Four Overlooked Singer-Songwriters

Taking a look at four criminally overlooked singer-songwriters.

- May 10, 2017

Warren Zevon

If there were a king of the underrated, Zevon would be it. Long championed by artists like Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and Fleetwood Mac, the late songwriter wrote songs of a dark, sardonic nature, often featuring the themes of violence, loss, and desperation. Musically, Zevon was a chameleon of rock, shifting his sound to fit each song. His first album is great proof of that: there’s the mawkish piano ballad “Hasten Down the Win”, the Copland-esque western epic “Frank And Jesse James”, the jazzy cocktail lounge-set “Join Me in L.A.”, the folksy “Backs Turned Looking Down the Path”, and the uproarious hard rock track “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”. This style give an atmospheric vibe to each song, emphasizing the narrative in a way that makes each song into its own little novel.

Choice songs: “Lawyers, Guns, and Money”, “Desperadoes Under the Eaves”

Townes Van Zandt

From the personal (“Lungs”) to the mythical, (“The Silver Ships of Andilar”) Van Zandt wrote a different sort of country music: dark, introspective, and poetically written, his lyrics are as well-crafted as any in the genre. Though his own albums never charted, Van Zandt proved to be a songwriter’s songwriter and earned a reputation for writing songs that bigger artists would cover. “Pancho and Lefty”, a cliché-reversing western story of friendship and betrayal, has proven to be his most well-known song after Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard covered it in 1983 and made it the #1 single on the country charts.

Choice songs: “Lungs”, “Our Mother The Mountain”

Randy Newman

Known for his distinctive voice, Newman has achieved fame in recent decades through his work as a film composer, (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Monster’s Inc.) but the real genius of his career can be found on his earlier solo albums. Master of sarcasm and the pop hook, Newman’s against-the-grain 70’s work features some of the funniest songwriting out there.

Choice songs: “Rednecks”, “Short People”

Elliott Smith

With his whispered vocal delivery and lyrics often centered on depression and addiction, Elliott Smith treated the world to a distinctively heartrending brand of folk music before his tragic death in 2003. Though his solo career lasted less than a decade, the singer released five albums of intensely personal material in that time and has cemented himself as one of his generation's most talented songwriters.

Choice songs: "Miss Misery", "Angeles"

Post by Dan Goldsmith

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