Including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave and more

Back in our December 2013 issue (Take 199), the Uncut team took on the emotional task of compiling a Top 50 of the most powerful, confessional singer-songwriter albums. From Tim Hardin 1 to Once I Was An Eagle (in chronological order, that is)… are you ready to be heartbroken?

1 Tim Hardin
Tim Hardin 1
(Verve Forecast, 1966)

Either courageously or compulsively, the gifted but tormented Hardin held up a mirror to his psyche in a series of revealing songs on his first album. “Reason To Believe”, “How Can We Hang On To A Dream?” and “Misty Roses”, addressed to Susan Morss, the muse of many of his best songs, expose Hardin’s startling vulnerability. In “Reason…”, he confronts her, shattered by alleged betrayal (“Knowing that you lied, straight-faced while I cried”) before admitting he still “look[s] to find a reason to believe” in the romantic ideal she’s ruined for him. And lurking behind the near-whispered tenderness of “Misty Roses” is a suffocating possessiveness (“Too soft to touch/But too lovely to leave alone”).

2 Leonard Cohen
Songs Of Leonard Cohen
(Columbia, 1967)

A key album for any singer-songwriter intent on turning real life experiences into song, Cohen’s debut is scattered with names, places and events explicitly drawn from his first 33 years. “Suzanne” recalls his ritualistic – and platonic – meetings in Montreal with Suzanne Verdal, while the titular woman of “So Long, Marianne” is Marianne Jensen, his lover and muse for much of the ’60s. “Sisters Of Mercy”, which dramatises a night spent with two women in an Edmonton hotel room, is the first of countless Cohen songs seeking spiritual salvation from a sensual encounter. His songs turned inward to much darker effect on Songs Of Love And Hate, but his debut album set the standard.

3 Laura Nyro
New York Tendaberry
(Columbia, 1969)

Nyro’s previous album, Eli And The Thirteenth Confession, provided rich pickings for other artists looking for hit singles (The 5th Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic”, Three Dog Night’s “Eli’s Coming”) but there weren’t as many takers for this starker, more personal set. A devastating account of emotional turmoil, the album reflects her own experiences in New York. “You Don’t Love Me When I Cry”, “The Man Who Sends Me Home” and “Sweet Lovin’ Baby” are first-person confessionals. In other songs, the New York streets, buildings and people provide a backdrop to her innermost thoughts (“Gibsom Street”, “Mercy On Broadway”, the latter sampling the sound of gunfire).

4 Al Stewart
Love Chronicles
(CBS, 1969)

Stewart’s second album is often name-checked as the first time the word “fuck” appeared in a pop song, and is also notable for the calibre of its session players (Jimmy Page, Richard Thompson and others from Fairport Convention). The centrepiece, though, is the 18-minute title track, a frequently uncomfortable autobiography in which he catalogues the highs and lows of his romantic endeavours; losing his virginity in a Bournemouth park, encounters with groupies, searching for ’60s permissiveness (“beer cans and parties, debs and arties…”), bouts of self-loathing, and ultimately finding true love in the last three verses. “You Should Have Listened To Al” picks over the bones of another doomed affair, but in a lighter, wittier tone (“she left me the keys and a dozen LPs”).

5 Dory Previn
On My Way To Where
(Mediarts/United Artists, 1970)

Dory Previn had more cause for confession than most. Raised in a strict Roman Catholic household by an alcoholic mother and violent father, the collapse of her marriage to composer-conductor André Previn led to mental breakdown, electro-shock therapy and an intensive bout of self-analysis. All of which provided the raw ammunition for solo debut, On My Way To Where. The most striking song was “Beware Of Young Girls”, a fragrant lullaby with lyrics that served as a bitter swipe at actress Mia Farrow, with whom her husband had begun an affair two years previously. Meanwhile, “With My Daddy In The Attic” and “I Ain’t His Child” were disturbing pieces of barely veiled autobiography.

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  • Fascinatin’ Womanhood

    Heart of Saturday Night-Tom Waits
    Ten New Songs-Leonard Cohen

  • CardiffCat

    “objective” criteria…are you serious?

  • CardiffCat

    The list is in chronological order.

  • CardiffCat

    Did you miss the part where they said “in chronological order”?

  • Daniel

    ok list. lot of cool stuff to discover here. but not having Songs: Ohia “The Lioness” and Sufjan Stevens “Illinois” means you all either never heard those two albums or you are truly unable to perceive the lightning flash that is an artist perfecting their singularly unique craft and recording it for all to gaze upon in awe and splendor when you hear it.

  • noname63

    Bob Dylan is only at # 17 and Ryan Adams at # 38? Good to see that you included some women, too.

  • Gazelle

    No ‘Phases And Stages’ by Willie Nelson?

  • Gazelle

    No ‘American Gothic’ by David Ackles?

  • Suzanne Lane

    No Yusuf? I thought for sure he
    Would be there!

  • Levin Lo

    End of the list is great to acknowledge the newer names in the genre, but at the expense of the glaringly missing mentioned by some: Tom Waits, John Prine, and to me, Jesse Winchester and Mickey Newbury. Maybe 100 instead of 50 since “singer-songwriter” span almost as many as decades as rock and roll itself?

  • OC_Bradster

    I don’t know where the writer gets his info, but it’s not all correct. Leonard Cohen’s Sisters of Mercy is not about two women in a hotel room. It’s about Mary and Jane, in other words: marijuana. Just listen to the words, it’s obvious (at least, if you’ve ever used it). This calls everything in the article into question, other than the selections themselves.

  • BB

    You dismiss 50 artists out of hand? Tom Waits would cry, This is one fucked up Dude!

  • worrierking

    Thank you, I forgot to mention Townes in my rant.

  • worrierking

    Where is John Prine, by John Prine? Randy Newman’s “Good old Boys”? Tom Waits “Heartattack & Viine”?

  • American Pie by Don McLean deserves a place and anything by Tom Waits and (as mentioned below) Townes Van Zandt.

  • LostSok

    Blood On The Tracks should be much higher, and the list should include about 10 Dylan albums and pretty much every Leonard Cohen album. Of the latter, New Skins For The Old Ceremony and I’m Your Man are writing on a level few other humans have even dreamed.

  • Teodosio Orlando

    I don’t see such people as Peter Hammill, Peter Gabriel, Roger Waters, Robert Wyatt, David Tibet, Tom Waits, Nico, Diamanda Galás, and I am wondering whether you have used objective and reliable criteria for listing the best singer-songwriter albums.

  • Don Weisman


  • Jeff CWB McDuffie

    I don’t see Tom Waits, so this list is nothing to me

  • Victor Jarvis


  • Timothy Paul

    Unbelievable, that nothing by Townes Van Zandt is on this list. Did I miss it?

  • YourVeganCoach

    Are you crazy? Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell – both Townes Van Zandt wannabees – but no Townes Van Zandt???? Who compiled this?

  • wallywhack

    Well that was great. Lots of lesser known gems in there. Nicely done. Thanks!

  • Andy Mclain

    One album that really should have made the cut… Jason Isbell’s Southeastern. It’s one that will definitely go down in history as a hugely influential and beautiful album.

  • tweedyhead

    Maybe it didn’t make the list because it is an EP, but Joe Pug’s Nation of Heat is a masterpiece of the genre.

  • mojofilter

    Thanks for collecting these all together in one place. It makes it so much easier to bury them all at once.

    I actually like a few of these albums. But only if I don’t have to call them “singer-songwriter albums.”