The Top 15 Lyricists in Alternative Rock
It’s easy to pinpoint your favorite vocalists. Lung power, pitch and emotion make identification easy. And not every song needs great lyrics. There are plenty of great songs where wordplay is negligible at best.
But when you can find a song whose words hit you deeply, you’re moving into more profound sonic territory. Good song lyrics should either tell a great story, paint evocative images, or speak to you on an intensely personal level about your emotional state. Some even cover all the above.
Keeping all this in mind, I’ve complied my Top 15 Lyricists. Given the long history of great songwriters and the need to make this list stand out, I’m limiting the list to alternative rock, in all its various incarnations. It’s already been established that Lennon, Morrison, Cohen, Cash, Waters, Bowie, Reed, etc, etc are the masters, and you can likely see who they’ve influenced on this list.
I’ll have side notes of other talented wordsmiths who barely missed inclusion, as well as YouTube links to select songs (with scrolling lyrics where applicable). If you click on any of the images, you’ll be directed to amazon where you can download the aforementioned tracks or albums depending on availability.
Monster Magnet is best known for their hit ‘Spacelord’ but they’ve made great stoner rock since the early 90’s. Wyndorf’s lyrics offer over the top galactic metaphors and sly social satire, such as in his 90’s anti slacker anthem “Negasonic Teenage Warhead” off their classic album “Dopes To Infinity”:
“Cause every supersonic jerk off who plugs into the game, is just like every subatomic genius who just invented pain”.
He’s unafraid to go into geek territory either, when he name checks seminal comic book artist Jack Kirby in ‘Melt’: “I was thinking of how the world should have cried, on the day Jack Kirby died”. That guarantees a niche audience, but for those that get it, it’s a wonderful thing.
‘Bummer’ might be the best though, where he tries out very, er, creative pick up lines on a girl who won’t give him the time of day. It cracks me up every time.
That’s right, I said it. Dean & Gene Ween are geniuses. It takes great musical skill to nail a variety of musical genres, and to match the lyrically proper tone to each while parodying it at the same time is no laughing matter. Well of course it is, but comedy takes work people.
They’ve done it all, from an Irish pub anthem “The Blarney Stone” to Mexican folklore “Buenos Tardes Amigo”. One of their best is the country break-up song “Piss Up a Rope”.
Sadly they broke up n 2012, leaving a huge void in the humorous alt-rock sub-genre.
His output has been erratic these past few years, but Cornell conjures great images when he’s focused. He deals almost exclusively in metaphors.”Rusty Cage” was so evocative it garnered a (wait for it) cover by Johnny Cash;”I’m burning diesel burning dinosaur bones”, “And it’s raining icepicks on your steel shore”.
And ‘Outshined’ has a line that evokes self loathing so perfectly it inspired a film title: “I’m Looking California, and feeling Minnesota”.
Here’s hoping that Soundgarden’s return will bring us some more great Cornell moments (fingers crossed).
12.Maynard James Keenan
Fewer artists make irritation with humanity more engaging than Keenan, and he continues to make his point in his 3 bands: Tool, A Perfect Circle and Pucifer. He has little patience for consumerist culture or gullibility to political powers. Perhaps his best is “Aenima” where he welcomes the destruction of mankind (or at least Los Angeles):
“Fret for your figure and fret for your latte and fret for your lawsuit and fret for your hairpiece and fret for your prozac….It’s a bullshit three-ring circus sideshow full of freaks…cause I’m praying for rain, and praying for tidal waves, I wanna see the ground give way, I wanna watch it all go down”
Rather than bumming you out, this works as primal scream therapy.
*Tommy Victor from Prong and Al Jourgenson from Ministry have some good lyrical chops in the misanthrope department as well.
U2’s frontman gets a lot of grief for being overbearing, but that shouldn’t discount his lyrical gifts. Bono’s skill is how he balances his emotions and his intellect. Whether he’s distressing about political concerns “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, juggling with identity “The Fly” or with a relationships ebbs and flows “With or Without You”, he wears his heart on his sleeves, and it’s won him legion of fans. His best remains “One”. A tale of frayed interpersonal band dynamics and The Edge’s failed marriage, it packs a hefty wallop. Check out this clip where the lyrics scroll to the music.
Mike Patton of Faith No More and Mr Bungle is unique on among songwriters in that he usually doesn’t write about himself. Each song is an opportunity to do a point of view from another character: a vampire “Surprise You’re Dead” , infant “Zombie Eaters”, drought stricken farmer “Smaller and Smaller”, etc. One of his best lyrical exercises is “Mid-life Crisis”. which according to him wasn’t about middle age navel gazing, but instead focused on Madonna, and his dissection of her vapidity and bloated sense of self-importance:
“What an inheritance
The salt and the Kleenex
Morbid self attention
Bending my pinky back
A little discipline
A donor by habit
A little discipline
Rent an opinion”
I don’t really even know if Reznor’s prose is poetic. It’s so primal and confessional it’s often clumsy, that’s the point. This is a man making his most naked emotional confessions, with little pretense except for his audacious sonic arrangements. Whether wallowing in abject (yet infectious) self-pity “Something I can Never Have”, reflexive anger “Wish”, or piercing self-examination “Into The Void”, Reznor left no dark stone unturned with Nine Inch Nails. ‘Hurt’ is probably what cements him best a lyricist though, and Johnny Cash’s somber remake gives it even more emotional resonance.
*While Marilyn Manson, Reznor’s protegé has faded from relevance, he had some pretty clever twisted wordplay on his first 2 albums.
8. John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten
Before Maynard James Keenan could get around to voicing his annoyances, we had John Lydon, whose been at it ever since the Sex Pistols and continues with Public Image Ltd. Whether flipping the bird to British Royalty “God Save The Queen”, telling off his old record label “EMI”, or taking the piss off trite romantic pop songs “This Is Not a Love Song”, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, he does it madly. My personal favorite is from the PiL song “Angry” where he attacks the notion of conformity:
“You, you are not your own person
You, took a tactical diversion
Why, not try and be yourself
Self made perfect creation”
Looking very forward to the new Public Image Ltd Album later this month.
[amazon_image id=”B000003Z51″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Tender Prey[/amazon_image]
Nick Cave’s lyrical skills are impressive. So much so that he’s had success as a published author and as a screenwriter. Cave’s lyrics imbue a biblical, old testament view of the world. He rarely writes anything that sounds of this era. It always feels sepia toned. Whether writing for his group the Bad Seeds, his solo career, or his new group Grinderman, he has a bleak view punctuated by great wit. One of his songs, “The Mercy Seat” was covered by Johnny Cash (yet again) and has attained classic status. It segues from a man on death row contemplating his journey from the electric chair to the throne of God, where he hopes he winds up. The repeated refrain:
“And the mercy seat is waiting, and I think my head is burning, and in a way I’m yearning, To be done with all this measuring of truth.An eye for an eye, And a tooth for a tooth, And anyway I told the truth, And I’m not afraid to die.”
Or listen to this hilariously lowbrow ode to sexual frustration in “No Pussy Blues”, where he always finds his partner not in the mood:
“I sent her every type of flower
I played her a guitar by the hour
I petted her revolting little Chihuahua
But still she just didn’t want to”…
6. Kurt Cobain
What else can be said, about the Nirvana frontman, the spokesman for a generation? We all know the lyrics by heart, have felt his pain and dark wit, and have learned to live with the small body of work he left us with because the impact was immense. While I’ll fight anyone who says ‘In Utero’ is the best album (‘Nevermind’ c’mon), “Heart Shaped Box” is Cobain’s finest hour lyrically, espousing all his mix of revulsion, anxiety and attraction to his wife, her childbirth, and the complex emotions surrounding each. Disturbing and riveting it never loses the power to keep your attention.
Read my latest post reflecting on the 19 year anniversary of Cobain’s suicide.
5. Steve Kilbey (The Church)
Fewer lyricists are as enigmatic than Steve Kilbey. Or as well-versed in clever wordplay. He’s not always interested in emotional content. He enjoys telling quirky tales of lost souls in some songs, and in others painting vivid psychedelic images to match his bands rich, dreamy soundscapes. Take this from the song ‘Disenchanted’ , a tale of a self defeatist:
“They say that character you play is rising fast
So you get drunk, make a half second jump
And experience it as the past
But this is it, the closer you get
The deeper you go, the tighter the net looks to me”
He’s quite excellent with puns, and twists of phrase, which have become his calling card. This is another band best known for one song “Under The Milky Way” , but who have a rich body of work worth discovering.
4. Robert Smith
There’s a reason The Cure have maintained such longevity and devoted following. Amidst the dark majesty of their sound, Smith’s lyrics weave tales born either of depressed isolation, broken relationships, or the occasional blissful love song, he speaks to the tortured romantic in us all. My 2 personal favorites are the bitter breakup track “Disintegration”, or the utterly bleak wail of despair that is “100 Years” which opens with the great Goth mantra: “It doesn’t matter if we all die”
*Ian Curtis of Joy Division helped channel much of the same darkly romantic lyrical concepts espoused by Smith, with continues to inspire and depress music fans the world over, despite his passing more than 3 decades ago.
I’m not going to lie; a little of Morrissey goes a long way with me. While I appreciate the Smith’s and enjoy their music, it’s usually in small doses, for whatever undetermined reason. But his lyrical prowess cannot be denied. No one does self-pity, over dramatic outrage and scalpel sharp slicing and dicing of perceived enemies better than he. How can you deny the genius of this bon mot from “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”? And if a double-decker bus crashes into us. To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die” And just the title of “We Hate it When Our Friends Become Succesful” is the epitome of bitter humor.
When primary songwriter Vince Clarke departed Depeche Mode in the early 80’s, many thought that was the end of the band. But actually it was for the best. He was free to pursue his poppier song craft, and Martin Gore was able to right their ship towards darker subject, which truly made them their own unique place in music history. Gore’s skill lies in his kinky take on romantic relationships and the struggle for power or submission within (bondage seems to be a constant theme, ala “Master And Servant” or “In Your Room”). His greatest gift lies in how almost all of his songs have some lyrical twist, which keeps them from being too sugary or overly sentimental. None illustrates this so perfectly as “Somebody” where after going through a litany of relationship goals for his future lover he realizes he may be going a bit over the top: “Though things like this make me sick, in a case like this I’ll get away with it”.
*Justin Warfield of She Wants Revenge has clearly learned from Gore’s rulebook, and does a pretty good take on it.
Pulp’s frontman has the best control of wordplay that I’ve seen in a vocalist. His humorous takes on the highs and lows of romance and culture truly set him apart from the standard lyrical rulebook.
Whether telling off a rich girlfriend who feels cool slumming with the working class “Common People”, coping with the uncertainties and anxiety that accompanies the first stirrings of true love : “What is This Feeling Called Love”, or dealing with the emotional fallout that he imagines occurs in the adult film industry “This is Hardcore”, he’s insightful and endlessly clever. When he launches into spoken soliloquies they cut like a knife. Usually I’d get irritated with that approach, but he gets away with it.
His best lyrics for me accompany the Pulp classic “Like A Friend”, where he lists all the ways that a lover cuts him down to size. Every line in this song is a gem. Here’s a sample:
“Like a car crash I can see but I just can’t avoid.
Like a plane I’ve been told I never should board.
Like a film that’s so bad but I’ve gotta stay til the end.
Let me tell you now,
It’s lucky for you that we’re friends. “
*Shirley Manson of Garbage and Greg Dulli from the Afghan Whigs also offer great sarcastic takes on the inner turmoil of relationships.
So there you have it, my 15 favorite lyricists. This was an interesting experiment as I see that many of my favorite bands didn’t even make my own list! Lyric writing is truly an art in and of itself.
Let me know your Top 13 and let’s compare notes.