Between Sufjan Steven's newest record, Carrie & Lowell
, and Kendrick Lamar's early contender for album of the year, To Pimp a Butterfly
, it's been a great month or so for lyrically complex records. And on this somewhat slow news day, it made me ask the question: "Who are the greatest lyricists of the 2000/10s?" It's not an easy question. The number of records out there with lyrics that an entire generation of music-lovers hold dear is legion. Putting this list together required a bunch of tough choices, and we gave up on trying to put this top 10 in order. Just know that these are the legends of lyricism working today.
Matt Berninger (The National)
If there was one certainty about this list, it was that Matt Berninger was going to be on it. The National have been one of the most consistently lyrically dense and and satisfying bands of the last fifteen years, and Matt Berninger's poetic insight keeps the band from being unbearably melancholy. The National write sad songs, but like The Cure, there's a beauty to the universality of Berninger's experiences and poetry.
Less than a month after its release is too soon to make these sorts of grand proclamations, but To Pimp a Butterfly
has a legitimate claim to be the best lyrical record of the 2010s so far. The record works on personal, political, and social levels, and it is overflowing with more wordplay than a Shakespearean sonnet.
Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio)
TV on the Radio are most famous for their funky, jazzy, electronic rock fusion sound, but I'm hard pressed to name a rock act with a better ear for political lyrics these days than TV on the Radio. "DLZ" is a raging political screed but you can't discount the powerful sexual allegory at the heart of "Wolf Like Me."
You don't announce a plan -- that is likely never coming to actual fruition -- to record an album about every state in the union unless you have serious faith in your lyrical chops. Carrie & Lowell
strips away a lot of the chamber pop of Illinois
or the electronic eccentricity of The Age of ADZ
to shine a spotlight on Sufjan's broken heart after his mother's death. It doesn't mean we can't enjoy the sweeping grandeur of the early records though.
Justin Vernon (Bon Iver)
"... and at once I knew I was not magnificent/ Strayed above the highway aisle/ (jagged vacance, thick with ice)/ I could see for miles, miles, miles." I rest my case.
Craig Finn (The Hold Steady)
Craig Finn is one of rock's greatest and most literary storytellers, and whenever I need to get lost in the universes he crafts, it's time to put on Boys And Girls in America
James Mercer (The Shins)
Modern lyricism nearly begins and ends for me with James Mercer and countless other kids who are now adults for whom Oh, Inverted World
is as much of a musical Bible as exists. My handle on a dating site is a Shins reference. Even when their lyrics don't necessarily make sense when taken at face value, they create an immediate sense of atmosphere and mood. "New Slang," indeed.
Killer Mike (Run the Jewels)
I'm not saying Killer Mike is ever going to outpace Outkast as the real stars of Atlanta's Dungeon Family, but damn if he isn't coming close this decade. Between his solo output and his work with Run the Jewels, Killer Mike has been part of several of the greatest hip-hop records of this decade.
J. Tillman (Father John Misty)
Father John Misty's follow-up to Fear Fun
could have been half as great lyrically as that beloved first record and he would have still made the list on the back of "Nancy From Now On" alone, but we have a kind music god, and I Love You, Honeybear
is even better. FJM is the king of a lyrical dissection our vices and romances.
Jesse Lacey (Brand New)
This is my slightly left field choice here, but for an entire generation of Millennial disaffected youth who feel like we lost our way in life, Brand New is a defining act, and I'm hard-pressed to name many better straightforward rock records than The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me