For pop music obsessives, the Internet is an infinite series of bottomless rabbit holes. One of our greatest recent distractions has been isolated vocal tracks: archived recordings of only the vocals from a song, or clips that have been digitally manipulated to remove the instrumental portions (sometimes it’s difficult to tell which of the two you’re hearing). While they’re prone to encouraging an undue amount of reverence — vocals-only tracks are often cited as definitive “proof” of a musician’s talent or lack thereof — they certainly add a new dimension to our appreciation of classic singles. At their best, they highlight the unadorned talent of a singer whose voice we’re used to hearing backed by a full band; at their weirdest, well… just click through to reacquaint yourself with David Lee Roth.
Nirvana — “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
What gets us here is how distinctive Kurt Cobain’s voice sounds — urgent but also multifaceted and vulnerable, with a ferocious edge that’s more splinter than sandpaper and the occasional perfectly timed quaver. It has become a cliché that Cobain wasn’t a “good” singer, but he certainly knew what to do with the voice he was given.
Whitney Houston — “How Will I Know”
But then, maybe you prefer to hear some of the 20th century’s most perfect vocal chords do their thing. This clip circulated widely just after Houston’s death, and reminded us of what a rare talent we had lost. The high notes, the vibrato, the light touch of sass to cut the sweetness, the delicate balance of pop sheen and raw emotion — yup, that was Whitney.
David Bowie and Queen — “Under Pressure”
Jeez. So, this isn’t completely a cappella — there’s some light piano and horn. But doesn’t this stripped-down segment from “Under Pressure” bring home the enormity of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury singing in the same room? How about the way Mercury belts out that “give love” section? Producer and music-business expert Bobby Owsinski speculates that they recorded the vocals in only one take and might even have been sharing a microphone.
The Carpenters — “Rainy Days and Mondays”
Dangerous Minds recently posted a sizable collection of Carpenters recordings that feature Karen Carpenter accompanied only by sparse bass and drum parts. It might well make you see your mom’s favorite band in a new light. Carpenter’s voice is the kind of emotion-soaked alto that would be equally at home in a smoky nightclub, on a film soundtrack, or in your purest, most wholesome dreams.
The Rolling Stones — “Gimme Shelter”
Mick Jagger’s vocal performance here is nothing to sneeze at, but the real star is Merry Clayton — the soul and gospel singer for whom this track was a career highlight. You can hear the effort Clayton puts into those long, chaotically forceful high notes. In fact, she was pregnant during the recording session and suffered a miscarriage shortly after that has been attributed to the physical stress of the performance. For her trouble, her name was misspelled as “Mary” on the original printing of Let It Bleed.
Soundgarden — “Jesus Christ Pose”
In case “Smells Like Teen Spirit” failed to convince you, here’s Chris Cornell to really drive home the point that grunge singing wasn’t all mumbling and bellowing between injections of various debilitating drugs. At one point, it sounds like he’s actually trying to turn himself inside out — and succeeding!
Evanescence — “Bring Me to Life”
They’re not our favorite band, either, but listen to those pipes on Amy Lee! The note she hits at 2:45 is nothing short of transcendent. Of course, this vocals-only track also confirms that 12 Stones frontman Paul McCoy’s hype-man backing outbursts nearly ruin what is actually a very pretty melody. That first “Wake me up!” really takes us out of the song, and we never entirely return.
Van Halen — “Runnin’ with the Devil”
So, this pretty much proves that David Lee Roth is the love child of Little Richard and a space alien, right?