10 Singer-Songwriters Better Than Bob Dylan

I‘ve come to realize that Mr. Dylan is not all he’s cracked up to be. As a songwriter, a singer, and a musician, his genius may actually lie in another direction altogether – that of creating a mystique.

Bob Dylan has undoubtedly made a lasting impression in the world of recorded music through several decades. The recognition of his talent culminated when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. 

I’m no stranger to Dylan’s music, or the impact he made on my generation. A dozen or more of his albums can be found on my record shelves, and several of his lyrics burned their way into my young writer’s imagination over the years. I’ve even praised Highway 61 Revisited as the finest rock album ever, and saluted The Freewheelin’ release a Music Essential.

That said, I’ve come to realize Mr. Dylan is not all he’s cracked up to be. As a songwriter, a singer, and a musician, his genius may actually lie in another direction altogether – that of creating a mystique. His musical gifts are considerably lesser than many of his contemporaries. Were his fractured singing, rudimentary guitar playing, and wheezy harmonica not supported by clever rhyming, superb backup musicians, and a penchant for borrowing lyrical ideas from exotic sources, Dylan might have flamed out when folk music transformed into folk rock in the late ‘60s. Instead, he led the way for a new kind of songwriting that did indeed inspire others.

I can think of a dozen or more musical artists who excelled at creating a lasting emotional connection with audiences, record collectors, and industry peers, and to this writer, surpassed Dylan. Three of them who come to mind are, surprisingly, Canadian. Here are my candidates for singer-songwriters better than the legendary Bob Dylan.

Gordon Lightfoot

A superb lyricist, a golden voice, a talented guitarist, and a renowned composer of perfectly arranged songs that linger in the hearts and minds of listeners. Compositions such as “Early Morning Rain”, “The Great Canadian Railroad Trilogy”, “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald”, “Sundown”, and “Beautiful” are timeless. Lightfoot combined the personal with the historic in beautifully orchestrated form. He was perhaps the ultimate perfectionist when it came to song creation and arrangement, having been trained in composition and orchestration. He had a gift for understatement and irony. He is the one musical artist you can listen to every day and not tire of his voice or his material. If you were a fan you probably saw him in concert a dozen times over the course of his career. Noted music critic Noel Coppage wrote in a 1970 Stereo Review article that “Lightfoot’s songs will be sung in a hundred years”. And Dylan himself said “I would listen to Lightfoot sing anything. I always want his songs to go on forever.”

Joni Mitchell

From her debut album on, Joni was worshipped by men and women alike. They loved her haunting soprano voice, her distinctive guitar tunings, and her lyrics. The lyrics are especially significant, since they were poetic without being pedantic, searing without being overwrought, and memorable despite an emotional and intellectual complexity seldom found in popular music. A few examples: “Both Sides Now”, “River”, “A Case of You”, and “Big Yellow Taxi”. The album Blue is perfection from start to finish, while Court and Spark and Hejira both outshine any Dylan album you care to name, for their originality, lyrical expression, and all-around musicianship.  Dozens of female songwriters have been inspired by her recordings. Joni, by the way, always regarded Bob Dylan as a plagiarist, whose name and voice are fake.

Leonard Cohen

If a songwriter’s words were to be printed on the page and analysed as poetry, there are only a couple who would merit a passing grade. Leonard Cohen began as a poet, and his 1961 book entitled The Spice-Box of Earth was required reading for young writers of the time. His poems became songs, and his songs are built to last. “Suzanne”, “Tonight Will be Fine”, “First We Take Manhattan”, and his magnum opus “Hallelujah , with not an extraneous word, with wit, joy, and an almost religious intoxication with language, surpass any and every one of Dylan’s works. Cohen’s voice was serviceable, his songs raised to anthems with back-up singers such as Jennifer Warnes, and his audiences were devoted almost to slavery in their fandom. Take that, Mr. Dylan…

Carole King

She was the most successful female songwriter of the 20th century, either as writer or co-writer. Frankly, anyone who had a hand in composing “Crying In The Rain” for the Everly Brothers, or “Take Good Care of My Baby” for Bobby Vee, or “You’ve Got A Friend” for James Taylor, or “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman” for Aretha Franklin, or “The Loco-Motion” for Little Eva, should be the one who received a Nobel Prize for American music. Then there were more: “Up On The Roof” for The Drifters, and Tapestry, the 1971 album that contained the classic “It’s Too Late”.  And one last “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by The Shirelles. Romantic pop? Sure… but there’s enough emotional depth and truth in these songs to bring one to tears.

Paul Simon

Essential albums from Paul Simon include Bookends, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon,  Still Crazy After All These Years, Graceland, and the best-selling Bridge Over Troubled Water. He is a renowned guitarist, a lyricist without peer, and relentless experimenter with new forms, as evidenced by his interest in Latin and world music. There’s no doubt that Paul Simon was influenced by Dylan, and perhaps even competitive with him, but in this writer’s view Paul Simon is the better writer, singer, and musician by far. Two examples: the relatively minor hit “A Hazy Shade of Winter” explores creative ennui, while “the Boy In The Bubble” decries the excesses of modern life in ways Dylan never dare attempted.

Tim Hardin

Heartbreak and desire wrapped up in the most moving confection of folk, jazz, blues of the 1960s and early ‘70s: this was the musical genius and the tragic gift that Tim Hardin delivered to knowledgeable music fans. For one thing, his music was piano based, rather than guitar, as he had been schooled in classical music by his parents. Dylan called Hardin “the best songwriter alive today”. Rod Stewart agreed with him, going so far as to support Hardin throughout his last years through heroin addiction and personal troubles. Classic tunes such as “Reason To Believe”, “How Can We Hang On To A Dream”, and “Misty Roses”, coupled with his inimitable cover versions of “Bird On A Wire” and “A Satisfied Mind” remind the listener of the unimaginable loss of Hardin’s early demise. There has never been a more sensual songwriter and singer than Tim Hardin.

Jackson Browne

The same man who wrote “I Am A Child In These Hills”  also wrote “Take It Easy” for The Eagles, as well as “Doctor My Eyes”, as well as the whole of the essential album The Pretender. Blessed with a glorious voice, emotional honesty, and an uncommon lyrical grace, Jackson Browne should have been a major star. He is, however, a major writer whose unconventional approach to composition deserves renewed appreciation. Like J.D. Souther, like Richard Thompson, like Stan Rogers, Jackson Browne belongs to a rarefied and supremely talented group of singer-songwriters.

Mark Knopfler

Mark Knopfler was the lead vocalist, the lead guitarist, and the chief songwriter of Dire Straits for several years, then later branched on a solo career. Their 1977 debut release, self-titled, was a masterwork that this writer called ‘the best Dylan album Dylan never made”.  The great music didn’t stop there. Knopfler was a gifted writer, a jazz fan, and an acolyte of J. J. Cale.  His voice was somewhat of an acquired taste, but expressive enough to deliver such classics as “Sultans of Swing”, “Money for Nothing” and “Walk of Life”. He has never made a bad record, and never fallen out of favour with critics or audiences. Has anyone ever said the same of Dylan?

Smokey Robinson

The Motown Miracle. The true American poet. Smokey Robinson?? Yes, indeed. “You Really Got A Hold On Me”. “The Tracks of My Tears”. “Ooh Baby Baby”. “The Tears of a Clown” were all composed by him. “Shop Around”. Dozens more of soulful standards were written and performed by Smokey Robinson, as well as by a host of R & B stars such as The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells and The Supremes. More than 4000 songs have been written or co-written by Smokey Robinson. Four Thousand. “My Girl”, and “My Guy”, and “I Second That Emotion”. I’m sure you know these few I mentioned and many more.

Hank Williams

Hank has my vote for the Nobel Prize, though it is awarded only to the living. Hank died when he was 29, but still managed to turn out more than 600 songs, many of which have been covered by three generations of musicians. Leonard Cohen himself said that he judged himself to be a very minor writer when he compared himself with Hank. Tony Bennett covered Hank’s songs. So did Ray Charles, Sheryl Crow, Bob Dylan, and Dion DiMucci, and well, you name a recording artist, they’ve probably covered a Williams tune. Millions of music fans know and love the music of Hank Williams. More so than any artist I’ve mentioned above, the music of Hank Williams will be revered as long as there is music. That’s the real award, the true reward, of being a songwriter.

Brian Miller

Brian Miller is the Publisher and Editor of Vivascene, which he founded in 2010. A former record store owner, business executive and business writer, he is devoted to vinyl records, classical guitar, and b&w photography.

8 comments

  1. All of the songwriters you mention are first-class. But why the need to begin a conversation about them by trying to poke holes in Bob Dylan’s talent? Unnecessary.

    1. Dylan’s songwriting and his mystique have generated passion from all quarters, over several decades; there is no doubt of that. It would be interesting to be around a hundred years from now, and see who has prevailed in public and critical opinion.

  2. Wrong, wrong , wrong. Dylan is the best songwriter in the last 60 years. The only ones that come close are Lennon and McCartney and maybe Neil Young.

    1. Lennon and McCartney are a partnership, and a great one, but my favourite songwriting team is that of Steely Dan: Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. As for Neil Young, he’s an old favourite of mine, but I prefer the work of Gerry Rafferty and Richard Thompson. Different strokes for different folks. I welcome the discussion.

  3. Some of these artists you list are indeed fine musicians. Dylan has endured and continues to create as an musical artist, singer, songwriter, poet ande a visionary artist. His mastery of performing has not yet been matched in a similar timeframe of endurance, relativity, and ability to change with time.

    1. I agree with much of what you said, especially in reference to Dylan, and I have walked the long, often defensive road as a hard core Dylan fan. I have noticed the plagiarism mentioned by Joni as well as many other faults and disappointments, however, it shall remain that Dylan is a Nobel Prize recipient, and for that alone, I must tip my hat to him above the others.

  4. Your list is fine. Just remember that none of those ‘better’ songwriters would have existed without Dylan.

    1. A valid point, and one that has prompted a minor revision in the article. Thanks so much for your contribution. It’s not my intention to denigrate Dylan’s talent, so much as it is to explore the notion that his reputation has exceeded his musicianship. Btw, three of my choices preceded the arrival of Dylan: Hank Williams, Carole King and Smokey Robinson.

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