Friday, December 2, 2011

And the Winner Is . . .

A friend and former student of mine just posed a question on Facebook: Who is the best songwriter of the last twenty years?

I've been thinking about this for three days and it's difficult to say -- not because I haven't liked any songs in the last twenty years, but because I'm not sure that I can think of a lot of actual songwriters who have written over that period, outside of the established ones (like Elton John, who is doing some of his best work ever, even though there is not a lot of buzz about it).

What it comes down to, for me, is that there are three kinds of people who put together songs.

First, there are the classic "songwriters" -- those who craft melody, harmony and lyric onto a song that stands on its own, outside of studio production; just a piano and voice could deliver the full package. Writers who fall into this category would be people like George and Ira Gershwin, Rogers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Webb, Billy Joel, Elton John, James Taylor, Carol King, etc.

Second, there are "song sculptors" -- people who craft basic songs, usually as a vehicle for what they want to say, lyrically, and then who experiment in the studio to create a song that might be an astounding sonic experience, but might sound flat if reduced to voice and accompaniment. Many times, for me, bands who write together fall into this mix -- bands like U2 or Coldplay -- or solo artists like Peter Gabriel and Sting (in some of his work).

Finally, there are the "riff-writers." Usually, these are writers who see songs as more of a vehicle for musicianship. Dave Matthews falls into this category for me, as do bands like Led Zeppelin. Most bands fall into the riff-writing category. (This, by the way, is usually perceived as the most hip of the categories. I would argue that the truly hip is often the most uncool . . .)

I won't say one is superior to the other approach -- I like plenty of "sculpted" songs and I have enjoyed the work of "riff-writers" and so-called "jam bands." To each, his own opinion, but, for me, you can't beat a pure song, written by an actual songwriter.

So, emerging over the last twenty years -- and in terms of what I see as "songwriters," who's the best? Well, when John Mayer and Jason Mraz came out, I thought we were going to see a resurgence in the singer-songwriter, but, for me, Mayer moved a little into the sculpting end and Mraz just got too goofy. However, I was, later, pleasantly surprised by the emergence of two young piano-playing songwriters: Sara Bareillis and Jon McLaughlin. In the end, I think they're pretty even. I'll give them a tie for the best songwriters to emerge in the last twenty years. One of the things I like best about these two young somgwriters is their obvious respect for -- and understanding of -- the work of those who went before them. Here are two selections from each -- one soft and sweet and one upbeat from each of them. See what you think . . .

Sara, soft and sweet -- "Gravity":

Sara, upbeat -- "Fairytale" (great lyrics and a cool nod to the old "swing" feel):

Jon McLaughlin, soft and sweet -- "Indiana" (I love the traditional feel of this song and I think the lyrics are beautiful -- and beautifully married to the music):

Here is a more upbeat one from Jon -- cool use of odd time signatures, too:

I dunno -- you decide. But, over the last 20 years, I'd vote for these two.

(UPDATE: Just listened to these again -- I think Jon wins. He has a more interesting harmonic concept. That is all.)


  1. I like the breakdown of songwriters here, I would have to agree. I feel like there has been a decline is songwriting in the past twenty years, not that I don't like the riff writers and what not, but I miss story tellers in the music. Some bands that I have found lately that are impressive are the Civil Wars, and Blue October.

    What annoys me is that some music, especially played on top 40 radio has become so shallow. There is a vacancy in depth on these stations, and honestly it annoys me. I mean I enjoy a stupid song every once in a while, its fun and stops you from thinking, but what about songs that make you explore yourself?

    I feel you made a scathing oversight in leaving out Harry Chapin somewhere in this post though. Possibly the greatest story telling songwriter in the history of music, as well as humanitarian and lost too soon. Just saying.


  2. I also thought about this quite a bit when I saw his facebook status, and my personal favorite songwriter of the bunch is Josh Ritter; he started as someone who composed standalone songs (with voice and guitar) and all of his songs still can, but some of his studio music has begun to fall into the sculpted sound category.

    I also have a fondness for Andrew Bird (quirky songs lyrically, but often thought-provoking, and utterly fascinating melodies - he's a classically trained violinist and a pitch-perfect whistler).

    I like Bareilles and don't know much of Mclaughlin's music. I'll have to check him out.

  3. Chapin was cool -- but not in the last 20 years, Papi. I -- personal opinion here -- don't think I would put him in a class with the ones I mentioned, but, so it goes. And remember: shallow music has always been around. The good stuff rises to the top.

    seedsider: (should I switch form your real name?) --thanks for the recs -- I will definitely check therse guys out!