Much of the music I listen to has abrasive qualities to it, which for me gives it an added edge. These qualities can come from, distorted instrumentation, use of strange time signatures and of course vocal styles that are not conventionally radio friendly. Often the later has led people I listen to music with telling me that “this guy (or girl) can’t sing”.
While I certainly can enjoy smooth, pitch perfect vocalist, who have incredible range and certainly appreciate their ability, I do not think that these qualities are needed to be a great singer. Vocalists that are able to show other qualities, such as realness, sincerity, tension, attitude, emotional expressiveness and roughness can, in my opinion, be just as good a listen as the pitch perfect divas, pop princesses and crooners that people usually associate with great vocal performance. On some level many people realize this as these are some of the traits that made such figures as Mick Jagger, Van Morrison and Janis Joplin popular vocalists, despite or perhaps because of their being so rough around the edges.
For me almost anyone can be a great singer if they have something to say and a need to communicate it. Much of this belief comes from my experience listening to classic punk and Proto-punk bands such as Crass, Black Flag, Minor Threat, The Replacements, The Dead Kennedys, The Pixies, Poison Girls, Stooges, New York Dolls, Television and Beat Happening all of which created intense, high energy music that completely through all expectations of what a singer should be under the bus.
Of course unconventional vocalist have been quite influential throughout the postwar era. Names that come to mind include obvious one like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lou Reed and Tom Waits, as well as less Obvious ones like Howlin Wolf and Captain Beefheart. Even some of the greats like Hank Williams would have to be tonally suspect to many people and yet they pull it off wonderfully and have made the world a richer place for it. That said many of the musicians I named above brought more to the table than just suspect vocal performances. Many were great writers or willing to tackle a sound or subject matter that others simply could not comfortably take on.
So while smooth soaring vocalists may be enjoyable, sometimes rough edged, off center singers can be just as intriguing. I encourage all readers of this piece to explore the limits of what they find listenable and to be less dismissive of singers whom allegedly “can’t sing”.