Here are the Top 10 Female Singer-Songwriters in order of talent and importance. Quality of song and perfection in performance are more important than record sales.

To make this list, you must not only write the majority of your own songs you have to also perform your songs in the most well-known recording of the original hit.
You’ll immediately notice there aren’t many — none, really — current mainstream Singer-Songwriters.
Like I have to tell you why…

1. Joni Mitchell

2.  Carole King

3. Dolly Parton

4. Bonnie Raitt

5. Joan Baez

6. Loretta Lynn
7. Peggy Lee

8. Suzanne Vega

9. Carly Simon

10. Debbie Gibson

Yesterday… we celebrated the men.

56 Comments

  1. Debbie Gibson? You can’t be serious and she’s from MY generation.
    Of course my list would differ…I would need to add Melissa Etheridge and Fiona Apple. I would have put Alanis but I think her albums have gotten worse from her first album.

  2. Hi Robin —
    In a single year and on a single album, Debbie Gibson popped to the top and then burned out all in 1987 when she was 16. She has yet to live up to her early promise but her firsts as a female songwriter, performer and producer must be honored in the history of music. I define generations in chunks of 20 years or so — so I think Debbie Gibson is a singer songwriter from a generation past. Melody is paramount. Debbie writes terrific melodies while Melissa and Fiona and Alanis do not. You can hum a Debbie tune but you wouldn’t want to hum the others.

  3. Even though I was a huge Debbie Gibson fan when I was a teen, I’d have to replace her with Sheryl Crow. Her last two albums are not as good as the first three, but she’s a fantastic writer, musician and performer (having seen her in concert and thoroughly enjoyed the show).
    Love that you included Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. Mary Chapin Carpenter is excellent as well.

  4. I love Debbie Gibson. I do. Her debut and followup albums defined the post-new-wave pop sounds of the late 80’s. That being said, I’d put Tori Amos ahead of her.
    Honestly, though, I don’t care. Joni Mitchell’s at the top so all is copacetic.

  5. Hi Carla — Just like Orson Welles still makes top ten lists for “Citizen Kane” even though he never lived up to that early first-hit promise, I give Debbie Gibson the same respect because, at 16, she was the youngest female to write, produce and sing a #1 Billboard hit, “Foolish Beat” and that record still stands today. Dolly Parton is a powerhouse publisher and songwriter and I’d bet you she has made more money over the years from other people singing her songs than she ever made performing them. I’d love to do a list of bands. I’ll have to think on it some first! :mrgreen:
    Hey Ron — Yah! Thanks for the comment! Tori Amos hasn’t sustained her talent long enough for me to consider her for inclusion this time around. 🙂

  6. Hi David,
    If you can list Debbie Gibson for one album – that wasn’t that amazing if I recall correctly, maybe I should listen to it again – then what about Tracy Chapman? Her début album is excellent, and follow up stuff hasn’t been that bad. I’d have to mention Nina Simone too, Norah Jones, and I’d agree with Carla on Sheryl Crow(e?) too.
    -Fruey

  7. Hello fruey!
    Debbie Gibson makes the list over the others you mention because she achieved her greatness faster as I detailed in my response to Ms. Carla. I find the others you mention as rather glum melody writers — and melody doesn’t mean you have to write Pop songs. I had Alicia Keyes was on the list but replaced her with Peggy Lee because of Lee’s proven popular melodic success across a longer period of time. Melodies are the mark of a good song and that’s why these songwriters live longer across the span of humankind.

  8. Aretha Franklin!
    The Queen of Soul!
    Honestly, I don’t know how much of her work was written by herself, but just imagine Aretha as a youth on American Idol. She would blow everyone else away with that voice.

  9. Debbie Gibson! Oh my wow. I listened to her growing up. I loved her. Still like her (but not with the feverish adoration of a young girl). But I can’t believe she made the list. Though she is talented…

  10. Hi Jennifer!
    It’s nice to see you here and I appreciate your thoughtful comment. I’m surprised to many people are surprised about Debbie Gibson! I’m not a tremendous fan or anything, I just think she staked her place in history and she hasn’t yet been ousted from her spot.

  11. Hoo-boy, I have sung Karaoke of so many of these. And kicked butt on ’em. You should hear me growl out “Something to Talk About.” *yeh*
    Good list and I have several of these in the red tote I mentioned too!

  12. Hello David,
    Great list! I have been very busy with my show and other things and thus I have not been commenting as much lately, but I have been reading.
    I wanted you to know that I have nominated you for the 2005 BoB’s. (Best of Blogs Award) The link to the awards, and more specifically, here is your nomination page.
    Have a great day my freind, and good luck. I believe it is 20 days until the judging starts. I was lucky enough to be nominated in the podcasting category, so we will not face each other head to head unless we win our categories.

  13. Debbie Gibson isn’t just a pop-one-hit-wonder type deal (since she did have many top 10 hits). Plus, I believe she has a few ASCAP Songwriter of the Year awards under her belt as well.
    She actually is talented and I am surprised, yet happy to see her make the list. She has recorded almost 10 albums you know…
    Out of the Blue
    Electric Youth
    Anything Is Possible
    Body Mind Soul
    Greatest Hits
    Think With Your Heart
    Deborah
    MYOB
    Colored Nights
    For her best writing, check out “Think With Your Heart”.
    http://www.deborah-gibson.com/multimedia/disc/twyh.shtml

  14. I agree with Adam, Think with Your Heart is Deborah’s strongest CD. Yet unheard by mainstream…I think she should rerelease some of the songs from this album. If you want to hear something quite beautiful get the cd and listen to “Let’s Run Away.” A lot of the album was recorded in England when Deborah was in the London musical version of Grease.

  15. David, your top 10 is listed in order of “talent and importance”, and the very first paragraph states: “Quality of song and perfection in performance are more important than record sales.”
    With this in mind, I am surprised that Laura Nyro is not amongst your top 10. She would be number one on my list based your criteria.
    If it’s quality of song and perfection in performance you’re looking for, look no further than Laura’s “More than a new discovery”, “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession” and New York Tendaberry” (to name but a few). Do youself a favour and have a listen to these classic albums. They’re all from the very top shelf.
    Laura Nyro is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential female singer/songwriters of all time – a musician’s musician. Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Carly Simon, Patti Labelle and Suzanne Vega have all cited Laura as a significant influence on their careers.
    Your list is good, but needs Laura Nyro on it to add credibility.

  16. Thanks for ranking Deborah Gibson as one of the best singer/songwriters since she is a rare, unique talent, which unfortunately doesn’t get the recognition she deserves since most people only think of her as the ’80’s pop princess. Though her music wasn’t any different than any artist of the era (early Madonna, Bananarama, Paula Abdul)

  17. I figure some are surprised that you list Debbie Gibson in your top 10 because she is in the Pop/Dance field and that doesn’t get much respect anymore. It seems like now if it’s not Alternative/Punk it’s not considered music. I know that she started writing songs at five years old and wrote her first single “Only In My Dreams” when she was just 13 so it doesn’t surprise me at all that she’s included, and she should be. She’s still the youngest person to write, produce, and perform a #1 single and that was with “Foolish Beat” in 1988. I wouldn’t be surprised if that record still stands 18 years from now either. Writing and producing your own music is almost unheard of in today’s music business by anyone, yet alone someone so young as she was. People really need to put their prejudices about her aside and realize that the woman is a legitimate talent and she’s going to be around for a long time to come.

  18. I am a fan all the way of Deborah. If many of you didn’t know that Carly Simon is one of Debs inspirations. On this album listed above she does sing one of Carlys songs “Will you love me tomorrow” You have to think about what Deb was doing in the 80’s was writng singing and producing are own songs and albums at very young age (still holds a record)and when Atlantic records wanted to change what Deb was doing a great job on she started to fail as top artist but not only that but just because she isn’t making hits at this time doesnt mean that she doesn’t deserve to be on that list.. Deb has done more than most people could do in there life time
    Broadway is one of Deb alltime first things she wanted to do other than sing. She put of theatre “life “on hold due to the talent she had with singing and for about 5 years there did become a household name.. Then went to Broadway, been in credited and uncredited films,tv shows, writing for other artists, many song writers awards, even though many dislike her for playboy pose,Skating with Celebraties.
    Deb has never been married and doesn’t have any kids
    and I have never heard of Debs being in type “scandals”
    So I by all means would put Deb on toplist like this
    unlike people such as Britany and Jessica but how many songs have they really even written.
    But think about that list go back in time do some research and tell me how many on this list have or still hold a record like Deb
    Btw if you are curious to what Deb sounds like now
    if you haven’t already read or heard that Deb and Jordon Knight (formely of NKOTB) did a recent duet back in march 2006 called Never meant to “say goodbye” which was suppose to be release may or june but got moved up to sept 12 2006
    you can hear the song on
    http://www.myspace.com/jordan_knight
    click on where it says—– say goodbye w deborah

  19. Debbie Gibson is certainly #1 in the category of attention-getting. Are you sure that Bonnie Raitt, Dolly Parton, and Loretta Lynn wrote the majority of their songs?
    oh well, following your criteria, here’s my top 10:
    1 Tori Amos
    2 Joni Mitchell
    3 Kate Bush
    4 Patti Smith
    5 Carole King
    6 Joan Baez
    7 Bjork
    8 Suzanne Vega
    9 Carly Simon
    10 Cyndi Lauper (if she wrote her own songs)
    otherwise: Debbie Gibson, of course!!!

  20. 1 Kate Bush
    2 Judie Tzuke
    3 Joni Mitchell
    4 Happy Rhodes
    5 Suzanne Vega
    6 Bjork
    7 Joan Baez
    8 Tori Amos
    9 Patti Smith
    10 A Morisette
    For me Kate is light-years ahead of the rest – A real genius. The Dreaming LP in 1982 was 25 years ahead of it’s time.

  21. In reply to jules: Cyndi Lauper DOES write her own songs
    Most people just see know her from the 80s which is a shame bacause work is from albums such as Hat Full of Stars and Sisters of Avalon… they really show what a fantastic singer/songwriter she is.
    I’d also rate Stevie Nicks highly!

  22. Sorry for the double post – messed up the last one
    In reply to jules: Cyndi Lauper DOES write her own songs
    Most people just see know her 80s stuff which is a shame because her best work can be found on albums such as Hat Full of Stars and Sisters of Avalon… they really show what a fantastic singer/songwriter she is.
    I’d also rate Stevie Nicks highly!

  23. Any love from anyone there for Jewel? a fantastic Canadian singer/songwriter, with a real flair for lyrical poetry and air floating melodies! I think the original list is fantastic but I would add Jewel and Kate Bush. But you are so right to have Joni Mitchell as No 1!!

  24. Where’s Xene Cervenka? (of the LA band X) No one like her!
    How about Gillian Welch? Her “REVIVAL” record rivals Joni’s BLUE.
    And what about Melissa Swingle of Trailer Bride? 5 Albums of quality material…
    You said sales don’t count, just talent, my 2cents. 🙂

  25. Boy, I love lists and I love female singer songwriters so here goes with mine – in order to qualify the artist does have to write the majority of their songs
    1) Bic Runga
    2) Lene Marlin
    3) Rachael Yamagata
    4) Kate Bush
    5) Leona Naess
    6) Anna Nallick
    7) Wendy Maharry
    8) Thea Gilmour
    9) Aimee Mann
    10) Anika Moa
    Seriously, give Bic Runga a listen ! !

  26. Great List and add on’s. What about Lucinda Williams. Songwriter, singer, and I believe she plays and produces her own songs.
    and Nina Simone, but not sure if she writes?
    also Sandy Denny

  27. BTW Jewel is not Canadian- I believe she is from the southern United States.
    BUt how about Sarah Mclaughlan she has both longevity and is an amazing singer- songwriter with a very unique writing and singing style. I also agree with the Sheryl Crow nomination. She is a very gifted writer and has the pipes to go with it!

  28. I think Maadonna should be up here. People probably arn’t aware of her song writing talent but she has written loads of songs including most of hers plus songs for kylie minouge, gary barlow and nick kamen. I think she has a really unique distinctive style of writing.

    1. Hi Mark —

      Madonna doesn’t really write her own songs. She just adds her name to the songs she records — because she can — to round out her royalty stake and to make money with publishing rights. She doesn’t even play a musical instrument and she can’t read music.