Vocal Performances

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?


10 thoughts on “Vocal Performances

  1. Hmm, this might be an area where we have to agree to disagree. Some of these choices leave me scratching my head.

    I shall have to have a thunk on what I might propose instead.

    Apart from Janis.

    Janis, Janis, Janis.

  2. It’s difficult for me to get beyond female singers. Nearly all of the real standouts for me have been women. Even if we confine ourselves to ‘rock’ – leaving out all the great jazz and country divas (had to take a pause there to go and enjoy Nina Simone for a moment again, tearing apart I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976), it’s mostly about the women: Grace Slick, Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry.

    But above all, Janis – Piece Of My Heart. Janis was such a ballsy performer, projected a defiant anger in so many of her songs; and yet there’s still a hint of wistfulness or vulnerability or thwarted longing underneath all that power.

    Another Janis I recently rediscovered, after having forgotten her completely for more than 35 years, is Janis Ian (more folk than rock, but what the heck), who had a huge hit in the early ’70s with the self-written song, At Seventeen. She has an exquisite voice, and is still singing that song beautifully today. And it’s such a great song, fiercely satirical but also heart-rendingly personal.

    And this may seem a bit of a low-brow nomination, but I also adore Joan Jett’s version of I Love Rock’n’Roll. I don’t think anyone has ever projected that laidback raunchiness of utterly self-confident sexuality better.

    Beth Gibbons is another favourite: very introspective, yet she manages to achieve a wracking emotional intensity without seeming to have to put much effort into it. I particularly like her first album with Portishead, DummyRoads or Glory Box the pick of the bunch.

    Just lately, Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe has been coming up a lot on the rotation at my local bar. That is an awesome song and performance – though not ‘rock’, I suppose.

    I have to give a shout out to Margo Timmins as well (Cowboy Junkies usually pass for ‘alt rock’, don’t they?). Her cover of Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane is delicious, but I prefer 200 More Miles (also from the marvellous Trinity Session album) and the less well-known Leaving Normal (from Rarities, B-Sides, and Slow, Sad Waltzes).

    My other top personal favourite singer – again, more folky – is Michelle Shocked. I saw her play at the Apollo Theatre in Oxford, round about 1990, promoting her third album Captain Swing. She was experimenting with more of a big band sound on that, and, while it was quite fun, it didn’t really suit her style, and I didn’t fall in love with any of the songs on that as I did with most of her other stuff. I felt the audience on that night weren’t particularly won over by it either. But then, in the middle of the set, her band left the stage, and she sang a few songs just accompanying herself on the guitar – and she immediately had the whole auditorium in the palm of her hand: it was a shivers-down-the-spine moment. Even my curmudgeonly Scots drinking buddy that I’d dragged along to the show with me, who’d been resolutely unimpressed up to that point, was entranced – and subsequently became a zealous convert to her music for a while. There’s a concert video of that, I believe. I must go and check if there are any excerpts of it on YouTube in a moment.

    My top pick from ‘Chelle is Ballad of Patch-Eye and Meg, which, as far as I know, only appears on her Texas Campfire Tapes album (a bootleg recorded on a Walkman; but the sound quality is amazingly crisp, and the background atmosphere is captivating: you can hear wind rustling in treetops, campfires crackling, crickets chirping, a truck rumbling past on a dirt road in the distance). It’s a charming childhood memoir and a playful dissection of the craft of story-telling, with a moment of pure heartbreak cunningly embedded in it, one of the best written songs I know.

    More poignantly autobiographical, though, is her Memories of East Texas. There’s a passage in the middle that always brings a lump to my throat, although she doesn’t oversell it, actually delivers it very cool and matter-of-fact; but it’s slowed right down, almost spoken rather than sung:
    Looking back and asking myself, “What the hell d’you let ’em break your spirit for?”
    You know their lives ran in circles so small,
    They thought they’d seen it all,
    And they could not make a place for a girl who’d seen the ocean.

  3. As for the chaps, well…

    I think Black Dog is Led Zep’s finest moment. And, if we’re having a ‘voice-off’, it’s also the moment where Robert Plant emphatically declares to Jagger, Daltry, Bowie et al, “Come on now, you guys can’t really sing!”

    Eric Burdon is the best white blues singer I can think of. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood is about my favourite of the songs he recorded with The Animals, I think.

    I love The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks, one of the best singles of all time (though it didn’t crack the Top 30 in the UK on first release – how not??). Feargal Sharkey’s voice has a neurotic intensity that conveys the frustrations of young lust, but also suggests a slightly sinister note of stalker-ish obsession.

    I would mention Pulp’s Common People too, one of the best songs of the ’90s. Jarvis Cocker’s stage persona can be quite annoying, a bit of a self-parody of the sardonic hipster; but it works really well for some songs. On this, he’s sending up his own self-image as a working class hero – proud of his council house background, but also rather chuffed with himself for having got to college and being cool enough to pull a posh foreign girl – almost as much as he’s making fun of the naive rich kid he’s dating. And it’s great the way he starts with light mockery but escalates so suddenly into scathing contempt and despair. It’s a very powerful song.

    I’m not a huge fan of Jeff Buckley, but he did have a very nice voice. And Ruby will slap me if I don’t give a nod to his remarkable cover of Cohen’s Hallelujah.

    Amongst more recent performers, I think Thom Yorke is the real standout. He has remarkable control, and somehow manages to make a falsetto not irritating – something that not many other people can carry off for me. There’s also something about his phrasing being so close to natural speech that creates a powerful sense of intimacy. And more than almost any other singer, he doesn’t just sing but acts a song. You really see that on something like Creep. However, I think his most striking performance is on Exit Music (For A Film): starting in a cracked whisper, transitioning to a crescendo of rage and hate, then exhausting himself and collapsing again to the hoarse frailty of the opening – it’s emotionally devastating.

    Though I fear to bring down Tubby’s scorn upon my head, there’s surely no getting away from the fact that, whether or not you like his music (and I do), Freddie Mercury was just about the greatest vocalist – and the greatest performer – in rock history. I’m tempted to nominate one of the exuberantly sexist rockers like Fat-Bottomed Girls or Tie Your Mother Down, but the biggest hits, Bohemian Rhapsody and Somebody To Love, better show off his astonishing range. The one that most stands out in my memory, though, is one of the slightest and quietest of his songs, Love Of My Life, where he reins in his power and his operatic exuberance, but the more understated delivery lets the emotion flood out. He’d always do this about two-thirds of the way through a live set, with just a muted accompaniment from Brian on acoustic guitar – and he’d have entire stadiums singing along with him. I don’t know anyone else who could do that.

    My top pick, though, a personal idol of mine, is Tom Waits. People nowadays tend to associate him with that growl-and-howl that he’s perhaps used a bit too much, to the point of self-parody, and which tends to distort his diction a bit much. But that’s just one of many techniques he has at his disposal. In his early days, he had a very sweet baritone; and, although it’s got a bit rougher around the edges over the years, he can still sing like that on occasion. He employs a range of different vocal styles to suit the mood of a particular song or to inhabit a certain narrative persona. Two songs that immediately come to mind where he is singing relatively straight, but still somewhat in character, and with quite an emotional range, are Tom Traubert’s Blues and Cold, Cold Ground. And call me a sap, but I especially love his early song Kentucky Avenue, a beautifully crafted celebration of childhood friendship.

  4. Froog – thanks for those awesome replies. I suppose these articles are my equivalent of the Guardian’s “Joy Of Six” series, where (as they constantly have to repeat), the intention is not to rank but simply enjoy those mentioned. You’re absolutely right about many of your suggestions (some I haven’t heard – I must shamefacedly confess to never listening to Janis Joplin) – Plant, Mercury, Gibbons, Yorke – yes! All worthy of a write-up of their own. But it’s nice just to get the ball rolling 🙂

  5. I was also trying to hit different spots – pop, folk, rock, etc – with different styles. It’s too easy to get into an argument over who’s the best rock singer forgetting the broader range of stuff out there.

  6. Speaking of things long forgotten (Janis Ian completely vanished from my mind for over 35 years; but I soon found I still knew the song almost word for word when I heard it again), I suddenly recalled the other day that about 20 years ago I had an indecent crush on the statuesque Marcy Detroit. And I found myself asking, Whatever became of Shakespear’s Sister?

    Well, of course, they broke up after just two or three years – “creative differences”! It’s never going to be easy to accommodate two such forceful personalities, two such outstanding singers, two songwriters in the same group. I discover that Siobhan Fahey has revived the group’s name for her solo work in the last few years; and Marcy has put out a few solo projects too. I should check up on that.

    I didn’t much like the synth-pop stuff that polluted most of the ’80s (although I probably would have been more grateful at the time if I’d realised it was going to be superseded by hip-hop and boy bands!), but Shakespear’s sister were one of the honourable exceptions – because the songs were so damn good, and because the contrasting vocal styles of the two girls achieved such a wonderful interplay. (Has there ever been another band fronted by two female singers? Hm, Abba, I suppose – but that was a very different kind of animal.) Several of their songs might be contenders here, but I guess I’ll go for their biggest hit, You’re History. (Well, no, OK, Stay was their biggest hit, but that was a bit of an embarrassment; my least favourite thing on either of the albums.)

    Thinking of co-operative vocalists then reminded me of Paul Woods and Martin Brammer in The Kane Gang, one of the other nobler highlights of the synthy decade. When I was in college, Gun Law, the opening track from their debut album, was a ‘play it LOUD’ classic. And damn, those boys could sing!

  7. All this ’80s nostalgia has led me back to Big Pig as well. Whatever happened to them? Their first album did pretty well, but it took them two or three years to put out a follow-up, and that seems to have disappeared without trace. And then they broke up.

    Their gimmick was that they did everything with synths and percussion (and a bit of blues harmonica), dispensed with guitars altogether. It made for a very interesting, distinctive sound. A stronger reason, though, for their initial success was that they had some very good songs – Hungry Town, Devil’s Song – and a commanding lead vocalist in Sherine Aberaytne. I think their big hit Breakaway shows her at her best.

      • I recall trying to dig up something about them a year or so ago, and finding that there was almost no reference to them anywhere on the Internet. Maybe their return to recognition is beginning, because they now have a rudimentary Wikipedia page, and several videos appearing on YouTube.

        The guy who formed the group, Oleh Witter, was inspired by Japanese taiko drumming. I think everyone in the band was supposed to play some sort of percussion in the recording; and on stage, if I remember correctly, they usually had two full drum kits and a bunch of timpani and djembes and so on – four or five drummers playing some very complex patterns together. And their sole keyboard man was mostly providing a bass part or layering in some atmos; so, Sherine had to carry the melody on her own, against this tumultuous wall of sound. It could be very powerful – sometimes sounded even better in live performance.

        Their stage costume was a slaughterman’s apron, and not much else. Sherine managed to make it look sexy, but it wasn’t a great look for the guys.

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