The 8 Ball 03.08.14: Top 8 Rock Frontmen
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 03.08.2014
From Axl Rose and Mick Jagger to Freddie Mercury, Jim Morrison and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 rock frontmen 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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Welcome to the 411 Music 8 Ball, folks! We're back and this week, we're looking at rock frontman. The role of the frontman in rock and roll can't be understated. To take nothing away from the rest of the band, the frontman is the face of a group and his charisma, artistry and stylings help push a good band into a great one, and a great one into the realm of legend. There is no shortage of great rock frontmen and this week we're going to take a look at some of the greatest to ever take the stage.
Caveat: To put the definition on it, a rock frontman is, quite simply, the lead vocalist of a rock band. Now, for the purposes of this list I have focused on the guys only; we'll tackle frontwomen at a later date. I also limited myself to rock groups and left pop artists on the sidelines for now. The only caveat that may be up for debate is this: a frontman, for the purposes of this list, had to be part of a band that was the core identity of the overall act. David Bowie is one of the greatest performers of all time, but while he fronted a couple bands during his time he is identified as a solo artist. Trent Reznor is the frontman of Nine Inch Nails, but he's essentially a solo artist whose backing band changes. Bruce Springsteen may be the most controversial cut from the list, as he was the fronting vocalist of the E Street Band but he's also spent considerable time as a solo artist. When you mention Springsteen it's not "E Street Band frontman Bruce Springsteen." Jimi Hendrix was cut for the same reasons.
Just Missing The Cut
• Kurt Cobain (Nirvana)
• Bon Scott (AC/DC)
• Iggy Pop (The Stooges)
• Bono (U2)
• David Lee Roth (Van Halen)
#8: Steven Tyler (Aerosmith)
First up on our list is one of the defining frontmen of the 1970s. Aerosmith is one of the premiere rock bands from that important, formative era for the genre and a lot of that falls on Tyler's undeniable stage presence and unforgettable voice. He's sometimes a bit unfairly underrated because of the argument that he's a Mick Jagger imitator, and there may even be some truth to that. Certainly there are similarities between the two in their style--the way he struts about the stage, his outrageous outfits and simply his cocky swagger--but even if he's just an imitation he's the best of those that you could possibly find. He also has one of the all-time great voices of rock music which is an important part of being a frontman. Tyler carried his undeniable charisma and stage presence through some difficult eras for the band and while he's certainly had some ups and downs, there are few who can belt out a performance quite like he can. When Steven Tyler is on stage you listen, and that's a must-have quality for the face of a band if that band wants to be remembered in the annals of rock history. The fact that he still sounds amazing despite the abuse he's put his body through certainly doesn't hurt either. He's one of the greats without question.
#7: Roger Daltrey (The Who)
The Who is without question one of the greatest groups of the classic rock era, and every single member of the band is owed credit for being instrumental to the band's success. That being said, Roger Daltrey probably deserves the most for his groundbreaking work as the group's frontman. Daltrey was a founding member of the group along with Pete Townshend and John Entwistle and his incredible voice and rock persona helped drive the group into the realm of rock iconography. His ability to captivate an audience is a thing of beauty and his vocal work was phenomenal, emoting his way though all-time great rock songs like "Baba O'Reilly," "Behind Blue Eyes," "Pinball Wizard" and more. Daltrey, along with Tyler and some others, helped define what it meant to be a rock frontman but he also showed a definite level of versatility in the role. Whether he was belting out the hits, playing guitar (a relative rarity until later in his career) or playing the harmonica, he was (and is) always something to watch on the stage and he certainly deserves placement on this list.
#6: Jim Morrison (The Doors)
Jim Morrison is, for some people, the absolute quintessential example of the rock frontman. I don't quite agree--thus his placement at #6--but you can't deny that he is absolutely one of the greats. Morrison didn't have the pure vocal power of some of rock's finest but he was the absolute master at using his voice as an instrument and his charisma and sex appeal are frankly unmatched in the history of rock music. Daltrey was the template for the messianic rock star but Morrison perfected it. He was over the top and his shows were sometimes less about the music than what he did on stage, but that's how rock music works. He was everything that is good and bad about rock music all rolled up into one, the 1970s rock version of Kanye West with better lyrical skills. We can argue about how far down he would have spiraled and how quickly that might have happened if he hadn't died at the tragically young age of twenty-seven, but we can't argue that he has a place carved out in rock and roll history and I find little evidence that he doesn't deserve to be called one of the greatest frontmen of rock music.
#5: Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath)
This is one of those picks that is really hard to even argue against. Do you need a testament to how important Ozzy Osbourne was as a frontman? Well, with no disrespect intended to Ronnie James Dio, without Ozzy one of the greatest acts in the history of heavy metal took a sudden downward spiral. Osbourne took Mick Jagger's wild, frenetic stage act and added a distinctly dark twist to it. The Prince of Darkness is undoubtedly metal's greatest frontman, with a voice that can't be stopped and an attitude that made for some of the greatest legends of rock and roll. This is a man who is the subject of some of the most legendary on-stage actions of all time, even if that whole "biting the head off a bat" thing was semi-accidental (Ozzy swears he thought it was a fake bat). Ozzy has an intense charisma onstage and even though most people think of him as that doddering old guy from the Osbourne reality show, when he gets on stage he still puts on an amazing show.
#4: Axl Rose (Guns N' Roses)
Few people exemplify the term "frontman" to me quite like Axl Rose. Magnetic, charismatic, controversial, showmanship...all of these words describe the Guns N' Roses singer in spades. The man headed up one of the greatest hard rock acts of not only the 1990s, but of all-time. We love to make jokes about how bloated he got in the years between The Spaghetti Incident? and Chinese Democracy, but take that admittedly long period out and you have, pound for pound (okay, that was a bad joke), perhaps the greatest rock performer ever. Rose's offstage antics, while garnering him a lot of hate, put him in the same category as some of the absolute greats and his on-stage work helped propelled Guns N' Roses to heights they otherwise wouldn't have hit. Axl Rose has carried on Guns N' Roses without the other members of the band and while some people may not think of it as the "true" Guns N' Roses, it's still undeniably "G N' F'n R," as the saying goes. Now try to imagine what the band would have been like if Slash had taken the name and found a new singer. It really doesn't work, and that's just another point in Rose's favor as the definition of a great frontman.
#3: Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin)
Robert Plant is almost the first of the great rock and roll frontmen, if not for one other person (more on him later). Anyone who stepped in front of a microphone with a rock band backing them after Led Zeppelin hit it big owes a debt of some kind to the group's lead singer, who created the modern image of what such a role should be. He had it all: the charisma, the attitude, the unbelievable expressive voice and the intelligence to know exactly what to do with it all. His versatility as a singer is absolutely unmatched; he could go bluesy with tracks like "Dazed and Confused" but rock it like no one's business on "Heartbreaker," "Black Dog" and a multitude of others. And what's more, he was one of the rock frontmen who was able to integrate himself seamlessly into his band. That's an underrated ability; if you don't have chemistry with the rest of your group than you really don't have what it takes to front your group. Some of the people further up on the list don't rank higher because they failed to do that as effectively. Plant was perfectly in sync with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham and yet he was able to stand out on his own when it was time for him to do so. That's one of the rarest of rare skills and it helped make Plant one of the true gods of rock music.
#2: Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones)
Where Plant was almost the first great rock frontman, he loses out by a few years to Mick Jagger. The Rolling Stones pretty much set the template for what a rock band should be, and similarly Jagger has been what every great frontman should aspire to be. Before Mick and the Stones came along, you could be a good singer and front a band. And this isn't to say that Jagger isn't a good singer, because he certainly is. But he added in that sense of showmanship to the role that was born of his innate charisma and intrinsic knowledge of how to bring a crowd to a frothing peak, suddenly the role of frontman took on a new and larger-than-life importance to a band. Jagger had an undeniable mix of energy, emotion and talent. He could also belt out the hits and he's been doing it for no less than fifty years now. What's more, he's just as good today as he was during his peak; he's able to hold his own with a variety of artists that join them during concerts and are half his age. He was in many ways the first total package of rock frontmen and remains one of the few at the top of the peak for me.
#1: Freddie Mercury (Queen)
Yeah, this was a no-brainer. Freddie Mercury was, without question in my mind, the best frontman of rock music. You can cover it from every angle, but it's true. Let's start with his vocal work, which can't be bested. He showed incredible versatility and power in his singing, not to mention a deep and passionate expressiveness that could convey so many emotions with complete precision and clarity. There really wasn't a song that Mercury couldn't knock out of the park. As a showman he was truly amazing, captivating the crowd at every performance and taking them on Queen's journey at every turn. Even when he was in the process of succumbing to AIDS, Mercury gave 100% on the stage every single night and never once felt like he was somewhere else while he was performing. He didn't quite have Jim Morrison's raw sex appeal but he used what he had incredibly well and when he was on stage, the spotlight just seemed a little brighter. Everyone else on the list can certainly be argued one way or another, but I have problems not accepting Mercury as the all-time greatest frontman in rock history.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
This week's Music Video A-Go-Go has nothing to do with this week's topic, but I've been listening to it a lot so here you go. Everlast is best known for his 1998 hit "What It's Like" from Whitey Ford Sings the Blues, but he's had a long music career besides that. Check out one of my favorite songs of his, "Stone in My Hand" from 2008's Love, War and The Ghost of Whitey Ford:
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.