Behind every great song is a writer with the creativity to break the mold and the ability to relate to the listener. No matter the genre, great songwriters tend to weave personal experience into their tracks, and they’re usually also some of the most successful recording artists out there. In this article, we’ll go over 35 of the best songwriters of all time.
1. Paul McCartney
Sir James Paul McCartney initially rose to fame as the bass player, songwriter, and vocalist for The Beatles. He and John Lennon formed the most successful songwriting partnership in history. He has written or co-written 32 tracks that rose to become number-one singles on the Billboard Hot 100, 20 of which were with the popular band. In his solo career, he has sold over 15 million albums in the US alone. As a songwriter, he penned 188 records that made it onto the UK charts and has twice been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, both as a member of The Beatles and as a solo artist.
2. John Lennon
John Lennon’s early career was spent as a part of The Beatles, and he shared the songwriting and vocalist duties with Paul McCartney. Twenty-five of the tracks written, co-written, and performed by him made it to the number-one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and in 1997, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Lennon, like McCartney, went on to have an illustrious solo career where he also worked alongside his second wife, Yoko Ono. He was inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, once as a member of The Beatles and again for his solo career.
3. Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan’s best work came in the 60s when his tracks were picked up as anthems for the civil rights and anti-war movements in the US. He became a counterculture icon during this time, though his songwriting career would span more than 60 years. A Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winner, his lyrical aptitude is credited for having a profound social and cultural impact. He’s a Presidential Medal of Honor, Golden Globe, Academy Award, and 10-time Grammy Award winner who’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll, Nashville Songwriters, and Songwriters Halls of Fame.
4. Paul Simon
Paul Simon’s career in songwriting spans over 60 years, including his time as part of the Simon & Garfunkel duo and his years solo. In 2011, Rolling Stone ranked him as one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, and in 2015, they ranked him as the eighth best songwriter in history. He’s a 12-time Grammy Award winner, has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame twice, and was selected by Time Magazine as one of the 100 People Who Shaped The World in 2006. The Sound of Silence, The Boxer, and Bridge Over Troubled Water are three of his best-known singles.
5. Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry is credited as one of the artists who pioneered the rock and roll genre, granting him the nickname Father of Rock and Roll. He was one of the first to develop a style of music that included guitar solos, and his sound was the foundation of rock and roll as we know it. His Johnny B. Goode, Maybellene, and Rock And Roll Music would forever shift the landscape of mainstream music. When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in 1986, he was among the first induction class and is listed on multiple “greatest of all time lists” by Rolling Stone.
6. Mick Jagger
Sir Michael Philip Jagger was one of the founding members of The Rolling Stones, and his songwriting partnership with Keith Richards is on par with John Lennon and Paul McCartney in terms of success. As a solo artist, he racked up 13 number-one singles, 32 Top 10, and 70 Top 40 tracks. As a member of The Rolling Stones, he was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the UK Music Hall of Fame. His 60-year career would go on to influence generations of rock and pop artists worldwide.
7. Keith Richards
Alongside Mick Jagger, Keith Richards was an integral founder of The Rolling Stones and one of the most successful songwriters in history. Fourteen of the tracks he wrote during his time with the band were featured in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list, and he would go on to find success as a solo artist and in various side projects. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the UK Music Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
8. Smokey Robinson
Originally starting as a founding member of one of the most influential pop, rock, and R&B groups in history The Miracles, Smokey Robinson would continually find success as a songwriter, artist, and record label manager. His numerous accolades include induction into both the Rock and Roll and Songwriter Halls of Fame, and he is one of the few artists to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize.
9. Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell is widely regarded as one of the most important female recording artists of the 20th century and has been called one of the greatest songwriters ever with Rolling Stone ranking her at number nine in their 2015 list of the 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time. She’s been inducted into the Canadian Music, Canadian Songwriters, and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame as a singer and songwriter.
10. Stevie Nicks
Stevie Nicks’ tracks have consistently been ranked as some of the best and most popular in the world. Her career took off with Fleetwood Mac where she was the primary songwriter, leading to the band becoming one of the best-selling groups of all time with over 120 million records sold worldwide. She has been ranked as one of the 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time by Rolling Stone, and three of her albums were included in the Greatest of All Time Billboard 200 Albums chart. She is the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, once as a member of Fleetwood Mac and the other as a solo artist.
11. Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder began his music career as a child prodigy despite being blind his entire life. He would become the youngest artist to take the top spot on the Billboard Top 100 chart at the age of 13 and did nearly everything that went into his music, including vocals, instrumentals, and songwriting. He has been one of the most influential acts in music, inspiring artists across a wide variety of genres and earning him inductions into the Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, and Songwriters Hall of Fame.
12. Hank Williams Sr.
Hank Williams Sr. didn’t have an especially long career, but his music would influence numerous big names like Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, and Chuck Berry. He would become one of the most important figures in country music history and is noted as the main songwriter to transform country music into a cultural force in American life. His most notable track was probably I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, but in his career, he wrote 55 Top 10 hits and 12 number-one singles. He was inducted into the Country Music, Rock and Roll, Songwriters, and Native American Music Halls of Fame due to his impact on music.
13. Bruce Springsteen
It’s hard to write a list of the best songwriters without including The Boss. Bruce Springsteen is one of the best-selling artists of all time with over 140 million records sold worldwide, spread across 21 studio albums. His lyrics were always socially conscious and resonated with working-class people in the US, earning him inductions into the Songwriters and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame along with numerous awards.
14. Neil Young
Neil Young spent time as part of the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and was a member of Buffalo Springfield before striking out into a solo career. His music combined rock, folk, and country styles, and his tracks became integral to the counterculture movement in the US during the 60s. His outspoken political stances and conscious lyrics brought him several influential songs and earned him induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Prince is widely regarded as one of the best musicians of all time and is one of the best-selling artists of all time with over 100 million worldwide record sales. He was a musical virtuoso, writing and singing the lyrics to his songs and preferring to play the instrumental parts of them during recording sessions on his own. His career earned him inductions into the Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and UK Music Halls of Fame.
16. James Brown
James Brown pioneered funk music as a genre and was one of the biggest stars of the 20th century. He holds the record for the most singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 to not reach the number one position and is ranked seventh on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. His work made him one of the first 10 inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame as both a musician and songwriter.
17. Buddy Holly
Buddy Holly’s career defined the traditional lineup of a rock band and would become a major influence on artists like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elton John, and The Rolling Stones. His untimely death is referred to as the day music died in Don McLean’s track American Pie. He would eventually be one of the initial groups of artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame for changing the face of rock and roll music.
18. John Fogerty
John Fogerty is best known for his time with Creedence Clearwater Revival and their single Fortunate Son. He was the principal songwriter for the group that had nine Top 10 singles. He would go on to have a lucrative solo career and was ranked at number 40 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.
19. David Bowie
David Bowie became one of the most innovative acts in pop music during the 70s and would eventually reach over 100 million worldwide record sales. Eleven of his albums reached the number-one spot, and he is the best-selling vinyl artist of the 21st century. He’s been listed as one of the 100 Greatest Britons at number 29 and has been inducted into both the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame.
20. Randy Newman
Randy Newman had a relatively successful music career before the 80s, but he became one of the most recognizable songwriters today thanks to his work on nine different Disney and Pixar films. He’s responsible for the scores for the Toy Story franchise, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., and two of the Cars movies. His career has earned him 92 nominations from the Academy Awards, recognition as a Disney Legend by the Walt Disney Company, and inductions into the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame.
21. Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton’s illustrious music career has made her one of the best-selling artists of all time with over 100 million worldwide record sales. Her songs were down to earth and relatable, two things that were integral parts of country music. She’s tied with Reba McEntire for the most number-ones on Billboard’s country charts, has 44 Top 10 country albums, and 110 career-charted singles. She has won numerous awards and has been inducted into the Country Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.
22. Michael Jackson
The King of Pop is one of the most influential cultural figures and most awarded musicians in history. With over 400 million worldwide record sales, 13 Billboard Hot 100 number ones, and numerous awards, he is credited as the most successful entertainer of all time. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice as well as the Vocal Group, Songwriters, Dance, and Rhythm and Blues Halls of Fame.
23. Merle Haggard
Merle Haggard is one of the most successful country music singers and songwriters of all time with 38 number-one singles on the Billboard country charts. He’s a member of the Nashville Songwriters, Country Music, and Oklahoma Music Halls of fame and was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
24. Max Martin
Max Martin is the songwriter behind some of your favorite hit tracks, whether you knew it or not. His work includes writing and producing for Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time, Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way, and Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl. During his career, he has written or produced 25 tracks that would go on to become Billboard Hot 100 number-ones and won the ASCAP Songwriter of the Year Award eleven times.
25. Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash’s music spanned multiple genres, from country to rock to gospel, and eventually saw him sell over 90 million records worldwide. He’s one of the only people to be inducted into the Rock and Roll, Country, and Gospel Music Halls of Fame with hit tracks like Ring Of Fire, A Boy Named Sue, and I Walk The Line. I recommend his cover of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails, as it showcases his beautifully deep voice and was one of the last songs he recorded.
26. Neil Diamond
Neil Diamond is the songwriter behind the ever-present single Sweet Caroline. His career as a singer and songwriter saw him sell over 130 million records worldwide and produce 10 number-one singles, with 38 tracks reaching the Top 10. He is a member of both the Songwriters and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.
27. Elton John
Elton John’s songwriting partnership with Bernie Taupin is among the most successful in history. He’s sold over 300 million records worldwide and has more than 50 Top 40 hits on the US and UK charts. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and has been inducted into both the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame.
28. The Notorious B.I.G.
Biggie is one of the most influential figures in hip hop and one of the greatest rappers of all time. Multiple establishments have ranked him as the best rapper and lyricist of all time despite his short career, and his east-versus-west feud with Tupac Shakur is the stuff of hip hop legend. While he never released rock music, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2020.
Madonna is perhaps the greatest female singer, songwriter, and performer in history with over 300 million worldwide record sales and is the most successful solo artist in the history of the US Billboard Hot 100 charts. Billboard and Rolling Stone ranked her among the greatest artists and greatest songwriters of all time.
30. Kurt Cobain
As the primary songwriter for Nirvana, Kurt Cobain is one of the most important musicians in the history of alternative rock. He’s been included in Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest guitarists, songwriters, and singers of all time and was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside surviving Nirvana band members.
31. Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson was one of the figureheads of the outlaw country movement of the 60s and is an icon of American music. In 1993, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and is a notable activist today for marijuana legislation and the increased development of biofuels.
32. Tom Petty
Tom Petty worked as both a member of Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers and had a lucrative solo career that saw him sell over 80 million records worldwide and become one of the best-selling musicians of all time. His biggest hits included Free Fallin’ and I Won’t Back Down.
33. Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift’s debut album made her the first female country singer to write or co-write every track on a platinum album. Her 200 million worldwide record sales speak to her ability to crossover from country music and top the charts of other genres, and she was granted the Songwriter of the Decade Award by the Nashville Songwriters Association. She’s credited with inspiring a new generation of singers and songwriters across a wide range of musical genres.
Jay-Z is one of the best-selling artists of all time with over 140 million worldwide record sales, but he’s also the first rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the only living solo rapper to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s written for numerous writers working under his record labels and is one of the most successful hip hop moguls ever. Alongside Kanye West, he is tied for the most Grammy Award wins by a rapper with 24, and he alone holds the record for the most number-one albums by a solo artist on the Billboard 200 at 14.
35. Loretta Lynn
Most famous for her single Coal Miner’s Daughter, Loretta Lynn is one of the best singers and songwriters in country music. Her 60-year career saw her become the most awarded female country artist in history, and she’s the only female country artist of the decade. Twenty-four of her tracks would become number-one singles, with eleven of her albums also reaching the top spot.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.