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)
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)
2. Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day)
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)
I guess actions really DO speak louder than words.
5. Anthony Kiedis (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
Their bass player kicks ass, though.