Note: My youngest sister is a professional educator, but she has also been a professional musician for nearly 30 years. She is probably the more qualified Newell to write this piece, and I hope she does share some of her thoughts on this topic.
Let’s put this on the record: The title of this piece comes from a completely subjective point of view. From my first album purchase, “Kiss Alive II,” the only music that moved me was Rock and Roll – and in particular, the harder stuff. Sure, I grew up listening to plenty of Barry Manilow, Kool and the Gang, and Herb Alpert courtesy of my parents’ turntable, but nothing gave me that feeling of raw intensity that came from hard rock music. Plus, I had little in the way of listening options other than my dad’s albums until I started my own music collection.
First, here are my arbitrary exclusions from the list:
Elvis Presley. Choosing Elvis as the number one rock vocalist is like naming God as your favorite historical religious figure. Elvis is an implicit choice as rock music’s number one vocalist, so for my purposes, he’s off the list.
The Beatles’ Paul McCartney and John Lennon. What Elvis was to rock soloists, McCartney and Lennon were to rock bands. Plus, one of my caveats is that the singer did most if not all of the vocals for the band. McCartney and Lennon shared lead vocals, and let’s not forget George Harrison and Ringo Starr stepped up to lead vocals for a fair share of tunes.
Mick Jagger. The Rolling Stones’ lead singer may be one of the most significant singers in rock history, but that doesn’t mean he actually has vocal chops. He doesn’t, in my opinion. Just don’t care for his singing voice. Remember, this is the arbitrary (read as highly subjective) exclusion list.
Ozzy Osbourne. He may be one of rock’s most beloved figures, but if you assess his singing voice, he is pedestrian. He does have a unique tone, but his range and vocal phrasing are limited. To me, Ozzy has benefited from band lineups that were comprised of otherworldly musicians and songwriters.
So with those exclusions behind me, I have rated my personal list of great vocalists in the vein of guitar strings – bass guitar strings, since that is my preferred instrument – ranking them “E” for Elite; “A” for Accomplished; “D” for Distinctive; and “G” for grudgingly having to admit they’re great singers. From those lists, I break it down one step more to rate my overall top 10.
Defining those designations, my group of Elites are the best of the best for pure singing ability. They may or may not have charismatic stage presences, but there is no denying their ability to kick out a tune. These are the singers where you wouldn’t dare to imitate at a karaoke bar for fear of profound embarrassment.
The Accomplished front men have good or better-than-average singing voices, but they’re better known for their volume and longevity of success.
The distinctive members that made my list have unique styles and voices that suit their band’s music, but in terms of assessing their singing voices, that comes down to personal taste.
And the last group, the “G” men, were placed into this group because I don’t really care for their band’s music. However, I can’t deny talent, as much as I would like to cover my ears or turn the channel when the songs from these particular singers are played. While I respect the talent, there is no way any of these guys would make my top 10.
The grouping of singers from each category
The Elite: Steve Perry, Journey; Bruce Dickinson, Iron Maiden; Rob Halford; Judas Priest; Chris Cornell, Soundgarden, Audioslave; Ronnie James Dio, Dio, Black Sabbath; Ian Gillan, Deep Purple; Geoff Tate, Queensryche; Freddie Mercury, Queen; Steve Winwood, Traffic, solo; Brad Delp, Boston.
The accomplished: Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin; Jon Bon Jovi, Bon Jovi; Roger Daltry, The Who; Paul Rodgers; Bad Company/solo; David Lee Roth, Van Halen/solo; Sammy Hagar, Montrose/Van Halen/solo; Dave Grohl, Foo Fighters; Axl Rose, Guns N Roses; Bono, U2; Paul Stanley, Kiss; Joe Elliott, Def Leppard; Klaus Meine, The Scorpions; Jon Anderson, Yes; Geddy Lee, Rush.
The distinctive: Brian Johnson and Bon Scott/AC DC; James Hetfield, Metallica; Billy Gibbons, ZZ Top; Dave Mustaine, Megadeth; Roger Waters, Pink Floyd; Kurt Cobain, Nirvana; Vince Neil, Motley Crue; Jimi Hendrix; Janis Joplin; Jim Morrison, The Doors; David Bowie, solo; Bruce Springsteen; Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam; David Draiman, Disturbed.
Grudgingly admit they are great: Lou Gramm, Foreigner; David Coverdale, Whitesnake; Steven Tyler, Aerosmith; Phil Collins, Genesis; Brian Wilson and Mike Love, Beach Boys; Van Morrison, solo.
I’m sure there are a few left off this list, and if I forgot a name or two, they had no chance of making my overall top 10, anyway. So…starting from number 10:
(10) Jon Bon Jovi. So I was keen on Bon Jovi before the breakout Slippery When Wet album made the band a household name. No denying his long history of success, songwriting ability, and solid singing voice. Wasn’t so keen on his ventures into other music genres, but you can’t take away what he did the first three-quarters of his career.
(9) Bruce Springsteen. His singing voice is of the love-it-or-leave-it variety, but what a charismatic performer, lyricist, and showman. He’s a more dynamic, more rocking version of Bob Dylan. He built on Dylan’s ability to tell a story within a song, and for that, I have the ultimate respect for “The Boss.”
(8) David Bowie. His singing voice was actually much better than I originally thought, and it wasn’t until his death that I really delved into his volume of work. Bowie makes my list for his ability to shift with the times and stay ahead of musical trends. As a front man, few were better at connecting with the audience.
(7) Kurt Cobain. Again, not the strongest singing voice, but it suited Nirvana’s music. In less than five years’ time as a well-known musician, he forever made his mark and set the standard for grunge rock.
(6) Jim Morrison. Okay, so if they make a big-screen movie about you and your band, it’s a safe bet you’re among rock’s all-time elite.
(5) Brian Johnson. His scratchy, wailing voice is unmatched and nearly impossible to replicate. I may not have a great singing voice, but I know how to sing in key. I simply cannot come close to singing in Johnson’s key – almost ever. Note: I also like the original front man, Bon Scott, but Johnson has served as AC DC’s lead singer for 35 years, while Scott was lead singer for about six years.
(4) Chris Cornell. The top four are virtually interchangeable in my mind. Cornell has beautiful tone, tremendous range, and who else could pull off singing raging grunge for Soundgarden, and years later, voice the theme song for a James Bond movie?
(3) Freddie Mercury. A gifted musician, singer, songwriter, arranger, and stage showman – there is nothing at which he didn’t excel. Years ahead of his time and continually evolving as a performer, the basic tenet in Mercury’s toolbox of skills was his ability to sing his ass off.
(2) Robert Plant. The lead singer and primary lyricist for what I consider the most influential rock band of all time – Led Zeppelin – Plant defined the Zeppelin sound with his vocal stylings, amazing range, and ability to easily mix rock, blues, and country vocal styles into his presentation.
(1) Steve Perry. He was dubbed “the voice” for good reason. Some 35 years after I first heard Perry sing, his singing will still give me the occasional goose bumps. On the seminal “We are the World” single that featured dozens of the world’s most noted singers, Perry’s piece will always stand out. Amazing tone, and the emotion with which he sang was palpable.