The 8 Ball 08.17.13: The Top 8 Female Rock Vocalists
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 08.17.2013
From Janis Joplin and Stevie Nicks to Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 female rock vocalists of all time!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Last week we looked at the top 8 male rock vocalists so this week it's time to let the ladies have their chance to shine. Female rockers are a vital part of the industry and they've shown time and time again that they can compete and surpass the boys on regular occasions. This week, we're checking out the best female vocalists in rock history.
Caveat: Basically it's the same criteria as last week. I qualified list of rock vocalists based on a combination of singing power, versatility, influence among other vocalists, innovation, expressive ability, precision and clarity, among other factors (including an element of personal preference, of course). As always with rock-oriented topics I tried to focus on "pure rock" as much as that's possible. This left a few people out as I felt they really fit more in other genres. Annie Lennox, for example, is more of a straight pop star than rock or even pop-rock (which would have also disqualified her) and while I could see some arguments about Bjork, she's more electronica or experimental pop. The one I really struggled over was Tina Turner because many songs have a rock edge, but ultimately she's far more R&B or, in some instances, pop. It was noted last week that my list was very "classics"-centric and this list is too, largely because of the diminished role of women in rock over the last several years. Women seem to have been shunted into pop music by force and while there are some great ones still, the ones I really like are too new, not really innovating or not particularly influential at this point. Still, this was almost as difficult a list to put together as last week and again I was surprised with some of the names I had to leave off.
Just Missing The Cut
#8: Lzzy Hale
The sole artist to make it in who is predominantly from the post-2000s is one of my favorite rock frontwomen in years. I've spoken at great length about my appreciation for Lzzy Hale and her band Halestorm, to the point that some people may well be sick of it. And they are not the greatest band in existence by any stretch. But Hale's voice is undoubtedly one of the great new rock voices. Her power as a vocalist is completely off the charts and she has an astounding range that allows her to work wonders in terms of versatility. She can slow things down and bring her voice into ballad territory, she can rasp with the skill of Joan Jett or she can go nuclear and power her way through speaker-blowing screams like in "I Miss The Misery." And what separates Hale from a lot of her contemporaries or even recent influences is that she can back it up live. A lot of vocalists like Amy Lee sound great after a production expert has had his way with master tracks in the studio, but when they get to live shows they have a suspicious tendency to sing along with pre-recorded tracks and when it's them they don't sound the same. Hale's voice is just as powerful and crystal-clear on the road as she is when recording. Hale's biggest thing keeping her lower on the list is that she's still new as an artist and she hasn't had a chance to influence yet, nor is she incredibly innovative. But her sheer vocal skill ensures that if she keeps going and doesn't somehow pull a Courtney Love she will be remembered as one of the true all-time greats in terms of vocalists.
#7: Pat Benatar
Pat Benatar helped pave the way for many of the great female rockers of the modern era. When the rock goddess decided to quit her job as a bank teller to pursue a singing career in 1973 after being inspired by a Liza Minnelli concert, I don't think anyone thought she would become as truly impactful as she did. And it took her a little while to get the music industry to come around, to be fair. She worked as a singing waitress in a flapper-style nightclub and sang in a lounge band, did rock musicals while she tried to get signed to a major label. Once she did however, the path was clear. With her third single "Heartbreaker" audiences got a very clear idea that a new icon was on the horizon; Benatar's voice was a force to be reckoned with. Benatar's classically-trained voice has a five-octave range that she puts to great use on every song and it led her to delivering some of the best rock singles of the 1980s. Not "best female rock singles," but best rock singles period. She made great use of the rise of MTV, which put her on the map with singles that contain amazing vocal work. Listen to the emotive power behind "Love is a Battlefield," the wonderfully-defiant snarl in "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," the sultry glam-power behind the verses of "You Better Run" and all the others and try and tell me she's not one of the all-time greats.
#6: Chrissie Hynde
Chrissie Hynde was the third name that instantly came to me when thinking of the list. That she didn't make it to #3 is more a testament to the pure singing skill of those women above her. Hynde may not have the pure vocal power of Pat Benatar or some of the other artists on this list, but what she lacks there she makes up in emotive ability, precision and influence. Hynde began her career not as a singer interestingly enough, but as a journalist for NME in 1973. That didn't last long but she wouldn't be out of the music industry for long as she traveled around trying to get a band together, ending up back in London in 1976 amidst the punk movement. She eventually put together the Pretenders with Pete Farndon and they would go on into rock history. Hynde remained the sole original member as the band was rocked by repeated lineup changes due to drug-related deaths, dissention and more and she became by and large the person almost solely associated with the group. Hynde's unmistakable voice has the ability to take you on a journey and it's one that, happy or sad, you would be hard-pressed not to want to go on. That the group (which again, largely boiled down to 'Chrissie Hynde and others' for most of the band's history) was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 is just one of many testaments to Hynde's skill as a vocalist.
#5: PJ Harvey
PJ Harvey's voice is not one that you can get away from. It's like an insidious cloud of smoke, permeating its way through the air as it heads to seduce its way into your eardrums. Okay, so I went on a bit of a purple prose run there, but the point behind it is valid. All of the four vocalists higher on this list are better, stronger, more versatile singers. But Harvey's is my single-favorite voice out of all the options on this list. Her distinctive contralto is thoroughly unique and she has a masterful level of control over it, rising and falling in lilts and slides however she needs it to sound. Few singers can sound as seductive as Harvey when she wants to be (see: "Down in the Water") but in that same song she is able to take her whisper in a rather menacing tone at the end. Contrast those to fragile shake in her voice on "The Last Living Rose" or defiant bitterness in "Rid of Me" and you see how diverse she can make her voice sound. Harvey has never been one for the top of the charts but her influence is unmistakable; the raw aggression of the entire Rid of Me LP can be heard in every angry girl song recorded since. She captured everything we could hope from a vocalist artist, and the only thing keeping her out of the top four is that the others did various aspects just a little bit better.
#4: Stevie Nicks
Stevie Nicks is actually the second name I thought of for this list. What do you really need to say about her that hasn't been said a thousand times before? In many ways Stevie Nicks defined what it meant to be a frontwoman in rock music. To say that the Fleetwood Mac member has a strong voice is akin to saying that that the center of the sun is hot; she has an exceptional voice that has withstood every terrible thing she's done to her body and can still portray every single subtle nuance to the amazing songs she writes with ease. When she was with Fleetwood Mac she gave her voice wings on some of the most famous songs in rock history and after she set out on her own she continued to blaze that trail. I actually feel sad that I couldn't include Christine McVie on as well, because in Rumors we have one of the most amazing LPs featuring two women who were incredibly well-matched. But Nicks is far and away the stronger of the two singers and her voice is one of the backbones of rock music.
#3: Ann Wilson
You can't have a conversation about great female rock vocalists and not include Ann Wilson. Frankly, much like Nicks and McVie it seems unfair to only include Ann and not Nancy, because together they made up one of the greatest singing teams ever, in any genre. But Wilson is and always was the stronger of the two in terms of singing, so there you have it. (Which is not to minimize Nancy Wilson's essential contributions to the band; she's an amazing guitarist and "These Dreams" is beautifully song.) I cannot listen to Ann Wilson's voice in "Crazy on You" without getting chills. To this day, probably thirty years after I first heard it, it still has that level of impact on me. Wilson had the capability to tell a story like few other women in rock specifically in the way she sang her songs. She had laser precision with her notes; she blows pretty much every modern artist away in sheer singing virtuosity and that's even if you let the modern artists use their cheats such as AutoTune. And she's still going strong, delivering great work on their most recent album Fanatic last year. Wilson is an icon of female rock singers and her voice is, quite simply, mind-blowingly good.
#2: Grace Slick
Everything that trail that Stevie Nicks blazed was first defined by Grace Slick. The frontwoman for Jefferson Airplane had a voice that damn near blew out speakers with its power and it guided the 1960s group to a number of hits that are legend in rock history: "Somebody to Love," "White Rabbit," "Today," "Volunteers" and many, many more. In many ways Slick was to rock music what the Motown women were to R&B, taking women into the forefront of music and showing that they couldn't just keep up with the men; many of the men had a lot of work to do in order to keep up with them. Slick's voice was the kind of voice that made you stand up and pay attention; even if it just happened to be on the radio or you weren't actively listening you had to turn around to pay attention. Slick has lost some esteem over the years due to her crazy antics (just something else that a lot of rock frontwoman stole from her) but that's really not fair and certainly no one can deny that her voice is one of the all-time greats without exception.
#1: Janis Joplin
The first person to come to mind and the only person for #1 as far as I'm concerned. When it comes to great female rock singers, she's THE name and the esteem that she has earned throughout the decades since her tragically-early passing in 1970 points directly to that. More than any person I can think of, Janis defined what a woman of rock should sound like. When anyone gets grit in their voice, it's a "Janis Joplin sound." And yet she wasn't just groundbreaking and influential; she had an incredible power to her voice but equally-incredible range. She could take it up to that raspy shout that echoed with pure raw emotion, and then immediately drop it down to a gentle tone that was not perfect, but those imperfections made miles better than a technically-perfect voice could be. She had everything you could possibly ask for in a rock singer; soul, heart, emotion, skill, power, versatility and any other compliment you could imagine. Janis Joplin is THE female rock voice. End of story.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
I didn't include her because she's more pop & R&B than rock, but Tina Turner has to get some love here. And what better for the August heat than...the Thunderdome:
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.