My wife showed me a list, recently, of the Top Ten Rock and Roll Singers. And on that list were some I agreed with, and some I did not — particularly Aretha Franklin and Frank Sinatra. Now, those two are unquestionably two of the best singers in the history of recorded music — but neither of them sang rock. Aretha sang the blues, and sometimes that can sound like rock, and people can put it on rock stations and it can top rock charts; but it’s still the blues. And the Chairman of the Board was a jazz man all the way back to the 40’s. The list I saw was also missing several of my favorites.
Clearly, this can not stand.
So, in the spirit of adding to the proliferation of lists on the internet — where the list is become something of an arms race, I think; and part of me hates this, especially since I am one-upping the list I found by increasing the number and adding corollary lists; but you know what? Screw it. — I now present my own list of the best singers in rock and roll.
Now, as a teacher, I have been taught that the first thing you must do with any graded work is provide the criteria for success — a rubric, if you will. So here’s what I based this list on: first, good music. I can’t respect a singer who sings shitty songs. This, for me, eliminates such perennial vocal luminaries as Christina Aguilera and Whitney Houston — pretty much all the divas, who all sing insipid pop mixed with high-fat schmaltz. It also eliminates country music, even though I actually like Johnny Cash’s voice. But my favorite songs of his are — well, “Ring of Fire,” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” of course; but then it’s “Hurt” and “Personal Jesus,” both of which were rock covers. My taste in rock is fairly broad, but most of it is heavy, and so is my list. Second, unique vocal style. I think any list of “best” should start with the question, Can you identify that item immediately out of a pile of similar things? No “best” car can look like every other car; no “best” novel can tell the same story as every other novel. It must be unique. With voices, that means — can you recognize that voice instantly? Is it impossible for other people to cover their signature songs? That gets high marks, for me — to do something that nobody else can do. Third is longevity: this one is partly due to necessity — there are too many flash-in-the-pan singers for me to know them all and figure them into my rankings — and partly because I think a singer can blow out their vocal chords in an attempt to sing better than they are actually able to. A singer that doesn’t do that (And I’m not including the inevitable loss of range and power with age; I’m not bothered by someone in their 60’s who can’t sing like they could in their 20’s; I’m bothered by people who are 25 who can’t sing like they could at 23.) moves up in my respect, because I feel they know their ability and their instrument, and are aware of their limitations. I like smart singers. Though there are some exceptions to this rule, as you will see.
After good music, a unique sound, and longevity, we get into specific sounds that I personally like: range, and grit. This may simply be because as a singer, I don’t have a lot of range, but I do have good grit — not world-class grit, like a couple of my choices, but better than the average, I think. So I am pleased by those who can make their voice sound like a rock singer’s voice, which to me is generally not very pretty; and I am impressed by singers who can go higher than I ever could, and/or lower than I can sing comfortably.
Finally, there is an ineffable quality that I will call “Rock.” There are those who have Rock, and those who do not, and I personally like a singer who has Rock. It’s a mixture of charisma and style and a willingness to be what a rock singer needs to be. This is what keeps my actual favorite voice from being “top” of the list: because as incredible as his singing is, he’s too much of an introverted prick to be a real rock star, in my opinion. I suppose that makes him a little bit too much like me. I think that a great singer should love performing, should love singing; not wine. Just sayin’.
Those are my criteria. The longer it takes me to do this, the more names pop up and demand entry into my list, so I need to get to this while I can still keep it down to 20. Though I am still going to cheat by including a “runner’s up” list. Hey, internet: you’re just lucky I didn’t go to top 50, or even 100.
These are sort of in order, but it’s more approximate, because too much of ordering would require personal preference regarding music type, and that would destroy any chance I have of getting people to agree with me. Think of it more like categories, groups of three to five all equivalent to each other, some moving up or down according to a daily-changing preference. So here they are:
Category One: Rock Gods
1. Steven Tyler: Even if this list was in definite order from best to worst, he might go in the first spot. Because Aerosmith is an incredible band, because Tyler’s singing style is utterly unique, because his signature songs — I would list “Dude Looks Like a Lady,” “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” “Rag Doll,” and of course the definitive “Dream On” — cannot be covered well; because the man has a throat of cast iron, which enables him to still sing “Dream On” all the way up to the top high note EVEN IN HIS 60’S. Plus, this guy just oozes rock.
2. Freddie Mercury: Most of the same things I said about Tyler, except Mercury’s voice was worlds prettier — and yet he could still grind and shout and rasp, on “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust.” And while he died too young to allow us to see if he could still sing that way in his 60’s, one of my favorite performances of his — “Who Wants To Live Forever” — was recorded when he was so ill he could barely stand, and that just amazes me. And in terms of rock? Nobody could command a stage like Mercury.
3. Elvis Presley: One of the few on my list who isn’t hard rock (Well, Queen’s only kinda hard rock. But let’s not split hairs.) because he is the King of Rock and Roll: so rock that it killed him. He loses a bit for me because a lot of his songs were blues covers, but regardless, he had a totally unique and utterly heart-breakingly beautiful voice.
Category Two: Rock Demi-Gods:
1. Robert Plant: This one I struggle with a bit, because I know that a lot of what I love about Led Zeppelin isn’t the singing, but the music; but regardless, that band wouldn’t be who they were if it weren’t for Plant. And even if you took out the music and just listened to the vocal track, everybody would know who was singing within about four notes. That gets you on my list.
2. Roger Daltrey: Much like Plant, Daltrey loses some credit because Townshend wrote all of the music; but Baba O’Riley/Teenage Wasteland is an unmatchable vocal performance and many of The Who’s songs are what they are because Daltrey was up there hollering and wailing and singing — you can’t argue with that scream in the beginning of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” They fall behind Led Zeppelin for me because of a lack of Rock: mods are just guys with bad haircuts and an ascot.
3. Janis Joplin: This may be my favorite female voice of all time. In fact, there’s no maybe about it. She’s only in this second group because she died too young to make it to the top category. But listening to her gives me goosebumps. Every time.
4. Sammy Hagar: This one is largely because of longevity. I mean, Jesus, Montrose released “Rock Candy” in 1973. This guy’s singing career is older than me. And he still sounds good, even at the age of 69. And his solo songs in the 80’s are great — and come on. Van Halen was never so good to listen to as when Hagar was singing, and then it was one of the best hard rock bands ever. Not to mention, in terms of rock? The guy has his own brand of tequila. And rum. I rest my case.
Category Three: The Best of My Youth
To be honest, this category should probably be twice as long, and it should probably be the whole list. These are the singers I love the most, almost all of them. But their music is more obscure, comparatively, and their careers generally shorter, than the people higher up on the list, so I have to make them a separate category and try hard not to pad it with too many names. Here’s what I’ve narrowed it down to, based on my criteria.
1. Chris Cornell: Cornell is the best singer from the grunge era. I know everybody talks about Kurt Cobain, and his songs were the defining moment for this time in music; but Soundgarden was so much better musically than Nirvana — and then Cornell went on to sing for Audioslave, which is the metal band that Rage Against the Machine would have been had Zack de la Rocha been a singer instead of a rapper. But he isn’t (Though I think he’s the best rapper, and one of the best lyricists, in hard rock), and so it fell to Cornell, and Audioslave freaking rocks. And he also made one of my absolute favorite solo albums, too. Just an amazing voice.
2. Layne Staley: Since one of my criteria was unique vocal style, I don’t actually think there’s been anyone as influential stylistically in hard rock as Layne Staley of Alice in Chains since — well, maybe ever. The other great singers are either too unique to be imitated or are already influenced by others before them. Ozzy Osbourne is as unique a singer as Staley, but Staley could actually sing. So beautifully.
(Please note: it’s tough to pick a song to show off Staley’s voice, because every Alice in Chains song also features Jerry Cantrell, who probably deserves the award for Best Backup Vocalist of All Time; but this one is just Staley for the choruses. Plus it’s one of my absolute favorite AIC songs. And the video shows how terrible their fashion sense was. Yeesh.)
3. Maynard James Keenan: This is the one I was talking about that has my favorite voice maybe ever, but not an ounce of rock in him. I’ve read up a bit on Tool, and watched some interviews and the like, and here’s the truth: Keenan’s a jerk. A real jerk. It’s amazing that Tool has managed to keep working together for 25 years now; but then, watch their concert footage and you’ll see why: this is a band of introverts. Every one of them is playing without any interaction with each other or with the audience. Keenan’s interaction with the audience is almost all angry and obnoxious: there’s a famous clip where a guy came up on stage and sort of tried to hug him — and he hip-threw the guy (Fun fact: Keenan was in the Army for three years, to pay for art school), pinned him, sat on top of him, and sang the rest of the song while holding this drunk fan to the floor. He’s an asshole. But he has the voice of the gods. And the best rock scream ever. Just listen: he drops it at 0:16. And then he sings. (Video and lyrics are NSFW)
And since he’s my favorite, here he is singing beautifully, live, with A Perfect Circle.
4. Corey Glover: This is one I would like to put higher on my list, but dammit, the band broke up for a long time, and when they reunited, they sounded awful — “Stain” is a terrible album, from what was an amazing band. But Time’s Up and Vivid are two of the greatest albums in rock, and part of the reason is this man’s voice. I tried covering this song, and it sounds simply awful — and he does this so damn effortlessly. Even when he’s shouting, it sounds beautiful.
5. Axl Rose: So the truth is, I was never really a Guns ‘n’ Roses fan. Never owned one of their albums. I liked their music, but it never really spoke to me — I don’t know why. And Rose also blew his voice out, and can’t sing like he used to. But they had a good run, something like ten years as the biggest band in rock and roll; and in every other category on my rubric, Rose has to be in the top names. That range — my god.
Category Four: Beauty
Now we come away from hard rock a little bit to the singers who, in my opinion, have the most beautiful voices in rock music — singers who have managed to make me notice even though they sing pop and funk. Because you can’t not notice these folks. There are only two because I have an easier time throwing these names out in favor of great hard rock singers than vice versa — but I can’t drop these last two. Can’t. Won’t!
1. Adele: The most recent person on my list, because her voice merits it. Simple as that. When she opens up, the sky falls. No pun intended.
2. Stevie Wonder: One of the greatest musicians of all time, he’d be higher on my list if I could stand more of his music. But this song is unbeatable.
Category Five: Hard Rock Legends (With and without cheese)
This is because I grew up in the 80’s as well as the 90’s. And I love heavy metal almost as much as grunge — and because my criteria match these people flawlessly. And because cheesy rock is — well, delicious.
1.Steve Perry: I admit it. I’m a Journey fan. Cheesy as all hell, yes — but I can’t not love their music, and I always wish that I could sing along. But I can’t. Because Steve Perry. Here he is, with maximum cheese, doing The Song.
2. Bruce Dickinson: Part of this is because he’s so freaking awesome he flew a tortoise to safety in his private plane. But mostly, because this:
3. Klaus Meine: Not as freaking awesome as Dickinson, but honestly, probably a better pure singer. And he’s a damn nice guy, I’ve heard.
4. Dio: I’m going to let Jack Black explain why Dio is on this list, and then show you with a little number that should be familiar. And if you haven’t watched the video: do. It’s like a homemade D&D tribute movie.
5. Ann Wilson: Heart sometimes overdoes the cheese even for me, and I’m pretty damn tired of “Barracuda.” But you can’t deny this woman’s pipes. And here: covering for another person on the list in 2012, a full 40 years after she started singing.
5. Brian Johnson: So I kind of didn’t want to put this guy on the list. Because I like range, and he doesn’t have any. And I am done with AC/DC’s music, since I think that once you’ve heard one song, you’ve pretty much heard them all. But: you can always know his voice. There is not a singer with more grit. He will rock your socks clean off. And he can still do this today. I can’t leave him out.
(Since it doesn’t matter which song I pick, I like this one best. Dig the cannons.)
So there you are, folks. Top twenty. Comments and criticisms are welcome.