring pop lyricist around. His song titles alone make him both a target of scorn and admiration. Haters usually rally against his persona. To them, I say, don’t bother to call. You deserve to live in your humorless hell. I’ll agree his voice can grate and he hangs around the same melody line a little too often, but I’ve learned not to hate friends who become successful and to be wary of monsters spawned in November. It’s a start.

2. Bob Dylan

You could say he broke open the whole damn Pandora’s Box and set loose every third-rate cluttered-thinkerer into believing their disjointed concepts were profound — and certainly the country, folk, and blues music that influenced him always had more substance than the pop-rock world that he shook up. But in the end, he’s been more consistent than most and when at the top of his game really runs the table. And you can even hate his voice and still admire the words. Honest.

1. Leonard Cohen

His voice has deepened over the years, which makes everything he sings sound like it’s coming from God himself, or James Earl Jones. His background is poetry and he’s never sacrificed his craft for an easy rhyme. He labors without being labored and when he’s on — which is most of the time — no one else comes close.