Monday, November 17, 2008

Top Ten Missing Singers on Rolling Stone List

Not that they didn't get some of them right. Yes, Aretha. Yes, Ray Charles. Yes, Dylan, Springsteen, Janis, Marvin, John, Paul, Bono, and Elvis (although, I’m sorry, Elvis is nowhere near the 3rd-greatest singer of all time). Rolling Stone magazine's “100 Greatest Singers” is a good rough draft of a list. But some editor should have gone to all the panelists who listed certain singers and said, "You must be high." And then pointed out who got left off the list.

How did some of these lesser lights end up on it? Seriously, Karen Carpenter? She might make Lawrence Welk’s top 100. George Jones? Sure, if you’re drunk and not quite finished throwing up. Lou Reed? Great songwriter, a visionary, really, but the man is nearly tone-deaf. Gregg Allman? Don Henley? Stevie fucking Nicks? Come on. Stevie Wonder, yes (and in the top ten, as he should be). But Stevie Nicks, with her one-octave range and all the expressiveness of a cocaine-dusted formica countertop?No. She shouldn’t even make a list of the top thousand singers.

More to the point, what system of judging compiles a list like this and fails to include the following musicians, one breath from any of whom could blow Stevie Nicks’s gauzy little scarves in a whirlwind around her neck and strangle her? Which I’d buy tickets to see.

1. Sting. Ignoring the most instantly identifiable, surest-pitched male voice in pop music for the past 30 years is ridiculous, and reveals how petty jealousy and faddishness affect the judging. When you consider that the judges include such musical luminaries as Courtney Love, Simon Le Bon, and Alice Cooper, it’s easier to understand. But it’s still ridiculous.

2. Diana Ross. There's a connection between these first two. People have complicated, self-involved ideas about divas, projecting their own self-loathing onto them. People like Sting and the egomaniacal Diana Ross have a lot of enemies. But I keep coming back to my original sense of injustice. Diana Ross, or Stevie Nicks? Uh-huh.

3. D’Angelo. Has there been a record since Voodoo (2000) that was any better sung, from top to bottom, back to front? I’m not sure there was one before, either. D'Angelo is a musical genius, worth a half-dozen of the singers on the top 100 list.

4. Peter Gabriel. The best art-rock singer ever. That's damning with faint praise, but you can't put David Bowie on the list and ignore this guy, with his astonishing range and risk-taking. Nobody does that flippy falsetto flourish at the end of a phrase like Peter Gabriel. As Laurie Anderson once said, “I really like the way he yodels.”

5. Shawn Colvin. I don’t know, this just seems like a terrible oversight. Is it that she’s too pretty? Then focus on her man hands, as she wrings amazing licks from her guitar to accompany that bell of a voice. Feel the shiver? She’s manhandling you.

6. Deb Talan. The Weepies are relatively new, but their songs have been used in commercials and they’ve been showing up on TV shows and movie soundtracks. Maybe they're somehow overexposed and unknown at the same time. But this is a list of singers, and no one sings with more clarity or honesty than Deb Talan. And nobody sings harmony like she does, either. Her range, fluidity, and emotional intensity make Stevie Nicks sound like Stevie Nicks by comparison.

7. James Mercer. I think The Shins have been around long enough for everyone to know what an amazing singer this guy is, especially considering that their songs feature some of the most complex melodies since The Beatles. Maybe it’s just that no one knows what the hell he’s singing about. But if that’s the case, how come Thom Yorke made the list? Again, I go back. James Mercer, or . . . Don Henley? OK then.

8. Eva Cassidy. Unlike Karen Carpenter, who'd be playing Six Flags if she were still alive, Eva Cassidy doesn't get sentimental votes for dying young. She deserves to be on the list because her voice kills you.

9. Patty Griffin. If she’d never sung anything but “Mad Mission” and “Poor Man’s House,” she’d still be in my top 100.

10. Louis Armstrong. If you’re going to consider people like George Jones, then musicians with even bigger influence on rock and pop singers should be fair game. In addition to a couple of crossover hits, Satchmo makes the list because he basically invented a whole genre of music, and his voice is one of the great sources of joy and delight in the world.

I could make a whole new list out of pitch-perfect, distinctive singers like Joan Baez, Alison Krauss, K.D. Lang, and Bobby McFerrin (maybe a little too perfect?) and rootsy ones like Keb Mo, Taj Mahal, Cassandra Wilson, Robert Belfour, John Prine, and Ray LaMontagne. The truth is, I like Mark Knopfler more than most singers I could name, despite the fact that he mumbles his way through every song in pretty much the same way. And one night at a coffeehouse open mike, I heard a chubby teenage girl sing a song about her screwed-up life that was one of the most thrilling musical moments of mine. What it is we want from a singer? Emotional truth, right? Joy, heartbreak, frustration, rage, resignation, tranquility, wonder. A sense of true humanity. Transcendence.

I'm tempted to blow the whole Anglo/American thing apart and start with great singers from around the world: Sheila Chandra, Youssou N'Dour, Egberto Gismonti, Maire Brennan, Joseph Shabalala, the late, great Miriam Makeba, the late, greater Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Nicolas Reyes of the Gipsy Kings, who might just be my favorite singer of all time.

But for English-language, find-it-at-the-record-store, popular music, this top ten list should replace the obvious mistakes on the Rolling Stone 100.

I have spoken. Dispatch this post to the offending judges at once. And please add your own entries to the list.


Anonymous said...

Oooh fun! Of course I know nothing about singing. But hell yeah, James Mercer! I know exactly what he’s singing about. Gunny sacks for red rabbits, pimps of gore, such as. And yeah, Louis Armstrong! I used to listen to his “St. James Infirmary” a lot as a teen. Appropriately depressing for a teenager.

The names you question, I also question. I especially can’t stand Don Henley, or maybe I just hate those songs (apologies to my dad). And Steve Winwood. To me that’s just the most boring music of all time. You know how I feel about Bob Dylan but I’ve noticed how some people like him. Who’s George Jones? I don’t know some of the people on the list at all so how could they be good?

I think David Byrne ought to be on here. I mean for heaven’s sake.

And probably Neko Case, even though I don’t listen to her solo stuff because it’s country. I’ve often been tempted to listen to it anyway but who knows where that would lead!? OK, now I’m tempted again.

Tina said...

So thrilled you mentioned D'Angelo. I don't have "Voodoo" but I have "Brown Sugar," which I believe came after Voodoo? I'd have to check. Anyway, was listening to that last week, marveling at how incredible that guy is. You just don't hear about him or from him enough, I say. Good call.

Bess said...

Ok. I won't let you guys talk about George Jones like that. I just won't. He is a legend. Go and listen to "Choices" a few hundred times and get back to me. But hey, I guess I am usually drunk and someone's holding my hair back as I listen to him.

I agree with you on the Weepies chick and The Shins dude. What about Brandon Flowers or the One Republic guy with perfect pitch? Maybe they are both too new to count? I guess time will tell.

Interesting list and great post!

Sarah M. said...

Ok. I'm not going into a really deep analysis b/c this kind of thing gets me really riled up. And I really need to stay riled down. I'm glad Nina Simone and Etta James made the cut, but seriously, not of the ladies in my personal Holy Trinity of Jazz Vocalists? Where's Ella (as Tom mentioned)? Where's Billie? (Seriously, if there's anybody more rock 'n' roll than Billie, I haven't heard them.) Where's Sarah Vaughn?

And while we're on divas -- Christina but no Beyonce? If you have ever seen Beyonce live (and I have -- twice) you would never leave her off this list. All that vocal drama is REAL, people.

I second Jas P's nomination of Patty Griffin. We heard her live in St. Louis, and super-ears T can testify that there was NO pitch tuning on her vocals. She's that on.

To regain any indie credibility I might have had, I have to suggest Jeremy Enigk ( I first heard his haunting voice providing guest vocals on an EP by a little known band (Poor Old Lou) in high school. But he's better known for fronting Sunny Day Real Estate. Saw them live in '98 in St. Louis. It was a Holy Ghost Certified religious experience. (I've said Holy twice in this comment. That's how I feel about great voices.) If Thom Yorke raged and then had a love child with Peter Gabriel, it might sound just a little like Jeremy Enigk.

Ok. I could go on. But this is Jas P's blog. So I'll stop now.

Jasph said...

Well, I'm chagrinned to have lobbied for Louie without also mentioning Ella and Billie and Sissy. Maybe the problem is that once you go jazz, you've sort of leapt past Judy Garland and that whole musical theater/cabaret/chanteuse thing, so do you have to take a step back and include those singers, too? Diana Krall, et al.? And are you heading toward opera and art-song territory? Where do you stop?

I was surprised to find country singers on the list, including Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. There are only about a half-dozen judges from the c&w genre (Merle is one of them), so I suspect that a lot of pop/rock judges really do like George Jones and Dolly Parton. Well, who doesn't like Dolly? Or Willie Nelson?

It's tricky. And pointless, in a way. But I think the reason we love (and hate) lists like the Rolling Stone 100 is that they help us figure out how we think. We can have a lover's (and hata's) quarrel with ourselves over who's great and who's not--which is ultimately a quarrel over what greatness is.

Speaking of. Bess, my brother is a big George Jones fan, so I've heard a lot. And I understand why people think he's great. He just doesn't get to me. But Willie Nelson does. So it's not a genre problem. It's an authenticity thing. For my taste, George overdoes it. But I always believe Willie.

Tina, I will personally loan you Voodoo, which came AFTER Brown Sugar and will Blow Your Mind. Still waiting on D'Angelo's next miracle. I guess it's the Chinese Democracy of R&B.

You womens are superfine bloggeritas. Thanks...

Anonymous said...

Consider who they solicited as judges (Brandy? Courtney Love? REALLY?) These are the folks on their "blue-ribbon panel." Oy.

My quibbles are similar to yours. If one of the singers from Fleetwood Mac has to be on the list, it's gotta be Christine McVie over Stevie Nicks.

k.d. lang for sure. Probably the gay thing kept people from voting for her. I've been going to her shows for 20 years. The chick has pipes.

The omissions of Patty Griffin and Shawn Colvin are a travesty.

Billie Holliday? Frank Sinatra? Alison Krauss?

I would put The Weepies in a different category, since I find their voices together much more compelling than either of them on their own. Together, they create a whole new something that is beyond music. Same, for me, with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. There's an interesting idea, what singers are better as an ensemble than when singing solo? Discuss amongst yourself.

plumnbagel said...

My uncle was a college professor who would get inundated by text book peddlers who would want to leave a copy of their newest book with him. He would tell the salesman that was fine, as long as he took another book off the shelf and took that one with him when he left.
Using the same logic, I think it might be fun to say who you would replace instead of who you would add.
You guys are gonna laugh at me, but I would have put Rob Halford instead of Steven Tyler, and Rakim for Lou Reed.
No knock on the ones being ushered from the list, but clearly the ones that replace them are superior in influence within their fields (lest you forget, Lou Reed even called himself "The Original Wrapper" for a while, so rap singers have got to be counted by the magazine's very same criteria).

Tina said...

Has anyone said Allyson Krauss? (That might be misspelled.) I am 1/100th the music genius of any of you, but dang if that voice doesn't kill me every time I hear it. Maybe it's the material, though.

And if I can also criticize for a minute, Diana Krall can be great. But there are moments, just moments, when I'm like, "ugh, really? She's just doing my bad impression of an alto."

Also, let's all consider maybe blending Beyonce and Stevie Nicks together, as they did in the Nicks-sampled "Bootylicious." Awwww, sh*t, I just made all you music lovers wince, didn't I?

Bess said...

Jasph- Yes and yes again to Willie. When he chimes in on Luckenbach my heart melts. Also, just wanted to add that your brother sounds awesome.

Jasph said...

Plumnbagel's comment reminds me that I never finished considering deletions from the Rolling Stone list. When I hit Stevie Nicks, the outrage took over and all I could think about were people who got ignored in favor of that aural insult.

Top Ten Deletions:

1. Stevie Nicks (shitty)
2. Don Henley (pretentious, no range)
3. Lou Reed (it's just not really singing)
4. Greg Allmann (too high to care)
5. Art Garfunkel (no career if not for Paul Simon)
6. George Jones (over-the-top bullshit)
7. Buddy Holly (so sue me, he's not a great singer)
8. Steve Winwood (thin and limited)
9. Jerry Lee Lewis (bogus, a hillbilly Meatloaf)
10. Frankie Valli (one-trick pony)

That'll do for starters.

Anonymous said...

Was Linda Ronstadt on the list at all? Not just that she's a personal fave, but that she has fine timbre, a decent range, expressiveness (her interpretations of covers, a la Sinatra) and her work with Nelson Riddle.

Jenny, the Bloggess said...

Stevie has a nice bird though.

How about Ella Fitzgerald? Like butter...

scotland said...

I'm happy to see all the fine responses to this Spulge enterprise.

The notion i prefer, attacks the list of greatness as falling far short of grasping the Idea that Jim mentions close to the end of the initial blog.

His view reminds us that the singular and all inclusive greatest art, is the art of personality and ,in this instance, meaningfully communicating this to such a degree as to forever distinguish a position being above the crowd.

In short, the answer to this survey is and will remain a mystery. A testament to the moments when an individual touches on the essential truth as it has taken form within their life, and...

only demanding an honesty that requires a sensitive heart and ear to recognize.

Kirk Moore said...

3 missing words:


Jasph said...

Weird, I was just now listening to "Veronica" on my iTunes and was thinking, you know, that's a really hard song to sing and hit all the notes PLUS do those little embellishing things he does...maybe that top 100 list should trade Elvises...

I wonder why some voices are so immediately identifiable, and some sound like so many others, you couldn't name the singer if you tried? Uniqueness alone doesn't necessarily mean that the singer's any good--I know Stevie Nicks's distinctive nasal goat-bleat immediately--but it's at least part of the expressiveness kit bag, eh? Eh.

Also: the closer you get to a trained, sonic ideal, vocally, the less distinctive you sound. It's harder to tell great opera singers apart than it is to tell David Byrne from, I don't know, Michael Stipe or some other singer in that range. I feel like I can tell Pavarotti from other tenors and Beverly Sills from other coloratura sopranos. And I'd know Ella anywhere. But the general categories of great opera singers and great jazz singers seem less varied than the realm of pop/folk/rock, where uniqueness is valued over technique. Amirite?

Anonymous said...

What about Chrisy Hynde from The Pretenders???? Stevie Nicks got unfairly bashed bro!!! Come on!! She is unique. That's why she is on the list. U R cetainly entitled to your opinion ... but she in no way "sucks." I love her to death but I have to agree that I MAY have bumped her if I TRUELY looked at some others that did not make it on the list. Karen Carpenter....another great singer who got bashed because she is on the list. This girl had the voice of an angel. Maybe not my "type" of music, but neither is Enya, but she has a great voice too...did she make the list??

Unknown said...

Stevie Nicks falls into the same area of greatness as Frank Sinatra; neither have voices that are good in the classical sense. But both know how to interpret their material in a way that moves their audience. Stevie is a part of my adolesense in a way Aretha will never be. And neither has the pipes of say, Cecelia Bartoli or Catherine Malfitano.

Stevie also had the smarts to choose material that was right for her. The live version of landslide can bring me to tears.

I can't believe the cola slam either. What the fuck were you doing in the 80s? Or maybe the party passed you by!

Jasph said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jasph said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jasph said...

Hi, Joanna.

Yeah, there's no doubt that adolescence is when the door to music really gets kicked open, and I'd never deny the subjective element in all this. If Stevie speaks to you, so be it.

BUT. Your Sinatra comparison is preposterous. Sinatra rounded out his natural gifts (which were light-years beyond Stevie's to begin with) with a sweeping knowledge of jazz and popular music AND astounding technical discipline. The guy used to swim laps and practice letting his breath out slowly over the length of the pool while mentally singing, to develop his ability to phrase a whole melodic line without stopping to take a breath. His phrasing is what every singer of his era (and a lot who came after) tried and failed to copy.

Compiling a list like the RS list of singers depends on grasping the unimpeachable qualities of artistic talent, which most listeners actually can agree on (nobody's going to argue that Stevie Wonder shouldn't be on the list), but also on looking back at how artists influenced what came later. Who did Stevie Nicks inspire or influence? The RS piece cites Courtney Love and Debbie Harry. Yeesh. What did Stevie ever do that seemed genuinely new or expressive of a unique personality, besides traipse around in shawls and fuck her bandmates on a pile of coke and pills? I mean, really.

So, to "cola slam" and your rhetorical question: In the '80s I was working and raising kids. It's certainly true that I wasn't coming of age in that cultural moment, but it's also true that a lot of '80s music just plain sucks. It's the era of A&R/marketing ascendancy, when bands started being "manufactured" by labels on a large scale and radio stations become homogenized corporate blobs and MTV gave primacy to the visual over the aural. In no other decade could Duran Duran ever have had a career.

Some good things did come out of the '80s. Prince, Police, Peter Gabriel as a solo artist, U2, Dire Straits, a few others. From that list alone, you can see that many musicians more talented than Stevie managed to navigate the era without having to have their septums surgically reconstructed.

Just remember, it's a top 100 list. Think of the singers you love who aren't on it. Then decide who they should replace. If Stevie's not one of the first to go, who is?

MRK said...

err.. stevie nicks started off in the 70s and she wrote some of the most legendary songs in the history of rock as part of Fleetwood Mac. They're not everyone's cup of tea but no one can deny that Dreams, Sara, Gold dust woman are major classics... the least is endless. So she had a drug problem, so did 99% of the artists in that list.
She was one of the first woman PMS post-menstrual uber-emotional singer-songwriters a la kate bush, tori amos, pj harvey, alanis morissette which again not everyone's cup but still important within music history like it or not.. and her voice is not lacking it is a very special contralto.. I agree it would be harder to appreciate the 80s stuff without the huge weight of her 70s work to back it up though.

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Anonymous said...

David Lee Roth & Michael Stipe (back in their heyday) deserve to be on this list more than Bjork or Lou Reed who have probably sold 2 Million albums COMBINED! Omiting Sting is a crime!