Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Paste's Top 100 Living Songwriters List

Various Internet music groups are abuzz over Paste's latest issue, which presumes to rank the Top 100 living songwriters. Most common comments: Where is John Lennon/Kurt Cobain/Johnny Cash? See, Paste, I told you that people would miss that little "living" disclaimer on the cover.

My favorite comment was from the guy who complained that the magazine has a bias against guys named Barry, noting that both Barry Gibb and Barry Manilow were missing from the list. It's true. Also Barry White and Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler. Where is the Barry love?


Andy W. Anderson, Ph.D Candidate said...

I was surprised that Ani DiFranco didn't make the editor's cut, but made the reader's list. Any inside info you could give on that (wink wink, nudge nudge)?

Andy Whitman said...

I believe it's an anti-Ani bias. First Barry, now Ani. And since it seems we're working backwards in the alphabet, we should expect to uncover a "Z" bias next. Speaking of which, where the hell was Warren Zevon in that list?

Andy Whitman said...

I know. Dead. But alive in our hearts and memories.

Anonymous said...

Well.... I was under the extremely mistaken impression that it was a critics top 100 -- not a reader's poll.

Teach me to actually read your posts, will ya?

As it is, since it was an internet poll and not actually either a critics list or a magazine buying, educated reader's poll, you had every indie band page out there asking their fans to write them in.

Been used before to pretty good effect and it's a great way to draw people onto the Paste site, but as I am sure you have said before, it is a total popularity contest.

I looked at the choices. Wonder who actually compiled the list? Some of them with out a doubt belonged, and some were just plain ridiculous. Are you partially to blame, Andy?

After reading thru it, the list could and should have been a lot shorter. Like a top 20, maybe.

Are you partially to blame, Andy?

Andy Whitman said...

I am partially to blame for everything, including voting in the Paste Music Critics poll for the Top 100 Living Songwriters. I am also partially to blame for inflation, consumer debt, the war in Iraq, abortion on demand, the erosion of the Christian consensus in America, and Pat Robertson. Bring it on.

The long article in the magazine reflected the order of the compiled Music Critics' list. But Paste also published the results of their readers' poll. There was some overlap, and there were some discrepancies, as you might expect. As Andy noted above, Ani DiFranco was represented on the Readers' poll, but not in the Critics' list.

I am only partially to blame, but I am wholly to blame for any of the ridiculous choices. Interestingly, since the ridiculous choices vary from reader to reader, I will simply assume blame for all choices and make everyone's job easier in the process.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I'll inform you know who.

mommy zabs said...

sounds like a good list to check out- so I will :)
reminds me of this... last year 97.1 had a "top 500 singles of all time" and not one brian wilson or beach boys song was on there... didn't they birth the surf/punk movement?

Anonymous said...


was barry macguire on the list?

nikkip said...

my first thought was barry williams during his musical days of the brady bunch.

KarlandBethany said...
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KarlandBethany said...

I haven't seen the article yet, but I'm guessing that Barry Gordy has had some type of influance on at least one of the top 100.

Andy Whitman said...

Barry Gordy isn't a songwriter, and this is a list of the Top 100 Living Songwriters. Well, actually he wrote a couple of the very early Motown hits, but it's like wondering why Bill Gates isn't in a list of the World's Greatest Computer Programmers.

Anonymous said...


you are taking credit for alot of things. can you take credit for the jesus pan?


as far as your list goes, did "they might be giants" make the list. i hope so. just as long as toad the wet sproket did not get there.


Andy Whitman said...

I've also noticed that Barry Bonds is missing from this list. I know he doesn't write songs, either. But he could probably pick up some Songwriting Enhancement Software somewhere and crack the Top 10 in no time if he set his mind to it.

Andy W. Anderson, Ph.D Candidate said...

You know... you're right! That's what's missing in my bass playing. The magic of "The Cream" and "The Clear". Okay then... just wait until next week... you just might think John Entwhisle is on stage playing those sweet sweet bass licks you hear.

woodsmeister said...

I got the magazine this week and am befuddled by the relatively low placement of Bruce Cockburn (#77) and Richard Thompson (#63), and the Top 20 placement of Patti Griffin (#19) in the critics poll. Patti Griffin is a fine songwriter, but I'm not convinced she's better than Van Morrison (#20) or John Prine (#30) or Steve Earle (#35)

Overall, I think that there are some critics' darlings (Griffin, Jack White, the guy from Iron and Wine, Conor Oberst, Vic Chesnutt) that were overrated relative to folks like Cockburn and Thompson, and for that matter John Prine.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree with Woodsmeister.

My admiration and respect for those who know more than I (music critics) has taken a big hit.

Griffin, Chesnutt, et al, don't belong on the same list with Cockburn, Prine and Thompson.

I've seen both Patty and Vic live, and while she comes across as competent (too many of the songs sound alike), he was/is uncomfortable to listen to; disjointed, almost painful (nothing to do with his disablilty).

Seems to me that in some instances, body of work was almost completely ignored in favor of the flavor of the day.

Mark K. said...

Warren Zevon is dead? Under what circumstances?

Andy Whitman said...

I think several things.

1) Everybody's a critic of a critic.
2) This is not an exact science. Paste has a bias that is skewed toward the demographic that reads the magazine. So does every other magazine. This is because they want to sell magazines and stay in business.
3) The "flavors of the day" -- at least the ones mentioned here (Vic Chenutt and Patti Griffin) have been exuding flavorful albums for, respectively, 17 and 11 years. They're not exactly flashes in the pan.

I think it's fair to say that a list of the best songwriters that appears in Paste Magazine might look different from a similar list in Rolling Stone or Blender. Most magazines, Paste included, are catering to a particular demographic niche. I think Paste's niche is broader than most, but it's certainly not all-inclusive.

In terms of evaluation criteria, there is no objective checklist that one can rattle off to capture all the qualities that contribute to great songwriting. In fact, rather than trying to analyze the various components of great songwriting, and how that list might or might not be deficient in terms of those components, it seems to me that a better way to view it is as a series of short essays on songwriters who have explored all the nooks and crannies of the human experience, and who have expressed their findings in musically and lyrically evocative ways.

The natural tendency is to pick apart these lists. How could you leave off Vanilla Ice? Or Vanilla Fudge? Or Milli Vanilli? I once knew a guy who wouldn't come out of his basement, and he would only play for his mom and two of his friends, but he's the best songwriter in the world, and he didn't even make your list. What's wrong with you? Yada yada yada.

But look at the embarrassment of riches here. If people don't know much about contemporary music, and they simply listen to the two or three recommended songs from each one of the 100 artists listed, they will have been exposed to magnificent music. You can bank on that, whatever other evaluation criteria you want to use. And that's all this is. It's a bunch of opinionated people who are excited to share about the music that moves them and helps them carry on through a succession of mundane days. They're sharing life. Sometimes I think people miss that.

Andy Whitman said...

Mark, Warren Zevon died from complications associated with lung cancer in September, 2003.

Andy Whitman said...

I wrote an appreciation of Warren Zevon that appeared in Paste a month or so after he died. This is it.


The recently deceased Warren Zevon once told an interviewer, "If you're lucky, people like something you do early and something you do just before you
drop dead." So I suppose in a perverse way only he could appreciate, Zevon was lucky as hell. His early hit "Werewolves of London" is a classic rock staple. And his latest CD, The Wind, currently holds a spot in Billboard's Top 20, his
first massively popular album in 25 years. Certainly, hell was exactly what he got for all his good fortune: The Wind is a gripping, sometimes harrowing
chronicle of a man dying of lung cancer, settling his accounts in song, raging against the dying of the light, and finding scraps of humor in the wreckage.

Then again, that represented Zevon's entire career. With the possible exception of Johnny Cash, another desperado, no contemporary songwriter has poked and prodded at death from so many angles, exhumed the skeletons of nameless fear and dread, faced down the Grim Reaper and spit in his eye with such obvious relish and malice. "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" was the title of one of his early party anthems. But a wizened Zevon wasn't quite so flippant 20 years down the rockiest of roads. "Life'll Kill Ya," Zevon proclaimed in
his 2000 masterpiece of the same name, and then proved it on September 7, 2003. Damn. He didn't have to make the point quite so graphically.

Like many others of a certain age, I only encountered Warren Zevon early and late. His 1976 eponymous debut unfolded like a greatest hits album, and featured one stunning song after another. He followed that up with the
slightly more uneven but equally bracing Excitable Boy, which featured songs about headless mercenaries, gun runners, rapists and -of course- well-groomed
werewolves who had a serious jones for Chinese takeout. But that was the commercial high point, and the subsequent albums were critically praised but increasingly uneven. Somewhere in the early '80's, I lost track. It's my loss, as I've recently discovered. Zevon never really stopped making great music; he just fell off my radar screen.

Somewhere in there was a life, and it was anything but a quiet and normal one. Zevon announced early on that his goal was to drink up all the salty
margaritas in Los Angeles, and he passed his own private bar exam with flying colors. Alcoholism, heroin addiction, detox facilities and two failed marriages were part of the package, along with a couple kids and enough regrets
to fill several lifetimes. Clean and sober after the early '80's, Zevon spent the rest of his life making albums not many people heard and being the parent
that he had never been before. His son, Jordan, and his daughter, Ariel - healthy, whole and grieving for their father - are stark testimony to how well he succeeded.

In the middle - that 20-year gap I'm now trying to fill in - are plenty of signposts along the way pointing to the man Zevon became. He could be withering, but now he turned his most poisonous barbs on himself:

I can saw a woman in two
But you won't want to look in the box when I do
I can make love disappear
For my next trick I'll need a volunteer

It's funny, it's sad, it's gruesome, and far more self-revelatory than he probably intended. It's also what made him great.

Listening to The Wind, you shake your head in wonder. You realize you're dealing with a man who willed himself to stay alive so he could try to make one
last album - his best album. And did. The VH1 documentary that captured Zevon during the recording sessions for The Wind - that found him wrestling with that
unnamable fear and dread - was funny and sad and gruesome and self-revelatory as well. In a rare moment when he let down his guard, the camera found Zevon
dumbfounded by fans who congratulated him on his bravery for refusing medical treatment, as if a death sentence of inoperable cancer was a badge of honor.
"You know," he said, smiling ruefully, "I think it's a sin to not want to live." I love him for that. The doctors gave him three months, but he lived for 13, really lived, recording that one last grand statement, saying goodbye to family and friends, holding his newborn twin grandsons in his arms. The VH1 cameras weren't permitted to accompany him to the hospital when he visited
Ariel in the delivery room. Thank God there are still some occasions for which even reality TV isn't ready.

So what do you do with this wiseass jerk, this astoundingly gifted, frustrating, irascible, lovable man who may have learned wisdom a little too late? You wish him Godspeed and bon voyage. You pray that he found a measure
of peace. In the end, on the last song on The Wind, the most sarcastic, least sentimental songwriter in the universe turns on the emotion:

Shadows have fallen
And I'm blind out of breath
Keep me in your heart for a while

When you get up in the morning
And you see a crazy sun
Keep me in your heart for a while

There's a train leaving nightly
Called it's all said and done
Keep me in your heart for a while

It's a fairly modest request from a man whose music enriched your life, so you do. You listen to the debut album and you remember why Warren Zevon was great,
and you listen to The Wind and remember all over again. Your heart bears witness to a nameless ache, and you carry him around for a good, long while.

KarlandBethany said...

Just saying that Barry Gordy is a Barry that might be connected with songwriters and in some odd way might compensate for the lack of other Barrys.

woodsmeister said...

I just looked Vic Chesnutt up on AMG - I did not realize that he had been recording that long, and I gracefully accept correction. I realize this is all pretty subjective - I guess I have not been that impressed with the little Vic Chesnutt I have heard, so maybe I've not heard the right stuff.

For the most part I think Paste managed to do a very credible job. It's a great discussion starter and a way to introduce people to a list of outstanding songwriters.

I think it goes without saying that my personal list would be substantially different from the Paste list, simply because of my taste and the music that I've been exposed to (for example, Terry Scott Taylor would be in my Top 20, as would Bruce Cockburn and Richard Thompson). I wouldn't expect TST to be in the Paste Top 100 for obvious reasons, but I guess I thought my taste generally aligned better with what I had read in Paste than it is proving to.

Andy Whitman said...

I understand, Greg, and I have a similar list of grievances with the list. Bruce Cockburn and Richard Thompson would be much higher on the Andy Whitman Top 100 Living Songwriters list than they are on the Paste list. The person who would actually be #2 on my list -- Joe Henry -- is nowhere in the Top 100. Neither is Peter Gabriel, who would easily be in my Top 50, both for his work in Genesis and for his solo albums. Neither is John Samson of The Weakerthans. Neither is Mary Gauthier, Gary Louris, Matthew Sweet, or Todd Rundgren.

I also struggle with some of the people who *are* on the list. Conor Oberst, Mr. Bright Eyes himself, is, IMO, whiney, self-absorbed, not very poetic, in need of a good editor, and sings like a sheep with human voice implants. Neil Young at #2? No way. He certainly deserves to appear somewhere on that list, but this is a man who two years ago seriously released a concept album that that included references to Grandpa, who killed a DEA agent when he came snooping around the ol' homestead, and someone named Rainbow Earth, who chained herself to a wall and shouted positive things about marijuana through a megaphone. Classic songwriting there. He's made some great albums, and he's made some absolute stinkers.

The thing is, I'm sure that everyone would have similar lists of missing greats and overrated artists. The Paste list is a composite based on the rankings of 100 music critics, other writers, filmmakers, and musicians. The people who voted in the poll are the one who wrote about the artists in the magazine. So the end result is probably a fairly representative view of Paste's readership. I do know this: it is impossible to carry out this activity in such a way that everybody agrees with you. In fact, I'd say that it's impossible to carry it out in such a way that *anybody* agrees with you, at least to the full extent.

That's the fun (?) of these lists. People want to enshrine their own opinions as absolute truth, and then get offended when the rest of the world doesn't agree. And I'm guilty of that myself, of course. But overall, I really think the Paste list is about as balanced and reasonable as could possibly be expected. They cover a wide variety of music from a wide variety of musical eras, and they make sure that the obvious bases (e.g., Dylan) are covered while still interjecting their own demographic biases (e.g. Bill Mallonee, David Bazan, etc.)

But it sure raises a ruckus, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

OK. Why don't we just rate them by the influence/impact they have had on other songwriters. That would put ol' Neil back up there at least at #3 behind Dylan and Springsteen.

Anyway, I'll let the numbers make my critics arguement for me. In fact, I'll just use the numbers already mentioned.

Bruce Cockburn (#77)
Richard Thompson (#63)
Van Morrison (#20)
John Prine (#30)
Steve Earle (#35)

Patti Griffin (#19)?????

As a comparison (even though she is an excellent songwriter), it is a "flavor of the month".

You mentioned that Paste taste is "broader than most, but certainly not all inclusive."

Come on, Andy. You can't put this on "demographic niche". It's not the readers, it's a "top 100" critics poll.

"...It's a bunch of opinionated people who are excited to share about the music that moves them...."

They might be "sharing life", but they are also "critics" sharing "professional" opinions.

In this case, can you say that in your opinion the poll was correct?

Anyway, you're getting plenty of discussion, which is Paste's (and presumably your) goal.

John McCollum said...

My lame and cursory reaction to the list:

I like Patti Griffin.

And, I also like to mispronounce Bruce Cockburn's name. That's fun, too.

Glad to see the ol' CCM crowd represented with Bill Mallonee, Julie Miller and Leslie Philips.

Elvis Costello is a paradox, both blowing and sucking at the same time.

Andy, the list is nice. I knew at least 70 percent of the people on it. Don't take no shit from nobody. Not even Beck-ler.

John McCollum said...

I am, however, mystified that Elvis Presley didn't make it...

John McCollum said...
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Anonymous said...

Yeah. I've been meaning to get a Bruce Cockburn bumper sticker for some time now. With the last name in CAPS. Go good in the church parking lot.

Andy, I'm just an opinionated ****. (My way of apologizing.)

Anyway, I'm not bitching about Gorka not making it. (Bitch, bitch, bitch.)

Mark K. said...

Indeed, thanks for the Zevon info.

Anonymous said...

This list was heavily skewed toward acts that could be labelled Americana - and less than 20% are non-American songwriters. It's a crap list to be honest..

Where's PJ Harvey? Peter Gabriel? Sonic Youth? Frank Black? And on and on.. Yet somehow the guy from vastly influential Mountain Goats made the list (and yes I like them - but should they have beat Peter Garbriel?)

It's crap - it's americana music fans talking to themselves while catering to somne of the larger music cults so they wont receive death threats.

Crap I say.

Andy Whitman said...

You know what else is crap?

People who snipe and kvetch and bitch, and then don't have the common courtesy to identify themselves, preferring to hide behind the cloak of anonymity.

Crap I say.