Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Best and the Worst: Lead Singers

The heart and soul of any successful rock band is the lead singer (or as he's often called, the prima donna man-whore).  Throughout rock and roll history, lead vocalists have ranged from the soft-toned Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock of Air Supply (okay, I'm using the term "rock and roll" very loosely) to the harsh and garbled howling of Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. 

Today, we're going to look at the best and the worst of rock's famous frontmen.  Before we begin, though, a few disclaimers are in order.  First, I'm only choosing singers from reasonably well-known bands.  Yes, I realize the lead singer from The Vines is absolutely horrific, and I'm sure there's some anonymous garage band in Hackensack with a vocalist who sends the neighborhood dogs into spastic convulsions.  I'm not going to waste our time with those losers.

The second disclaimer is this:

When we get to the "worst" singers, this is by no means an assessment of the particular band in question.  In fact, some of the best bands in history have had less-than-stellar lead vocalists (I'm looking at YOU, Rush).  But taken out of context, the talent of my five worst singers is - at best - marginal.  Oh, and one more thing, we're only going to be looking at frontmen for bands, not solo artists.  So no whining about me leaving Springsteen out of the conversation.  Argue amongst yourselves as to whether he'd be among the best or the worst.

Without any further ado, we'll begin with the five best singers in the entire history of rock and roll. 


1. Freddie Mercury (Queen)
Freddie was one of a kind, a unique talent with an amazing vocal range.  He could bring an audience to tears with a ballad like "Save Me" and then turn right around and blow the roof off the arena with an anthem like "Bohemian Rhapsody".  Even at his most raucous, he never crossed over into the world of "screaming"; his voice was always under control and on pitch.  Plus, he was exceptional during Queen's live performances, commanding the stage like a Broadway star, not "just" a rock singer.  No doubt, Freddie was the best of the best.

2. Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin)
Like Mercury, Robert Plant could sing anything.  Hell, "Stairway to Heaven" alone is more stylistically diverse then the entire repertoire of a band like, say, KISS.  Not that there's anything wrong with KISS, mind you, but after awhile their music just becomes a mish-mash of three-chord sex songs.  By any standard, Led Zeppelin will always rank among the top three or four rock bands in history.  You don't do that with a mediocre singer (unless you're AC/DC, which we'll be discussing in just a few minutes).  Plant's voice is distinctive, and for my money, the definitive sound of rock and roll.  

3. Sting (The Police)

Before he decided to shun bandmates Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers and embark on an iffy solo career, Gordon Sumner (aka "Sting") and the Police were probably the most easily-identifiable band of the early 1980's.  Their music was a unique blend of new-wave and reggae, and hits like "Every Breath You Take" and "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" provided a ubiquitous soundtrack for high school proms across the country (and also in England, if they have proms there).  Personally, I'm a fan of early Police -- I'll take "Roxanne" and "Can't Stand Losing You" over "King of Pain" any day -- but there really isn't a "bad" Police album (though in fairness, they only made five).  All in all they were an outstanding band, a unique talent in an era that brought us dreck like Culture Club and A Flock of Seagulls. 

4. Roger Daltrey (The Who)
Although I wouldn't necessarily call myself a Who fan, there's no denying the band's place in rock and roll history.  They're one of the few bands who had incredibly skillful musicians on guitar, bass, and drums along with an exceptional singer.  As I hinted at earlier, Rush is probably the best band musically, but I can't listen to more than a couple of their songs back to back before Geddy Lee's voice starts to grate on my nerves.  On the other hand, the chick singer for Paramore whose name I'm far to lazy to look up right now has a great voice, but the band is just so-so and all their songs tend to sound alike.  When you're talking about bands that combine instrumental virtuosity and outstanding vocals, you're pretty much down to The Who, Led Zeppelin, and depending on personal taste, Metallica.  So, Roger Daltry clocks in at number four on my list, mainly because I really like the song "Baba O'Riley". 

5. Brandon Boyd (Incubus)
 What the hell, I may as well include someone who's actually made an album this century.  For those of you from my generation (catch the Who reference?), Incubus may very well be the best band you've never heard of.  My younger readers, assuming there are any, will certainly agree with me when I tell you that Brandon Boyd is probably the most versatile singer on the modern rock scene today.  Songs like "Megalomaniac" and "Anna Molly" require him to stretch the limits of his range, yet he never goes over the top into the realm of screaming.  Mellower tunes like "Drive" show off his softer side, and prove that he's not just a rock star, he's a very talented singer by any standard.  So all you old farts out there, go ahead and download some Incubus, you won't regret it. 


1. Brian Johnson (AC/DC)
This is not singing.  Brian Johnson sounds like a Chipmunks version of James Brown, and that is in no way a compliment to either the Godfather of Soul or Theodore.  That being said, though, Johnson's voice is absolutely perfect for what AC/DC is trying to get across, which is gut-clenching, wall-shaking rock and roll.  That doesn't mean the guy's a good singer, though.  I mean, really, imagine what it would sound like if he tried to cover a song like the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" or the Kansas hit "Dust in the Wind".  It would be hilarious, sure, but you would never play in Peoria.  I don't know what that means, exactly, it's just something I heard somewhere once. 

2. Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day)
I'm starting to realize how weird it is that some of my favorite bands have mediocre singers.  I mean, I'm actually a big fan of Green Day, but there's no denying the fact that Billie Joe Armstrong sings like he's battling a nasty cold.  Here's my written transcription of the first verse to "Boulevard of Broken Dreams": 

I wog a lode-ly road, the oad-ly wud thad I hab ebber dode.
Dode doe where id goes, bud id's hobe to be and I wog alode.
I wog dis eb-dee streed, on the boulevard ub brogen dreebs.
Where duh city sleebs, and Ibe the oad-ly one and I wog alode.

Who knows, maybe the band's name has something to do with Billie Joe's coughing up loogies all the time.  Makes sense, doesn't it?

3. Kurt Cobain (Nirvana)
I'm not going to say that this guy shot himself because he realized he was a lousy singer, but it wouldn't be the worst explanation in the world.  Call me a purist, but I always thought the whole point of singing words to a song was for people to actually be able to understand them.  I challenge ANYONE to recite the lyrics to the chorus of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" without looking them up.  Yeah, I know that Nirvana is generally considered to be a ground-breaking, genre-defining rock band, but I'm sorry, I just don't get it.  Hell, their drummer Dave Grohl is a thousand times better a singer than Cobain, and he never sang a single word for Nirvana.  Judge for yourself.  Listen to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and then go listen to Grohl's vocal on the Foo Fighters' "Everlong".  You'll hear exactly what I'm talking about. 

4. The Guy From Nickelback (Nickelback)
Giant douchebag, party of one, your table is now ready.  In an industry where originality is always hard to find and wanna-bes are everywhere, Nickelback sets the all-time standard for rip-offsmanship.  There is not one single thing about this band that hasn't been done by someone else, a thousand times better.  Let's face it, you know your band's in a world of trouble when you're trying to sound just like Pearl Jam but if we're going to be completely honest, Nickelback would need five years of practice and a better guitarist just to receive a back-handed compliment like "hey, you guys kinda sound like Creed."  And aside from that, Nickelback's singer just seems like kind of an ass.  I recently heard that he walked off stage in Europe after a "fan" threw a bottle at him, after the singer asked, "Do we have any Nickelback fans out there?"

I guess actions really DO speak louder than words. 

5. Anthony Kiedis (Red Hot Chili Peppers) 
Here's all you need to know about Anthony Kiedis.  When he was a teenager, his three best friends (a bassist, guitarist and a drummer) had a cute little garage band.  Anthony hung around with them a lot, but since he didn't play an instrument and couldn't sing, there really was no place for him in the group.  But young Anthony apparently had a bit of Lucy Ricardo in him, so after months of hounding his friends (and probably supplying them with just the right amount of narcotics), they agreed to let him join the band as their lead vocalist.  Unfortunately, though, his official membership in the Red Hot Chili Peppers didn't change the fact that the guy still couldn't sing a note.  This is why early Chilis' albums sound like really bad rap music which is of course redundant, but it's really the only way to describe it.  In fairness, Kiedis's vocal skills gradually evolved into something listenable, but it's still not good singing.

Their bass player kicks ass, though.


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The Silver Fox said...

Some very on-spot "reviews" there.

I've never really liked AC/DC because (as a former singer myself) I couldn't get past the vocals. And when singing "In the Mood," the one Rush song I ever attempted with my first band -- the band played real gigs, but not with the Rush song -- I was told I sounded "too Chipmunk." "That's because I'm imitating Geddy Lee!" I replied.

Mercury, Plant, and Daltrey, however... HUGE talents!

Mariann Simms said...

I will have to go with Daltrey as my top guy. Whilst not having the range of most singers...which Townshend knew and wrote specifically for...damn...he sang with feeling. I nearly wore my 8-track out of "Who's Next". Probably one of THE BEST albums ever, ever, ever recorded. I have to say that it sucked each time "Baba O'Riley" was interrupted to change to the next track on it, tho...right before that phenomenal scream. No wonder 8-tracks didn't make it.

Still pondering "the worst". I'll get back with you on my pick. (I know...I're just waiting for it.)

J.J. in L.A. said...

Totally agree with you about Freddy Mercury! LOVE him!

Sorry, but...can NOT stand Sting!

What about Jon Anderson from YES? His voice makes me cry. That right! I admit it.

And Dennis DeYoung from Styx??? The midwest accent does it for me.

And I like Anthony Kiedis. He doesn't have a great voice, but neither does Elton John and look how popular he got.

Jeremy from We Took The Bait said...

Not a bad list, though for best lead vocalist I'd substitute in just about ANYONE for Brandon Boyd. Glen Phillips from toad the wet sprocket, Ben Folds from Ben Folds Five, Raine Maida from Our Lady Peace...

Also, I'm sort of a sucker for female vocals. Among the best rock singers? Stevie Nicks. No doubt.

But, not No Doubt. Gwen Stefani kind of sucks.

00dozo said...

From a post by another blogger, I recently re-introduced myself to Jethro Tull ... I thought Ian Anderson was a great vocalist, with the band having an imaginative and unique rock sound.

And Freddy: The best!

Julie said...

A few friends and I have rare joy of judging one-act musicals at the University of Kansas, put on by frat boys and sorority girls looking for a venue for their inner star.

Our first rule for these kids? Unless your name is Freddie Mercury, you may not use a song by Queen.

(Second rule involves Bonnie Tyler)

Julie said...

PS I also heart Steve Perry

Jenn Flynn-Shon said...

I am still laughing that the lead singer from Nickleback is so insignificant he doesn't even get a look up on his name he's just 'The Guy From Nickleback' Classic.

I really hate to do this because I agree wholeheartedly that Grohl was about the only good thing to come out of Nirvana (well that and flannel [let it go I live in the most freezing place in the country]) but...

With the lights out, it's less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us. I feel stupid and contageous. Here we are now, entertain us. A milano, an albino, a mosquito, my libido. Hey. Wait.

Sorry, you didn't say I had to explain that they made ANY sense (because they don't, not even within the context of the rest of the song...maybe I just missed the GenX thing, I don't know), just to quote them without looking it up. Oh & take a listen to Poly sometime, much better vocals on that one. Better than the guy from Nickleback anyway...

Heff said...

Robert Plant USUALLY sounds like complete HELL live, but other than that, you made some good picks.

Quirkyloon said...

Whew! You didn't mention Steve-o Tyler on the best list and thank heavens he's not on the worst list.

Everybody hates Nickelback.

Go ahead and throw some 'taters at me, cuz a lot of their songs are okay in my book, not great, but listenable.

Anyhoo, I'm sure they're laughing their way to the bank amongst all the haters.

I love the early days of The Police and call me crazy, I like Gedde Lee!

Yes, I'm weird.

Brooke Amanda said...

I love Green Day, but for the longest time I thought Billy Joe was British b/c of the way he pronounces things when he sings. Oh, and I can recite the words to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" w/out looking them up first. Probably helps that I was in high school in the mid-90's when grunge was at it's peak:)

Suldog said...

Ah, well, as my grandfather said when they arrested him for painting swastikas on the playground, "De Gustibus Non Est Disputadum". That is, there's no argument in matters of taste. One man's growling screamer IS another man's singer, and one man's operatic tenor is another man's splitting headache. I'd argue that what Johnson and others like him do IS singing, but that would make my first sentence here useless, so I'll skip it. Suffice to say I agree, wholeheartedly, with your bests (although I'd wedge Ian Gillan, from Deep Purple, in there, somewhere between Plant and Daltrey, at least during his peak years. He hit screeching highs that were stronger and higher than Plant, and remained on-key while doing so, and he also could do a 'normal' vocal in a pleasant style when called upon to do so. But, as I said, in matters of taste...)

Boom Boom Larew said...

I'll have to go check out Incubus... and see if I can make it into the 21st Century. Thanks for the tip!

vickilikesfrogs said...

Know who else kicks ass, Knucks? YOU DO. And you have an award to prove it over at glitterfrog!

LilPixi said...

I agree with most for the most part, esp. with damn Anthony Kiedis (Yaba doo da), but I also think Chris Cornell & James Hetfield should have been on the worst list. *Ducks tomatoes* said...

Kind of to young to remember Freddy but I'll take your word and I do remember him being the first rocker to actually freak me out.

Disagree on Billy boy after I saw the dude carrying on the Broadway show tunes. It's a sellout but he sounded great.

LOL on NickleBack (throw in the Scott dude from that god i forget the band name)

Charley Warady said...

The thing I like most about "Best/Worst" blogs is that it's the kind of thing we did in high school while...well...partaking. Hours and hours...days and days. It never gets old. Thanks.

StephanieC said...

Totes with you on Incubus. They also put on a fantastic live show.

I was of the devastated generation that was already angst-filled when Cobain committed suicide. I still think he was talented and tormented.

Not the best vocalist by any standard, but I could think of plenty others that are waaaay worse.

Also? I used to like Nickelback so I think that discredits me from EVER giving an input on ANYTHING musical, because, clearly I am batshit crazy.

Though I cannot STAND that Chad dude's voice any more.

Seriously??... Really?... Seriously?

Han said...

Billie Joe was better on the earlier albums like Dookie. Boulevard of Broken Dreams wasn't their best song anyway.

Others I pretty much agree with.

Fave Sting album is Symphonicities

Anonymous said...

LOL ok i agree with the first two, even though they should be rearanged. but sting? and being the worst vocalist doesnt mean their bands terrible, Nirvana inspired many people including me and thats an asshole move to say he killed himself because of his vocals. Obviously your just a complete dooshbag and have no idea what youre talking about. kurt cobaine obviously achieved more then you did if youre wasting everyones time writing these pieces of shit.

Anonymous said...

I haven't heard any Incubus to be honest, but my vote for one of/if not the best singer this century in my opinion would go to Myles Kennedy. The rest of Creed made a huge step up when they went from Scott Stapp to Alter Bridge with Kennedy.

Anonymous said...

Top 5 Worst -

5. Scott Stapp
4. Sammy Hagar
3. Hootie
2. Eddie Vedder
1. Axl Rose

mcmuffs said...

this is all wrong. all of these singers are talented especially anthony kiedis.

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