The Best Songwriters of All Time — Or The Problem With “Best of” Lists

best songwriters

This post helps you get your song started, but that’s only the beginning. My free ebook will take you step-by-step through the rest of the songwriting process–the same process I’ve used to write my Grammy Award winning hits.

People are endlessly fascinated by GOAT (greatest of all time) lists, including the greatest songwriters of all time.

We love to read these lists. We agree with them, fight over them, aspire to them, and we’re inspired by them.

Because they’re so popular, magazines like Billboard and Rolling Stone continue to publish them. But when it comes to songwriting, are they really useful or helpful?

Even though these ranking lists are standard practice in the music industry — and entertainment in general — there’s a difference between lists like the Billboard Hot 100 (which is based on statistics from the last week, month, or year) and a “best of all time” list with no context.

We all love lists that help us reminisce. They remind us of music or times in our lives we may have forgotten. But trying to rank art is problematic and unnecessary. Here’s what I mean.

Let’s Talk About Rolling Stone

Any term like “greatest” is naturally subjective — it’s based on opinion. Because of that, these lists are guaranteed to create controversy (which is the reason magazines and blogs publish them!)

By contrast, statistics like highest-earning artists, top album sales, or most number of weeks at number one for a single are easily counted. There’s no disputing the numbers.

So simply by publishing a list like this, Rolling Stone guarantees people will be talking about it.

Another problem is corporate sponsorship. The Rolling Stone 100 Greatest Songwriters list was sponsored by Apple Music. Did an artist’s success on Apple play a role in who was chosen? There’s no way to know.

What about each artist’s relationship with Rolling Stone? It’s not a stretch to say the list is probably biased, and there’s no context given for how RS made their decisions.

Some fans were indignant that songwriters like Jim Morrison, Warren Zevon, Pink Floyd, and John Mellencamp were left out.

Others questioned why R Kelly, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, or James Taylor were included. And why would Bob Marley be ranked higher than Brian Wilson?

It seems that their list was based on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, with some R&B artists thrown in — in other words, the same people who have always been featured in Rolling Stone.

There was no jazz represented, and no greats like Irving Berlin or George Gershwin. It’s as if today’s modern music is all that matters.

But that’s not true. All artists build on what has come before them.

Finally, the phrase “all time” is also controversial, because time moves on. Has nothing changed since this article was first published in 2015? Why didn’t the article feature anyone from before the modern rock era?

So don’t put too much weight on these lists. Instead, recognize them for what they really are — enticements to get people to buy magazines or click on links.

After all, the best songwriters aren’t always the most famous and vice versa.

Are the Best Songwriters the Most Famous?

There are some amazing lists of great songwriters but “best” is another general, subjective term.

Some fans might say, “Taylor Swift is my favorite songwriter of all time,” but others would say, “I don’t like Taylor Swift, so she can’t possibly be the best songwriter.”

Best will always be defined by personal taste.

But you can find many songwriters who have spent their lives creating amazing songs.

Start with the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Membership is voted on by other songwriters and industry people who really have a deep knowledge of both songs and the songwriting craft.

Sure, there are many amazing songwriters who never end up in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, but it’s a good place to start.

The Mark of Great Songs and Great Songwriters

best songwriters

A great song transcends both the time it’s written and its genre to become well-known and well-loved long after it’s fallen off the charts.

A truly great songwriter can write anything, including lyrics, melodies, and chord progressions, but they also have signature patterns they tend to rely on.

I study the greats to see the patterns they create and learn how they land hooks, how they support the hook, how they structure their songs, and more.

For example, it’s interesting to see how Tom Douglas lyrically plays to a hook. He thinks outside the box a little but he’s still commercial. His writing is like poetry — poetry everyone can understand.

Then there are writers like Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss. They deal with lofty, tough ideas but they use language in a beautiful way everyone can understand.

So when we study these peoples’ crafts, they’ve spent all the hours and learned how to write good songs. You can glean a lot of info just from going through a songwriter’s page on Spotify.

Listen to their songs and I guarantee you’ll hear a lot of their signature patterns. There’s inspiration there you can emulate.

Why Study the Greats?

My natural strength is melody, I’ve had to work at being a better lyricist — that’s typical for most songwriters. You’re either good at one or the other. Some people are amazing at both off the bat, but most of us have to study.

I have to study and I’m still studying. What I personally look for in my favorite songwriters is great rhyme schemes, cool internal rhymes, and how they structure a lyric or verse. I write country music, so I’m especially interested in great lyricists.

One of my favorite songwriters of all time is Tom Douglas. He has fewer radio hits, but the ones he has, like “The House That Built Me,” are fantastic.

He has a way of seeing something like the house you grew up in, tapping into that emotion, and transporting you back to your roots. Douglas makes it so relatable and palatable.

I got to write with him for the first time several years ago. We talked for hours before we even got down to writing.

Then he sat there in silence and wrote a whole verse. It was a good learning experience for me because I like to throw out ideas, and get everyone to say whatever they’re thinking.

It’s really smart to sit and think in silence. You can let your brain wander and get creative on its own.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share if you feel led to say something out loud, especially if it inspires someone to come up with another idea that can build on it, but I think it’s beneficial to be able to sit and work a part out on your own and present something that’s almost done.

It’s almost an older songwriter move. You don’t see a lot of younger songwriters doing this, but maybe as you get older, you learn that it takes more introspection to find the great lyric.

Advice for Songwriters For Using These Lists

So how should you approach these lists?

I suggest you study those people, and — a unique way to look at it — look at their favorite co-writers, as well. This can turn into a never-ending exercise in a good way. You’ll always be learning and studying.

On the GOAT lists, you’ll find people who didn’t have as big of a public personality but who are still unbelievable songwriters. They’ve just avoided the spotlight.

So look at these lists, research these names, and their co-writers, and I guarantee you’ll find hidden gems. You may never have heard their names, but you can fall in love with the songs they wrote.

13 Influential Songwriters You Need to Know

best songwriters

Instead of another “best of” list, here are some songwriters who may or may not be famous, but you should know anyway. These writers may have been ignored in the Rolling Stone list, but they likely influenced the folks who made it.

My Personal Favorites

1. Tom Douglas

Tom is one of the greatest lyricists, in my opinion.

A real estate broker who originally gave up on the Nashville scene before hitting it big with “Little Rock,” he’s written Top 10 Billboard Country hits for Tim McGraw, John Michael Montgomery, Martina McBride, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Collin Raye, and others.

2. Ashley Gorley

The dude can write it all, he’s a true master of the craft. He’s had 55 number one songs and over 300 cuts for artists like Thomas Rhett, Luke Bryan, Bon Jovi, Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and many others.

3. Josh Osborne

Josh was in town for 10 years before he even got a cut, now he’s one of the best country songwriters ever. He’s won multiple awards with cuts for Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton, Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt, and others.

4. Thomas Rhett

Thomas is one of the most inspired songwriters I’ve ever worked with. He’s an artist, but he writes on the road every weekend — he can’t get enough.

He’s inspiring to be around. He’s an amazing melody guy. He just knows his way around a song and it’s great to see someone at his level as an artist who’s still inspired to write songs.

5. Dan Smyers

Dan is on his way to being Nashville’s version of Max Martin in LA. He studies the craft and the greats, and Max is one of his heroes.

He notices those patterns in great songs and tries to replicate them in his own way. Dan is an amazing lyricist and melody person, which is good news for people who have good, but not great, voices.

Often we think, in order to come up with great melodies, you have to be an amazing singer, and that’s just not true.

A Few Greats to Get You Started

6. Duke Ellington

A lifelong composer, pianist, and jazz orchestra bandleader, Ellington wrote or collaborated on over 1000 compositions. He boasts the largest recorded personal jazz legacy and many of his pieces have become standards.

His players are recognized as some of the best jazz musicians who ever lived. He won a posthumous special Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1999, as well as 14 Grammys, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award, and many more.

7. Valerie Simpson

Valerie is half of the iconic Motown husband and wife songwriting, production, and performing team known as Ashford & Simpson.

She’s written for Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Luther Vandross, Quincy Jones, and Chaka Khan, among others.

Members of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the duo won numerous awards, including The Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award, the ASCAP Founders Award (their highest honor), and the Grammy Trustee Award.

After her husband passed in 2011, Simpson released a solo album featuring performances with Nina Simone and Roberta Flack.

8. John Lee Hooker

As a guitarist, singer, and songwriter, John Lee created his own rhythmic boogie style of blues.

He wrote many songs that are now considered blues standards, including “Boogie Chillen” and “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” inspiring many who came after him.

He is a member of both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, and won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award, among others.

9. Carole King

One of the most influential musicians of all time, Carole has written or co-written 118 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, many of them standards.

She’s released 25 solo albums, with Tapestry frequently considered one of the best albums of all time.

She’s won four Grammy awards, is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and is a two-time inductee in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.

10. Cole Porter

A songwriter and the composer of many of today’s top Broadway and film standards, Porter stands out among Broadway composers in that he wrote both lyrics and music.

An extremely prolific writer, he enjoyed a long, successful career, even after a horse riding injury crushed his legs and left him in lifelong pain.

He won a Tony award for Best Musical for Kiss Me, Kate, and was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame and the Great American Songbook Hall of Fame.

11. Joni Mitchell

Often called one of the greatest songwriters ever, Joni has made her mark on popular music, tapping into jazz, classical, pop, rock, and of course folk musical influences.

She is well-known for her unique open-chord playing style, which she developed out of necessity after suffering from weakness from polio as a child.

She’s won nine Grammys, Billboard’s Century Award, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award. Her album Blue is often listed among the best albums of all time.

12. Diane Warren

Diane is the first songwriter to have seven hits, all by different artists, on the Billboard singles chart at the same time. Peter Reichardt, EMI’s UK Chairman, called her “the most important songwriter in the world.”

She owns the rights to all her music through her publishing company, Realsongs. She’s won a Grammy, an Emmy, two Golden Globes, and three consecutive Billboard awards for Songwriter of the Year.

She’s been nominated for twelve Academy Awards. Diane is also in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. She released her own debut album in August, 2021.

13. George Gershwin

George is a composer and pianist whose works encompassed both popular and classical music, especially in film and musical theater. Some of his most famous orchestral pieces are Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris.

He also wrote jazz standards “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” and even an opera — Porgy and Bess — which featured the classic “Summertime.” He died young, at age 38, from a brain tumor, but not before writing music that would influence generations to come.

Want to Become a Great Songwriter?

If you take anything away from this post, know that a songwriter’s fame, fortune, or position on a GOAT list doesn’t mean much in the long run. Lists are meant to create conversation, controversy, and clicks.

Instead, use these lists to help you become a better songwriter.

Study the greats — and their co-writers.

Study the signature patterns they use, including their hooks, and how they support their hooks.

Dive into music you’ve never heard, even genres that you’re not writing currently, and take inspiration from everyone who’s come before.

Most of all, keep learning, and keep writing songs. Check out How to Write a Song as your guide to constantly honing your skills.