Where hit songs are concerned, catchy melodies are only half the battle – the other, oftentimes overlooked, leg-work is all in the songwriting.
They’re the lyrics that get stuck in our head and the mantras that can long outlive their creators.
It’s easier to notice bad songwriting than it is good, but when you do, it’s like finding a diamond in the rough. Songwriting is more than just stringing a few words together and hoping they fit the tune – it’s a careful dance that closely resembles poetry.
And like beloved poets, there are a few songwriters out there that are a cut well above the rest. Here are our top five.
If we’re going by numbers, American songwriter and musician Carole King has written or co-written more than 110 hits that charted on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1955 and 1999.
She got her start working alongside her then-husband Gerry Goffin, forming a legendary songwriting duo responsible for hits like ‘The Loco-Motion’, ‘One Fine Day’ and ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’. John Lennon was even rumoured to have said that his and Paul McCartney’s goal was to become the British version of the King-Goffin team.
When her marriage to Goffin dematerialised, King went on to record *Tapestry*, a Diamond-certified album that is still, to this day, one of the biggest selling albums of all time. On it were hits like ‘It’s Too Late’ and ‘I Feel the Earth Move’, plus ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ and ‘You’ve Got a Friend’, both of which would go onto be smash cover hits for Aretha Franklin and James Taylor respectively.
Over the course of her career, King has won four Grammy Awards, been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Needless to say, she’s certifiably the most successful female songwriter of the last 50 years.
Even if you’re not a Beatles’ fan, it’s hard to dispute Paul McCartney’s talent. He was the songwriting force behind Fab Four hits like ‘Helter Skelter’, ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Hey Jude’, not to mention the leader of the band Wings, for which he wrote six number one hits. His song ‘Yesterday’ alone has been covered by more than 2,000 artists.
In an interview with NPR, McCartney describes his songwriting process as being one in which his music and lyrics just sort of evolve naturally.
‘I’ve really never found a better system and that system is just playing the guitar and looking for something that suggests a melody and perhaps some words if you’re lucky. Then I just fiddle around with that and try and follow the trail, try and follow where it appears to be leading me.’
If a knighthood, two inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and 18 Grammy Awards are any indication of luck, we’d say he’s been pretty successful.
We’re counting this songwriting trio as a single entry on our best-of list because it’s not often this tour-de-force worked separately. Holland-Dozier-Holland was comprised of the Holland brothers, Brian and Eddie, and Lamont Dozier. Together, they were one of the primary songwriting forces behind Motown recording studios, a powerhouse in the soul and pop music industry.
Though the trio never performed their own creations, they were responsible for an incredible number of hits coming out of Motown in the 1960s. Together, they wrote ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’ and ‘Baby Love’ for the Supremes, ‘Heat Wave’ for Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)’ for the Four Tops.
At Motown headquarters, songs were only released if they won a popular vote by the studio’s board. If they weren’t a hit, they didn’t see the light of day, but Holland-Dozier-Holland were the team to beat.
Bob Dylan is one of those musical figures so influential that it’s almost difficult to imagine the world of music without him. His songs have the uncanny ability to transcend time and resonate across generations, his themes and sentiments often taken from hundreds of years ago and brought back into the spotlight.
Dylan saw success not only writing for himself but for others as well. His song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ was a smash for folk group Peter, Paul & Mary, while his own recordings ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ quickly became legendary.
But for an artist as prolific as Bob Dylan, he’s particularly modest about his skill set. In a rare interview with US television show 60 Minutes, he claimed that his early songs were ‘almost magically written’, and that even though he was a heavy hitter back then, ‘You can’t do something forever… I did it once, and I can do other things now. But I can’t do that’.
A 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature says otherwise, as do 11 Grammy Awards, a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama and inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Another of the Motown hit masters, Smokey Robinson was, according to Paul McCartney, ‘like God in our eyes’. Unlike Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson performed his songs both solo and as part of the Miracles, racking up more than a dozen top 20 hits in his career.
He got his start with the sixties hit ‘Shop Around’ before going on to write songs for other performers like Mary Wells’ ‘My Guy’ and ‘My Girl’ for the Temptations, plus a swath of tracks for Marvin Gaye. Then, as Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, he continued with tunes like ‘I Second That Emotion’.
He’s been called one of the best poets alive by Bob Dylan, his lyrics likened to their own short stories. A member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for his impact on pop music, Robinson is clearly a writer considered the cream of the crop.
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