By Aashu Anshuman:
A list of ten is generally deemed to be complete. But to name the greatest rock vocalists of all time is a task well beyond me and this is only a feeble attempt on my part to do so. Hence, I have listed nine vocalists, some legends in their own right and others on their way to attaining that status, to emphasise that this list can never be complete. It goes without saying that it draws heavily from my personal choices but I have tried to stay as objective and focused as possible.
Before I proceed to my list, I should discuss the criteria upon which I based it. While there are many good singers, not each one of them can become a successful vocalist in a band. A vocalist is one who gives a meaning to all the strumming and drumming. In this list, you will find, nearly every vocalist spawned entire armies of imitators and followers. All because they brought something completely different to their band and their fans, that element of surprise.
It might seem odd not to find the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie James Dio, Serj Tankien, Kirk Hammett missing from this list. But then, the list comprises of Rock or Hard Rock vocalists. While it the boundaries between Hard Rock and Metal is often quite blurry, it would be unfair and wrong to suggest that Metallica or Black Sabbath play anything less than metal.
Enough of my talking now. I will now begin with MY list (in no particular order) of the Greatest Rock/Hard Rock Vocalists of All Time.
1) Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin and solo)
Following his obsession with the rawest American Blues, he became the voice of one of my most favourite bands ever, Led Zeppelin. He was the one who made ‘singing like a girl’ more masculine than it ever was. Since him innumerable singers have strained their vocal chords beyond limit to reach for the notes Plant gained by birthright. All you need to fall in love with his singing is to listen to a few Led Zep classics. I recommend ‘Stairway To Heaven’, ‘Ramble On’, ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love’.
2) Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam)
When I first listened to a song called ‘Jeremy’, I was introduced to a magical voice which remained surprisingly calm while it conveyed unmistakable emotions of anger. With every new Pearl Jam song I heard, I found a new face of Eddie Vedder’s singing. The quality of his voice doesn’t falter even during live shows. In a world full of lip-syncing pop stars, Eddie is probably the best live performer among all his contemporaries. ‘Alive’, ‘Evenflow’ and ‘Black’ are some of his most famous songs. I also recommend ‘Wishlist’ and my personal favourite ‘Last Kiss’.
3) Chris Cornell (Soundgarden, Audioslave and solo)
One of the pioneers of Garage Rock or Grunge, Chris Cornell is a singer who blends those high notes with his ferocious rasps with utmost ease. He matches perfectly with the 9-beat guitar in the song “Black Hole Sun”. His transitions in the song “You Know My Name” made it the first James Bond song I really fell in love with. Make sure you listen to it and you will know what I am talking about.
4) Axl Rose (Guns N’ Roses)
According to Sebastian Bach, “Axl sings the most beautiful melodies with the most aggressive tones and the most outrageous, freakish range”. That is how good Axl Rose is. His range is unbelievable. His shrieks and wails, all in tune, never failed to match Slash’s solos in GnR’s Golden Era. “Sweet Child of Mine” and “Welcome to the Jungle” display the magnificent combination of brute force and subtlety. His songs have the energy to peel the paint off the walls. I also recommend “Paradise City”, “November Rain” and “Patience”.
5) Dolores O’ Riordan (Cranberries)
The only woman in the list, this lead vocalist of an Irish band called The Cranberries will probably be the least disputed appearance here. While extraordinary female talents like Amy Lee and Avril Lavigne might often come up as the female rock icons of today, Dolores belonged to a different league. Her low notes are legendary and she proved that good singing was not all about a sweet voice. I recommend “Zombie” and “Linger”.
6) Don Henley (The Eagles)
Henley is, according to me, one of the most underrated vocalists. But his mix of rasps with his fluid tenor voice brought the pleasant weariness to the Eagles classics like “Hotel California”. A rather unknown fact to his fans is that his major inspiration came from the great blues singers like Otis Redding and James Brown. The amalgamation of so many different styles along with his own flavour made a famous songwriter once call him the “mystery-singer”. Try uncovering his mystery with songs like “Desperado” and “The Boys of Summer”.
7) Chad Kroeger (Nickelback)
No other singer in this list exemplifies the importance of uniqueness more than Chad Kroeger, the lead vocalist for Nickelback. For a band that has been widely criticised for its lack of originality in music Chad more than made up with his incredible vocals. The strength of his voice is beyond comparison to most of his contemporaries. It is not a surprise then, that Nickelback was the highest selling foreign band in the US surpassed only by The Beatles themselves. Almost every Nickelback song can show you the might of Chad’s voice but if you like fast and hard-hitting tracks you will absolutely love ‘Burn It to the Ground’.
8) Roger Daltrey (The Who)
From the anxious stutter in “My Generation” to the glass-shattering wail that tops off “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, the voice of The Who is one of the most powerful instruments in Hard Rock. Although he didn’t write his own lyrics, he had an uncanny ability to adapt to the lyrics and make the song his own. The energy and the genius of this great is inimitable. Ask anyone who has tried covering his songs.
9) Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits)
True genius lies in making the most difficult tricks look like child’s play. Going by this criterion, Knopfler is among the greatest geniuses Rock music has ever seen. One needs to try singing one of his songs to understand how difficult it is to get it right. His whispers have no match, neither today nor in the past. I recommend listening to “Romeo and Juliet” to understand the power underlying his soft voice. Make sure you listen to the live version as well. And although this article is about vocals, I must mention that his guitar skills have few matches. His finger-picking in songs like “Sultans of Swing” is the kind of stuff legends are made of. (And he is Sachin Tendulkar’s favourite musician.)
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