Songs are comprised of two things: lyrics and instrumentation. The combination of these two things has become so ingrained in the human psyche that my one-year-old nephew instinctively dances when he hears a few bars of any song … even the annoying tinny sound that his Bob the Builder phone gargles out. For me, lyrics are the more important thing when it comes to songs I enjoy listening to. If the actual music is a bit worse for wear, I will forgive it if the lyrics are ‘on point’. If a songwriter can beautifully juxtapose wordplay, weighty themes, and emotion, they will have me eating out of their hands for the entirety of their back catalogue. My favourite artists of all time are all songwriters themselves who have built a reputation around their wordsmithing instead of the instruments they surround themselves with. Bob Dylan, the greatest songwriter of his or any generation recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature, a feat he shares with literary juggernauts like Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, T.S Eliot, and even Winston-bloomin’-Churchill. This is a clear sign of our society’s high regard for the art of lyric writing … Although Dylan – in true Dylan style – said in his acceptance speech that songs weren’t literature as they were designed to be sung and not read … the implication being that the academy were stupid for giving him the award.
So, with Dylan’s words in my ear, what follows is a list of 6 albums from the annals of popular music that all aspiring lyricists should own and study. Emulate these greats and you will never write a bad song. The ability to balance the sound of words with the meaning hidden within … the complete partnership of the crystallised molten coating, hiding the gluey marshmallow beneath … Did that metaphor work? Just about.
Remember, this isn’t a definitive list, but just a few I think you can’t do without.
Buckets of rain
Buckets of tears
Got all them buckets comin’ out of my ears
Buckets of moonbeams in my hand
You got all the love
Honey baby, I can stand
Buckets of Rain – Bob Dylan
Blood on the Tracks – Bob Dylan
Staying on the topic of Dylan, he’s first on this unranked list. It would be remiss of me to ignore this man. He single-handedly invented the modern album back in 1963 with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Now, it might have made sense for me to have included that album instead of this masterpiece from 1975, but I firmly believe that this is his magnum opus. Freewheelin’ is a great introduction to ‘60s’ Dylan, but if you want to hear the true master at work, then look no further than Blood on the Tracks. Dylan doesn’t like writing about his own life in his work, which is why a lot of his songs are about anything but him, however – although he denies it – Blood on the Tracks is firmly believed to be about his divorce from his first wife. It is a raw and, as the title suggests, bleeding album. Every word is chosen to perfection to land the sharpest blows to the heart of the listener. Yes, there are more frivolous songs, like the never-boring near-nine-minute ‘Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts’ which is Dylan’s story writing at its best, but for the most part the album is filled with the most touching sentiment without ever becoming sentimental and birthed one of the greatest metaphors in the history of literature: ‘tangled up in blue’ as a metaphor for being sad, is quite possibly perfection.
This is the quintessential break-up album.
Hey Blue, here is a song for you
Ink on a pin
Underneath the skin
An empty space to fill in
Blue – Joni Mitchell
Blue – Joni Mitchell
If Bob was getting a bit emotional and making veiled references to his failed marriage, then this album is Joni Mitchell slashing open her thorax and letting her bloodied soul spill onto the vinyl. She was warned by people in the industry at the time of recording that she should leave some of herself behind, but she went against the consensus and released one of the most stunning portrayals of a women’s yearning and life ever captured on vinyl, page, celluloid … anywhere. At times this album is painful to listen to for Mitchell’s soul is laid bare for the world to see, but her lyrics are so beautifully crafted that it never feels like the whining of a teen pop icon. Talking of teen pop icons, stars from Taylor Swift to Adele has listed this album as a major inspiration for their own song writing.
I was tempted to list Ladies of the Canyon on here instead of Blue, for the song writing is tremendous on there as well, but I had to go with this one for its sheer impact and originality. When it comes to confessional female singer-songwriters, then there is no one better than Joni Mitchell, and this album will be her legacy.
Mother, you had me but I never had you
I wanted you, you didn’t want me
So I, I just gotta tell you
Mother – John Lennon
Plastic Ono Band – John Lennon
So, if Bob Dylan was quietly, unassumingly laying his soul bare and Joni Mitchell was slicing open her body and bleeding her soul onto the vinyl; then John Lennon is screaming so loudly and violently that his throat is tearing and his guts are spewing forth propelling his soul out of his body and slamming against the nearby wall of his plush New York penthouse. This album is 40 minutes of John screaming and crying about his dead mother; his love for Yoko Ono; his hatred for Paul McCartney; his contempt for the Beatles; and his general weariness at the world, his icons, his fame, and the society he lives in. It’s a tiring listen at times, but the songs retain simplistic melodies throughout that keep you listening through the pain and tears. The music might be unassertively moving, but what’s important is what is being said, and how – with all the emotion one man can muster – it is being said. If a few dusty tears don’t journey to the corners of your eyes when listening to this album you are dead inside, my friends.
Never has a bigger chill run down the spine of a person, than when a Beatle’s fan hears the line ‘I don’t believe in … Beatles’ towards the end of the album.
It was a slow day
And the sun was beating
On the soldiers by the side of the road
There was a bright light
A shattering of shop windows
The bomb in the baby carriage was wired through the radio
Boy in the Bubble – Paul Simon
Graceland – Paul Simon
After writing about those last three albums and reliving the pain, I feel I need a pick-me-up … how about Paul Simon’s Graceland? Paul Simon is a songwriter that I feel is second only to Bob Dylan. Yep, he is better than John Lennon; he’s better than Paul McCartney, he is simply: wonderful. I knew I needed to include an album of his, however, I have been agonising for over a week now whether to include this, his seminal 1986 solo work, or his seminal 1970 Bridge Over Troubled Water; recorded with his long-term best friend/rival Art Garfunkel. In the end I went for this one, but it was a case of flipping a mental coin. Breaking UN guidelines and heading off to the culturally embargoed South Africa, Simon collected home grown talent and jammed with them. He then spilled his guts over the top and ended up producing one of the most surprising and lovely albums of the 20th Century. Paul Simon has written some of the most gorgeous lyrical and melodic pop songs of all time and many of them are collected on this gem, although look out for the hidden heart break and political musings.
Also, the opening to ‘The Boy in the Bubble’, (see above) may be the best opening to a pop song ever. It demonstrates his incredible ear for the sound of his lyrics and not just the meaning, which is also noted later in the song with ‘Staccato signals of constant information/A loose affiliation of millionaires/And billionaires and baby’. It’s just spoken poetry at its finest.
My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue,
An everlasting vision of the ever-changing view
A wondrous woven magic in bits of blue and gold
A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold
Tapestry – Carole King
Tapestry – Carole King
Let’s change track. So far we’ve gone with the heaviest hitters in song writing: Dylan, Mitchell, Lennon, and Simon. Carole King? Does she belong with these heavyweights? Yes, and I’ll explain why. Carole King is a completely different type of songwriter. Where the others I’ve mentioned craft intense lyrics backed up with a melange of different melody and instrumentation that is unmistakable; King is the opposite; a soft-spoken orphan in a lynch mob, if you will. Where the others are spilling their blood for their art, King is sat in the corner knitting a scarf whilst a cat purrs around her ankles. This level of pastoral quaintness is so refreshing, however, it masks King’s beautiful way with words and her ability to produce massive hits at a speed of knots. Whilst she only had a couple of hits herself (thanks to Tapestry) she has written for dozens of the most popular artists in popular music. She is the single-most successful female songwriter, with 118 American Billboard Hot 100 hits. *Insert Guffaw*
‘Up on the Roof’ – The Drifters; ‘I’m Into Something Good’ – Herman’s Hermits; ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman – Aretha Franklin; ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ – James Taylor; ‘The Loco-Motion’ – Kylie Minogue … you see?
And if a double-decker bus
Crashes into us
To die by your side
Is such a heavenly way to die.
And if a ten-tonne truck
Kills the both of us
To die by your side
Well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine.
There Is a Light That Never Goes Out – The Smiths
The Queen is Dead – The Smiths
If you stick around Mugwumps long enough, you will hear about how I despised The Smiths with every fibre of my being until one day I listened to this album to, as it were, ‘see what all the fuss was about’. It was one of those moments in life when you can almost feel the metaphorical ray of sunlight shine down upon you as a chorus of angels sing. For the past few months I have been completely obsessed with all things Morrissey and Marr. What I at first mistook for moany, pre-emo ‘emo music’, is in fact some of the most beautifully crafted songs ever … uh … crafted. Lyrically they are up there in the same echelon as the other songwriters on this list and combine that with Marr’s orchestration and they rightfully hold the place as NME Magazine’s most influential musical act in history (with The Queen is Dead being named the greatest album of all time, as well). There is so much richness within The Smiths that you just don’t see in ‘modern music’ – and haven’t seen since The Beatles. It’s that mix of utter pop nonsense, lyrical intensity, laugh-out-loud comedy, and spell bounding melody. It is, I’m afraid to say it, utter perfection.
Who knew The Smiths were so hilarious?!
My choices may be fairly obvious, so let me know what you think in the comments and maybe I’ll write up a ‘Commenter’s Edition’ in the style of Outside Xbox. Follow us on Twitter @MugwumpBlog