Meanwhile, you can vote for the best lyricists ever here.
Words: Emily Mackay, Matt Wilkinson, Barry Nicolson, Mark Beaumont, Laura Snapes, Dan Martin, Sam Wolfson, Martin Robinson, Jaimie Hodgson
While Thom Yorke’s angst poetry was hardly shoddy as far back as ‘Creep’, the project he started on ‘The Bends’ was upgraded to a literary heavyweight with the band’s epochal third LP ‘OK Computer’. On it, Yorke spoke for a generation unsure of the future and baffled by the present, his great skill being to embed human emotions within an eerily detached view of the world.
With age, his lyrics have more grace and clarity, yet he’s still most effective with his teeth out. Perhaps his most powerful lyric is sparse ‘Harrowdown Hill’ on debut solo album ‘The Eraser’, written from the point of view of Dr David Kelly, the government weapons adviser who committed suicide over his involvement in events leading to the invasion of Iraq.DM
Key lyric: “Don’t walk the plank like I did/You will be dispensed with/When you become inconvenient” (‘Harrowdown Hill’, from ‘The Eraser’, 2006)
22 Bill Callahan
As Smog, Bill Callahan’s lyrics were a bleak cloud, expressing perverse desires in an uncomfortably close, scathing monotone – fantasising about your lover standing before the mourning congregation to eulogise about how you had sex in “the very graveyard where my body now rests” on ‘Dress Sexy At My Funeral’. Yet by making the decision to write under his own name three years ago, Callahan too was reborn, shedding both the old moniker and grievous atmosphere that went alongside it. “I used to be sorta blind/Now I can sorta see”, he sings on ‘Rococo Zephyr’ from ‘Sometimes…’, dabbling in newfangled happiness, without forsaking his trademark skepticism. LS
Key lyric: So bury me in wood and I will splinter/Bury me in stone and I will quake/Bury me in water and I will geyser/Bury me in fire and I’m gonna phoenix…” (‘Say Valley Maker’, from ‘A River Ain’t Too Much To Love’, 2005)
B&S’ verbose, rapier-witted frontman has spent much of his life on the fringe. He started writing when he was isolated in his Ayrshire bedroom with chronic fatigue syndrome for seven years, before a faith healer cured him and formented a fascination with Christianity. On recent outings Murdoch has come out from behind his characters a bit more and addressed some directly personal issues, first through songs such as the heart-wrenching ‘I’m A Cuckoo’ (which detailed his break-up with former band member Isobel Campbell) and then with last year’s semi-autobiographical side-project God Help The Girl. The comparisons with Morrissey are obvious. But while Stephen Patrick snarls, Stuart Murdoch celebrates. BN
Key lyric: “Your obsessions get you known throughout the school for being strange/Making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay” (‘Expectations’, from ‘Tigermilk’, 1996)
Like Jamie T – but really not– flapping a foppish fan around the masked balls of the Regency period, Wild Beasts utilise similar techniques but in a more classical, baroque manner: billowing out rhymes like powder tumbling from a three-foot wig, eschewing coherence in favour of expressionist imagery.
Theirs is stuff where double-meaning abounds: “This is a booty call/My boot up your arsehole/This is a Freudian slip/My slipper in your bits” goes ‘The Fun Powder Plot’, having already confounded us with “For the yippee-less swing/For the tot-less cot/For the mock, for the shock/For the fun powder plot”. Wild Beasts are masters of the Byronic turn of phrase. MB
Key lyric: “They passed me round them like a piece of meat/His hairy hands/His falling fists/His dancing cock/Down by his knees” (‘Two Dancers (i)’, from ‘Two Dancers’, 2009)
“Big-Jesus-soul-mates-trash-can” was the kind of thing Old Nick used to write back when he was a beatnik-junkie-vampire in The Birthday Party, and although he’s now more likely to be acclaimed at the Hay Festival Of Literature than in Berlin squats, he’s pretty much stood by that statement.
Yet after the hymn-like precision of songs on the PJ Harvey blubbering-over ‘The Boatman’s Call’ (“Stars have their moment and then they die”), he was lauded as a great master of the sorrowful love song, feted by The Guardian, analysed on the South Bank Show, respected. It was sickening. So what did Cavey do? Well, start Grinderman, a band with songs less about careful craft in a Brighton study and more about the spontaneous spraying of middle-aged spunk in a wall of feedback. “He drank panther piss, and fucked the girls you’re married to” he sang, like Ron Burgundy on cider-and-black.
For, despite the awards, the books, the highbrow acclaim, Old Nick knows that while perfect poem lyrics are lovely, when it comes to rock’n’roll there’s no match for just screaming about how fucking randy you are. MR
Key lyric: “I sent her every type of flower/I played the guitar by the hour/ I patted her revolting little Chihuahua/But still she just didn’t want to” (‘No Pussy Blues’, from ‘Grinderman’, 2007)
No other lyricist alive has Merritt’s knack for twisting the comic mournful. When he’s not playing the dry master storyteller (the ecstatic domestic murder in ‘Yeah! Oh Yeah!’; the LA serial killer in ‘California Girls’) or writing this generation’s most lyrical tear-jerkers (‘The Book Of Love’, ‘Kissing Things’), he’s penning heartbreaking truths. From ‘Busby Berkeley Dreams’: “I should have forgotten you long ago/But you’re in every song I know”. Hey, that’s love and music, encapsulated in 14 words! MB
Key lyric: “The book of love is long and boring/No-one can lift the damn thing” (‘The Book Of Love’, from ‘69 Love Songs’, 1999)
What makes young Marling’s lyrics so powerful is that their subject-matter, whether the joy of sharing a snowy night or the cold chill of rejection, are powerful and personal. As her songwriting skills have developed, so have the complexity of her emotions.
On her most recent album ‘I Speak Because I Can’, Marling’s songwriting has taken another leap, reinvigorated by the imagery of English folk and the subtlety of small moments exaggerated to big statements.
Underneath a richer, more reflective use of language lies those same raw emotions that make Marling’s work touching as well as authentic. SW
Key lyric: “I roll over and shake him tightly/And whisper/If they want you, then they’re going to have come fight me” (‘Night Terror’, from ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’, 2008)
It seems like law that any successful female lyric writer must be likened to PJ Harvey. But how many would dare pen a song about infanticide, as PJ did with ‘Down By The Water’? Critics have tried to label her a feminist, and with songs like ‘Sheela-na-gig’ you can see why. Named after disturbing medieval carvings of women, it perverts ’60s girl group lyrics that “wash that man right out of my hair ”.
But she’s not really a feminist – Polly rarely judges, and often inhabits male as well as female bodies, a notable example being 2007’s piano-heavy ‘White Chalk’.
Any musician worth their salt – whatever gender – should strive for comparison to such an individual lyricist. LS
Key lyric: “It’s hard to walk in the dress, it’s not easy/I’m spilling over like a heavy loaded fruit taree” (‘Dress’, from ‘Dry’, 1992)
Malkmus is the kind of songwriter who deserves to have dissertations dedicated to decoding his songs – where Rush singer Geddy Lee is a reference point and homophones like “career!”/ “Korea!” make sketchy meanings slip away even further.
Many have tried – and failed – to interpret his non-sequiturs, both in his time as Pavement’s frontman and his solo career with The Jicks. Now his main band are returning, a new generation will do the same. LS
Key lyric: “Watch out for the gypsy children in electric dresses/They’re insane/ I hear they live in crematoriums and smoke your remains” (‘You Are A Light’, from ‘Terror Twilight’, 1999)
Mercer’s unique, warped outlook gave life to The Shins and, more recently, Broken Bells with Danger Mouse. Yet you’d be hard-pushed to find any clues about what he’s like as a person from his words.
True, he harbours an obsession with the fragility of life, but he ties this up with abrasive words that sour any notion of straightforwardness. It’s this ability to conjure up numerous alternate meanings that’s made him an undeniable master of powerful lyrics. Film-maker Zach Braff liked his work so much he wrote his debut feature Garden State around it. MW
Key lyric: “Turn me back into the pet I was when we met/I was happier then with no mindset” (‘New Slang’, from ‘Oh, Inverted World’, 2001)