Earlier this week NME published the outcome of its readers’ poll about the Greatest Singers of All Time. The results were pretty depressing, but then, the whole thing was a fairly ridiculous exercise to begin with — “of all time” makes no sense considering no one alive today has heard anyone who sang before the late 1800s, and without any evaluable criteria, “greatest” is entirely subjective anyway. Ho hum. Anyway, instead of arguing about whether our favorite singers are “greater” than anyone else’s favorite singers, we got to thinking about a more entertaining criterion — distinctive and downright weird voices. Here are ten of our favorites, past and present. There are plenty more, of course, so let us know your picks.
When 19-year-old Kate Bush first emerged with “Wuthering Heights” — rake thin in a vintage red dress, spinning madly on a misty heath and singing in a neo-classical helium soprano about an Emily Brontë novel — the world had never seen anything quite like her. Thirty years later, it still hasn’t. Bush remains one of music’s great originals, and its most distinctive voices.
Formerly of the Blood Brothers and now of Jaguar Love, Johnny Whitney has a voice that’s, um, an acquired taste. To say the least. As with all the voices on this list, Whitney is difficult to describe to someone who’s never heard him before — he sounds kind of like an enraged post-hardcore chipmunk played at 45rpm instead of 33. Or something like that. However you describe them, his keening, high-pitched vocals have made both of his bands instantly recognizable, and elicited collective “WTF”s from confused parents the world over.
Another member of the high-pitched, love-her-or-hate-her camp, Joanna Newsom’s vocals are either ingenuously beautiful or affected and annoying, depending on your point of view. Her voice has become less overtly childlike in recent years — apparently due to vocal cord nodules that rendered her unable to sing at all during late 2009 — but it remains one of the most distinctive and unusual in music today.
When someone’s debut record consists of two 18-minute songs called “The Litanies of Satan” and “Wild Women with Steak-Knives,” you kind of get the idea that they’re perhaps not overly concerned with cheery subject matter. Even so, the unrelenting darkness of Diamanda Galás’s voice is something to behold – over the course of 16 albums and three decades, it hasn’t mellowed a bit, still swooping from wordless shrieking into ominous crooning and back again, one minute chanting in some weird pagan tongue, the next minute ranting Baudelaire’s poetry in French. We agree with the YouTube commenter who delivered the following verdict on the above excerpt from “The Litanies of Satan”: “Ffuck, this is some EVIL shit!” Well, quite.
Pseudo-operatic vocals in a made-up language, set over music that sounds like it should be soundtracking a leisurely helicopter ride over the fjords… The Sigur Rós sound is distinctive, all right, and it’s largely down to the otherworldly voice of their lead singer. Jónsi’s falsetto has lost none of its impact with familiarity, and as the above video demonstrates, his voice is just as good live as it is on record — his shows last year had grown men weeping into their PBRs.
In keeping with the gender-questioning nature of his music, perhaps, Antony’s voice seems to belong to a long, largely female lineage of torch song exponents that encompasses singers as diverse as Nina Simone and Judy Garland. His voice is one of those that leaps out of your stereo to grab your attention straight away. It’s emotive but not mawkish, dramatic without being over-dramatic. Or, as Diamanda Galás put it, there’s “every emotion in the planet … in that gorgeous voice.”
If you look up the word “ethereal” in the Secret Music Journalist Cliché Handbook, you’ll find a picture of Cocteau Twins vocalist Liz Fraser. Her unusual phrasing and frequent lapses into glossolalia often make it pretty much impossible to know what she’s singing about, but it doesn’t really matter — the emotional weight of her remarkable voice comes from its sound alone.
Sometime in the mid-’80s, Tom Waits suddenly metamorphosed from Bukowskian barroom balladeer into maverick musical genius. It was one of music’s great creative left turns, and it was accompanied by a dramatic shift in the sound of his voice. Ever since, music writers have been amusing themselves coming up with metaphors and florid prose to describe his vocals. Daniel Durcholz suggested that it sounded “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” Robert Sabbag described it as “a cross between mellifluous baritone and heavy-equipment breakdown.” Glenn O’Brien suggested that it “could guide ships through dense fog.” Actually, someone should start a “Descriptions of Tom Waits’s voice” Tumblr — any volunteers?
The late, great, Ari Up pioneered the expat-German-rasta-punk vocal style that… um, well, OK, she remains its sole exponent. The glory years of punk gave expression to plenty of unusual voices and unusual people, but none of them could quite compete with The Slits on either front. Ari’s voice wasn’t particularly technically amazing, but no one sang with quite the flair (or the strange enunciation) that she did. RIP.
Tiptoe! Through the tulips! With meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!