Miscellaneous - Top 5 (or more) No. 1 : Unique Vocals

  by Jamie Rowland

published: 20 / 3 / 2011

Miscellaneous - Top 5 (or more) No. 1 : Unique Vocals

In 'Gimme Indie Rock' Jamie Rowland provides a personal list and YouTube links to his Top 5 Distinctive Musical Voices


Happy days! It is the landmark seventh column in my 'Gimme Indie Rock' series – and what an adventure it’s been so far. To mark this special occasion, I have decided to compile what I hope will be the first in a quasi-regular series of Top 5s (or possibly more than 5, depending on how hard I find it to edit the list down). This month, I will be focusing on those singers who are so distinctive, so unusual, so unique, that they can rise above the sea of voices flooding the music world and become instantly recognisable. This is my Top 5 Distinctive Musical Voices. Of course, whenever anyone makes a list of top anything, people are going to disagree, and ask questions like “How could you leave out so-and-so??” or “What about thingameface?” or “Why have you put wuzzname in there, you ugly, thick idiot?!” Well do try and remember, this is all subjective, and by no means a definitive list – these are just my personal choices; my favourite, uniquely brilliant (as I see it) vocalists. 1. Tom Waits I don’t think there could be a list on distinctive vocals that didn’t include Tom Waits. There’s no mistaking him; it’s like someone took a bag of gravel, mixed it with broken glass and cigarette butts, poured it down his neck and washed it down with a gallon of whiskey. But it works, and it works to great affect. It probably helps that Waits is also a phenomenal songwriter, and in my opinion one of the greatest lyricists of this century and the last. His work has been covered by a wide range of artists, from Bruce Springsteen, to Rod Stewart – Scarlett Johansson even released an entire of Tom Waits covers in 2007 (to pretty mixed reviews, although I don’t think you can put that on Waits). Earlier this year, he was deservedly entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was hard to pick one song to illustrate Wait’s remarkable voice, because frankly they’re all bloody great. In the end though, I picked one of my favourite songs of his – in fact, one of my favourite songs, period – the poetic, epic and incredible ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZmqbcBsTAw 2. Joanna Newsom Love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny that Joanna Newsom’s voice entirely her own – there’s no one else who sounds like that. There’s something child-like about her delivery; it’s like a little girl making up nonsense lyrics off the top of her head as she dances round the garden. Or at least, it would be if it weren’t for her exemplary (and absolutely adult-standard) harp and piano playing, and the fact that her lyrics are in fact complex and poetic and not nonsense at all. It’s this songwriting talent which has taken Newsom beyond the ‘freak-folk’ tag she was given on the release of her first album, 'The Milk-Eyed Mender', and brought her the recognition she deserves as a unique and engaging artist. Here she is performing her song ‘81’, from her 2010 album 'Have One On Me' http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67jAauCXFy4&feature=fvwrel 3. Busdriver There are few people in the hip hop world who are as vocally recognisable as Busdriver – not only is the production on his records pretty out-there – his tracks have been produced by the likes of Daedelus, Boom Bip and even Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier, which should give you some idea of the leftfield-nature of his work. But it’s his vocal style which really marks him out from the crowd. Busdriver has what I can only describe as an odd delivery; he sounds like someone doing a voice for a rapping, cartoon bear – but his raps are intelligent, funny, interesting and about a lot more than guns and bling - the most common assumption about hip hop is that it is nothing but violent, misogynistic, self-promotion. And to be fair some of it is, but not all of it, and not Busdriver. As with metal, I think hip hop is at its best when it is being tested and experimented with as a genre – sometimes the staples of any one ‘scene’ should be analysed and toyed with to find something fresh and new, and Busdriver is certainly a hip hop artist who blurs the lines of genre and takes on board a menagerie of influences from across the musical spectrum. He is also a spectacular MC – he is FAST, but eloquent and certainly more understandable than a lot of other, better-known rappers. Here he is in 2008, demonstrating his MCing prowess on the track 'Imaginary Places' – this shiz be dope, yo (I am middle-class, English and white) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4EjPVm9a1g&feature=related 4. David Bowie The mark of a truly unique voice is if anyone and everyone can do a passable impression of it – and undoubtedly, there is no singer more enjoyable to imitate than David Bowie. I personally have enjoyed many an evening with friends singing along to ‘Space Oddity’ in my best Bowie voice, and I’m sure you have too. There’s not much to say about him that hasn’t been said before, but there’s not mistaking his voice, and the soundtrack to 'Labyrinth' would be nothing without him. Which might seem obvious, because he wrote it, but you know what I mean. Anyway, here’s the man himself singing ‘Space Oddity’ in what apparently is his first TV appearance. Good hair! Anyway, don’t forget to sing along! As if you would. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aY5a3Un3y8g 5. Stephin Merritt, The Magnetic Fields/The 6ths/The Gothic Archies/Future Bible Heroes There is no mistaking the bass-baritone rumblings of The Magnetic Fields’ head-honcho and main songwriter, Stephin Merritt. There’s something instantly enjoyable about hearing a song Merritt sings, and as good as all Magnetic Fields' output is, there’s always a slight sense of disappointment when it’s one that Stephin doesn’t sing. Part of what makes '69 Love Songs' work across three discs without getting tired – aside from the quality of the song (at least 90% of them, anyway) – is the mix of moods built into the record; melancholy, humour, sincerity, pathos, joy. All of these emotions are carried off beautifully in Merritt’s delivery, and for me it’s part and parcel of what makes that album one of the best to be recorded in the last 15 years or so (another point ripe for debate, but maybe not right here and now). Here he is, with the Magnetic Fields, performing ‘I Don’t Want to Get Over You’, from disc 1 of '69 Love Songs'. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r1eZzL2hQQ Also Rans... Of course, there are a lot of artists I would have like to mention too, but didn’t make the cut for various reasons I don’t have the time (or inclination, frankly) to get into. So, here’s a quick list of other singers who could have made it into the list if these five didn’t exist, or if I did it again next week or something: Bob Dylan, Jello Biafra, Doseone, Elizabeth Fraser (really nearly put her in, and perhaps I should have.... but I’m not changing my mind now), Freddie Mercury, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush, Jónsi Birgisson (Sigur Ros), Bjork... oh, there are loads. Feel free to leave your own in the comments below.

Visitor Comments:-

423 Posted By: Lisa, US on 12 Apr 2011
Jamie, how about the wonderful Dusty Springfield, the late, but memorable Steve Marriot (Small Faces) and Chris Blunstone (The Zombies)? But, you have sure chosen some great ones already.... Lisa

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