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THE GREATEST LYRICISTS IN THE WORLD TODAY

 

Every generation needs its poets and here's the 23 musical scribes who define 2010.

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

 
 

The Radiohead man stares into the abyss so you don’t have to

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...

 
 
 

Born in Maryland, Callahan was known as Smog until the release of his 12th album in 2007, when he began recording under his own name

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...

 
 
 

Few make being a loser sound as heroic as the 41-year-old ATP-headlining Belle & Sebastian man

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...

 
 
 

All in their teens, Kendal’s floweriest fop- popsters write words wiser than their years

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...

 
 
 

No-one writes better odes to doing the nasty

“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...

 
 
 

Mastermind behind The Magnetic Fields, the former Spin editor is akin to the modern-day Stephen Sondheim

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...

 
 
 

As a 17-year-old Reading teenager, she was compared to Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Now 21, she’s only got better

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...

 
 
 

Now 40 years’ old, Dorset’s PJ Harvey is unlike any lyricist ever, regardless of gender

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...

 
 
 

Aged 43, Malkmus is the king of US indie rock. After a 10-year hiatus, he’s back as Pavement’s tongue twister

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...

 
 
 

The 39-year-old Shins man’s couplets are obtuse, but it’s fun trying to decipher them

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...

 
 
 

At 45, Pixies’ chief bogeyman has emerged from the darkness again

In the guise of Black Francis, Pixies’ rotund frontdude brought his band’s white squall to terrifying life with some of rock’s most blood-curdling literature.

His songs formed body-horrific fairy tales where eyeballs were diced and everythingwent bump in the night. His solo work as Frank Black might have had more real-world concerns, but delightfully, Pixies’ comeback seems to have...

 
 
 

The enigmatic 34-year-old rap upstart has many-a breath baited for the prophetic contents of his long-awaited debut album

Why is Jay Electronica in this list? Because ‘Exhibit C’ is the most accomplished piece of ‘conscious rap’ this millennium – perhaps ever.

The reason why Jay’s been heralded as such a saviour is because he delivers thought-provoking, mind-expanding lyricism with as much swagger and bravado as the squillion-selling ‘gangsta’ figures of the hip-hop mainstream. He never feels preachy or...

 
 
 

From the neighbourhoods of New Jersey through the streets of Philadelphia, this 60-year-old is still working on a dream

The Boss’ work is populated by characters, but even when writing in his own voice, his cinematic commentary on blue-collar American life feels like a series of HBO dramas playing out inside four minutes. Whether that be the desperate man of ‘Born To Run’ or the anti-hero ‘Outlaw Pete’ from 2009’s ‘Working On A Dream’, he’s made it his business to tell the stories of people beaten down by the...

 
 
 

Arctic Monkeys’ main songwriter shows a lyrical maturity way beyond his 24 years

Many try to sing about life’s mudanity, but what makes Alex Turner stand out as a genius is that he makes getting chucked out of the queue of a nightclub sound exhilarating – a life-affirming right of passage. Yet his co-writing with The Last Shadow Puppets allowed Turner to explore a more cinematic view of storytelling. It’s that combination of emotional mystique and sharp observation that have coloured the...

 
 
 

Mad, bad and good with a penis joke – Future Of The Left’s 30-year old arch linguistic freedom fighter might be the angriest lyricist ever to pick up a pen

The Welshman has served as UK indie’s Agitator-In-Chief in two bands as seminal as they have been undervalued. In screech-punks Mclusky he turned in a fantasy stream-of-consciousness ridden with slasher-movie tropes and weird-ass sexual degradation. In Future Of The Left he’s doing more of the same. His recent band employ the same magic realist shtick as Mclusky, but with an embittered sneer, plus a...

 
 
 

Psych-folk’s most literary and learned word-spinner, the 28-year-old Californian does love to harp on

A true wordsmith, Newsom treats words like a gem collector, examining them through a spyglass for cut and colour, before fixing them in filigreed settings.

‘Bridges And Balloons’, the first track on her debut, harboured treasures such as ‘caravel’, ‘lateen’ and ‘dirigibles’. All open to cries of ‘pretentious’ from people who don’t really understand what those words mean. But...

 
 
 

The 40-year-old LCD Soundsystem leader and father of NY’s DFA dance-punk revolution cedes his acerbic edge to no-one

Separation of body and mind in dance music is a well-established practice. But James Murphy is a man who cares about the words. Witty sketches of a scene (English graduate Murphy once turned down a chance to write for Seinfeld) such as ‘Losing My Edge’ established him as someone whose words were worth fluffing your moves to catch. There’s heart beneath the zingers, too, as the cocktail of hope and cynicism...

 
 
 

Jarvis is now 46. He’s still telling tales of kitchen-sink drama with all the wit and panache he’s displayed during the past 30-odd-years

Despite the weed-in-tweed persona, Jarvis has always been a sex-obsessed bugger, painting himself in Pulp as Sheffield’s resident perv – hiding in wardrobes, shagging married birds, all that stuff.

‘Carry On Jarvis’ everyone said after Pulp hit the big time, but the gadabout sex maniac revealed himself to be something less than that – and more. These days as a solo artist, Jarvis has settled...

 
 
 

One thing links Blur, The Good The Bad And The Queen and Gorillaz: 42-year-old Damon Albarn’s ability to create whole societies in a few lines of a pop song

Whether you ask one of the hundreds of thousands who saw Blur at their comeback gigs last year, or a 14-year-old kid with a Murdoc doll, they’ll all tell you that Damon Albarn has written lines that have changed their lives. But which Damon is the best?

Could it be the one whose razor-sharp character-based observation in the ’90s provided the acutely accurate description of a generation of new...

 
 
 

We all know the Modfather’s got a way with words. At 51, he’s still shining as bright as ever

There can be little argument that Paul Weller is one of the UK’s finest wordsmiths. But what keeps him at the front of the pack is his unwavering ability to surprise, to shock and to change his worldview to, well, whatever floats his boat at any given time.

Critics deride him for his supposedly archaic tendencies, but he’s always been a forward-thinker. Take the title track from new album ‘Wake...

 
 
 

Wimbledon-born 24-year-old social satirist, currently the inner-city troubadour of choice

Urban storytelling: makes you think of Boris Johnson getting all ‘owtwaged’ over a grime track about knives, dunnit? No more: Jamie T hoses fresh life and colour into everyday scenes of metropolitan desolation – the drugs, the binges, the fights, the overdoses – thanks to possessing the tongue of an Olympic gold medallist in High-Speed Cunnilingus.

Jamie’s juxtaposition of semi-cockney...

 
 
 

Forty years young, he may be mates with Obama but behind Jay-Z’s celebrity are some of the best verses in hip-hop history

Whatever Jay-Z does he does it better than everyone else. Bragging about his sexual exploits? ‘Girls Girls Girls’ confirms Jigga’s playa status with some of the funniest lines in hip-hop.Confirming his place at the top of the pile?

Listen to ‘Ride Or Die’ to hear him making cracks about ghostwriting for his clueless competition. Even when Jay turns in with the obligatory emotional track about...

 
 
 

The Poet Laureate of the misunderstood

You don’t get to be a lyrical giant of Morrissey’s calibre for 25 years by being a mopey old one-tone pony blessed with a Wildean turn of phrase.

As he’s entered middle age Moz’s lyrics have grown a more political edge, a savage sincerity, a colourful way with a character study (‘First Of The Gang To Die’, ‘Piccadilly Palare’, ‘Mute Witness’) and lashings of wit, hope and...

 
 
 
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