Last weekend we asked our readers to vote for their favorite lead singers of all time. We received an enormous number of votes, and here are the results. (And remember, we just count the votes – even if they are exclusively for white men.)
The Nirvana frontman's career lasted only a handful of years, but he's inarguably one of the greatest songwriters of the past few decades. What's often overlooked is just how amazing a singer he was. Watch him sing "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" from Unplugged In New York to see a perfect example of his stunning vocal abilities. Few people have ever been able to match the passion and intensity he pours into the final verse.
By Andy Greene
Chris Cornell's voice packs so much power that over the past 20 years superstar collaborators have lined up to work with him – everyone from members of Rage Against The Machine to Santana, Pearl Jam and even hip-hop producer Timbaland. The latter move dismayed Cornell's longtime rock fans, but they were overjoyed last year when he reunited with Soundgarden. They're in the studio right now cutting a new album, with many more concerts likely to come in the near future.
The Beatles had four amazing singers, but the only one to make our list is John Lennon. He set the tone very early in the group's career. It was February of 1963 and the group had been recording tracks for their debut LP Please Please Me for 12 consecutive hours. By this point Lennon's voice was shredded, but he was talked into putting down vocals on "Twist And Shout." Before walking into the studio he gargled some milk and sucked on some throat lozenges. He then nailed the song in a single take. Needless to say, it was the beginning of 17 years of stunning work.
In 1990 Eddie Vedder was working at a gas station when his buddy Jack Irons gave him a demo tape of a Seattle band searching for a new singer. While surfing, Vedder came up with lyrics for the three songs and sent the tape back to the band with his contributions. They were blown away and Vedder was soon asked to join what became Pearl Jam. One of the songs on that tape, "Alive," was blaring out of countless bedrooms across America within about a year. Since then Vedder has become one of the most imitated singers in rock, but nobody has come close to matching his ferocious wail.
All-star benefit concerts are good for producing lots of money and surprising duets, but they rarely lead to jaw-dropping musical moments. The Concert for New York City in 2001 was the exception. Many had written the Who off as a washed-up oldies act at that point, but their four song set was beyond stunning. They completely stole the show from heavyweights like David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and many more. Roger Daltrey was 57 at the time, but his vocals were nearly as song as they had been for the previous 40 years as the frontman in the Who. His contributions are often overshadowed by the fact that he had to share the stage with some of the most freakishly talented musicians in rock history, but his primal scream at the finale of "Won't Get Fooled Again" couldn't have been delivered by anybody else.
In the summer of 1967 "Light My Fire" hit Number One on the Billboard Hot 100. It was just the second single by The Doors, and it instantly made Jim Morrison one of the most famous singers in the country. His vocals oozed with sex, aggression and danger – and he taught many future punk rockers how to sing. "It was thrilling, sensual, powerful and experimental," Perry Farrell has said. Morrison died in 1971 when he was just 27, but all these years later teenagers are still discovering his songs and keeping the legend alive.
Mick Jagger is 67 years old, and as he proved at the Grammys this year, he's still one of the greatest singers in the world. He's been doing it since the Rolling Stones burst onto the London scene in 1962. Back then he was imitating the American blues greats of the previous generation, but he quickly found his own voice. "His sense of pitch and melody is really sophisticated," says Lenny Kravitz. "His vocals are stunning, flawless in their own kind of perfection. There are certain songs where he just becomes a different person. Take 'Angie': I've never heard that tone from him since, and it wasn't there before. And I love when he sings falsetto, like on 'Emotional Rescue' or 'Fool to Cry.'" While it's very hard to say for sure, if the rumor mill is true, Jagger and the rest of the Rolling Stones will hit the road in 2012 – just in time to honor their 50th anniversary as a band.
Paul Hewson's nickname was originally Bono Vox, which translated from Latin into "good voice." He's long since shortened it to Bono, but the sentiment remains. He does indeed have a very good voice. It's as effective on soft, moody songs like "Did You Wear That Velvet Dress" as it as on intense, hard rockers like "Bullet The Blue Sky." He can sing opera with Pavarotti, gospel with a Harlem choir, blues with B.B. King and even country with Johnny Cash. "He's a physical singer, like the leader of a gospel choir," says Billie Joe Armstrong. "He gets lost in the melodic moment. He goes to a place outside himself, especially in front of an audience, when he hits those high notes. That's where his real power comes from — the pure, unadulterated Bono."
Few men in rock basked in the love of a giant crowd quite like Freddie Mercury. Kurt Cobain even mentioned it in his suicide note: "When we're back stage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowds begins it doesn't affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury," he wrote. "[He] seemed to love, relish in the love and adoration from the crowd which is something I totally admire and envy." Queen's set at Live Aid – where they stomped nearly every rock band of the day (besides U2) – shows that they were peaking right as Freddie's battle with AIDS took them off the road. Queen toured in the past few years with Paul Rodgers, but even a singer of that high caliber couldn't come close to filling Mercury's shoes.
When the Yardbirds dissolved in 1968 guitarist Jimmy Page wanted to form a band with the greatest singer he could possibly find. His first choice was Terry Reid, who turned the gig down. He did, however, suggest that Band of Joy Frontmtan Robert Plant might be a good fit. He was right. Led Zeppelin started playing gigs in late 1968, and fans were instantly stunned by the wild banshee wail emanating out of the lead singer. For 12 years Plant fronted Zeppelin, but when drummer John Bonham died in 1980 the band broke up. They have come together for the occasional one-off since then – most notably in 2007 when they played a full set at London's 02 Arena – but Plant has stubbornly refused to take the band on the road. Instead, he's focused on his solo career – which peaked in 2009 when he won Album of the Year at the Grammy's for Raising Sand, his LP of duets with Alison Krauss. This past year he brought his career full circle by reviving the Band of Joy name for his latest solo project.