Elliott Smith Not One of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Songwriters? Meh.

Photo by Paul Heartfield

Photo by Paul Heartfield

I got an email yesterday calling me out on something I’d written in an obituary of Elliott Smith, in 2003. My correspondent’s angle was that I had described Smith as “without peer,” and when he wrote me back then to ask if that meant that the singer trumped even Bob Dylan, I didn’t (or in his words, “wouldn’t”) answer. The emailer concluded his note with this question: “Given your ‘without peer’ comments on Smith, are you upset he didn’t make Rolling Stone’s new list of the ‘100 Greatest Songwriters Ever?'”

First of all, I barely remember the obituary, one of literally thousands of bylines I had in the Hartford Courant during my tenure there between 1998-2012. I remember even less about a specific challenge from a reader (there were plenty of those, too), who clearly did remember, enough to get in touch about it 12 years later. But the story ran on Oct. 23, 2003. It starts like this: “Chances are good you’ve never heard of Elliott Smith, never mind actually heard his music. Know this, then: He was without peer.”

All these years later, I think I stand by that. Before re-reading it, I responded to my emailer: “Not sure why I didn’t answer at the time, but my answer today would be that Smith wrote different kinds of songs than Dylan, and that he was without peer as a writer of those kinds of songs.” You know, for the record. 

Now then, am I upset that Smith didn’t make Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest songwriters? Hardly. Having helped create a few such lists (not for Rolling Stone, though I did work for their website as a freelance editor in 2012-13), I have an idea what goes into them, and they’re as much about ginning up debate — and generating web hits — as anything else. I haven’t seen the Rolling Stone list yet, but that doesn’t really matter: whether or not they included Elliott Smith doesn’t change the fact that he was a brilliant and gifted songwriter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *