Hello there, I hope y’all have been enjoying my makeshift voice ‘battles’ this week? How good was that isolated Marvin Gaye, vocal by the way? I struck gold with that one. To bring you up to speed, I’ve recently been choosing some of my favourite vocal performances that have affected me in one way or another over the years. Voices, that on record, transport me to another place. Now, I haven’t necessarily been focusing on my favourite songs here, there’s a whole barrage of different reasons why you may favour one song over another. I’ve just been listening to the voices, and have come up with what I believe is a pretty tidy ensemble of singers and the songs that best represent their talent. Have you any favourite singers of your own? What one song best encapsulates what’s great about them? A song by where their voice alone can stop you in your tracks?
I’ve tried to be diverse and include a mixture of singers old and new, where style, race and sex is irrelevant. But I have realised that up to now the artists that I have selected have been largely male for the most part. Is it just me, or do you find that men predominantly listen to male singers, and likewise, ladies listen to more of the ladies? Just a fleeting generalisation.
To prove that I’m not a complete misogynist, the first round of battles of this post features some inescapable female vocalists. One of whom may well be the greatest singer of them all…I’ll keep ya guessing.
Kate Bush vs. Alison Goldfrapp
Winner: Kate Bush
Alison Goldfrapp was the immediate vocalist I thought of to counterpart Kate Bush. Although she has more of a sensual and seductive voice than Kate Bush, I feel that there is a duel element of both the wilderness, and of the angelic, that I believe that they both share. I’m by no means an expert on either singer. Aside from a few choice selections, I have found that their back catalogues on the whole have passed me by. It’s more than likely that both of these singers may have even more impressive vocal performances to choose from, but I’m just going with what I know. And I love, these two. Although Goldfrapp’s operatic bursts on Utopia (at 3:19) are notably impressive, it is Kate Bush’s vocal on Cloudbusting that I find completely arresting. A great song, beautifully sung.
Bjork vs. Regine Chassange
Well here we are. I said at the start of this post that one of these female singers may well be the greatest singer of them all, and in Bjork, I think we have the most extraordinary, unpredictable voice that has ever been. It is beyond description. There really aren’t enough superlatives, but I shall try my damnedest anyway! On Birthday, Bjork’s singing is out of this world. At time’s her voice is breathless, fragile, vulnerable…and often within the same verse it suddenly explodes and transforms to something altogether more sexy, confident and enrapturing. Bjork’s voice is animalistic, out of control, and unmistakable. It’s just bat-shit crazy and I adore her for it.
Regine Chassange of course is nowhere near as accomplished a singer as Bjork but I believe that she can certainly hold her own. Her voice on In the Backseat certainly inhibits the spirit of a Bjork vocal. It shares the fragility, the childlike vulnerability, yet at the same time can soar and cascade at will. Hair-raising stuff. I’m all for it.
Feist vs. Zoe Deschanel
This was a close one to call. Two very distinct vocalists, one more accessible than the other. I’ve voted for Feist’s accessibility here as there’s a real purity to her voice. It’s almost childlike, but never grating. Zoe Deschanel shares similar pure and childlike qualities but her voice is so overpowering that sometimes it can actually work against the song. This aside, Thieves is a particular impressive performance. It’s refreshing to know that there is a voice still out there that is so different and challenging to what we normally hear on the radio. Viva la Deschanel.
For the final battle I’m gonna focus on some real trailblazers. Artists of such high regard and with such baggage, that we easily overlook their primordial attribute – their voices. Let the awesomeness commence.
Howlin’ Wolf vs. Nick Cave
Winner: Howlin’ Wolf
I thought I’d start with a couple of tracks whereby the artist doesn’t necessarily sing, but whereby they bark, and snarl, and rasp, and ultimately, give us hell. I can’t think of any other singer who invokes the spirit of the devil more than Howlin’ Wolf. Such a distinct, smoke ridden, shredded voice. Tom Waits tries his best to keep the style alive, but Howlin’ Wolf remains the original and best. Nick Cave on the other hand, though less raw and satanical, is still decidedly eerie and sinister. I admire a frontman who uses his speaking voice to such great effect. Jarvis Cocker is another non-singer whose voice is so essential to the overall sound, but it just doesn’t jump out at you in the same way, it’s as much the words as how the words are being said. Nick Cave, as commanding as his voice is, just doesn’t grab you by the balls as well as Howlin’ Wolf. Unmistakable.
Bryan Ferry vs. David Bowie
Winner: David Bowie
David Bowie was always going to win this one. Such a versatile singer with so many great vocals to choose from. Though far from being my favourite Bowie song, I’ve always believed that Young Americans was a great representation of his talent as a singer. An enticing, soulful account that I believe few could sing as well. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for fans at the time to hear him sing like this…must have been mind-blowing. Bryan Ferry, of course, is a much more acquired taste and by no way as natural a singer as Bowie. But he still has his moments, and tracks like Beauty Queen are a marvel and I just couldn’t bear not to share it with you. Class.
Michael Jackson vs. Prince
Purple Rain is a masterful album and I’m sure many of you own a copy anyway. Stick it on, turn it up and just revel in wonder at The Beautiful Ones. Much like David Bowie, Prince is a versatile singer, but one who often changes styles within the space of a single song. Within this song Prince reveals his softer side as well as the unmistakable screams of which only Jacko can compete. Promise me you’ll stick with this song to the end, because at its climax Prince goes crazy. “DO YOU WANT HIM? OR DO YOU WANT ME? COZ I WANT YOU!” The singing that follows is borderline hysteric. It’s so good that it actually makes me laugh out loud a little. The man’s a legend. Much like Jacko’s Wanna Be Startin’ Something, the actual track doesn’t really go anywhere. Each verse and chorus is quite indistinct, quite repetitive, and the pace is borderline dull. So why are these songs so fantastic? It’s what I’ve been trying to get at all along. It is their singing which carries these songs. Singing, with such fantastic, remarkable voices!
So there we have it. The last of my favourite voices, but by no means the least.
I hope you’ve all enjoyed the songs, and I hope that I’ve been able to provide some food for thought. That by listening to the wealth of fantastic, diverse and unmistakable voices that are out there, and by comparing them to a few hopeful but utterly deluded contestants on a television talent show, that you’ll agree. There is no comparison. The 30 artists I have shown here are the real thing. Be it Scott Walker, Roy Orbison, Brian Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Howlin’ Wolf or Bjork. The Voice? You’d better believe it.
I’m sure there are many great singers whom I’ve not acknowledged or have simply just forgotten about, so feedback is welcome, and thank you for reading.
Until next time.