Whether you’re at the start of your music career or already have a catalogue of music under your belt, music appreciation should always be a part of your day.
As musicians, we have an obligation to keep an ear open for new and emerging talent and to celebrate those those who have led the way. If we aren’t listening and studying music, we are in part forfeiting our career as a musician.
Would you not expect a doctor to keep up to date with the latest scientific discoveries of the medical community, or that they would have a deep understanding of the history of medical illnesses? Of course you would. In music it’s no different.
The point is, whether for educational purposes or for your enjoyment, you should take some time and appreciate the best of the best. In this post, we will take a look back at 12 of the greatest songwriters of all time (in no particular order).
1. Joni Mitchell
Hailing from Fort Macleod in rural Alberta, Joni Mitchell is noted as one of founding mothers of the folk movement in the 60s. Mitchell got her start busking on the streets in Toronto, testing out material. Joni Mitchell’s knact for songwriting became apparent when artists began covering her songs early on in her career, including the tracks “Urge for Going”, “Chelsea Morning”, “Both Sides, Now” and “The Circle Game”. It wasn’t until then Mitchell was able to sign her first record deal, releasing her debut album shortly after in 1968. That debut, Song To A Seagull featured tracks “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock” which paved the way to her success and solidified her as one of the most influential songwriters of all time.
2. Bob Dylan
You’d be hard-pressed to find a list of greatest musicians of all-time without including the folk icon that is Bob Dylan. This Jewish-American born born Robert Allen Zimmerman got his start in the early 60s writing bluesy, folk and country songs with his guitar. He quickly found success after meeting legendary talent scout John Hammond who says he signed Dylan on the spot to Columbia after meeting him for the first time. Dylan’s unique voice and approach to songwriting that touches on politics and social issues quickly made him an international star, writing some of the most critically and publicly acclaimed songs of all time including “Mr Tambourine Man”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Times Are A Changing” and some of the most covered including “All Along The Watchtower” and “It Ain’t Me Babe”.
3. John Lennon
English-born John Lennon is one of the most famous and influential songwriters of in rock history. One-fourth of the beatles, Lennon wrote some of the most beloved songs with bandmate Paul McCartney as part of their legendary songwriting partnership including “Love Me Do”, “Strawberry Feilds”, “Hey Jude” and many more. Lennon went on to write as a solo artist, collaborating with his wife Yoko Ono, later writing one of the most celebrated peace songs of all-time “Imagine”.
4. Leonard Cohen
Born in Montreal, Quebec, Leonard Cohen was an artist by many trades. Artist, poet, novelist and songwriter, Cohen explored every facet of the human condition: religion, politics, sexuality and relationships. Never shying away from the dark side of life, Cohen rose to popularity in the 60s with his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen, and was writing some of the most thought-provoking music up until his death in late 2016. While his catalouge is extensive, Cohen is most notably remembered for his 1984 song “Hallelujah”, a song that has been covered by over 200 artists in its time.
5. David Bowie
David Bowie, born David Robert Jones was one of the greatest figures in pop music spanning over fifty years. Hailed the ‘pop chameleon’, Bowie was known for the various iterations of his character including Ziggy Stardust. He had many hits in his time including “Space Oddity”, “Let’s Dance”, “Under Pressure” and “Young Americans”, amassing in over 140 million record sales worldwide.
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6. Brian Wilson
Primary songwriter of the popular 1960’s group The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson’s influence on songwriting has remained constant from his early days in the 1960s until today. His meticulous approach to songwriting lead the group away from the “California Sound” they popularized in the 60s, moving towars his genius record Pet Sounds. The intricate mix of pop elements and barbershop quartet harmonies with exotic instruments was nothing anyone had ever heard before.
7. Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry was an absolute hit making machine. This rock and roll legend began in the 1950s with the smash single “Johnny B. Goode,” going on to write infamous songs such as “My Ding-A-Ling”, “Roll Over Beethoven” and “You Can Never Tell”. The list goes on. Berry passed away in 2017 at age 90, leaving a rock and roll legacy behind.
8. Paul McCartney
The other half of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting duo, Paul McCartney was, — and continues to be one of the most influential songwriters of all time. After departing from the Beatles in 1970, McCartney went solo and formed The Wings. He continued to write hits long after Beatlemania with “Band on the Run” and “Live and Let Die”.
9. Carole King
One of the most celebrated singer of all time, Carole King first found success at the young age of 17 writing “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”. Her and then-husband Gerry Goffin wrote a number of hits for the Shirelles, including “The Loco-Motion”, “Just Once In My Life” and many more. King has had hundreds of hits throughout the years, in part due to artists covering her songs, the most notable example of which was “Just Once In My Life” by Aretha Franklin.
10. Neil Young
Known for hits “Old Man” and “Heart Of Gold”, there are few artists more recognizable than Toronto-born folk artist Neil Young. After embarking on a music career in the ’60s, Young formed Buffalo Springfield alongside Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, and others. By the time he had joined Crosby, Stills & Nash in 1969, he had released two solo albums with his backing band, Crazy Horse, and three albums as a member of Buffalo Springfield. Young’s varied musical endeavors over the course of a long career have earned him a position amongst songwriting’s best.
11. Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder is one of the most critically and commercially successful artists of the 20th century. A child prodigy, Wonder signed his first record deal at the age of 11–an unbelievably early start to a career that has earned him 25 Grammy Awards to date. Wonder is one of the most-awarded male solo artists of all time, and he is additionally one of the top 60 best-selling artists in history. Undeniably, Stevie Wonder is a songwriting legend.
12. Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson is one of the most iconic blues musicians of the early 20th century. His past was not well documented, ultimately giving rise to the myth that he sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads. The veracity of these claims is debatable, of course, but his landmark recordings in 1936 and 1937 cemented his legacy and influenced generations of songwriters to come. Sadly, Johnson was murdered in 1938 at the age of 27. Though there are multiple accounts of his passing, he is thought to have died after drinking from a poisoned whiskey bottle.