Writing a great song, one that stands the test of time, whether it’s a hit or not, is not an easy task. Anyone who’s ever been a songwriter, or been in a band will tell you that moments of inspiration can be so short, they’re sometimes over before they begin. And yet artists of all genres persevere and dedicate themselves not only to the art of songwriting, but to making it in the industry.
While for many the music and the hook often comes first, there are many artists who take the lyrics they write as seriously as the music meant to accompany them; some even more so. On this list, you’ll get a snapshot of extreme heavy metal, Canadian indie rock, a few of hip hop’s brightest stars, and plenty of iconic songwriters from past and present. The one thing that crosses their genres, and makes each exceptional in their own right is the fact that they are all extremely talented wordsmiths.
Here are 15 of the greatest lyricists of all time, and while they are numbered, they are not in order per se, because each artist here could claim one of the top sports. Also, before anyone complains of omissions, this list is by NO MEANS all encompassing, it’s merely meant to offer a variety of writers from a variety of genres, and maybe point some readers towards new musical discoveries.
15 Peter Dolving
Peter Dolving is a Swedish vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and insanely gifted writer. Though Dolving is most known for the metal band he fronted for years, The Haunted, he is a workaholic, and since leaving The Haunted a few years ago has released numerous independent albums, mostly recorded all on his own. There’s a violence to many of Dolving’s lyrics, or at least a chaotic, ‘man on the brink’ vibe, especially his metal lyrics, but he’s also highly political and poetic. The Haunted’s self-titled album contains his most schizophrenic lyrics, painting a truly vivid picture of time in crisis.
Choice lyric from “The Medication”: Going insane's overrated, I was right all along . You're all the monsters - I am the normal one. So here I am and yes I'm fine, f**king fabulous alright? Somehow I'll make it out alive, no matter how...”
14 Hawksley Workman
Shamefully unknown outside of his native Canada, Hawksley Workman is a brilliant singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and lyricist who has never even remotely released the same album twice. Over the course of his career, every one of Workman’s albums have shifted styles, from pop, to country, rock, even a bit of hip hop and electronica. Did I mention he writes and performs the vast majority of every song he records himself? Beyond his incredible musical talent, Workman is a magician with a pen. Whether writing introspective or wistful ballads, love songs or songs about girls on crutches, who rely on their mothers to pay for college, Workman has it covered.
Choice lyric from “Wonderful and Sad”: “I wish that happiness could just be pretended. The closest thing to that is a bottle of whiskey, dear. I'd write a letter home, but I don't know where to send it.”
13 PJ Harvey
Polly Jean, or PJ Harvey is an English singer, songwriter, poet and occasional artist whose career in the music industry has spanned nearly 30 years. Renowned for her genre-bending styles, the six-times Grammy nominated artist also has a magical way with words. Best know for her song about infanticide, “Down by the Water”, Harvey has been labelled a feminist, and critics had often suggested that her lyrics were autobiographical, so “Down by the Water” was her response.
Choice lyric from “Down by the Water”: I had to lose her, to do her harm. I heard her holler, I heard her moan. My lovely daughter, I took her home. Little fish, big fish swimming in the water, come back here man, gimmie back my daughter.”
12 Black Francis/Frank Black
Best known for his work with the Pixies, Black Francis, has had a pretty successful solo career as Frank Black as well, but it’s his seminal work with the Pixies where his legacy is most lauded. Both Kurt Cobain, and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke in particular have citied Black as a major influence on their writing. Often obscure, using themes as diverse as biblical violence, science fiction and even surfing, Black is a truly original voice in music.
Choice Lyric from “Allison”: from distant star to this here bar, the me, the you, where are we now? Hurray the blues of everyone…”
11 The Notorious B.I.G.
The one and only Biggie Smalls was a fantastic rapper, who wrote some seriously impressive lyrics in his tragically short career. Before he was gunned down at the age of 24 in an L.A. drive-by, Biggie was at the height of his creativity, as is evidenced by the work he put together for the posthumously released double album Life After Death. Though his career was cut short, his legacy remains as strong today as ever, a testament to the creativity, and seriously sharp wit the Notorious B.IG. showed in his lyrics.
Choice lyric from “Notorious Thugs”: “Armed and dangerous, ain’t too many can bang with us. Straight up weed, no angel dust, label us Notorious. Thug ass n****z that love to bust, it’s strange to us. Y’all n****z be scramblin’, gamblin’ up in restaurants with mandolins, and violins. We just sittin’ here tryin’ to win, tryin’ not to sin. High off weed and lots of gin, so much smoke need oxygen, steadily countin’ them Benjamins.”
10 Neil Young
Another Canadian singer-songwriter on this list, Neil Young needs no introduction. 50 years on, Young is still producing music and writing lyrics that few can come close to replicating. His influence is also ever present in the current neo-folk scene making the rounds on the radio. Throughout his career, Neil Young’s mass popularity has ebbed and flowed, but he has remained one of the greatest and most respected songwriters of his generation. It’s impossible to choose a best lyric from Young’s arsenal, but here’s one.
Choice lyric from “Old Man”: "Lullabies, look in your eyes, run around the same old town. It doesn't mean that much to me to mean that much to you."
Another rapper whose life was cut tragically short in a drive-by shooting, Tupac Shakur wrote to honor his street cred moments in his songs, but he was also incredibly smart with his lyrics. Tupac was very well read, and very active in political and philosophical thought giving his lyrics an extra edge, but Tupac is one of the best selling artists of all time for a reason; people connected to his lyrics on a personal level. He was relatable to audiences, on a deeper level than most of his peers.
Choice lyric from “Changes”: “Take the evil out the people they’ll be acting right, ‘cause both black and white are smokin’ crack tonight. And only time we deal is when we kill each other. It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other.”
Whether anyone liked it or not, Eminem burst onto the hip hop scene in the later half of the 1990s and it hasn’t been the same since. Sure, originally much was made of the fact that he was a hype machine, being a skinny white guy mentored by one of the greatest hip hop producers of all time, Dr. Dre, and most thought Eminem was a passing fad, but guess what, not only is he a great rapper, he’s an incredible lyricist as well. Eminem is fast, witty and often times lethal with his lyrics. 155 million albums and counting don’t lie.
Choice lyric from “White America”: See the problem is, I speak to suburban kids, who otherwise would of never knew these word exist, whose moms probably would of never gave two squirts of piss, 'till I created so much motherf**kin' turbulence, straight out the tube, right into your living room I came, and kids flipped when they knew I was produced by Dre, that's all it took, and they were instantly hooked.”
Brooklyn rap legend Nas has been considered by many to be the best lyricist of all time in the hip hop world. Even CNN thinks so. Hell, even when Jay Z dissed Nas on a track, he still praised his lyrical skills. When his debut album Illmatic dropped 20 years ago, it was immediately hailed as a landmark, classic album that helped revive the East Coast hip hop scene. Everyone from budding MCs to Princeton University professors alike have studied the lyrical content on Illmatic and subsequent Nas albums. Considered a poet as much as a rapper, Nas’s body of work hasn’t always met the high standards he set in 1994, but there’s always some extremely thought provoking, exciting and sometimes vicious lyrics on every album to make the claim that he’s the best lyricist in hip hop history.
Choice lyric from “Memory Lane”: "My intellect prevails from a hanging cross with nails. I reinforce the frail, with lyrics that's real. Word to Christ, a disciple of streets, trifle on beats. I decipher prophecies through a mic and say peace."
6 Bruce Springsteen
One of New Jersey’s native sons (Bon Jovi arguably being the other), the “Boss” has been writing classic American rock and roll and penning realistic lyrics about the working class (well, “Dancing in the Dark” aside perhaps), for nearly 50 years. Apart from his seminal classic album “Born to Run” which probably inadvertently invented Grunge, Springsteen has also written some hauntingly beautiful folk records, Nebraska easily ranking among the greatest of all time. Though for a time in the 1980s Bruce became recognized as a pop star, and an unwitting and accidental patriot with the Born in the U.S.A. album, one listen to the lyrics of the title track reveals he still had a vicious message for the powers that be in America, juxtaposing a seemingly flag-waving chorus with incredibly critical verses.
Choice lyric from “Adam Raised a Cain”: “In the Bible, mamma, Cain slew Abel and East of Eden, mamma, he was cast. You're born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else's past. Well, Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain, now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame.”
5 Leonard Cohen
Legendary Canadian singer, songwriter, poet and spoken word artist Leonard Cohen has been active in the music scene for over 50 years, and though he’s not exactly known for his singing voice, the man has penned some of the penultimate lyrics of all time. A veritable wordsmith, Cohen tackles love, loss and religion most often in his lyrics, nowhere more expressly and intimately than in his masterpiece “Hallelujah.” Though covers of the song may ultimately convey the desperation of love in a better way than Cohen’s original, he still wrote the lyrics, which rank as some of the most powerful ever.
Choice lyric from “Hallelujah”: “Maybe there’s a God above, but all I’ve ever learned from love was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you. It’s not a cry you can hear at night, it’s not somebody who has seen the light, it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah”
4 John Mellencamp
Heartland rocker John Mellencamp may be slightly high on this list for some people’s liking, but truth be told, he pens some of the most honest portraits of American life ever; even more so than Springsteen, for the record. The Lonesome Jubilee is probably his best album from a lyrical standpoint, and one of his best overall. Painting a picture of both struggle and triumph through the eyes of the working class, particularly in the Midwest, Mellencamp has written poignant tales of class struggles and subversive anti-patriotic songs as well. Though he’s settled into a more low key collaboration with T Bone Burnett in recent years, with some critics saying he’s lost his musical touch, and others praising the more minimalist music, his lyrics remain as powerful as ever, making Mellencamp a true legend.
Choice lyric from “Check it Out”: Million young poets screamin' out their words, to a world full of people just livin' to be heard. Future generations ridin' on the highways that we built. I hope, that they have better understanding.”
3 Nick Cave
Nick Cave is a bloody genius, or at least he gets my vote for top lyricist of all time. Throughout his career fronting the Birthday Party, Grinderman and most famously, the Bad Seeds, Cave has penned some of the most incredible music ever. Furthermore, the lyrics the Australian writes are an eclectic mix of soulful, sexual, violent and religious, with each song containing a surrealist bent that pushes them into near absurdist fiction at times. Cave is also a highly accomplished screenwriter, The Proposition being one of the great modern western films, and he’s written two novels, both of which are so incredibly different from each other, but equally beautiful, strange and grotesque. At times Cave’s lyrics read like the most cryptic, and gothic, of Faulkner in prose. Not to be missed.
Choice lyric from “Loverman”: “There's a devil waiting outside your door (How much longer) Bucking and braying and pawing the floor. Well, he's howling with pain and crawling up the walls, there's a devil waiting outside your door. He's weak with evil and broken by the world. He's shouting your name and asking for more. There's a devil waiting outside your door.”
2 John Lennon
The late, legendary John Lennon is best know for his work in the Beatles, though his subsequent solo career was as important. While Lennon wrote a lot of pop oriented lyrics in his early career, many don’t realize that some were littered with rather subversive humor and wit that certainly went over the heads of most early Beatles fans. As his songwriting developed, Lennon became more obscure in some of his verses, more political in others, and, more violent in some of his early solo stuff. Still, best know for songs of peace and love, like “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine”, Lennon has been remembered since his assassination in 1980 as a spokesman for an entire generation.
Choice lyric from “A Day in the Life”: “I read the news today, oh boy, about a lucky man who made the grade. And though the news was rather sad, well I just had to laugh. I saw the photograph. He blew his mind out in a car, he didn't notice that the lights had changed. A crowd of people stood and stared, they'd seen his face before nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords.”
1 Bob Dylan
The inimitable Bob Dylan has been named the greatest songwriter, and the greatest lyricist, of all time by so many publications it’s tough to keep track. The folk musician with the nasally voice has made a career penning songs around his lyrics since 1959, and was a major paler in the early folk revival in America in the early 1960s. An influence of pretty much anyone who’s picked up a pen and an acoustic guitar at some point in their musical career, Dylan also transcended his folk roots in the mid 1960s by plugging in his guitar, clearly an influence of his new friendship with the Beatles, and became less a folk revivalist, and more a folk/pop rock superstar. Beyond his musical experimentation, some of Dylan’s lyrics have even been cited as a forerunner to rap. However true, there is no denying the skill and influence Bob Dylan, the singer, songwriter and above all else, lyricist has had on music history.
Choice lyric from “Desolation Row”: “The kerosene is brought down from the castles by insurance men who go check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row.”