7 incredible songwriters with lyrics that are pure poetry and melodies that are mindblowing

It is probably fair to say that Bob Dylan is without an equal in the modern living songwriter stakes. But there are several other lyrical and melodic masters that you may not have heard that are deserving of your attention . For some of you, these names are not new and for others only a handful may be familiar. Either way, all of them will hopefully resonate with you and open a new world or extend existing ones. I urge you to seek out more of their work and listen to it. There is nothing quite like the joy of discovering a fantastic new musician or poet and then realising that they have a huge body of work to dive into. Life is good to us sometimes! — Kalle

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1. John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats)

The Mountain Goats are one of those best-kept-secret bands that are whispered about in hushed reverence by those who know about them. I am one such fan, but I want to shout about them. John Darnielle is one of the great living songwriters and each song brims with intelligence and humanity. He began his songwriting career by recording songs onto hissy tapes on a boombox and garnered a deserved cult following. In recent years he has released full studio albums (often incredibly realised concept albums) and enlisted the help of talented bandmates to produce glorious, gorgeous songs about the world we live in. Many of Darnielle’s songs manage to tell a compelling story with great characters, while swinging around a hooky melody and killer chord changes. All in 4 minutes. All delivered in his trademark, arresting singing voice. Yep. John Darnielle rules.

What album should I start with? Tallahassee

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2. Jeff Tweedy (Wilco)

When they put together those lists of the best bands and albums of all time, Wilco rarely show up on them. But anyone who knows their music and who has seen their live shows know that they might not be the most popular but they are the best. Jeff Tweedy writes songs with such invention, melody and emotion that you would be hard pushed to find many better living songwriters with such a volume of high quality songs. From the alt-country simplicity and beauty of a song like “Box Full Of Letters” to the brainbending oddity of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart“, Tweedy has the capacity to wrap words around chords in a truly compelling and original way. History will remember him as one of the greats.

What album should I start with? Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

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3. Katell Keineg

I remember when I first heard Katell Keineg’s album “O Seasons O Castles” years ago and being struck by how exquisitely crafted it was, both musically and lyrically. And that voice. Oh my goodness. That voice elevated the entire experience to a near spiritual experience. Some time later I saw her in Whelans and that elegant songwriting seemed to extend to her magnetic presence on stage. Every single song was spellbinding and inspirational. Do yourself a favour and immerse yourself in her songs. You will arise refreshed.

What album should I start with? O Seasons O Castles

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4. Ed Hamell (Hamell on Trial)

Ed Hamell is a one-man folk punk band with explosive songs that tell wild tales of working in upstate New York, delicate ballads about love, powerful political treatises and hilarious stories of a life well lived. To see him live is to witness a hurricane of profanity and sincerity wrapped up in lyrical complexity and cool chords. As a test of his own songwriting skills, he recently embarked on a project where he wrote a song a day for over 440 days! A great songwriter with songs that kick you hard, just as quickly as they tickle your funny bone and tackle your conscience. A true original

What album should I start with? Ed’s Not Dead: Hamell Comes Alive

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5. Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse)

Alas, Mark Linkous is no longer with us but he left a legacy of incredible layered, inventive songs. I first heard Sparklehorse open up for Radiohead on the OK Computer tour, but my brain wasn’t ready to hear the brilliance on offer. Years later I heard a friend play “Piano Fire” on an acoustic guitar and the stripped back simplicity of the song revealed the pure poetry of Mark Linkous’ songwriting. I immediately returned to my Sparklehorse albums and marveled at the potent production as much as the poetic lyrics. I dare you to listen and not find magic within the layers.

What album should I start with? It’s a Wonderful Life

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6. Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams is probably one of the more well-known names on this list thanks to his songs “When The Stars Go Blue” and “New York, New York“, but he has a wealth of incredible, captivating songs that are equally worthy of your ears. (He also does an unbelievable cover version of Wonderwall by Oasis.) Adams is a prolific songwriter and has managed to amass a body of work that stands alongside the very best out there. For me it is his ability to bring both melancholy and sweetness in the twist of a word or bend of a note that mark him out as a really great songwriter. Lyrically strong, melodically masterful, consistently brilliant.

What album should I start with? Heartbreaker

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7. Dan Bern

Dan Bern is a songwriter in the mould of Dylan and Guthrie, but with his own anarchic, witty songwriting twist. His songs tackle topics from the ridiculous to the sublime and always with real heart. Again, he is best experienced in a live setting, but on record he brings his quirky sensibility to the studio and delivers one fine song after another. His trademark, humorous take on the world shines through best in his marvellous “Tiger Woods” song. Once you have heard it, you will never be quite the same. Dan Bern is a truly prolific songwriter with the ability to write children’s albums as easily as powerful socially conscious albums for an older generation. One of the good guys.

What album should I start with? Fifty Eggs

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The brownbread mixtape is a free monthly comedy, poetry & music show in the Stag’s Head pub in Dublin, Ireland.

Each  show has a theme. Each act does a performance based on the theme. We all have loads of fun. Simple as that.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “7 incredible songwriters with lyrics that are pure poetry and melodies that are mindblowing

  1. Fergal

    Interesting selection. Thoroughly agree with John Darnielle. He’s an incredible songwriter. Tallahassee is a fantastic album – so dark and defiant and desperately beautiful. Some tunes on that album really pack a punch. My two favourite tracks have to be “See America Right” and the tempest at rock bottom that’s “No Children.” I regularly find myself singing “I hope you die/I hope we both die” even when i’m in a good mood. The Sunset Tree is another classic Darnielle offering for me. I wish i had it back in the late 80’s./early 90’s when i was a confused, angst-pocked angry teenager Brilliant stuff and it was a real treat to see (and hear!) him play in Whelan’s earlier on this year. He sure smiles a lot for a guy that rights some million mile and hour murky songs. God speed his return to Ireland for another show.

    Ryan Adams did it for me with Heartbreaker. A sweet and sour album that’s wonderfully crafted. I kind of lost touch with him after Gold – it was overproduced and samey in my opinion. He fell off my radar after Rock n Roll so i’m not really qualified to comment much more (don’t let that stop you says you!).

    Anyway – can’t fault a single selection. Dan Bern was new to me and i really enjoyed that track you posted above. It will be shared via the many headed portals of social media and i will track down Fifty Eggs on your recommendation. Let that rest heavy on your shoulders.

    For me there’s a plethora of other contenders but Califone’s “Quicksand/Cradlesnakes” is a beauty that immediately springs to mind. I also think Gruff Rhys is a great man to pen a tune or two (i’ve posted one of my favourites below – please don’t berate me for its apparent mawkishness). Sure lookit – i could go on but my mouth would get dry and there’s a hole in my kitchen where the Guinness tap should be. See yis for the final show of 2011 on the 30th. Looking forward to the surprises!!

    • brownbreadmixtape

      Thanks for your lengthy and considered reply Fergal.

      It was such a pleasure to see The Mountain Goats at Whelans this year. What a rare treat for Irish audiences. I caught them a few times in New York and were always fantastic. Such verve, energy, wit and emotion.

      Ryan Adams has been a firm favourite of mine , even through occasional missteps like Rock n Roll. I adore most of his records. I highly recommend picking up his double album Cold Roses. As good as Heartbreaker , but with a fuller sound.

      I’m a big fan of Califone too and have a plethora of favourites by them. Gruff Rhys is one of those names that pops up time and again, so thanks for posting, I will definitely seek out more.

      Cheers!

  2. Fergal

    Bah! I said “rights” instead of “writes”! That’s going to bother me for a while.

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  5. There’s an unresolvable difficulty talking about songs as poems. It’s considered acceptable for a song to simply depict a single emotion intensely, and that’s what the most famous songs by even some of our best poet-songwriters do, like “Yesterday” by Paul McCartney or “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Dylan.

    There is a sharp division of opinion over whether this is acceptable in poetry. In the 18th century, the metaphysical poets went out of style, artists of all stripes felt threatened by science and rebelled against it, and we began the shift to romantic poetry, which tended to be simple-minded, one-note poems about single, intense emotions. If you go through the Norton Anthology of Poetry, you’ll find it full of poems like this: “Captain, my Captain”, “Annabel Lee”, etc.

    There’s also a sharp division over whether poetry should tell the reader what to think, or invite the reader to think. The former was the rule from Plato up into the 16th century, and then from the late 17th into the 18th century; the latter, from Blake to the present day. (This is why we call Shakespeare great; he happened to live in a narrow window of time when people were allowed to write interesting literature.)

    So 20th century poets, like TS Eliot or Cleanth Brooks, call most 19th century poems, especially the popular ones, sentimental, simple, and, well, bad. (I agree. “Annabel Lee”, for God’s sake.) Great poems today (ignoring the additional requirements of modernism and post-modernism, which are stupid and the main reason real poets have defected to music) are supposed to have some tension between opposing thoughts or feelings, and/or make the reader think.

    It’s not as well accepted that a good song has to do either of those things. So I’m skeptical when people talk about Dylan as a great poet; yes, he wrote some songs that make good poetry, but hardly anyone knows those ones. People like his simple songs. Most poets would consider those ones bad poetry. Leonard Cohen is a better example of a songwriter whose songs have the qualities of poems that are praised by good critics (by which I mean critics who concern themselves with poetry rather than with sociology, e.g., no one after 1960).

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