Readers' Poll: The Best Vocal Performances in Rock History - Rolling Stone
Home Music Music Lists

Readers’ Poll: The Best Vocal Performances in Rock History

Your picks included ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven’

Readers' Poll: What's the greatest vocal performance in rock history?

Michael Putland/Getty Images; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; David Redfern/Redferns

A great vocal performance can elevate an otherwise standard song to amazing heights. Imagine the Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" sung by anybody other than Roger Daltrey or "River Deep, Mountain High" sung by some run-of-the-mill soul singer. It just wouldn't work. If you need any evidence, search YouTube for Audioslave's attempts to perform Rage Against the Machine numbers; Chris Cornell is amazing, but "Bulls on Parade" cannot work without Zack de la Rocha.

Last week, we asked you to vote on your favorite vocal performances in rock history. Click through to see the results. 

Play video

10. Joe Cocker, ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’

Joe Cocker first sang the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends" on his 1969 debut LP, which featured Jimmy Page on guitar, but the version most people remember is the eight-minute rendition that closed out his set at Woodstock later that year. Countless artists covered the Beatles in the 1960s, but few people took a sledgehammer to one of their tunes quite like Cocker did. Almost nothing from the original remains besides the words; he also poured every ounce of himself into the vocals, transforming the track into a jaw-dropping blues number.

His band all took LSD before the Woodstock set, but Cocker claimed later that he abstained. (Watching the video, it's easy to think otherwise.) His cover found a new audience in the 1980s when it became the theme song to The Wonder Years. 

Play video

9. Nirvana, ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’

The traditional folk song "In the Pines" (better known as "Where Did You Sleep Last Night") has been sung by countless artists over the past 70 years, but Nirvana cut one of the all-time greatest versions of the tune during their MTV Unplugged concert in November 1993. The song had been in Nirvana's repertoire for a number of years, but the stripped-down format and the addition of cellist Lori Goldston at Unplugged made for a jaw-dropping performance. Cobain delivered one of the greatest vocal performance of his career; you can feel the agony in his cracking voice as he sings about an unfaithful woman. He killed himself just five months later. 

Play video

8. Deep Purple, ‘Child in Time’

Classic rock radio may have reduced Deep Purple's catalog to "Smoke on the Water" and "Hush," but they have an incredibly rich catalog. One of their standout moments is 1970's "Child in Time," a 10-minute epic that showcases frontman Ian Gillan's crazy vocal range. The band has largely ignored it in recent years, probably because their 67-year-old singer can't hit those notes anymore. It's impressive he was ever able to get up there. 

Play video

7. The Rolling Stones, ‘Gimme Shelter’

Mick Jagger certainly deserves platitudes for his singing on "Gimme Shelter" but, without any doubt, it's backup singer Merry Clayton who steals the show. A highly accomplished vocalist, Clayton has sung with everyone from Bobby Darin to Neil Young and Tori Amos. That's even her in the background in "Sweet Home Alabama." However, her finest moment is "Gimme Shelter" – that's her singing "Rape, murder/ It's just a shot away, it's just a shot away." Near the end, she hits some notes that would challenge Mariah Carey before singing "Love, sister/ It's just a kiss away" with Jagger. It's an absolute tour de force. Stones backup singer Lisa Fischer has done an incredible job with the parts over the years, but nobody can match Clayton's original vocal. 

Play video

6. Led Zeppelin, ‘Stairway to Heaven’

One reason that "Stairway to Heaven" has captivated listeners for all these years is that it slowly builds and builds for eight minutes. During that time, Robert Plant's vocals rise along with it, starting with almost a whisper and growing into a full-throated scream. Just don't yell for it during Plant's solo shows; he isn't a huge fan of the song and has only sung it a handful of times since Zeppelin split in 1980. One of those was the 2007 Led Zeppelin reunion concert, and he proved he still has the pipes. He even managed to get through the "bustle in your hedgerow" line without incident. 

Play video

5. Tina Turner, ‘River Deep, Mountain High’

Phil Spector made Tina Turner sing "River Deep, Mountain High" for hours on end until she got it just right. "I must have sung that 500,000 times," she said. "I was drenched with sweat. I had to take my shirt off and stand there in my bra to sing." The work paid off. The track is arguably the finest produced by either Turner or Spector, though at the time, it was a relative disappointment commercially. "I think when it came out, it was just like my farewell," Spector told Rolling Stone in 1969. "I was just saying goodbye, and I wanted to go crazy for four minutes on wax."

Play video

4. The Who, ‘Love Reign O’er Me’

When the Who formed, Roger Daltrey wasn't a very confident lead singer. The band even dumped him for a couple of weeks in the early days but, around the time of Tommy, he really came into his own and transformed into one of rock's most powerful singers. His finest work came in 1973 on "Love Reign O'er Me," the final number on the band's rock opera Quadrophenia. At that point in the story, our hero Jimmy is standing all alone on a rock in the middle of a sea during a pissing rainstorm. He's hopelessly alone, and Daltrey conveys all that intense emotion with his vocals, concluding with a soaring yelp that rivals his primal scream in "Won't Get Fooled Again." It's a very hard song to cover, but both Pearl Jam and Bettye LaVette have done quite admirable jobs with it. 

Play video

3. The Beatles, ‘Twist and Shout’

John Lennon's voice was practically fried the night they recorded "Twist and Shout." He had a bad cold and producer George Martin knew they didn't have much time to nail down the vocal. Lennon gargled milk and took a cough drop before stepping into the booth and delivered his throat-shredding take on the Isley Brothers' classic. "That song nearly killed me," Lennon said. "My voice wasn't the same for a long time after; every time I swallowed, it was like sandpaper. I was always bitterly ashamed of it, because I could sing better than that, but now it doesn't bother me."

Play video

2. Pink Floyd, ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’

Pink Floyd had been tinkering with "The Great Gig in the Sky" for a long time before they finally brought in a female vocalist to sing over what they originally conceived as an instrumental. "I went in, put the headphones on, and started going 'Ooh-aah, baby, baby – yeah, yeah, yeah,'" recalled singer Clare Torry. "They said, 'No, no – we don't want that. If we wanted that, we'd have got Doris Troy.' They said, 'Try some longer notes,' so I started doing that a bit." Over just three takes, Torry wailed over Richard Wright's piano work, pretending her voice was an instrument. The group was thrilled with the results, even though Torry wasn't so sure she did a good job. In 2004, she sued the band, claiming she should have a cowriting credit on the song. They settled the suit, and all pressings of the album now list Wright/Torry as the songwriters. 

Play video

1. Queen, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

Only Freddie Mercury could effortlessly sell lyrics like "Scaramouch, scaramouch/ Will you do the fandango?" He's also one of the few artists capable of cooking up such a fantastically complex and bizarre song. It took shape over a number of years, and the band spend weeks recording it. They pushed all the technological limitations of the day practically to breaking point, and the result is a six-minute mini-opera that defied the skeptics and became a huge radio hit. Drummer Roger Taylor hits many of the high notes during the opera portion of the song, but it's really Freddie who carries the vocals. It's the ultimate showcase for his tremendous vocal range and the band's crowning achievement. 

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.