There are tons and tons of ultra talented divas that have helped to revolutionize the music industry, from Aretha Franklin to Madonna, to Billie Holliday, to Queen Bey, but very few of these stellar vocalists are actually responsible for writing their own music or lyrics. Of course, out of hundreds of songs, a few can be attributed to the actual singer, such as Aretha Franklin’s “Think” (about whatcha tryna do to me), but like so many other great singers, most of her songs are not her own.
As a dabbling songwriter myself, I’ve always looked up to the singers who have doubled as composers and lyricists. So naturally, being the feminist and avid music lover I am, I thought it my duty to compile a list of my 10 favorite singer/songwriter queens, whose various compositions have both inspired me and guided me throughout my life.
10. Tori Amos
This innovative folk rock queen (who happens to be coming out with a new album) has become one of the worlds most prominent singer/songwriters, whose songs have discussed everything from sexuality, to feminism, to religion. Each of her songs is like a virtual 7 layer dip, comprised of elements of jazz, blues, folk, rock, and pop. Her lyrics are not only filled with sophisticated themes about complex social issues, but are also incredibly emotionally resonant and oozing with compelling story lines. I’m obsessed with the song “Silent All These Years,” which is in my opinion, a tear-jerkingly beautiful feminist commentary about living in the confines of patriarchy.
9. Janis Joplin
This bad ass lady is known in the music world as “The Queen of Psychedelic Soul.” Ms. Joplin rose to fame in the late 1960s, making her start as the lead singer in the psychedelic-acid rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company. This is probably exactly what you imagine when you think of a 1960s rock band: comprised of four skinny white dudes with long shaggy locks, sporting the characteristic peasant shirts, and then Janis, the ultimate hippie-flower child, with her tousled hair and of course, giant circular wire rims. Eventually Janis made the transition to solo artist and went on to become one of the major attractions to the legendary Woodstock Festival. Some of my favorite songs by her include: the quintessential rock and roll tune, “Down on Me” accentuating Janis’ distinctive raspy vocals, and of course, the most eulogized of the Joplin songs, “Piece of my Heart,” that holds the bizarre ability to evoke involuntary head bopping. She’s most renowned for her stellar performing abilities and electric stage presence.
I feel like Jewel holds a roadmap to my soul. She seems to get me on such a weird level, I’ve become convinced that she stalks me and then writes songs that are specifically about my life. She’s incredibly diverse, from folk-speak-sing-y tunes like “Who Will Save Your Soul” to hauntingly melodic ballads like “Foolish Games.” Her lyrics are so incredibly raw and emotionally pertinent, and she doesn’t feel the need to sugar coat her feelings with extraneous metaphors, she just says it how it is- “I know you love me and soon you will see you were meant for me.” As a friend of mine often says “she just feels those feels, man.”
7. Tracy Chapman
I’ve grown up listening to Tracy Chapman my whole life, accompanied by my dad’s exciting accounts of performing alongside her in a Jazz ensemble while they were both students at Tufts University. This guitarist and singer is best known for her song “Fast Car” from her self titled album. Her songs are musically and lyrically sophisticated, exploring complex themes such as poverty and alcoholism.
6. Stevie Nicks
You can not begin to imagine the anger I feel when ignorant music posers refer to Stevie Nicks as a “he.” I’ve always been mesmerized by this woman and her iconic saga with Lindsey Buckingham and Fleetwood Mac. You can often find me recounting her story to unwilling ears, about her composition of my life’s anthem: “Landslide,” which she wrote while residing in Aspen, Colorado, overlooking the Rocky Mountains, romantically pondering the landslide that was her life. Nicks is known for her distinctive voice, mystical visual style, and symbolic lyrics. She has often been deemed the queen of rock and roll.
5. Joan Armatrading
The first Joan Armatrading song I ever listened to, “In These Times,” instantly moved me to tears. Her lyrics are poetic, emotionally resonant, socially relevant, expressive of the human spirit, and reflective of the human experience. The British singer/songwriter was nominated for 3 Grammies and received an Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contemporary Song Collection in 1996. She is known for her distinctive vocals, and consummate musicianship - having arranged every instrument minus the drums in her last three albums. In addition, her sound is incredibly diverse, ranging from jazz to soul to pop.
4. Dolly Parton
This BUST-y lady also happens to be the most honored female country performer of all time. While her success as a platinum after platinum recording artist is VERY well documented, and her list of achievements seems to go on for days (25 RIAA Certified gold, platinum and multiplatinum awards, 25 #1 hits, 41 career top 10 country albums, 8 Grammies, 2 Academy awards, 10 CMA awards, 7 ACM awards, 3 AMA’s, 46 Grammy nominations), what’s less well known about Dolly, is her prominent influence as a song writer. She composed over 3,000 songs including “Jolene,” “Coat of Many Colors,” “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” and “I Will Always Love You,” most famously covered by Whitney Houston. Her range is incredibly vast - from finger picked folksongs to soaring ballads to classic country, to mainstream pop.
3. Amy Winehouse
The late singer-songwriter superstar is one of my all time favorites. Besides for her iconic “beehive”, she’s best known for her contralto vocals and eclectic mix of musical genres including soul, rhythm and blues, jazz, and reggae. She won 3 Ivor Novello awards- “best contemporary song” in 2004 for “Stronger Than Me” and in 2007 for “Rehab” and “best song musically and lyrically” in 2008 for “Love is a Losing Game.” Winehouse is probably the most celebrated vocal talent of her generation and serves as a major influence for the famous singer/songwriters of today such as Adele and Lady Gaga. While my favorite song by her is “Back to Black,” Amy was able to consistently infuse each one of her songs with a unique sound, sultry vocals, and personal/relatable lyrics.
2. Carole King
The Quintessential 1970s pop diva. You know her songs whether you think you do or not. She began her career at 17, when she composed a number one hit for the Shirelles ,“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” She went on to write tons of other songs throughout the 60s for pretty much everyone from The Monkees to Aretha Franklin. Finally in 1971, King came out with the album Tapestry, where she sang all of her own songs. The album won 3 Grammy Awards and sold more than 25 million units. Then, in 1987, she was granted a spot in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and awarded the national academy of songwriters’ lifetime achievement award. The new Broadway Musical “Beautiful,” that follows King’s songwriting escapades, was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical, and Jessie Mueller won the Tony for Best Leading Actress. Carole’s songs like “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “Beautiful” have become cult classics that seriously pull at the heart strings.
1. Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell is my ultimate queen. Her songs have grown with me, and have managed to take on new meanings as I’ve journeyed through different stages of life. She is probably the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century, with music that defines an era and a generation. Ms. Mitchell is revered both for her ability to compose songs that are harmonically and rhythmically complex, and meld jazz with influences of rock and roll, R&B, classical music, and non-western beats. Her music is still, to this day, restlessly innovative, evolving from deeply personal folk stylings like “Circle Game” and “Big Yellow Taxi” into pop jazz, avant-guard and world music like “In France They Kiss on Main Street” and “Chinese Café/Unchained Melody.” Joni was also very experimental with artistic identity and was able to explore territory outside of the traditional confines of pop music. Her lyrics are poetic, truthful and incredibly in touch with the human experience. Her words are able to transcend the confines of time, thus remaining emotionally resonant for people of all ages.
While these 10 singer/songwriters are my personal favorites, there are hundreds of other beyond-talented ladies out there, who are just as deserving to be on that list. Please comment below if there is anyone I left out who you believe should have been mentioned!