by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash
Every morning, millions of humans belt out songs in their showers. There’s no art more popular than song. A great melody is a whoosh of sublime emotion plugged straight into the human heart in the snappiest concentrate imaginable that, once stuck, stays stuck forever.
Great paintings can go unseen by many; great novels can go unread by most humans; but a great song is heard by all.
I’ve been thinking about the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and the greatest songs ever written, and naturally, the Beatles sprang to mind. But then I started making some comparisons, and came to a number of bizarre conclusions.
BTW, when I say greatest songs, I mean those with the greatest melodies, which more or less restricts us to ballads, and also excuses some terrible lyrics (the words of Irving Berlin’s classic White Christmas are absurdly banal; the lyrics of Puccini’s soaring One Fine Day are awkward, to say the least; and the Rolling Stones’ most moving ballad, Wild Horses, has the stupidest lyrics extant).
Here are my conclusions, briefly, before I get to a putative canon of actual songwriters and their songs: something that’s never been attempted before, which is why I’m doing it now.
Conclusion one: there are only eight truly greatest songwriters of all time, and they leave all the others in belly-crawling dust, for an obvious reason that will be revealed shortly.
Conclusion two: there are no great songwriters working today, and those who are still alive, have their best work long behind them. Today we get unbelievably excellent pop confections and sonic surprises on the pop charts — Umbrella, Kanye West’s amazing Runaway — but no great songs. Tell me one. Just one. 2010’s Need You Now by Lady Antebellum is excellent, but not great, like Unchained Melody and Hey Jude are great. We haven’t had one of those in 20 years. It’s been a goddam bare, empty, denuded desert out there for almost a quarter of a century. The creative spasm of the sixties lasted until the 90s, and then songwriting oomph hit the skids. It’s been riding its banana skin downhill ever since. Why? After providing the canon, I’ll give you four reasons why.