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not about the singing

In a couple of other threads here lately, I've seen people slamming on a couple of highly-ranked artists (Dylan and U2) on the basis of bad singing.

You know what, though? I don't think good rock music has anything to do with virtuoso singing. Take a look at the top 20 artists--how many great singers are there here?

1. Beatles: McCartney and Lennon could harmonize well, but neither was an accomplished singer
2. Stones: Mick could strut, but you wouldn't take voice lessons from him
3. Dylan: my opinion? maybe not a good singer, but a great poet who knows how to use words evocatively
4. Bowie: he was pretty good, though not the soul singer he sometimes thought he was
5. Zeppelin: this is only my opinion, but I think Plant's voice is just awful
6. Springsteen: shouts a lot
7. Prince: very good (that's for you, Moonbeam)
8. The Who: see #2, above
9. Elvis: yeah, he was good, especially as a crooner
10. Hendrix: obviously not on the list because of his voice
11. Beach Boys: best vocal harmonies of all time
12. R.E.M.: Stipe's gotten better, but he'll never be an above-average singer technically
13. Velvet Underground: I love Lou Reed, but obviously no singer
14. Marvin: wonderful voice
15. U2: Bono is more flash than substance vocally (although his lyrics are good)
16. The Clash: Strummer never could carry a tune (and didn't really need to)
17. Nirvana: absolutely unique voice, but...
18. Radiohead: pass
19. Neil Young: just this side of Dylan
20. Stevie Wonder: fine voice

So, that's, what, 6 or 7 good singers out of the top 20? And, you know what? It doesn't matter. With the exception of Led Zep, I like all these people a lot.

My point is that rock doesn't have much, if anything, to do with being the best singer on the block...if it did, Freddie Mercury would be in the top ten. (The same thing also applies, to a lesser extent, to other instruments.) Rock is about good songs and attitude.

By the way, I'm REALLY not trying to ignite a flame war here--I'm just expressing my opinion.

Re: not about the singing

Nice post, schleuse. I agree 100% (well, 99%, for me Bowie is really a great singer with a varied range of vocal aptitudes and choices).

Re: not about the singing

I agree, though I think saying the are not good singers is doing them an injustice. They are not the greatest singers in the world, but they can certainly hold their own. Each and every one of them.

Re: not about the singing

I agree. I am much more interested in the instrumentation of a song than the vocals, usually. However, really bad vocals can grate.

Good to see Prince get some love!

Re: not about the singing

I disagree with a lot of your assessments. John Lennon and Paul McCartney are some of the best vocalists of the century and I know plenty of people who would die to have Robert Plant's voice. Also most of these artists aren't considered great singers by the general populace because of the amount of character in their voices, but that's what makes them so great. Can you imagine Barbra Streisand or Michael Buble singing Bowie tunes? Not a good idea! Besides, Bono's a great vocalist, especially in the studio, but especially live.

Re: not about the singing

The same is said about all musicians. you would find a similar result if you analysed the guitarists, drummers, bassists, and whatever else they play. A few would be good technicly (hendrix lol), but the vast majority would be sub-par technicly.

But since when has music been about technical ability? never! music is about one thing and one thing alone: the feel. you don't need anything even close to technical ability to get that. However, it is pretty cool when someone manages both ability and feel (hendrix's guitar for example).

Good post by the way. about time a topic like this came along.

Re: not about the singing

Thanks for the thoughtful posts, everyone.

Two things I feel like I need to add:

1. I should have been clearer about my criteria for a "good singer"--I mean a good technical singer, that is, someone whose voice is, more or less, a trained instrument. (Full disclosure: I'm married to an opera singer.)

2. Whether anyone agrees with my evaluations of the top 20 or not (ok, I'll admit I may have been too hard on David Bowie), I think my general point stands: Rock encourages amateurism over polish, attitude over precision.

I'd even push that to other instruments as well, actually. There's nothing wrong with the virtuosity of someone like Hendrix (hell, I even like Eddie Van Halen); however, Peter Buck and Graham Coxon, two of the smarter lead guitarists I know of, have said they prefer playing instruments on which they're only marginally competent.

Re: not about the singing

Oops...should have read the thread more carefully before I posted. Moeboid, you said the same thing I was trying to say.

Credit where it's due.

Re: not about the singing

I agree with Johnmarck - the Beatles were fantastic singers,particularly Lennon with really one of the great rock voices of all time. Technically, they may not all be the best singers, but they're all unique voices. Reed and Dylan - wouldn't change a thing about them. No one else can sing their songs.
Well Dylan can't be too bad - he's been nominated numerous times at the grammies for his vocals,winning a couple of awards.
But none of these singers are ones I'd single out as being bad - you'd have to look a bit lower down the list.

It's Sure Not About the Sangin'...

Look at my girl- nowhere near the strongest voice of female singers. But, she's had great material, and hads a great voice for pop music (not to mention that she's done an enormous amount of stuff in her work to be regarded as importantly as she is).

In any event, the best singers aren't necessarily those who can reach the highest notes, can hold a note for such-and-such an amount of time, or have the best technically great voices. That's why a lot of the big-voiced singers aren't all that acclaimed (outside of an Aretha and maybe a couple others)- they have the voices, but the material's not as good or interesting as the voice.

Re: not about the singing

I suppose thats true. A prime example being Kurt Cobain. He doesnt sing, he yells. But it suits Nirvana's music.

On the other hand when you look at emo bands, their guitarists and drummers have a lot of talent, only its wasted on rubbish songs. So in that respect you can argue the material is more important than the way it is delivered

Interesting point you raise.


I mean, to use a few big-voiced females as an example- Barbra Streisand. She's not all that acclaimed, but for non-acclaimed acts, she's regarded probably as the greatest female vocalist of all time (after Aretha, maybe). But, when you look at her material, it's probably too glossy for its own good, and isn't the type of material that would wowo over critics who are looking for fresh, inventive music.

Same with Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, etc. Undoubtedly great voices overall, but sorta shoddy material (whether it's generic/bland on a sonic and/or lyrical level).

That also plagues some male singers, as well- you'll have some ladies who think Michael Bolton is a great singer- but he's an acclaimed/critical joke. And look at Barry Manilow- the guy has a decent voice and has songs a lot of people like/love- but definitely one of those safe/predictable/unadventurous types that rarely if ever would be found on many best-of features.

Among groups, Journey would be one- not sure if Steve Perry is looked at as a great singer by many- but look how popular the band's Greatest Hits is- it just keeps on selling and selling. Not exactly acclaimed wonders, Journey is...