Favorite Music: Lead Voices

If you’re a long-time reader of Sliding Constant, then you might remember my last “Favorite Music” post, which covered my love of vocal harmony. This one is about vocals as well, but this time I’m going to share some of my favorite lead vocalists.

First things first. If I know who you are, and you’re interested in this post, then you need an email from me. Drop me a quick email referencing this post and let me know. Trust me. Just do it.

The “research” for this post ended up being a little bit harder than it was for the first one. There are lots of songs I like in my collection that have interesting lead vocals. When I really started thinking, though, I realized a lot of them are favorites for some other reason, and the vocals are just kind of an interesting side note. I had a lot of “first picks” that I had to throw out because of that. I’ll go ahead and warn you: unlike my vocal harmony post, I really don’t expect anyone to be able to extrapolate much from these examples. Each one is so unique and distinct, I don’t think there’s any real pattern to be deduced and learned from here. So, don’t worry too much about figuring this set out. Just sit back and enjoy the list.

I might as well start with the one that will be the least surprising to friends. I know I’ll take a ribbing for this one (hi, Stephen!), but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention him. Dennis DeYoung (formerly one of the lead voices for Styx) is a favorite from my “formative” years of music listening. For a pop music singer he has a fairly affected style, and he got slammed a lot for that. Basically, I think he always wanted to bring a piece of Broadway to their music. I’m not a huge fan of musicals, but I always thought that he had a well-trained and expressive voice that fit especially well with the piano-driven ballads (a subject for another post) that he tended to write for Styx. Like him or not, you have to admit that his was a unique style (Lawrence Gowan notwithstanding).

Moving on to another “formative years” artist, I have to throw in Steven Tyler for sheer whimsical value. Aerosmith holds a special place in my heart for many reasons, but the band just wouldn’t be the same without Tyler’s positively outrageous vocal style. I realize there are other names that come to mind for this same category (David Lee Roth, for instance), but for some reason I just get a smile listening to Tyler over-sell every syllable.

If I’m going to talk about whimsical, how can I leave out Ric Ocasek? The Cars made an entire career out of how weird this guy looks and sounds. I wonder how many 80’s fans can identify that voice in 2 notes just by hearing a sample of one of his “uh oh’s”. Again, this is just feel-good music for me. I don’t think I realized just home deeply Ocasek’s voice was drilled into my brain until a friend had me listen to Gay Eskimo by Corky and the Juice Pigs. It has a quick style parody of Ocasek (and others). The recognition was instant, and I nearly split a seam laughing.

Moving a bit more in the serious direction, the next artist on my list is notable for many reasons. I’m actually coming to appreciate his songwriting quite a lot, but for now I’m going to talk about his voice. Next up is former Eagles front man Don Henley. I think I like Henley’s voice so much partly because it just sounds so real to me. It has an almost signature ragged edge that Henley uses to great effect. Now that I think about it, there are several names that I could slot in here for much the same reason (John Mellencamp comes immediately to mind). I think, though, that I like Henley because he manages to combine that “raw” edge with quite a bit of musical precision. Raw though it is, it’s a voice that’s always under control. I think that particular combination has a lot of emotional power for me. For a really concrete example, that yen for some amount of precision is the biggest reason why I’m not a Springsteen fan… why I go for Sammy intead of David Lee. *shrug*

The next artist, Fleming McWilliams, is a swift departure from the mainstream.  She and her husband (John Mark Painter) are the primary pieces of a group called, appropriately, Fleming and John. There is no way for me to pin a genre tag on this music. I may come back in a later post and talk about John’s wide-ranging instrumental talents (there’s a freaking theremin on the album). For now I’m highlighting Fleming’s impossible-to-ignore soprano voice. At times, she can sound as sweet as a little girl, but then she opens up those pipes full-blast for songs like The Pearl and comes close to sounding shrill. Coming back to what I said about Henley, though, she’s never off-pitch. “Raw, yet under control” again? I’m having a hard time verbalizing exactly what I like, but I just love listening to her.

Heh. I’m going to blow some minds with this next one (though, admittedly, he’s on the extreme end of the spectrum for me): Robert Cummings, better known as Rob Zombie. Why this guy and not some other metal vocalist out there? I dunno. He just strikes my fancy. This is why trying to pin down what I like is so frustrating. Just when I think I have a handle on it, I run into an outlier like this.  All I can say is that when I think about vocals in metal bands, his isn’t the typical voice I imagine.

Next up, we move away from the far edge and much closer to the mainstream. It’s not all about extremes for me. I think this next artist is going to end up being part of another crossover point with a future list of favorites (working title so far: “Chicks With Attitude”). Of that group, there is one in particular that I have especially enjoyed listening to specifically for her voice: Sarah McLachlan. Part of it is almost certainly that intentional vocal “break” she uses so much. It reminds me a lot of trying to do a lip slur on the trumpet. The length of the instrument (controlled by the valve position) tries to constrain the lips to vibrate at only certain frequencies. As you vary the lip tension to change the pitch, there’s a point where the sound “jumps” from one “allowed” note to the next. There’s almost a click when it happens, and that’s what I hear in McLachlan’s voice. I’ve tried singing like that. It’s not easy to control, but it’s pretty fun to do. Anyway, in a sea of female artists who at the time were trying to sound like small children, McLachlan’s voice stood out with this deep, rich tone. Very nice to listen to.

Folks that read my response to the “musical baton” meme should recognize the name Vienna Teng. Teng is a tiny woman with a really big voice. Amy introduced me to her music a few years ago. I fell completely in love with her second album, and I’ve been about as close as I get to a slobbering fanboy ever since. Teng’s parents emigrated from Taiwan, and one of my favorite of her songs is a love ballad that her mother sang to her in Chinese growing up. I have a feeling Teng massaged the music a bit to make it fit into western musical chord patterns, but the eastern influence shows in the melody pretty clearly. I’m a sucker for a piano ballad anyway, but that combined with Teng’s voice and the musical quality of the language itself (I wish I knew enough to discern which dialect it is) make that song a real treat. Beyond that, though, she has another one of those “real but controlled” voices that are turning into a theme for this post.

To wrap things up, I have to come back to the voice that connects this post back to my first “Favorite Music” post. In that post, I referenced a song by the group Acappella called Rescue. In that post, I was making specific reference to the tight vocal harmony, but even then I had the full intention of coming back to it here. The man singing lead on that song is named Wayburn Dean. I so wish I could sing like this man. His range is just a bit higher than mine, so I can’t really even keep up with all the notes. Even if I could, though, I couldn’t match that rich tone of his. That doesn’t stop me from singing along with him (on Rescue in particular).

Wow. That took much longer than I hoped it would. No real surprise, though, I guess. I don’t know when I’ll get around to doing another one of these, but I do have a few ideas for topics. There’s actually a short list of songs that get points for both music and lyrics. That’s got to be a post (maybe call it “Master Songwriters”). Another is the “Chicks With Attitude” post I mentioned above. I’ll probably be nice and spare my readers the experience of a post specifically about piano ballads.  I probably even have enough material to do a post about songs that connect strongly with memories (though I’ve posted about that off-and-on before). If anyone has a preference, let me know. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this one.

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