We’d argue that all forms of rock 'n' roll androgyny trace back to David Bowie, and here at Diffuser.fm HQ, we celebrate sexual ambiguity in music like some people celebrate guitar solos or poetic lyrics. As far as we're concerned, singers whose voices transcend gender limits should have their own Grammy category, but until then, we'll have to settle for this list: 15 Singers With Sexually Ambiguous Voices. Whether they're dudes who sing like ladies or vice versa, these frontpeople keeping us guessing, and we salute them!
Listen to MGMT’s biggest radio hits, ‘Time to Pretend’ and ‘Kids,’ and tell us you don’t envision Velma from ‘Scooby-Doo’ singing them. Well, either way, we’re superfans of Andrew VanWyngarden’s high, reedy, slightly-off-key vocals -- a type the world has been enjoying since Neil Young stepped onto the scene.
Brit rockers Alt-J have been breaking much-needed ground both stateside and on their side of the drink over the last few years, winning over fans and even nabbing the hallowed U.K. Mercury Prize. With their intricate harmonies and bizarro musical creations, the band brings a new kind of genderlessness to the performing arts. Singer Jon Newman has one of those truly androgynous voices -- one specked with golden flecks of Tracy Chapman, Annie Lennox and, at times, a lonely robot whose skin is vibrating with pleasure.
A member of Sweden’s indie music mafia elite, Loney Dear (a.k.a Emil Svanängen) writes complex ‘Pet Sounds’-esque compositions and has a voice whose highs peak so unbelievably high that it’s as if he's a one-man composite of Brian and Carnie Wilson. And we eat up every damned minute of it. Check out the outro chorus in ‘I Am John’ from the fantastic 2007 ‘Loney, Noir.’
Lead singer Ben Bridwell looks like a dirty Sk8er Boy but sounds like your imaginary Southern granny who bakes sweet-potato pies and serves you sweet tea. His ultra-high voice evokes Queen Joni (Mitchell) at times -- and its warble evokes some of the best female/male country stars of the not-so-distant past. Briddy also gets special props for his odd word pronunciations -- in ‘Great Salt Lake,’ for example, ‘I’m sure’ comes out as, ‘Ahm shoe-errr.’
Indie folk artist Sam Beam (otherwise known as Iron and Wine) has brought whisper-singing to the forefront of popularity in the indie world. Take his version of the Postal Service’s ‘Such Great Heights,’ for example. We get pretty sleepy listening to it. In Beam's hands, it’s like a gentle lullaby sung by a loving mother to her newborn. Only, this mother is one bad mother... SHUT YOUR MOUTH.
The White Stripes’ Jack White sounds like an angry grandmother beating her grandson over the head with a stale loaf of bread -- and we think it’s the bee's knees. In fact, we always sort of wondered what Meg White’s voice sounded like. Maybe Jack was just doing his best high-pitched impression of her.
Like Jack White, Zack de la Rocha is also in major angry-granny mode, but he’s more of an abuela enojada; she has just been told her grandson was thrown in a military prison by some despot of some tiny South American nation.
In James’ best-known track, ‘Laid,’ singer Tim Booth croons, "Dress me up in women’s clothes / mess around with gender roles / line my eyes and call me pretty." Among vocalists of the ’90s, he's got one of the most impressive ranges -- and he's one of the best gender-benders.
When we first heard the 2000 hit ‘Teenage Dirtbag,’ we were sure it was being sung by a woman. And there is a female singer in the band, which threw us off the trail a bit. But those mean pipes belong to lead singer Brendan B. Brown. It’s pretty amazing how far he can stretch those vox -- and it works amazingly well with the high school boyish/girlishness of the song’s theme.
Beach House lead singer Victoria Legrand has an ultra low hue to her voice, and even the highs are sexually ambiguous. It’s like a coed-naked California surf-friendly beach bonfire. We hear some Tim Booth (of the aforementioned James) and Boy George in there, just trying to break free.
Of all the ’90s alt-rock acts to break through, Jane’s Addiction was -- with the possible exception of a later entry on this list -- the quintessential androgynous band. Their music hinged on those unforgettable Perry Farrell lead vocals, which to us always sounded like an overbearing mother-in-law meeting the Beastie Boys’ Mike D in a dark alleyway and having a Sharks and Jets-style throwdown. Ah, the glory days of music.
If you haven’t heard this band, go out and buy all of their stuff right effin’ now. It sounds like the Metropolitan Opera at the Metropolitan L train NYC subway stop -- and the vocalist, Antony Hegarty, is the divine force behind them. It’s as if Zeus and Hera had been a half-and-half god/goddess and enjoyed making cool, weird indie rock music.
We still remember the first time we heard Ed Droste’s lead vocals on Grizzly Bear’s ethereal masterpiece ‘Yellow House.’ We exclaimed, "That boy grew up listening to the opera!" Whether his leads stem from classical training, it’s clear that Droste -- one-half of the band’s vocal squad -- celebrates the masculine and feminine aspects of his delivery equally. (See ‘Two Weeks’ or ‘The Knife.’) We should also mention the other half, Daniel Rossen, too -- another vocalist who, sonically speaking, is blessed with the ability to use both the men’s and women’s restrooms.
All we can say is that the Shannon Hoon, the late vocalist for Blind Melon, initially fooled us into thinking he was a young lady -- both because of his name and his high, whining delivery. It’s like Janis Joplin sucked a few too many balloons at a birthday party or something. Hell, even after seeing the video for ‘No Rain,’ we weren’t sure whether the long-haired figure was a guy or a gal. Confusion notwithstanding, Hoon is truly one of the era's great losses.
...and the Grammy for ‘Best Androgynous Lead Vocal Performance’ goes to -- wait for it, wait for it -- punk outfit Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace. She’s the ultimate rock 'n' roll lead singer, with a not-of-this-planet depth to her powerhouse pipes. Her vocal cords would eat Bowie’s for breakfast -- you know, if vocal cords could actually eat breakfast -- and then serve his neck as sweetbreads. In terms of the delivery, think a hotter version of Joan Jett (if she were a blood-sucking vampire) meets Johnny Rotten (if he were a flesh-eating zombie).