10 Bands with the Best Harmony Singing

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

ABBA

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

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.


Eagles

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’.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hufU6MIS2vw

Fleet Foxes

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.


Fleetwood Mac

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

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.


The Temptations

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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45 Comments

  1. Well, great list. The 3 super Bs from the 60s are there: Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds. The Mamas & The Papas could be part of the List. Simon & Garfunkel too. And even I don’t like them, Rhe Bee Gees have nice harmonies as well.

    • I did have The Mamas & The Papas and Simon & Garfunkel in that list at the top. Bee Gees are a good call, even though I don’t own anything by them.

    • Why is Alice in Chains not on this list?? Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell had such beautiful vocal harmonies they reminded me of old CSN.

  2. I like the idea of New Pornographers and also Fleet Foxes. I would include the Jackson 5 and Earth Wind and Fire.

    • I actually found that on Google the other day when I was looking for stuff for this article. Was ‘Turn Turn Turn’ the number one then?

      • Yes. I made it like 2 years ago and I never really got it in the proper order that I wanted, so I changed some of the ones on top a little bit yesterday when I saw it again.

  3. Great list, I never thought of categorizing bands that way and you do a fantastic job with it. One band I would consider is Jefferson Starship. They have some good harmonizing, especially on the deep cuts written by the late Paul Kantner.

    • I haven’t really heard much Jefferson Starship – I know a bit of Jefferson Airplane and the big Starship hits. Looks like they had the three Jefferson Airplane vocalists with Marty Balin, Kantner, and Grace Slick.

      • They did and even the Airplane could harmonize pretty well. Except for “Ride the Tiger” off the “Dragon Fly” album, the songs which Kantner wrote were never released as singles. Some songs to check out are: “Dance With the Dragon” off the “Spitfire” album, the title track of the “Freedom at Point Zero” album and “I Came Back From the Jaws of the Dragon” from the “Winds of Change” album.

  4. I don’t know, I just like different random songs from all over the place. You know, like one or two from this person and one or two from that person. I don’t really have a top 10 groups. I’ll just go with your list, mostly the top half which would probably be like mine anyways.

  5. I appreciate the nod to The New Pornographers. They are one of my favorite bands and a bit of an unexpected pick for a list like this one. But you are right, they have awesome harmonies.

    • They’re really strong in that department – I like to promote them as they always seem to fly under the radar but would appeal to a lot of the site’s readers.

  6. Can’t argue with any of these choices, Graham. Well done. I saw the Beach Boys twice in the ’80s, including once with Brian and Dennis (and an appearance from Billy Joel). They were amazing, of course. But the best live harmonies I’ve ever heard were from Jellyfish. I saw them on the tours for both albums, and they blew me away each time (especially the lineup on the Spilt Milk tour). For me, all group harmonies are measured against them.

    • Those are good calls. Teenage Fanclub were on my mind for a while there, and I probably should have included them in the shortlist at the top.

  7. Importantly, you included the one band that really only matters – The Beatles!

    Kidding aside, you can’t argue with these picks. Between The Temptations, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, CSN(Y), the Eagles and the Byrds, you included my favorite harmony-singing groups. Two additional ones that come to mind spontaneously are the Impressions and America. And Little River Band. Oh, and The Doobie Brothers. Of course, once you start thinking about it, you easily get more than 10! 🙂

    • Ya!

      NP are a great choice. And someone mentioned Sloan, which I didn’t think of.

      For can-con the other obvious choice is “the Guess Who”. Amazing Melodies.

  8. I can’t argue with any…but I would have The Hollies on there. They really concentrated on the 3 part harmony parts. Great list nonetheless.
    The most complicated The Beatles got probably was on Abbey Road with “Because” and some through the medley.

    • The Hollies were in there, lumped with CSN and The Byrds – seemed like too much list-space to have all three seperately when they shared members, so I stuck them all together.

    • Yeah, it’s hard to go past the big ones like The Beach Boys and Eagles on a list of ten. Should probably make another list sometime.

  9. Wow, interesting one, and I agree with a lot of your choices. Tough on one plane, as there are so many vocal groups, especially in classic Gospel and R&B and soul, where the whole POINT was the harmony singing, with the instrumental and band components essentially way buried in the mix.

    Within a nominally rock/pop structural idiom, I think I’ll have to go with ones who I’d say are personal favorites, though may not be the best of the best in terms of technically difficult or complex harmonic structures, e.g. I just really like these voices together (in no particular order) . . .

    Little Feat
    The Band
    The Beatles
    Fairport Convention (early days, especially with Sandy and Ian)
    Yes (when Anderson, Howe and Squire are together)
    First Aid Kit
    Human Sexual Response
    10cc
    Steeleye Span
    Pink Floyd (Gilmour and Wright together)

    • Yeah, you’re right about specialised harmony groups – I did put bands in the title, which kinds of implies groups that play instruments and sing. The Temptations straddle that line – they’re more of a vocal group, but they play pop/rock-influenced music. They fit much better onto this list than something like BoysIIMen.

  10. A much overlooked band — dada — from the 90s though I hear they still tour. Great harmonies on almost every song.

    • I’d honestly never heard of dada but I checked out ‘The Bluebird’. It reminds me a bit of Matthew Sweet from the same era – those big stacked harmonies over a psychedelic sound. It was good.

  11. You have lost your mind there’s no way any of these bands can even compete with the group take 6, Manhattan transfer, AZ yet, the Clark sisters , the doobie brothers , The Bee Gees the Andrew sisters I can go on and on The groups on this list are amazing groups But as far as harmony noooooooooooo This is not an opinion this is facts

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