This list features the essential and best songwriters of the last century, whose songs have had a lasting impact on the world of music.
All of the songwriters on this list have released numerous songs that have become worldwide hits. In many cases, the artists on this list have been active for decades, boasting fans both young and old.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the details of these songwriting legends.
Paul McCartney is, without a doubt, one of the most successful, and most loved, and best songwriters of all time. Debuting his composition skills in the Beatles, McCartney, to this day, is writing music and performing for fans all over the globe.
The musical master holds the record for the most No. 1 hits of all time, has won 18 Grammy Awards and has sold more than 100 million albums. McCartney was a fresh-faced 21-year-old when he earned his first No. 1, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ with the Beatles.
In 2020, his studio album McCartney III shot to No. 1 when McCartney was 78, marking a career that’s thrived for over 60 years.
You can’t have one without the other. The second half of the best songwriting duo is, of course, John Lennon.
With 6 Grammys, 73 million solo records sold, and a legacy that has never weakened, you’ll find John Lennon tracks in the playlists of everyone from the snobs to the musically indifferent.
Lennon’s lyrics always spotlighted the macabre side of life, a stark juxtaposition to McCarney’s sunnier approach to songwriting. Lennon was able to write songs that cut you deep, yet still managed to maintain a cheekiness that softened the blow.
A true master of his craft, and certainly one of the best songwriters of all time.
The eccentric, whimsical, and weird Kate Bush writes peculiar, yet charming songs that sound unlike anything else. Her hit ‘Wuthering Heights’ went straight to No. 1 in 1978, making Bush the first female artist to have a UK No. 1 with a self-written song when she was just 19.
In 2022, her song ‘Running Up That Hill’ found popularity again in recent times through the Netflix series Stranger Things and reached No. 1. With this track, Bush broke numerous records including the longest time for a song to reach No. 1 after its release, the longest gap between No. 1 singles and oldest female artist to have a No. 1. Impressive!
There’s no doubt about it – Kanye West is a master of his trade. With his creative use of samples, he holds an amazing ability to hear music beyond its original use and spot its potential. This talent has named him one of the most successful rap artists of all time, with over 20 million albums sold worldwide.
West got his start selling beats to bigger artists while studying at university. When he discovered that people were consistently interested in what he was creating, he dropped out of his studies to pursue his passion.
This decision was clearly the right one as the hip-hop artist now has 21 Grammy Awards, as well as multiple other accolades, under his belt.
Folk star Joni Mitchell is a songwriter who discusses all aspects of the human condition from romance, to philosophy, to what it means to be a woman.
This passionate charge has gained her entry into the hearts of all generations, with music that still resonates with so many. Alongside her thought-provoking lyrics, Mitchell uses unique chords and creative tuning to produce her distinctive sound.
Her songwriting abilities have earned her 10 Grammy Awards, spot 42 on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Singers,” and number 9 on their “100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time” lists.
With more than 500 songs written, 10 Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe and an Academy Award, it’s fair to say that Bob Dylan has one of the most successful catalogues of music ever.
Dylan’s lyrics are so poignant, in 2016, he received a Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.“
Although contemporary listeners may be more familiar with the cover versions (Jimi Hendrix’s ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,’ and Adele’s ‘Make You Feel My Love’), his music spans multiple genres and has stood the test of time.
One of greats, and almost unanimously recognised amongst the best songwriters of all time.
Paul Simon is known for both his partnership with Art Garfunkle but also his solo work. He has written a symphony of musical masterpieces including ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ ‘The Boxer,’ and ‘You Can Call Me Al.’ As an artist and songwriter he has won 13 Grammy Awards.
Simon’s flair for music has seen him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, in 2001 and 2007, and made him the first-ever recipient of the Library of Congress’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
While part of the duo Simon & Garfunkel, he released five albums and sold more than 100 million records.
Hall & Oates
Daryl Hall and John Oates make up the Philadelphia duo Hall & Oates, a pop act that dominated the 80s with undeniably catchy tunes that still regularly get featured in TV shows, films, and clubs around the world.
Throughout their extensive careers, the pair have had 19 songs reach the Top 10, nine of which reached the No. 1 spot. They have sold over 40 million records.
Their hits include ‘You Make My Dreams Come True,’ ‘I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),’ and ‘Out of Touch.’
Stevie Wonder is one of the most successful R&B artists of all time, and one of the greatest songwriters of all time. With 25 Grammy Awards to his name, he is the only artist to have won Album of the Year three consecutive years, and one of the only two artists to have won it three times.
During the 1970s, Wonder revolutionised R&B using electronic instruments to create LPs that were complex both musically and politically, and charged with social commentary.
‘Little Steve Wonder’ was so talented, he received his first No. 1 hit at only 13, making him the youngest chart-topper ever. A true icon, and one of the best songwriters the world has ever known.
The late, great artist Prince made waves in the 70s and 80s as a spectacular performer using a combination of his astounding vocal range, and his androgynous persona.
With over 120 million albums sold, Prince is one of the best-selling music artists of all time. He has written somewhere between 500 and 1,000 songs including unreleased songs, his own material, and a vast number of tracks for other artists.
Prince has an impressive collection of awards from Grammys to an Academy Award (thanks to Purple Rain), cementing him as one of the most influential artists of his generation, whose records continue to define funk, rock, and pop music.
If you’ve heard the Backstreet Boys’ ‘I Want it That Way,’ or Britney Spears’ ‘…Baby One More Time,’ you’ve heard a composition by Max Martin.
Often working behind the scenes, this hugely influential Swedish songwriter and record producer began gaining traction in the 90s and is still working and writing today.
Although not a performer himself, Martin has written a plethora of pop hits, working with artists such as Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and The Weeknd.
His records are so popular that he has the third-most No 1 singles – 25 in total – behind only Paul McCartney and John Lennon, of which Lennon only has one more.
Some know him from Blur, others from Gorillaz – but all know him as an innovative songwriter with a seemingly endless stock of creativity.
Blur were at the forefront of Britpop, topping the charts and producing experimental music that broke new grounds within mainstream songwriting. In 2012, the group received a Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music.
Following a Blur hiatus, Albarn teamed up with comic book artist Jamie Hewlett to create Gorillaz, an alternative – and virtual – rock band who play around with hip hop and electronica. Gorillaz have sold over 26 million records worldwide and have won a Grammy Award, and been nominated, with one win, for 11 Brit Awards.
A creative visionary who is amongst the best songwriters active in the world today.
David Bowie is one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century thanks to his innovation and experimentation throughout the 1960s and beyond. He has sold over 100 million records worldwide with 9 platinum, 11 gold, and 8 silver albums in the UK.
Throughout his art rock career, Bowie never settled on just one style of songwriting, consistently pushing the boundaries of what music, particularly lyrics, could do.
His other-wordly album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars won him his popularity across the globe, with a focused affection for his single ‘Starman.’ A cultural icon and one of the best songwriters who ever lived.
Stock, Aitken, and Waterman
Stock, Aitken, and Waterman are considered one of the most successful songwriting partnerships of all time. Their hits include Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up,’ Kylie Minogue’s ‘I Should be So Lucky,’ and Dead or Alive’s ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record).’
Throughout their careers, the trio sold 40 million records, and wrote more than 100 UK Top 40 hits. They even found success in the United States, gaining three No. 1s – one with Bananarama and two with Rick Astley.
The songwriting three were the top producers in 1989 with seven No. 1 singles.
It’s a common misconception that Michael Jackson wasn’t that involved in the creation of his music, perhaps as he couldn’t read or write music. However, the “King of Pop” did indeed write, produce, and arrange a huge chunk of his discography.
Jackson has sold over 400 million records and has had 13 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles. He holds more awards than other other pop music recording artist including 13 Grammy Awards, 6 Brit Awards, a Golden Globe and 39 Guinness World Records.
His music is still incredibly popular all over the world, with many of his songs gaining new fans through social media, particularly TikTok.
A pioneer of the reggae genre, Bob Marley’s music focused on spreading the message of Rastafari, and creating songs that make you feel good.
His lyrics were infused with spirituality and were laced with Marley’s ideals and beliefs. Marley’s album Legend, 1984, is the best selling reggae album of all time.
Marley first gained popularity after Eric Clapton covered his song ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ and soon after had his first hit outside Jamaica with ‘No Woman, No Cry.’ His following album Rastaman Vibration broke the United States and landed the Billboard Soul Charts Top 50.
Long after his death, Marley remains an icon with estimated sales of more than 75 million, making him one of the best-selling music artists of all time.
Diane Warren is the mastermind behind a huge collection of top 10 songs. She has worked with a number of best selling artists and has written over 700 tracks including 9 No. 1s, and 32 Billboard Top 10 songs. It was DeBarge’s ‘Rhythm of the Night’ that launched Warren’s career in 1985.
Beyonce, Elton John, Whitney Houston, Aerosmith, and Celine Dion all have songs in their catalogue that were penned by Warren, and that’s just to name a few.
Her accolades include a Grammy Award, an Emmy Award, a Golden Globe, ten Academy Award nominations and the title of Billboard’s ‘Songwriter of the Year.’
A behind-the-scenes songwriter who should be on every pop music lover and music historian’s radar.
Country music sweetheart Dolly Parton made her musical debut with the album Hello, I’m Dolly in 1967. Since then, she has become a household name, recognised across the globe.
Famously writing both ‘I Will Always Love You’ – a song which Whiteney Houston would make one of the most famous covers of all time – and ‘Jolene’ in one evening, Parton’s contribution to music has awarded her the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award as well as 10 others.
Parton has had 25 No. 1 songs on the Billboard country music charts and has sold more than 100 million records worldwide.
Taylor Swift is one of the most recognisable contemporary pop artists with a career that is already almost 20 years long.
Originally producing country music that earned her moderate success, Swift eventually branched into mainstream pop where she shot to stardom with four of her albums selling one million copies in their debut weeks.
To date, Swift has sold over 200 million records, and has won 11 Grammy Awards. Not only has Swift written many of her own hits – she has written numerous songs that are performed by other artists.
As well as becoming one of the great pop icons of our time, there is a strong case to be made that Taylor Swift is amongst the best songwriters of our generation.
Nile Rogers is a true musical legend, revered by millions as a guitarist, producer, and songwriter. His enormous discography spans decades and multiple genres, and still gets performed live by Rogers to eager crowds.
Best known for his role as disco band Chic’s co-founder, Nile Rogers has also produced a multitude of songs for other artists throughout his career. He produced Madonna’s infamous album ‘Like A Virgin,’ and worked very closely with 1980s powerhouse Duran Duran on their single ‘The Reflex.’
His talents, along with his Fender guitar, “The Hitmaker,” have seen him sell more than 500 million albums and win three Grammy Awards. Without a doubt, Rogers is one of the best songwriters of our time.
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