PopOff! Commentary: Leader Of The Band

I have written about lists before. I’ve certainly complained about them plenty. So at this point my comments on lists is like a running gag. But Rolling Stone released another list in an attempt to get eyeballs, stir up the on-line pot, and maintain some kind of readership for a trade that really seems to have lost credibility. So here I go again….

This list, like it’s list, “The 200 Greatest Singers Of All Time” could have dodged some bullets if people would’ve just paused for a moment to THINK and better define their terms. But why would I expect them to change they way they do things after all this time. It’s not like it really matters in the long term human survival realm. But anyway…

I am a poet and so words tend to have very defined meanings to me. Vocalist means to me somebody who uses the voice as an instrument. As opposed to singer, which is more a position or role. The difference is slight but important because I don’t expect all singers to have great vocals but I do expect all vocalists to be able to sing (i.e. on key and carry a note just like the sax player). It is your one job in the band!

This is why I think Dylan is a great singer but poor vocalist or Fred Schneider who barely sings at all but basically defines much of The B-52’s sound is a great frontman. Phrasing is an important part of singing and some singers have such awesome phrasing they overcome their lack of vocals. Such as Poly-Styrene who made Rolling Stones new list of, “The 50 Greatest Rock Lead Singers of All Time”.

The rock and roll singers who elevated their bands to stratospheric heights, and inspired entire generations of vocalists to follow in the paths they blazed…

My general litmus test for inclusion on such lists is that in some way the act in question has to have come along and changed the game, done something nobody else thought was possible before their arrival on the scene (like say Michael Jordon in the case of basketball), or become a larger cultural influence in the respective scenes or the wider populace.

Also I make a distinction between “greatest” and “most influential”. Even “icnoic” I feel is slightly different that those two other words. Though all three have some fuzzy borders. Some people might have done it first but then somebody else came along and did it better. Though I do generally, give weight on a first come first serve basis because you can’t skip portions of history and end up in the present.

All that said, this new list wasn’t awful, though it still does feel like they are pandering as usual, as opposed to taking a more critical/academic view. I like Brittany Howard but we’re going need a lot more years before I declare here in the top 50 of rock lead singers. And I say this as somebody who has thrashed Rolling Stone for it’s appalling lack of women on lists like, “Greatest Guitarists of All Time”. I have also thrashed them for being narrow minded in leaving out many genres like blues and jazz and country. So, how are we defining “rock” here is another issue to consider.

Anyway, it is just fact that women have not been fronting bands as much and for as a long as men (for many reasons) and so from a historical perspective you can’t have Hayley Williams higher than Ann Wilson because without Ann there is no Karen O to influence future generations. And this is where I get that feeling that Rolling Stone is pandering to the, “I don’t even know half of these names” crowd.

Side Note: I think a better title for this list would have been “The 50 Greatest Rock Frontwomen/Frontmen of All Time” only because that better encapsulates the job their list is trying to rank. It not just about singing but also about preening, and strutting, or doing a scissor kick off the stage. It is about being the face of the band.

Example: Christine McVie is HANDS down the better vocalist and songwriter in my book but Stevie Nicks is hands down the better frontwoman and larger influence in Fleetwood Mac.

They nixed acts like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or Prince and the Revolution because… well are those really bands like say The Beatles? Um… yes… And I argue people know more members of the E Street Band and that the E Street Band has had more consistent members than the ever changing line-up that is the Pretenders and many of these other bands on the list. Now, I don’t really have much issue with this rationale except that it then excludes Buddy Holly and the Crickets. But define your terms and stick to them, so sorry Buddy.

That said here is one silly way I would look at this problem… Do the majority of the band’s album covers feature the whole band or just the lead singer?

Pretenders album covers in the 80s usually showed a whole band and then it became just Chrissy for the most part. Bruce Springsteen nope. Tom Petty rarely. Prince nah. Siouxsie and the Banshees never showed the band on the cover, sometimes showed Siouxsie… Cocteau Twins never showed the band AND never changed the line-up so Elizabeth Frazer is definitely in the running, IMO. When the lead singer is basically the only person anyone knows in the “band” at what point does Chrissy Hynde just become Celine Dion with a backing band.

But back to original rock ‘n’ roll for a moment, one glaring omission is Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, who also fits well in the “greatest” vs “influential” discussion.

And speaking of that, we could also argue rock vs. rock ‘n’ roll vs. punk all day. But punk is a sub-genre of rock and rock is a evolution of rock ‘n’ roll so in trying to be inclusive and not some dated elitist circle jerk they went more inclusive. But again, being inclusive is not always accurate to the history. Punk couldn’t pogo if rock ‘n’ roll had not surfed.

The list includes two token Latin artists… So if you are including non-eglish acts that opens a whole other Pandora’s box, which like, “The 200 Greatest Singers Of All Time” glaringly showed the folks at Rolling Stone know very little about non-western music.

Rubén Albarrán of Café Tacvba and Gustavo Cerati of Soda Stereo from Mexico and Argentina respectively show up. And to most readers this will be a WTF? Going as deep and wide as I do, I know of both bands. And I also know if we are pulling from Latin music and giving a token shout outs where is Fher of the band Maná. And if we wanted to go deeper where is Patricia Sosa of Argentinean rock band La Torre. Or recently passed Rita Lee of Brasil’s Os Mutanates one of the most seminal rock groups of all Brasil and world music.

Pause- Another reason I harp on lists is because it is fun for me but more importantly in all that fun I get to name drop other artists I love that I hope you will check out.

Here is something I’d like to see with these lists… and this will be HIGHLY controversial but I say quit ranking these things! Just make your list and put it alphabetically. People will still bitch about who did and did not make the cut but they won’t be able to gripe about ranking AND people might have a more nuanced conversation on who would get ranked where. Ranking is so arbitrary and stupid to begin with especially when comparing apples to oranges… Kathleen Hana and Robert Plant on the same list…

I have learned people don’t “read” lists. They look to see the names that made it or missed it. Almost nobody reads the blurbs below each photo. And honestly most of the blurbs are just SUPER bland. BUT- I give them credit this time for mentioning Courtney Love and Hole and not name-dropping Kurt Cobain or Nirvana in the blurb. But is she really one the fifty greatest lead singers of all time? And was she chosen as a PR simply to have more women on the list and to avoid Rolling Stone feeling like the the white male cult of Nirvana it is? I can’t prove it but knowing the trade’s history with lists I feel like that is a yes. And so her inclusion means somebody else can’t make the cut with only fifty slots.

And speaking of who didn’t make the cut… The biggest omission for me is Alice Cooper.

The first half of the seventies The Alice Cooper Band dropped some iconic rock albums but more importantly WAY before anyone else in the very late 60s on into the 1970s The Alice Cooper Band was doing full on arena show theatrics with backup dancers and giant spiders and all that with Alice Cooper as a kind of ringmaster/singer. Him and his band changed the arena rock game to where bands now had to have lights and flames and do way more than just rocking out on stage. Without Alice Cooper, Kiss would not be Kiss, to say nothing of Iron Maiden… and even Madonna would likely not have done her pop spectacles had Alice Cooper not opened up the doors of possibility with his rock and roll shows by way of Broadway. And on top of the all the spectacle he was singing about dark stuff as opposed to sex.

So who would I bump to give space for Mr. Cooper?

Ah… now this brings me to my biggest issue with this list and the one glaring, “what planet are you from” ranking.

Coming in at seven, George Clinton. In the blurb it says, “fusion of rock, soul, science fiction, doo-wop, and Afrofuturism”… You will notice they avoided using the word funk, which is what George Clinton is best known for and most influential in shaping and directing. Also, I never really think of Clinton’s singing. And really shouldn’t that be one of the cornerstones for inclusion on a list of singers? As a frontman he sure does it well but I would never consider Parliament or Funkadelic rock bands and nowhere in my research on-line do I see them listed as such; funk, psychedelic-soul, progressive-soul are the most commonly applied genres. But let’s put that to the side…

1. This feels like somebody in marketing said, “I’m going to need more diversity, the top ten is all white.

2. Since we now have a funk band in the running this brings me to the 2nd inexcusable omission, Chaka Khan of Rufus. Who by all accounts is a much better lead singer the George Clinton ever was and has influenced vocalists for decades. Nobody is turning to Clinton for singing inspiration.

3. Since we now have funk in the running all bets are off and I present my 3rd inexcusable omission Anni-Frid Lyngstad & Agnetha Fältskog of ABBA. If you are going to use the word influence in your article… do we even need a blurb for these two worldwide icons?

4. Jimi Hendrix… According to my own criteria Jimi Hendrix makes the cut as lead singer of a rock band. Jimi Hendrix Experience is the band name and to prove the point even more all their album covers feature the entire band! And in terms of being a frontman the dude lit his guitar on fire on stage! So if they wanted a token minority in the top 10 well…

Anyway, I’m bumping George for Alice Cooper to make me feel more sane. He may not be in that order (I’d probably place him higher for reasons stated above). But definitely in terms of my own academic pedantic definition of rock, he makes the cut.

But- by the time I’d gotten to the end of writing all this I realized there was a VERY GLARING omission. While I would argue Alice Cooper is a pretty egregious omission, I can understand most people see him as a solo act despite The Alice Cooper Band being the band name BEFORE he fully adopted it as his brand. Personally, I wouldn’t make those kinds of excuses for the masses but eh- I get it, in this case.

However, in no universe is the exclusion of Annie Lennox lead singer of Eurythmics acceptable. Especially considering her work with Eurythmics so overshadows any of her solo material you would think she never had a solo career. Also when you consider the the variety of people that made this list… even if we just hard-line it to straight ahead “rock” she makes the cut. Just sample these classic rock songs as evidence:

Would I Lie To You?
Missionary Man
I need A Man
Thorn In My Side
Angel
Revival
King and Queen Of America (A personal favorite)

Historically Rolling Stone has had a bias against women and against piano rock bands… They’ve come around on the women somewhat but still do seem to refuse give piano it’s respect (unless it is Elton, Billy, or Freddie). They also seem to have a bias against women who don’t stay in one lane musically (except for their Taylor Swift cult division). And weirdly on their 200 vocalists list they also ignored her. Granted… there was stiff competition on that list even if we booted people that didn’t belong in the first place but here on a list of lead singers in rock?! G.T.F.O.

So, I’ve booted George and stuck to rock. Now, using my metric not just of vocal prowess but trailblazing, influence on future artists and the larger culture, legacy, and overall showmanship here is my top 10 greatest lead singers of all time in descending order.

Steve Perry
Annie Lennox
Robert Smith
Stevie Nicks
Debbie Harry
Robert Plant
Janis Joplin
Alice Cooper
Mick Jagger
Freddie Mercury

PS: Let it be known, Siousxie Sioux would’ve beat David Lee Roth but in following the rules established she couldn’t make the cut but Siouxsie Sioux (like Robert Smith) influenced whole generations of singers and genres and sub-genres of genres as well as fashion while David Lee Roth just effing killed it doing rock and roll scissor kicks and setting some frontman standards in the later 70s and 80s that have rarely been beat.

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