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:
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.
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).
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.