Songwriting and songwriters can be pretty difficult to judge and compare against one another. Unlike with an instrument or with vocalism (which can reasonably be lumped in with instruments, as the human body is essentially an instrument) in which talent and proficiency can be more easily measured and agreed upon, "good" songwriting is reflective of the audience as much as it is reflective of the creator. One of the few imperfect yet effective ways that songwriters can be compared is by their reception, popularity, notoriety, and legacy. But so many great songwriters just simply don't receive as much respect as I feel they're entitled to. So I'm making this list to call attention to some of them.
Of course the entire design of a list like this comes with its inherent problems. For as guilty as I am of using the word, to categorize something as "underrated" is really a very ill-defined term. It's so cultural, contextual, perceptive, blurry. As a result my idea for this list is definitely a lot more of a matter of perspective and subsequently a matter of opinion than other musical lists I've made. There's no criteria for something to be considered underrated, only what I can tell of how the lyricists are perceived in the larger canon of music and how it fits into culture.
The parameters are still logical enough that I wouldn't call it arbitrary or even subjective, but where do you draw the line? What about an artist like Leonard Cohen, who I'd consider underrated as an overall musician, but who is widely acknowledged and appreciated if not revered for his songwriting skills? Can I really say he's underappreciated as a songwriter specifically? Or how about someone like Bob Seger who is very much famous, but for musical and stylistic reasons more than anything, and who doesn't always get his due credit for his lyricism? Is it ridiculous to call someone so famous and successful underrated? What about someone like Ben Nichols who is so obscure in the grand scheme of things that it seems redundant to say that his songwriting is underappreciated when every aspect of his musical career is underappreciated?
There's so much relativity at play here and my conclusion is that it all has to be taken on a case-by-case basis. Therein lies the benefit of keeping a list like this relatively short, I don't have to overburden myself with making sure so many different songwriters with different backgrounds and careers fit into the same comparable notion. But there's no avoiding the fact that every situation is markedly different, and that it's easy enough to disagree with any of the entries on this list simply because it's not the way you see things. Basically, I'm trying as hard as I can to make this list as non-personal and objective as possible, but that is only so possible. The point of it is not to say who's better or who's best, but to simply acknowledge those who've always been good and who haven't always received credit.
I'm bringing back the idea of giving specific songs as examples of what I believe to be some of these songwriters' best work. The format I'm going with is "(Artist) of (Band Name/s)" but that's not to downplay or discredit the solo career of any of these artists by implying that they were only part of a greater whole. If their most significant work by far was produced as a solo artist, their bands and associated acts will be omitted, but if they're most well-known or equally well-known work was done as part of a band, they will be umbrella'd under the band name. Not trying to ruffle any feathers here. The list is ordered alphabetically by last name. Without any further ado, these are 10 underappreciated songwriters:
"Ace" Cooley & Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers
It's not very common to have a successful band with multiple competent songwriters/lead vocalist/frontmen/frontwomen. There are a few other examples to make the honorable mentions list such as The Band and Supertramp, but Drive-By Truckers earn a spot on the list for being one of the more well-known yet underappreciated rock bands of their generation. They're often lumped into the category of "southern rock" simply by virtue of being southern, but although Mike "Ace" Cooley and Patterson Hood are both from Alabama, that doesn't mean they have much in common with Skynard (who were incidentally from Florida despite their biggest hit). They simply sing about their environments, with southern accents. But they're as inspired by the global presence of rock n' roll as anyone, and the songwriting of both men has really matured over the course of their careers. These two weren't the only frontmen for the band, with Jason Isbell writing and taking lead on a handful of notable DB-T songs before he left the band to puruse a solo career, and with Isbell's ex-wife Shonna Tucker contributing 3 songs to the Brighter than Creation's Dark album. But Ace and Hood are the band's founding members and true frontmen. Ace is cool as a cucumber, the less prolific of the two but who reaches higher highs than Hood. He's prone to some solid personal writing but he also writes a lot of historical songs and more recently some political songs as a detached observer or storyteller. Hood is a little more traditional, sometimes telling stories or making commentaries but usually writing in first person. He can get emotional but always manages to land with poignancy and believability rather than with smarmy melodrama. The chemistry of the two doesn't really blend together on individual tracks, as there are "Hood songs" and "Ace songs" which are very much separated. But the chemistry comes through holistically on their albums and their catalog from the minds and pens of two long-time friends who have humbly admitted that they're just now getting good.
notable lyrics, Ace Cooley - A Ghost to Most; Self-Destructive Zones; Carl Perkins' Cadillac; Space City
notable lyrics, Patterson Hood - A World of Hurt; Daddy Needs a Drink; Tornadoes
Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips
Although I'm not the biggest fan of their more successful records, The Flaming Lips have earned my respect from the work they put out in their early days. While it's true enough that Wayne Coyne's entire musical career is pretty zany and drug induced, and he has plenty of songs which can be silly or just downright nonsensical, he's also put out some really high quality lyricism over the years and he deserves to be taken more seriously than the Robert Pollards or the Gene and Dean Weens or whoever else he's associated with. The semi/loose concept album In a Priest Driven Ambulance which stems from Coyne's fascination with religion is his finest example of lucid and colorful writing. As an atheist, he isn't overly cynical critical or bitter with his approach. He is rather irreverent, but he weaves the complexity of confusion and self-righteousness and doubt and the cold comfort of faith together very poetically. He's just a very curious soul in general and while he can be a little childish or rough around the edges sometimes, he's also shown a lot of insight and creativity to pair with the musical and vocal style of the flips, to create a concoction that is very much out there.
notable lyrics - There You Are; Five Stop Mother Superior Rain; Placebo Headwound; Bad Days
We all love Nick for his incredibly virtuosic acoustic guitar playing, with or without a surrounding arrangement, and for his soft and smoky vocals which acclimate so perfectly to his complex brand of folk. Where he isn't as celebrated is in his songwriting skills. He died very young, leaving behind a small but brilliant disography. But for a young recluse with such little life experience the man was remarkably gifted and obviously quite dedicated to his craft. Lyrically he doesn't bother himself with trying to reference modern people or trends or problems but rather focuses on very earthly subjects of mother nature and human nature. His themes and ideas are very metaphorical and symbolic, universal, timeless. There's definitely a lot of sadness and even some malcontent to be found within his songwriting but for the most part he seems to take all of his surroundings in stride, with his internal conflict being the true source of his struggle. Much like the music, a lot of his brilliance is thickly veiled and takes time to appreciate, but the man has a cult-like folk hero status for a reason and his most avid fans understand just how much he was able to accomplish in such little time.
notable lyrics - At the Chime of a City Clock; Place to Be; From the Morning; Way to Blue
Donald Fagen of Steely Dan
In 1972 with Can't Buy a Thrill and its hit single Reelin' In the Years, Donald Fagen as one half of Steely Dan alongside Walter Becker immediately made himself a player in the ever changing landscape of radio rock. But although they're retrospectively lumped in with the dad rock crowd for their biggest hits, they were definitely the cynical misfits of the scene and did everything they could to play the ironic and subversive antiheroes of the pop charts. They never tried to fit into the genre which they ultimately helped to sculpt, from their surgically crafted studio cuts to their more jam oriented live performances, they took no shortcuts and tolerated no fluff. They had more of a legitimate knowledge of jazz than most of their musical contemporaries and let those influences slide their way into melodies that were still very approachable and ear friendly. But lyrically they don't get nearly enough credit for trojan horsing their way into the collective minds with their cutting and elitist but sincere brand of satire and cultural contempt.
notable lyrics - Reelin' In the Years; Deacon Blues; I.G.Y. (solo career)
Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend
In another debut which squarely put them on the map in their contemporary pop rock scene, Vampire Weekend's 2008 eponymous album was very bright and fun, endearing them to a young crowd. But although this debut did show some lyrical promise it was also relatively shallow and in hindsight it stands as their worst album by far. But they took their attention and success and they ran with it to piece together a small but potent discography. Although founding member Rostam Batmanglij is no longer with the band (a blow, as he was essentially their Chris Walla) Ezra Koenig has constantly evolved his writing skills over the years. His songwriting is informed largely by his romantic life but he's shown a keen ability to step outside himself and into a storytelling role as well. Overall the band's catalog shows a lot more depth and maturity since the cuteness of their debut. It's an intelligent and genre bending niche of bright but not boring artsy pop, elevated by some very clever and sentimental songwriting.
notable lyrics - Taxi Cab; Giving Up the Gun; Hannah Hunt; Jerusalem, New York, Berlin
James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem
Yet another misfit, my favorite description of LCD Soundystem is "dance music for people who hate dancing." The brainchild of singer songwriter composer instrumentalist DJ and DFA Records producer James Murphy, it is an awkward fit to say the least. A pudgy, aging, lovesick New Yorker who's immediately thrust into the thick of the electro-dance music scene with the underground hit 45:33. A man who can't help but to mock the scene that made his music career, and who can't ever seem to find his footing within his personal life. His sardonic and jeering songs mirrored against his more bittersweet confrontational and/or gloomy songs mix together so tastefully with his old school work ethic and electro-ambient-trance instrumentals to create a really unique and important blend in a genre that is sorely lacking in lyrical talent.
notable lyrics - Losing My Edge; New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down; Home; Drunk Girls
Neal Peart of Rush
One of the most revered freaks of nature in the rich history of rock drumming, it's a shame how many people are unaware of the fact that Neal Peart was Rush's principal songwriter as well as an insanely talented instrumentalist. An introspective loner, his poignant and poetic observations really elevated the importance of this progressive power rock trio's music. Sure he's prone to some cheesiness and novelty every now and then, but at his best Peart is nuanced and emotional and enlightening. In the vast expanse of Rush's deep catalog there are a lot of gems to be found from this lucid, sensitive, and grossly overlooked songwriter who also happened to simultaneously reinvent the entire world of rock and roll drumming.
notable lyrics - Subdivisions; The Pass; Time Stand Still; Limelight
Pete Townshend of The Who
Another brilliant musician who's oft uncredited as a lyricist, it wasn't vocalist Roger Daltrey who was responsible for the lyrics that drove the vehicle of the counter-cultural british invasion rock legends The Who. It was the wild and tantric windmill power chord throwing guitarist Pete Townshend. The Who's concept albums are right up there with The Kinks and Pink Floyd as some of the greatest of all time. Their singles range from rebellious to cheeky to political to romantic to sinister to confessional to inspirational and back again. Although the band hasn't been the same since Keith Moon's death, their golden age had to be respected for their punk rock attitude in glam rock disguises, and for the top notch arrangement and production value of their highly energetic records. But also in a more understated way for the quietly top shelf quality songwriting of their penman.
notable lyrics - Behind Blue Eyes; Won't Get Fooled Again; My Generation; the entire Quadrophenia album
Sometimes simple goes a long way. Louisiana roots music queen Lucinda Williams isn't trying to confuse anyone, but rather trying to give comfort food to those who want it. A student of the game, she has a healthy knowledge and respect of country-western, blues, rhythm & blues, rock & roll, and that ultra unique zydeco music from the French Creoles of Acadiana. She boils down her vast musical vocabulary into some of the most subtle and most high quality Americana you'll ever find. She wears her heart on her sleeve, but she has enough toughness to back herself up, and not necessarily enough restraint to not get herself into the same old troubles again. She's one of her generation's most precious smitten sweethearts in cowgirl boots, to those who pay attention.
notable lyrics - Drunken Angel; Lake Charles; Something About What Happens When We Talk; Passionate Kisses (Mary Chapin Carpenter covered this song and won a Grammy for it)
The honorable mentions here is fairly inclusive, since the parameters of who I consider underappreciated are so imprecise. Anyone who I feel isn't as heralded as they should be for their songwriting skills qualifies.
Phil Anselmo of Pantera
Eric Bachmann of Archers of Loaf
Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses
Sheryl Crow (just her early career really)
Rick Davies & Roger Hodgson of Supertramp
Mark Eitzel of American Music Club
Jay Farrar of Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt
John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival
Eleanor Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces
Colin Hay of Men at Work
Jimi Hendrix of The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits
Annie Lennox of Eurythmics
Ric Ocasek of The Cars
Steven Page & Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies
Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket
Robbie Robertson of The Band (Richard Manuel and Rick Danko deserve some love as well, but we all know who the man is)
Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes
Gavin Rossdale of Bush
Bob Seger of Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band
Tommy Shaw of Styx
Peter Silberman of The Antlers
Rod Stewart of Faces
Sting of The Police
Kurt Wagner of Lambchop
Jack White of The White Stripes
Lyricism is the most tangible and yet also the most personal aspect of a song that can be appreciated. Moreso than any of my other musical ideas, I'd encourage you to see the brilliance of these writers for yourself, and hopefully to discover some new musical styles along the way. But at least now you've heard of all these people, and to have them acknowledged was my main goal here. Happy listening.