A Completely Subjective List of the Best Vocal Ad-Libs in Music


One of the great joys of music is its sense of immediacy — sure, there are songs that are painstakingly planned and produced, and benefit from being so, but there are also tracks that sound like they really were recorded live, and are all the more thrilling for it. In this respect, there’s something particularly pleasing about the off-the-cuff line, something the singer has apparently hollered into the mic on the spur of the moment. These lines don’t always make sense, and they don’t necessarily have to — either way, they add color and a sense of spontaneity to a song (and they’re damn near impossible not to sing along with). Here is an entirely subjective list of ten of the best; of course, there are gazillions more, so let us know if you have any to add.

Lee Ranaldo yells “Kick it!” in “Hey Joni”

Your correspondent’s all-time favorite in this genre, just because it manages to sound so spontaneous and yet fits so perfectly — the guitars accelerate like a big car’s engine kicking into action, building to the sort of drop that Skrillex would be proud of, and just before said drop, there’s Lee, hollering at the top of his voice. It’s the sort of line you can’t help singing along with.

Perry Farrell yells “C’mon, kiss, you motherfucker!” in “Idiots Rule”

A similarly impossible line not to holler along with, and all the better because it’s a complete non sequitur: who is Farrell talking to? Is he asking this person to kiss him, or kiss someone else, or what? What does it all mean?

Tricky moans in the middle of “Ponderosa”

At 0:57, the feeling of being wayyyyyyy too stoned, bottled and distilled into a single sound.

Iggy Pop exhorts Ron Asheton to “Show ’em how I feel” in “No Fun”

There’s really no better description of a guitar solo’s entire purpose than Iggy’s shouted appeal to Ron Asheton during the outro of “No Fun”: “C’mon Ron, let me hear you show ’em how I FEEL!” Asheton does exactly that, his solo seeming to encompass a whole world of boredom, frustration, and alienation, all drenched in a shitload of feedback.

Biz Markie’s overacting in “Just a Friend”

Biz really embraces the whole jilted-dude role in his ode to unrequited love, but the best bits come just before the choruses, when he riffs on his reaction to being told that the girls in question have “just a friend”: “Don’t give me that! Don’t even give me that!”

Nick Cave describes an ashtray that’s “as big as a fucking really big brick” in “O’Malley’s Bar”

I mean, surely that wasn’t on the lyric sheet?

Joe Strummer, generally, but especially on “Janie Jones”

Joe was the the king of the vocal ad-lib, especially in The Clash’s early career, when he was given to spitting all manner of semi-comprehensible lines into the mic as songs faded into silence. (“Total Control” is a particularly good example of this). In “Janie Jones,” though, everything he says is perfectly clear, even if it doesn’t always make sense: ‘CEPT FOR THE GOVERNMENT, MAN!

Betty Davis lists her influences in “They Say I’m Different”

As with many Davis tracks, this whole song plays like one long improvisation, with the singer explaining that people think she’s different because she was raised on dirty blues and rock ‘n’ roll. As the song progresses, she lists the artists she’s talking about: everyone from Lightning Hopkins to Bessie Smith. She saves the best for last, though: “Robert Johnson! Robert Johnson! ROBERT JOHNSON!”

Frank Black’s wordless growls in “Vamos”

The most manic of Pixies songs, and quite possibly the best. There are only two verses, but really the song is all about the extended guitar break in the middle, wherein Joey Santiago wrings all sorts of unholy sounds out of his instrument, sounds that still sound startling today. As the break comes to an end, the drums kick into double time, and Frank Black’s vocals re-enter, but not with any words — instead, there are three interjections that fall somewhere between a snarl and a scream, sounding just as savage and visceral as whatever Santiago’s doing to his guitar.

James Brown, generally

The master of grunts, yelps and “Hit me!”s. We may never see his like again.