Singing, rapping, speaking, and chanting are all part of the same animal, made from the greatest of all instruments. There’s no one formula for a compelling vocal; some great singers and rappers sound bored, some sound utterly transfixed. Personality is the key, and if you can get that through Auto-Tune, great. The results are what matter. Here are 10 performances that hit us particularly hard, listed alphabetically by name.
Erykah Badu, “Window Seat” (Universal Motown)
Her voice at its most enticing and caramel-like — qualities that describe the music as well. The video, meanwhile, got her in more trouble than 15 “Tyrone”s.
Best Coast, “Something in the Way” (PPM)
Hooky as a mofo though Crazy For You is, this high-flying 7-inch Beach Boys tribute, featuring Bethany Cosentino’s most full-throated vocal yet, will stay with you even longer.
Donae’o, “I’m Fly” (My-Ish, U.K.)
Despite the fantasies of Wilco worshipers, British grime didn’t die at all. Instead it transmuted into the new U.K. chart-pop, led by Dizzee Rascal. The idea is simple: It’s 1990 and you guys are going to make hits. So they do, sometimes terribly and sometimes wondrously. Donae’o’s “I’m Fly” is the latter. (The video is pretty 1990 itself as well.) An exercise: try chanting “Ta-na-na-na-na-na-nee-nee-nee, ta-na-na-na-na-na-nee-nee-nee” a couple times. No, fast. Now make it sound effortless — and like a really great time.
El Guincho ft. Juleta Venegas, “Mientes” (XL)
From the Piratas de Sudamérica EP of vintage Latin song covers, a fabulously wide-open belt-a-thon between two bold young talents who scoff at little things like language difference.
Jay Electronica, “Exhibit C” (Decon)
Remember when rap stars were expected to know how to rap? Much less prove their swag instead of just announce it’s there? Jay Elec-yarmulke is here to remind us.
Kelis, “Acapella” (Interscope)
In a year full of excellent musical surprises, one of the nicest was Kelis’ Flesh Tone. She didn’t simply adopt the Euro-sheeny sub-techno beats her peers have gravitated toward. She went all the way, making a real dance album: tracks-with-vocals as much as songs-with-beats. And of course the songs were there, too, especially this single, a thunderbolt that simultaneously justified David Guetta’s continuing career and made you wonder why the hell she waited so long to go disco–she was born for it.
Adam Lambert, “Whataya Want From Me” (RCA/Jive)
This one ambushed us good. We didn’t expect anything like the way he opens himself up on the lines, “There might have been a time when I could let you slip away/Oh, once upon a time/I didn’t give a damn.” They’re a shock, every time, and those two lines constitute our favorite vocal performance of the year.
Shelby Lynne, “Family Tree” (Everso)
We found Lynne’s Tears, Lies & Alibies uneven, but this song screamed out from the pack. It’s a stunning lyric in which the singer essentially cuts her ties (“This apple done fall off the family tree”); Lynne’s bruised, blunt reading, with its overly forceful acoustic guitar, is so powerful it can stop a room cold. (Not on YouTube, unfortunately, but trust us on this one.)
Sade, “Soldier of Love” (Sony)
The bruised ego, the tenderness, the steely resolve: the tone is always exact with Sade, but against military drums and shards of guitar, she’s never sounded so plainly fierce.
Eddie Vedder, “My City of Ruins (Live from the Kennedy Center Honors)” (Monkeywrench)
Recorded at the Springsteen tribute in November of 2009, Vedder’s version of a song from Bruce’s 2002 album The Rising — an album we’ve never cared for — infuses it with incredible passion. Issued as a Haiti relief download, this cover, with Vedder backed with a gospel choir, it’s the most moving thing we’ve heard him do.