Help me find new music with really good lyrics!
April 1, 2015 7:05 AM   Subscribe

One of the things that I reliably love in music is lyrics that sound like good poetry. Help me find more musicians who reliably include this trait in their work!

Recently I discovered Dessa, whose music includes a lot of lyrics like this, and it's leaving me hungry for more. I'm finding it a little difficult to describe what I'm looking for, but some of the elements I'm thinking of include a lot of emotional complexity, an air of contemplation, and a gift for really communicating a particular set of feelings.

Genre of music is not particularly important to me, although I have found that spoken word poetry doesn't generally work for what I'm looking for. A few other examples of artists who turn out the sort of lyrics I'm looking for and who I like: Tracy Chapman, Frank Turner, Missy Higgins, P!nk, and of course the inimitable Vienna Teng.
posted by sciatrix to Media & Arts (40 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I recommend him a lot: Dan Mangan. Voice like fine-grit sandpaper dipped in honey, gorgeous lyrics (try Fair Verona, for example).
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:13 AM on April 1, 2015

I recently discovered Courtney Barnett (who seems poised to make it big this year - yay, Courtney!), and she is just DELIGHTFUL and fully unique... streams of words shooting out as colorful and vivid and joyous as Silly String, all against a solid garage-rock wall of noise. Try "Pedestrian at Best" to see if you like her.
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:14 AM on April 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

With a question like this I assume you're already a fan of Leonard Cohen, but just in case: Leonard Cohen.
posted by phunniemee at 7:17 AM on April 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Josh Ritter is your man. My mind goes first to "The Temptation of Adam," but really, most things from his last 4-5 albums will thrill you. "Another New World," "The Curse" and "Lantern" really stand out to me.

Also, Augie March and Okkervil River are extremely literate, lyrical bands.
posted by jbickers at 7:18 AM on April 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

You're probably going to get a lot of recommendations for this, but John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats is one of the few singer songwriters I can think of who writes lyrics that can reliably stand alone on the page, independent of their musical setting. They're sad and complex and divided against themselves and above all ... poetic.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:18 AM on April 1, 2015 [8 favorites]

Josh Ritter is great for this, and I see on preview I've been beaten to the punch, so I'll just link a couple of my favorites: Thin Blue Flame and Wings.

The National also have some great lyrics: The Geese of Beverly Road, Sorrow, Mistaken for Strangers.

You might also give Patty Griffin a try: Mother of God, Mary.
posted by yasaman at 7:32 AM on April 1, 2015

John Grant is a lyrical genius and, bonus, one of the best singers I've seen live.

I love the lyrics to his song Glacier so much I wrote an FPP about them.
posted by greenish at 7:33 AM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Came on here to mention Leonard Cohen and The Mountain Goats and of course was beaten to the punch. I would also recommend Frightened Rabbit (examples: The Modern Leper, The Wrestle, Acts of Man) and Keaton Henson (examples: Small Hands, 10 am Gare du Nord, You Don't Know How Lucky You Are)
posted by that silly white dress at 7:38 AM on April 1, 2015

I came in to recommend John Darnielle, but I see that Sonny Jim and that silly while dress both beat me to it. I third the recommendation. If he was an AskMeFi poster, Sasha Frere-Jones would also agree: in an article in The New Yorker, he called John Darnielle "America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist."

As long as I'm here -- I second that silly white dress's recommendation of Frightened Rabbit.
posted by merejane at 7:47 AM on April 1, 2015

A couple of ideas just off the top of my head:

James Vincent McMorrow: We Don't Eat, Follow You Down to the Red Oak Tree

Florence and the Machine: Never Let Me Go, All this and Heaven Too

Bon Iver: Holocene, Stacks

The Decemberists: Here I Dreamt I was an Architect

And I'll second the National: Terrible Love

And the Mountain Goats: Ezekiel 7
posted by litera scripta manet at 7:49 AM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Surely The Decemberists. On preview: GAH beaten to the punch, so I'll just say I adore both The Engine Driver and Make You Better.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:50 AM on April 1, 2015

Joanna Newsom?

Also, David Berman (of Silver Jews). Silver Jews is great, but Berman's songwriting--and poetry, if we're talking about standalone quality--is what makes them great.
posted by witchen at 7:51 AM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Definitely Joanna Newsom!

Also: Sarah McLachlan.
posted by doctor tough love at 8:06 AM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I came to suggest Vienna Teng, and I'm so pleased you have her on your radar already!

I find Hey Rosetta! pretty reliable in this regard.

Sometimes Lisa Hannigan scratches this itch for me too.
posted by invokeuse at 8:14 AM on April 1, 2015

Oh I have some more artists for your consideration:

Antony and the Johnsons: Hope There's Someone, I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy

Patrick Wolf, To the Lighthouse*, Penzance, The Sun is Often Out

Damien Rice: 9 Crimes, I Remember

Regina Spektor: Samson, Hero

Snow Patrol: New York, Make This Go on Forever, You Could be Happy

St. Vincent: Paris is Burning

Neutral Milk Hotel: King of Carrot Flowers, pt 1

Neko Case: Hold On

Cold War Kids: We Used to Vacation, Hospital Beds

Branching out a bit from these more "indie" recs, the Killers could fit into this category as well: Dustland Fairytale, Jenny was a Friend of Mine

I'm not sure if all or any of these are exactly what you're looking for, but I would especially encourage you to check out Patrick Wolf and Antony and the Johnsons, who are both probably slightly less well known, but have very captivating, complex lyrics.

*Bonus points for the Virginia Wolf references in this song.
posted by litera scripta manet at 8:16 AM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Neil Young

Sun Kil Moon

Pusha T

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Jean Grae

Joni Mitchell

posted by kapers at 8:21 AM on April 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

James McMurtry. Don't be put off by his political rants; instead, listen for his incisive character portraits.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:26 AM on April 1, 2015

Early Will Oldham, which is under the name Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Palace Songs.

Jason Molina, who recorded under the names Songs:Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:35 AM on April 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

Oh, can't believe I didn't... Tori Amos?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:35 AM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Kiran Leonard

To break the rules slightly:
Rap but probably not what you are thinking:
Kate Tempest


I know you said no spoken word but check out Jabu

Not new:
Laurie Anderson
Willie Mason
Blues/folk music

(Hmmmm...I swear I know more)
posted by Erberus at 8:38 AM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was gonna say:

The Mountain Goats
Joanna Newsom (...there can be an adjustment period getting used to her voice, especially on her earlier albums, but she's pretty amazing)
Dar Williams if you're feeling pretty folky
Maybe Janelle Monae?
posted by Vibrissa at 9:10 AM on April 1, 2015

Lucinda Williams: simple yet emotionally complex lyrics
Anne McCue: underrated Aussie with a real gift
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:19 AM on April 1, 2015

Shearwater and Bat For Lashes come to mind as having interesting lyrics.
posted by chocolatepeanutbuttercup at 9:48 AM on April 1, 2015

The Weakerthans are my favourite for smart, poetic lyrics. Some great ones:

Tournament Of Hearts

Plea From A Cat Named Virtute


Civil Twilight

posted by Catseye at 9:51 AM on April 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

TV on the Radio. Especially their songs, Stork Owl and Wolf Like Me
posted by smashface at 10:02 AM on April 1, 2015

Joe Henry. A starter sample:

Like She Was A Hammer


Our Song (this one *always* makes me tear up)

God Only Knows

Scar (I quote this one all the time, and I have jewelry with lines from it engraved on them)
posted by janey47 at 10:18 AM on April 1, 2015

Counting Crows?
posted by jferg at 10:24 AM on April 1, 2015

Based on the artists you listed, you might enjoy Haley Bonar. Her most recent album, Last War, was released in 2014 and you can stream the whole thing here.

I will also second John Grant.
posted by bananana at 10:36 AM on April 1, 2015


Granted, in his case the poetry is kind of like "crazy Beat stuff" rather than lyric poetry, but I defy you to read the lyrics to things like Cemetery Polka or Gun Street Girl or Hell Broke Luce or What's He Building In There? and not find something.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:59 AM on April 1, 2015

A lot of the work of jazz singer Kurt Elling is like this, in that his lyrics are based on works by poets such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Theodore Roethke, Pablo Neruda, and others. Some examples:

These clouds are heavy, you dig? (Rilke)
The Waking (Roethke)
Esperanto (Neruda)

Also, he collaborated with Fred Hersch on an entire album based on Walt Whitman's Leaves of Greass. Here's an excerpt: The Sleepers.
posted by crLLC at 11:48 AM on April 1, 2015

There was some guy who styled himself some kind of troubadour. Bob or something like that. He has a couple good lyrics.
posted by Ber at 12:58 PM on April 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Sufjan Stevens perhaps? A lot of the Illinois album encapsulates this sort of feel for me.

Steve Earle?
posted by Gilbert at 1:25 PM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

One million points for JD/The Mountain Goats.
Also seconding The Weakerthans.
posted by eyesontheroad at 1:44 PM on April 1, 2015

I think Ani DiFranco writes some gorgeous lyrics. Here are a couple to start you off:

School Night
posted by kristi at 1:55 PM on April 1, 2015

First, The Handsome Family. Words are generally by short-story-writer Rennie Sparks, and the music written by her husband Brett. One of my early favorites is "Lake Geneva," which contains one of my favorite lines: "Albert Einstein trembled when he saw that time was water / seeping through the rafters to put out this burning world."

(If they sound familiar, perhaps you've been watching True Detective.)

Also, The Pernice Brothers. My favorite album by them is Yours, Mine and Ours. Joe Pernice strikes a balance between opacity and AM radio-friendly. "One Foot in the Grave" always gets me for some reason: "Are you alive? Are you alive? Are you just sleeping in the calm, in the storm, in the radio?"

Finally, I'm a little surprised we've gone this far without mentioning Iron & Wine; Sam Beam has a flair for great imagery. Here's "Flightless Bird, American Mouth," the song that made me cry in public when he played it live.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 6:26 PM on April 1, 2015

I'm a big fan of Dietrich Strause. Anyone who writes a song inspired by To Kill A Mockingbird (and makes it work), is worth a listen in my book.

Then there's this one by The Suitcase Junket. It's my fourth-grader's favorite song. For the price of admission, you get great lyrics, overtone singing, and homemade percussion.

I'd also have to support the recommendations for Mountain Goats and Josh Ritter. I thoroughly enjoy both.
posted by SobaFett at 7:04 PM on April 1, 2015

Oh, there's also Augustines (formerly We Are Augustines)! I love the song Book of James.

And maybe try Phosphorescent: Song for Zula and Muchaho's Tune.

I haven't kept up on what she's been doing lately, but Laura Marling's albums Alas, I Cannot Swim and I Speak Because I Can might have some of what you're looking for.
posted by yasaman at 7:07 PM on April 1, 2015

John Prine - Angel from Montgomery, Speed of the Sound of Loneliness
Lou Reed - Street Hassle
Randy Newman - Marie, Guilty (from the amazing album, Good Old Boys)
Townes Van Zandt - Tecumseh Valley (Steve Earle covering)
Steve Earle - Goodbye
posted by Bron at 7:07 PM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Mark Knopfler is widely considered "literary."
posted by irisclara at 3:12 AM on April 2, 2015

Like Dessa, Atmosphere is another indie rap group out of Minneapolis that I think are good at communicating specific feelings. My favorite album of theirs is God Loves Ugly.
posted by neushoorn at 5:36 AM on April 2, 2015

« Older Which phone can I buy to pair with a cell phone at...   |   How to love a fearful-avoidant partner Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.