While the surprise of Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature still remains a baffling mystery to some, it’s not hard to understand why his song writing talents were eventually recognised and classified as such, with the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Professor Sara Danius, comparing Dylan to the ancient Greek poets.
Though she stressed the Academy had not widened the horizon when looking towards lyricists when adjudicating the prestigious award’s ‘Literature’ category, it seems clear that there has been at least some reconsideration into songwriters of such calibre – the first to claim the award since the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore in 1913.
With such an achievement fresh in the mind, here are 10 other songwriters who could or should be considered for a Nobel Prize nomination, whether it be now, or 54 years in the future as Dylan found out.
1. David Bowie
Prize Motivation: “For continually crafting renewed variation and style in songwriting rarely seen thoughtout the pop genre.”
A forefather of musical evolution and progression, David Bowie’s impact and influence on artists spanning a multitude of genres is evident and well documented. His multiple personas have been discussed as many times as his ability to relay the stories of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, though it’s his occasional, curious method of ‘cut ups’ to form song lyrics that deserves more attention.
As literal as described, Bowie would “cut up” and extract random sentences from his own personal musings and other arbitrary sources and transform them into lyrics. How else could he have possibly come up with the opening to ‘Moonage Daydream’s;
“I’m an alligator / I’m a mama-papa coming for you”?
2. John Lennon
Prize Motivation: “For outgrowing his own ostensibly high quality of lyrics from early in his career, and maturing to become complete”
While a vast majority of the former Beatles’ most successful and well-known hits were written in partnership with the Fab Four’s Paul McCartney, it was Lennon’s career as a solo artist that allowed him to become more philosophical and prudent with his lyrics. With songs such as ‘Give Peace a Chance’, ‘Working Class Hero’ and ‘Imagine’ also able to adopt a more political and objective standpoint that The Beatles could rarely afford.
Lennon’s lyrical content development is evident throughout his stunted career, growing from early tracks like ‘Please Please Me’ (“Please please me, whoa yeah, like I please you”) , ‘Ticket to Ride’ (“She ought to think twice / She ought to do right by me”) and ‘Run For Your Life’ (“Well I’d rather see you dead, little girl / Than to be with another man”) which were commonly self-indulgent, bordering on narcissistic and occasionally even misogynistic (even in ‘Imagine’, which despite its peaceful ambitions stems from his own specific version of an ideal world where “there’s no countries” and “no religion, too”), which largely dissipated following his relationship with Yoko Ono, as did his investment with The Beatles.
Tragically, Lennon’s murder in 1980 came only three weeks after the release of his final album Double Fantasy, which was perhaps his most poignant and affectionate, and clearly demonstrated the changed man he had become.
In ‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’, he lovingly dotes over his young son at his bedside;
(“Close your eyes / Have no fear / The monster’s gone / He’s on the run / And your daddy’s here”) reflecting upon his unforeseen change in character with “Life is what happens to you / While you’re busy making other plans”.
3. Lin-Manuel Miranda
Prize Motivation: “For pushing the boundaries and manoeuvring away from perceived stereotypes, using musical genre to appropriate new methods of storytelling.”
American actor, composer, writer and rapper, a boy from Upper Manhattan, Lin-Manuel Miranda – shot to fame in ’08 with a stage play that made Broadway and gave him countless accolades – but it was with Hamilton – another play – about the founding of the States, that made him truly great, a God to some, using rap verse to subversively speak the full script; there was just too much to say to have been performed any other way.
In ‘The World Was Wide Enough’ Alexander Hamilton, who he plays, states;
“America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me / You let me make a difference / A place where even orphan immigrants / Can leave their fingerprints and rise up”.
Such greatness lies in him and there’s doubtless more to come, a million things he hasn’t done – but he’s smashin’ every expectation – “Every action’s an act of creation!”.
4. Courtney Barnett
Prize Motivation: “For becoming an essential, accessible voice for the disenchanted millennial generation”
A young and scruffy, unassuming singer-songwriter, the Melbourne-based Courtney Barnett has continued to draw more than a few comparisons with the equally wry and lackadaisical Bob Dylan. Especially since Garbage drummer and legendary producer Butch Vig claimed she had “tapped into [a] songwriting style” that reminded him of the recent Nobel laureate.
Yet, Barnett has undoubtedly developed her own artistic chic, and attracted global attention even before the release of her debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit in 2015. Her wry sense of humour is brought to life in tracks such as ‘Depreston’, an amusing acoustic ballad about looking to buy a house in the grimy outer suburbs;
“We don’t have to be around all these coffee shops / Now we’ve got that percolator, never made a latte greater”.
Her transcendent lyrics are honest and approachable, relatable for many of the younger generations, if not always eloquent, but constantly stirring.
Prize Motivation: “For using lyrical means to bring about positive action and change, and for persisting throughout even if the world may seem against you.”
The melancholy crooner, best known as the former singer and frontman of The Smiths, is famed for his often morose and despondent lyrics, yet Morrissey’s greatest trait is his ability to spin such gloomy, dispirited themes into somehow containing a distant undercurrent of inspirative optimism. “I love the romance of crime”, he sings in ‘Sister I’m a Poet’, but such pensive thoughts are perhaps no better reflected than in ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, which envisages “… If a double-decker bus / Crashes into us / To die by your side / Is such a heavenly way to die”.
Touted as one of the greatest lyricists in British history, Morrissey is also renowned for his outspoken opinions, most notably vegetarianism and animal rights. In ‘Meat Is Murder’, the title track of The Smiths’ 1985 album, he vividly describes “Heifer whines could be human cries / Closer comes the screaming knife / This beautiful creature must die” and “… the flesh you so fancifully fry / Is not succulent, tasty or kind / It is death for no reason”.
6. Henry Rollins
Prize Motivation: “For his continual contribution to progressive literature across a wide variety of platforms that reaches just as broad a demographic.”
The once notorious, and still consistently provocative Henry Rollins, whose career kicked off as the vocalist of the nonconformist American punk rock band Black Flag, but has since gone on to become known for the genres of spoken word and comedy. Now a prominent worldly writer, journalist and motivational speaker, the part-time actor and radio host has released a plethora of literary works, including his own autobiographical book Get in the Van, for which he won a Grammy Award.
Using his fame to great effect as a campaigner and activist, promoting LGBT rights, World Hunger Relief and an end to war, Rollins was recently interviewed by Moshcam, which can be viewed here.
7. Tupac Shakur
Prize Motivation: “For providing so many of those suffering hardship and adversity with a glimmer of hope and dreams through an available portal they can glean from.”
Yet another genre-defining inspiration whose life was sadly cut short, Tupac’s influence on any up-and-coming hip-hop artist of today would be undeniable. Having released ten albums worth of material, including five posthumous releases since his death in 1996, 2Pac’s themes characteristically revolved around violence, hardships and the infamous east coast/west coast rivalry, yet it was atypical, compassionate songs about supporting women and the black youth that helped to see him ranked as one of the greatest and most influential rappers of all time.
Songs such as ‘Brenda’s Got a Baby’ and ‘Unconditional Love’ are key examples of Tupac’s empathetic positioning, yet his depictions and positive representation of race in ‘Keep Ya Head Up’ will go down as his greatest lyrics: “Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice / I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots”.
8. Alex Turner
Prize Motivation: “For his atypical use of superfluous language throughout modern rock music, which provokes deeper thought and translation for those who wish to seek it.”
Though he has long been proclaimed as a prodigious lyrical talent, rising to fame with indie rock band Arctic Monkeys in the mid-naughties, it’s only recently that Alex Turner has proven his twisted strings of vocal discord are much more than idiosyncratic impromptu ramblings. With the release of AM in 2013, the fifth by the Tuner-fronted band, he was both prophetic and astute, highlighted with lines like;
“Arabella’s got some interstellagator skin boots / And a helter skelter around her little finger and I ride it endlessly / She’s got a Barbarella silver swimsuit / And when she needs a shelter from reality she takes a dip in my daydreams”.
A master of conjuring thoughts of rich scenery above a sea of metaphorical paradigms, Turner’s side project with Miles Kane in The Last Shadow Puppets has continued to produce such romanticised examples, as Turner continued to further his evolution into Elvis-inspired melodrama:
“There’s a set of rickety stairs / In between my heart and my head / And there ain’t much that ever bothers going up them”.
9. Roger Waters
Prize Motivation: “For long being an outstanding example of how traditional forms of genre and lyric can be amended and advanced and still remain timeless.”
The Pink Floyd co-founder’s investigational and poetic approach to songwriting has remained a constant throughout his career, which has now spanned more than 50 years and is likely to have been a key to his longevity as an artist, albeit a technique that has proven to be overtly extravagant and hazardous at times.
Over the years, Waters’ lyrics have been constantly compared to that of ex-bandmate David Gilmour, and despite maintaining a constant level of quality, Gilmour’s lyrics mostly pale in comparison with Waters’, with tracks such as ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘Shine On, You Crazy Diamond’ and ‘Perfect Sense, Part 1’ among firm fan favourties. It’s in 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon however that Waters is at his most odic, throughout the single ‘Time’;
“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day / Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way / Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town / Waiting for someone or something to show you the way”.
10. Jack White
Prize Motivation: “For his unwavering contribution across all channels of musical output, and maintaining such a high quality of lyrical fortitude and poise throughout.”
White’s swathe of associated acts and collaborations across his career is only outdone by his multitude of successes and awards, most notably as one half of the bluesy, garage rock duo The White Stripes he formed with his now ex-wife Meg White between 1997 and 2011.
Adopting a much more traditional approach to song writing than many of the others mentioned throughout this list, his organic method of lyric writing has continued to be prolific, composing tracks for his side project The Raconteurs, who opened shows for Bob Dylan in 2006.
One of his many lyrical highlights comes in one of White’s compositions for supergroup The Dead Weather.
“Will there be enough water / When my ship comes in / And when I set sail / Will there be enough wind?”
11. Thom Yorke
Prize Motivation: “For perfectly balancing the sensical with the nonsensical in order to capture and evoke modern feelings of anxiety, paranoia, political dissatisfaction and the complexities of human emotion.”
Although he may have started off his career as another ‘whiny, angsty teen’, which is why we pretend Pablo Honey doesn’t exist, the British singer quickly transcended this style to establish himself as a uniquely modern voice for a dissatisfied generation. Across Radiohead, Atoms for Peace and two solo albums, Thom Yorke tackles whatever themes happen to be resonating with him at the time, be it anything from the European refugee crisis (‘Burn the Witch’) to the rejection of rampant capitalism (‘Karma Police’) to political whistleblowers (‘Harrowdown Hill’).
His frenzied, falsetto style of singing and gibberish tangents (looking at you ‘Idioteque’) can seem frustratingly vague on initial listen, but slowly reveal themselves over time, making the deeper messages resonate all the stronger (such as the fear of climate change on the aforementioned track).
The singer demonstrates a truly impressive lyrical range, and can deliver an emotional gut punch as effortlessly as a brutal diss.
“I’m not living / I’m just killing time”
“Karma police, arrest this man / He talks in maths / He buzzes like a fridge / He’s like a detuned radio”