Before we count down the best lead singers of all time, it’s worth laying out what exactly is being assessed here in the clearest (and nerdiest) possible terms.
For starters, this is not about the individuals with the greatest vocal talent. And it’s not about all singers in any context. It’s about lead singers as part of a band. (More on that in a moment.) More important, it’s about lead singers as an idea, by which I mean: What makes a great lead singer? Because it’s about more than simply having a good voice. Is this person a soother? A seducer? An instigator? A hell raiser? A poet? A clown? A spokesperson? An entertainer?
The answer, of course, is all of the above, and more.
At the risk of being overly pedantic, here’s a rough breakdown of how the people on this list will be judged:
- Vocal ability (25 percent): Not unimportant, but not the most important. Many of the lead singers on this list are wonderful vocalists. Some, however, are not. But they all have memorable voices. More than that, they have presence.
- Showmanship (25 percent): On equal footing with vocal ability is how well you perform and your willingness to sacrifice personal dignity for show-business greatness (or, at the very least, the sake of getting attention).
- Charisma (20 percent): Often used synonymously with showmanship but it’s slightly different. Showmanship usually involves some sort of movement, but charisma might involve the power to stand in place. Ultimately, it’s about your ability to attract attention without appearing to try. (Taken in tandem with showmanship, getting people to look at you is almost half the battle here.)
- Influence (30 percent): Many of the lead singers on this list influenced other lead singers on this list, and almost all lead singers not on this list.
Again: This is about singers in bands. And it’s about lead singers, which denotes a specific role in a complex group dynamic. What do I mean by that? Let’s delineate who will not be included:
- No singers from “and the” bands, by which I mean a band where a singer-songwriter is set apart from what is essentially a backing group: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Prince, Neil Young, and Joan Jett are some obvious examples. They are technically lead singers, but they also feel like stand-alone entities in a way that Michael Stipe or Freddie Mercury do not inside of their respective bands.
- No singers from “figurehead” bands that either started out as solo projects, or are generally understood to be a central auteur surrounded by support musicians, no matter if there’s an ostensible “band” identity. Examples include Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Kevin Parker (Tame Impala), Polly Jean Harvey (PJ Harvey), Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), Sade (Sade), and Dan Bejar (Destroyer).
- I tried to make a distinction between “frontperson” and “lead singer.” In some cases, a great frontperson (as in, the person acknowledged as the band’s leader) is known primarily as a songwriter or instrumentalist. They’re not “bad” singers, exactly, it’s just that the lead singer part of what they do is the third or fourth most important job. Examples: Tom Verlaine (Television), Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits), D. Boon (Minutemen), Trey Anastasio (Phish), Adam Granduciel (The War On Drugs), John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats), and Craig Finn (The Hold Steady).
- Here’s the trickiest caveat: In bands where there are multiple lead singers, I included no lead singers. Again, this is about focusing on those singers who have to act as a single focal point in a band. Situations where two or three (or even four or five!) people carry that load feel to me like a separate phenomenon. Here is a (woefully incomplete) list of bands affected by this restriction: The Beatles (Lennon vs. McCartney), The Beach Boys (Mike Love vs. Brian and Carl Wilson), The Band (Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel), The Bee Gees (all three Gibb brothers), Blink-182 (Mark Hoppus vs. Tom DeLonge), Fleetwood Mac (Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, and Christine McVie), The Grateful Dead (Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Pigpen, and Brent Mydland), The Temptations (David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, and Dennis Edwards), The Clash (Joe Strummer vs. Mick Jones), The Jackson 5 (Michael Jackson vs. Jermaine Jackson), Pink Floyd (Syd Barrett, Roger Waters, and David Gilmour) Sonic Youth (Thurston Moore vs. Kim Gordon), The B-52’s (Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson, and Fred Schneider), Linkin Park (Chester Bennington vs. Mike Shinoda), Drive-By Truckers (Patterson Hood vs. Mike Cooley), Hüsker Dü (Bob Mould vs. Grant Hart), One Direction, and nearly every iconic rap group.
Now, it’s likely nobody read any of this and will simply Control-F for their favorites so they can swiftly register their dissatisfaction. I get that. (I probably deserve it!) So, why don’t we get started?
75. Simon Le Bon (Duran Duran)
The archetype of the “suave” lead singer. He looks like a model. He looks like he dates only models. He dresses impeccably. (When I interviewed the band in 2015, he made fun of me for wearing shorts on a sweltering 95-degree NYC day. He, naturally, did not have a drop of sweat on him, even in a smart suit. This is why I am not a professional lead singer.) Simon Le Bon — the name alone sounds powerfully erotic — is a person who can ride astride yachts or tangle with painted bikini-clad jungle babes and appear perfectly comfortable and confident, like James Bond with an appetite for synth-driven disco-punk smashes. Oh, and he also has a good voice! He sounds arrogant without being off-putting, elegant but with an undercurrent of sleaze. The other suave leads on this list display all of these qualities.
74. Anthony Kiedis (The Red Hot Chili Peppers)
The archetype the “wild” lead singer. He is allergic to shirts. He dances as if transfixed by a cult-like religious ritual. He is not shy about displaying (to paraphrase This Is Spinal Tap) the armadillo in his trousers. He is also not afraid to look like a buffoon. In that respect, the wild lead singer is the antithesis of the suave lead singer, though all roads ultimately lead to looking sexy as hell in front of tens of thousands of people. I will say, however, that on this list I have a slight bias in favor of wild lead singers. There are plenty of suave individuals here, but there are a little more wild children who, like Sir Psycho Sexy here, know what they got and that they gotta put it in you.
73. Perry Farrell (Jane’s Addiction, Porno For Pyros)
Another wild man. But rather than discuss Perry’s wildness, let’s use him as an example of a dreaded condition that will rear its ugly head throughout this list: Lead Singer’s Syndrome, or LSD. As any guitarist with mystique will tell you, LSD occurs when your singer has become infected with an exaggerated sense of importance and profundity, causing this person to act out in ways that have been diagnosed as “insufferably assholish” and “deeply douchey.” LSD can make life miserable for the musicians around the singer, and even derail the band entirely. Farrell’s many strengths as a frontman — his piercing vocals, his magnetic shamanism, his ability to look cool with a nylon stocking over his head — should have put him higher on this list. But his severe LSD cut short the life of Jane’s Addiction — one of the greatest hard rock bands of the late ’80s — in their prime, crippling his legacy in the process.
72. Zack De La Rocha (Rage Against The Machine)
Is this another case of LSD? It’s hard to tell with De La Rocha. Does he genuinely enjoy spending years and even decades doing next to nothing musically, or is he merely into torturing Tom Morello by forcing him to start new and less good bands with the other guys in Rage or (worse) performing leaden protest folk music with his side project The Nightwatchman? Either way, there’s no question that De La Rocha’s excitable stage presence is a natural fit with Morello’s record-scratch riffage, even if he does have a tendency to get so sanctimonious that he lapses into self-parody, like that time at Coachella in 2007 when he suggested that members of the Bush administration be “hung, tried, and shot,” in that order.
71. Sting (The Police)
One of the most famous cases of LSD ever, which by itself would have warranted his inclusion here even if he hadn’t also written “Roxanne” and “Every Breath You Take.” I did, however, briefly consider not including instrumentalists who also are lead singers on this list, in the interest of keeping the focus solely on performers who are separated from the audience only by a microphone stand. But I abandoned the idea because it’s too hard to legislate. After all, even Keith Richards allows Mick Jagger to strap on a guitar once or twice a show. Also, what’s a better example of lead singer behavior than calling yourself “Sting” while making bookish references to Carl Jung and Vladimir Nabokov?
70. Adam Duritz (Counting Crows)
It’s possible to be a great lead singer who is not a primary songwriter in a band — this is the case for The Who’s Roger Daltrey, Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander, and Oasis’ Liam Gallagher, to name three examples. But if you are a singer and a songwriter, it is more likely that the audience will project an intense cult of personality onto the music. The listener will feel as though this person on stage is communicating something deep and intimate directly to only me. These are the “personal” lead singers, and Adam Duritz is the archetype of this particular sub-genre. The appeal of Counting Crows’ music is that Duritz is hanging out with you and understanding the precise trauma you are experiencing, because he has also experienced it. Unlike suave or wild lead singers, the personal lead singer is almost aggressively uncool, as these singers speak to us when we are also feeling uncool. Just as you would never want to see Anthony Kiedis wearing a tuxedo or Simon Le Bon eating a pint of ice cream in his boxer shorts, the world wants Adam Duritz to wail about being down in the dumps.
69. Robert Smith (The Cure)
Lead singers who wear make-up (when they’re the sorts of people who don’t wear make-up off-stage) are typically affecting a glam persona that’s meant to heighten or exaggerate their appearance in a way that’s edgier and more dangerous than real life. (Or, in the case of Marc Bolan — inexcusably not on this list, apologies — it just makes you super foxy.) But that’s not why Robert Smith, one of the best “personal” lead singers ever, does it. He’s the ultimate avatar for all of us who feel like outsiders, even long after we’ve outgrown our teenaged goth phases. For him, the make-up exaggerates the smeared, tear-stained, hot mess of pure feeling lurking beneath all of our facades. I wonder if Smith gravitated to this look because his voice (like Duritz’s) naturally sounds like a man who is already crying even before he starts singing. It would be impossible to be Vince Neil with a voice like that. So you might as well tease your hair, put on some red lipstick and white foundation, the baggiest shirt you can find, and sing about standing above the raging sea that stole the only girl you ever loved and drowned her deep inside of you.
68. Chris Martin (Coldplay)
The opposite of Robert Smith. Even when Chris Martin is at his most emotional — think of those climactic moments of “Fix You” used to score an exceptionally unsubtle episode of The Newsroom — he sings with the quiet assurance of a guy who knows he has hundreds of millions in the bank and a long line of actresses who can’t wait to be serenaded as they snuggle next to him on a piano bench. Chris Martin is ostensibly a “personal” lead singer, but unlike Duritz or Smith he has the demeanor of a romantic comedy leading man. He’s a little too handsome, a little too charming, a little too in touch with his feelings at always the exact right time. But here’s the thing: If you’re the lead singer of a band that plays stadiums as cannons shoot several tons of confetti in the air and fireworks pop in the air like Ben Affleck just destroyed an asteroid barreling straight for Earth, you have to be that guy. Chris Martin might be Hugh Grant and Coldplay might be Notting Hill, but Notting Hill is pretty entertaining, no?
67. Matt Berninger (The National)
Here’s an interesting case: Matt Berninger is a “suave” lead singer, in the sense that he wears suits on stage and affects the louche posture of a Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen acolyte. But he is also a “wild” lead singer, in the sense that he downs a bottle of wine every night while throwing himself into the audience like he’s Bono at Live Aid. And yet he is also a “personal” lead singer, in that the main emotional connection that listeners have to The National’s music comes via Berninger’s morning-after ruminations about the fears and desires of deceptively buttoned-up urban professionals, delivered in a husky baritone that is dehydrated from drinking all of that damn wine the night before. So what do we make of this? Do we force him into one category? Or do we simply classify him as a spectacularly eloquent drunken dad and move on? I think I just answered my own question.
66. Stephen Malkmus (Pavement)/David Berman (Silver Jews) (tied)
The paradox of Stephen Malkmus is that his band is inevitably described as a signifier of slacker ’90s culture, a representative of shabby Gen Xers who have neither the drive nor the inclination to care, the musical epitome of not giving a shit. But at the same time, he is a very prolific songwriter — Pavement put out five albums and nine EPs in seven years in the ’90s! — he tours regularly, and he’s remained remarkably trim and well put together for the past 30 years. You can put the 2022 version of Stephen Malkmus next to the 1992 version and have more trouble telling them apart than you would for any comparable peer from that era. His greatest talent is that he appears to not give shit while at the same time demonstrating that he does indeed give many more shits than the average person. He is, in other words, suave to the core. But in a slacker kind of way.
As for Malkmus’ best friend David Berman, he wrote one of the all-time best lyrics about lead singers — “All my favorite singers couldn’t sing” — just as he wrote many of the all-time best lyrics about many topics. To be clear, he was a much better as a writer than as a singer, to the point where I almost left him off the list due to the aforementioned “frontman vs. lead singer” distinction. But I happen to love how his way of talk-singing makes all of that wonderful poetry sound like off-the-cuff banter from the one of the smartest, funniest, and saddest people to ever wander into your eardrums.
65. Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots, Velvet Revolver)
Did I slot Scott Weiland — once described in the Pavement song “Range Life” as an “elegant bachelor” — one spot higher than Stephen Malkmus as a deliberate act of karmic justice? Not exactly. But also not not exactly. To be honest, I still don’t understand what is insulting about being called an elegant bachelor. When I was a bachelor, I was far from elegant. As a married man, I still aspire to elegance. I like to think that Malkmus was secretly appreciating Weiland’s ability to slip easily into different voices — gruff grunge grunting, glam rock caterwauling, soft rock purring, laid-back Bowie-esque crooning. The sad fact is that his talent was woefully under-appreciated when Weiland was alive, as critics instead fixated on outdated notions of authenticity and in the process overlooked his casual command of various rock vocal styles. (Like Berninger, he could be suave, wild, and personal simultaneously.) He gets extra credit for fronting two multi-platinum bands, and out of respect for the dead I’ll overlook his culpability in derailing them both.
64. Lowell George (Little Feat)
He’s probably the least famous person I’ve mentioned so far, which is a shame, because he was good at pretty much everything. He was an excellent singer. He was an excellent guitar player. He wrote great songs. (Like this one!) He seemed like a great guy to hang out with, judging by the fact that everyone in the L.A. rock scene of the 1970s wanted to spend time with him, which says a lot given how many awesome options you had to hang with cool-ass people in the L.A. rock scene of the 1970s. He’s also responsible for one of my favorite album titles of all time: Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here, his debut solo album released just three months before his tragically untimely death at the age of 34 in 1979. Here was a man who deserved many more meals than he was ultimately served.
63. Levi Stubbs (The Four Tops)
Of all the Motown greats, people tend to remember the most famous of legends: Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross. It’s too bad that a singer of this caliber tends to get lost in the mix. Positioned at the head of one of Motown’s most successful vocal groups, Levi Stubbs specialized in a gruff, near-hectoring style that was far removed from the sweeter and more romantic sounds of The Temptations. But behind Stubbs’ tough guy facade was a paranoid neurotic who expressed omnipresent terror at being abandoned and left bereft of his baby’s love. There are a lot of wonderful Four Tops songs in this vein: “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “It’s The Same Old Song,” “Standing In The Shadows Of Love.” But my favorite is “Bernadette,” in which Stubbs pleads with his woman to not leave him for the many, many men he assumes are longing to steal her away. The part where Stubbs screams out her name in the heart-stopping moment when the “Psycho”-style stabs of the music drop out will always chill my soul.
62. Jonathan Davis (Korn)
As we’ve established, lead singers typically fall into certain broad categories because they are working within a particular lineage that’s been shaped and influenced by lead singers of the past. But Jonathan Davis felt unprecedented when Korn broke out in the mid-’90s. Yes, you could deconstruct his style into certain disparate elements — a little Robert Smith, a little Phil Anselmo, a little Ice Cube, and maybe a dash of Anthony Kiedis. But nobody had ever thought to put all of that into one package. And then there’s the fact that he’s not really a lead singer in the traditional sense. Rather, he’s a lead skatter/whisperer/rapper/screamer/grunter/whatever the hell he’s doing in the middle of “Freak On A Leash.” He uses his voice in the way that Tom Morello uses a guitar — to make sounds that aren’t normally associated with the instrument, which in Davis’ case is the human throat.
61. Brittany Howard (Alabama Shakes)
I almost didn’t include her given that Alabama Shakes feels dangerously close to being a figurehead band, especially in light of her great 2019 solo debut Jaime, which sounds like a natural extension of the Shakes’ groundbreaking 2015 release, Sound + Color. But I’m going to assume Alabama Shakes is not a figurehead act because Howard deserves credit for being one of the most overwhelming singers in any genre to emerge in the past decade. There are lead singers who demand your attention because they sound and/or look fantastic, and then there are lead singers who grab you by the throat — figuratively speaking, but I wouldn’t rule the possibility of her doing it literally — and shake your very soul until you have no choice but to capitulate. Howard is that kind of singer. (To be clear, she also looks and sounds fantastic.)
60. Jeff Tweedy (Wilco)
He’s not a showman in the conventional sense. A casual observer might peg him as a “stand there and play” type of lead singer. But an underrated component of lead singer showmanship is stage patter. Even the best lead singers — including the majority of those on this list — are surprisingly deficient at this delicate art. But Tweedy is a master. Admittedly he can be on the cantankerous side — if you shout out a song request, you might be subject to a withering putdown — but the man can work in clever quips between songs like a road-tested stand-up comedian. It’s not a surprise that he was cast for a recent season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, as he’s aged over time into the alt-country Larry David. One of my fave Tweedy bits is from a bootleg of a 2007 Wilco show in Berkeley, in which he complains about people who say “love me some.” I “can’t stand it” either, Jeff.
59. James Hetfield (Metallica)
He might not be the best lead metal singer of all time, but he is unquestionably the most distinctive enunciator in metal history. Nobody is better at squeezing a few extra syllables out of words that normally only have one or two syllables, which comes in handy when you need your riffage to linger just a bit longer in an arena or stadium. A classic Hetfieldian flourish is to magically transform the final syllable into a “yeah!” as evidenced by Metallica’s cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey In The Jar,” in which James also manages to sound like a werewolf affecting an Irish accent. But Hetfield’s greatest accomplishment is that he still cuts an intimidating figure on stage as a badass who is not to be trifled with, even if he is a middle-aged gazillionaire. Then again, he’s a middle-aged gazillionaire who hunts grizzly bears in Siberia, so the badass routine isn’t just an act.
58. Geddy Lee (Rush)
Speaking of distinctive metal singers, what about the voice of Geddy Lee? How did it get so high? I wonder if he talks like an ordinary guy. I know him, and he does. (As required by rock critic law, I have referenced Pavement’s “Stereo” when discussing the lead singer of Rush.) Now, I happen to love Rush, but I can understand that Lee’s screeching, “I am trapped inside of a burning building under a large bookcase”-style wail is not for everybody, just as many things about Rush — Ayn Rand, impossible time signatures, kimonos — are not for everybody. But once you acquire a taste for the sound of Ged, there are few singers who are more fun to imitate as you blast some sweet Canadian prog rock. Not that anyone should ever try to sing Rush at karaoke night — your larynx will never forgive you.
57. Hayley Williams (Paramore)
Is there a more influential lead singer for contemporary punk-tinged pop rock? Hayley Williams set the pace for a generation of female singer-songwriters years before Olivia Rodrigo had her driver’s license. When it comes to delivering snarky kiss-offs to despicable exes in a voice that is aggressively insistent without sacrificing catchy accessibility — a perfect balance of “pop” and “rock” — Williams set the standard in the aughts and 2010s, when her future disciples were in grade school and just starting to grasp the power of shiny guitars blasting out snotty hooks. Rodrigo made this explicit when she borrowed from Paramore’s “Misery Business” for her song “Good 4 U,” but even without the homage, Williams’ reach is obvious.
56. Ronnie James Dio (Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Dio)
On paper, a 5-foot-4-inch opera enthusiast from New Hampshire with a questionable hairline would not seem to have the makings of all-time metal god. But what is a lead singer if not a person with a knack for self-actualization? Ronnie James Dio made his name in the ’70s as a lead singer for hire, rising to fame initially as the vocalist for former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s band Rainbow, where he was deft at knocking off brilliant Zeppelin homages like this song. Then he was tapped to replace Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath, and took the band in a more theatrical (and enjoyably ridiculous) direction. His tenures in both bands tend to be a little underrated outside of metal circles, as is his own group, Dio. But his greatest contribution to rock ‘n’ roll — as he made sure to point out in every interview — was popularizing the devil fingers, a gesture that lead singers far lamer than Ronnie James Dio have appropriated for years. Never forget the originator.
55. Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeahs)
The Meet Me In The Bathroom era of NYC rock in the early aughts was very good for lead singers, particularly those who didn’t play an instrument and instead wore well-curated thrift shop clothes that made millions of people want to buy their own well-curated thrift shop clothes. Not that these singers should be contextualized purely as fashion plates — as much as anyone from this era, Karen O arrived as a fully formed star. When you saw her in the video for “Maps,” she already seemed like a person who had been famous for 20 years, but was somehow preserved in amber as a young woman in 2003 who could disquiet you with her vulnerability even as she transfixed everyone packed inside sweaty rock clubs with her innate glamour. That kind of gravitas and old-fashioned star power is impossible to fake, and Karen O has it to spare.
54. Brandon Flowers (The Killers)
Another alum of the Meet Me In The Bathroom period, he started out as the next Simon Le Bon, a saucy boy bopping around in a slick suit as he squared off against Eric Roberts in the “Mr. Brightside” video. Then he did a hard pivot during the Sam’s Town era, stealing Bruce Springsteen’s bolo tie from the cover of Tunnel Of Love and affecting an earnest, “personal” persona. Since then, he’s been able to move freely between those poles, dabbling in both Anglophile synth-pop and expansive heartland rock, with surprising coherence and success. But the most startling evolution for Flowers has been on stage, where The Killers have grown into one of the most reliable arena-rock bands of the early 21st century. And a lot of that has to do with Flowers and his Bono-esque willingness to always reach for the rousing, outsized gesture, potential embarrassment be damned.
53. Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley)
As is the case with Hayley Williams, it’s impossible to imagine contemporary indie rock without Jenny Lewis. In the aughts and early 2010s, Rilo Kiley was a combustible mix of personalities that hinged on the tumultuous relationship between one-time romantic couple Lewis and guitarist Blake Sennett. But in retrospect, it’s Lewis’ songs and vocals that leave the greatest impression. As a writer, she could be bracingly insightful and slyly funny about how being young and single can be a recipe for unending misery. Meanwhile, as a singer, she delivered those songs in a voice that evoked classic ’60s and ’70s pop, like a confessional LiveJournal entry crackling over the waves of an AM transistor radio. This ability to craft songs that simultaneously feel of-the-moment and timeless hasn’t left her in her solo career.
52. Michael Hutchence (INXS)
The strange case of Michael Hutchence is that a man who looked about as handsome as a man can be, who could wear the hell out of a pair of leather pants, and who also had a killer voice and lots of hits, and basically had every reason in the world to have loads of confidence … apparently did not. As his friend Bono once put it, “It really bothers me that he didn’t really understand how great a voice he had, it had this fragility underneath the bravado.” You can hear that fragility in ballads like “Never Tear Us Apart” and “Not Enough Time,” though the most enduring INXS songs are the ones that freely mix rock, punk, pop, and funk in ways that still seem fresh. Surely Kevin Parker has put on songs like “Need You Tonight” and wondered how he might utilize Hutchence’s come-hither come-ons in the context of Tame Impala.
51. Steve Perry (Journey)
His band’s reputation for schlock denim-clad power ballads notwithstanding, it cannot be denied that Steve Perry has an all-time arena rock voice. It’s a soaring, raspy instrument that nods to one of the all-time pop voices, Sam Cooke, but with several hundred extra watts of hyperbolic hamminess. The hockey-haired Freddie Mercury, Steve Perry makes this grandiosity work for him, turning Journey’s non-stop litany of love songs into do-or-die operettas in which protestations like “they say that the road ain’t no place to start a family” hit with the profundity of heaven-sent proclamations etched into stone tablets. When Perry was forced to exit the band for health-related reasons, the band famously hired a singer who sounds exactly like him, a development that confirms just how essential Perry’s vocal style — whether it’s actually performed by Perry — is to making those cornball classics work.
50. Johnny Rotten (The Sex Pistols, Public Image Ltd.)
Yes, he is a vocal Trump supporter, which confirms that the song “Pretty Vacant” was actually about the space between his ears. And, sure, the photos of him wearing a MAGA shirt look like the Johnny Rotten of the ’70s stuffed with endless bags of mashed potatoes. All of this is true, and it puts a damper on any conversation about one of the defining punk and post-punk lead singers. Of course, acting like an idiot is part of the lead-singer playbook, and Johnny Rotten/Lydon has certainly put his penchant for idiocy to righteous causes in the past. So, never mind the bollocks, here’s Johnny Rotten, and let’s forget that he did anything after 1987.
49. Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden)
The only lead singer on this list who is also a commercial airline pilot, a competitive fencer, a brewer, and a cancer survivor. A true renaissance man, Bruce Dickinson applies his muscular, faux-operatic pipes to paying bombastic salute to things like Satan, war, taking your daughter to the slaughter, something called “The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner,” more war, and more Satan. It’s all done with an unlikely mix of mirth and malice — Dickinson sings like he means every blasted word roaring out of his lungs, but with a slightly arched eyebrow. “It’s fake opera,” he said when I interviewed him in 2015. “I’d describe it as opera with razor blades.”
48. Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy)
When it comes to rock outsiders, few can claim to have the credibility of the late, great Phil Lynott. Born in West Bromwich, United Kingdom to a white woman from Ireland and a Black man from South America in 1949, he grew up twice derided as a biracial kid raised by a single mother during an intolerant era. At age 7, he was sent to live with his mother’s parents in Crumlin, a southern suburb of Dublin, an area where virtually no other Black people lived. When he returned to England over a decade later to properly launch his band, Thin Lizzy, Lynott again faced a double shot of prejudice in a country where “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” signs could still be spotted in local store windows. And yet in the face of so much opposition, Lynott was indomitable. A handsome man whose sad eyes and sneering lips hinted at the soul of a warrior poet, he brought uncommon sensitivity to the hard rock world of the ’70s and ’80s, proving that even the toughest guys on stage can still have a tender side. So, please, if he and the boys are gonna fight, you better let ’em.
47. Robin Zander (Cheap Trick)
The beauty of Cheap Trick is that there were two good-looking guys (Robin Zander and bassist Tom Petersson) and two goofballs (guitarist Rick Nielsen and drummer Bun E. Carlos), representing a perfectly balanced rock band Feng Shui. But Zander is more than a blonde-haired pretty boy. Known as “The Man Of 1,000 Voices,” Zander earned that distinction by mastering a variety of vocal styles, from the acid-laced power pop of “Oh Candy” to the anthemic arena rock of “Surrender” to the full-blown metal-fueled mental breakdown of “The Ballad Of TV Violence.” He could even elevate corporate ’80s soundtrack dreck like “Mighty Wings” from Top Gun to the heights of pure majesty. For a band that has played every stadium and pizza parlor in America in the past 45 years, Zander is the perfect singer to make any stage feel larger than life.
46. Billy Corgan (The Smashing Pumpkins)
It could be argued that The Smashing Pumpkins are essentially another figurehead band. Billy Corgan himself might argue this, given how much of his band’s greatest masterwork, 1993’s Siamese Dream, was written and performed solely by him. But the classic lineup of The Smashing Pumpkins — rounded out by guitarist James Iha, drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, and bassist D’arcy — really does feel like the Fleetwood Mac of the ’90s, and not only because they covered “Landslide.” Their story is rife with constant intra-band conflicts, temper tantrums, ego flare-ups, band member departures, and one tragically fatal drug overdose at the height of their popularity. But the band is ultimately defined by the talent and neuroses of their mercurial lead singer. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he came to own a wrestling league later in life, given that he’s long had a reputation as an alt-rock heel, an outspoken midwestern arena-rock enthusiast who antagonized the indie-cred cool kids of the era.
45. Roger Daltrey (The Who)
Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, and even Keith Moon also sang in The Who, but there’s no question that the barrel-chested He-Man in the tasseled shirt was firmly ensconced as the lead singer by the time albums like Tommy and Who’s Next made them superstars. Roger Daltrey is often dismissed as a lunkhead — he’s too gruff to be suave, too sober to be wild, and too professional to be personal — but his job in The Who is a lot more difficult than people give him credit for. Unlike most of the singers on this list, he wasn’t singing lyrics that he wrote. Instead, he had to communicate the emotional truth of whatever was coming out of Pete Townshend’s head at the time, whether it was his spiritual musings on Meher Baba, his guilt over being a philandering rock star, or his interest in using an accordion as a metaphor for sex. Imagine someone handing you the lyrics to “Squeeze Box” and being like, “Your voice will be associated with these words forever.” Pulling that off takes serious resolve.
44. Jack White (The White Stripes)
It’s one thing to lead a band of three or four people. It’s quite another to be the lead singer when the only other member is a (brilliantly) limited drummer who you claim is your sister but in reality is your ex-wife. But that’s precisely what Jack White did for The White Stripes, a band in which he performed as both the shrieking Robert Plant and the hammer of the gods-throwing Jimmy Page. There was another element to White, however, that made him more than just another dude from Michigan trying to sound like Led Zeppelin (and The White Stripes more than a precambrian Greta Van Fleet). While White could yelp his head off while pounding out tectonic, gonad-rattling riffs, he also projected a child-like guilelessness that undercut the potential for rampant rock-dude machismo with an unexpected delicacy. It’s a quality he hasn’t quite recovered in his solo career.
43. Ann Wilson (Heart)
When great rock singers of the ’70s are discussed, you know who is most often unfairly overlooked? The only person who could do Robert Plant as well as Robert Plant, the great Ann Wilson. If you don’t believe me, which this video of Heart performing the timeless astro-choogle FM radio staple “Barracuda.” As her sister Nancy strokes out a relentless chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga, Ann struts, tosses her hair, claps heartily, and soaks up the groove. Then she opens up her mouth, and out comes that peerless Dazed And Confused wail, cutting through the gnarly riff with clarity and precision. It’s the sound of 10,000 lighters sparking up 10,000 bongs in unison, as an unseen army of heshers is sent into spasms of riff-rock ecstasy.
42. Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices)
One of my personal heroes, and if I’m accused of overrating him, so be it. But if you can find another lead singer in his 60s who can drink beer for three hours straight and still nail a high kick in the encore— while also being one of the best on-stage banterers you’ll ever hear — I’ll set fire to my copy of Alien Lanes.
41. Layne Staley (Alice In Chains)
The mystery of Alice In Chains is that it’s never quite clear if Layne Staley is singing lead or if guitarist Jerry Cantrell is actually singing over him while ostensibly doing the backup part. Especially in Staley’s later years, the Layne/Jerry split in the vocals feel like a Weekend At Bernie’s situation at times. What’s undeniable, however, is that Staley is the embodiment of Alice In Chains’ dark, junked-up vibe on their 1992 masterpiece Dirt. He delivers those songs like a method actor who has gotten way too into the role. It gives the screams at the start of “Them Bones” an extra jolt of gritty authenticity, though you wish the performer wouldn’t put himself in such danger for the sake of the art.
40. Morrissey (The Smiths)
Steven Patrick Morrissey’s contribution to the canon of lead singers is that he proved you can be painfully introspective without being a wimpy nice guy. Yes, he liked his daffodils and shy expressions of romantic longing. But he could also be — in lyrics and especially in interviews — a snarky, judgmental jerk. And I mean that in the best possible way, at least during his Smiths period. Morrissey broadcast the inner monologues of impish wallflowers, revealing both the romance and the bile that commingled freely in their soft, pinched hearts. A song (and sentiment) like “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” exemplifies his ability to be equally vulnerable, relatable, bullying, and pathetic — a pure id of longing, loneliness, and resentment. That this curdled later in life into only judgmental jerkdom, without the sensitivity or the insight to leaven it, shouldn’t detract from his initial achievement.
39. Julian Casablancas (The Strokes, The Voidz)
Early in his career, Julian Casablancas was accused of benefitting from nepotism because his dad owned a Manhattan modeling agency. How this specific connection would have helped his son launch the most iconic NYC post-punk band of the early aughts was never fully elucidated. But one only had to watch the video for “Last Nite” — in which Casablancas exudes rock-guy charisma despite looking like he just rolled out of bed at 5 p.m. — to see that, rich dad or not, he had earned the job of hot shot lead singer.
Now, of course, the old nepotism charges are totally irrelevant. But in the “Last Nite” video, he looks shockingly pretty and smooth. You can almost buy him as the world’s most disinterested industry plant. Two decades on, however, the man has the mileage to appear majestically weathered anytime he steps on stage, armed with shades that conceal legitimately bloodshot eyes and torn jeans that have been authentically ripped in the midst of a pre-show bender. He’s grown into the guy that the kid in the “Last Nite” video was always trying to be.
38. Chuck D (Public Enemy)
Most iconic rap groups function as collectives in which a number of MCs work with (and sometimes against) each other. But in Public Enemy, Chuck D is firmly entrenched as the group’s spokesman and thought leader. Yes, Flavor Flav is there to perform as hype man and comic relief. But the brains and muscle behind the operation come from Chuck. He’s what made PE subversive in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when songs like “Fight The Power” worked their way into regular rotation on MTV between Poison and Taylor Dayne videos. For all of the biting intelligence and revolutionary theorizing of his lyrics, however, the most overwhelming tool at Carlton D. Ridenhour’s disposal is that booming voice, an unsubtle but powerfully persuasive instrument that could make an Instagram post read like The Ten Commandments.
37. Courtney Love (Hole)
She stood out in an era where most of the biggest rock stars — including her husband — worked to dismantle the traditional conventions of rock stardom. The core tenet of early ’90s alt-rock forwarded by bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam was rejecting the toxic culture of hair metal and classic rock in favor of a more grounded progressivism. But Courtney wanted nothing to do with that. Sexually aggressive, openly drug-addled, a proud egotist, a committed student of old-world ’70s rock glamour — she steered into the excesses of being the lead singer of a rock band like almost none of her peers. She was a self-mythologizing outlaw who seemed to go out of her way to be pilloried in prestige magazines and in the rock press. Her penchant for controversy and even outrage makes her a polarizing figure even now, though it should go without saying that if she were a man these provocations would be more widely celebrated.
36. Bryan Ferry (Roxy Music)
Exhibit A for his lead singer greatness is the video for “Avalon,” in which we see Bryan in a white tuxedo and black bowtie, looking like the most decadent bartender from The Love Boat. Or maybe he’s the inspiration for The Continental, the SNL sketch in which Christopher Walken plays a first-class ladies man plying his latest conquest with fine champagne. As Steve MacKay plays the smoothest of saxophone solos, Bryan romances an impossibly beautiful woman with a light samba. But ultimately he is more interested in a … falcon? To paraphrase Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, “Goddamn, this is one suave fucker!”
35. Karen Carpenter (The Carpenters)
The greatest singing drummer in soft-rock history. From a purely technical perspective, Karen Carpenter’s voice is perfect — perfect pitch, perfect tone, perfect phrasing. Not a single thing is ever out of place on a Carpenters record, and that starts with Karen’s preternaturally smooth and calming vocals. This music is, formally, sterile by design. The tension comes from all that perfection being delivered by a deeply melancholy and insecure person who couldn’t help but use her voice to convey the deep loneliness that the demands of MOR show business in the late ’60s and early ’70s would never allow her to overtly express. So, over backing tracks that sound like commercial jingles for a funeral home, Karen smuggled the blues into some of the whitest sounding songs ever committed to tape.
34. Jim Morrison (The Doors)
In life, he was overrated. When he died young, he was very overrated. When Oliver Stone made The Doors, Jim Morrison was the most overrated rock star ever. But in the past 30 or so years, The Lizard King has become … pretty underrated! Honestly, no. 34 might be too low! Allow me to quote myself: “Even if you dislike Jim Morrison, you probably like the scores of artists he influenced. Iggy Pop has cited Morrison’s vocal style on The Doors’ 1967 self-titled debut as a crucial creative touchstone, while Patti Smith called him one of ‘our great poets and unique performers.’ Ian Curtis of Joy Division, possibly the most seminal singer in the history of post-punk, was another Morrison acolyte who passed down their shared ‘mournful croon’ vocal style down to everyone from Echo And The Bunnymen to Interpol and literally dozens of other punk, alt-rock, indie, and goth bands in between. The Doors are so foundational in rock that they filter down to artists who either don’t like or even know their music firsthand. Basically any singer in a rock band who dips into a lower register owes something to Jim Morrison. (Glenn Danzig, meet Matt Berninger.)”
33. Steven Tyler (Aerosmith)
It’s no small compliment for the baddest Boston boy from Boston’s baddest band that he has defined hyperactive horn-dog rock ‘n’ roll antics for multiple generations. Depending on your age, Steven Tyler is either the guy who sang “Lord Of The Thighs” in the ’70s, “Love In An Elevator” in the ’80s, or “Pink” in the ’90s. For the youngest listeners, he introduced the phrase “Honkin’ On Bobo” into the lexicon. Whoever you are, you cannot escape this wizened, lecherous man with the large lips who scat-sings about hooking up with a cheerleader as well as her sister and cousin. The man has been demanding that you kiss his sassafras across literally 10 presidential administrations. His libido is as unavoidable as death and taxes.
32. Paul Westerberg (The Replacements)
It’s been said that (pre-scandal) Woody Allen provided a blueprint for nebbish East Coast intellectual men to remake their annoying eccentricities as attractive attributes. I propose that Paul Westerberg did the same for at least a few generations of guys from the Upper Midwest. If you are a sarcastic Gen X or Millennial dude from a small town in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, or Michigan who drinks too much and is prone to baring his soul when the bar hits closing time, there’s a decent chance that your sense of self has been informed by the songs of The Replacements. Westerberg gave these guys hope that being a surly barfly who deflects from his sensitive inner life with clever, self-deprecating quips might one day lead to dating someone like Winona Ryder. The problem is that Westerberg is the best possible version of this guy — his jokes are funnier, his pathos is more compelling, and he cares way less about whether you find these things charming. He also wrote “I Will Dare,” while you, in fact, did not.
31. Ray Davies (The Kinks)
What Paul Westerberg is to Upper Midwesterners, Ray Davies is to people from the English suburbs. After starting his career with a run of brilliant singles that helped to invent the future of punk and heavy metal, he settled into a groove of gentle folk-rock songs informed by the extremely British phenomenon of Music Hall — which we know in America as “that carnivalesque, old-fashioned musical affectation that ’60s English rock bands inexplicably embraced as a reaction to dropping too much acid” — that were vehicles for his fascination with extremely mundane people living lives of quiet desperation. Ray then made The Kinks more theatrical in the ’70s, donning an array of outlandish costumes intended to convey his deep dissatisfaction with the music industry, which tanked his career even more. Like Westerberg, Ray Davies is a cult hero that fans always insist should be more famous; also like Westerberg, he has a self-destructive gene that ensured that his level of popularity was exactly where it was supposed to be.
30. Gregg Allman (The Allman Brothers Band)/Ronnie Van Zant (Lynyrd Skynyrd) (tied)
The two kings of southern rock … who I’m sure would hate being grouped together like this. Gregg led an integrated band that fused the blues with jazz and country music, and in the process forwarded a progressive, forward-thinking sensibility. Ronnie fronted a shit-kicking rock ‘n’ roll outfit that brandished the Confederate flag on stage (though Ronnie himself took a less reactionary stance toward issues like gun control). Both bands are ultimately united not only by their regional identity but also by tragedy — they each lost key members due to vehicular crashes (motorcycles for the Allmans, an airplane for Skynyrd) in the ’70s, and then carried on anyway. Gregg lived to shepherd his group through several decades of tours until his death in 2017, while Ronnie perished in that fateful 1977 plane crash that also killed Steve and Cassie Gaines, which led to his band morphing over time into a grotesque right-wing caricature.
29. Chris Cornell (Soundgarden, Audioslave)
Along with Michael Hutchence, he’s one of the most inexplicably unsettled lead singers ever, a universally respected shirtless Adonis who didn’t have the attendant self-worth, despite his cast-iron lungs and a voice that descends on you like the apocalypse from up on high. It’s impossible to know for certain whether this inverse version of LSD is what caused both men to die before their time. But in Cornell’s case, it’s worth pondering whether he was simply born in the wrong body, given that the introspective person who wrote stunning songs like “Seasons,” “The Day I Tried To Live,” and “Blow Up The Outside World” probably resembled a person closer to Elliott Smith than the hair-swinging rock god on the cover of Louder Than Love.
28. Rod Stewart (Faces)
Where are we currently at in the revisionism cycle with Rod Stewart? I’m old enough now to remember several different iterations of “Hey, he’s better than you think!” with the guy. Whatever crime of musical lameness Rod has been accused of — “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” the schmaltzy cover of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train,” the narcoleptic Great American Songbook albums — has over the years been countered with his unimpeachable tenure as lead singer of the Faces, indisputably the drunkest British rock band of all time. (By the way, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and “Downtown Train” are pretty good, actually.) Paradoxically, the things that people hate about Rod’s solo career are caused by his single most endearing quality as a lead singer — he doesn’t take himself seriously. He is, first and foremost, after a good time, which might also mean pursuing a good paycheck, even if it requires re-recording “It Had To Be You.” But in the Faces, it usually entailed getting liquored up with Ronnie (Wood and Lane) and boogie-ing until dawn, a proposition I can always get behind.
27. Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters)
It’s hard to know what to say when so much about the Foo Fighters is currently in doubt, so for now let’s focus on the video above, culled from the tour in 2015 when Grohl broke his leg and had to tour while seated in a Game Of Thrones-style chair. By this point, he had been a lead singer for so long that most people could no longer appreciate the guts it took to even attempt fronting a band after Nirvana ended. But I give him major bonus points for that fact alone. It was also quickly normalized that he did the tour on a broken leg, even though this is decidedly not normal. And then, in this video, he actually dances on a broken leg, which pushes admirable effort past the point of logic and reason.
26. Donald Fagen (Steely Dan)
Of all the things that people talk about when they talk about Steely Dan — the relentlessly impeccable studio craft, the perverse lyrics about sickos circulating in 1970s Los Angeles, the ubiquity of Michael McDonald — the one aspect of the band that is under-discussed is Donald Fagen’s voice. This is, in fact, my favorite thing about Steely Dan. Consider that their original lead singer, David Palmer — he’s the guy who sings “Dirty Work” — has a more conventional “’70s soft-rock singer” voice, and would have surely kept Steely Dan in that reductive zone had he not exited the band early on. With Fagen, those spotless jazz-rock soundscapes are counterpointed with a nasally and conversational voice that is magically capable of expressing cynical snark and understated sorrow simultaneously. Put another way: The music signifies the gloss of post-Vietnam America, while Fagen is our flawed protagonist traversing this terrain while somehow keeping his humanity intact.
25. Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders)
A peerless avatar of rock-star cool, a real lifer who has seen and done too much to ever be overly affected by what’s in front of her. Compare her to the other icons who emerged from the post-punk boom of the late ’70s and she really does seem like a grown-ass woman in a sea of adolescent boys. (She was already 28 when The Pretenders’ classic self-titled debut dropped in 1979, so this wasn’t just a pose.) In the highly chauvinist rock world of the time, Hynde had to thread the needle of “playing like a man” while also retaining a reassuring feminine allure, which she achieved without compromising herself one iota. But what stands out most about Hynde, in the end, are the songs — from the late ’70s through (at least) the mid-’90s, The Pretenders are among the only American rock bands to give Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers a run for their money when it came to crafting perfect FM radio singles: “Brass In Pocket,” “Back On The Chain Gang,” “Middle Of The Road,” “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” and so on.
24. Peter Gabriel/Phil Collins (Genesis) (tied)
There are prog-rock loyalists who will argue that Genesis started sucking upon the release of 1974’s The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and Peter Gabriel’s subsequent departure for a solo career. And there are pop enthusiasts who might not be aware that the band famous for “Invisible Touch” once featured the guy famous for “Sledgehammer.” But I am here to declare that all of these people are dead wrong. The transfer of power in Genesis from Peter Gabriel (artsy, obscure, confrontational) to Phil Collins (angry, poppy, mulleted) represents the single greatest lead-singer turnover in rock history. People can have good-faith arguments about whether Van Halen got worse under Sammy Hagar (they did, though not as much as detractors say they did) or if AC/DC suffered with Brian Johnson (ditto), but Genesis’ evolution from prog to pop is seamless. Anyone who feels Genesis got worse under Collins — or believes they would’ve continued making records with fancy gown-wearing animals on the cover had Gabriel not left — need only compare Gabriel’s mid-’80s solo work (So) to Collins’ mid-’80s solo work (No Jacket Required), in which they both ended up in roughly the same yuppie-friendly, cocaine-adjacent place.
23. Liam Gallagher (Oasis)
Obviously, he hits all the marks: Incredible showman, incredible charisma, widespread influence, and (this isn’t remarked upon enough) he has a fantastic rock ‘n’ roll voice. If this list were strictly assessing his skills as an interview subject and user of social media, he would be an easy Top 5 finisher. I could go on, but fookin’ hell, I sound like a student. Why don’t we instead enjoy Liam talking about the highs and lows of making his own tea?
22. Ian Curtis (Joy Division)
Can I interest you in some severe whiplash from a person who loves being a rock star to a person who pointedly did not love being a rock star? Actually, Ian Curtis didn’t have much of an opportunity to experience the spoils of being a lead singer in a successful band, given that he took his own life in 1980 on the verge of Joy Division’s first U.S. tour. He was only two months shy of his 23rd birthday. What he left behind was a handful of incredible songs, one iconic T-shirt, and a vocal style that influenced countless post-punk and goth bands. An acolyte of fellow downbeat crooner Jim Morrison, Ian Curtis had a similar death wish that subsequently subsumed his life in rock myth. But even without the tragic backstory, Curtis would be a riveting presence on record merely for the quiet intensity he brought to his (small) body of work.
21. Thom Yorke (Radiohead)
I’ve made this case before at length inside of a book but it bears repeating: The biggest misconception about Radiohead is that they make esoteric music that is too cold or intellectual for the average person to understand. Have the people who think this ever heard Thom Yorke sing “Fake Plastic Trees”? When he was in mid-’90s power ballad mode, Yorke was the Britpop Celine Dion, a big-voiced diva who belted out operatic high notes in service of outsized, melodramatic emotions. It’s the opposite of esoteric; it’s pure, unadulterated, pants-wetting emotion. His voice is downright pretty in the most straightforward way imaginable; put him in a choirboy outfit and his tone would make grandmothers empty their purses into the church collection plate. It’s true that this extreme gorgeousness — which scores of British rock lead singers copied after The Bends and OK Computer — eventually became so pervasive that Thom was forced to bury his voice in the murk of Kid A. But even now, the man is still capable to belting out extreme beauty like he’s standing on the hull of the Titanic.
20. John Fogerty (Credence Clearwater Revival)
He’s rightly celebrated for his incredible efficiency as a songwriter in the late ’60s, when CCR was releasing up to three hit-packed albums per year and dropping classic double-sided singles seemingly every other month. But as a lead singer, his greatest achievement is the John Fogerty Accent, in which “burning” becomes boining and “turning” is transformed into toining. A native of Northern California, Fogerty self-actualized himself into a southerner from the 1800s so convincingly that he could get away with using the word “choogle” as a noun and a verb without ever defining exactly what choogle is. Similar to the Cajun patois of New Orleans, the John Fogerty Accent ultimately stands apart as its own dialect, a rock ‘n’ roll language that allowed a flannel-clad garage rocker from the Bay Area to remake himself into a modern-day Huck Finn.
19. Bon Scott (AC/DC)
Allow me to state outright while has been implied throughout this exercise: The reason why we are drawn to lead singers is because they are free. They do what they want and they say what they want. In the case of Bon Scott, this entailed appearing on stage in jeans and no shirt and singing songs about testicles and murdering people. Portraits of personal liberation are not often so vivid. And then there’s his voice, a needling screech that is neither purely evil nor supremely ecstatic but rather slyly conspiratorial, like he’s holding back a body-shaking cackle over pulling off some deliciously inappropriate scheme — a dirty deed, if you will — that he’s about to relate in the following song once Angus Young starts duckwalking his way into another stone-cold classic guitar riff.
18. Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam)
In the ’90s, he foregrounded extreme discomfort with stardom into his songs, a concept that seems increasingly hard to fathom in the modern age because even normal people are intent to expose every facet of their personal lives online. But what stands out most about Eddie Vedder now is that he’s still here, and so many of his contemporaries are not. The irony of Pearl Jam’s career is that they — or at least he — seemed as intent as any band ever on crashing into the side of a mountain at the peak of their fame, and yet they’re one of the only bands of their peer group that did not do that. Which is why the resonance of Pearl Jam’s early songs — bombastic evocations of self-destructive angst — has blossomed into a wiser and more humble Zen about how to survive and thrive as one of the only rock bands left that can still headline stadiums. And, as much as anyone else, Vedder is the engineer of that. This “victim in demand for public show” grew up to be a mensch.
17. Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath)
He’s been depicted as a bat-biting cartoon for so long that Ozzy still doesn’t get the credit he deserves for being a great artist. But his power as a singer is plain to see in the clip above capturing Black Sabbath at their surly peak. As guitars grew louder and rhythm sections more overpowering in the changeover from acid rock to heavy metal, Ozzy was uniquely equipped to cut through the mushroom clouds of noise and volume with that flat, serrated vocal tone. For all of the various malfunctioning garbage disposal noises that metal singers made after him — the screaming, the hollering, the barking, the Cookie Monster grunting — it’s shocking to hear how relatively understated Ozzy sounds. He never had to lay it on thick, because heaviness came so naturally to him.
16. Bono (U2)
I don’t think there is a lead singer on this list who has invited more mockery. But anyone who relishes taking a cheap shot at Bono is playing a rigged game that they will ultimately lose. As a man who has only played the largest stages in the world for the better part of 35 years and counting, Bono operates in all facets of life as one does when he’s trying to reach the guy in the cheap seats situated approximately one mile in the distance. When that is your mindset, there is no room for half-measures. If you make an album paying tribute to Americana music, you will have Bob Dylan and B.B. King as guest stars. If you wish to make a record that evokes Bowie’s Berlin period, you will literally go to Berlin. If you yearn for your late-career effort to be heard by a wider audience, you will have Apple put it on literally every single phone. Sure, these outsized gestures will appear ridiculous if you see them up close. But for that guy seated in the cheap seats? They will appear right and true.
15. Joey Ramone (The Ramones)
Speaking of that U2 iPhone album, does anyone remember that it begins with a song about Joey Ramone? Millions of people heard about three seconds of this song before angrily tossing their phones out the nearest window, so the tribute went largely unnoticed. But it was overseen by a trio of big-ticket producers — Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder, and Danger Mouse — and sounds like it cost several million dollars to produce. It includes the following lyric: “I was young, not dumb / Just wishing to be blinded / By you, brand new / And we were pilgrims on our way.” It’s a nice sentiment about the titular subject, who passed away in 2001 at the age of 49. But perhaps it would have been better if U2 had spent $50 on the track, and simplified the words to something like, “GABBA GABBA HEY!”
14. Debbie Harry (Blondie)
As we’ve established, the ability to look and sound amazing in any context is a key component to this job. And few lead singers have ever looked and sounded as amazing as Debbie Harry. Put it this way: If your fellow bandmates decide to name your band after the color of your hair, you have extreme Lead Singer Energy. But what really makes her one of the all-time greats is that she looks and sounds amazing doing so many kinds of music. Punk, pop, rock, disco, reggae, even early hip-hop — she covered the gamut during Blondie’s peak in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and made it all sound like an all-night cocaine party at Studio 54.
13. David Byrne (Talking Heads)
Debbie Harry looks like she was designed in a lab to be a lead singer. The magic of David Byrne is that he did not look like anyone’s idea of what a lead singer could or should be before the late ’70s. I think this is hard to appreciate now given that many of us grew up in a post-Talking Heads world, but at the time there was nobody like him standing out in front of a rock band. Painfully introverted and dressed like the freshman outcast that nobody wants to sit at their lunch table, Byrne looked like a psycho killer rather than a guy who would sing a song called “Psycho Killer.” Again, all the great lead singers practice some form of self-actualization, but in Byrne’s case, he didn’t transform himself, he transformed the public’s expectations about lead singers to the point where people would accept him for being exactly who he was.
12. Lou Reed (The Velvet Underground)
You know who else did that? This guy, though on a smaller scale, since so few people cared about The Velvet Underground during their brief existence. That David Berman lyric about how all his favorite singers can’t sing applies to Lou Reed first and foremost. Though Lou actually can sing — tell me the guy who does “Pale Blue Eyes” can’t sing and I’ll revoke your listening privileges — even if it took decades to finally prove this. In the ’60s, Andy Warhol believed in Lou Reed’s songs enough to become his patron, though he also doubted Lou’s lead singer abilities enough to shoehorn Nico into the band. Reed himself later handed off some of his loveliest songs to Doug Yule to sing. But Lou really was the most outstanding vocalist in the Velvets, adopting a disaffected style that continues to influence indie singers (consciously or not) to this day. If you wear sunglasses on stage and talk-sing your lyrics, you need to send a royalty check to Lou’s widow, Laurie Anderson.
11. David Lee Roth (Van Halen)
I’m deeply conflicted about DLR not making the top 10. I love Van Halen, and I love Diamond Dave. But here’s the truth: He might be the best pure showman on this list, and he might also be the absolute worst singer. His high-kicking antics in the “Jump” video are an absolute delight, and I would never want to listen to the isolated vocal track of that song. Because DLR isn’t really a lead singer, he’s a performance artist who did karate moves next to the most brilliant guitarist in hard rock history. And that is in no way a criticism. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that DLR was way more avant-garde than we ever gave him credit for.
10. Ronnie Spector (The Ronettes)
When she passed away in January, Ronnie Spector finally received a modicum of the recognition she deserved in life as a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer who hung out with The Beatles, dated Keith Richards, and influenced The Ramones (and therefore the subsequent history of pop punk) as well as Bruce Springsteen. But it’s still not fully appreciated how much her vocal style informed a lot of the lead singers who came after her. That voice — youthful but hard, innocent but knowing, romantic but with a hint of danger — really is a master class in how to convey about a half-dozen different emotions without seeming to exert a lot of effort. She’s cool, in other words, but never at the expense of doing justice to the emotional truth of the song. It’s fitting that “Be My Baby,” one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever recorded, found its rightful interpreter in Ronnie.
9. Axl Rose (Guns N’ Roses)
Two hundred years from now, everybody on this list and everybody currently reading this list will be long dead. But historians hoping to understand 20th century musical culture will still be stumped about one central question: How do you do the Axl dance? I refer of course to that snake-like shimmy that Axl does in the videos for “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Paradise City,” one of the slickest moves in lead singer history. As far as we know, Axl is the only person who can do this dance, and it’s the key to his iconic status. Even after GNR fell into disrepute in the late ’90s as Axl labored over Chinese Democracy, the public could not fully write him off because it could not find anyone else would could perform that mesmerizing dance. When GNR came back in the late 2010s with Slash and Duff, the main source of curiosity was whether Axl could still perform the Axl dance. (He can, and he does.) Therefore, Axl is immortal, even after he dies.
8. Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin)
Tell me if this sounds awesome on paper: A high-pitched voice. Big hair. Tight pants that are, ahem, revealing. The Lord Of The Rings. Sex. Lemons. Squeezing lemons. Lemon juice running down your leg.
I’ll stop now. When I type out what Robert Plant did in Led Zeppelin, it sounds gross. But when Robert Plant did when he did in Led Zeppelin, it is … what Robert Plant did in Led Zeppelin. It works! Even though it is thoroughly wrong! Why it worked back then is a mystery that nobody — including the many hair metal dudes who imitated Robert Plant unsuccessfully — has ever been able to solve. Even Robert Plant doesn’t seem to get it. He makes coffee shop Americana music now because his own past is so completely confounding. But if you put on “Whole Lotta Love” right now, you will either be in a fight or having sex five minutes later. It’s just the way it works.
7. Beyoncé (Destiny’s Child)
She’s the best lead singer of the past 25 years, which is a tribute to Queen Bey and also a statement about how lead singers are an endangered species. Because groups of all kinds are also an endangered species. The modern pop world is geared almost entirely to stand-alone, larger-than-life personalities; it’s easier to create a cult of personality around a single artist than a gang, which partly explains why Justin Timberlake eventually left ‘N Sync, Harry Styles exited One Direction, and Beyoncé’s time with Destiny’s Child now seems like a distant memory. It’s simpler and cleaner to eventually push the other people out of the picture and zero in on the most obvious star in the bunch, even if that means you are no longer a true lead singer.
For those of us who love groups, this is a sad development. If I were to put on my thinkpiece writer’s hat, I might surmise that the drift away from band identities is a symptom of a greater sense of cultural isolation, in which the in-person connection of a gang is replaced by the parasocial relationship of the pop star and audience. Just as we in the audience are separated physically by technology, so are our idols from their compatriots. But maybe I’m being overly chin-stroke-y here. You don’t have to be a predatory record-industry vulture to recognize that Beyoncé was not going to be contained by Destiny’s Child. Even the other members of Destiny’s Child knew it, hence the title of their final album: Destiny Fulfilled.
6. Iggy Pop (The Stooges)
The ultimate “wild” lead singer. As a man who would rather wear peanut butter than a shirt, Iggy sets an impossible standard for wildness that many other “wild” lead singers — some of whom are on this list — tried to emulate but have never topped. A lot of that has to do with Iggy’s singular spirit, which deftly matches a fighter’s spirit with a lover’s tenderness, the precise qualities that would inspire anyone to want to be your dog. But in the end, I think Iggy’s greatest contribution to the lead singer canon is the typography of his majestically weathered body. Like any natural resource, Iggy’s body has only become more wondrous over time, with muscles folding into crevices that reveal mysterious patterns, like a flesh-covered Badlands. Iggy’s body is a testament to the enduring power of music itself. A promise that if you continue to put as much into life as he does, your strength will not diminish but in fact find new ways to reveal itself.
5. Michael Stipe (R.E.M.)
A famously inscrutable vocalist who somehow became the best “personal” lead singer ever. In the beginning, as a queer Patti Smith acolyte with a Wise Blood sensibility, he deconstructed every aspect of being a singer in a Southern rock band. There was nothing bluesy or beard-y about his aesthetic; he was, in fact, the inverse of those things. He was unapologetically arty, but in the manner of a leafy, earthy Georgia college town, meaning he might down a pitcher and tear into Aerosmith’s “Toys In The Attic” by the end of the night. On stage, he mumbled his lyrics, which only made the audience lean in that much closer to him. And while what he said usually made little literal sense, his talent for communicating intuitively with his audience is virtually unparalleled. As fellow lead singer Eddie Vedder once put it, “He can be direct, he can be completely abstract, he can hit an emotion with pinpoint accuracy, and he can be completely oblique and it all resonates.”
4. Diana Ross (The Supremes)
As much as anyone from her generation of ’60s lead singers, she invented the contemporary model for pop stardom. Beautiful, glamorous, untouchable — nearly 50 years after she had her first hit, it’s remarkable how nearly all modern superstars resemble Diana Ross. Does she look and sound fantastic? Of course. Does she command the attention of any room she inhabits? No doubt? Is her voice cool, perfect, and above all magnetic? The numbers speak for themselves. Her tenure with The Supremes remains one of the all-time great runs for any group, including twelve No. 1 hits in a decade when the competition couldn’t have been fiercer. (Only The Beatles rival their level of success in the ’60s.) And all of those songs are absolute heaters: “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” “Baby Love,” “Back In My Arms Again,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” and so on.
3. Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones)
He’s lived a wilder life than any of the “wild” lead singers, but it’s clear that one does not get to the precipice of 80 while still being a stadium rocker if he’s too wild. What Mick is instead is a marathon runner. He just keeps going, because he knows how to pace himself. This is how you survive things like Altamont, the death of Brian Jones, Keith’s heroin addiction, Ron Wood’s freebase addiction, multiple underperforming solo albums, the death of Charlie Watts, and (let’s not forget) the cruel relentlessness of time marching forward. Mick Jagger made it acceptable to be a strutting lead singer in your 40s. Then he made it acceptable to be a lead singer in your 50s. Then your 60s, and then your 70s. In 10 years, he might very well be pushing 90, and I wouldn’t bet against him hitting that landmark. Because Mick Jagger has not only been an expert at pacing himself, but he’s set the pace for everything a lead singer can possibly be.
2. Kurt Cobain (Nirvana)
Spoiler alert: Mick is the last living lead singer on this list. As of 2022, Kurt Cobain has been dead longer than he was alive, a terribly sad milestone. Among the saddest aspects of this is that Kurt’s story is normally framed only in terms of his death, as if his life is a riddle to be solved so that it can explain the (still) shocking manner in which he passed. But this is such a reductive way of viewing the man. Personally, I’ve tried to deprogram myself from thinking about Kurt Cobain as “just” a towering icon so that I can instead remember him as a person who aspired to be an incredible lead singer, and succeeded tremendously. And my main deprogramming tool is watching the Live At Reading video, which spotlights just how good he was as a purely charismatic stage presence (nobody did more by simply standing on stage) and as an underrated showman (the white doctor’s coat is an excellent stage fit). When you watch this video, the “spokesman of a generation” clichés fall away and what’s left is a guy whose cracked holler, raggedly blonde-haired good looks, and raging guitar made him one of the most stunning people to ever front a band.
1. Freddie Mercury (Queen)
As if anyone else was going to top this list. I don’t like to be predictable, but not going with Freddie Mercury would be egregious rock critic malpractice. Let’s run down the criteria I mentioned at the start of this column:
- Vocal ability (25 percent): Are you kidding? Here’s the man at Live Aid.
- Showmanship (25 percent): Lol really? Here’s more of the man at Live Aid.
- Charisma (20 percent): Freddie only sat still in interviews, so please enjoy him slagging Sid Vicious.
- Influence (30 percent): This one is slightly more difficult, because while most lead singers aspire to be like Freddie Mercury, imitating him is like trying to be like the sun or the moon. You can’t be the sun or the moon, because there is only one sun and one moon.
It’s been said that Michael Jordan was better at his job than anybody has ever been at any job. I would say the same about Freddie Mercury. In fact, I would say it applies more to Freddie Mercury. Which is why Queen remains one of the world’s most popular bands more than 30 years after Freddie died. You still can’t top the best.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.