The Voca-lists Part One: 15-11

View Part 2 here.

View Part 3 here.

brian-wilsonsing   83_TheLas_L031105   Joni Mitchell Live                              

It’s strange how someone’s voice can give you so many clues into the nature of that person. And I’m not even talking about their singing voice. You can tell so much about someone’s character just when they open their mouth and speak.

Their accent will immediately tell you what region of the world they are from. The volume and cadence of their speaking voice can often tell you whether they are introverted or extroverted, and can reveal certain personality quirks. A lead singer is the voice of a band. And just like a speaking voice, a lead singer’s voice often defines a band. What would Led Zeppelin sound like without Robert Plant? Nirvana without Kurt Cobain? The Smiths without Morrissey? Morrissey’s introspective croon defined The Smiths as a bunch of introspective crooners. There’s a reason why the lead singer of a band is often designated as the frontman (or frontwoman). It’s not that the other members of a group and the producers involved with the music are unimportant, but what it comes down to is that it’s up to the singer to express the spirit of the music through his or her voice. Before we delve into this list of my favorite singers, I feel I should give everybody a warning: This is not a list of the greatest singers of all time. If you need someone to tell you that James Brown, Freddie Mercury, and Aretha Franklin are great singers, I urge you to check out Rolling Stone‘s list of the 100 Greatest Singers. By not including such luminary figures in my list, I am not discounting their talent or saying that I don’t enjoy listening to their voices. I am merely saying that they did not come to mind when I was thinking of my Top 15 singers. It’s as simple as that.

15. Lee Mavers

Dolly Parton has described her voice as “a cross between Tiny Tim and a mountain goat.” If that’s true, then Lee Mavers’s voice is a cross between Van Morrison and a bullfrog. As frontman for The La’s, that other band from Liverpool, famous their hit 1990 single “There She Goes”, Lee Mavers brought a certain regional aspect to his band’s music. “Purgatory” became “Pagatory”. “Century” became “Centchary”. But there’s a softer side to his voice as well, which is evident when he reaches the higher registers. Even so, this guy’s rough, dry, instantly memorable voice qualifies as something totally unique in the world of music.

14. Brian Wilson

I’ve always thought of The Beach Boys as a relic of a simpler, more peaceful time. A time when boyfriends and girlfriends wore each other’s rings and still used the phrase “going steady.” A time when the sexiest thing that high schoolers did with each other was watching the sunset on the beach and maybe sneaking in a goodnight kiss. A time when the word “woodie” only evoked a station wagon for carrying surfboards. Maybe that time never existed, but even then it’s pretty impressive that Brian Wilson’s innocent falsetto makes me think that it could.

13. Colin Blunstone

The song you just listened to, “She’s Not There” by The Zombies, was a No. 2 Billboard hit back in 1964, and one of the best songs that the British Invasion had to offer. Its follow-up single tanked. The reason? The Zombies’ manager thought that the breathiness of lead singer Colin Blunstone’s vocals was the key aspect that had made “She’s Not There” such a smash. The band’s next single, “Leave Me Be”, was a quiet, subdued ballad that focused on Colin’s voice rather than the invigorating, upbeat jazziness of the earlier song. Needless to say, it didn’t grab audiences quite as effectively as “She’s Not There”. But the manager was half-right: even if The Zombies worked so much better when they weren’t just The Colin Blunstone Band, that smoky, sensual voice contained a resonating power that made every song it touched feel lighter than air.

12. Joni Mitchell

If anything can attest to the comedic genius of Tina Fey, it has to be this 30 Rock clip:

But despite Liz Lemon’s apparent fondness for Joni Mitchell, the two women don’t seem to be very suited to each other’s ideals. After all, a feminist like Liz Lemon would surely identify more with Janis Joplin or Grace Slick, female artists who not only fronted groups that otherwise consisted of only males, but also possessed strong, and in Janis’s case, earth-shattering voices that put many of their male counterparts to shame. Joni, on the other hand, possessed an ethereal soprano that seemed to agree with the stereotype of women as dainty little things. But all feminist theory aside, the reason Joni made it on this list is because her voice was the most expressive of the three. The beauty of Joni’s voice was perfectly suited to the beauty of her lyrics, and on songs like “California”, she put forth both longing heartache and sunny contentment, all wrapped up in a voice that feels as if it could be popped like a bubble at any moment.

11. Janis Joplin

“How are you out there? Are you okay? You’re staying stoned and you’ve got enough water and you’ve got a place to sleep and everything? Because, you know, because we oughta, all of us, you know, I don’t mean to be preachy but…music’s for grooving man, and music’s not for putting yourself through bad changes, you know, I mean you don’t have to go and take anybody’s shit man, just to like music, you know what I mean? You don’t, so if you’re gettin’ more shit than you deserve, you know what to do about it. You know, its just music. Music’s…music’s supposed to be different than that.” -Janis, just before launching into a forceful performance at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969

Aw, what the heck, here’s another 30 Rock clip.

View Part 2 here.

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