13 more pop singers with pipes: let's hear it for the boys
In reading Jenna’s awesome piece on the 6th celebrating the skills of the pop singer, I found myself saying “Wow, these ladies are awesome. I’m so glad we’re celebrating them and their voices, but where are the boys?”
Before I share my list (And yes Elton and Stevie would have been on it, if they hadn’t been already fêted properly by Jenna) I’d like to take a moment to point out a dichotomy that seems to happen in pop music today.
Usually, male musicians (by nature of being male) have an easier time (not that it’s easy for anyone in this industry), however, in terms of pop singing males, I never hear people go on about their voices the way the do the ladies. Every single one of the ladies mentioned (and more - I’m looking at you Jessie J, Ella Fitzgerald, and Brittany Howard [of Alabama Shakes]) are phenoms of the first degree - but let’s talk about (and maybe ogle) some of my favourites on the boys’ team (not that it’s a competition - Jesus, it’s hard to keep this post egalitarian - just remember, this is about voice, not about which sex is better).
Number one on my list of men to listen to at home, en route, while writing - okay, seriously, while breathing - literally any time of day is the incomparable Otis Redding. Although we lost him at the ripe young age of 26 years old, Redding left us with an astounding array of recordings both studio and live sessions. The original singer of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and The Commodores “Try a Little Tenderness”, he had the quintessential soul sound of the 60s: full-throated and raspy with the occasional screech for dramatic effect. If you want to really feel something as a listener, I would definitely be listening to this guy.
…Is the Soul Machine. No, seriously. That’s the name of one of my favourite albums of all time and there’s a banger of a tune that involves Pharell Williams called “The Art of Noise”. I’ve adopted this as my own personal life theme song. You’ll recognize his voice from his work with Gnarls Barkley or - if you’re really old skool - with Goodie Mob. A well-tuned aural cavity can also pick him out in the backing vocals for “Don’t Ya” by the Pussycat Dolls. He has a touch of Otis’s raspiness but there’s a free openness to his sound when he opens into his top register.
This ginger-bearded folk-god, my personal doppelgänger (apparently) and current obsession, is recently garnering a lot of attention with the R&B group he’s formed and has backing him up called The Night Sweats. Currently tearing up radio stations with a super energetic, revival style romp called “S.O.B.” you can really hear the masculinity in his pipes, along with maybe enjoying one or two late nights of whiskey and cigarettes. There’s a sense of fun that lies both in the lyrics and in his delivery, even though the topic may be a bit heavy. Much like soul music of the 60s and early 70s where happy, driven beats accompany some of the saddest lyrics you’ve ever heard.
Mr. Blacc was thrust into the mainstream spotlight when his anthem “Wake me Up” was remixed by Avicii and tore up dance clubs the world over. He’s since been seen as a coach on NBC’s The Voice (which I recommend watching sometime to see how pop singers get coached). He has a soulful sound that’s free and rolling and you can’t help imagine he’s this gorgeous, dark stranger ready to woo you under the Louisiana stars. Good news, your imagination is not far off. Check out “The Man”, it’s an empowering track that can stir you politically, artistically, and emotionally
Although it’s not exactly my cup of tea - and yes, I was totally underwhelmed by his Bond theme song - I can’t really, truly, and honestly deny that this guy has some chops. His range, both vocally and artistically, are incredibly wide. Although given the fact that he had to take time off for Vvocal health makes me think there’s something unhealthy in the technique (this is my own conjecture), the tone, the material and the emotions stirred with his casual blend of a chest voice on the verge of a sob and an incredibly solid falsetto make for a truly unique recording artist.
Why not make it a Gay-British-Hattrick. We had Sir Elton, then Mr. Smith and now, The king of all Queens - the glorious. Incomparable. Freddie Mercury. Let me put it to you this way, when the likes of Monserrat Caballé is a fan of your singing voice, you’re pretty damn good. Check out his isolated vocals for “Somebody to Love”.
Okay, this guy. Definitely not a huge fan, but he can bloody sing. There’s a reason he replaced HRH Freddie Mercury to front Queen on a recent reunion tour. There’s power, there’s range, there’s dynamics. Don’t get me wrong, I love the performance art aspect of singers (David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Mika to name a few…) but once in a while, I need to see all that stripped away and hear just the voice. Maybe I haven’t searched enough for that from Lambert, but it’s most likely out there being devoured by his well-earned, devoted fanbase. Here he is offering some George Michael realness for y’all.
Where do I start? That smile? Those abs? Oh right, I’m talking about singing. Probably the best young vocalist to come out of the post New Jack Swing era (which brought things like Boyz II Men and Bobby Brown into our lives) was then, 15 or 16 year old Usher. He’s done it all from burn up our bedsheets to get us caught Up in the rhythm on the dance floor. If only Robin Thicke had gotten some advice on how to make an album apologizing to the lady you cheated on from Usher, maybe he’d still be around the public eye and consciousness - although, do we really want that? But seriously though, I’d take him back if he wrote this and sang it to me.
Although I admit, I’m a little late to this party, but I’m falling more and more for Toronto’s own Abel Tesfaye, better known to all of us as The Weeknd. His Track “The Hills” blew up and next thing I know, I literally can’t continue my day until I hear “Can’t Feel My Face”. He does the current trend of accompanying himself vocally probably better than most on the market today. His beats are solid, but if you pay attention to the different parts he sings on the track, you’ll see that there’s some serious singing happening here.
Some of you may think it sacrilegious that I’m posting him without Art Garfunkel. While as a duo, they definitely created one of the most unique vocal sounds ever to hit the studio, I have to call attention to Simon’s master opus Graceland. This album has been in my top 3 my whole life and I could listen to it on repeat until I went deaf. Simon, while not known for powerful vocals, has a smooth lilt, a clean line, and a timbre that makes you feel like you’re hanging in that meadow from the opening credits of Little House on the Prairie (#oddlyspecific). Not to mention the fact that for backing vocals he has the likes of both Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell, this album tells some amazing stories and uses some awesome approaches to harmony not commonly seen in his peers.
…and since Jenna gave us two Gents, I’ll support two ladies here.
This British vocal goddess was introduced to me second-hand via NBCs The Voice. (Yes, I watch reality singing shows. I watch a lot of reality TV, but I also watch a lot of reality so I like to think it balances.) Her powerful track, “Next to Me” was covered by Tessanne Chin and Donna Allen during their Battle Rounds. I quickly sought out the original and fell. in. love. Check out her album Our Version of Events and hear songs like “Suitcase”, “Read All About it (Pt. III)” and “Clown” and you’ll hear some great artistry. Also, she dropped the hottest Beyoncé cover I’ve ever heard for the soundtrack to the movie The Great Gatsby.
Another of the ones taken from us far too soon, her “Live at Blues Alley” album changed the way I viewed blues singing, not to mention my life. She’s an amazing artist who learned guitar from her father and shared her gift with us in smoky clubs all over the states. Her rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” is right up there with Aretha and Paul for me, but songs like her rendition of “Fields of Gold” and “Oh, Had I a Golden Thread” are mind-blowing. By far though, my favourite, is her version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.”
I know there’s no way I could hit on the names of all the great males belting the tunes for us - just as Jenna couldn’t shout out to all the ladies, but these are the pop voices occupying my consciousness lately.
You know, when I’m not banging my Beyoncé tracks. #IWokeUpLikeThis.
Who would you add to our lists? Tell us in the comments below!