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
23 Thom Yorke
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.
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.
21 Stuart Murdoch
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.
20 Wild Beasts
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.
19 Nick Cave
“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.
18 Stephin Merritt
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
17 Laura Marling
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.
16 PJ Harvey
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’.
15 Stephen Malkmus
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
14 James Mercer
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
13 Frank Black
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 scratched his fantastical itch. Black Francis was re-animated for 2008’s ‘Svn Fngrs’ and this year’s ‘Nonstoperotik’. DM
12 Jay Electronica
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 pseudo-intellectual, instead dissecting everything from hip-hop’s internal fracas to the human race’s eternal search for spiritual enlightenment.
11 Bruce Springsteen
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 American dream. DM
10 Alex Turner
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 Arctic Monkey’s best work. SW
9 Andy Falkous
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 pre-occupation with Satan, boy-on-boy sex and stuff that makes him really, really angry. DM
8 Joanna Newsom
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 Joanna pretends to nothing. Only a real word-wrangler could have penned the brilliantly funny study of insecurity, frustration and writer’s block that is ‘Inflammatory Writ’.
7 James Murphy
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 that is ‘Never As Tired As When I’m Waking Up’ attest. The comedown’s there in everyone else’s eye, but Murphy meets its gaze square on. EM
6 Jarvis Cocker
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 into being the Philip Larkin of pop: a brave, brutally honest, bone-dry lyricist still obsessed with life’s crapness, but delving ever deeper into the dark depths of his own personality.
5 Damon Albarn
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?
4 Paul Weller
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.
3 Jamie T
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.
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?
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.