I did one of these way back in 2009 (http://randomnonsenseaboutthings.blogspot.com/2009/11/best-singer-songwiters-1970s-and.html). That was three years ago. Time flies, yeah? I thought I'd do an update/ do-ever since my tastes have changed maybe a bit.
1. Bob Dylan - USA
Why: The greatest songwriter of the twentieth century. Undoubtedly. Still touring on The Neverending Tour. The writer of the anthems of the entire counterculture movement. Folk music was for a long time (and still is to a point) Bob Dylan at the top and everyone else next. Former Poet Laureate thinks they should teach Dylan lyrics in poetry classes. Academics keep nominating him for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dylan isn't just a songwriter. He's not any one thing either. Undefinable except as the most important influence on serious lyrics being written even today.
2. Leonard Cohen - Canada
Why: It's almost a cheat to count Cohen as just a songwriter. Because he isn't. He's a poet and a very good one. But poetry wasn't making waves so he turned to songwriting, and it's great he did; though he's still a poet too. Hard to keep in a category. Recurring themes include love,sex ,religion and depression. Sometimes they're all in one song like in "Hallelujah". It's hard to say just how important Leonard Cohen is because of how far reaching and diverse his influence is. But it's not hard to see and hear some of the best lyrics ever written. They're on every album.
3. Bruce Springsteen - USA
Why: My bias is clear in this pick. I love Springsteen. Been listening to Born in the Usa and Tunnel of Love since I was about five years old. Springsteen lyrics have always been a huge influence on me. I think they're universal themes. Who can't relate to wanting to get away from where they are, or trying to deal with the sins of the past. Springsteen lyrics are like a drama film, pure cinema; where the characters are trying to deal with life as it is not matching up to how their dream are. I still think Born to Run is the most perfect album ever.
4. Bob Marley - Jamaica
Why: Pretty much the only reggae artist casual music listeners know. Bob Marley has almost mythic status in the Caribbean, probably around the world too. The political songs are the easiest to spot the lyrical genius in, especially in songs like Redemption Song and Exodus, where the past seems to seamlessly merge into what's going on today. The love songs are no less good, even if they are more easy listening, because who can't relate to Waiting in Vain. Bob Marley brought lyrics and music from a different world onto mainstream. He was the Third World's first musical superstar who made it big by telling his own story. And telling it well.
5. John Lennon & Paul McCartney- UK
Why: Both with the Beatles and as solo artists, the scope and brilliance of their songwriting is immense. McCartney has so many love songs (silly love songs) and they're great. Perfect pop music if there ever was a thing. Not that he can't do moving ballads either. Yesterday has claim to be the finest song ever written. So does Lennon's Imagine . Lennon got more political after the Beatles and he always got his message across, but you could see the slogan-work even in the love songs as early as All You Need Is Love.
6. Paul Simon- USA
Why: Most of my appreciation for Paul Simon comes from the Simon&Garfunkel era. The man wrote Sound of Silence and Bridge Over Troubled Water. He co-wrote a play with Nobel Laurate Derek Walcott. There's some post-Simon&Garfunkel work I like, (embarrassingly 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover cause's it's so pop and silly) but the only album I really listened to was Graceland. And that alone might have been enough to make this list.
7. Neil Young - Canada
Why: A Toronto native (not that it matters, of course). Excellent with Buffalo Springfield; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Crazy Horse. His style is distinct. You always know a Neil Young song and I can't think of anyone that's duplicated the style. It might sound contradictory because Young himself crosses seven musical genres by himself. Always pushing the boundaries of what can be done (sometimes choosing long experimental periods like during the 80s) but he never fails to bounce back.
8. Van Morrison - Ireland
Why: Van the Man. I'm less familiar with his work with Them than as a solo artist, but I've heard good stuff so far (mostly Gloria). I don't know if it's an Irish thing (think Beckett or Joyce) but Morisson also does the merging of the sacred with the earthly (delights) in his songs. And does it quite well. I'm a big fan of the love songs because really, has it ever been said better than Have I Told You Lately or You Make Me Feel So Free ?
9. Kurt Cobain - USA
Why: Another member of the 27 Club, Cobain died when I was 6 and still too young to even hear of Nirvana (except at temple. Different concept entirely). By the time I was in high school I finally listened to a Nirvana song other than Smells Like Teen Spirit (which I'd always thought was just noise. I still think so). Listening to Lithium sold me on Nirvana. I love the song lyrics that half the time seem like lazy, no-effort rushed work and the other half of the time carefully created ideas. The songs about the everyday, mundane things which somehow seem more important when Nirvana references them. They lyrics of Cobain changed the scape of rock music by making alternative rock a real force. Dying early made Cobain the 'voice of his generation', but if he'd lived he might have still been that.
10. Morrissey- UK
Why: Totally and completely based on the works of the Smiths, in my mind the most depressing band ever. Lyrics of alienation, solitude, heartbreak and despair, the depressive rants of the problems faced by ordinary people are chronicled by Morrissey. It's the most relate-able music I've heard from an artist (meaning I take to every say), as unfortunate as that may be considering the themes. And here's the thing about really depressing music, if you listen to it long enough there's the possibility (usually) that it becomes bleak humour.