10 Best Lyricist of All Time | Patti Smith, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley and More
Like every industry, music has its greats. And among the countless genres and subgenres that have exploded into the scene, we can all credit songwriters for helping generations of artists express themselves with their music.
I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.
– Billy JoelBilly Joel
Perhaps Billy Joel put it best. Music has been an expression of humanity since our very existence. Every civilization, every culture, every isolated tribe has had its own music. Early scriptures and illustrations suggest that our ancestors used to sing and dance for entertainment, just as we do now.
Today we look at the greatest and most influential songwriters of their time. Keep in mind that this list is our subjective opinion.
10. Cat Stevens
Yusuf Islam, commonly known by his stage name Cat Stevens is a British singer and songwriter. With his earliest songs making waves in the British charts, Cat was headed for stardom.
Despite being hospitalized for Tuberculosis, he bounced back 3 months later, steadily producing chart toppers throughout the 1970s. After his initial experience in the music industry, Stevens began to write more introspective songs. 1970’s Wild World remains one of his most important songs. In an era dominated by insane guitar solos and powerful rock and roll, Stevens’ simple breakup song made a strong impression on his fans.
Cat Stevens also wrote Father and son, an emotionally moving song of a father conversing with his maturing son. Today, Cat Stevens remains one of the most influential songwriters of his time. He explored varied themes and messages in his music and has inspired countless musicians.
9. Patti Smith
When Patti Smith burst into the scene, she was one of the few female musicians competing in the industry. With a hypnotic fusion of poetry and rock, Patti carved out a spot for herself in the evolving rock genre.
Patti performed with frantic energy, relying on her powerful voice and meaningful lyrics instead of sex appeal. An icon for the subsequent generations of female musicians, Patti Smith is one of the greatest songwriters of all time and has been called the ‘punk poet laureate’. With tracks like Because the night and covers like Gloria, Patti was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
8. Stevie Wonder
Born blind, Stevie focused his mental faculties on creating music from a very early age. He learned how to play the drums, harmonica and piano from a very early age.
Stevie has been recognized for the joyous, upbeat and optimistic style of his music. Despite his music taking bold stances against racism and for social equality, his music has always held on to a positive vibe, making his passion for life endearing.
With written credits like Isn’t she lovely, Pastime Paradise and Hold on to your love, Stevie remains one of the most talented songwriters of the late 20th century.
7. Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell began her music career with small gigs in her hometown of Saskatoon. She later moved to the United States and the world of music is all the better for it.
Joni preferred to address social issues as well as her personal thoughts on joy and romance. Her era-defining songs such as Woodstock and Clouds have been received with great praise.
As a songwriter, Joni explored a wide variety of themes, often taking bold risks in her lyrics as seen in 1971’s Blue. Her songwriting has inspired musicians like Taylor Swift, Prince and even Bob Dylan himself on occasion.
6. Tom Waits
With an iconic, gravelly voice and lyrical context that focuses on the bottom half of American society, Tom Waits made a huge splash in the songwriting scene.
It was his depiction of low life personas that garnered so much attention. It felt as if Tom really was speaking from the mind of the impoverished. It was a fresh outlook on the 80s music scene, which was then teeming with pop sensations. Having already garnered a cult following in the 70s, Tom forayed into acting and theatricality in later years.
In his music, Tom often relays positive and hopeful messages, as seen in 1999’s Hold on. Besides this song, Downtown Train and I hope that I don’t fall in love with you are some of Waits’ most celebrated songs. Despite the lack of coverage on his albums and music, Tom still had a stellar number of hits and remains an inspiration to modern songwriters.
5. Bob Marley
Bob Marley exuded good vibes and positivity through his songs. Starting out as a Robert Nesta Marley, he formed the group, The Wailers and created a distinct songwriting style. He is credited for popularizing Reggae music and is a symbol of Jamaican traditions.
Bob is credited for writing hit songs like Buffalo Soldier, I Shot the Sheriff and Three Little Birds. Throughout his life, Bob wrote cheerful, optimistic and upbeat songs, focusing on concepts of happiness, justice and the power of love.
He often wrote about the traditions of Jamaica, the oppression for the Jamaican people and brought their struggles to the forefront. With his iconic dreadlocks and pot smoking antics, Bob Marley remains me the most popular Reggae musician of all time.
4. John Lennon
The Beatles invaded American mainstream media, and they couldn’t have done it without John Lennon. The Beatles vocalist is the most iconic member of The Beatles and rightly so. In his short-lived life, John was a peace activist, writing several songs that advocated love and peace constantly.
His solo song Imagine was widely adopted as an anti-war anthem. So great was his influence that the Richard Nixon administration feared his impact on American Culture and tried to have him deported. Besides Imagine, John also penned Give peace a chance and Help which he later revealed was a subconscious plea for help.
Imagine was even adopted by UNICEF, who collaborated with hundreds of popular celebrities to release a cover advocating world peace. John Lennon was assassinated by a delusional fan at the age of 40. Despite his tragic demise, Lennon’s influence will undoubtedly linger on for centuries.
3. Paul Simon
Paul Simon is one half of the folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel. Paul is credited for writing three of Simon & Garfunkel’s hits, The Sound of Silence, Mrs Robinson and Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Comprising soft-spoken lyrics and deeply personal messages, the rock duos music touched generations of fans. After their breakup, Paul went on to have a successful career, recording 3 successful albums.
Today, Paul has 16 Grammys for his various inspired performance. His unique style of incorporating emotions into music has inspired many artists and their forms of self-expression.
2. Paul McCartney
Sir Paul McCartney is one of the two surviving members of The Beatles. McCartney is one of the most prolific musicians and songwriter of his time. Together with his bandmates, McCartney solidified Rock and Roll and became icons of the 60s counterculture movement.
With gems like Hey Jude, Let it be and Penny Lane under his credit, McCartney’s writing prowess was complemented by John Lennon’s vocals and the band’s sizzling chemistry. Let it be was written by Paul after he saw his late mother in a dream where she told him to stop worrying and let it be.
Similarly, the ‘na na na’ part of Hey Jude has been universally beloved and McCartney’s ability to create simple, catchy lyrics is revered. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist in 1999.
1. Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan changed the face of music forever. By the time the 60s rolled around, music was evolving drastically. Bob Dylan began experimenting by incorporating political, philosophical and personal messages into his music.It was an instant hit, he became another icon for the 60s counterculture and has been a major figure of the music industry for almost 6 decades.
Dylan’s influence has touched other great artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, The Beatles and Johnny Cash. 1964’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ was Dylan’s initial foray into personal songwriting. In the song, Dylan calls out senators and congressmen as well as the regular civilian to join the battle against racism. 1965’s All along the Watchtower has been a topic of much critical analysis, wherein Dylan takes inspiration from biblical verses and ends the song in a manner that suggests the song is stuck in a loop, doomed to repeat itself forever.
Dylan’s writing prowess was recognized in 2016 with a Nobel Prize in Literature. He was awarded the prize for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition. He became the first musician to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.