Music is part of our everyday life, and we are pretty much wired to respond to it. History has seen musical prodigies such as Beethoven and Mozart entertaining kings and plebeians alike, and modern music, too, is filled with quite remarkable writers of music and lyrics. To rate the best songwriters is a near-impossible task, but there are a few who are legendary.
10 Paul McCartney
A total of 129 songs that McCarthy has written or co-written, including 32 songs with the Beatles, 21 with Wings, and 36 as a soloist or part of a duo/group, have charted on the UK Official Singles Chart since its inception in 1952. The most recent, in collaboration with Kanye West and Rihanna, made it to No. 18 on the charts in 2015. Of his songs, 33 have reached No. 1 in the UK, including “Mull of Kintyre” and “Ebony and Ivory.” McCartney also wrote songs with fellow Beatle John Lennon, which still holds the record for the most No. 1 songs on both the UK and U.S. charts.
Sir Paul McCartney was the first entertainer to broadcast live music to the International Space Station when he sang “Good Day Sunshine” and “English Tea” to astronauts Bill McArthur and Valery Tokarev on November 13, 2005.
9 Andrew Lloyd Webber
Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote 82 phenomenal compositions, which helped to revive British and American musical theater late in the 20th century. He collaborated with Tim Rice in productions such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1968) and Evita (1978). Several of his stage productions also made it to the silver screen. His controversial stage production Jesus Christ Superstar (starting in 1971) is the longest-running musical in British theatrical history.
He collected so many awards that he became one of the select few to earn himself an “EGOT” (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony). In 2019, he had five of his musicals running concurrently in London theaters.
8 John Lennon
John Lennon, the man responsible for the utopian song “Imagine,” had 32 U.S. No. 1 and 29 UK No. 1 hits—just slightly more than Paul McCarthy. As a band, The Beatles, consisting of Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, have had the most No. 1 hits in both the U.S. (19) and the UK (15) to date. Their debut album, Please Please Me (1963), remains the album with the most consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the UK albums chart—30 weeks. The band also still holds the record for the most weeks at No. 1 on both the U.S. (132 weeks) and UK charts (174 weeks).
On December 8, 1980, Lennon was shot and killed by Mark David Chapman, a disillusioned fan. Chapman was sentenced to 20 years to life and was denied parole 11 times. He is still in prison. Even as prolific Lennon was as a writer, imagine what else he could have done if his life hadn’t been cut short.
7 Benny Andersson
The two Bs of the ABBA phenomenon, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, wrote many songs, of which two reached No. 1 in the US and nine in the UK—where they topped the charts for 31 weeks non-consecutively. Their 1970s music is still being played on radio and TV fifty years on—even after ABBA split up in 1982 and their music faded into the background for a while.
Andersson and ABBA’s music saw a revival after the stage play Mama Mia! was launched on London’s West End in 1999 and on Broadway (New York) in 2001. This led to two star-studded films, once again cementing ABBA’s popularity.
Andersson released a solo instrumental album, Piano, in 2017. ABBA released a new album, Voyage, with 10 songs which topped the album charts in 18 countries in 2021. Indeed, amazing for a Swedish band winning the Eurovision song contest back in 1974!
Thank you for the Music, Mr. Andersson.
6 Bob Marley
Jamaican singer and songwriter Bob Marley introduced reggae to the American audience and showed that the genre had as much to offer as rock and roll. Marley used his lyrics, such as those from “Buffalo Soldier,” to protest third-world struggles and to uplift people in their difficult circumstances. Singer-songwriter Bono is quoted saying that he carries Marley’s “Redemption Song” with him to every meeting with politicians. In fact, it was Bono who inducted Marley into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Bob Marley’s lyrics weren’t limited to protest, though. He also wrote spiritual lyrics and beautiful love songs like “Is This Love?” He won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and inductions to the halls of fame of the Grammys, Black Music and Entertainment, and ASCAP Songwriters. Despite his death in 1981, his album Legend is the longest-charting album in the history of the Billboard Magazine Catalog Albums chart and is still the world’s bestselling reggae album.
The debate by fans on who was the best between Prince and Michael Jackson has always been a heated one. Prince—aka The Artist Formerly Known as Prince aka The Artist—was born Prince Rogers Nelson. He was a talented composer who could perform on almost all the instruments required in his recordings. Although Prince’s music started out with funk and soul—aiming for black audiences—it developed to include jazz-funk, heavy metal, hip-hop, and soulful ballads like “Purple Rain” (1984), one of his most beautiful songs. Prince’s prolific writing and creativeness didn’t fit with his record company’s policy of only releasing one album per year, so his songs often became hits performed by other bands—such as The Bangles singing “Manic Monday.”
It is believed that Prince wrote between 500 and 1500 songs, releasing more than 40 albums. Said album release policies were bypassed by changing record labels and using the internet to his advantage. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004—the year the well-accepted album Musicology was released. Prince died in 2016 from a drug overdose.
4 Leonard Cohen
Canadian Leonard Cohen was a novelist and poet before he was a singer. Compared to other great songwriters, he was never someone aiming to collect accolades. He was a lifelong seeker of “something higher.” While born a Jew, he tried out different spiritual paths and even became a Buddhist monk for a short time.
Cohen’s songs are iconic. “The Beautiful Suzanne” (1967) was a poem-turned-song apparently born from his friendship with a friend’s wife. “Hallelujah” (1984) took a while before it was introduced, as his record label thought it a disaster, but Bob Dylan and Jeff Buckley sang it, and the rest is history. The first version of “Lover, Lover, Lover” (1974) was spontaneously improvised when he performed for Israeli soldiers in the Sinai Desert during the Yom Kippur War. “Bird on a Wire” (1969) had its origins in his days when living in Hydra, a Greek island, with his lover, Marianne, who was the inspiration for his song, “So Long, Marianne.” Their story was told in a 2019 documentary, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love.
Did his restless spirit ever find its home? His later songs hinted that he died a man at shalom (peace) with himself and probably with his creator—as the words of one of his last songs, “You Want It Darker” (2016), indicated: “Hineini, I’m ready, my Lord.”
7 Ed Sheeran
He is not even twenty years in the music industry, yet Ed Sheeran has already collected a lifetime’s worth of accolades. He was accepted into the National Youth Music Theatre at age 15, received an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire), and had cameos and roles in numerous TV and film productions, such as Game of Thrones and Danny Boyle’s The Beatles-themed movie, Yesterday.
Sheeran has more than fifty songs sung by himself and others, such as Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, and One Direction, and already has six U.S. No. 1 and 12 UK No. 1 songs. He continues to top charts regularly worldwide.
He has been named the UK’s artist of the decade by the UK Official Charts Company after achieving a combined run of 12 number one singles and albums between 2010 and 2019—more than any other artist. In 2017, all 16 tracks of his album Divide debuted inside the Top 40 on the UK charts, forcing a change in rules limiting entries to three per lead artist.
Most of Sheeran’s albums are named after mathematical symbols. In explaining the equals (=) symbol (2021), he said: “I saw the symbol ‘equals’ as it symbolizes life, not just new life, it symbolizes life and whether that’s the end of life or start of life.” Sheeran will probably top the charts with intervals for definitively more than “1000 Nights.”
2 Max Martin
No man is an island, the saying goes, and this is where Karl Martin Sandberg, aka Max Martin, stands with his contributions to music. Very few might know his name, but everyone knows his music, as demonstrated in Ed Sheeran’s “I Don’t Care” (a duet with Bieber) and “Beautiful People” (featuring Khalid). Some of his other compositions include “That’s the Way It Is” (Céline Dion), “Baby One More Time” (Britney Spears), “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” (Justin Timberlake), “So What?” (Pink), “I Want It That Way” (Backstreet Boys), “Since U Been Gone” (Kelly Clarkson), and “All You Had to Do Was Stay” (Taylor Swift).
Since making his appearance in the lat’90s, the Swedish songwriter-producer has co-written 23 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hits—more than anyone else but John Lennon (26) and Paul McCartney (32).
Thirty of his songs are performed in the London West End show & Juliet —based on Shakespeare’s well-known play but twisting the plot with Juliet deciding not to kill herself. He is called the master of “hooks” with his belief that both the verse and the chorus must have them. He also has a reputation as being super-collaborative and moving with the times—probably the reason behind his success as Sesame Street’s musical director.
1 Bob Dylan
Often referred to as the Shakespeare of his generation, Bob Dylan is a songwriter and performer not easily equaled. A prolific writer, Dylan has rewritten history by becoming the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. He has written more than 500 recorded songs, which have been performed by more than 2,000 artists through the years. Also, he is a recognized painting artist who has had exhibitions worldwide.
Among Dylan’s other accolades include a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January 1988, a Golden Globe, an Oscar, and 10 Grammys.
In 2014, Simon & Schuster published his lyrics in book form, containing 960 pages and weighing a whopping 3.12 kilograms (13.5 pounds). By April 2019, Dylan and the Band had played in more than 3,000 shows with their Never Ending Tour. In December 2020, Universal Music Publishing Group announced that they had bought his entire song catalog.
Dylan was humbled by his Nobel win, and in his laureate lecture, he focused on the link between literature and songwriting, referencing three books having a great influence on his life—Moby-Dick (Herman Melville), All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque), and The Odyssey (Homer). His lecture ended with the words: “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”
Bob Dylan’s music will keep doing just that.