Top 10 Pop Singer-Songwriters, the Best of All Time
Before the late 1960s, most of the top pop and rock solo artists sang and recorded songs written by others, usually professional songwriters. Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Connie Francis among many others all relied on outside songwriters. Bob Dylan was an exception to the rule. In the early 1970s, the work of singer-songwriters became a hot trend in mainstream pop music. Solo artists who write their own songs have been a crucial part of pop music ever since.
Bob Dylan is considered by many to be the top songwriter of all time in popular music. He has released sixteen platinum-certified albums. Among his songs are such protest classics as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” Bob Dylan is a member of both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He has received 12 Grammy Awards out of 43 nominations, and six of his recordings are inductees in the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2012 Bob Dylan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has sold more than 100 million records worldwide.
Bob Dylan only wrote two of the songs on his self-titled first album. His second, 1963’s “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” is considered his songwriting breakthrough. He wrote 11 of the 13 songs. Among those were such classics as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” The album was one of the first 50 chosen by the Library of Congress as part of the National Recording Registry.
Top Pop Hits
- “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965)
- “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (1966)
- “Positively 4th Street” (1965)
- “Lay Lady Lay” (1969)
Watch Bob Dylan sing “Tangled Up in Blue.”
In a fascinating twist, early in his career, Bruce Springsteen was touted as possibly a “new Bob Dylan” due to the word pictures he painted in his songs and his chronicling of the American experience. However, it was not long before he carved out his own unique place in popular music. Bruce Springsteen has sold over 65 million albums in the U.S. alone. He has received 20 Grammy Awards and earned 49 nominations. His first 10 studio albums are all platinum-certified, and his mammoth “Live: 1975–1985” set is certified 13 times platinum on its own, cementing Bruce Springsteen’s status as one of the top live performers of all time. He has reached the Top 10 on the pop singles chart 12 times. Bruce Springsteen is a member of both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Bruce Springsteen wrote all nine songs on his debut album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.,” released in 1973. One of the standouts was “Blinded by the Light.” It was added to the album at the last minute when label executives wanted something to release as a single. The song failed to chart as a single, but in 1976, the British group Manfred Mann’s Earth Band took their version all the way to No. 1 on the U.S. pop chart.
Top Pop Hits
- “Dancing in the Dark” (1984)
- “Hungry Heart” (1980)
- “Glory Days” (1985)
- “Brilliant Disguise” (1987)
- “I’m on Fire” (1985)
Watch Bruce Springsteen sing “Born To Run.”
As depicted in his first hit single, “Piano Man,” Billy Joel did serve a six-month residency at the Executive Piano Bar on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1972. Seventeen of his albums are certified platinum, and his two-disc greatest hits collection is certified an amazing 21 times platinum. Billy Joel is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame. Thirteen of his singles have hit the pop Top 10, including three that went all the way to No. 1. Billy Joel has earned 24 Grammy Award nominations. He won Record of the Year and Song of the Year for “Just the Way You Are” and Album of the Year for “52nd Street.”
Billy Joel wrote all of the songs on his debut album, “Coldspring Harbor,” released in 1971. However, an offspeed mastering mishap contributed to the album being a commercial failure. Ten years later, one of the songs, “She’s Got a Way,” was resurrected as a single release from the album “Songs in the Attic.” The live recording reached No. 23 on the pop singles chart.
Top Pop Hits
- “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” (1980)
- “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (1989)
- “Tell Her About It” (1983)
- “Just the Way You Are” (1977)
- “My Life” (1978)
Watch Billy Joel sing “You May Be Right.”
Prince gained acclaim for his flamboyant performance style, but it is his powerful songwriting that underscores all of the surface flash. He won seven Grammy Awards and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Prince sold over 100 million records worldwide. Sixteen of his albums are certified platinum, led by the “Purple Rain” soundtrack, certified for over 13 million in sales. Nineteen of Prince’s singles reached the pop Top 10, and five of them went all the way to No. 1. Prince received 32 Grammy Award nominations and won seven times. He received two nominations for Album of the Year. Prince died in April 2016 at age 57.
Prince wrote, produced, and performed all of the songs on his debut album, “For You,” released in 1978. The album sold poorly, reaching No. 163 on the U.S. album chart. The single “Soft and Wet” made some headway on the R&B chart, peaking at No. 12. His second, self-titled album included the single “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” which became Prince’s major pop breakthrough.
Top Pop Hits
- “When Doves Cry” (1984)
- “Lets Go Crazy” (1984)
- “Kiss” (1986)
- “Cream” (1991)
- “Batdance” (1989)
Watch Prince sing “Baby I’m a Star.”
In 1970 Paul Simon left his performance partnership with Art Garfunkel to seek what became an even more successful solo career. He is known for the intricacy of the social interactions depicted in his songs. Paul Simon has won 13 Grammy Awards, and he is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Library of Congress presented him with its first Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in 2007. Seven of Paul Simon’s solo albums reached the Top 5 on the album chart. Four of them have been certified platinum for sales. Six of his singles reached the pop Top 10, and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” went all the way to No. 1. In June 2016 Paul Simon announced that he is considering retirement.
Although he released a solo album in 1965 while still performing as part of Simon and Garfunkel, Paul Simon’s proper solo debut came with the self-titled album released in 1972. He wrote all but one of the songs. Critics lauded his work. Among the songs included are “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.”
Top Pop Hits
- “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” (1975)
- “Kodachrome” (1973)
- “Loves Me Like a Rock” (1973)
- “Mother and Child Reunion” (1972)
- “Slip-Slidin’ Away” (1977)
Watch Paul Simon sing “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”
Carole King is known both for writing more than two dozen pop chart hits in the 1960s for other artists with her husband Gerry Goffin, and also for her success recording her own songs in the 1970s. By 2000, she had written or co-written 118 songs that reached the Billboard Hot 100. Carole King’s “Tapestry” album is considered by many to be the definitive singer-songwriter album. It spent over 300 weeks on the Billboard album chart and has sold over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone. Carole King is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame. She has won six Grammy Awards, and the album “Tapestry” as well as the songs “You’ve Got a Friend” and “It’s Too Late” have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. “Beautiful,” a Broadway musical based on the life and work of Carole King, debuted in January 2014 and won two Tony Awards.
Carole King was already one of the most successful pop songwriters of all-time when she released “Writer,” her first solo album as a performer in 1970. She co-wrote all of the songs on the album. “Up on the Roof,” a Top 5 pop hit by the Drifters, appeared on the album. “Writer” was a minor success, peaking at No. 84 on the U.S. album chart. Carole King’s next solo album, “Tapestry,” became a pop landmark.
Top Pop Hits
- “It’s Too Late” (1971)
- “Jazzman” (1974)
- “Sweet Seasons” (1972)
- “Nightingale” (1975)
Watch Carole King sing “It’s Too Late.”
Joni Mitchell wrote some of the definitive folk-pop songs of the 1960s, including “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Both Sides Now,” and “Woodstock.” Following her Top 10 pop success in 1974 with “Help Me,” she began to veer more into jazz-influenced music. Joni Mitchell is one of the most critically acclaimed songwriters of all time. Many other top songwriters cite her as a major influence on their careers. She has won nine Grammy Awards and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone magazine ranks Joni Mitchell as one of the Top 10 songwriters of all time.
Joni Mitchell wrote all of the songs on her debut album, “Song to a Seagull,” released in 1968. She already had success writing songs for others, like “Both Sides Now” and “Chelsea Morning,” but she did not sing them on her own album. The album barely made a dent on the U.S. album chart. Her next, “Clouds,” broke into the Top 40 of the U.S. album chart and earned a Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance.
Top Pop Hit
Watch Joni Mitchell sing “Woodstock.”
Neil Young first gained fame writing songs and performing as part of the groups Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. However, since branching out as a solo artist, he has become noted for profoundly personal music and wide-ranging exploration of musical styles. Neil Young received two inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—as a solo artist and as a member of Buffalo Springfield. Neil Young has released seven platinum-certified albums as a solo artist. He has earned 24 Grammy Award nominations and won two, including Best Rock Song in 2011 for “Angry World.” In 1994 “Harvest Moon” was nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
Neil Young recorded and released his self-titled debut album in 1969 shortly after his departure from Buffalo Springfield. He wrote all but one of the songs. “The Loner,” released as an unsuccessful single from the album, has become a staple of Neil Young’s concert repertoire. The album failed to reach the U.S. album chart. His next, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” released less than three months later, became known as Neil Young’s first solo classic and spent almost two years on the album chart.
Top Pop Hit
Watch Neil Young sing “Old Man.”
Alanis Morissette set a new standard for female singer-songwriters with her landmark 1995 album, “Jagged Little Pill.” It presented an independent, emotional, and often angry woman with songs that made their way to the upper reaches of the pop singles chart one after another. Ultimately “Jagged Little Pill” sold 16 million copies in the U.S. alone. It spent over a year in the Top 10 on the album chart. She has won seven Grammy Awards and released four No. 1 hit albums. Seven of her singles reached the Top 10 at mainstream pop radio.
Alanis Morissette released her first album, “Alanis,” in 1991 as a teenager. She co-wrote all of the songs, and three of them were Top 40 pop hits in her native Canada. However, many critics derided the music as cheesy teen pop. Four years later, she released “Jagged Little Pill.”
Top Pop Hits
- “Thank U” (1998)
- “Head Over Feet” (1996)
- “Ironic” (1996)
- “Uninvited” (1998)
- “You Learn” (1996)
Watch Alanis Morissette sing “You Learn.”
James Taylor played a crucial role in kicking off the singer-songwriter movement of the early 1970s. He was the first non-British act signed to the Beatles’ Apple record label. However, he didn’t find significant success until signing with Warner Bros. in the U.S. and releasing his second album, “Sweet Baby James,” in 1970. It included the No. 3 signature hit “Fire and Rain” and earned a Grammy Award nomination for Album of the Year. James Taylor hit No. 1 the next year with his cover of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Twelve of his albums have been Top 10 chart hits. He finally hit No. 1 with his “Before This World” album in 2015. Five of his singles have reached the pop Top 10.
James Taylor released his self-titled debut album in late 1968 on the Beatles’ Apple label. It is his only album for Apple. James Taylor wrote all but one of the songs. “Carolina in My Mind” is one of the most memorable songs. Paul McCartney and George Harrison both appear on the recording of “Carolina in My Mind.” It failed to reach the Top 100 on the U.S. pop singles chart, and the album only reached No. 62.
Top Pop Hits
- “You’ve Got a Friend” (1971)
- “Fire and Rain” (1970)
- “Handy Man” (1977)
- “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” (1975)
- “Mockingbird” with Carly Simon (1974)
Watch James Taylor sing “Shower the People.”