Where Have All The Singers Gone?
Over the years of pop music, vocal styles have continued to fade in and out of popularity, but I feel like standards have changed for what makes a "good" frontman or vocalist. I mean, it wasn't that long ago that the entirely uncharismatic idiot Fred Durst was the world's most popular frontman for a band. Now we have people like Chris Martin from Coldplay or that sideburn guy from Fall Out Boy -- both of whom do exactly what frontmen are supposed to do, and they do it well. But a certain something is missing. The vocals for both bands just seem forced and entirely lacking in the true spirit of rock and roll.
Let's go back to 1968 for a moment and take a listen to Van Morrison's album, "Astral Weeks". How come singers don't sing like that anymore? I need my frontmen to be completely obsessed with the music, to be totally in to it. There's a certain -- and absolutely intangible -- notion of "feeling it" for a vocalist. Often it's hard to read how the other, non-vocal band members dig their own music, so the frontman has to serve as the represenative for how much the band is "feeling it".
That being said, Van Morrison is feeling it. His voice is a caterwaul of passion. It doesn't hurt that he can carry a melody either, but the key idea here is that he really digs the music that he plays. You don't have to have a good voice to be feeling it. I don't think that Pixies frontman Frank Black has a terribly good voice -- it's a raspy, shrill howl. However, combined with the Pixies' genre-hopping and an underlying intensity found even in their slow songs, Frank Black is an amazing frontman. One of the best, in fact. His quivering, maniacal "Hope everything is aaaallllri-hi-hi-hi-ight" from "Mr. Grieves" to his brit-punk sneer on "Alec Eiffel", Frank Black is really feeling it.
My Bloody Valentine
One does not have to be in a particularly great band to be feeling it, either. I honestly believe that the lead singer of Taking Back Sunday is today's best frontman, simply because he really feels what the band is playing. He's almost manic -- crazy and weird even -- which seems to be the only requisite for being a great frontman. Think about it: Mick Jagger, Freddie Mercury, David Lee Roth -- they all posess(ed) a certain aura of secretly being batshit insane (maybe not so secretly for David Lee Roth). Taking Back Sunday won't be remembered for their artistic approaches to music or their total originality -- because they posess none of these things. What they are is a very popular rock band that defines a certain era of rock music. I'm sure I will catch a lot of flack for supporting Taking Back Sunday in any way, but then again maybe some people are just taking rock music to seriously. The fact of the matter is that 1% of the bands revered by Pitchfork will even be thought of 10-15 years from now. Pop trumps art every time, which, in time, makes pop become art. But back to the frontmen.
Bear vs Shark
It is that insanity-turned-musicality that makes frontmen so great. Some have a calm, beautiful voice, but that craziness is still there (Bradley Nowell). Some have next to no vocal talent, but milk their personality so strongly into their songs that it pays off beautifully (the guy from the Violent Femmes, or better yet -- Cursive). It is ultimately these traits that make great lead singers, it doesn't just stop at being able to carry a tune. You have to be more than a human to be a great frontman. You must be hypermasculine and hyperfeminine at the same time. You must be hypersexy and hyperdispicable. You must be relatable while being completely distant from everyone else. Great frontmen must exist between god and human. The real question is did we put them there, or did they put themselves there?
My vote for top 5 rock frontmen:
1. Freddie Mercury, Queen
2. Mick Jagger, Rolling Stones
3. Frank Black, Pixies
4. David Lee Roth, Van Halen
5. Axl Rose, Guns n Roses