Poems I can, like, sing to!
August 11, 2012 3:37 PM   Subscribe

Who are the best lyricists in your favorite genre of music?

Nothing hooks me harder on a band than a good turn of phrase. I love good production but some solid bands have lyrics so bad that I can't listen to them without feeling uncomfortable.

So recommend me the best lyricists in your genre. Bluegrass, rap-metal, prog-punk, Russian opera, I don't care (though if it's a foreign group I'd love a link to some translation!). Vocalists who know how to enunciate are a plus, but I have a love for some pretty damn challenging singers, so even if your fave is practically unintelligible, if the words are good I'd love a listen.
posted by Rory Marinich to Media & Arts (67 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I was recently introduced to Guy Clark, in the genre that adopted me — country, in spite of the fact I know so little about it.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 3:47 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Dan Bejar of Destroyer
Josh Ritter
posted by carsonb at 3:56 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Stephen Sondheim, for musicals, no question. There are literally whole books devoted to his lyrics.

But there are a lot of really good lyricists in musical theater. Cole Porter, Dorothy Fields, Alan J. Lerner, Yip Harburg, Carolyn Leigh, David Yazbek, Jason Robert Brown, Oscar Hammerstein. Many, many others. If you like great lyrics, musicals is the place to be.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 4:07 PM on August 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

P.J. Harvey, The National, Arcade Fire are some indie rock favorites.
posted by dysh at 4:12 PM on August 11, 2012

In the sort of pop-folk realm, I like how Chris Trapper, Eddie From Ohio, and Girlyman evoke scenes.
posted by knile at 4:14 PM on August 11, 2012

There are so so many (like you, lyricism is what draws me in), but whenever anyone asks this question I immediately think of Will Scheff (sp?) of Okkervil River.

For rap, jay z and eminem are the immediate answers.
posted by broadway bill at 4:17 PM on August 11, 2012

As boring as I find their music to be, I love the lyrics of Gord Downie & the Tragically Hip just for how much it has taught me on the history of my country.,
posted by mannequito at 4:25 PM on August 11, 2012

Tim Rutili (Califone): Bottles & Bones (lyrics), Vampiring Again (lyrics), Funeral Singers (lyrics)

Neil Finn (Crowded House, solo, etc.): Distant Sun, Into Temptation, The Climber, Try Whistling This, Last Day of June
posted by scody at 4:26 PM on August 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Joni Mitchell
John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats
Colin Meloy from The Decemberists
Antony Hegarty from Antony and the Johnsons
posted by mattoxic at 4:27 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

oh, Mark Everett from the Eels
posted by mattoxic at 4:28 PM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Not really a great enunciator, but that's part of the charm: Chris Whitley.
posted by chocolatepeanutbuttercup at 4:35 PM on August 11, 2012

Elvis Costello, 1978-1986ish
posted by Beardman at 4:55 PM on August 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

John K. Samson from The Weakerthans
Ted Leo
posted by timesarrow at 4:58 PM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

John Prine. Deceptively simple lyrics deployed with lapidary precision and zero excess verbiage.

Mike Cooley of Drive-By Truckers has a knack for turning a stunning phrase, too. "Totally screwed, while chicken-wing puke eats the candy-apple red off his Corvette" -- that's genius. And "I been falling so long it feels like gravity's gone and I'm just floatin'."

Former Trucker Jason Isbell is a mighty fine songwriter, too, with a Southern storyteller's eye for detail. "Dress Blues" is the best song yet written about the Bush Wars. In describing a high school gymnasium filled with mourners for a dead Marine, he tosses off the line "drinking sweet tea from Styrofoam cups" that makes me well up with tears every time I hear it, it's so accurate and truthful. He also wrote the song "Outfit", which is a struggling father's advice to his rock star son: "Have fun but stay clear of the needle. Call home on your sister's birthday. Don't tell 'em you're bigger than Jesus: don't give it away."
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:05 PM on August 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

Florence and the Machine, Elbow. Oh, and Elbow again.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 5:08 PM on August 11, 2012

I just happen to be listening to Cole Porter right at this moment, so I'm going to have to mention him. Lucinda Williams writes some devastatingly beautiful song-poems. Paul Kelly (Aussie singer-songwriter) is another great lyrical story-teller. If you happen to speak French, Richard Desjardins (Quebecois) is another who is as much a poet as a lyricist. And while I'm in Quebec I could also mention Leonard Cohen--but I guess he goes without saying.
posted by yoink at 5:12 PM on August 11, 2012

John Mayer.
posted by stroke_count at 5:12 PM on August 11, 2012

Chris Difford & Glenn Tilbrook are best known from their Squeeze days (early 80s). Chris was a great storyteller & lyricist. Glenn did most of the enunciating - and made it sound easy - which I thought was amazing given the complexity of the lyrics.
posted by kbar1 at 5:17 PM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Joanna Newsom!
posted by threeants at 5:24 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Elvis Costello, and adding Ani DiFranco.
posted by kristi at 5:32 PM on August 11, 2012

Seconding BOP's mention of Isbell and Cooley, and adding Patterson Hood, also of DBT.

Also, James Mcmurtry and Todd Snider deserve mention here. Snider is often too focused on humor, but he's an outstanding lyricist and storyteller.
posted by broadway bill at 5:33 PM on August 11, 2012

I'll second John Darnielle and Sufjan Stevens.

Gabriel Kahane, who sometimes collaborates with Sufjan, consistently blows me away. Craigslistlieder, which he did not write but did set to music, are hilarious.

Sharon Van Etten is good too.
posted by mlle valentine at 5:34 PM on August 11, 2012

And Paul Simon is one of the all-time best.
posted by mlle valentine at 5:34 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, also, Ben Folds does some amazing lyric writing. Nick Hornby wrote an appreciation of Smoke in his Songbook.

(Also seconding Sondheim, who is brilliant.)
posted by kristi at 5:35 PM on August 11, 2012

I'll go for some low hanging fruit-

Bob Dylan
Nick Cave
Tom Waits
posted by brevator at 5:55 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Francesco de Gregori. Some lyrics
Paolo Conte. Some lyrics
Of course also Nick Drake
And frankly, Fountains of Wayne when they get it right have got some serious concise wit going on.
posted by BWA at 6:15 PM on August 11, 2012

Stephin Merritt (The Magnetic Fields, The 6ths)
Bill Callahan (Smog)
Robyn Hitchcock
posted by hydrophonic at 6:27 PM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding Tom Waits. Big Time.
posted by sidi hamet at 6:58 PM on August 11, 2012

Merle Haggard.
posted by spitbull at 7:06 PM on August 11, 2012

And for real, no one has mentioned Townes Van Zandt?
posted by spitbull at 7:09 PM on August 11, 2012

I came in to Elvis Costello, although I'd say all years--he's still writing brilliant lyrics. I think of him as the Nabokov of lyricists. Yes Tom Waits!
posted by smirkette at 7:19 PM on August 11, 2012

Oh, and I forgot Meshell Ndegeocello! Awesome lyrics, mind blowing bass.
posted by smirkette at 7:21 PM on August 11, 2012

"Elvis Costello, 1978-1986ish"


Because not 20 minutes ago, I was thinking about how AMAZING his 2002 album, When I Was Cruel is, specifically the lyrics!

(Erm... I was practicing what I might say, should I maybe maybe maybe run into him at an upcoming event in a few weeks. Not that that is going to happen. But he's probably the one person I'd like to have something clever to say to, if I ever had the chance;)

Brutal Youth (1994) was waaaay better than Blood And Chocolate (1986), IMHO.

Siouxsie Sioux, on The Banshees first 4 or 5 records. Cities In Dust is written about Pompeii. (I know!)

I learned many SAT words from Siouxsie, also history and politics.

All the lyrics on Things To Make And Do, every song, and the structure of the record overall - Moloko.

Earlier, their dance single Fun For Me - which has been well and endlessly remixed - for good reason.

(Roisin Murphy, not as great after Moloko broke up. *sads*)

Tori Amos, if you like that.



Cole Porter already has strong mentions, above. I love singing those songs!


I love David Bowie's writing, and how incredibly prolific he is, how many genres and eras he spans. Elvis Costello does same.

I'm a fan of Brittney Bouchard, she's up and coming on the music scene right now - great lyricist!

Steely Dan. Steely Dan. Steely Dan.

Even though many of the lyrics on their last album Everything Must Go betrayed them as a bit old... SO Effing GOOD. From their first album Can't Buy a Thrill, all the way to the end - flawless.


On an interesting side note. I left off both Hall and Oates, and John Lennon off of my list - but they're all brilliant.

Hall and Oates collaborated with EC back in the day. EC collaborated with Paul McCartney, back in the day.

The story goes (and I can't find a cite) that I guess John Lennon wasn't all that impressed with EC, and apparently EC is quoted as saying that John Lennon didn't think it all through.

I found that an interesting commentary on their musical styles, both are very political in their lyrics, both have taught me a lot.

So that's that.
posted by jbenben at 7:29 PM on August 11, 2012

Early Paul Simon.

Especially a little known tune called, "Stranded in a Limousine."
posted by jbenben at 7:32 PM on August 11, 2012

Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia
Spencer Krug of Sunset Rubdown

Good question!
posted by yaymukund at 7:33 PM on August 11, 2012

Nthing John Darnielle, John K Samson and Ted Leo.

Throwing into the pot with John Vanderslice and Andy Partridge from XTC.
posted by bibliogrrl at 7:47 PM on August 11, 2012

I've just been listening to Ruben Blades, and am continually amazed at his lyrics. The link has a few of his songs in Spanish and in English.
posted by gteffertz at 8:27 PM on August 11, 2012

Andy Partridge (XTC) is absolutely amazing.
posted by she's not there at 8:28 PM on August 11, 2012

...which, I see, bibliogrrl already noted.
posted by she's not there at 8:32 PM on August 11, 2012

Alright, lets try that link again: Ruben Blades.
posted by gteffertz at 8:38 PM on August 11, 2012

Adam Duritz of Counting Crows
posted by NoraCharles at 8:38 PM on August 11, 2012

I seem to be brain dead tonight. Ruben Blades.
posted by gteffertz at 8:40 PM on August 11, 2012

Munly Munly (or Jay Munly) with Munly and the Lee Lewis Harlots, Jay Munly and the Lupercalians and Slim Cessna's Auto Club.
Big Black Bull Comes Like a Caesar by Munly and the Lee Lewis Harlots
Goose Walking Over My Grave by Munly and the Lee Lewis Harlots
Jacob Dumb by Munly and the Lee Lewis Harlots
Jesus is in My Body, My Body has Let Me Down by Slim Cessna's Auto Club
Hold My Head by Slim Cessna's Auto Club
The Three Wise Hunters from Petr and the Wulf by Jay Munly and the Lupercalians
posted by Seamus at 8:47 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing Elvis Costello. Leonard Cohen!
posted by goodsearch at 8:59 PM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh and in hip hop, Gil Scott-Heron's last album is beautiful.
posted by yaymukund at 9:49 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Jeffrey Lewis is the anti-folk bard.
posted by griphus at 10:23 PM on August 11, 2012

Also, MC Paul Barman's wordplay is amazing. The entire Paullelujah! album is just extraordinary and totally idiosyncratic hip-hop.
posted by griphus at 10:30 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

WHY? is up there for me, in their morose, off-kilter way (e.g. "I should cut down my caloric intake / I should go to sleep hungry and wake up with my guts knotted up", or "I sleep on my back cause it's good for the spine, and coffin rehearsal").

Meanwhile in another universe, there's also Laurie Anderson ("'Cause when love is gone, there's always justice. / And when justice is gone, there's always force. / And when force is gone, there's always Mom. Hi Mom!", or the awesomely meta "And I was saying: I wanted you. And I was looking for you. But I couldn't find you. I couldn't find you. And he said: Hey! Are you talking to me? Or are you just practicing for one of those performances of yours?").
posted by en forme de poire at 11:41 PM on August 11, 2012

My current favorite singer songwriter lyricist is Bill Fox, who is on Spotify now yay!

Some fans of Twee pop might say Darren Hayman of Hefner but I say NAY, NAY I SAY. Tis the Wave Pictures David Tattersall who wins this competition even tho they are somewhat of a Hefner tribute band. He's just so so amazing at turning a slice of life into a remarkable poetic image and then delivering it with utter sincerity but ironic distance as well. Par example:

I ate peaches straight from the can
The juice ran down my tongue
Over my lip
Slipped down my chin
Dripped onto your parents' carpet

The air in here is dead
But we're not finished yet
Throw the back door open
Let me see your breath


And now I’m going to the country, to paint my mail box blue
I’m not going to paint myself on you
I’m going to the city, to dine more
You can make me a palette on your floor
But I won’t stay the night
Cos I.... read your letter
About how you love Sergeant Pepper
But I know that someday I’ll do better

posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:06 AM on August 12, 2012

Heavy metal is not really "my genre", but I do like the lyrics of System Of A Down's record Toxicity.
posted by WalkingAround at 12:16 AM on August 12, 2012

Laura Marling
Regina Spektor
The Tallest Man On Earth
Tim Fite (He does rap and country-tinged indie folk rock. But not mixed together. Just both. It's...pretty odd.)
Johnny Flynn
Patty Griffin
Gillian Welch
The National
Holcombe Waller
Horse Feathers
posted by threeants at 12:32 AM on August 12, 2012

and Cat Power
posted by threeants at 12:42 AM on August 12, 2012

Sam Beam [Iron & Wine]
posted by extramundane at 12:42 AM on August 12, 2012

Jeff Slaughter, Okkervil River, Tori Amos.
posted by aielen at 1:35 AM on August 12, 2012

Half Man Half Biscuit -- a big cult following in Britain based on the strength of their lyrics. Hard to pin down to a genre, but many of their songs are commentaries on indie/alternative music. Here's a good song of theirs.

Seconding the above mentions of Darren Hayman, Hefner, PJ Harvey and the Wave Pictures.

Against Me! IMO their last few albums have not been particularly great in musical terms, but lyrically have produced some unusually insightful accounts of their maturation as a band. Their singer announced they are transgender recently, and released this song, which is great lyrically.

Silver Jews -- their singer is a successful poet.

Spoonboy -- great lyrics, free download of album!

Also, there is a noticeable lack of rap/hip-hop music in this thread relative to its immense significance as a lyric-focused genre. This Azealia Banks song from last year is quite highly regarded for its lyrics.
posted by mattn at 1:56 AM on August 12, 2012

Natalie Merchant.
posted by nangar at 4:45 AM on August 12, 2012

Some great ones mentioned already (Stephin Merritt, Natalie Merchant, Tom Waite, Colin Meloy, and others), but for a great turn of phrase, you can't beat the Lucksmiths. Here's "Untidy Towns":
A storm rolls across the suburbs
And the streets are as empty as the cupboards
But for the boy most likely
And the girl most lovely
Here's "T-Shirt Weather." Here's "A Downside to the Upstairs."
posted by dilettanti at 7:40 AM on August 12, 2012

I'm really glad nobody's mentioned Bonnie "Prince" Billy because he doesn't deserve to be mentioned for his lyrics. But Rabrindranath Tagore? His lyrics are awesome. B"P"B and Mick "The Marquis of Tren" Turner put out an album of songs from Gitanjali set to music and sung called "Get on Jolly" that's fairly amazing. There's two recordings of the songs, one in studio and one live. The live one, "Get the fuck on Jolly" is better in my opinion.
posted by carsonb at 8:01 AM on August 12, 2012

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal (both their individual stuff and as The Getback).
posted by Lexica at 11:11 AM on August 12, 2012

Steve Earle
Chris Whitley
posted by bongo_x at 11:13 AM on August 12, 2012

Frank Ocean.
posted by Starmie at 2:08 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Good lord how did I forget Blake Schwartzenbach.
posted by bibliogrrl at 2:21 PM on August 12, 2012

Stan Ridgway!
posted by AJaffe at 4:15 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, man — Elliott Smith is my emphatic nomination! Not literary, perhaps, but by turns evocatively impressionistic and devastatingly straightforward, in unassumingly perfect turns of phrase. I suppose "Between the Bars" is the default wordplay example. "Everything Means Nothing to Me" strikes me foremost as a poem set to music.
posted by alexandermatheson at 10:15 PM on August 12, 2012

Bruce Springsteen
Elliott Smith
Lou Reed
Joni Mitchell
Ian Curtis (not sure how many stunning turns of phrase he has but I find his imagery evocative)
Leonard Cohen
Dylan (duh)
posted by timsneezed at 3:36 AM on March 16, 2013

« Older Where can I meet bisexual guys in Sydney (as a...   |   Finding the Campaign Stops Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.