100 greatest songs and ballads of the last 100 years

21 July 2010

This list celebrates the art of songwriting.

The 100 songs selected are not just great songs, they’re some of the most original and best written songs I could find. My basic rules were that only English language songs were eligible; and that the songs had to have been first released and performed in the last 100 years – traditional songs were not eligible. When selecting the songs I sampled the work of many of the most successful and highly acclaimed songwriters (as well as lesser known songwriting talent): these may not be the pieces they teach in every band class or online music production program. I sought out lyrics which read well when written down on a page and which sounded good when sung with just piano or acoustic guitar; lyrics that were original, or unusual, or told an interesting story, or had something to say; in other words lyrics which interested me or moved me in some way. Good lyrics weren’t the only criterion though : the music and the performance had to be of the same quality (I’ve opted not to include any spoken word poetry or a capella singing). And of course this isn’t a scientific process : you’ll see my tastes, judgements and prejudices reflected in the choices of songs.

These songs are all lyrics driven. I’ve made a conscious decision to try not to include songs where the meaning and emotional impact is conveyed more through the music than through the lyrics. Because of this, for example, there is relatively little rock music here. This isn’t to imply that the Rolling Stones are inferior to The Beatles, just that their style of songwriting is less well suited to this list.

The songs are in chronological order. The dates are, as far as I could determine from my research, the date when the song was first released (not necessarily the same date as the version that I’ve chosen). The focus, as will become apparent, is on the songwriters rather than the singers. The person who wrote the lyrics is named in bold before each song (in some cases I have assumed that the singer also wrote the words, but please let me know if you have any more information).

Doing this has been an amazing ride. If you think these songs are good, you should see some of the ones that I rejected. Comments are welcome as always : please leave them at the bottom of the page.

Frederick Weatherly

Elvis Presley – Danny Boy
This most loved of Irish ballads was written by an Englishman who later fitted the words to an Irish tune (A Londonderry Air).

Alfred Bryan (music : Al Piantadosi)
Gerri Gribi – I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier

Theodore Roosevelt remarked that “foolish people who applaud a song entitled I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier are just the people who would also in their hearts applaud a song entitled ‘I Didn’t Raise my Girl To Be A Mother'”. Gerri Gribi probably fits this description : she is a historian, musician, writer, performer and researcher. Here she tries to capture the spirit of the WW1 recordings.

Jimmy Cox

Bessie Smith – Nobody knows you when you’re down and out
I’m amused to find that Carla Bruni, the wife of the French president, has sung this. Not a bad version actually, but how ironic is that. But the song will always rightly be associated with the great Bessie Smith.

Fred Jackson Lewey & Charles Noell (adapted by Henry Whitter)

Roy Acuff – Wreck Of The Old 97
The Old 97 was a train which was en route from Monroe, Virginia to Spencer, North Carolina when it left the track at Stillhouse Trestle near Danville, Virginia on September 27, 1903 killing 11 people. This famous ballad was first recorded by CB Grayson and Henry Whitter in 1924 (apparently earlier versions of the song existed and Whitter just adapted the lyrics ). The ballad places the blame on the company for the crash for demanding extra speed.

Dock Boggs

Dock Boggs – Country blues

Banjo player and Appalachian folk/blues singer from Virginia. With the onset of the Depression he was unable to make a living as a singer and returned to his former job as a coal miner.

Gussie Davis
Grayson & Whitter – He’s Coming To Us Dead
Gussie Lord Davis was the first black songwriter to achieve success on Tin Pan Alley. His most notable song was Irene, Good Night, later recorded in an altered version by Leadbelly as Goodnight Irene. He wrote this tearjerker in 1899, the year of his death. But it sneaks into this list because the bluegrass duo Grayson & Whitter were the first to record it in 1927.

Furry Lewis
Furry Lewis – Falling Down Blues
“Got the blues so bad it hurts my feet to walk / I wouldn’t hate it so bad but it hurt my tongue to talk”. The song’s recently been revived by Seasick Steve.

Beda Loehner, music by Irving Berlin
Annette Hanshaw – The Song Is Ended
I can find no information about Beda Loehner. This seems to have been the one time that Irving Berlin collaborated with her. The sweet song, recorded by two great singers in 1927 (Hanshaw and Ruth Etting), is dedicated to Berlin’s first wife who died from typhoid fever in 1912 only six months after their marriage.

Lorenz Hart, music by Richard Rodgers
Ruth Etting – Ten Cents A Dance
During his long collaboration with Richard Rodgers, Hart wrote many songs which have become standards, including My Funny Valentine, The Lady Is A Tramp and Blue Moon. The song describes, from the point of view of the dancer, the 1930s phenomenon called taxi-dancing where men could buy a ticket for a “dance lesson” with a woman for the duration of one song, for the price of ten cents.

Victoria Spivey
Victoria Spivey and her Chicago Four – Any Kind A Man
The 20s and 30s were something of a golden age for female vocalists. Men of course ran the industry and in many cases wrote the songs. Blues singer Victoria Spivey did write many of her own songs and I’d like to believe that this is her work. “If he’d got one leg, that’d be alright / Just so he bring that one leg home to mama every night / Any kind a man will be better than you.”

DuBose Heyward, music by George Gershwin
Nina Simone My man’s gone now
Dubose Heyward also wrote “Summertime … and the livin’ is easy”, which would have been a more obvious choice, now I come to think about it. Both songs are from the score of the folk opera Porgy and Bess. This recording’s from 1967. Nina Simone could have taken almost any of the songs from this list and made it her own, I’m a huge fan of her.

Cole Porter
Frank Sinatra – I’ve Got You Under My Skin
From the critic David Ewen : “He is the arch cynic to whom a crushing love affair was ‘just one of those things’. He is the dilettante who sprinkles throughout his lyrics cultural, literary, and geographical allusions of a well-read, well-educated, and well-traveled person. He is the nonconformist unafraid of the erotic, the exotic, or the esoteric. He is the sensualist who brings to his melodies throbbing excitement, purple moods, irresistible climaxes. Most of all he himself is like a character from a novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald. All his life Cole Porter was the avid hunter of excitement, adventure, and gaiety; all his life he traveled under the banner of ‘anything goes’. ” Familiar Cole Porter songs include Night and Day, Begin the Beguine, Who wants to be a millionaire ?, Ev’ry time we say goodbye.

Sonny Boy Williamson

Sonny Boy Williamson I – Good Morning Little Schoolgirl
Blues harmonica player : this song has been covered numerous times over the years in many different versions.

Leadbelly – The Bourgeois Blues
The song was written after Leadbelly went to Washington DC as a guest of Alan Lomax, to record a number of songs for the Library of Congress. After they had finished, they decided to go out with their wives to celebrate, but were thrown out of numerous establishments for being an interracial party.

E. Y. Harburg, music by Harold Arlen
Judy Garland & The Victor Young Orchestra – Over The Rainbow
This greatest of all movie songs was written by a dedicated socialist, Yip Harburg, who refused to fight in World War I because of his principles. He took on the Wizard of Oz well aware that the original book by L Frank Baum was intended as a political parable in support of the common man. He not only wrote all the songs for Wizard of Oz but was the film’s final script editor. The rainbow was his invention : “I was writing for a situation of a little girl who was desperate, had never seen anything beyond an arid Kansas where there was no color in her life: there were no flowers. It was all brown and sepia and at a moment when she was troubled in a childish way, she wanted to escape in a song of escape – where could she go? The only thing colorful that she’s ever seen in her life was the rainbow.” From 1951 he was prevented from working in Hollywood : “”My songs, like When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich and Brother, Can You Spare a Dime ? caused a great deal of furor during a period in Hollywood when a fellow by the name of Joe McCarthy was reigning supreme. And so, they got something up for people to take care of us, like me, called the blacklist. And I landed on the enemy list. This was the blackest, and the darkest moment in the history of this beautiful country.”

Irving Berlin
Bing Crosby – White Christmas
The biggest selling single of all time, by one of the greatest of all songwriters. Irving Berlin was like a hit machine : memorable songs include God Bless America, Let’s face the music and dance, Cheek to Cheek, There’s no business like show business and Easter Parade. He wrote the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films and his songs were nominated for 8 Oscars.

Walter Davis

Evocative piano blues. The song leaves you with unanswered questions. Will the singer’s former lover respond to his plea ? Or is he being delusional ?

Billie Holiday & Arthur Herzog Jr
Billie Holiday – Don’t explain

There is so much drama, tension and emotion in every line of this song. I defy you to listen to it without a tear coming to your eye. Billie Holiday sings with the voice of someone who has endured painful relationships – apparently she wrote this song after catching her husband Jimmy Monroe with lipstick on his collar. Her hit God Bless The Child is also a Holiday – Herzog collaboration.

Willard Robison
Peggy Lee – Don’t Smoke in Bed
According to Peggy Lee, Willard Robison came to her one day with a title, Don’t Smoke In Bed, and a first line, “Goodbye, old sleepyhead …”. The song was to be about a woman leaving her partner. But then Robison who suffered from alcoholism started drinking and couldn’t finish the song, so Peggy Lee and her husband Dave Barbour ended up writing it. Convinced that Robison was at death’s door and anxious to support his family, “David and I gave him sole credit on the song expecting him to be gone within a few months. He lived another 20 years.” Over the years Robison raked in the royalties as Don’t Smoke In Bed became a favourite torch song covered by several famous artists.

Ewan MacColl
Ewan MacColl – Dirty Old Town

The post-industrial town of Salford in Greater Manchester is given both shape and soul in the paintings of LS Lowry and in Ewan MacColl’s famous song.

Harold Adamson, music by Hoagy Carmichael

Kay Starr – A Woman Likes To Be Told

On this delightful song the great Hoagy Carmichael collaborates with Harold Adamson, himself a Hollywood songwriter of some esteem (nominated five times for Academy Awards) who also wrote the theme song for the sitcom I Love Lucy.

The Louvin Brothers
The Louvin Brothers – Broadminded
“That word broadminded is spelt S-I-N.” Awesome song from the devoutly Baptist country music duo.

Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Big Mama Thornton Hound Dog

This must have been the kind of thing that the Louvin Brothers were warning against. Big Mama Thornton delivers the song with primal energy, and once you’ve heard this you’ll never need to hear the later inferior Elvis Presley version again. According to Thornton, the songwriters “were just a couple of kids, and they had this song written on the back of a paper bag.” She contributed a lot to the song, including some improvised lyrics and whoops and howls, but even though it sold two million copies it only ever earned her $500. As for the two kids, they went on to make fame and fortune by writing such songs as Jailhouse Rock, Stand By Me and On Broadway.

J. D. “Jay” Miller
Kitty Wells – It Wasn’t God Who Make Honky Tonk Angels
In 1952 Hank Thompson topped the country charts with a song called The Wild Side of Life which included the line “I didn’t know that God made honky tonk angels”. The song was critical of immoral faithless women. It Wasn’t God … though written by a man puts the womens side of the story (“Too many times married men think they’re still single”) – and although the lyrics seem mild enough today the song was banned by NBC and Wells was prohibited from performing it on the Grand Ole Opry. Nonetheless it still managed to get to number one in the country charts. Sadly half a century later many hip hop singers routinely refer to women as “hos”.

Wynona Carr
Sister Wynona Carr – Dragnet for Jesus

Wynona Carr never quite made it as a gospel singer. She was too young and too pretty, she sang with too much emotion, and her lyrics – well they must have made the humble church folks scratch their heads. This number is a brilliant takeoff of the popular TV show.

Peadar Kearney

Hamish Imlach – Erin Go Bragh / The Row In The Town
This may be a controversial choice. It’s a propaganda song about the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising. It begins with the memorably ironic line “I’ll tell you a story of a row in the town”. Paedar Kearney fought in the rising as one of Connolly’s Volunteers. Previously in 1907 he had written the lyrics to The Soldiers Song, now the Irish national anthem. Kearney died in 1942. The earliest recording of the song that I’m aware of was in 1957 by Dominic Behan, who was Kearney’s nephew. Hamish Imlach was a Scottish folksinger.

Johnny Burke, music by Erroll Garner

Ella Fitzgerald – Misty
Beautiful piano ballad, originally written as an instrumental piece. Johnny Burke who later added the lyrics had a long and successful songwriting career, his many gems include Pennies From Heaven, Swinging On A Star, and Like Someone In Love.

John Lee Hooker

John Lee Hooker – Tupelo (Black Water Blues)
Born in Mississippi the youngest of 11 children to a father who was a sharecropper and a Baptist preacher, Hooker was to become a prolific songwriter and one of the greatest bluesmen of all time. This song demonstrates his stripped down talking blues style. This is a guy who really knows how to tell a story well and get your complete attention. It was inspired by the events in Tupelo Mississippi in 1936 when a force 5 tornado caused flash floods and widespead devastation (when Hooker was 18 years old).

Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson – Crazy
Willie Nelson originally wrote the song for country singer Billy Walker. Walker turned it down, so it was offered to Patsy Cline and her recording has remained the definitive version though it’s been covered on many occasions. Nelson is still writing and recording songs half a century later – his new album is not bad at all. In May 2010 he cut off his signature braids.

Woody Guthrie
Joan Baez – Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)
Every time I read about asylum seekers drowning at sea or asphyxiating in the backs of vans it reminds me of this song. 32 people, including 28 migrant farm workers, died when their plane crashed in Los Gatos Canyon in California in January 1948. Guthrie’s song was inspired not by the event itself but what he saw as the racist reaction to it. It was the last great song he would ever write, but as far as I can establish, he never recorded a version of it. It was set to music a decade later by Martin Hoffman, Pete Seeger began performing the song at concerts, and the first of numerous recordings were made in the early 1960s.

Hal David, music by Burt Bacharach
Dionne Warwick – Anyone who had a heart
The song’s lyrics describe the pain felt by the singer as she continues to love the person to whom she sings, but is continually hurt by him. Other Bacharach & David hits include Walk On By, I Say a Little Prayer, and Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.

Bennie Benjamin, Gloria Caldwell & Sol Marcus

Joe Cocker – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
Nina Simone’s original version was sung at a slow tempo; The Animals speeded it up and turned it into a rock song. Joe Cocker rather oddly sings it to a soft reggae beat.

Jacques Brel
Scott Walker – Amsterdam
Jacques Brel was a Belgian singer songwriter best known for the song Ne me quitte pas. Amsterdam was one of a number of translated Brel songs recorded by Scott Walker – it appears on his first solo album. David Bowie later covered it in 1970. What I love about Walker’s version is that it sounds so much like Nick Cave – it gives an insight into the Australian singer’s influences.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan – It’s alright Ma (I’m only bleeding)

As extraordinary a song as Dylan has ever written. It’s a lyrical tour de force, a fertile jungle of images, themes and ideas. No less than four lines from the song ended up in Columbia Dictionary of Quotations. Don’t forget that Dylan was still only 23 when this was released, and the young Dylan’s attitude and passion help give the song its resonance.

Lightnin’ Hopkins
Lightnin’ Hopkins – Cotton
Here Hopkins sings about the way of life for blacks on the Texas cotton farms that he spent his own life escaping from. Beautiful slow country blues – I could just listen to this for hours.

Leonard Cohen
Roberta Flack – Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye
Leonard Cohen is unusual among songwriters in that he’s also a published poet. He stands alongside Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon as artists whose work in the 1960s transformed the way in which people thought about songwriting. The influence of such writers over the later songs in this list is massive. This isn’t his most celebrated song, but I’ve always found it deeply moving.

John Lennon & Paul McCartney
The Beatles – She’s leaving home
From the Sgt Pepper album. The lyrics read like prose : “Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins silently closing their bedroom door leaving the note that she hoped would say more, she goes downstairs to the kitchen clutching her handkerchief …” Gradually the poignancy and the emotions of the situation are brought home first through the chorus, and then in a different way as the focus of the lyrics shifts from daughter to the parents. Perfection.

Peggy Seeger
Solas – Song of Choice

The song begins with natural images. With each verse you gradually become more aware that this is a song about political engagement – “It’s alright for you if you run with the pack / It’s alright if you agree with all they do / If fascism is slowly climbing back / It’s not here yet so what’s it got to do with you ?” The Irish – American group Solas recorded the song in 1998 : this recording features some lovely interplay between the vocals of Karan Casey and guest Iris Dement.

Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong
Marvin Gaye – I heard it through the grapevine
I don’t know why Whitfield and Strong aren’t up there on everyone’s list of great songwriters. Besides this, the Motown partnership wrote a number of other really great songs that I’d have liked to have included – Ball of Confusion, Cloud Nine, War, Papa was a rolling stone. Inexplicably, they chose to record this song first with Smokey Robinson & the Miracles – you wouldn’t even think of opting for Smokey’s version now.

Ray Davies
The Kinks – Days
Ray Davies was one of the most versatile and interesting songwriters of his generation : his songs explore British life from a variety of angles and in a range of styles. This song is from the album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society – an album with a curiously nostalgiac theme in a year when a lot of other musicians were thinking more about revolution. It too looks backwards in its own inimitable way : “thank you for the days, those endless days, those sacred days you gave me”.

Paul Simon
Simon & Garfunkel – America
What a career Paul Simon has had. His first hit – Sound of Silence – was an extraordinary lyrical achievement; then Mrs Robinson and Bridge over troubled water both won Grammies for record of the year; then with Me and Julio down by the schoolyard and My Little Town we see his social realist side; and the songs from Graceland remain one of the highpoints of world fusion music. So why this one ? I’ve always found it really romantic.

Jimmy Cliff

Jimmy Cliff – Many rivers to cross
Jimmy Cliff is a Jamaican singer songwriter but this is a truly universal and timeless masterpiece which can speak to anyone facing struggle and hardship in their lives.

Tony Joe White
Randy Crawford – Rainy Night in Georgia
Tony Joe White : “I almost didn’t put that song on my album when I was cutting that thing back in them days. And my wife kept saying, “No, God, you got to do that.” And I was kind of more into the swamp rocking, and really hard driving stuff. So anyway, I laid it down. If it hadn’t been for her and Donnie Fritz wanting a copy of it, then Jerry Wexler would have never heard it, and I would have never got to hear how it should have been sung in the first place, with Brook[Benton].” It’s become his biggest earner : over 140 versions of the song have now been recorded.

Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell – Woodstock
Talk about songs that make your spine tingle. Nobody else in the world could have written this. It captures the meaning of the 1969 Woodstock festival to the 60s generation and also adds to that meaning – “Then can I walk beside you / I have come here to lose the smog / And I feel to be a cog in something turning / Well maybe it is just the time of year / Or maybe it’s the time of man / I don’t know who I am / But you know life is for learning / We are stardust / We are golden / And we’ve got to get ourselves / Back to the garden”

Dave Goulder
Christy Moore – January Man
Dave Goulder once worked on the steam railways as a footplate man before going to live in the Scottish highlands to run a climbing centre in the Torridon hills. He is now an expert in drystonewalling. This is one of those rare songs which work equally well as a poem. Heads up to Christy Moore by the way who has popularised so many great songs.

Phil Ochs
Phil Ochs – Jim Dean of Indiana

Phil Ochs was a folk singer and political activist remembered mainly for the many protest songs that he wrote in the 1960s, but he also had a mellifluous voice and an ability to write a beautiful ballad. This number is his tribute to the Hollywood actor James Dean : I was so pleased to finally get hold of a digital version of the song.

Bernie Taupin
Elton John – Your Song
Bernie Taupin was only 19 when he wrote these lyrics. Over 40 years its reputation as one of the great love songs has grown and grown. In that time Taupin has penned lyrics of hundreds more songs for Elton John : they have another studio album due out later in 2010.

Don van Vliet
Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band – Lick My Decals Off, Baby
Legendary avant garde experimental music released on Frank Zappa’s Straight Records label. Here’s how Rolling Stone reviewed the album : “If anything, Beefheart’s word-collection is just as anti-lyrical as a computer’s wet dream. But, it’s just as clear that that’s what the venerable Captain had in mind. His personal lyric tradition is as thoroughly grounded in amoral nonsense as Bob Dylan’s is fixed in moral conviction. The sense of Beefheart’s lyrics is contained in the fantasy of taking the “real world” into the Hall of Mirrors and discovering that you can’t tell the difference between the reality and the distorted reflection.” Actually the lyrics to this song are rather splendid. For the uninitiated, decals are temporary tattoos.

Don McLean

Don McLean – American Pie
One of the most talked about and analysed songs ever recorded. Don McLean himself has added little to the debate – “”You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me … sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.” The song’s magic is still fresh for me and it was pretty much the first song down on this list.

Bill Withers

Bill Withers – Lean On Me
His songs seem simple but they have so much soul : as well as this one, check out Ain’t No Sunshine, Just the two of us, Lovely Day.

Neil Young
Neil Young – The Needle and the Damage Done
Beautifully written song about the descent into heroin addiction of guitarist Danny Whitten and the destructive impact of heroin generally. Whitten died on 18 November 1972, aged 29.

Ron Miller & Michael Masser
Diana Ross – Touch Me In The Morning
First big hit for Michael Masser, who went on to write dozens of hit love songs including Saving All My Love For You, Do You Know Where You’re Going To (Theme From Mahogany), and Miss You Like Crazy.

Gram Parsons
Gram Parsons feat Emmylou Harris – A Song for You
After spells with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons finally released his debut solo album in 1973. A few months later he was dead, aged 26 – having died of a morphine overdose in Joshua Tree California. Neither his debut album nor the posthumously released follow up achieved any commercial success, but his influence has been acknowledged by many artists. You can see it in the work of Emmylou Harris who sang on both his albums, and in the music of The Eagles, Tom Petty, Black Crowes and U2. Emmylou Harris said “I’ve always tried to celebrate and promote Gram’s music, and if I have any kind of influence on anybody, it’s because of the influence Gram had on me.”

Tom Waits
Tom Waits – I hope I don’t fall in love with you
Tom Waits brings a depth to songwriting that few others have achieved, with his gift for storytelling, his emotional honesty, his compelling voice, and his apparently inexhaustible fund of worldly experience.

Janis Ian
Janis Ian – At Seventeen
The song is emotionally acute – it captures the pain that teenagers go through – but also intelligent – it explains that winning the teenage popularity stakes is a transitory thing. Janis Ian says she initially did not want to record or perform the song because she felt it was far too personal to share, but eventually changed her mind after adding the song’s final verses (“To those of us who knew the pain / Of Valentines that never came…”).

Curtis Mayfield
Curtis Mayfield – Billy Jack

In 1970 Curtis Mayfield left the Impressions and began a solo career during which his music, along with that of Marvin Gaye, would change the character of rhythm and blues, introducing more conscious lyrics with a militant, harder edge.

Richard Thompson
Richard & Linda Thompson – A Heart Needs A Home
I thought this was a song about feeling lonely and needing love – “The world’s no place when you’re on your own / A heart needs a home”. Although it’s deliberately written this way, it’s also a very spiritual song – it was the first song that Thompson wrote after converting to Islam.

Eric Bogle

Eric Bogle – Green Fields of France / No Man’s Land
According to his Bogleography the Scottish born folk songwriter had a series of dead end jobs as a young man “and in fact he was sacked from a couple of them for ‘attitude’ problems. This
problem has, unfortunately, never been corrected.” In 1969 he emigrated to Australia where he still lives and performs. This song about the First World War is one of my favourite songs of all time; his other classic is The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.

Jean Ritchie

Jean Ritchie – The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore

Born to a musical family the youngest of 14 children, Jean Ritchie learned to play the mountain dulcimer by imitating her father, who forbade her and everyone else in the family from playing it. With the unvarnished honesty of her singing and her dulcimer playing she played a significant part in the folk revival of the 50s and 60s. She is the custodian of the Ritchie family’s vast collection of Appalachian mountain ballads. This is one of her songs, about the decline of a coal mining town. In December 2009 she suffered a serious stroke but I’m pleased to report that she’s regained some of her faculties and was able to return home in June 2010.

Tom Paxton
Dave Van Ronk – Did you hear John Hurt ?

Tom Paxton ranks second only to Bob Dylan as one of the outstanding folk singer songwriters to emerge from the Greenwich Village scene of the early 1960s. Here another man from the Village, Dave van Ronk, sings a Paxton song about one of their musical heroes, the country blues singer Mississippi John Hurt.

Chris Difford & Glenn Tilbrook
Squeeze – Up The Junction
A story of London working class life, told in colloquial prose and put to music. There’s a great flow to it, despite the absence of a hook or a chorus. Chris Difford : “I wrote all the lyrics for the band and each song writing session would start with me turning up with a bunch of words, about 20/25 full sheets of finished song lyrics with no tunes. Glenn would then spend some time working out the better ones and putting tunes to them.”

Björn Ulvaeus & Benny Andersson
ABBA – Winner Takes It All
Bjorn Ulvaeus: “I think the secret behind the fact that our songs are still around and that ABBA became so big is a lot of factors together. But one of them was definitely that we put so much effort into song writing. We hardly ever toured, we just wrote and wrote and produced the records over a period of seven or eight years. So it’s the songs, plus I think the two girls, the voices — the blend was unique and very special.”
Benny Andersson : “I think any songwriter has standards they want to maintain. Once you realise you’re capable of writing good music, you need to keep coming up with the good stuff. That means getting rid of the rubbish you might occasionally produce. It all comes down to the feeling you have in your guts. You have to learn to trust that feeling. Also, you have to make sure that the song has something good about it early on. No amount of great production will save a bad song. ”

Bob Marley
Bob Marley & the Wailers – Redemption song
The song’s best line “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds” is lifted from a speech by Marcus Garvey, seen as an inspirational figure by Rastafarians. But Bob Marley’s songs transcend Garveyism. He’s not just calling on Africans to realise their potential, he’s invoking a redemption which is universal and absolute – as in the song One Love where he says “I’m pleading to mankind”.

Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher & Melle Mel
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five – The Message
“A child is born with no state of mind / Blind to the ways of mankind / God is smiling on you but he’s frowning too / Because only God knows what you’ll go through / You’ll grow in the ghetto, living second rate / And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate / The places you’re playin’, where you stay / Looks like one great big alley way”. It’s so great that one of the most revered rap songs of all time is a magnificently written lyrics-led piece which talks about the ghetto with brutal honesty, not trying to glorify it or give street cred to the singer.

Joe Strummer & Mick Jones
The Clash – Straight to Hell
From Wikipedia : “Like those of many songs by the Clash, the lyrics of Straight to Hell decry injustice. The first verse refers to the shutting down of steel mills in northern England and the alienation and racism suffered by immigrants despite their attempts to integrate into British society. The second verse concerns the abandonment of children in Vietnam who were fathered by American soldiers during the Vietnam War. The third verse contrasts the American dream as seen through the eyes of an Amerasian child with a dystopian vision of American reality. The final verse considers the plight of immigrants throughout the world … The last line of the song, “King Solomon never lived round here,” condenses at least three attributes associated with the biblical figure of King Solomon: his love of dance (thus referring back to the singing and dancing of immigrants throughout the song), his purported wisdom and justice, and finally the promise of a return from exile to a land or, as Strummer would suggest, a world of peace and prosperity.”

Billy Bragg

Jamie T – A New England
The opening lines of the song – “I was 21 years when I wrote this song / I’m 22 now, but I won’t be for long” are identical to the opening lines of the Simon & Garfunkel song Leaves that are Green. But what follows is fresh and exciting – you feel like you’re hearing a 21 year old talking about his life, and the lyrics are spot on – “Though I put you on a pedestal they put you on the pill”. I rather like the Jamie T cover from 2006.

The Police – Every Breath You Take
This dark song was written by Sting after the breakup of his first marriage. It’s a song about unrequited love and is seen by many as a stalker song.

Stan Rogers
Stan Rogers – Tiny fish for Japan
Stan Rogers was a Canadian traditional folk singer and songwriter who died in an aviation accident at the age of 33. He’s left behind a rich legacy of songs (this is one of a number which have been released posthumously). When CBC’s Peter Gzowski asked Canadians to pick an alternate national anthem, his song Northwest Passage was the overwhelming choice.

Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne – In The Shape Of A Heart
In the 60s and 70s the LA district of Laurel Canyon was a remarkable community where a number of songwriters and other artists came to live and get a creative buzz from one another : among them Buffalo Springfield, Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Eagles, Carole King and James Taylor. Few were more highly regarded than Jackson Browne. I have to admit I find some of his songs rather dreary and introspective, but I have no reservations about recommending this one, a deeply reflective song about the death of his first wife Phyllis, who committed suicide in 1976.

John Hiatt

John Hiatt Have a Little Faith in Me
Great sounding blues-rock ballad with piano. He’s had 11 Grammy nominations, but I liked this tribute : “You know he’s good when artists like Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, and Joe Cocker do his songs. What a compliment from other great artists. Each of the artists have had a big hit with a Hiatt song.”

Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder – Free
Not one of his better known songs, but the lyrics sound beautiful and flow perfectly – he’s as naturally gifted a songwriter as he is a singer and a musician.

Prince – Sign O the Times
Prince is an artist who’s always challenging himself, exploring different styles while looking to create music that genuinely stands out from the crowd. As a songwriter he’s written some remarkably diverse hits, including Kiss, Manic Monday, and Nothing Compares 2 U.

Shane MacGowan & Jem Finer
The Pogues – Fairytale of New York
Only the Pogues could start their Christmas song with the line “It was christmas eve babe / In the drunk tank”. There’s so much to love about this song : the broken promises and broken lives are real, but so is the hope of something more than this. There’s like a continual interplay between hope and cynicism, and in the quickfire dialogue between Shane and Kirsty MacColl it’s Shane who surprisingly proves to be the romantic : ‘I could have been someone’ / ‘Well so could anyone / You took my dreams from me / When I first found you’ / ‘I kept them with me babe / I put them with my own / Can´t make it out alone / I´ve built my dreams around you.’

Tracy Chapman

Tracy Chapman Baby can I hold you
Her sudden success in 1988 was a big surprise : her honest lyric driven ballads bucked the trend for big productions and upbeat dance-oriented numbers. This is a song that will be sung long after most of those 80s hits have been forgotten.

Van Morrison

Van Morrison – Have I told you lately
Without counting, I think there’s more songs on this list about breakups or being out of love than being happy and in love. To me, in love songs just often aren’t very original or memorable. This is a great in love song.

Elvis Costello & Paul McCartney
Elvis Costello – Veronica
This sweet and touching song was inspired by Elvis Costello visiting his aging grandmother and seeing her succumb to Alzheimers. “Well she used to have a carefree mind of her own / and a delicate look in her eye / these days I’m afraid she’s not even sure if her / name is Veronica”.

Gang Starr – Jazz Music
Respect to Guru, who died on April 19 2010. This is his greatest work. It’s not like any other hip hop track you ever heard – the song is a condensed history of jazz music. Gang Starr were an alternative hip hop duo whose music was influenced by jazz rhythms.

Shawn Colvin & John Leventhal
Shawn Colvin – Cry Like An Angel (Colvin, John Leventhal 1989)
She says that songwriting never came naturally to her. Shaun Colvin was a bit of a late developer as a songwriter, helped by a fruitful collaboration with John Leventhal. But her emotionally honest songs and graceful singing have won her many fans and a good few awards.

David Tyson & Christopher Ward
Alannah Miles – Black Velvet
Tribute to Elvis Presley : “Up in Memphis the music’s like a heat wave / White lightning, bound to drive you wild. / Mama’s baby’s in the heart of every school girl / Love me tender leaves ’em cryin’ in the aisle / The way he moved, it was a sin, so sweet and true.” Apparently Ward wrote the song after making a Canadian TV special about Elvis Presley.

Tori Amos

Tori Amos – Silent All These Years
Tori Amos is a multitalented pianist, singer and songwriter. Like many of her songs this is lyrically rich and complex, it feels like the singer is soul searching. The meaning is elusive at times, but at least in part it’s about a woman in a dead end relationship with a man who doesn’t love or appreciate her.

Nick Cave
Nick Cave – Christina The Astonishing
Australia’s greatest songwriter has also tried his hand at screenwriting and writing novels. This dramatic and haunting song is his interpretation of the life story of a 12th century holy woman.

Trent Reznor

Johnny Cash – Hurt
This magnificent cover version of a rock song by the Nine Inch Nails was as big a surprise to the writer as to anybody else : “I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.”

Greg Brown
Greg Brown – Lord I have made you a place in my heart
Greg Brown is a folk singer singwriter from Iowa who has released something like 27 albums and established his own record label, the excellent Red House Records http://www.redhouserecords.com/. One of his daughters, Pieta Brown, is another singer songwriter well worth a listen. Despite the title this isn’t really a religious song – the singer is contemplating his life and addressing his thoughts to a God that he only half believes in.

Steve Earle

Steve Earle – You Know the Rest
Steve Earle’s latest album, from 2009, was a homage to his musical mentor Townes Van Zandt – it included covers of 15 Van Zandt songs. His son, the singer Justin Townes Earle, was named in honour of Van Zandt. Anyway I love this song because it makes me smile and I feel the need for more humour in this list.

Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings

Gillian Welch – Caleb Meyer
Her music is inspired by oldtime folk, country and blues. On this number she tells a story about a female character who kills a man who’s tried to rape her.

Lauryn Hill
Lauryn Hill – When It Hurts So Bad
From the outstanding album of the decade, this song explores the emotional complexities of having loved and lost – sung with great passion.

Brendan Graham, music by Rolf Løvland
Celtic Woman – You Raise Me Up
Back again with the Londonderry Air – the melody on which Danny Boy was based. The lyrics were written by Brendon Graham, a songwriter and novelist responsible for composing four of Ireland’s Eurovision entries, two of which won the competition. In less than ten years this song’s been covered well over 100 times and has been adopted by countless people and groups as a favourite inspirational song.

Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton – Hello God
Yes, Dolly Parton, writer of over 3,000 original songs including such classics as I Will Always Love You and Jolene. This song was written a few days after 9/11. She just pours out all her feelings, her anguish and confusion, and the final verse of the song is a heartrending plea to God to somehow show mercy and make things right.

Linda Perry
Christina Aguilera – Beautiful
In the early 90s Linda Perry found success as singer for the group 4 Non Blondes, but in the last decade she’s been constantly in demand as a producer and songwriter with a golden touch. This song transformed the career of Christina Aguilera who’d previously been known mainly for the teen smash Genie in a Bottle. A few of the other artists she’s collaborated with are Alicia Keys, Pink, Gwen Stefani and Courtney Love.

Amy Winehouse & Saleem Remi

Amy Winehouse – F**k me pumps
She makes music that sounds like a take on Billie Holiday, but she has a unique voice and the lyrics are fresh, direct and original. It’s a winning combination. On this track she satirises moneygrabbing women.

Bill Anderson & Jon Randall
Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss – Whiskey Lullaby
From the first line – “She put him out / Like the burnin’ end of a midnight cigarette” – the song gets progressively sadder and sadder. Bill Anderson and Jon Randall are both successful country music singers.


Roesy – Paperboat

Roesy is a mellow tender hearted singer songwriter little known outside his native Ireland. This is a beautiful in love song.

James McMurtry

James McMurtry We can’t make it here
“Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin / Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I’m in? / Should I hate ‘em for having our jobs today? / No I hate the man that sent the jobs away.” One of the greatest social commentary songs ever written.

Anais Mitchell

Anais Mitchell – Your Fonder Heart
One of the most exciting songwriting talents around, Anaïs Mitchell lives in a 200 year old farmhouse in rural Vermont and writes songs described by one critic “as intimate as conversations and as rich in detail as short stories. ”

Mary Gauthier
Mary Gauthier – Last of the Hobo Kings
Ode to Steam Train Maury, who died in November 2006 at the age of 89. From the NY Times obituary : “During the Depression, more than a million desperate people rode the rails in search of work. They were admired as much as pitied. John Steinbeck called hobos ‘the last free men,’ and by the late 19th century, hobos had formed their own tongue-in-cheek union, Tourist Union Local 63 … [Maury] Graham was one of the last of the authentic, undisputed, old-time hobos. He gave the crowds what they were looking for, including a flowing white beard, a walking stick decorated with owl feathers, and stories about friends like Frying Pan Jack. He emphasized that hobos are not bums, winos or reprobates. ‘A hobo is a man of the world, who travels to see and observe and then shares those views with others,’ he said.”

Patty Griffin
Patty Griffin – Someone Else’s Tomorrow

On her magnificent 5th album, Children Running Through, from which this song is taken, the lyrics are beautiful but pared back, and there is more emphasis on her voice and the melody. “Griffin wants to make her music more accessible still, hence the new focus on simpler song lyrics. For her, the litmus test is the songwriting economy of Willie Nelson and Cindy Walker, ‘Texans that know how to nail it with, like, three words per line,’ she says. ‘You go and see somebody like Willie, and every single person right to the back row is engaged. As much of a genius as I think Bob Dylan is, I think there’s something about making music that everybody can sing…I don’t know very many people who can sing along with Hurricane. This all kind of grew out of getting up on stage on my last tour and really wanting my audience to be more engaged with the music, and realizing that I think some of my music was a little too complex for them to do that with.'”

Gabriel Teodros
Gabriel Teodros – In This Together
Gabriel Teodros is a hip hop artist and a teacher from Seattle. His mother is Ethiopian and he identifies himself as an Ethiopian American. A left wing political activist, he pours his knowledge and his ideas into his songs. His style is gentle and intelligent yet fearless and outspoken. His next album is due out later in 2010.

Amir Sulaiman
Amir Sulaiman – 82nd & MacArthur (ft. Sugar Johnson)
Amir Sulaiman is a Muslim spoken word poet and hip hop artist from Rochester New York. This is like a prose poem set to music (if that makes any sense). The lyrics are fresh and startling and flow beautifully.

Vusi Mahlasela
Vusi Mahlasela feat Jem – Everytime
South African singer songwriter who performed at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994 and at the World Cup kick off concert in Soweto on June 10 2010. There is such beauty, soul and wisdom in his lyrics and in his voice.

Tift Merritt

Tift Merritt – Things that everybody does
What songs from 2010 will stand the test of time ? Here’s my pick. Tift Merritt is a singer songwriter from North Carolina. Emmylou Harris said of her “I first heard Tift Merritt some years ago during a writers night at a small club in Nashville. She stood out like a diamond in a coal patch, and everyone there knew she carried a promise of great things to come.”


  1. Nick – this is great. It came almost instantly, so no worries about time to download. I’ve been enjoying some of the really old ones. Sandra

  2. Some excellent choices there. To see Annette Hanshaw in there was a very pleasant surprise as she is one of my favourite singers. Haven’t looked through the rest of the site yet. But the other 2 I would agree with are Janis Ian, At 17 and Dolly Parton, Hello God

  3. Great Stuff, lots of interest and deep research well done, music that brings back memories for many people.

    If you were to make an hour long CD, music of your choice, maybe with older people in mind, quite possible to play this on Vintage Radio, get in touch.
    http://www.vintageradio.org.uk check it out

  4. Brilliant list Nick as usual, some of my favourites are there, Janis Ian and Jimmy Cliff in particular took me back to special times in my life. xx

  5. Loved the list…..found a few gems that I must have missed over the years…but no matter how much we love music its like food we will never taste it all.Would like to have seen John Prine in there somewhere and maybe Gordon Lightfoot. But job well done.

  6. Townes Van Zandt Pancho and Lefty?

  7. Great effort and great contribution. Thanks

  8. Hi, i think that i saw you visited my weblog thus i
    came to “return the favor”.I’m attempting to find things to improve my website!I suppose its ok to use some of your ideas!!

  9. Whoa! This blog looks exactly like my old one!

    It’s on a completely different topic but it has pretty much the same page layout and design. Wonderful choice of colors!

  10. more like the 100 most wimpiest songs in the last 100 years

  11. Enjoyed hugely and I love that it ended on Tift Merrit, who is so overlooked but such a talent. However – no Strange Fruit and no This Land is Your Land? What debarred them?

  12. This is phenomenal!! I love the criteria by which you selected the songs, and the way you presented everything. It’s like a diamond in the rough for me, and am finding amazing songs I may have never came across. Thank you for taking the time put this together, and awesome work!


  13. What an incredible collection of ballads! I, too, am most impressed by your criteria and the resultant quality of songs and recordings. I, too, have not been exposed to some of these wonderful ballads before, and I consider myself pretty well versed in this genre. I cannot begin to imagine the hours you spent in researching these songs and weighing the relative merits of songs you included and those you not. Please know that your time was well spent, and that you now have many a fan, even if they do not comment here. A thousand thanks yous!

    Just one thing……..I beg you, please make a Best Ballads II Collection comprised of the ballads you did not include here!

  14. Nothing by John Denver, James Taylor, Carole King, Anne Murray, Neil Diamond, Gordon Lightfoot, Emmylou Harris, Don Williams, Dan Fogelberg, Michael Martin Murphy, and Kenny Logins? Wow, you’re missing some of the most beautiful ballads ever sung or written!

  15. Great Article. ideas – I was fascinated by the points . Does anyone know if I could possibly get a template Form I-360 – USCIS document to fill in ?

  16. Many of the links do not work, for reason of copyright infringement or other.

  17. Great list, and site..Have you heard ‘I was only nineteen’ by Redgum? A song about an Aussie kid going to Vietnam. Rip your heart out.


  18. wow just wow

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