on the voices of rock

A friend of mine recently tried to settle an argument about Rush frontman Geddy Lee’s vocal prowess by telling me he sounds like Katharine Hepburn.

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He thought he could poke holes in my “Rush is the greatest three-man progressive rock band from Canada of all time” stance by knocking its spindly, witch-featured singer. Little did he know that my love for Canada’s ultimate nerds runs as deep as the Congo (for dramatic effect, I’ve confirmed this is the deepest river in the world). But even though I am now, more than ever convinced, that this friend is tone deaf, it did get me thinking:

Are there any rock singers who have what would be considered a traditionally pleasing voice?

I knew I had to crack the case, so I immediately opened iTunes. First, I had to set some parameters — and because I’m no music expert, I decided to classify “traditionally pleasing voice” as the types of classically trained voices you might hear in, say, a Broadway musical or a barbershop quartet. We’re talking about those guys and gals who can belt out a pitch-perfect harmony with the best of them. They don’t go for the fancy Mariah Carey trilling vibrato (I’m pointing my finger to the sky like an American Idol contestant as I’m writing this) or Justin Bieber falsetto. They just belt out the words in a strong, consistent, no-auto-tune-necessary sort of way. What I found was that, for the most part, rock singers would not be given a second audition for Glee or even an Ivy League doo-wop group. Instead, what these titans of music offer their adoring fans are the three P’s: Passion, Presence and Pants (tight). They captivate their audiences with their compelling lyrics, their unique caterwauling and their 100% commitment to their own ability. It’s not that they’re good, it’s that they think they’re good, and they sure can sell it to us. So, with that in mind, I’ve created some categories into which I believe most rock singers fall.

The Warblers
These are the Hepburn types. The voices that creak and quaver willy-nilly throughout a song with no obvious purpose. It’s not controlled. It’s a random, sometimes confusing — but often awesome — vocal undulation that adds flavor to the prototypical rock anthem:
– Eddie Vedder.
The flannel warbler. His voice is more Jimmy Stewart than Katharine Hepburn, but you get the idea.
– Janis Joplin. The screeching warbler. She could belt out notes that sounded like she had just been stabbed, followed by the most tender tune. She was especially warbly when she was tending toward her country side, as in “Me and Bobby McGee”.
– Jack White. The trendsetting warbler. Everything Jack White does is cool, simply because he’s the one doing it. His unconventional vocal wave-making has fronted three of my favorite bands, The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. This guy can warble no wrong in my book.
Other notable warblers: Stevie Nicks, Joe Cocker, Joanna Newsome, Jerry Lee Lewis, Thom Yorke

The Whiners
You wouldn’t think that nasally Urkel voice could actually produce good music, but these folks prove that singing through your nose can be a beautiful thing:
– Tom Petty. The high whiner. This guy sounds like he’s stoned all the time, which is part of the reason why I, along with millions of other fans, just love him. Even though I’ve seen what he looks like and I can hear what he sounds like, when he says, “You got lucky, babe/when I found you”, I believe him.
– Neil Young. The mouth organ whiner. Young is a very divisive singer — you either love him or you hate him. I consider myself a born-again Young fan: when I was younger I thought his voice sounded exactly like that harmonica he always has strapped to his front, but now I can think of few songs I’d rather listen to than “Cinnamon Girl”.  I also now love beets. It’s funny how tastes change.
– Bob Dylan. The warbly, incoherent whiner. I first classified Dylan as a warbler, but upon further reflection and a listen to “Tangled Up In Blue”, I changed my tune (pun intended).
– Robert Plant. The screaming whiner. “Whole Lotta Love”, “Ramblin’ On”, “All of My Love”, “Kashmir”. Need I go on?
– Billy Squier. The denim-on-denim whiner. I added Squier for the benefit of my aforementioned friend (and the denim reference for his wife). Squier has the conventional, ’70s/’80s hard-rocker whine. It feels tough and full of attitude, but is backed by a lot of synth, which just makes it feel very dated, and sort of girlish. And learning from his Wikipedia bio that Freddy Mercury sang on “Emotions in Motion” and he toured with the likes of Foreigner and Def Leppard (featuring fellow whiners Lou Gramm and Joe Elliott) only cements his spot on this list. I can’t separate Squier from the image of a Trans-Am with t-tops, with Adam Sandler in the driver’s seat.
Other notable whiners: David Byrne, Frankie Valli, Axl Rose, Rod Stewart, Van Morrison, David Bowie

The Barkers
These singers are like factory foremen — they can command a group of people through the conviction of their intense, gravelly  voices. When they sing, you feel like they are yelling at you. Yes, you.
– Bruce Springsteen. The bridge-and-tunnel barker. No American musician has captured the life of the “common man” like Springsteen. It’s hard not to feel as though he will be disappointed in you if you don’t immediately don a white t-shirt and jump on the back of a motorcycle after hearing “Born to Run”.
– Billy Joel. The crooning barker. You might think Joel is more of a softy, with his velvety smoothness on ballads like “She’s Got a Way” and “Just the Way You Are”. But it’s the angry, win-one-for-the-little-guy attitude he showcases on “Allentown”, “You May Be Right”, “Big Shot” and, especially, “Pressure” that make him “The Entertainer” he is to me (again, pun intended).
Other notable barkers: John Fogerty, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Johnny Cash, Tina Turner

The Talk-Singers
It’s less singing and more more like talking to music, with the occasional upturn in inflection or drawn-out note so you remember it’s still a song. But apparently it’s also the epitome of cool, as evidenced by these guys:
– Serge Gainsbourg.
The je ne sais quoi talk-singer. He made girls weak in the knees with his sultry, oh-so-French ways. He wasn’t much of a looker, in my opinion, but from the open collars and scarves you can tell he would beg to differ. And let’s not forget he bagged Jane Birkin. Their daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg continues the talk-singing tradition, most recently on the awesome IRM, a collaboration fellow talk-singer Beck.
– Lou Reed. The Dirty Boulevard talk-singer. Is there a more famous example of talk-singing than “Walk on the Wild Side”?
– Tom Waits. The avant garde talk-singer. His raspy, conversational tone is not a hit with me, but for those who fancy themselves too good for the masses, he is a god.
– Beck. The loser-who-is-really-a-winner talk-singer. He can sing, it’s true. And I love everything, and I mean everything, he does. But no matter how many collaborations  with cool French women (see above) or soundtracks to awesome action movies he does, he will always be most known for the talkiest of talk-songs of the ’90s, “Loser”.
Other notable talk-singers: George Thorogood, Charlie Daniels, Iggy Pop

The Soothers
These singers are smoother than butter.Their voices are like silk sheets, like fluffy pillows, like babies’ bottoms. They can be comforting, sexy, soulful, mournful. They are probably the most technically talented of all the groups, but it’s the gut-wrenching emotion in their voices that gets the job done:
– Morrissey.
The celibate soother. The knowledge of Morrissey’s sex life (or lack thereof) makes his lyrics all the more painful. If I had a nickel for every time I wallowed to Morrissey’s various lamentations, I would be retired on a private island in the South Pacific. When he sings, “I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour but heaven knows I’m miserable now,” you believe it … and you feel it, too. Thanks, Morrissey, for supercharging the angst of my teenage years.
– Bryan Ferry. The well-dressed soother. No British crooner can wear a suit quite like Bryan Ferry (and, yes, I’m counting those other suited, iconic Brit rockers). Ferry’s voice is like Pepto – it’s the one that coats. His voice lingers on my brain long after the song is gone. “More Than This” is arguably the most painfully beautiful song of all time, a  fact only solidified by Bill Murray’s karoake performance of it in Lost in Translation.
– James Taylor. The folksy soother. When I finally made it to the Berkshires a few years ago, I understood what all Taylor’s talk was about. His voice is a gorgeous as the rolling, verdant hills and as chaste as the Protestant white-steepled churches that dot the landscape (except, of course, when he busts out throaty blues performances like “Steamroller”.)
Other notable soothers: Steve Winwood, Smokey Robinson, Roy Orbison, Lionel Richie, Patsy Cline, Marvin Gaye, Carly Simon

What would you add to the list?


One thought on “on the voices of rock

  1. Brian

    First of all, Trans Ams are, in fact cool. Need I say
    More than “Smokey and the Bandit?”. Second, you forgot the Whisperers ala John Mayer, Jamie Walters, Jack Johnson, and Jeff Healey. The more you put whisper in, the less accurate you have to be. Remember that if you ever find yourself trying out for American Idol. You’ve never heard Randy Jackson accuse a whisperer of being “pitchy.”. Dog.


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