Vox Rockuli

By Joe Daly

Notes

It is the most important instrument in rock and roll and far and away the most underrated.

It takes years to finesse and the cruel irony is that just when most musicians start to master its many nuances, their physical aptitude for it begins to diminish.

It is the voice. The vox. The pipes, the golden throat, the mouthy spitter of words. OK, I made that last one up. It’s late. Cut me some slack.

The delusion persists that while you can teach yourself an instrument like the guitar or the piano, the voice is something you either have or you don’t- you spit out of the womb and either you sound like Aretha Franklin or you’re the next Bea Arthur. Sure, it’s understood that talented people might be able to improve their range with a vocal coach but most are convinced that they either sing like a bird or that they can’t sing for shit. Good luck convincing the latter folk that with a little training they could have million dollar voices.

But they could.

In fact, they have.

The Rock and Roll Hall of (F)Lame is littered with less-than-gifted vocalists who transformed a non-traditional set of pipes into a multi platinum career. Removing cultural context and focusing strictly on the music, the voice defines a band’s sound, no matter how strong or unique the musicians behind it.

Take away Adam Duritz’ plaintive whine and Counting Crows become indistinguishable from a thousand bar bands blowing up Big Ten bars across the midwest. Remove Dave Mustaine’s… well, remove Dave Mustaine’s voice from Megadeth and you’re hearing the kind of high quality speed metal that has since been duplicated thousands of times. Strip away Kurt Cobain’s gravelly rasp and you’re hearing another fuzzed-up, tuned-down gaggle of grumps from Seattle.

Again, we’re looking at the music retroactively, setting aside the cultural importance of these bands. Through the passage of time, as the lines of new genres are drawn and then filled in by the bands who contribute to and copy the sound, it is ultimately the singer that most clearly distinguishes one band from another.

Think about it- how many times have you been in earshot of a radio and the following unfolded:

“Shit. Who is that?”

“That tune? Yeah, that’s um… oh shit, I know it. I’m drawing a blank.”

“We should know this.”

“I know. Wait- hold on, wait’ll the guy starts singing.”

“Yeah, it’s the song that goes… da da DA da da daaaaa… Shit!”

Cue the singer.

“Don’t you love her madly…

“Jim Morrison! The Doors! Dude, we should have known that with the piano.”

Exactly.

No one is saying that Nirvana is a nondescript grunge clone, nor is anyone questioning Megadeth’s substantial influence on heavy metal. Slash is a phenomenally-influential guitarist whose talents became the backbone of the music of Guns N’ Roses. While the band might not have achieved the heights they did without him, it is Axl Rose’s voice, not Slash’s musicianship, that distinguishes GNR’s sound from any other group in history.

Paradoxically, while individual voices separate one band’s sound from another, hindsight reveals that there are some “voices” that are shared by many vocalists. These voices often become the singular defining characteristic of a genre, but more often than not they suggest that imitation is either the sincerest form of flattery or the baldest expression of laziness.

Here are the most notable voices in rock and roll:

The Affected Southern Drawl

Popularized by blues-influenced acts of the Sixties, The Affected Southern Drawl is essentially the sound of a white man trying to sound like Muddy Waters. Guys like Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler (né Tallarico), from Dartford, England and New York respectively, grew up sounding as much like Spongebob Squarepants as sounding like black blues singers from the South. But they forged immortal vocal identities by mimicking the original blues guys and mixing in their own white boy swagger. As with any other instrument, a performer’s limitations often inform their style, so while those two couldn’t be black, they could rip off as much the hustle and flow as their DNA would allow.

A defining characteristic of this voice is that the practitioners would not be traditionally strong singers but for their mimicry.  They compensate for average voices with exaggerated enunciation and elongated vowels, favoring lyrics that are more rhythmic than meaningful.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, took The Affected Southern Drawl as far as Berkeley, California native John Fogerty, whose swampy twang sent Credence Clearwater Revival into superstardom and who still has people thinking that he was born on the bayou.

Opposites include Joe Strummer, Al Barr and Morrissey.

 

The Dreamy Falsetto

Like Stonehenge, no one really knows where this voice came from but its creamy and effete pitch has guided some of the greatest rock and roll of all time. From Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” to Thom Yorke belting out Radiohead insta-hits like “Karma Police,” The Dreamy Falsetto simulates its own instrument more than any other voice because it is so obviously contrived. None of the people who use this voice sound sound that way in conversation. Nonetheless, while the voice is as patently false as a Florida electoral count, it somehow implies sincerity. And it works. No one thinks Jeff Buckley is having a laugh in his version of “Hallelujiah,” with his soft voice creating an understatement as strong as any line of Marshall stacks. It is a defining moment in twentieth century music. Neil Young took the falsetto one step further, infusing his with anger and vitriol- spitting out fiery anti-establishment rhetoric with the timbre of a ten year old boy.

Opposites include Country Dick Montana, Tom Araya and Brad Roberts, of the Crash Test Dummies.

 

The Balls-to-the-Wall Belter

This voice comes from guys with naturally strong pipes who have learned to sing from the deepest recesses of their diaphragm. The Balls-to-the-Wall Belter can achieve unthinkable volume while retaining crystalline clarity in his/her voice. Ronnie James Dio was one of the best. In fact, Claudia Friedlander, a clasically-trained voice teacher in New York, was asked to listen to five legendary metal vocalists, all of whom she was unfamiliar with, and to comment on their styles. Of Dio, Friedlander gushed, “he performs with perfect legato, clear diction, and a consistent, organic vibrancy. He arranges his resonance space to create a shallow snarl without setting up any resistance for his breath.” Along with Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson, she praises the two for being “so impeccable that they’re each in their own way presenting a manifesto of how to sing well, irrespective of musical genre.”

The classic in this category is The Who’s Roger Daltrey, who infused Pete Townshend’s lyrics with an authentic blue collar bravado that took adequate songs and made them anthemic. Rob Halford (Judas Priest) is another stellar example of this voice, showcasing a tremendous range that has held up remarkably well throughout an exhaustive career.

Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin are the female embodiments of this voice. All great female vocalists since have been inspired by or flat out copied one of those two legends.

Opposites include Sufjan Stevens, Kate Bush and Bon Iver.

 

The “I Have No Business Singing, But My Band Fucking Rules”

While guys like Jagger and Tyler figured out ways to create a powerful voice through smoke, mirrors and bald-faced aping, Ozzy Osbourne just used what limited skills he had and made it work for whatever band stood behind him. Most importantly, he sold it. All great bands are ruthless in their personnel decisions, so the fact that Osbourne lasted as long as he did with Black Sabbath with such a marginal voice is a testament to his sonic compatibility with that band. He might not have been traditionally strong, but his voice was the ideal complement to the colossal weight of Sabbath. Likewise, on his own, Joey Ramone couldn’t sing his way out of a paper bag, but with his leather coat, tight jeans and bowl cut hanging over his shades, he was the only voice that could ever work for The Ramones. Likewise, while Frank Sinatra didn’t lose much sleep over Geddy Lee, the latter’s robotic twang suits Rush’s prog-genius far better than any golden throated crooner ever could.

This voice is utterly irreplaceable to the band.*

Nashville Pussy’s Blaine Cartwright is the most extreme example of a vocalist who is utterly devoid of technical singing skills, but whose voice is the perfect complement to richly-talented backing band.

Opposites include anyone in the previous or following categories.

 

The Voice of God

There are some cats who are possessed of otherworldly voices. Voices so glorious that listening to them makes you feel guilty- like there’s no way you’ve ever done anything to deserve the listening experience you now have.  Gregg Allman is pretty much the only guy in this category. Listening to him sing “Stormy Monday” on the Allman Brothers’ 1971 Fillmore East album is like hearing God sing his way out of a really bad hangover. It’s not that his voice is pristine- it’s just raw. It’s as close as anyone will ever get to seeing a man’s soul.

Bob Dylan is Gregg Allman’s vocal opposite.

 

The Robert Plant

Robert Plant inhabits his own category because he is a Belter with an Affected Southern Drawl often showing flashes of a Voice of God. Admittedly derivative of his heavy blues foundation, his vocals are the  blueprint for all great rock vocalists since Led Zeppelin’s self-titled 1969 debut album. The Robert Plant is a veritable showcase of range, often underscored by songs with quiet passages later contrasted with bombastic odes to volume. Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, Wolfmother’s Andrew Stockdale and Graveyard’s Joakim Nilsson are three members of the small group of lucky bastards to have this voice.

Robert Plant’s opposite number, and there’s only one, is Christopher Cross.

 

The Fresh-n-Sassy

Suggesting real talent, yet augmented with an unnecessary affectation, this voice is so good that it can afford to not take itself so seriously. Elvis Presley obscured his natural talents with put-upon accents and enhancements that would have seemed cartoonish had his considerable skills been anything less than obvious. Likewise, Freddie Mercury, despite crippling bouts of self-doubt, knew that his voice was as real as the pyramids, which allowed him to alternate between mountain-sized high notes and campy patter without compromising his integrity. The Fresh-n-Sassy vocalist is cocky enough to have a good time with performing while understanding the need to provide listeners with ample reminders of their qualifications. Robbie Williams and Tina Turner are living examples of this voice.

Opposites like James Hetfield, Peter Murphy and The Magnetic Field’s Stephen Merritt never sound like they’re having any fun. Which, of course, is precisely what their respective fan bases want.

 

The Chatty Chatterson

You’ve got to give credit where credit is due. Some vocalists know that they can’t sing and they can’t be bothered with trying to improve. Consequently they talk over the music, lingering between spoken word and halting attempts at singing. The refusal of these vocalists to indulge in traditional singing becomes their artistic expression, effectively insulating them from higher expectations. Lou Reed did what he needed to do without trying to fit his vocals into a more traditional mode, and in the context of New York City’s burgeoning art rock community, it became a manifesto of non-conformity. Nick Cave’s solemn monotone is essential to the morose material he conveys, and Jonathan Richman used non-singing to famously remind the world of the seductive charms of Pablo Picasso, who was never called an “asshole.

180 degrees from Chatty Chattersons are Christina Aguilera, Elton John and Sebastian Bach– people who would sing their breakfast order just to stretch out their voices.

 

The Bluesman’s Lament

This voice has been virtually unchanged since it emerged from the Mississippi Delta over a century ago. This voice, plus the sound of a blues shuffle on a beat up acoustic guitar, were the ingredients of rock and roll. Without this simple recipe, there would be no Elvis, Beatles, Cliff Richard, Led Zeppelin, Cannibal Corpse or Lady Gaga. Depending on your sensibilities, these may be good things or bad things but whether it’s problems with your old lady/man, finances, prison or the bottle, there’s a blues song embedded in every trial and tribulation.

The Bluesman’s Lament is a long, soulful voice that sounds like the only thing keeping the singer alive is the promise of one more line to sing. It varies little from singer to singer, which is the appeal- it is the cry of the everyman, from Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy to Stevie Ray Vaughn and Johnny Lang.

The other side of this coin contains the pictures of Katrina Leskanich, Boy George and Katy Perry.

 

The “A for Efforts”

These are guys who have little in the way of natural talent, but who gamely sing on with such earnesty that you can’t help but root for them. Often it is the musician’s character and/or creative integrity that outweighs their vocal limitations, earning them a hall pass from fans and critics alike. Lemmy sounds like two cats fucking on a chalkboard, but no one cares because he sings honestly and fearlessly and in doing so, not only birthed the speed metal generation, but attracted the respect of some of music’s greatest living legends. On the Americana side, no one’s expecting “Jeff Tweedy Night” anytime soon on <i>American Idol,</i> but it matters not at all because the honesty in his voice and his unrepentant deconstructionist approach to songwriting in his band Wilco has made him a game-changer in modern music. Courtney Love is the female version of this voice. Say what you will about her off-stage exploits but she has released some critically-exalted and commercially-explosive music with her monstrously-limited voice.

For just under two disastrous minutes, Roseanne Barr was the exact opposite of this voice.

 

Sure, there are outstanding instrumental classics in rock, but the greatest statements in rock and roll are made by the vocalist. The singer enjoys a freedom like no other musician- he can run, strut, taunt and slither across the stage, and while the rest of the band might enjoy a moment in the sun with the odd solo, make no bones about it- the one swinging the microphone is The Man.

 

My Favorite Vocalists of All Time

Bruce Dickinson

Brad Delp

Gregg Allman

Ronnie James Dio

Robert Plant

Rob Halford

Roger Daltrey

Hank Williams

Freddie Mercury

Chris Cornell

 

*I know, I know- Ozzy was more than adequately replaced by Ronnie James Dio. But in doing so, Dio did not replace Ozzy in Black Sabbath as much as he created a separate and distinct Black Sabbath. Ozzy could not replace Dio in Black Sabbath any more than he could replace one of the Spice Girls. Two separate Sabbaths led by two very different front men.

 

 

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JOE DALY writes for a number of publications, including the UK's Metal Hammer and Classic Rock magazines, Outburn, Bass Guitar Magazine and several other print and online outlets. He is the music and cultural observer for Chuck Palahniuk's LitReactor site and his works have been published in several languages. When he is not drafting wild-eyed manifestos, Joe enjoys life in San Diego's groovy North County, teaching music journalism, doing yoga, running, playing guitar and spending tireless hours in deep and meaningful conversations with his beloved dogs, Cabo and Lola. You can check out his rants at http://joedaly.net and follow him on Twitter: @JoeD_SanDiego

105 responses to “Vox Rockuli”

  1. Lorna says:

    Dude, there are a lot of links in here and I need to come back when I have more time to “really” get into this piece. In the meantime, I’m also going to seek a voice trainer so I can learn to sing!!!!

    • Joe Daly says:

      Thanks, Lorna! Yeah, the downside of links is that it can slow a piece down. But with so many references to performance, and possibly some names that might be unfamiliar to some, I figured I’d give readers the opportunity to see/hear for themselves.

      Hope you enjoy it. I had a blast writing this one. The YouTubing was almost as much fun as the writing.

      Thx again and enjoy your weekend!

  2. Becky Palapala says:

    Ah. Vocalists.

    My favorite.

    I can’t put my finger on why voices are so important to me–they don’t even have to be good–but I have a sort of neurotic, borderline austistic fixation with them. Certain voices in particular. This extends, I believe, to some larger weird issues I have with sound in general, but I won’t get into that.

    Buckley, yes. Wainwright, yes. Both guys who have naturally fascinating, attractive voices and incredible technical vocal acumen as well, but who further mix up (or mixed up, as the case may be) their vocal efforts a great deal.

    But also Billy Corgan. I think his voice is spec-fucking-tacular, despite the fact that by all traditional measures, he has one of the shittiest singing voices ever caught on tape. For what he does, it works. It is priceless. Without that voice, that band would have been absolutely nothing. In its hideousness, up against those dreamy-dripping melodies of his, it is perfection.

    More than anything, the main thing that seems to make a voice attractive to me is whether or not I could hear it and ever in a million years mistake it for someone else’s. In all three of the above cases, the answer is no. This is not to say every vocalist with an identifiable voice is necessarily pleasing to me, though (EFF YOU GEDDY LEE!!!).

    David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Eddie Vedder, Paul McCartney, to some degree Trent Reznor (whose voice is less recognizable than his articulation, since he has a mild lisp). I am also extremely fond of Caleb Folowill’s voice. Some kind of tightly-controlled, raspy quality there that is hard to put one’s finger on.

    Also Jude Christodal, who is an all-but-unknown solo performer who has one of the most interesting and incredible falsettos I have ever heard, both in its range, stamina, and his ability to articulate through it. I adore falsetto. It separates the singers from the vocalists.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I said “both,” then named 3 things.

      *sigh*

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I said “both,” then named 3 things.

      *sigh*

    • Joe Daly says:

      Interesting on Corgan. I didn’t think of him when I was writing this, but you’re dead on- his voice remains one of the most distinctive of (and since) the 90s. Siamese Dream was a Herculean effort in production- some of the tunes had sixty guitar tracks. But even if they had a hundred tracks, Corgan’s voice would be the one thing that would tip listeners off that they were listening to the Pumpkins.

      I want to go back and listen to Folowill again. What I’ve always felt was the strength of the KOL was their straight-down-the-middle blues rock attack, with vocals that never got in the way of the rest of the music. I think the vocals are more than decent, but for me they serve the lyrics rather than vice versa.

      Reznor works the shit out of his, doesn’t he? There’s a guy who knows how to put his back into a song.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        I didn’t mean to disparage the workmanship or production on Siamese Dream (or any of the band’s work). Not in the least. As one of Corgan’s few remaining stalwart advocates, I’m often the first to point out that it is him playing virtually every instrument on that album, including, I’d assume, all 60 guitars.

        He really is one of the few guys who probably had a point when he complained pissily that he and his band were under-appreciated and critically ostracized for stupid reasons.

        Still, I think without Corgan’s vocals, they would have struggled, despite other aspects of their unique sound and general way of being, to even get noticed. They were, really, kind of strange among the “grunge” acts for their uber-melodic, high-concept stuff. His voice gave them the serrated edge they needed to exist in that climate.

        I don’t know. I just love it. His voice is the sonic equivalent of a…an iron maiden in a pink feather boa. And he would LIKE that comparison. He probably has a pink feather boa. He probably named it. And sends it to a spiritual counselor. But that’s okay.

        Whatever is going on with Folowill’s voice is subtle. But it’s really distinctive. It’s got a really tight, honed edge on it that you don’t find with similar bluesy-type voices. He has incredible control. Even when his voice “cracks” (which it does a lot) it’s intentional. He has a lot of little show-offs like that buried in his vocals. At least that’s how I hear it. His falsetto and register transitions are pretty tight, too. Pretty high technical competency, if you ask me.

        • Joe Daly says:

          Yeah, Corgan was gutsy in the way that he was a part of the grunge thing, whether he liked it or not, but he never caved in to the darker, heavier weight of it all. I totally agree that his melodic intuition went far beyond what was happening in bands like Pearl Jam or Stone Temple Pilots, who could write catchy songs, but with their strength rooted in the riff.

          The Pumpkins were from Chicago, where I lived for 12 years, and I was able to watch their ascendancy from the small clubs to the arenas, and it was interesting to watch. It was almost as if they knew that they would be more comfortable in the bigger venues. I watched them get booed off the stage opening for Guns N’ Roses. Talk about two incompatible crowds. GNR was scheduled to play without an opener, but then on the day of the show, the Pumpkins picked up the slot. Even on the local scene, they weren’t well known at the time. In fact, that was my introduction to the band.

          The crowd began booing during the second song, whereupon Billy suggested that the people booing should go back to their parent’s house in the suburbs (the show was in the suburb of Rosemont). The Guns audience never gave them much of a chance in the first place, and when Billy bit back, their set went promptly south. Still, he stuck up for himself, didn’t give a shit about pleasing the GnR crowd, and two years later he was multi platinum.

          I’m def digging into some KOL later tonight. That’s quite an assessment. I love when people can point stuff like that out to me. On one hand, I like what I like, and understanding the nuts and bolts don’t always help me appreciate music any more (or less). On the other hand, there are likewise times when it takes several listens to really catch what’s going on in a song, at which point it becomes new again, which is a pretty cool experience.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          The real measure, though, I guess, is what he sounds like live–if he can consistently pull off those little vocal flips and spins without the aid of a sound man to patch them all neatly together.

          That’s where I can’t comment because I’ve never seen them live. I’m speaking solely from what I hear on album tracks.

          Guys like Wainwright and Buckley, the real heavy-hitting, trained & practiced, studied singers are virtually one-to-one live.

          The…umm…intuitive singers, like say Corgan, sound like drunk versions of the guy on the record. I would never accuse Corgan of technical acumen.

          Billy is nothing if not consistently true to himself, whoever he is at the moment, and figures fuck you if you don’t like it. Or he doesn’t just figure it, he says it. Loudly. Often. I can’t help but absolutely love this about him.

          What a strange, bald, crazy man.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          This just in: Folowill’s pretty tight live, too. His band, not so much, but it’s reasonable to say the album sound is a fair representation of his actual vocal abilities.

        • Joe Daly says:

          Wait- which one? The new one or the one before it? Or another?

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, probably all of them.

          Though I have two, and I know his voice sounds markedly different between them. Not better or worse, just totally different approach to singing. More evidence, in my opinion, of him putting on “effects” of sorts.

          In this particular case, the songs I was able to find live performance of online were mostly from Only by the Night.

  3. This is great. I love that you included the antonyms. I’m envisioning some kind of Joe Daly Rock reference book…an encyclopedia or dictionary along the lines of those Onion atlases…I’d buy a copy.

    • Joe Daly says:

      Thanks, Tyler- coming up with the antonyms was a lot of fun. I admit that coming up with an opposite for the “A for Effort” voice was tough. I needed to find someone who tried to cash in on an opportunity with not just zero effort, but less than zero. Somehow, Roseanne came to mind.

  4. dwoz says:

    Some very good representation of female vocalists here.

    What about these female rock vocalists????

    PJ Harvey
    Tori Amos
    Melissa Etheridge
    Steve Perry
    Stevie Nicks
    Joan Jett
    Chrissy Hynde

    ?
    eh?

    • Joe Daly says:

      I love how you put Steve Perry in that list.

      Joan Jett is playing the fair down the street from me tonight, but alas, I’m missing it. I was at the fair this afternoon though, and it wasn’t tough to tell who was there for the fried dough and who was there for Joan. The spandex and eyeliner was a telling giveaway. On the chicks, too!

      Of that list, I love PJ, Melissa and Stevie the most. Not to say I don’t dig all of them, but those three stand out for me in a strong list.

      I was recently listening to a couple cuts by The Donnas. Now there are some ladies who can flat out bring it.

      • James D. Irwin says:

        Stevie Nicks is awesome. Gold Dust Woman and Edge of Seventeen… although EVERY TIME I hear the intro it reminds me of Rocky…

      • Tawni Freeland says:

        You missed Joan Jett? She was down the street from you and you missed her?

        Oh, Joe. *shakes head sadly*

  5. Don Mitchell says:

    Surely Gracie Slick belongs to the Balls-to-the-Wall Belters.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      quite possibly my favourite female vocalist of all time.

    • Joe Daly says:

      Really? Well, I suppose on “White Rabbit,” she lets it all hang out. What’s her best vocal showcase, in your opinion? The “feed your head” at the end still gives me chills.

      JDI- really?

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Hey, JDI, she’s my favorite, too.

        In addition to White Rabbit, I’d offer “Somebody to Love.”

        • Joe Daly says:

          Good suggestion. That is a good tune. I would have been super bummed out if you had suggested “We Built This City.”

        • James D. Irwin says:

          that was my next offering.

          No.

          White Rabbit/Somebody to Love are pretty much the essential ones.

          She’s not neccessarily the best, but I was into Airplane and the Grateful Dead for a long time when I was younger.

          Also she’s undoubtedly the prettiest.

        • Gloria says:

          And what about Johnette Napolitano from The Concrete Blonde, Joe Daly? That woman can belt!

        • Tawni Freeland says:

          Pat Benatar’s got some serious pipes, too.

        • Dana says:

          TNB wouldn’t let me comment when this went up. And now I’m so late to the party, but I had to play because I love a good singer. This was a blast and I’ve still only checked out half the links!

          A few offhand observations:

          Eddie Vedder should definitely be on this list. :p
          Hank Williams – agreed.
          Johnny Cash – The true voice of God.
          Peter Wolf (butter) He’s like Mick Jagger, only good.
          Rufus Wainwright – I don’t give a shit if he’s nasally. I love his voice.
          Billy Joe Armstrong – instantly recognizable and yet doesn’t irritate the shit out of me like Billy Corgan.
          Evan Dando – I can’t analyze this rationally. His voice is probably average but I’ve always felt vaguely maternal to him.
          Roger Daltrey – agree. His screams make me feel 15.
          Todd Snider (The opposite of good, but who gives a shit. Listen to “Feel Like Missing You Today”)

          I just did an Itunes sort to see my most listened to tracks as I thought that might reveal some other vocalists I really like:

          Ben Harper
          Ryan Adams
          Neil Finn
          Elliot Smith
          Ben Hibbard (is that his name? Something like that – Death Cab for Cutie) Also, I should note, this is my work computer so not a lot of headbanging stuff here.

          Perhaps the most revealing thing about my top 25? Only woman listed is Marketa Irglova singing with Glen Hansard on Falling Slowly.

          My indier than though pick (for dwoz) would be Steve Poltz. Because he’s fucking awesome. And he can sing anything (and sell it) including Moon River and Memories and SkyFuckingLineofToronto and Wichita Lineman.

        • Dana says:

          The comment above is in completely the wrong place. HA! Sorry. It should be all the way at the end of the comment section. D’OH! Multitasking is not my strong suit lately.

  6. James D. Irwin says:

    I’m sure it was simply an oversight, but you forgot to mention Paul Rodgers.

    Paul Rodgers is awesome.

    As is Geddy Lee. Where is the ‘Shrill Canadian Liberal Arts Professor’ category Daly?!

    • Joe Daly says:

      Dude! I was totally thinking about Paul Rodgers but wasn’t sure where to put him. It seemed to me that he’d be a Belter, for sure.

      This wasn’t meant to be a definitive, all-inclusive list though- just noting some standout examples for the categories. Where would you put Rodgers and what song would you tell an alien to listen to if you wanted the alien to understand Rodgers through just one song?

      Bet you didn’t think you’d ever field that question when you woke up this morning.

      • dwoz says:

        Rodgers has a hint of crooner in him.

        think, Paul Young…

        …or, while we’re going euro….and bassists…

        Jack Bruce,
        John Wetton,
        Mark King,

        or that other UK bassist, that sang one or two songs, now and again….

        Sir Paul.

        • Joe Daly says:

          You bass players and your bass guitars…

          Rodgers def had crooner.

          I was trying to think how Paul McCartney would fit into the list. I had a category called “Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together,” which would have featured voices that worked most effectively in harmony, and that’s where the Beatles were going to go (along with Simon & Garfunkel, CSNY, and Teenage Fanclub representing more recent artists). But I scratched that, opting to focus just on individual voices, so I added in The Blues Man’s Lament, which I think is a legit voice on its own.

        • dwoz says:

          I thought McCartney was notable from the standpoint of “singers who talk like they’re from Manchester or Liverpool, England, but sing like they’re from New London, Connecticut.”

      • James D. Irwin says:

        Rodgers is in a class of his own. He doesn’t really fit into any of these categories. He constantly tops/comes second in the radio station I listen to’s greatest singers polls.

        He doesn’t really sound like he’s trying… like it should be easy to immitate, but it’s nigh on impossible. I sort of think of it as being like single malt whisky. It’s smooth but powerful.

        I’m a massive Free fan. Pretty much all of the Heartbreaker album is vocal brilliance. If it was just one then Easy on my Soul. Or Common Mortal Man.

  7. It seems music critics often focus away from the singer, so I’m glad to read a fun, knowledgeable roundup on them.

    Bob Dylan as Greg Allman’s vocal opposite never would have occurred to me, but I think you’re right. It’s only that Dylan has the Voice of God and Allman the opposite. That’s just the way it goes.

    Also, Neko Case has a beauty in her voice that sometimes I think no one can match.

    And there’s a French rapper, Joey Starr of NTM, who roars like a lion.

    • Joe Daly says:

      It’s only that Dylan has the Voice of God and Allman the opposite.

      Nat, you’ve been in France way too long.

      Hah! Well played, sir. Yeah, I knew that Robert Plant had to have his own category, so I figured I’d just leave Gregg there. Coming up with his opposite was tough, but when Dylan came to mind, I realized it was probably a biological fact. Like 1+1=2, 180 degrees away from Gregg Allman is Bob Dylan.

      Neko’s pretty amazing and she has some good longevity, too. Women seem to hold up better over the years than the men.

      I need to check out NTM. Never heard of them. Got a recommendation for a brother?

  8. Art Edwards says:

    The voices you list are all sort of otherworldly wonderful, jolly green giants coming onto the battlefield of mere mortals and stomping out everything else. I love all of them, save Williams, whose voice never twisted me inside. My loss.

    I tend to get more excited about female voices these days. My Abba fixation is well documented. I’m also a big fan of Regina Spektor, a fact I’ve probably mentioned too many times on these boards.

    Mould? Maybe his own category, or sharing it with Ian MacKaye? (“It’s too Late” just came up on my iPod.)

    • Gloria says:

      Have to taken to Florence + the Machine or Adele yet?

      Do you love Jolie Holland and/or The Be Good Tanyas?

      Do you know Joan As Policewoman?

      And, finally, though she’s old, do you love, love, love Cat Power? I’ve only just discovered her.

      Hi Art!

    • Joe Daly says:

      It’s hard for me to think of Robbie Williams without recalling Noel Gallagher referring to him as “that fat dancer from Take That.” So cruel, but so very funny…

      Funny you mention Abba- I just saw an Abba tribute band at the fair. They sounded exactly like Abba, straight down to the Swedish accents between songs. Having lived in Stockholm for awhile, I have been duly inundated with Abba mania, and I’m a believer too. Did you ever get a hold of that Klosterman article about them that I mentioned in one of your other pieces? Gold.

      Mould’s own category? Yes. What would you call it, who’s a female member, and who’s the antithesis?

      • Art Edwards says:

        I will find that Klosterman essay.

        Mould category: The Martian from a Broken Home Voice.

        Female: chick from My Bloody Valentine.

        Antithesis: Rufus Wainwright.

        • Joe Daly says:

          Now that is a fine name for a category. In fact, there is no finer description of Bob Mould’s voice. We need to let him know about this.

          Will be interesting to see if Becky agrees w/r/t Rufus.

  9. Gloria says:

    I’m so glad you mentioned that article from the classically trained voice teacher. I, too, found that article supremely interesting. And I could not agree more about Chris Cornell. God, I love that man’s voice.

    Fascinating write up, Joe Daly. Loved it.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Uh oh. Really like Florence.

    • Joe Daly says:

      Thanks, Gloria! Isn’t that voice teacher’s interview fascinating? I love what she says about Halford- how she’d love to get her hands on him. Then she totally kicks Ozzy to the curb. Too funny. But her assessments of Dio and Dickinson are eye-opening, to say the least.

      Did you check out the Nashville Pussy clip, btw? Now you know why I had them on my mind last night. I had to find a clip that was good enough to show how poorly he sang, all the while establishing how well it worked with his band. Phew. That last sentence was a workout…

      • Gloria says:

        I did watch that clip, Joe. I didn’t love it. I wanted to love it. But I just didn’t. But with a name like that, I was SO willing to give it a fair chance.

        • Tawni Freeland says:

          Joe and Gloria:

          Fun fact: The really tall, pretty blonde who was in the first line-up of Nashville Pussy (Corey Parks) is my second cousin.

  10. dwoz says:

    Just as I feared…this thread becomes “indier than thou.”

    It’s like a disease. There’s an exquisite technique to it too. You have to mention bands that nobody else has heard of, as if everyone’s fully sick of being saturated by them (aren’t we all), and besides everyone knows they’ll never top their sophomore album.

    Wainright falls in this category for me. Unlistenable. Pretense extreme. His “halleluja” IS the textbook diagnosis of sinusitis. Rather listen to Billy Corgan sing Sinatra’s Greatest Hits.

    Speaking of Sinatra….the most unbelievable duet of all time…Sinatra and Bowie.

    Bowie. Another category unto himself?

    • dwoz says:

      Sorry….that was BING and bowie. My mistake. Typing too fast.

    • Joe Daly says:

      I didn’t even realize Wainwright did a version of “Hallelujah,” so I’ll abstain from that point. I guess I’m just not that indie.

      The one thing I know for sure about Rufus is that he’s a tit man.

      • dwoz says:

        if you mean moobs, then maybe.

        also, what about the queen of the asylum, Cyndi Lauper?

        • Joe Daly says:

          Nope, we’re talking full on female breast.

          Not sure where Cyndi goes. I don’t have a deep familiarity with her stuff, but I suspect that she’s got talent beyond what her teenybopper persona initially suggested.

        • Gloria says:

          A former friend of mine used to work for Lauper’s record label. He told me that when she was recording her second album, she demanded fresh helium balloons every day (to keep the monotony of being in the study whimsical.) I kind of love that.

        • dwoz says:

          On the grand scale of rock and roll studio debauchery, helium balloons are pretty high up there!

          It’s very true, most experienced studio engineers and producers I know say that it’s all about maintaining a flow and a comfort level (without being TOO comfortable) and then a little bit about sounds and instruments. If floaty balloons do it, then we have floaty balloons. I have it on authority that the two things that do NOT promote studio flow are gak and girlfriends. (boyfriends too, of course).

  11. JD! This is awesome. I think my favorite singers may be in Ozzy’s category, those that have so much character to their vocals you always know it’s them, whether or not they’re actually *skilled* singers. No Maynard James Keenan? I never thought much of his abilities until I saw him live. He stood there with his bottle of water like a diva. Also, he never once faced the audience. But he was an amazing singer, live.

    • Joe Daly says:

      CH-

      You’re a fan of MJK? Whoa…That’s a great revelation! Funny about the bottle of water. I’ve found his off-stage life to be just as interesting, if not moreso, than his music. Between the comedy thing, the Courtney Love feud and his winemaking endeavors, he always seems to have something going on.

      What band did you see him with- Tool, A Perfect Circle, or Puscifer?

      • I’m full of surprises! It was A Perfect Circle, though I prefer Tool of those three. I know someone who’d interviewed him via phone. MJK asked as they got started how long it would take. The interviewer said “oh, about ten minutes.” So at precisely the ten minute mark, MJK hangs up on the guy mid sentence. Heh.

  12. Hank Cherry says:

    Sufjan Stevens is also the opposite of “good.”

    I think my favorite vocalist of all time is either Seth Putnam, RIP, or the guy from the Happy Flowers.

    But yours are good too!

    Thanks bub

    • Joe Daly says:

      >>Sufjan Stevens is also the opposite of “good.”<< Dammit, dammit, dammit. That's one of those lines that I wish to hell that I had written. Seth Putnam, my Boston homie! I love that Total Fucking Destruction song, "Seth Putnam is Wrong About a Lot of Things, But Seth Putnam is Right About You." Thx, man!

  13. Argh. Fucking WordPress. I wrote a comment that has since disappeared.

    Anyway, it went something like this: You wrote a whole essay about vocalists without once mentioning Nathan Explosion?!?!!?

    • Joe Daly says:

      I was going to do a whole Nathan Explosion category but as soon as I saved the draft with that section, some guys with black masks showed up at my front door and gave me a bill for $16,000,000, which is apparently what Dethklok charges for anyone mentioning their name in any music-related article.

      They were carrying maces, dude. It freaked me out.

      So yeah, I just deleted that and went about my business…

  14. Irene Zion says:

    Joe, you come up with the best titles,
    you witty devil, you.

  15. Awesome round up. Totally fun. A few of my opinions for the mix:

    Best dreamy falsetto ever: Little Jimmy Scott:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRYJbaxwJ20

    It’s an obvious choice, but best Balls To The Walls Belter ever: Chester Burnett
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Ou-6A3MKow

    The I Have No Business Singing, But My Band Rules: David Thomas of Pere Ubu: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZty5DTmpMY

    The voice of God (yeah, god’s a woman): Billie Holiday
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPJuFxl0bxY&feature=fvst

    The bluesman’s lament: Son House
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jN5vqEyV7g

    The “A” for effort: D. Boone of The Minutemen:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2XWGMf3YjA&feature=related

    Chatty Chatterson: Jim Carroll of Jim Carroll Band
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBbuPnfG0Vo&feature=related

    • Joe Daly says:

      Sean-

      This is a fantastic supplement to the list. Not surprisingly, there are two names on here of which I was entirely unfamiliar and the ones that I did know were so far out of left field that I had to get up and walk around the room a few times. Love D. Boon and Jim Carroll in particular. The latter being a most excellent example of the Chatty Chatterson.

      Thanks for the links, too. I had a good ol’ time checking them out.

  16. Becky Palapala says:

    I continue to think about this.

    Can I go ahead and open the can of worms on Linkin Park?

    If asked to provide a yes or no answer, I would say “Yes, I like Linkin Park,” but I find that I’m almost never listening to anything but Chester Bennington’s voice.

    I get the sense that they’re somewhat despised, but I feel confident saying that Bennington is an incredible singer and his presence in that band turns a fairly boring hard rock/hip hop fusion situation into something considerably more interesting and musically adept.

    There is no way I would have any interest in them if their singer didn’t seem so completely (yet fittingly?) out of place.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      His voice is more comparable to Justin Timberlake’s than anyone else’s in hard rock. I mean, that’s not a rip. It’s interesting.

    • Joe Daly says:

      Man, that’s an interesting can of worms. I’m not a Linkin Park guy at all. I’ll say that his voice sounds pretty natural and he can hit some high notes, but for me it’s too pop for rock. I like rock with more of a snarl, so maybe his voice is too clean for the kind of music that LP plays.

      Has he recorded anything without them, by chance? That would be interesting to hear for sure.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        I have no idea if he was recorded prior to Linkin Park.

        I guess it’s the juxtaposition that I like–makes the band immediately recognizable and unlike any other band, even though, really, they are very much like any number of other bands, save Bennington’s voice.

        When you look at the history of hard rock/hip hop fusion that manages to make the jump to widespread popular success, there are one or two standouts, but it’s largely a pretty embarrassing, bro-ful cocktail of one-hit wonders and very little experimentation.

        Have you seen the Linkin Park/Jay-Z performance of Numb/Encore feat. Paul McCartney? I feel like it’s Bennington’s voice that lets them do that sort of thing (and really most of the Jay-Z collaboration) without seeming ridiculous.

        I mean, can you imagine Fred Durst trying to sing the harmony (I believe George Harrison’s part) on “Yesterday?”

        I want to crawl under my couch just thinking about it.

        • Joe Daly says:

          I haven’t seen that Jay-Z collaboration, but I’m totally going to check it out.

          It seemed to me that Limp Bizkit killed rap rock and I think Fred Durst’s public image had a ton to do with it. If you want to hear Fred’s attempt at harmony, the video for Staind’s “Outside” had Durst singing with Staind, and he pretty much sings the same part as Aaron Lewis rather than actually harmonizing.

          Speaking of LB, Wes Borland recently took on a critic who slammed their new album, and I have to say, I enjoyed his rebuttals and his insights.

          http://www.antiquiet.com/interviews/2011/06/gold-cobra-rebuttal-wes-borland-vs-antiquiet/

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Also potentially in this category: Maynard James Keenan.

        His voice is another that’s almost too polished for metal. It’s less noticeable now than it used to be, but when Tool first came out, a metal band with a lead singer who could genuinely sing was pretty strange.

        His voice is considerably lower than Bennington’s though. Maybe that’s the difference. He also looks the part of a bonafide, credible metal/hard rock singer (most of the time, anyway), which Bennington really doesn’t.

        • Joe Daly says:

          Cynthia’s comment about him above sort of supports this. You bring up a good point- really good metal voices have tension between a great range and an edge- some sort of scratchy, snarly thing. Josh Groban could never front a rock band. Well, he could, but I think a lot of rock fans would take a pass.

          Man, image goes a long way, doesn’t it? I think a lot of bands don’t give the listeners enough credit in that department. People know when an image is real, contrived, or just fun. Black Veil Brides are an example of a band with an image so over the top that it’s sort of fun. Met them briefly in L.A. last month and they were all super down to earth. They also back it up with good music.

          People can pretty much look at a musician and listen to his or her music and decide for themselves if the two match.

  17. Richard Cox says:

    Fascinating, JD! I’ve thought about this many times, how a vocalist is nearly always the most identifiable thing about a band, and often the only separating factor. And this is coming from someone who frequently doesn’t recognize a word being sung.

    Worthy lyrics or not, lead vocals are an instrument like anything else, and are individual in ways difficult to achieve in “real” instruments.

    Love the Stonehenge link, my friend. I watched this last week and was happy to watch it again.

    Thanks for this.

    • Joe Daly says:

      Thanks, Coxy- I have to admit, halfway through the piece I found myself wondering where you’d put Joe Elliott. Does he belong in any of these categories, or would you file him elsewhere?

      You’re so right thought that the difficulties presented by the voice are unlike the other instruments. Perhaps because the voice is more reactive to the other instruments than vice-versa. A lot of times you’ll hear a musician complain about mistakes they made during the gig that pretty much no one in the audience noticed. But when the singer effs up, there’s absolutely no hiding it.

      Btw- just read a fantastic essay by Joe Elliott on AC/DC. I’ll see if I can find it for you.

      • Richard Cox says:

        I’m not sure where I would fit him into your categories back when he was in his prime. His voice has suffered over the years from screaming those Mutt-pitch vocals. It’s still distinctive when he sings in lower registers, and instantly recognizable. But gone are the days of hitting the high notes on Hysteria.

        Totally true about vocalists making mistakes. They’re usually pretty obvious. Unfortunately for them.

  18. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    My ability to comment on this is not nearly as entertaining as reading this. Awesome, JD.

    I think I’m gonna start a girl band called White Boy Swagger.

  19. jmblaine says:

    The Rock and Roll Hall of (F)Lame is littered with less-than-gifted vocalists who transformed a non-traditional set of pipes into a multi platinum career.

    Is exactly the kind
    of rhythmic sentence
    I so dearly love.

    Here’s the deal:
    If you do a book like this
    I’ll do one too.

    You know who I’m loving lately
    who didn’t give us nearly enough?
    Sebastian Bach & Tom Keifer

    Also: Bootleg of Danzig
    singing “Trouble”.

    • Joe Daly says:

      JMB-

      That’s a deal.
      If you’re in,
      count me in, too.

      I can’t believe you name checked
      Sebastian.

      I listened to the entire
      Slave to the Grind on a
      run yesterday.

      With this article still fresh in my mind
      I focused on his vocals and felt remiss
      for not including him somewhere.

      His greatest showcase,
      in the studio at least,
      is this song right here. The way he carries the first chorus is one of my favorite moments of the 90s.

  20. jmblaine says:

    Also this:

    That Ozzy sold it
    & Dio made a new & different
    but entirely kick-ass Sabbath?

    Exactly

  21. It’s funny how tastes differ so much. I’d take Jeff Tweedy over most of the people on your list any day.

    I can’t believe how much work went into this article and the millions of hyperlinks. Even your post is rock star epic!

    • Joe Daly says:

      Nick,

      Gotta love Jeff Tweedy. I was so spoiled living in Chicago in the 90s. I had the luxury of seeing him do solo acoustic shows, Wilco gigs, and my favorite- Golden Smog shows, all in small clubs. Don’t get me wrong, I totally love his smokey voice. It’s a great example of a voice that gets stronger with each album.

      Thanks for the read, man!

  22. Frag says:

    Ozzy replaces one of The Spice Girls…that’s an SNL skit waiting to happen.

  23. megzep says:

    wow! what insightful fun! a ton of spicy rock n roll fodder here. i LOVE that you mentioned cliff richard. i haven’t heard that name since i last listened to my UK recording of tim rice and andrew lloyd webber songs. when i was 12. i think he sang something from jesus christ superstar. or maybe it was cats. (those are musicals, if you had no idea what i was talking about).

    had no idea hank sr. was one of your faves! i LOVE him. he’s a character in my punk country play and now you’ve inspired me to go rewrite it. 🙂

    i have to disagree about robert plant only showing flashes of the voice of god. he IS the voice of god, joe. allman is bluesy visceral rad and i can’t listen to the whipping post enough, but robert plant helped define me as a human being when i had no idea who i was. again, i was 12. here’s my story about it on NPR’s all songs considered podcast – http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130654846
    i think it starts at minute 24 or so…

    i guess it doesn’t make sense to disagree or agree cuz everyone’s experience of a vocalist is so personal, how can you say one is “better” than the other? fun to see who other people pick though, and i appreciate the work you did on really getting at where these singers are coming from and why/how they chose their vocal stylings when they did. (though you’re gonna have to explain to me in detail how steven tyler or mick jagger have an affected southern drawl, i hear the bluesy but not the southern. are you offering classes on rocktastic music ideas stirred up from your TNB articles? cuz i’d like to register if so.)

    before i even read this, last night i dreamt that i dated an allman brother. i blame you somehow.

    • Joe Daly says:

      Meg-

      Thanks for the killer comments! Which Allman did you date? Yes, blame me and YOU’RE WELCOME.

      Stoked to check out that NPR Podcast. Plant is a great example of a guy whose voice rocked in its prime and then as his range started to narrow and his diaphragm grew a little tighter, he just switched gears and started unplugging, collaborating and testing new genres. He’s all that and a bag of golden gods.

      I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that any of these vocalists were better than another. I think they all serve their sounds powerfully. When I said Bob Dylan is the opposite of Gregg Allman, I wasn’t implying that Bob Dylan sucks- simply that his voice is way different than Greggie’s. I’m a huge Bob fan. As far as his voice goes, all anyone has to do is listen to the zillion covers of his songs to see that he’s the only one who can pull them off so fully and powerfully.

      Steven Tyler on “Last Child” or “Train Kept A-Rollin'” both strike me as flavored with Faux South. Mick Jagger on most of “Sticky Fingers” is more southern than biscuits and gravy.

      Rock rock rock on!

  24. Sorry I’m so late getting to this piece, Joe. It’s so comprehensive and so well written. And SO damn funny at times. And SO damn true pretty much all the time. Truly, truly wonderful, my friend.

    • Joe Daly says:

      Rich-

      Thanks a bunch for the comment. As always, I’m very appreciative of your read and feedback. I had a blast putting it together.

      Hope to see you sometime this summer!

  25. dwoz says:

    Fee Waybill likely deserves a nod. I understand he’s an utter hack polo rider, but he’s got pipes.

    …er….

    …Tubes.

  26. Tawni Freeland says:

    I truly enjoyed reading this. The categories made me laugh and nod. I especially love the opposites listed, and that you gave Robert Plant his own category.

    Righteous writing, Joe. (:

  27. 2,367 comments so far and nobody’s mentioned Eddie Vedder. Whatever you think of him and his band, his voice is unmistakable.

    Kate Bush is the opposite of a belter? Half the time, perhaps. She has an absurdly powerful voice but uses all the volume settings, not just eleven.

    Oh, and – Prince.

    • Joe Daly says:

      Vedder’s got a great voice for sure. It’s improved with age and I couldn’t imagine anyone else singing for PJ, especially with the Mother Love Bone comparison, which was great in its own right, but of course, that was its own right.

      Re: Kate Bush. Wait, you mean there’s a volume setting that’s not eleven? What will you Europeans think of next?

      Prince- not sure where I’d put him in my list, but yeah, amazing. Part-belter for sure.

  28. megzep says:

    oh i meant that it didn’t make sense FOR ME to say that robert plant was “better” than whoever, not in reference to your article. i was poking fun at my misallocated need to defend the zep. 😀

    i guess my stream of conscious commenting needs to be proofread for clarity……………

    rockin! i’m not sure which allman bro it was. my instinct says it was robert.

  29. Matt says:

    Dammit.

    I wrote a comment right when this first went up, and it looks like WordPress ate it. In the meantime all the bonhomie I lavished on it has been duly heaped by the others.

    So I’ll just drop this query: where would you list Tom Waits? Sure, the man has a voice like a burlap sack full of chain-smoking cats rolling down a gravelly hillside, but he sure as shit knows how to use it.

    • Joe Daly says:

      Dude, amen on Tom Waits. I’d put him right next to Jeff Tweedy- a guy with a scratchy voice who writes top-notch songs that are meant only to be sung by guys with scratchy voices. “Ol’ 55” is one of my favorite songs ever.

      Fucking WordPress…

  30. megzep says:

    and by robert allman i mean greg allman. yup.

  31. Erika Rae says:

    As always, so awesome. Sorry I missed this before. I am going to be dreaming of Bea Arthur’s vox in my ear all day now.

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