Why do we love singer songwriters? There is something special about listening to a good singer, singing his or her own words. Often, it is a bearing of the soul. The romantic image is that of a tortured being, hunched over an acoustic guitar, lamenting a doomed love affair or the state of the world. Of course, singer songwriters come in all forms, and arguments as to the best of them, could last for hours. Here is a list, to be debated and pored over.
10. Kate Bush
Unique is an overused word but can be applied to Bush for her voice, lyrics and dramatic persona. Her debut single, ‘Wuthering Heights’, was a UK Number 1 in 1978. Many of her other compositions are inspired by films and literature and have often drawn on her Gothic sensibility. Other tracks from ‘The Kick Inside’ album include ‘The Man with the Child in His Eyes’ and ‘Them Heavy People’. The follow up album was titled ‘Lionheart’ and includes the songs, ‘Symphony in Blue’, ‘Wow’, and ‘Hammer Horror’, a tribute to the horror movies of Hammer Studios. Four more albums were released in the 1980s, one in 1993, and a comeback record in 2005.
Not in the acoustic slot but embracing rock, Bowie has a unique style that defies categorization. The distinctive voice, theatrical stage shows, glam image and altar egos tend to detract from his ability as a songwriter. He first came to prominence with ‘Space Oddity’ and he has continuously re-invented himself over the years, expressing himself through a series of characters. Landmark albums produced unforgettable songs; ‘Hunky Dory’ with ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ with ‘Starman’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’ with ‘The Jean Genie’.
Donovan Leitch was the epitome of hippiedom in the Flower Power age. His boyish, innocent good looks and gentle lyrics were timely and he never regained the success of his glory days. He devoted himself to learning the guitar and went busking. A recording contract followed, when everyone was in the grip of folk rock. The influence of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie was revealed in songs, such as ‘Catch the Wind’ and ‘Colours’. More pop tinged hits followed with ‘Sunshine Superman’ and ‘Mellow Yellow’.
7. Paul Simon
As part of Simon and Garfunkel, Simon produced modern standards, such as ‘Mrs. Robinson’, ‘The Sound of Silence’, ‘The Boxer’ and ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’. The solo years brought ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’, ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’ and ‘You Can Call Me Al’. He has embraced World Music, most notably on the ‘Graceland’ album, recorded with South African musicians. He will be best remembered for the harmonies he created with Art Garfunkel in their glory years.
6. Nick Drake
This English singer songwriter has achieved cult status and is a favourite amongst fellow musicians. His record sales during his lifetime were negligible and recognition came too late. A victim of severe stage fright, he was not able to promote himself. With only three completed albums, ‘Five Leaves Left’, ‘Bryter Layter’, and ‘Pink Moon’, he died from an overdose of prescription drugs when he was 26 years of age. He was an extremely accomplished acoustic guitarist and his voice will move you to tears on songs such as ‘River Man’, ‘Way to Blue’, ‘From the Morning’ and ‘Black Eyed Dog’. His lack of stage performances means that there is no footage to watch. More and more people are learning about him and his legacy lives on.
5. Joni Mitchell
The first of our Canadians, Mitchell did the usual rounds of the folk club scene. Critical success came with the albums ‘Blue’, ‘Court and Spark’, ‘Ladies of the Canyon’ and ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’. She has enjoyed mainstream exposure and chart success for singles too. Her most well known tracks are ‘Both Sides Now’, ‘Chelsea Morning’ and ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. Most female acoustic performers cite her as an influence. She has experimented with other genres, chiefly jazz, and collaborated with musicians such as jazz bassist, Charlie Mingus. Her wide octave range combines perfectly with her unusual guitar style. Mitchell is also a painter and her artwork appears on her albums.
4. Leonard Cohen
Many a bed-sit misfit has found comfort in the poems and songs of this Quebec born icon. His voice is rich and it feels as if he is just singing to you. Biblical references are scattered throughout the songs, along with poignant tales of romantic liaisons. Born a Jew, he was later ordained as a Zen Buddhist. A published poet before he recorded songs, his lyrics are superior. Find a quiet spot and listen dreamily to ‘Suzanne’, ‘The Stranger Song’ and ‘Take This Waltz’.
3. Neil Young
Yet another Canadian with acoustic folk roots, Young has one of the most beautiful voices in popular music. He also wanted to move outside the folk category and experiment and there are many versions of him. Known as the Godfather of Grunge, it’s his early songs however that resonate the most. His is a voice that harmonises wonderfully as in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. On its own, it soars and trembles on songs such as ‘Heart of Gold’, ‘A Man Needs a Maid’, and ‘Like a Hurricane’. ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ is the most affecting song about heroine addiction ever written.
2. John Lennon
As a Beatle, Lennon contributed up tempo rockers and lovely ballads. His lyrics were acerbic, surreal, revolutionary and witty. He and Paul McCartney complemented each other perfectly. Lennon’s roots were in Rock and Roll and he never lost enthusiasm for the old music. It was Bob Dylan, who inspired him to write more meaningful lyrics, departing from boy meets girl themes. His solo career brought more classic songs, including ‘Imagine’, ‘Give Peace a Chance’, ‘Working Class Hero’ and ‘Woman’.
1. Bob Dylan
The tousled haired one from the North Country made his name with protest songs, such as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Masters of War’. He was uncomfortable with his status as the spokesman for a generation and began focusing on more personal songs. He also took up the cause of individual miscarriages of justice, as in ‘Hurricane’, the story of the murder conviction of boxer, Rubin Carter. Dylan is truly compelling, with a rasping voice, and able to express tenderness in gorgeous love songs like ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’ and ‘Just Like a Woman’.