When it comes to rock music, the vital element of singing often gets short shrift. Few and far between are soulful rock voices like the Who‘s Roger Daltrey (“Love Reign O’er Me”), inimitable showmen like Queen‘s Freddie Mercury (“Hammer to Fall”), or anesthetizing mood-setters like Pink Floyd‘s David Gilmour (“Comfortably Numb”). Granted, Auto-Tune rules the pop universe, and range isn’t everything. But too many popular and indie acts feature vocals that merely “get the job done” and not much else.
We’re here to fix that. In praise of irreplaceable frontpeople everywhere, we list ten unheralded rock singers who caught our ear and stayed there. Many hail from Great Britain, several fronted multiple projects, and a couple even cracked the US Top 40 in one guise or another. But they all rise above just “doing their job” at the microphone, lassoing a slender taste of lyrical heaven. Hopefully, you’ll savor their vocal gifts, too.
10. Lynn Canfield – Area / The Moon Seven Times
Lanterna‘s Henry Frayne has long been one of this reviewer’s favorite guitarists, adapting the Chameleons‘ echo-ey post-punk magic to a more sober ambient format. Before founding the mostly instrumental Lanterna, Frayne backed vocalist Lynn Canfield in the groups Area and the Moon Seven Times. Area could sound a bit bland for our taste, but Moon Seven Times nailed the indie rock/new age border just right. Backed by Frayne’s wistful prairie licks, Canfield resembles a less melodramatic Hope Sandoval as she narrates our lonely sojourn down deserted Midwestern byways. Songs like 1993’s “Straw Donkeys” are best enjoyed with the lights out and a cozy somebody on hand to keep you warm.
9. Steven Wilson – Porcupine Tree / Blackfield
Steven Wilson‘s music can be industrial; it can sound punkish and subversive or land soft as eiderdown. This astonishing versatility makes his tender, steady vocals an unending source of wonder. Wilson’s Gilmour-esque delivery remains one of the smoothest and most consistent in his genre, capable of veering from fury to loving softness as required. Porcupine Tree‘s 1999 masterpiece Stupid Dream may be his claim to posterity, but Wilson’s work with Israeli gadfly Aviv Gefen in Blackfield also comes highly recommended. A second career remastering vintage albums in 5.1 Hi-Res Surround merely solidifies this studio wizard’s unimpeachable credentials.
8. Richard Sinclair – Caravan / Camel
If one intends to represent the hallowed ‘Canterbury’ progressive music scene, best to be born there yourself. Richard Sinclair surpassed that initial promise, heading seminal genre acts like the Wilde Flowers, Caravan, and Hatfield and the North, plus a late 1970s stint with Camel. Seemingly born a thousand years too late, Sinclair lends medieval passion to pastoral tracks like “Golf Girl”, “Winter Wine”, and Camel’s utterly stunning romantic ode “Breathless”. For some, Caravan’s early records waxed too guttural, while prime-era Canterbury artists frequently overdosed on preciousness. But Caravan’s 1971 In the Land of Grey and Pink and Camel’s 1978 Breathless album are both must-own pinnacles of progressive rock, thanks mainly to Sinclair’s blast-from-the-past vocals.
7. Tracey Bryn and Melissa Brooke Belland – Voice of the Beehive
Our lone harmonic duo and the easiest to picture winning an episode of American Idol. If certain female vocalists can do things men can’t, then Tracy Bryn and Melissa Belland are indeed living proof. These two sisters (père Four Preps singer Bruce Belland) were born to harmonize, trading delicate verbal kisses over sugary indie-rock with a slice of 1960s Motown kick. Voice of the Beehive notched several British hits during its late 1980s heyday, while their 1988 debut, Let It Bee, was recently remastered for a deluxe reissue. But 1991’s Honey Lingers is a more consistent place to start, reminding us with call-and-response gems like “Say It” and “Monsters and Angels” that great vocals are to be treasured – and shared.
6. Kirsty MacColl
We promised to use the words “angel” and “heavenly” only once in this article. Well, that time is now. Taken from us much too soon, Kirsty MacColl expertly layered her studio vocals to fashion a heavenly angelic chorus. 1979’s sparkling 50s tribute “They Don’t Know” is her best-known US single, thanks to Tracy Ullman’s 1983 cover. But 1985’s “He’s on the Beach” stands as MacColl’s finest microphone moment, co-written with Gavin Povey and inspired by a friend who ditched the UK to head Down Under. MacColl told Record Mirror magazine, “The single has no hidden depths; it’s just about a bloke out in Australia enjoying himself.” In typical pop-chart irony, “He’s on the Beach” didn’t even crack the UK Top 100. So, enjoy this sun-drenched ode to absent friends, and abandon all faith in popular music taste.
5. Joe Pernice – The Pernice Brothers
We can categorically declare that this grit-soaked world does not deserve Joe Pernice’s exquisite vocal witchery. Tall words, right? More than pleasing, Pernice’s voice borders on extraterrestrial, touching a million neural bases despite staying comparatively sedate in terms of range. “Working Girls” is a shining example. After medicating the listener with 90 seconds of chamber-pop bliss, Pernice scales an unforgettable mountaintop bridge effortlessly to convince the world, “I feel 17!” Following a prolific decade during the 2000s, he fronted multiple side projects before returning to the Pernice Brothers with 2019’s excellent Spread the Feeling.
4: Elizabeth Fraser – Cocteau Twins
It may be heresy to claim as much, but only one Cocteau Twins album really mattered. We can make the blasphemous argument that just a single record from the vast 4AD catalog counts: 1990’s Heaven or Las Vegas. Though Elizabeth Fraser’s lyrics remain famously incomprehensible – one contemporary reviewer labeled it an alien tongue, while Fraser ascribes her impenetrability to “laziness and bad diction” – the terms “ethereal” and “divine” were invented for pipes like hers. Younger readers can rest assured that nothing on early 1990s college radio sounded even remotely close to “Iceblink Luck”, or the miraculous title track below. Some of the toughest athletes and fraternity dudes we knew adored this stuff. So will you.
3. Greg Lake – King Crimson / Emerson, Lake and Palmer
Despite legions of Robert Fripp fans and a stellar follow-up career with ELP, Greg Lake’s contribution to formative King Crimson is criminally neglected. Alongside Black Sabbath, their apocalyptic 1969 landmark In the Court of the Crimson King set the template for a swarm of progressive / proto-metal followers, from Peter Gabriel-era Genesis to Metallica‘s 1991 Black Album. Lake’s doom-laden vocals on the fortress-like “Epitaph” forge a near-Biblical experience, starring some of the bleakest end-of-the-world lyrics in rock history. If half of what he sings here is true, then the human race surely deserves its ungodly fate. Of course, the magic couldn’t last: Lake departed after 1970’s imprecise sequel In the Wake of Poseidon, leaving King Crimson much worse for wear (at least in this reviewer’s opinion). But these first two classic records amply demonstrate the orbital boost a great singer can supply to an extraordinary band.
2. Eric Woolfson – The Alan Parsons Project
Name one singer whose melancholy voice has haunted us since childhood, and the answer would have to be Eric Woolfson. His work with the Alan Parsons Project, particularly 1982’s signature tune “Eye in the Sky”, defined Parsons’ underappreciated ensemble despite a stable of prestigious guest vocalists. Woolfson’s velvet timbre hews to the same grain as David Gilmour’s, except with more eerie depth – a mailed fist in a Vaseline glove. Tracks like “Time”, “Don’t Answer Me”, and the withering “Eye” mix romantic supplication with the Orwellian paranoia of “1984”, forcing even the hardiest listeners to glance over their shoulders in dread. Whoever Big Brother may be, Woolfson convinces us that he is indeed watching (and hearing). Bonus Wikipedia nugget: As a young manager, did you know Woolfson initially signed Carl Douglas of “Kung Fu Fighting” fame? Neither did we.
1. Ian McCulloch – Echo and the Bunnymen
Like Eric Woolfson above, Ian McCulloch had a fantastic voice, a productive career, and a compelling band behind him. Per Woolfson, fairly or not, he is also defined by a single cosmic performance: 1987’s soaring, otherworldly “Lips Like Sugar”. Of all the essential 1980s British exports – the Smiths, the Cure, et al. – McCulloch had the strongest lead voice by far. Yet aside from a couple of film soundtrack contributions, Echo and the Bunnymen never hit it big in America because they were just too darn good. Despite ‘sellout’ accusations and the band’s own commercial misgivings, college radio played the heck out of “Sugar”, which came to eclipse other excellent tracks like “Silver”, “A Promise”, and “The Cutter” as prime McCulloch vocal showcases. Some might favor other singers on this list in terms of range, talent, or cultural impact. Yet none ever matched McCulloch’s towering, head-scratching emotional punch.