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10 Most Distinctive Voices in Rock

Karl Walter / Kevin Winter / Charley Gallay, Getty Images

Some voices stand out from the rest. What makes one singer more unique than another? It’s not always his or her ability to carry a tune. Sometimes, it’s a guttural growl adding texture to a vocal lick or a piercing nasally howl cutting through the heavy distortion of the guitars. Often, it’s the soul and emotion a particular singer is able to convey when belting out, whispering or even speaking the lyrics to a song.

Presence, tone and character are important, as is the ability to express emotions that come from deep within — yet in an idiosyncratic way. The artists on our list of the Most Distinctive Voices in Rock have an extra special something that makes us want to listen again and again.


Tom Waits

 
 

There' no singer on the planet with a voice as singular as Tom Waits. This American curio has been captivating fans worldwide with his distinctive blend of rasps and growls since the early 1970s. The mixture of smooth harmonies with his telltale husky inflections can be an acquired taste, but once you’ve given him a chance, Waits' musical creations can become quite addicting.

 

Cat Power

 
 

Indie songstress Chan Marshall, better known by her stage name, Cat Power, can impress listeners with her throaty voice. Full of rough, injured soul, it lingers in quiet spaces, then come out full force in a show of deep emotion. Her performance style might not be the most polished on the planet, but she usually delivers her songs with a wealth of heart and healthy dose of melancholy.

 

Thom Yorke

 
 

Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke possesses one of the most instantly identifiable voices in rock. Yorke likes to linger in the higher registers, bouncing around from head voice to falsetto. Full of vibrato, his tenor can convey pain and brightness at the same time. Although his singing has been characterized as “pretty,” he’s not afraid to shout and scream to get his musical point across.

 

Jonsi Birgisson

 
 

Iceland’s Jonsi Birgisson, from the band Sigur Rós, is the proud owner of an exceptionally pliable, ethereal voice, which is perfect for the kind of ambient rock and folk music he creates. He sings with a lot of falsetto, and quite often with a sorrowful quality, which defines his distinctive, ghostly sound. You might not understand his lyrics in the slightest, but you can be fairly certain he’s dumping his soul into his words as he glides them across the atmosphere.

 

Henry Rollins

 
 

It doesn’t matter if Henry Rollins is screaming, singing or merely conducting an interview. As soon as this hard rocker and spoken-word performer opens his mouth, you know who’s talking, because his commanding voice hits you like a fist in the face, delivering power and gravitas. He might yell “liar” in one of his songs, or provide the vocal talent for the character of a battle-hardened army vet in the World War Z audiobook. Regardless of where Rollins happens to turn up any particular day, he tends to deliver a knockdown vocal routine.

 

Bjork

 
 

It seems Iceland and atypical voices go hand in hand. Just like Jonsi Birgisson, Bjork flexes her vocal muscles in a highly stylized and exceptional manner. Her sound is amazingly versatile and, on occasion, overwhelming. With a strong command over soft lyrics as well as heartfelt, banshee yells, Bjork can sustain her notes as long as she pleases, and then still run you over with another vocal run. After the singing gymnastics have stopped, if she sees fit, she can then go on and soothe you’re frayed nerves with a gentle lullaby.

 

Lou Reed

 
 

Lou Reed's instantly identifiable singing style and rhythmic speech pattern -- as heard on such iconic tracks as 'Perfect Day' and 'Walk On the Wild Side' -- single him out as a very special kind of performer. While he might not have a great singing voice by traditional standards, he knows how to entertain. Just listen to the stories he tells on his album 'New York.' Even when he’s talking instead of singing, his lyrics and voice come across with a storyteller’s presence, reminiscent of the ancient narrators who spun their tales around campfires.

 

Joanna Newsom

 
 

Joanna Newsom has the distinction of being the only harpist/singer on this list of the Most Distinctive Voices in Rock. When Ms. Newsom lets her lyrics fly, the listener is sometimes treated to a sweet melody, but more often than not, it seems as if this young singer is channeling the spirit of an angry eighty-year-old women coming off a bender while going on a verbal rampage. Her unbridled and erratic singing style might be hard to pin down, but there’s no mistaking her voice for anyone else’s.

 

Jim James

 
 

My Morning Jacket’s lead singer and songwriter, Jim James, has one of the most beautiful voices in rock music today. His style is bluesy, with a heavy tinge of soul and country thrown into the mix. This is one singer who isn’t afraid to play around with his vocal musings and take advantage of his strong range. When he records and performs on stage, his voice is usually soaked in reverb, which makes for a heavenly sound.

 

Perry Farrell

 
 

Perry Farrell, the man who injected a significant amount of punk into rock with his pioneering band Jane’s Addiction, is quite a presence onstage. His voice can be piercing at times, and his primordial screams ear shattering when he screeches through a wall of distorted base and guitar, but when he lets his emotions rip on songs like 'Jane Says' and 'Mountain Song,' you know Perry is in the building. He uses a significant amount of effects in his vocal mix, which adds even more edge to his crackly voice and helps electrify his music.

 

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