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Over the entire Classic Rock era, there have been many vocalists, both good (looking at you, Morrison) and bad (looking at you, Dylan). Today, we ignore the less-than-talented voices and focus on the good ones. It is rock only, so eat crow if you complain there's no Mariah Carey or Tupac on my list in the comments section. It will be heavy on classic rock...that's what this group is, isn't it? I'll do a backwards countdown from 20 to 1, and I'll also have a sample song for each...shall we begin?

 

20. Ronnie Van Zant (Lynyrd Skynyrd)

The lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd, he had a great southern voice that had a certain lilt to it. He could carry his band through certain songs, such as he does for the opening half of Free Bird, the band's most famous song and a tribute to Duane Allman. His voice didn't have a huge range, but it was powerful and hard not to listen to.

 

 

19. Ian Gillan (Deep Purple)

Yeah...that Ian Gillan. He had plenty of range, and he shows it off in songs like Smoke On The Water, where his voice instantaneously drops from high to low, to off-key and high-pitched screams. Most people remember Smoke On The Water's famous riff, but what stays with me is Gillan's voice.

 

 

18. Marvin Gaye

The MoTown savior, and the best Rhythm & Blues/Rock artist I've ever heard, he had one of the smoothest voices I've ever heard, including transitions to impossibly high registers. In "I Heard It Through The Grapevine", he more than once lets his voice jump up about 2 octaves without the slightest of hesitations.

 

 

17. Michael Stipe (REM)

That's right, the guy who dates 7 men for every 3 women. "Losing My Religion" doesn't showcast his original style of musical muttering as much as other works of his, but he puts a ton of emotion into this (and other songs), and that is something he can do better than almost anybody.

 

 

16. Steven Tyler (Aerosmith)

The Demon of Screamin' didn't earn his name for nothing. He could hit the ear-piercing notes with ease, and he has one of the rawest voices in music. Never mind the fact that his face looks like someone took a few healthy swings to it with a meat cleaver. His daughter is also Liv Tyler...hello!

 

 

15. Brian Johnson (AC/DC)

Unlike Tyler, Brian Johnson had no low register...his only style was loud screeches and wails. Nevertheless, it was effective. He produced better songs with AC/DC than Bon Scott, and in my opinion had a more notable voice than the other, which is why I chose Johnson instead of Scott for this list (actually, Scott probably wouldn't make the list anyways).

 

 

14. Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane/Starship)

She had an incredibly powerful voice, and it was that (by far) that made Jefferson Airplane famous and gave it a unique sound. She is the tour de force that made songs like "White Rabbit" and "Somebody To Love"...well, good. Plus, there was the fact that she was pretty hot.

 

 

13. Paul McCartney (The Beatles)

I thought about John Lennon, but McCartney was more of the vocalist, whereas Lennon was more of the writer. McCartney generally didn't demonstrate much range, as he usually sang a lot of the sadder, slower Beatles songs, but he had a chance to try new things in songs like "Helter Skelter", and in his later band, The Wings.

 

 

12. Sammy Hagar

The lesser loved of Van Halen frontmen (behind David Lee Roth), Hagar still did some good work with Van Halen, but I believe his best stuff came in his solo career. My favorite song of his is "Heavy Metal", and he gives a very powerful yet raw performance. Actually, the least loved frontman for Van Halen was probably Gary Cherone...does he count

 

 

11. Ronnie James Dio

Probably the most powerful voice in rock, or at least metal. The man's only volume levels are 99 and 100. He did a little work with Black Sabbath, but he's more well known for his own band, Dio. Probably by the time he's 60 years old, he won't be able to speak louder than a whisper. What? He's 65? And he's still singing? Whoa...

 

 

10. John Fogerty (CCR)

His voice was similar to that of Ronnie Van Zant, but I think he had a better voice, as well as a tad bit more range. He could do soft vocals during songs like "Proud Mary", but could also screech and yell to his heart's content during "Travelin' Band".

 

 

9. David Gilmour (Pink Floyd)

First off, he was better than Syd Barrett (who I don't think was all that good anyways). He was also better than Roger Waters, who he shared some of the vocal work in the band with. Gilmour sang my favorite song of theirs ("Wish You Were Here"), and he did the refrain for "Comfortably Numb". His voice wasn't nearly as crass as Barrett's was, and he had both a recognizable and very well-tuned voice.

 

 

8. Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath)

Osbourne is equally known for his work in Black Sabbath as well as his solo career. I personally feel that Osbourne's voice and the style of Black Sabbath were one of the best combinations in rock history, and this is showcased in many of their songs, from the slow "Iron Man" to the faster paced "Paranoid". Another good example would have been "War Pigs". Although currently he sounds like a hillbilly high on acid, his voice back in the day was pretty strong.

 

 

7. Elvis Presley

I'll be the first to say that I'm biased against The King...I'm not fan of his music. But you can't deny that he had quite a voice on him. Perhaps the most recognizable singing voice on the planet. He pumped out a stream of successful songs, and his worldwide notability is matched only by The Beatles. The only difference is, he gained it all with his deep, down-home voice.

 

 

6. Roger Daltrey (The Who)

His voice was raspy, yet he knew how to use it...well, at that. It isn't my favorite song from The Who, but "Behind Blue Eyes" probably gives the greatest example Daltrey's range, as he goes from slow, sad and melodic...but as soon as the tune changes to fast and intense, and as soon as you hear Daltrey sing the first couple of lines ("when my first clenches crack it open; before I use it and lose my cool"), you know you're listening to one hell of a great singer.

 

 

And now, my friends, it is time for the top 5...are you ready?

 

5. Gregg Allman (The Allman Brothers)

His brother (Duane) was also one of the best guitar players in history, but Gregg's contributions vocally couldn't be ignored. He sang southern blues/rock songs like "Ramblin' Man", as well as slower songs like "Melissa". He even had a successful solo career, singing songs like "I'm No Angel". His voice always had a bluesy (almost jazzy) southern edge to it, and it was a very low, soft voice, but that's not to say he couldn't make it dominating (again, "I'm No Angel").

 

 

4. Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin)

The frontman for Led Zeppelin, he is arguably the most well-known band member, which is pretty good considering his competition (Jimmy Page, John Bonham, John Paul Jones). The more well-known aspect of Plant's singing was his high voice, which was a different sort of vocal technique than what was used back then, and influenced many later "high" singers, like Axl Rose, Steven Tyler, Brian Johnson, Geddy Lee, and others. Another aspect was how well his voice went with Led Zeppelin. This was no easy feat, as Led Zeppelin's music style ranged all over the place, from hard rock to blues, from reggae to country, from classical to funk. Plant could keep up with every style thrown at him.

 

 

3. Jim Morrison (The Doors)

Like Elvis, his voice was deep and very recognizable. I think that he had Elvis beat as far as strength and resonance of his voice, however. In fact, Jim Morrison might very well have had the deepest voice I've ever heard. If a movie ever needed God to sing a solo, I'm sure Morrison would have been the first one to get a call. I've heard from some (aka Coletrain) that Ray Manzarek was more important to the Doors than Morrison was, but that's not true. Morrison was and is the face of The Doors.

 

 

2. Jimi Hendrix

He is better known for his guitar work, but I feel his voice was almost as good, if not as good. He died the same age as Morrison (27 years old), and pretty close to the same time. They were somewhat similar...both had deep voices, and both were cut from a different cloth than many of their contemporaries. His voice fit well with his guitar playing as well, and it's much of the way he speaks that is really the best part...it's almost as if he laughs his way through every song he sings. Much of his music is actually almost intended to be humorous ("Move over Rover, and let Jimi take over). The only regret I have about putting him here is I don't like having two "Jims" in a row.

 

 

1. Freddie Mercury

C'mon, you saw this coming. Mercury, besides having a very recognizable voice, also had more range than any other singer...maybe in history. He could reportedly hit 4 different octaves, from an impossibly deep baritone to an impossibly high tenor. He could also hit a coloratura, an impossibly high soprano tone. We have all heard "Bohemian Rhapsody" before. Listen to the vocals a little more this time, and you'll hear one heck of a performance. Throughout the entire song, his voice jumps from a deep and throaty pitch to a high, almost lilting level. And then, when he gets to the heavier part ("so you think you can stop me and spit in my eye"), he instantly jumps to "Rock and Roll" mode, and shows he could have done just as well in a hard rock/metal group as he could have in a "jack-of-all-trades" group like Queen.

 

Well, there you have it. No doubt some of you like my list, and some of you hate it. Either way, I'll be glad to get some feedback. Thanks for reading! 

April 3, 2013  06:46 PM ET

This list reads like a popularity contest for the band/artist - which has little to do with actual vocal talent. Yes, Freddie Mercury had some pipes, but less popular guys like Paul Carrack could wipe the floor with most of this list. Michael Stipe is a great artist, but not a great vocalist by even the weakest standards. Grace Slick could sing, but even she'd tell you that Mickey Thomas' range was two times what her own was. And Steven Tyler...if only interjecting "Yabba Dabba Dooba" into songs intermittently equated to vocal talent, he and Anthony Kiedis would be ranked numbers 1 and 2 all time.

If you want to know who the true greats were, you have to look beyond records sold and popularity.

Rolling Stone does this all the time, such as with their "100 greatest guitarists" farce, which if I recall had Jack White at number 16 and Eddie Van Halen well below that. Why? Because at the time "Seven Nation Army" was popular and they were kissing their readership's collective arses. Nevermind the fact that Jack White isn't that good of a guitarist (though he is a competent songwriter) and that Van Halen, for all his detractors, is probably more responsible for kids picking up guitars than all other guitarists combined. But hey...who needs the facts when you're trying to sell magazines, right?

If you want to make a list, there should be criteria. Using the guitarist argument above as an example, let's say we use technical skill, innovation and popularity (the latter of which is all you used for this post).

Eddie Van Halen is not by a long shot the most technically skilled guitarist. There are plenty of "known" guitarists (Vai, Gilbert, Metheny, Holdswoth, Atkins, etc) in many genres of music with a better technical reputation ??? not to mention the many classical virtuosos most have never heard of. But remember, in 1978, Vai was 4 years from releasing "Flex-able". There was no "Blizzard of Oz" and no one knew who Randy Rhodes was. No one was listening to Steeler or Alcatraz, so no one knew who Yngwie was. In the 1978 genre of rock music, it was basically Van Halen or Tom Sholtz, and ???Eruption??? was like nothing ever heard before. At that time, EVH was easily the most technically gifted rock guitarist on the national stage. And though he's been copied since to the point of his playing style becoming cliche, he has certainly been one of the most innovative.

As for influence, no discussion needed. Everyone knows what an influence Eddie Van Halen had on guitar (see every rock song with finger tapping in the 80's - there were a lot of them).

So then we come to popularity. Were VH popular? Sure, but they didn't sell records like AC/DC (few bands do, come to think of it). Yet, if we use popularity as the ONLY criteria, we get guys on our "greatest rock guitarist" list like Angus and Malcolm Young. Are Angus and Malcolm Yound both good guitar players and exceptional songwriters? You bet, but neither belong on a "greatest guitarist" list. Would I rather listen to AC/DC or Van Halen? 80% of the time, I'll take AC/DC if those are the choices. But remember, this is a hypothetical "Top Guitarist" list, not a "Rank Bands By The Strength Of Their Catalog" list.

So in summary, I think your "Top 20 Rock Vocalists" list needs some further thought. And yes, I probably have WAY too much time on my hands.

April 10, 2013  09:30 AM ET

Geoff Tate crushes this list.

May 15, 2013  07:49 PM ET

This list sucks very badly. I can see Freddie Mercury, Ronnie James Dio, Ian Gillan and Steven Tyler and maybe a few others but Jimi Hendrix was a horrible vocalist and he's at #2? (obviously he is a genius on the guitar) People who should be on this list: Geoff Tate, Tony Harnell, Mili Matijevic, James LaBrie, Paul Stanley, Devin Townsend, Butch Walker, Layne Staley, Rob Halford, Bruce Dickinson, Maynard James Keenan, Sebastian Bach

September 20, 2013  05:04 AM ET

Freddie at first!!!! Yeah!!! That's obviously best choice, but there are 3 mistakes in this list, I think: John Lennon hadn't wide range, but he had rock-voice more than Ozzy Osbourne and many of this list, so I think Lennon should be here in first 10 vocalist at least, because his rock voice and soul, as this makes first of all rock songs amazing and not range. I think, that Ian Gillan must be at 2nd or 3d place. Thank

October 10, 2013  02:15 PM ET

Brian Johnson? Michael Stipe? What? Substitute Wilson for Slick, Dickinson for Tyler, move Gaye way up the list and Hendrix way down the list. Remove McCartney, Johnson and Stipe. Add Green, Delp and Bach.

November 17, 2013  12:50 AM ET

Off course I had it coming undoubtedly NO. 1) FOREVER FREDDIE MERCURY WOW, a pity he died before his time, Nov 22 will complete 22 years since he died, I am sure he is rocking on the other side, it does not matter whether its heaven or hell, he will draw crowds wherever he sings

ROCK ON FREDDIE WE LOVE YOU,

AND TO THOSE ALIVE "BRIAN JOHNSON" "YOU LIVE TO ROCK". KEEP GOING MAN.

February 14, 2014  01:42 PM ET

Obviously there are going to be some disagreements but I think for the most part it's a really solid list, way better than rolling stone mags. One person I might have put on there is Paul Rodgers, lead singer of bad company and free. His stuff is pretty awesome

 
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