I’ve been a fan of good Rock n’ Roll music for as long as I can remember. I’ve done other top ten lists where I talked about the best guitar solos and even the greatest rock music from the 90s. I’ve thought about the concerts that I wish I could go back in time to see; but one thing that I have never really explored is how amazing and individual that the voices of some Rock n’ Roll singers are. How a new raspy sound or a male singer hitting a vibrato that no one else had done before was not only something new but something that influenced the music realm about them. So since I have your yearning to hear my selections, I present to you Top Cat’s Tuesday Top 10: Voices in Rock n’ Roll.
Honorable Mentions: Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Tom Waits, Mike Patton and Chester Bennington
10. Axl Rose – William Bruce Rose Jr. aka Axl Rose may have been born in Lafayette, Indiana but he is best known around the world as the controversial founder and lead singer of one of the most famous rock bands of all time: Guns N’ Roses. Guns N’ Roses burst onto the music scene with their debut album, Appetite for Destruction in 1987 and by 1988 the album had reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100. The album became the number one best-selling debut album of all time. The driving force behind their popularity was the guitar shredding abilities of Slash and the unique voice of their lead singer. Axl truly has one of the most distinctive voices in Rock music. Developing a wide range when he sang at his local church, starting when he was only five years old but it was during his high school chorus practice that he began to truly develop his unique voice. He can go from the normal bass-baritone to a high tenor with ease. If you listen to the varying differences in his vocal range in songs like “Welcome to the Jungle”, they sound completely different from those found in their song “Patience”. Rolling Stones magazine listed him as the 6th most unique singing voice of all time but he’s only at number 10 for me because there are truly so many to choose from.
9. Bob Dylan – Without Bob Dylan, there would be no Eddie Vedder. No Kurt Cobain. No Tom Waits. No Bruce Springsteen. No vocalist with a cracking voice or bluesy howl. Bob Dylan changed things. His impact is evident. Dylan’s was as much the voice of his generation as Kurt Cobain was the voice of his. He drew a metaphorical sword upon the generations that came before. There is a reason why Dylan was the opening act before Martin Luther King, Jr made his now infamous “I have a Dream” Speech. His singing is comparative to what Marlon Brando did to acting. He was thrusted through the chicanery of the music industry and pierced the heart of the art that music truly is.
8. Kurt Cobain – People that know me, know that I am a Nirvana fan; so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Nirvana front man appeared on this list. The listing does not come by happenstance or come undeservingly. Cobain was the voice of the ignored American youth, but that voice was distinctively unique to him. He wasn’t a complex singer with elaborate vocal range. He just belted out a naturally raspy song as only he could. His voice is not like anyone else in the business and he was obviously very hard on his vocal cords. His singing, which included a lot of distortion and guttural notes, may not have been associated with ‘proper technique’ but his voice matched his personality and definitely deserved to be the ‘voice of the generation’.
7. Robert Plant – Like many English musicians (ie The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, etc), Robert Plant was obsessed with American blues. Plant heard the music early on and after seeing Sleepy John Estes, he came to the realization that he ‘wanted that voice’. He somehow got that voice that was as powerful as it was beautiful. The unearthly howl that he unleashed as the front runner of Led Zeppelin was, as quoted by Rolling Stone’s magazine as “a bluesman crossed with a Viking diety. Singing like a girl never seemed so masculine, and countless hard-rock singers would shred their vocal cords reaching for the notes Plant gained by birthright.”
6. Layne Staley – Layne Staley had a way of grabbing your soul as he sang. With true convention of the words that he spoke, the guttural lyrics were powerfully belted but sang with true conviction. “Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan said “Layne had an amazing voice that had such a beautiful, sad, haunting quality about it. He was different because his heaviness was in that voice.”He had his own distinct voice and he knew how to use the tools that he had. He would improvise in the recording studio as evident with the stacked vocal layering he used on the album Dirt; but he was also able to transform his voice as if he was using a tremolo or a Leslie speaker on his voice. Staley didn’t imitate Jim Morrison or Rob Halford or Ozzy; his distinct voice was his soul using his vocal cords as vessel to escape.
5. Janis Joplin – The unanimously dubbed “Queen of Rock and Roll” was singing the Black Blues; and was blowing audiences away. The raw, emotionally charged Mezzo-soprano had a curiously unique coarseness to her voice. At times the throaty and guttural chest noise that crept up could extend into octaves that matched her charismatic personality. But just as charismatic as Joplin was, the vulnerable and rough around the edges rocker paved the way for countless women to join the rock revolution. She will be remembered for her unique voice as much as becoming a megastar that bloomed during the 1960s with fellow San Franciscans Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, and Santana.
4. Roy Orbison – Tom Petty is quoted as saying that Roy Orbison is “probably the greatest singer in the world.” He is adored and has influenced some of the greatest singers/artists of all time. Artists whom he toured with like Bob Dylan said that his voice was “the voice of a professional criminal;” while his singing and music influenced powerful names like Bruce Springsteen, Chris Isaak, and k.d. lang. I remember listening to Roy Orbison with my dad when I was young. I remember listening to Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “Only the Lonely.” Just the other day my dad and I were listening to some of his favorite music while riding back from getting some food, and he said something that influenced me to write this blog entry. He said that, “Roy Orbison had a voice that no one could duplicate. He was just good.” My dad who is a man of purposeful words would make me think about all of the influential voices in Rock n’ Roll. The Roy Orbison that I hear is someone who could start out a song and take you on a journey that climbed to the highest highest and lowest lows. His voice is a symphony and is (and should be) celebrated as one of the greatest voices of rock; not just from the sixties but from all time.
3. David Bowie – Throughout his career, David Bowie would range from a sonorous low range baritone to a powerful tenor; there is no denying that the British-accented singer brought a level of drama into every song. The Starman, Major Tom, Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust…whatever persona he took on, his voice would match that persona. The theatrical and talented performer influenced many generations of popular musicians throughout many decades. His distinctive and idiosyncratic singing voice was not inefficient in creating the pop culture phenomenon that he would become; but it was merely a part of the multifaceted Spaceman.
2. Freddie Mercury – He’s been called the most inspirational frontman of all time and whatever song that the majestic, operatic singer brought forth in his four-octave range; his voice would literally rock the rock world forever. Whether he was creating an unmatchable wall of sound on tracks like “Bohemian Rhapsody” or was slamming down the hard-rock hammer on “Ogre Battle”; he will rock you. (Pun intended.)
- Elvis Presley – A lot of people have great singing voices; but you venture into another realm entirely when you can create an aura around you when you start to sing. It doesn’t matter to me if Elvis wasn’t the first person to sing “Hound Dog” (or even if Big Mama Thorton’s version is truly better); its about who Elvis was. It’s about the fact that Elvis’s voice drew you in to whatever song. He painted an emotional picture with the words that he sang. From the fun Rockabilly stylings of “Jailhouse Rock” to the brutally honest emotion in “In the Ghetto”; Elvis’s voice could vary from a high and low baritone to that of a high B tenor. He was a true musical prodigy whose influence cannot be denied. I truly don’t think the Rock n’ Roll world will ever see anyone like him ever again. As a matter of fact, the world will never see anyone like him ever again.
Tom Waits Concert by ntoper – https://www.flickr.com/photos/ntoper/2708045977/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6010162
Bob Dylan in Rotterdam, Netherlands, June 1978 by and attributed to Chris Hakkens – https://www.flickr.com/photos/chris_hakkens/5109976116/in/set-72157625228594192/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15981881
Robert Plant playing live at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, on Sunday the 31st of October 2010 by and attributed to Phil King – Flickr: Robert Plant, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14698440
“Ziggy Stardust” during the Ziggy Stardust Tour (1972 or 1973) by and attributed to Rik Walton – https://www.flickr.com/photos/rikwalton/2259388449/ http://www.rikwalton.com, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9523995
Featured Image – Freddie Mercury in New Haven, CT at a WPLR Show credited to Carl Lender. FreddieMercurySinging21978.jpg: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7798754
Elvis promotional photo for Jailhouse Rock, 1957 attributed to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ6-2067Location: NYWTS — BIOG – The Library of Congress retrieved 3d02067r.jpg from Jailhouse Rock., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=727693