Though I’ve said several times previously that mere technical virtuosity means nothing to me in music, I thought good singers were worth looking at – a “good” singer being to me one who conveys emotion. I don’t care how many octaves they can reach, how fast they can rap, how inhumanely they can bellow (for death metal fans out there) or how poetic their lyrics: the feeling is the essential thing. Far better to listen to Johnny Rotten (or John Lydon: his early stuff with Public Image is still astonishing) than the competent mediocrities who plague talent shows like a tidal wave of blancmange.
There’s probably no point in trying to define a good vocal performance any further, because emotion and artistic aims are as varied as people. I’m just going to give a series of good examples.
Everyone knows Axl Rose is a bit of an arsehole. Keeping people waiting nearly twenty years between studio albums; walking off gigs and turning up late; breaking up the band of brothers that was the original Guns N’ Roses lineup. But all the same, he’s a bloody good singer and usually a good songwriter, able to dramatise his emotions and ideas into broader statements (see for example “Coma”, “Estranged”, “Locomotion” and “Right Next Door To Hell”). His singing in “One A Million” is absolutely blistering: the ferocious rage in the final verse (starting from “Just tryin’ to make ends meet” at 4.29) can strip the paint off walls and turn hippies into savage punks. (Savour, too, the guitar interplay: worthy of the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers). The way the tension rises up to this climax, then ebbs as the song fades to an end, is magnificent.
Mike Patton of Faith No More is often held up as one of the best vocalists in rock. No arguments here. Savour his singing in “Falling To Pieces”, from their breakthrough 1989 album, The Real Thing.
The video’s not quite as good as “Epic” but Patton’s delivery is just delicious.
Nick Drake’s voice is sensuous, smoky, subtle. (A review of Five Leaves Left pointed out the title is a pun: it’s not just an autumnal thing but a reference to cigarette papers running out). While “Cello Song” has many, many things to admire (Drake’s incredible guitar-playing, and the cello, which makes me think of a yew tree swaying in a dusk-lit meadow in October), the voice conveys this wonderful dusky emotion.
Michael Jackson didn’t have much of an ear for good songs (every album except Thriller contains substantial amounts of filler: “Speed Demon”, “Liberian Girl” and “Just Good Friends” in Bad, and most of Side 2 in Off The Wall – and those are his other good albums!). But, my god, the man could sing! I really enjoy the delicious delivery of “The Way You Make Me Feel” – the exuberance and delight of falling in love.
Normally, melisma (changing notes while on the same syllable) bugs the crap out of me. It’s been done to death by Rn’B types like Whitney Houston etc. Viz had a splendid piss-take where Whitney answered questions about car maintenance – “Ensure your craaa-eeee-aaank shift is properly aliii-eeee-iiii-eeee-iiii-gned and puuuuuu-oooo-uuuuuu-oooooo-uuuuuut fresh oil in”, etc. However, Bjork handles them beautifully, without it ever seeming forced or (worse) a transparent device. In “Like Someone In Love”, they seem like the spontaneous bursts of pure emotion. Really dazzling.
While I abhor rap and hip-hop that glorify the ghetto mentality of drugs, prostitution and violence, Public Enemy never seem to get old. Chuck D’s voice, its strength, power and certainty, perfectly suit a group with radical political intentions.
What do you think – any nominations?