(This list includes only those artists who released an album between January and August of this year)
A brilliant lyricist is one who not only crafts a hook that is appealing to the listener, but also one who succeeds in conveying palpable, genuine emotion through his or her words. Yet at the same time, he or she must have an inherent feel for how to express certain emotions at certain times. Take anger for example, a universal feeling. At times, the expression of anger requires all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In other instances, the anger being conveyed is one that is slightly more indirect, and requires an abstract execution in terms of how it is presented to the listener in the lyrics. This calls for maybe an absence of those f-bombs and perhaps a little more intricacy. It is a fine line to say the least, but one that a gifted lyricist has an innate ability to manage and discern. Above all, the songs created must not only communicate emotion (complex and simple) in a manner that draws the listener in and connects with him or her, but also ultimately reach beyond personal feeling and delve deeper into the intrinsic nature of human spirit and existence, whether by purpose or accident. An entire experience is created from their words. Here are the top lyricists of 2011 so far:
Note: This is not a judgment of the albums or artists overall, but purely on lyrical content.
5. Cass McCombs, Wit’s End (Lyricist: Cass McCombs)
Cass McCombs has finally begun to gain some of the recognition that he deserves with the release of his fifth album, Wit’s End. McCombs succeeds best in creating settings and physical representations with his lyrics. He conveys emotion through tapping into striking visual imagery to form an analogy, metaphor or symbol. This is seen in “Buried Alive” when he begins with, “Waking up to the breath of the ore/ in the sea of Black / If you cut a worm in two the other half will grow black” to convey the message that his soul will live on after death. Though this approach can sometimes appear cliché and forced if implemented by a lesser talent, McCombs is skilled enough to avoid these traps and craft exceptional lyrics.
Highlights: “County Line,” “Buried Alive,” “Memory’s Stain”
4. The Antlers, Burst Apart (Peter Silberman)
Their last album, Hospice, was an emotional rollercoaster of a record that somewhat stuck to a narrative of a relationship between a terminally ill patient and a hospice worker. Having already established himself as a lyricist who could deal a heavy emotional punch to his listeners, Peter Silberman followed that up with a record that contained no glaring concept or narrative structure. The result is a scattered but personal LP whose lyrics still show why Silberman is a force to be reckoned with in the lyrical realm. A little light comes in every now and again, but for the most part he sticks with somber situations and feelings of failure and despair. In “No Windows,” Silberman almost revels in the idea of going through life in isolation, expressing how he would be hardly missed if tragedy struck. Serious stuff, yes, but these are emotions that all have dealt with or felt at one time or another. Some lyricists simply have a gift for conveying the darkness of human emotion, and Silberman is one of those.
Highlights: “No Windows,” “Parentheses,” “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out”
3. TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light (Lyricists: Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone)
Coming off of two previous albums that abstractly protested the current state of the world, TV on the Radio tweaked their lyrical approach a bit on Nine Types of Light. Rather than brilliantly channeling their anger into a critique on a larger issue (“DLZ’), these rockers explore a new subject: love. Though the lyrics may seem a little more straightforward and direct than in previous outings, there is still much underlying conflict beneath the surface. Is “You” an unapologetic declaration of love, or does the lover have a warped idea of the state of the relationship and his actions? Never underestimate TV on the Radio.
Highlights: “Killer Crane,” “You,” “Will Do”
2. Radiohead, The King of Limbs (Lyricist: Thom Yorke)
Obviously, there is no need for an introduction with these guys. One of the most revered rock groups of the twenty-first century, Thom Yorke has always matched the otherworldly sound with fittingly cryptic lyricism. At times one has to wonder whether Yorke himself is truly of this world, considering his unprecedentedly unique perspective communicated through the songs, coupled with an imagery and symbolism that is totally distinct from any other artist. Similar to the music on the album, King of Limbs showcases a slightly different lyrical approach for Thom, although some of that eerie imagery remains intact. On “Codex,” the listener finds Yorke in a rare peaceful state, urging himself or another to “jump off the end/ into a clear lake.” As with most Yorke constructions, however, a paranoia and uneasiness rests underneath this peaceful surface, perhaps in this case a false feeling of innocence or a final resignation. Eight albums into his lyrical career with Radiohead, Thom Yorke is still able to invoke apprehension and discomfort in his audience. The listener, even on the more minimalistic Limbs can still feel every twinge of guilt and anxiety that haunts Yorke.
Highlights: “Codex,” “Give Up the Ghost,” “Lotus Flower”
1. Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Lyricist: Justin Vernon)
For the most part, Justin Vernon chooses to embrace broader compositions on the follow-up to his cult classic For Emma, Forever Ago. Yet his lyrics remain firmly entrenched in personal relationships and struggles. In possibly his strongest lyrical performance yet, he laments in “Holocene” that “And at once I knew I was not magnificent/ High above the highway aisle/Jagged vacance, thick with ice.” Clearly, For Emma was not an accidental lyrical masterpiece, and it appears that Justin Vernon’s lyrics are only improving with time. Few can articulate raw emotion so delicately and connect on a powerful level with the audience as well.
Highlights: “Holocene,” “Calgary,” “Towers”
Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo (Lyricist: Kurt Vile)
Vile has an indelible ear for a great lyrical hook, yet does not sacrifice real emotion or brutal honesty in the process of creating one.
Tyler, the Creator, Goblin (Lyricist: Tyler Okonma)
This rap artist seems to specialize in shockingly dark lyrics, but beneath the bravado is an insightful commentary on the state of society.
Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Lyricist: Robin Pecknold)
Beautiful images of nature abound in Robin Pecknold’s lyrics, yet there are authentic stories of human struggle underneath the splendor.
Wild Beasts, Smother (Lyricist: Hayden Thorpe)
No deep interpretations needed here, but simplicity, literary references and unabashed emotional honesty works for the Wild Beasts on Smother.