I’ve recently made lists of my 10 favourite male and female vocalists. The natural next step is to make a list of bands with outstanding harmonies. There are plenty of worthy acts that missed out – commiserations to The Everly Brothers, The Mamas & The Papas, Yes, The Bangles, Simon & Garfunkel, and R.E.M..
10 Bands with the Best Harmony Singing
When the four members of ABBA started working together they were all already established musicians in Sweden – Björn Ulvaeus often sang with his previous group, The Hootenanny Singers. But as ABBA evolved, it became clear that Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad were the quartet’s strongest vocalists. The pair’s voices blended beautifully – Agnetha adding sparkle and brightness, while Frida brought smoothness and depth.
The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys were built around family – the three Wilson brothers and their cousin Mike Love sang intuitively together, augmented by Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston. Leader Brian Wilson was inspired by groups like The Four Freshmen and constructed intricate harmony arrangements.
The Beatles featured three talented singer-songwriters, with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. Their harmonies weren’t as intricately arranged as other groups on the list, but their raw talent shines through when they sing together.
The Byrds / Crosby, Stills & Nash / The Hollies
David Crosby and Graham Nash sang gorgeously together in various permutations of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Nash’s keening tenor blended well with Crosby’s rich velvety voice. Both came from talented 1960s harmony groups – Crosby was the main harmony arranger for The Byrds, while Nash sang three-part harmonies with Allan Clarke and Tony Hicks in The Hollies.
Remarkably, all seven members of the Eagles in the 1970s sang lead vocal on a studio track. Don Henley was the most prolific, fronting ‘Hotel California’ and ‘One of These Nights’, but everyone got a turn. Guitarist Don Felder fronted the deep cut ‘Visions’, while replacement bassist Timothy B. Schmitt contributed his smooth vocals to the terrific R&B of ‘I Can’t Tell You Why’. The Eagles have their flaws, but there was something magical about the way Don Henley and Glenn Frey’s voices combined – they sound amazing on Warren Zevon’s ‘The French Inhaler’, while here’s their a capella cover of ‘Seven Bridges Road’.
Robin Pecknold’s Fleet Foxes are clearly influenced by other bands on this list, like The Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills & Nash. They also reach back into folk and choral music. Their four-part harmonies are intricately arranged – a cover of their song ‘White Winter Hymnal’ became a Christmas hit.
Like The Beatles, the 1975-1987 lineup of Fleetwood Mac featured three talented singer-songwriters. Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, and the late Christine McVie were all capable vocalists. Buckingham was an expert arranger and producer, while McVie and Buckingham sounded beautiful together on tracks like ‘You and I, Part II’. Here are the isolated vocals on Nicks’ ‘Dreams’.
The New Pornographers
Canadian indie-pop supergroup The New Pornographers are stacked with talent – members like Neko Case and Dan Bejar are well-regarded solo artists in their own right. Leader A.C. Newman is a student of 1960s pop artisans like Jimmy Webb and Brian Wilson. Here are the group’s harmonies in a live setting – the group’s main vocalists in this performance are Newman, Case, and Newman’s niece Kathryn Calder, but drummer Kurt Dahle also contributes.
Queen had a remarkable lead vocalist in Freddie Mercury, but drummer Roger Taylor and guitarist Brian May also sang lead on a bunch of cuts. Together, the three created intricate walls of harmony that were an integral part of Queen’s grandiose sound. In particular, Taylor’s high range was an important part of the Queen vocal blend.
Detroit’s Motown label was stacked with vocal talent. The Temptations are still performing with original member Otis Williams, more than sixty years after their formation. The band’s signature song is ‘My Girl’, co-written by Smokey Robinson. It was the first song to feature David Ruffin on lead vocals, released shortly after the band’s “Classic Five” lineup was formed – Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks, and David Ruffin.
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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