Sing Out, Elvis!
For the past year, in recognition of the 50th anniversary of rock and roll (or, more accurately, in recognition of the fact that these issues sell very, very well--hell, I bought most of them), Rolling Stone has been issuing commemorative issues in which a panel of rock and roll critics, performers, producers, and assorted others have voted on lists of the best 50 albums, best 50 songs, best 50 guitarists, and the 100 greatest artists (split into two issues that bookended the year?s money grab--er, festivities).
I know it's cool and hip these days (am I being redundant? Are "hip" and "cool" the same thing nowadays or are there subtle differences betwixt the two?) to scoff at such lists as being needlessly rigid, stuffy, and formulaic, and for the way they tend to ignore--(insert the scoffers' favorite obscure song/artist/etc. here). But I love them. See, music fan though I am, I'm not one of those intense, learned music fans. I don't have 10,000 CDs; I have maybe 400, and many of them are musical theater, classical, film score, and jazz music. So, while my tastes aren't purely mainstream, I tend not to know much about many, many rock artists the critics find essential--David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, hell, much of the Beatles work (at least the non-hit stuff). I say this not in pride, but in order to build a little context for what's to come. See, I love these lists as much for the hunting down of my personal favorites--to see how they measure up according to the "experts"--as for the opportunity to learn about a halfway, at least, decent smattering of artists, songs, and albums I don't know, and maybe would like to. For example, I just picked up Johnny Cash's At Folsem Prison in large part because the Rolling Stone album list raved about it so.
So--I like these kinds of lists; we've established that. As noted above one of the lists RS produced last year was of the greatest guitar players. Makes sense; the guitar, certainly, is key to rock and roll, maybe more key than any other instrument. Well, except for one: the voice. After all, it's not as if rock instrumentals have a huge place in the canon. Rock music is, by and large, sung music. So, to this casual fan, the lack of a look at the top vocalists was glaring in its omission. Who are the greatest rock singers? Well, I'm sure I couldn't say, but I can lay down my choices, which, after much preamble, is what this post is about.
My criteria: Unlike RS (which included smatterings of jazz, R&B, hip-hop, pop, and country in amidst the rock selections), I am limiting my list of the top ten rock singers to just rock. That means no Ray Charles, no Arethra, no Stevie. Brilliant as they are, I'm interested in a much narrower view, and in comparing, to a greater degree anyway, apples to apples. So I'm looking only at what could broadly, at least, be qualified as rock. Also, my criteria for a great rock voice hinges on my very strongly held belief that a rock singer, regardless of the fact that he or she is singing rock music, should still be singing. This means that I place a much, much higher premium on strong, open vocals, with clear supported tones, that work in the rock idiom than I do on screaming, screeching, or whining. My view is pretty simple: if you are a singer, you should sing, really sing. One final, and pretty important, disclaimer. As suggested above, I do not have anything even remotely resembling an encyclopedic knowledge of music. So this list is, by definition, limited. I very well may be missing a great singer simply by virtue of not knowing his or her work. I admit up front with no disclaimers--this list is but one man's opinion, and a very limited one at that.
So, on with the show:
10. Corey Glover
This Living Colour singer had an amazing voice, strong and powerful and with a wide, wide range. And their breakout, and only, hit, "Cult of Personality," shows pretty definitively that he could rock with the best.
Representative Moment: That impossibly high note in "Information Overload." Same note, in fact, as the famed high note at the end of the operatic section of "Bohemian Rhapsody." (se No. 4, below)
9. Roy Orbison
Orbison had a truly remarkable voice; he only places this low because he never really got down and dirty and rocked it hard. Still, I'll allow him in by simple virtue of that voice. And it's not as if "Pretty Woman" is a ballad.
Representative Moment: That last note in "Crying." Goosebumps, every damn time.
8. Janis Joplin
Janis had all of the elements: the strong voice, the ability to rock, and but hard, and a way with a lyric that got under your skin.
Representative Moment: That "come on, come on, come on, come on" build up in "Piece of my Heart."
7. Elvis Costello
The angry young man of the late 70s can croon like Bing, snarl like Johnny Rotten, and belt like a Broadway star. A voice that, unlike so many, just gets better and better with age.
Representative Moment: His indignant romp through "What's so Funny (About Peace, Love, and Understanding)?"
6. Roger Daltry
Daltry gets a lot of points right up front for still to this day having recorded the definitive rock scream at the end of "Won't Get Fooled Again." But he could do more than scream, and he wasn't afraid to sing either; the Who catalog is chock-a-block with deep, emotional singing from Daltry.
Representative Moment: See above.
5. Bruce Springsteen
The much-parodied hoarse scream of "Born in the USA" is just one side of the story. He can do understated folk like Woody Guthrie or sing hushed ballads like a more tender Johnny Cash. All before sweating his way across a stage for three hours with the E-Street Band, belting his way through seemingly his entire catalog without losing steam.
Representative Moment: Listen to the frustration in the line "Strugglin' to do everything right" from "Brilliant Disguise" to see just how well he can get into the heads of his characters.
4. Freddie Mercury
One song tells the whole story; through "Bohemian Rhapsody's" schizophrenic moods he sings a tender ballad, raps staccato absurdist mock-opera lyrics, rocks like Robert Plant, and hits a high b-flat. An astonishing singer. For proof, listen to the tribute concert the surviving Queen members did after his death, and how so many of the guest vocalists had trouble handling the songs.
Representative Moment: The way he angrily defies the death he knows is near in "Show Must Go On."
3. Elvis Presley
Presley could sing pretty much anything, and did. He had one of rock"s strongest voices, and really set the table for what was to come, defining what a singer could do in this new musical space. But beyond just that voice, he knew just what to do with a song to get at an audience, to really sell a lyric. Hard to imagine he'll ever drop that low on lists such as these.
Representative Moment: In "Jailhouse Rock" he established, very early on in rock history, how effective the combination of a strong, clear voice and some grit could be. Seemingly every rock singer since has been chasing that sound.
2. Bob Dylan
It's been said quite often that Dylan couldn't sing. This is a bit of hogwash. True, he didn't have as strong a voice as the others on this list, but, and this is important, he could and did sing well. He played so much with tone, timbre, and nasal effects that the strong voice underneath was often masked, masked so well that it was often hard to discern. But it was always there. And no one, before or since, has used phrasing so freely and effectively to convey a lyric.
Representative Moment: In "Sugar Baby" the feeling of fatigue and resignation in his voice is almost palpable; the way he sings the words do as much or more than the words themselves to tell the story in this song.
As I've already made clear, to my ears a great rock singer should be able to really sing and to really rock, to be able to mesh those two often disparate elements well. And Bono does it better than anyone. He can hit the high notes fairly, without cheating or screaming or screeching, and yet he can get down and dirty with the best of them. He can croon, if the occasion demands it, and he can spit out angry lyrics. He can go from the tremulous falsetto of a boy soprano, to deep rumbled bass, within a few bars, if necessary. And he sings with passion and no sense of detachment or coolness; he's never too hip to sing with real, naked emotion. He is, quite simply, the greatest rock singer of them all. That's what I think, anyway.
Representative Moment: It's on the radio now; in "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" he sings, in the bridge, with wide-open tone and with unprotected emotion about his late father. No barriers, no irony, just raw grief, in song.