When we think of great vocalists, often the names of golden-voiced balladeers or lulling crooners come to mind—the likes of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Frank Sinatra, or Aretha Franklin. But, as it happens, a number of the voices that have been cemented into public consciousness are not so conventional but are so distinctive that we can’t help but be pulled in when they release a wailing note or two.
Though they may not have fared well on American Idol or The Voice, these singers have long moved us nevertheless. Below, in no particular order, are the best singers with unusual voices.
1. Neil Young
Dana Carvey had a recurring bit on Saturday Night Live, where he would up his octave and squeeze out the lyrics to Neil Young-esque songs. Coldplay’s “Yellow” was born out of frontman Chris Martin lovingly poking fun at a Young song. Since he came on the scene in the ’60s, Young’s voice has inspired many a impression. Though his voice may have limited him at the beginning of his career, from his first solo singles, it became clear that no one should sing his tracks but Young himself. No one else could have interpreted his lyrics in the same way.
2. Geddy Lee
When hearing Geddy Lee’s speaking voice, you’d never know that a high-flying vocalist was hiding behind the surface. Though Lee’s vocals can make the barrier for entry into Rush a little steeper, we can’t imagine anything but his high notes helming their music.
3. Axl Rose
Slash can recall the first time he heard Axl Rose’s singing voice. “His squeal was so high-pitched that I thought it might be a technical flaw on the tape. It sounded like the squeak that a cassette makes just before the tape snaps—except it was in key,” he wrote in his self-titled memoir. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves, Rose’s voice is near superhuman. Few other men could sing tracks like “You Could Be Mine.”
4. Tom Waits
Any Tom Waits fan that has attempted to turn an unsuspecting listener on to his music has found themselves having to defend their musical choices a time or two. Upon first listen, his deep, sometimes droning, vocals can sound more like a drunken slur than the musings of a genius lyricist. After a second or third, it becomes clear that the latter fact is certainly true.
Wait’s music has a timeless quality. Tracks like “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You” and “Hold On” deliver poignant lyrics that his niche audience clings to with bated breath.
5. Eddie Vedder
Eddie Vedder inspired an entire generation of vocalists that are as equally rich as they are mumbly. Though you may find it hard to decipher the lyrics to “Yellow Ledbetter” or “Lukin” you can still feel all the emotion he injects into them. With Pearl Jam’s illustrious career as proof, do we really need to know what the lyrics are?
6. Robert Plant
Many of Led Zepplin’s lyrics evoke images of mystical lands and the divine. The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands/ To fight the horde, singing and crying/ Valhalla, I am coming would sound silly if it were coming out of anyone’s mouth but Robert Plant’s. His banshee-Esque vocals sound almost otherwordly themselves, making them the perfect fit for such pageantry.
7. Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan changed how the world would perceive great singers. Dylan came on the scene as the crooner era was coming to a close and he might have been the one to put the final nail in the coffin. Singer-songwriters soon became all the rage with a new focus on what the artists were saying as opposed to how they were delivering it. Though his voice has experienced some changes across the years, it remains distinctly and unmistakably Dylan.
8. Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin was packing some power behind her voice. Though her career was incredibly brief, her wailing vocals have made her one of the most dynamic and iconic singers of the 20th century. Her range remains unparalleled. Her sharp-edged tone remains the stuff of Rock n’ Roll miracles. Never before heard and yet to be repeated, it’s nice to imagine what she could have done if she had lived longer.
(Photo by John Byrne Cooke Estate/Getty Images)