From Neil Young to Ryley Walker: our guide to the best singer-songwriters
Tortured poets, hippies, folkies, truth-tellers, all-round sensitive souls...we may scoff sometimes, but the world wouldn't be the same without them.
Musical styles come and go, but one constant through the years - and we're talking centuries here - is the much-loved, sometimes-mocked singer-songwriter.
You know, those earnest types who write and sing their own songs, usually accompanying themselves on guitar or piano? With roots stretching back as far into musical history as you'd care to look, you can trace a clear line from the likes of Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, through 60s luminaries such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, by way of criminally undervalued 70s artists such as Sandy Denny and Nick Drake, and all the way up to modern-day innovators such as Sufjan Stevens and Ryley Walker.
This is a genre where lineage to the original folk traditions is always critical, but where modern processes and techniques are applied to that most basic unit of music - the song - to break new ground. Sometimes these songs are confessional and personal. Often they are political and confrontational. And sometimes, well, they're just tales, the musical equivalents of short stories told by the modern equivalents of travelling minstrels.
The sincerity can be cloying, even annoying, sometimes. But at their best these artists provide the moments that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, help soothe you in your darkest hours, or educate you in the way of the world we live in.
Best singer-songwriter artists
Johnny Cash was an originator in more ways than one. Ostensibly a country singer, he was one of the first true crossover artists, his music encompassing folk, blues, rock and roll, and gospel from the outset. An instinctively rebellious figure, he took the myth of the outsider musician to new heights: playing concerts in prisons, loudly activist on Native American issues, addicted to amphetamines, burning down forests, losing God, finding God.
Even as he wrote some of the most popular songs of the 20th century ('Ring of Fire', 'A Boy Named Sue', and 'I Walk the Line' were all massive crossover hits), and even as his TV shows were watched by millions, there was always something underground about Johnny Cash. Despite huge success he never sold out, and continued to write and campaign for the poor and underprivileged, the outsiders and the maligned.
Like many artists who enjoy enormous initial success he spent time out of favour in later years, until he signed to American Recordings - and proceeded to record a series of albums mixing his originals with songs by contemporary artists. The result? His reimagining of songs by, amongst others, Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails rubber stamped his legacy as one of the most bold and courageous performers of his era.
Few artists follow their own idiosyncratic path quite like Neil Young.
Originally a member of '60s folk rock group Buffalo Springfield, and later part of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, no band could really contain his driven creativity. So Young went his own way, releasing richly textured albums that rarely stuck to one distinct style.
His most popular albums were folksy and acoustic confessionals such as Harvest or After the Gold Rush, but he's just as likely to explore ragged noise rock with his bands Crazy Horse and the Promise of the Real, often even branching out into soundtrack work, pure rock and roll, and electronic weirdness.
Bob Dylan first emerged from the coffee houses of New York in the 1960s, Joan Baez amongst others helping him to showcase his politically-aware, Woody Guthrie-influenced folk compositions. Few could have imagined at that time that he'd go on to become not just one of the most influential figures in popular music, but the undisputed voice of an entire generation.
And what a voice. Always a 'love it or loathe it' vehicle for his songs, Dylan sang with a kind of ugly rasp that redefined how a singer could or should sound. Musically, he refused to stay on track, famously abandoning his audience as early as 1965 when recording the six-minute electric 'Like A Rolling Stone' - a single which dictated the direction popular music would now take. Following a series of classic 1960s albums - Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde alone would've sealed his place in musical history - Dylan went on to become a more erratic, unpredictable figure dabbling in everything from country and gospel to religious music. But even after this poor run, by the mid '70s he was back on form and still able to concoct superb work with albums like Blood on the Tracks and Desire.
After that the quality of his output started to slow, to the point where he is now seemingly content on his Never Ending Tour playing barely recognisable versions of his classic songs. But somehow history always seems to be on his side, and in 2016 he received - out of the blue - the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Joni Mitchell was, alongside the likes of Joan Baez, Linda Perhacs, Karen Dalton and Judy Collins, one of the rich seam of female singer-songwriters that broke through in the folk explosion of the 60s.
With a storied personal history and a unique approach to guitar and songwriting, she started achieving success with her second album Clouds in 1969 which showed off her gentle but powerful songwriting, influenced by folk, jazz and blues. Lyrically her themes were often personal or confessional, but whilst she distanced herself from the radicalised Woodstock crowd she was not afraid to tackle social or environmental concerns, perfectly exemplified in her one big hit 'Big Yellow Taxi' - you know its most famous line, everyone does - taken from 1970's Ladies of the Canyon.
But it's Blue, her fourth studio album, that she's known best for. An album that always breaches the upper echelons of every 'Best of All Time' list, Blue was the first of a string of critically acclaimed albums, each one a classic in its own right. There were exceptions - her jazz rock opus, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, was panned on release even if its stature has risen somewhat since - but Mitchell has continued to create challenging, socially-engaged music ever since.
Never was an artist so under-appreciated in his lifetime, yet so posthumously adored. Nick Drake was a sensitive Englishman who came from the small rural village of Tanworth-in-Arden in Warwickshire. After studying at Cambridge, he began a stop-start music career and was taken under the wing of producer Joe Boyd, which led him to a deal with Island Records.
Drake's three albums are all a variation on his shy and reticent personality. The first, Five Leaves Left, is a gorgeous autumnal album full of rich folky textures. Bryter Later is more produced, with added horns and strings to go alongside Drake's ever present clean guitar playing, always picking away under the surface. But if these two albums always seemed like Drake was slightly swallowed up by the production process of making a record, his final album, Pink Moon, placed him front and centre to devastating effect.
Drake's intimate, personal songs didn't chime with the times and he was somewhat lost amongst the more rambunctious folk scene of the time. Unfortunately mental illness combined with his lack of success resulted in a suspected suicide in 1974. However, this was pretty much only the start as his music was continually rediscovered in subsequent years - to the point that he is now seen as the most important British folk musician of his era.
Sandy Denny was in three important bands during the early 70s English folk revival (The Strawbs, Fairport Convention and her own Fotheringay) but she will also be remembered for her brief, if bright, solo career.
Often cited as one of Britain's finest singer-songwriters, Denny is best known for her composition 'Who Knows Where The Time Goes' which has become a classic and has been covered by the likes of Judy Collins, Eva Cassidy, Nina Simone and Cat Power.
Though she was instrumental in Fairport's move towards a more folk-rock sound, playing on their classic Lieg and Lief, Denny was never fully happy until writing and recording her own material. Fotheringay was short lived but their debut self-titled album is a standout of British folk rock, with sinewy takes on traditional material and Denny originals.
Her solo career saw her switch to piano as her main composing instrument, and was full of her dense cryptic songs, placing her voice and clever harmonies front and centre after a career being part of other people's bands. Sadly after a series of falls, she passed away after falling into a coma in 1978. Her life was cut short before she could really establish herself, but since her death her influence has grown with artists like Cat Power and Kate Bush citing her as an influence.
It's hard to think of many songwriters who have had the cultural impact of Paul Simon. Alongside his bandmate Art Garfunkel they ruled the airwaves in the 1960s with a series of songs that have since become classics. His light fingerpicked guitar style, poetic wordplay and soft harmonic vocal delivery have influenced many writers on this list - most notably Mark Kozelek and Elliott Smith.
Simon and Garfunkel's incredible success actually led them to be viewed unfavourably by critics at the time, but looking back songs like 'Kathy Song' and For 'Emily, Whenever I May Find Her' are beautiful and exquisite autumnal folk songs that could fit in quite nicely on your Nick Drake and Sun Kil Moon mixtape. Still, it was the huge successes like 'Bridge over Troubled Water' and 'The Sound of Silence' that they'll be remembered for.
The duo fell out and got back together on numerous occasions but Paul Simon seemed to be more comfortable with his more playful solo career, which gave him sporadic hits through the 70s and will be best known for the superb, if controversial, Graceland. The album was a collaboration with various South African musicians, and Simon was accused of both cultural appropriation and of breaking boycotts against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Nonetheless, the album became his most critically acclaimed and best selling work, its influence heard all the way from Animal Collective to Vampire Weekend.
Emerging seemingly out of nowhere in 1992 with her stunning debut single 'Dress', PJ Harvey has since become one of the UK's most singular singer-songwriter talents.
Though her work mostly consists of punk blues, art and grunge rock, she has rarely repeated herself throughout her career. Like Kate Bush before her, she has a magpie-like attitude to both her musical styles and the image she projects, often producing completely contrasting work.
Her albums Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and Let England Shake both won her the Mercury Music Prize and she remains the only artist to have won the award twice. Her later work has become increasingly political as Harvey tackled episodes from English history on both Let England Shake and The Hope Demolition Plot.
It's rare to find a singer-songwriter as unique and daring as Sufjan Stevens. He began his career with designs of becoming a writer of short stories, but soon learned to utilise his writing into musical compositions inspired initially by the indie folk of his collaborators Danielson Famile.
After a couple of early prototype albums he found his signature style with the superb Michigan album of 2003 - a sprawling, wildly ambitious opus that contains elements of folk, baroque, electronica, neo-classical and everything in between. At the time he claimed that he was writing an album for each of the states of the USA, but only the even more ambitious Illinois emerged in 2005 before Stevens turned his attention to more electronic based material on 2010's divisive The Age of Adz.
Stevens' work has always been incredibly emotive and personal, but in 2015 he created his most personal work with the stunning Carrie and Lowell. It's an intimate, stripped-back album named after his mother and stepfather, containing quiet ruminations on death and illness, but with a soothing hymnal quality which garnered the best reviews of a career already knee deep in critical platitudes.
Molina had an inauspicious start to his career making low key records that were initially in thrall to the country folk of Will Oldham (Palace Brothers). Though the whole concept and sound was similar to Oldham's, as more records were released Molina started to stretch away from his roots with a series of increasingly impressive albums like Ghost Tropic and Didn't It Rain the latter of which blended soul and gospel in an emotional tour de force which could be compared to the finest moments of Neil Young.
Molina then switched tack, very quickly, to make the Steve Albini-produced The Magnolia Electric Co, which was much more of a full band sound with influences from US heartland rock and Fairport Convention style folk-rock. After a further series of well received albums it was clear that Molina was struggling with the alcohol issues that ultimately caused his untimely death in 2013 at the age of 39. Yet, like the music of Nick Drake, his songs live on and each year they find a new audience, the quality of his emotional and personal songs shining through.
Songwriters come in all shapes and sizes but there's no one as sheerly theatrical, so much larger-than-life, than Tom Waits.
The first time you hear his trademark growl you wonder if he's quite serious, and Waits has always borrowed freely from the wildest shores of blues, jazz, vaudeville and experimental music. But initially Waits was more of a one dimensional songwriter, his early albums a sort of gruff bar-room balladry that played up to an image of the boho American drunk. It wasn't until his marriage to and songwriting partnership with Kathleen Brennan - credited with introducing him to Captain Beefheart - that Waits broke out and started to really push the boundaries of his sound. This led to superb 1980s albums such as Swordfishtrombones, Frank's Wild Years and most notably Rain Dogs. He blended downtrodden theatrics with crazy musical antics, and was never better than collaborating with off-kilter musicians such as Marc Ribot and Robert Quine.
Continuing to record throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Waits released a series of excellent albums including Alice and Blood Money, both of which were based on theatrical collaborations. He's a rare beast in that he seems incapable of releasing a truly bad record - even those more straightforward early albums contain songs that stay with you. He's never mellowed, that's the point, and consequently his music has always sounded as fresh and inspired as ever.
Only a few years into his career, Ryley Walker already shows a lot of the signs that lead to a lot of the other artists in our list becoming such singular talents; namely, there's a willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of his sound. He has already released one bona fide classic in Primrose Green, a sprawling opus featuring several noted jazz musicians and drawing repeated comparisons to Van Morrison's jazz-rock classic Astral Weeks.
But rather than repeat the formula, Walker has since released to very different albums in Golden Sings That Have Been Sung and Deafman Glance the latter of which was another lengthy party piece this time blending folk and progressive rock textures. He has also released a collaborative album with fellow Chicago guitarist Bill McKay and it is this dexterity and experimentalism that puts him on par with fellow travellers such as Michael Chapman and Jim O'Rourke.
Mark Kozelek is Mark Kozelek. An uncompromising artist who has had the ability to impress, bewilder and irritate in equal measure. He is perhaps best known for his superb 1990s band Red House Painters who sounded something like The Smiths slowed down to 16rpm or Leonard Cohen backed by Bert Jansch. They released six excellent albums before Kozelek began a new project Sun Kil Moon. Initially the results of what was effectively a name change were stunning. He released a series of impressive albums including Ghosts of the Great Highway, April and Admiral Fell Promises, all of which honed Kozelek's downtrodden, poetic worldview and his intricate, increasingly complex nylon strung guitar dexterity.
Kozelek had already grown frustrated by a music press that appeared to be at best tolerating, at worst ignoring these great albums, so he seemed to then set about on a path to start destroying his legacy. Initially this new persona reaped rewards with 2014s Benji receiving glowing reviews and the biggest sales of Kozelek's career, but its self-indulgent wordplay began to grate around the time of the patchy follow up Universal Themes. Since then each album appears to consist of Kozelek trolling his audience with ridiculous concepts and unlistenable music. A shame, because for the first twenty years of his career, he didn't put a step wrong.
Too many of the singer-songwriters on this list have had lives end in tragedy. One of the most upsetting must be the story of Elliott Smith. The songwriter started his musical career in Portland band Heatmiser where Smith's excellent songs shone through like diamonds in the rough especially on their high water mark Mic City Sons. Meanwhile Smith had already started his solo career, recording quietly into four track machines, his voice rarely rising above a whisper.
Early album Roman Candle and its self titled follow up were eclipsed by his standout solo work Either/Or. The album had a beautiful acoustic feel -- not as lo-fi and scratchy as the likes of Sentridoh (Sebadoh) and Guided by Voices, but with a wistful lush sound and melodic nods to the classic songwriting of the Beatles and Big Star. It was, in a word, perfect.
But it was a non album track that gained Smith exposure. When Miss Misery was nominated for an Academy Award, the subsequent blaze of publicity led to a record deal with Dreamworks and two expensively produced albums: XO and Figure 8. Whilst Smith's songwriting was always impressive, these plush recordings lacked something of the intimacy of his previous work. Sadly Smith's problems with drugs and alcohol increased and following a series of disastrous performances and an aborted attempt to get clean, Smith died in 2003s; a terrible outcome for a singer whose music was so gentle, sensitive and soothing.
The original lo-fi. Daniel Johnston was at first that crazy kid that used to record tapes on his beat up stereo and attempted to sell them on the streets to strangers. Little did those strangers know that these tapes would soon be trading for hundreds of pounds and that Johnston would come to be regarded as one of America's most brilliant songwriters.
Johnston's music has always been tangled up with his mental health and has led to the musician spending time in psychiatric wards. Likewise, his music can range from giddy joyfulness to outright despair...to songs which appear to outline the human condition in such a clear and concise way that it seems that Johnston has a direct line to the soul. After a series of self recorded tapes, getting him into a proper studio wouldn't be easy, but his albums 1990 and Artistic Vice have now become classics, and he has continued to release albums of a very high quality up to 2009's Is and Always Was.
His recording career runs in tandem with a parallel career as an artist and comic book writer and one of the few artists who has the distinction of both his artwork and his music becoming iconic. This ultimate outsider artist has had his songs covered by the likes of Beck, Pearl Jam, Spiritualized and Lana Del Rey and has recently had a song used in a phone ad. A true one off.
Best singer-songwriter albums
Neil Young - Harvest
Harvest was Neil Young's fourth solo album but was his commercial breakthrough. It spawned the number one hit 'Heart of Gold' and is as good as place as any if you are starting on the journey into his tangled back catalogue. With an array of famous guests its one of Young's most straightforward records but it's gentle, lilting country rock captures him at his most affecting.
Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska
An anomaly, perhaps, in the career of Bruce Springsteen, the stripped down and bleak Nebraska is some of his best work. The sleeve art perfectly captures the essence of these story songs of outsiders, criminals and people devoid of hope. The production is resolutely lo-fi, just Springsteen a guitar and a four track recorder. Originally meant as demos, Springsteen decided to put it out as is and its sombre content and dark lyrical themes hit a chord that none of his other work comes close to.
Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
Perhaps Carrie & Lowell is Sufjan Stevens 'Nebraska'. It's the moment where the ever changing songwriter stripped everything back to just his voice and solo accompaniment. Inspired by the death of his mother, Stevens ruminates on love and loss in a manner so personal that it can almost become too much for the listener. Yet the record has a soothing quality, it's melodies head straight for the heart acting as a kind of aural balm for anyone who has suffered.
Joanna Newsom - Ys
Already a unique performer notable for her child-like voice and harp accompaniment, Ys was an extremely ambitious work which over the course of six lengthy compositions saw Joanna Newsom ruminate on events in her life over shifting musical patterns marked by sudden detours and changes in mood and tempo. The baroque orchestral arrangements by Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks combined perfectly with Newsom's harp and voice on a challenging but rewarding album.
Elliott Smith - Either/Or
Not as lo-fi as his initial albums nor as produced as his later work, Either/Or was the perfect moment for Elliott Smith. Its hushed mid-fi production was a lovely antidote to the bluster of the big rock music of the day and Smith's songs were exquisite throughout. Almost every song is a classic on an album that it's almost impossible to better.
Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
Again summoning the ghosts of 'Nebraska', the then unknown Justin Vernon went to a Wisconsin cabin to produce this his debut album. It's intimate, simple arrangements combined with his high pitched squeak of a voice and the subject matter concerning lost love made this his breakthrough album. He's gone on to more ambitious work but this is his most affectin album.
Nick Drake - Pink Moon
Previous albums had showcased Nick Drake's talent but Pink Moon was the moment he discarded the orchestral arrangements and full band production in order to document just him with a guitar. It's all that is needed, his busy fingerpicking style fills all the space and his voice and subject matter were never m
Van Morrison - Astral Weeks
Morrison had already had success with the band Them but Astral Weeks, his second and most famous album is his career high water mark. Its unique blend of jazz, folk and blues was miles away from anything he had previously attempted. It has a loose, improvised feel that would go on to influence hundreds of albums most notably, in recent years, Ryley Walker's Primrose Green.
Jeff Buckley - Grace
The son of 60s jazz influenced folkie Tim Buckley, Jeff was an undoubted if mercurial talent who had spent years honing his sound before unleashing Grace in 1994. The only album released in his lifetime it was an incredibly wild and free work ranging from near histrionic rock music to quiet ballads. His cover of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' has since become legendary and his style influenced countless 90s artists including, most notably, Radiohead.
Vashti Bunyan - Just Another Diamond Day
Another relatively unnoticed album that over the years has gathered steam is Vashti Bunyan's 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day. It's quiet rural folk meditated on Bunyan's journeys through Scotland on a horse and cart. Modern listeners love it for its transportative qualities and pure untainted beauty and it has been compared to an uplifting, sun dappled sibling to Nick Drake's albums.
Sun Kil Moon - Ghosts Of The Great Highway
Mark Kozelek had already made several albums with Red House Painters but for many listeners Sun Kil Moon's debut Ghosts Of The Great Highway was his most consistent and satisfying work. Bringing in a healthy dose of Americana, this is the Kozelek album that does everything right, where 14 minute songs are anything but laborious and where he contained his propensity for doom as so
Bonnie Prince Billy - Master And Everyone
It's a repeating pattern that many singer-songwriters' best work is also their quietest. Bonnie Prince Billy (AKA Will Oldham) has already released much lauded gentle country folk under the name Palace but Master and Everyone dialled back the country inflections and presented a more pastoral gentle front that suited his intimate songs perfectly.
Songs: Ohia - The Lioness
Everyone has their favourite Songs: Ohia album and so it's hard to choose one for this list but this (alongside Ghost Tropic and Didn't it Rain) showed the songwriter at his most affecting. The album benefited from being recorded in Scotland with guests Alasdair Roberts and members of Arab Strap. Intimate, affecting and arresting.
Mount Eerie - A Crow Looked At Me
Pretty much the saddest record of all time. A Crow Looked At Me was an astonishingly brutal look inside the process of grief as Phil Elverum laid bare the pain of losing his wife. So personal it almost invented a new kind of artistry, it's a tough, challenging listen -- but it's as intensely emotional as music gets. Winner of our Album of the Year in 2017, no less.
Tom Waits - Rain Dogs
Rain Dogs was at the centre of Tom Waits' great run of 80s albums (see also Swordfishtrombones and Franks Wild Years) and is a crazy ride through vaudeville, folk, blues and, well, oompah music. It benefits hugely from the presence of brilliant guitarist Marc Ribot, whose distinctive twang helps give the album its off-kilter quality.
Carole King - Tapestry
Carole King had already co-written several 1960s hits with former husband Gerry Goffin but by the seventies she had started singing and performing her own song. This, her second solo album, was an incredible success and contains a host of future classics. Not only had King released her classic album but she'd also released her greatest hits.
Bob Dylan - Desire
For parts of the early '70s Bob Dylan had seemed a bit of a spent force, but he returned with a vengeance with 1975's Blood on the Tracks. Yet its follow-up, Desire, was perhaps even better. A series of lengthy song stories it courted controversy with 'Hurricane' (about the imprisonment of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter) and contained perhaps his most personal song to date in 'Sara' (an unflinching look at the state of his marriage).
Even more of the best singer-songwriter artists and albums
We could write about singer-songwriters forever, but we've gone on enough. Here are a few more pointers for you.
More singer-songwriter artists
- Bonnie Prince Billy
- Billy Bragg
- Tim Buckley
- Leonard Cohen
- Gene Clark
- Shirley Collins
- Richard Dawson
- Judy Dyble
- Mark Eitzel
- John Fahey
- Father John Misty
- John Grant
- Tim Hardin
- Jenny Hval
- Bon Iver
- Bert Jansch
- Laura Marling
- Kevin Morby
- Van Morrison
- Joanna Newsom
- Conor Oberst
- Angel Olsen
- Linda Perhacs
- Jessica Pratt
- Margo Price
- Alasdair Roberts
- Townes van Zandt