It’s easy to dismiss Rolling Stone magazine’s latest listicle, “The 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.” Like its “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” editions, it’s characterized by what it’s not: in this case, a list of the 100 greatest songwriters of all time. But should we shun it?
As it appears on the magazine’s website, the Rolling Stone list omits Thom Bell, Bobby Braddock, Kate Bush, David Byrne, Nick Cave, Ray Charles, PJ Harvey, Harlan Howard, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Laura Marling, Jimmie Rodgers, Sufjan Stevens – and any composer of jazz, electronica, early R&B, show tunes , light opera or songs without words. If the writer isn’t American, British or Canadian, forget it – unless he’s Bob Marley, who is posted as the 11 th greatest songwriter. The list ranks Lucinda Williams at 79th and Tom Waits at 55th, behind Stevie Nicks and the Notorious B.I.G. Willie Dixon and Willie Nelson fail to crack the top 50, but Pete Townsend and Neil Young do. The highest-ranked composer who is still highly productive is Max Martin in the 41st position. (Martin wrote or co-wrote 21 number-one hits for the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Maroon 5, Katy Perry, Pink, Britney Spears and Taylor Swift.) Many signs point toward turning and walking away from Rolling Stone’s list
But it’s worth investigating. Unlike its greatest-albums roll call, “The Greatest Songwriters of All Time” list isn’t governed entirely by generational bias. Rock-and-pop bias, yes. Geographical bias, sure. Gee Beeism? Not as much as we might expect. Whereas the albums’ rankings have been dedicated to praising ‘60s and ‘70s recordings – in 2012, the magazine declared that 59 percent of rock and pop’s greatest albums were recorded and released in those two decades, and only eight percent were made in the 21 st century – the greatest songwriters’ list covers a lot of ground. Accordingly, despite its silly premise that composers can be ranked in an objective manner, it has value.
Were you a hip-hop fan you would find some of your favorites placed alongside great songwriting partnerships like Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, and Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson, among others. Rock fans in search of their old favorites will come across hip-hop writers like Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Kanye West – praised here by Paul McCartney, who is ranked behind only Bob Dylan on the list – and the aforementioned Biggie. Country fans will be delighted to see Tom T. Hall, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton on the list, even if Rolling Stone thinks their primary contribution to popular music is that they influenced rock groups.
Included in each capsule summary of the songwriters’ careers are the titles of their best-known compositions and the artists who recorded them. Evidence of quality is a click away via a streaming service or YouTube. (Rolling Stone prefers we use Apple Music.) Fans can judge immediately if the composers are worthy of such celebration. In its own fumbling way, “The 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time” feature allows us to learn more about great rock-and-pop composers, even if they wouldn’t necessary appear on a more democratic and less commercially minded list.
But much like a scorpion that kills a frog taking it across a river, Rolling Stone can’t help its true nature. Songwriters who broke through in the ‘60s and ‘70s dominate the top of the list: Dylan, McCartney, John Lennon, Smokey Robinson, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Carole King and Gerry Coffin, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder. (Chuck Berry is ranked as the fourth greatest songwriter. He had his first hits in the '50s.) Robert Johnson is ranked as less great than Van Morrison. Burt Bacharach and Hal David are listed after Elvis Costello. It’s safe to say that even Morrison and Costello might quarrel with those assessments.
But if there’s much to quibble about, it’s an injustice to call the latest Rolling Stone special merely less dumb than previous ones. Rare in media are tributes to songwriters and here is one that reaches far and wide, if not far and wide enough. Thus, it is worthy of exploration and perhaps even modest applause.