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Self_Consuming_Cannibal's avatar

As far as music goes, who do you think is the greatest lyricist of all time?

Asked by Self_Consuming_Cannibal (4246 points ) December 31st, 2012

What do you think sets them apart and/or makes them better than everyone else? If you have an example of a favorite line, verse and/or chorus, feel free to share.

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30 Answers

linguaphile's avatar

I’ve been an avid lyrics collector for almost 30 years and love many lyricists.

Just to pick one… For much of his work, but not all, one of the lyricists I like the best is Prince. His lyrics often are clever, fun, frank and use words in unique and unexpected combinations that still carry lots of meaning. Unfortunately, he became really weird and reclusive—making it harder to access his music and lyrics these days. A few I like, off the top of my head…

“Until the end of time, I’ll be there for u
You own my heart and mind, I truly adore u,
If God one day struck me blind, your beauty I’d still see
Love is 2 weak to define, just what u mean 2 me…”

“Money don’t matter 2 night, it sure didn’t matter yesterday
Just when you think u’ve got more than enough
That’s when it all up and flies away, that’s when u find out u’re better off
Makin’ sure your soul’s alright, cuz money didn’t matter yesterday,
And it sure don’t matter 2 night

“Like a wildcat in a celibate rage, I want u in my dirty little cage…”

“Could u be, the most beautiful girl in the world, could u be…
It’s plain to see, u’re the reason God made a girl…”

“Which one of us is right, if we always fight,
Why can’t we just let love decide
Am I the weaker man, cause I understand that love must be the master plan?”

“Women not girls rule my world”

“If I gave you diamonds and pearls, would you really be a happy boy or a girl
If I could, I would give you the world, but all I can do is offer you my love.”

“If you set your mind free, baby, maybe you’ll understand…”

I also like lyrics by U-2, Sarah MacLachlan, Ani Defranco—I tend to like creative lyrics that read like poetry the best.

Bellatrix's avatar

Oh too hard to pick. I love Paul Simon’s lyrics. I think he is a poet. Look at the lyrics to Dangling Conversation or The Boxer. Just beautiful.

I also like David Gray’s work.

That’s two off the top of my head. Not saying they are the ‘best’ lyricists because tomorrow I might think of someone else.

jrpowell's avatar

For my favorite song lyrics would be Die Jugend Marschiert by Propagandhi.

“Welcome to the offices of Economic and Manpower Analyses here at our historic and sprawling West Point Academy campus! My name is Mindy! It is my distinct pleasure to introduce you to a loving father of three (and a champion of the sanctioned use of armed force in pursuit of policy objectives). Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the project director of our newest recruitment strategy; our mission to staff future combat systems through current technologies. Without any further ado, I give to you Colonel Casey Wardynski!”

“Thank you! Let me begin with some sentimental appeals to our national myths; assorted clichés coined by the state; the ideological shorthand meant to sweep your private doubts [away] of this virtual training course. This portal; this Trojan Horse that you living idiots paid for and actually rolled into your own kids’ rooms.”

“Oops, did I just say that out loud? Oh, well, it’s not like it’s something new. It’s just the logical extension of the decades of bilge water that you’ve let us pump into your homes. The pink noise that hums away in the background while you run the gauntlet we force on you everyday. The billowing candy floss that helps to soften the blow. Deep down you’ve always known that your children already belong to us, so why don’t you cut the outraged parent routine, shut your mouth and get back in your seat. Your children already belong to us. What are you? You will pass on. And they won’t know a fucking thing but this ‘community,’ this real life Ender’s Game. Forget what you think you know.”

flutherother's avatar

I don’t like Leonard Cohen’s singing but his lyrics stick in my mind. For example ‘Suzanne’.

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China

Shippy's avatar

If you place a thing into the center of your life
That lacks the power to nourish
It will eventually poison everything that you are
And destroy you

As simple a thing as an idea
Or your perspective on yourself of the world
No one can be the source of your content,
It lies within, in the center.

- Faithless-Liontamer

syz's avatar

Bob Dylan is certainly a better songwriter than singer.

janbb's avatar

Noel Coward
Flanders and Swann
Bob Dyland
Phil Ochs
Arthur Sullivan

ucme's avatar

John Winston Lennon, the penguin stole my alternative choice in Noel Coward, we englishmen don’t even know what the midday sun is, let alone go out in it with our dawgs :¬)

SuperMouse's avatar

The first name that pops into my head is Paul Simon. As @Bellatrix says, listen to The Boxer or Sounds of Silence those lyrics are just mind blowingly wonderful. Next I thought of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Those are of course all from a specific genre and when it comes to things such as opera and show tunes, I would be out of my depth to try to name some. Of newer rock/pop performers I say Eddie Vedder and Ben Folds.

amujinx's avatar

There is currently a petition on the White House website to make John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats the nation’s poet laureate. While I agree that his lyrics are that good, I’m not sure how his usual subject matter would work in that position. His lyrics tend to be about junkies, the mental disturbed and the falling apart of relationships, but they are descriptive enough that even if you haven’t actually experienced any of those, you feel for the people the song is about.

“Who’s here, just us
Nobody else around
Stray electrical currents
Trying to find the ground” – Butter Teeth

‘And the sun peeks in
Like a killer through the curtain” – First Few Desperate Hours

“How long will we ride this way about?
How long ‘till someone caves under the pressure?
My dreams are haunted by armies, armies of ghosts
Faces too blurry to make out, numbers far too high to measure
Your face like a vision straight out of Holly Hobby
Late light drizzling through your hair” – Idylls of the King

“In old movies people scream
Choking on their fists when they see shadows like these
But no one screams ‘cause it’s just me
Locked up in myself
Never gonna get free” – In Memory of Satan

marinelife's avatar

Richard Rodgers.

Leanne1986's avatar

Rock n Roll Dreams Come Thru and Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad, both by Meat Loaf have always been favourites of mine because of their lyrics written by Jim Steinman. Whetherhe’sthe greatest lyricist or not I couldn’t say but he’s certainly a bloody good one.

gailcalled's avatar

Stephen Sondheim, if I had to pick only one.

Followed closely by

Flanders and Swann (and the rest of @janbb‘s list)
Tom Lehrer
Alan Jay Lerner
Goethe
Lorenzo da Ponte

tups's avatar

Bob Dylan, no doubt at all.
Hs lyrics are intelligent, clever, sometimes even funny, beautiful, sad, provoking etc. And the use of metaphor, language and other makes it pure poetry.
But I don’t think he’s a bad singer like most people.

wundayatta's avatar

Are people seriously suggesting the lyrics they put forth here would make those lyricists good? What am I missing? They make little sense to me.

But then, I just don’t understand lyrics at all. I can rarely understand the words being sung in a song. Only if someone has perfect diction do I understand the words. Mostly it seems to me that lyrics mess up perfectly good music.

But don’t people write anything that I would find meaningful in lyrics? Or is that simply hopeless?

tups's avatar

Here’s a little piece of a Bob Dylan song, “Shelter From The Storm”, which is a great example of amazing lyrics:

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail,
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail,
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn.
“Come in,” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

Suddenly I turned around and she was standin’ there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair.
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns.
“Come in,” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

Now there’s a wall between us, somethin’ there’s been lost
I took too much for granted, got my signals crossed.
Just to think that it all began on a long-forgotten morn.
“Come in,” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

Well, the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount
But nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts
And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn.
“Come in,” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”

Read more at http://www.songmeanings.net/songs/view/57324/#W61h7vjGIF9CeJrG.99

glacial's avatar

I’ll add to the votes for Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
Also Joni Mitchell; here’s a piece of one of my favourites:

The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ‘68,
And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday
Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe
You laugh, he said you think you’re immune, go look at your eyes
They’re full of moon
You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you
All those pretty lies, pretty lies

bucko's avatar

Lil Wayne

MilkyWay's avatar

The first person that came to my mind when i saw this question was Bob Dylan.

Self_Consuming_Cannibal's avatar

@bucko While I find your answer completely offensive, I will give you lurve for giving me an answer.

Incoherency_'s avatar

Miles Davis & Dave Brubeck! ;-p

Self_Consuming_Cannibal's avatar

For me I would have to go with:
1) Kurt Cobain
2) Marilyn Manson

in that order.

bucko's avatar

Lil Wayne is smarter than he looks.

gailcalled's avatar

(^^^As are you..in spite of your energetic efforts to prove otherwise)

Self_Consuming_Cannibal's avatar

@bucko And for his sake let’s hope he’s smarter than he sounds too.

Pachy's avatar

You can’t do better than Cole Porter.

LET’S FALL IN LOVE
But that’s why birds do it,
Bees do it,
Even educated fleas do it,
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.

In Spain the best upper sets do it,
Lithuanians and Letts do it,
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.

The Dutch in old Amsterdam do it,
Not to mention the Finns,
Folks in Siam do it,
Think of Siamese twins.

Some Argentines without means do it,
People say in Boston even beans do it,
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.

Romantic sponges they say do it,
Oysters down in Oyster Bay do it,
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.

Cold Cape Cod clams ‘gainst their wish do it,
Even lazy jellyfish do it,
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.

Electric eels, I might add, do it,
Though it shocks ‘em I know,
Why ask if shads do it,
Waiter bring me shad roe.

In shallow shoals English soles do it,
Goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it,
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.

The dragonflies in the reeds do it,
Sentimental centipedes do it,
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.

Mosquitoes, heaven forbid, do it,
So does every katydid do it,
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.

The most refined ladybugs do it,
When a gentleman calls,
Moths in your rugs do it,
What’s the use of moth balls?

Locusts in trees do it,
Bees do it,
Even overeducated fleas do it,
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.

Let’s do it, let’s fall in love,
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love

Pachy's avatar

Gotta add Sting and John Mayer to the list. Check out the truth and beauty of the lyrics to each of their songs:

Mayer’s BELIEF

Is there anyone who
Ever remembers changing their mind from
The paint on a sign?
Is there anyone who really recalls
Ever breaking rank at all
For something someone yelled real loud one time

Everyone believes
In how they think it ought to be
Everyone believes
And they’re not going easily

Belief is a beautiful armor
But makes for the heaviest sword
Like punching under water
You never can hit who you’re trying for

Some need the exhibition
And some have to know they tried
It’s the chemical weapon
For the war that’s raging on inside

Everyone believes
From emptiness to everything
Everyone believes
And no one’s going quietly

We’re never gonna win the world
We’re never gonna stop the war
We’re never gonna beat this
If belief is what we’re fighting for

What puts a hundred thousand children in the sand
Belief can
Belief can
What puts the folded flag inside his mother’s hand
Belief can
Belief can

Sting’s FRAGILE
If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the colour of the evening sun
Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay
Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime’s argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are how fragile we are
How fragile we are how fragile we are

linguaphile's avatar

@Pachyderm_In_The_Room I agree with you about Sting. “Fragile” is one of my favorites by him. He was an English teacher before he became a singer and writes his own lyrics—I totally respect that.

Unbroken's avatar

Some great ones out there. But I wanted to give a shout out to one of old loves. Rich Terfry as Buck 65.

Roses and Bluejays
I’m not like my dad I would have to say
He’s been wearing a beard ever since mum passed away
she woulda hated it
Inspiring, he likes ro go to church to hear the choir sing ‘Roses and Bluejays’ Winner comes, game over
He’s in the driveway removing leaves with a flame thrower
Drives a hard bargain knows how to get the deals
Spring fever hits, he needs a new set of wheels
Every year it never fails Roaming around his hometown beach combing roses and bluejays I’m a lot like my father He knows he should go to work But sometimes he doesnmt bother Reads books of every sort Gets all the news from the weather report. The door stays open a few days and closes What’s more important then Bluejays and roses?

Son of a gun the old man is something else In addition to being a bullfighter and magician He’s a lazy mover, Slow moving train Future hall-of-famer Playing through the pain He’s a Grizzley Bear
And do you know one time he even saw a UFO My dad’s favorite things are Roses and Bluejays I would say we’re the same in more then a few ways

Full of beans and big ideas ‘Cause I can’t sleep I’m not sure why he is Wide awake and off to the races Out of gas and lost in space.

Wicked and Weird
He’s got a smile on his face and big shiny eyes Up at a decent hour, I never ate yet Got a little Johnny Cash in the old tape deck Nothing in the trunk but some baseball gloves A pair of jumper cables and a set of golf clubs Blanket on the back seat we’re in rough shape Sunroof held on with a bit of duct tape, Looking for a gas station, I need to take a piss, Sexy girl air freshener, Snacks and a pin wheel, Top off the fluids, Clean the bugs off the windshield.

Not a care in the world, not a how and a why, no destination, not a cloud in the sky back on the road not a moment too soon, dish ran away with some other spoon.

Wicked and weird I’m a road hog with an old dog singing slow songs. Trying to hold on wicked and weird I’m a rat fish trying to practice doing back flips on your mattress.

Hole in the muffler, ghosts on the shoulder. Cough drops,, loose change in the beverage holder to roll down the window you gotta use a wrench. Been thinking about brushing up on my french, Right there in the glove box, if you should look, You’ll find 40 parking tickets and the Good Book.

Don’t bother looking , you’ll never find me i’m starting from scratch and leaving troubles being me.

Wicked and weird I’m a road hog with and old dog singing slow songs trying to hold on Wicked and weird I’m a rat fish trying to practice doing back flips on your mattress.

Christ almighty there’s a rattle in the wheel well Dog fell asleep and man, I don’t feel well But all I need is a half decent breakfast, and I’ll be back at it, dirty and reckless.

5’o’clock shadow, lips like mudflaps, hands like eagles talons, eyes like hubcaps. The further I get, I keep going faster. Whispers in the wind, and cows in the pasture. I have no plans and nothing to prove either I eat out of a bag and sleep in a movie theater.

The highway a story teller, I just write it down. Already been beaten, there’s no way to fight it now. I just kick back and keep warm in the cold days. And laugh cause it ain’t like it was in the old days. I figure when I make it to the heavenly gates. They’ll be working on my car and playing 78’s.

Wicked and weird

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