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10 Nobel-Worthy Lyricists Who Aren't Bob Dylan

Maybe it's a good thing social media didn't exist back in 1913, when the influential Bengali poet, musician and painter Rabindranath Tagore became the first lyricist to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Tagore might have been the subject of as lively a Twitter-storm as Bob Dylan was this past week, as his controversial Nobel Prize win expanded the definition of literature to include lyricism in a way we haven't seen since — well, 1913.

There's no doubting Dylan's genius or poetic prowess. And now that the Nobel's literature category has opened up just wide enough to include songwriters again, here are 10 other legendary, living lyricists we'd like to put forth for next year's short list.

10 Nobel-Worthy Lyricists Who Aren't Bob Dylan

Leonard Cohen


For some Nobel purists, it was a stretch to accept the unconventional premise that the prize for literature could be awarded to a musician. For some musical purists, it was a stretch to accept the controversial premise that the musician should be Dylan and not Leonard Cohen. Cohen's contribution to the literary canon is undeniable; his very essence is literary prowess. He is love, sex, death, religion, animal instinct and elevated insight, Biblical and basal. Even his reaction to Dylan's win was poetic: "To me [the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain." Perhaps it's easy for Cohen to see that summit, because he's spent half a century at the top of it.

Smokey Robinson

"Choosy Beggar"

If Nobel Prize winners were allowed to choose their successors, Smokey Robinson could start penning his 2017 speech now with some degree of confidence. Dylan has called him "today's greatest living American poet." Maybe it's Robinson's ability to wrench uncommon beauty out of common tropes of love, his mastery of meter or his ability to bend a typical turn of phrase into something totally new, like he does in "Choosey Beggar." Let's just say that Dylan is a choosy chooser — and Robinson's his choice.

Joni Mitchell

"A Case of You"

Joni Mitchell prefers to think of herself as a "painter who writes songs" rather than a poet. She has painted humanity with the finest of details and broadest of universal strokes — from the crimson crystal beads of a morning in Chelsea to the yellow of a big taxi to an original and ever-enduring shade of Blue. And as long as they're giving the Nobel Prize for literature to poets, we may as well consider brilliant painters of poetry.

Aesop Rock

"No Regrets"

According to one data scientist, Aesop Rock has the widest vocabulary in hip-hop. Still not convinced? The same study revealed his lexical breadth stretches even wider than Shakespeare's. In other words, even if Aesop never wins a Nobel, at least he could give Billy Shakes a run for his ruffles at some afterlife cypher.

Chuck Berry

"Never Can Tell"

In 2013, the Nobel committee gave the prize for literature to Alice Munro because, in their words, she is a "master of the contemporary short story." You could say the same of Chuck Berry, who announced the upcoming release of a brand new record this week, on his 90th birthday. From the coffee-colored Cadillac in "Nadine," to the sweet little 16-year-old and "her wallet filled with pictures," to a "teenage wedding" where "the old folks wished them well," dropping a needle on a Chuck Berry record is like diving into a picture book. His words hold a rock 'n' roll mirror up to the times — and it rhymes.

Kris Kristofferson

"The Pilgrim, Chapter 33"

Although he might be more famous for holding a half-gallon of Jose Cuervo than he is for holding a master's in English from Oxford University, Kris Kristofferson is a bona fide academic and a Rhodes scholar. When he arrived in Tennessee in 1965, he blew the barn door off the Nashville sound with a style of personal, confessional storytelling that country music hadn't heard before. And that makes him one badass bard.

Stephen Sondheim

""Children Will Listen""

After being devoured by a wolf and then rescued from the belly of the beast by the hunter in Into The Woods, Little Red Riding Hood sings Stephen Sondheim's resonant words: "Nice is different than good." Nice truly is different than good — and Sondheim's canon is definitely not nice. Sparing his audience the niceties of love and happy endings that once defined musical theatre, Sondheim's lyrical library is as dark, complex, topsy-turvy and nuanced as the human condition itself. His impact is nothing short of tremendous — from the classic West Side Story to the terrifying Sweeney Todd to the delicious A Little Night Music, this is certainly a man deserving of a Nobel Prize for literature. (Of course, he would have to rearrange his Grammys, Tonys, Academy Award and Pulitzer to make some room on the mantel.)

Chuck D

"Fight The Power"

As the leader and principal writer of Public Enemy, Chuck D's songs are a literary infinity pool, every line overflowing with craft and deeper than the smooth flow makes it seem. In "Fight The Power" alone, you'll find references to Malcolm X's "The Ballot or the Bullet", hints of MLK's grace, nods to revolution-era France and "rhymes designed to fill your mind." Chuck D's lyrics are a celebration of freedom of speech, a denouncement of racism and a call to action for a better world — in other words, they typify the Nobel Prize's standard for "outstanding work in an ideal direction".

Patti Smith

"Land (Part I: Horses)"

On Feb. 10, 1971, a young writer desecrated St. Mark's Church in New York City at a poetry reading. Nobody had brought an electric guitar on stage at that church before — this was, after all, a house of God, and it hosted well-respected readings featuring the likes of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. But at the time, Patti Smith was equal parts innocent and irreverent, and so she invited the guitarist Lenny Kaye to punctuate one of her poems about a car crash with some interpretive playing. That moment was the spark plug for Smith's seminal record Horses. It was also perhaps the moment she first tried on the moniker of "punk's poet laureate," a title she continues to wear in effortless style.

Paul Simon

"The Sounds of Silence"

In Dylan's own words, "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows". You also don't need an English professor to point out the sheer genius of Paul Simon's craft. Try saying this one out loud: "The boy in the bubble and the baby with the baboon heart and I believe." Or "cattle in the marketplace, scatterlings and orphanages / He looks around, around, he sees angels in the architecture." From his work with Art Garfunkel to his legendary solo career, Simon's entire kodachrome collection is worthy of not only listening and relistening, but — like all the best literature — reading and rereading.

Copyright 2016 XPN

Talia Schlanger
Talia Schlanger hosts World Cafe, which is distributed by NPR and produced by WXPN, the public radio service of the University of Pennsylvania. She got her start in broadcasting at the CBC, Canada's national public broadcaster. She hosted CBC Radio 2 Weekend Mornings on radio and was the on-camera host for two seasons of the television series CBC Music: Backstage, as well as several prime-time music TV specials for CBC, including the Quietest Concert Ever: On Fundy's Ocean Floor. Schlanger also guest hosted various flagship shows on CBC Radio One, including As It Happens, Day 6 and Because News. Schlanger also won a Canadian Screen Award as a producer for CBC Music Presents: The Beetle Roadtrip Sessions, a cross-country rock 'n' roll road trip.