10 Favourite Vocalists

I recently decided that this site needs a lists page, so over the next few months, I’m planning to publish lists one at a time. I’m not trying to be objective with these – I regard them as a list of favourites. It’s impossible to achieve objective rankings in any music list, let alone one this broad, so consider it a list of ten vocalists I enjoy. I’m concentrating on post-1960 popular music, so I’m not considering people like Ella Fitzgerald, Luciano Pavarotti, or Frank Sinatra.

Presenting, in alphabetical order:

Sandy Denny

Fairport Convention
Denny attained prominence with Fairport Convention, fronting their ephocal 1968 and 1969 albums with her commanding yet expressive voice. After leaving Fairport Convention, she embarked on an overlooked solo career, which ended prematurely after her struggles with drugs and alcohol.

Aretha Franklin

The Queen Of Soul was a commanding vocalist, a force of nature whirling through standards like ‘Respect’. Bonus points for standing in for Luciano Pavarotti in the 1998 Grammys, and delivering ‘Nessun dorma’ (and 1998’s ‘A Rose Is Still A Rose’ was a great comeback effort).

Elizabeth Fraser

Cocteau Twins
The ethereal voice behind the Cocteau Twins, Liz Fraser gave their best work an other-worldly beauty. She was a sought after guest vocalist, with her best known performance on Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’.

Marvin Gaye

Gaye started his career in Motown as a session drummer. He became a headliner, notable for his duets with Tammi Terrell and albums like What’s Goin’ On and Let’s Get It On. Gaye had three distinct voices – according to Wikipedia, “his smooth, sweet tenor; a growling rasp; and an unreal falsetto”. He became expert at multi-tracking himself – all the vocals on ‘What’s Goin’ On’ are performed by Gaye.

Ariana Grande

Grande is the natural successor to the divas of the 1980s and 1990s, like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, who had great voices but were often stuck with sentimental and straightforward material. Grande’s effortlessly beautiful voice is never overbearing, has more upbeat material to work with, and doesn’t resort to histrionics so often.

Al Green

The Reverend Green’s voice could soar from a likeable tenor into a effortless falsetto, effortlessly beautiful, and carnal and spiritual at the same time.

John Lennon

The Beatles
All of The Beatles could sing well, but Lennon was the vocal star with his engaging voice. Paul McCartney was technically the better singer, with a bigger range, but Lennon had the ability to infuse his voice with feeling, often his sardonic wit. George Martin stated that Lennon was masterful at double tracking his vocals, a technique that sounded great on psychedelic records like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Just like his records with The Beatles, his solo career captured diverse vocal moods, from the rawness of ‘Cold Turkey’ to the smoothness of ‘Woman’.

Freddie Mercury

Queen
Mercury was a natural showman, with a rich, three octave voice and an unusual vibrato. While he was the vocal star, his Queen colleagues Brian May and Roger Taylor were also strong singers, and the three of them combined beautifully for big sounding and elaborate harmonies.

Mike Patton

Faith No More
Patton’s fearless approach to music making helped him explore the twisted potential of his voice. While he started with the rap-rock of Faith No More’s The Real Thing, Patton’s subsequent work has often ventured into the avant-garde, giving him the opportunity to experiment with his voice. He’s noted for his extreme vocal range of 6 and a half octaves. Unusually, he experienced a marked change in his voice during his recording career, dropping from an adolescent squeal on 1989’s The Real Thing to a guttural growler on 1992’s Angel Dust.

Carl Wilson

The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys had an ensemble of excellent vocalists – Brian Wilson’s falsetto and Mike Love’s bass were both features of their sound. But it was the gorgeous, pure mid-range of Carl Wilson that emerged as their strongest instrument, anchoring key songs like ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Good Vibrations’. He even made moments of the tacky late period hit ‘Kokomo’ worthwhile.

I’m sure I left out some of your favourites – feel free to send in suggestions or your own list of ten.

43 Comments

  1. Great list. Carl Wison is an excellent choice. That song alone gets him in… You have a great range in the list Aphoristical.

  2. I did a post (in fact two) on this topic a while back so easy to regurgitate that list. Like you, I make no claim to these being an objective ‘best,” just my personal favorites.
    1 – John Lennon
    2 – Bruce Springsteen
    3 – B.B. King
    4 – Stevie Wonder
    5 – Gregg Allman
    6 – Janis Joplin
    7 – Mick Jagger
    8 – Ray Charles
    9 – Bob Dylan
    10 – Elvis Presley

  3. Fraser has such a distinctive voice, could say that about all your picks! I half expect Sandy. Surprised Ariana Grande is on here though I remember you enjoy contemporary pop. Some of my personal favorite post-1960 male vocalists include Leonard Cohen,Johnny Cash, and Ric Ocasek(The Cars). Three females singers I appreciate are Enya, Kate Bush and Shirley Manson. On another day I might give you a different answer.

      • (Not in any order)

        Jim Morrison
        Janis Joplin
        Elvis Presley
        Felix Cavalieri (The Rascals)
        Roger Daltrey
        Robert Plant
        Alan Clarke (The Hollies)
        Eric Burdon (The Animals)
        Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots)
        Richard Butler (Psychedelic Furs)

        (Bonus)
        Pete Ham (Badfinger)
        Jimi Hendrix
        Jack Bruce (Cream)
        Paul McCartney
        Johnny Rivers

  4. Great list, and love the variety. I’ll have to think about a full list, but in terms of female vocalists have always loved Maria McKee from the short lived ill fated Lone Justice plus some solo works. Was just listening to some Janis Joplin on another blog and while not my favorite I think she had a great blues voice. Completely agree with Aretha.

    • I like Janis Joplin’s voice, although wish she had a deeper back-catalogue to experience it on. Never hear Lone Justice at all, just know the name – what are they like?

      • They came out of LA in the mid 80s – their self titled first album could be called cow punk – at the nexus of roots rock and country. Maria McKee had that classic female country voice but also could belt out the rockers. Check it out if you can. Not sure what happened – by the second album Shelter she was the only original member left and it was more mainstream / alternative rock sounding. Band broke up after that. She has put out some solo albums over the years that sadly I have not followed – might look them up now. Just think she has a really beautiful unique voice.

  5. A fine list of chanters, as my gran would say. I think my own list would be heavy on vocalists from the last 30 years… but let’s see, shall we.
    Sinatra
    Scott Weiland
    Mark Lanegan
    Johnny Cash
    Perry Farrell
    Neko Case
    Jim James
    Josh Homme
    Chris Goss
    Shannon Hoon

      • Chris Goss is from Masters of Reality. He’s the only constant there. Incredible voice. Shannon Hoon was Blind Melon’s unique voice (incredible lyricist, too). If you don’t know either, I’d recommend jumping into Sunrise on the Sufferbus (Masters) and Soup (Blind Melon). Exceptional albums.

  6. Great list, especially with the very underrated Elizabeth Fraser!!! I would only add Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Nico, David Byrne, and maybe the Shangri-Las (their harmonies are what makes them so amazing, I shall lump them in as one!), but your list is comprehensive as is!

    • Pretty hard to be comprehensive with ten people, but thank you. Bowie’s a bit like Lennon – not amazing technically, but instantly recognisable and lots of charisma.

  7. Mrs J and I have been debating this for some time……….and this is after we omitted Eliza Carthy, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Thom Yorke, Christine Collister, Paul Rodgers, Jennifer Warnes, Christy Moore, Damien Rice, John Lennon, Robert Plant, Linda Thompson.

    Sandy Denny (the best)
    James Dewar (the greatest white soul / blues singer – check out About to Begin)
    Amy Winehouse (every performance from her heart and unique)
    Jeff Buckley (the chameleon who can sing every style brilliantly)
    June Tabor (the best interpreter of folk and contemporary songs since Sandy)
    Michael Jackson (lifts every song he sings, even the poor material….leaving aside the personal issues!)
    Adele (great performer and singer of rock, soul, torch songs and excellent covers)
    Luke Jackson (a friend from Toronto said OK guitarist, good lyric writer, great singer – check the live album Solo Duo Trio)
    Dusty Springfield (great white soul singer, subtle, great quality)
    David Bowie (technically so-so but distinctive, confident and the voice a key part of so many songs)

    • Thanks for you and your wife for submitting your list. I should probably go through and reformat this list sometime – maybe break it into female and male. Dusty Springfield would have a really good chance of making the female list. I think. I always mean to check out June Tabor since I generally like folk-rock. and I’ve just been playing some James Dewar.

      • I didn’t think that I ever did a list on this post but I just looked and I did do one. That’s a good suggestion to do separate male and female lists because on the list I made there was only one girl and all the rest are boys, which is weird because I like a lot of female singers, although they’re usually not the same ones that everybody else likes. A lot of the ones that everyone thinks are great I don’t think much of. For instance, Dusty Springfield and Sandy Denny hardly even register with me. Yet so many people think real highly of them. All I know is it’s gonna be mostly people from out of the past and nobody current , Because I really cant stand the singing styles of today. I think they’re horrifying. lol.

      • With June Tabor, if you want 2 tracks only, try And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda (I can’t get through her version without blubbing) and Finisterre from Ashore. If 2 albums, the 2 with Oysterband particularly Ragged Kingdom, which sounds like it was engineered and mixed with fairy dust even on the PJ Harvey and Dylan covers and the great version of Love Will Tear Us Apart.
        Jimmy Dewar is massively underrated and, for a rock and blues singer, he had am amazing soul timbre…… and perfect for seduction – About to Begin, For Earth Below, Daydream……..

  8. Not really in order, but kind of.

    Men: top tier

    Jim Morrison (The Doors)
    Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin)
    Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots)
    Elvis Presley
    Jimi Hendrix
    Gregg Allman (The Allman Brothers Band)
    Richard Butler (The Psychedelic Furs)
    Roger Daltrey (The Who)
    Harry Nilsson
    Jack Bruce (Cream)

    second tier:
    Eric Burdon (The Animals)
    Alan Clarke (The Hollies)
    Pete Ham (Badfinger)
    Fats Domino
    Johnny Rivers
    Paul McCartney
    George Harrison
    Levi Stubbs (The Four Tops)
    Al Green
    Eric Clapton

    Women: top tier

    Janis Joplin
    Deborah Harry
    Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star)
    Joni Mitchell
    Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane)
    Polly Jean Harvey (PJ Harvey)
    Liz Fraser (Cocteau Twins)
    Ella Fitzgerald
    Aretha Franklin
    Pat Benatar

    second tier:
    Anita O’Day
    Billie Holiday
    Kim Deal (The Breeders, The Amps)
    Enya
    Kate Bush
    Barbra Streisand
    Buffy Sainte-Marie
    Diana Ross
    Dionne Warwick

  9. I forgot a whole bunch of them. I gotta add these ones;

    David Bowie
    Dickey Betts (Allman Brothers)
    Mark Stein (Vanilla Fudge)
    Dan McCafferty (Nazareth)
    Gordon Lightfoot
    Stevie Wonder
    Tommy James

  10. I’m starting to think Carl Wilson too . I’ve been listening to a lot of Beach Boys stuff that I never really listened to very carefully before, and to tell the truth I never was quite sure who was singing on all the Beach Boys records. At first I just thought it was always Brian, except for the deep voiced songs. I would never know when it was Carl or Dennis singing. So but now I think there’s no doubt he was great. Or maybe it’s just because he sings on my favorite ones.

    • Dennis is pretty wobbly but I always enjoy him anyway. Carl is the best singer in the band though – he didn’t really start singing lead until about 1965 because he was so young.

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