It is an interesting phenomenon in the music business that a performer who has a horrific voice can still become famous and make millions. Obviously some are famous because they are marketable (whether good looking or charismatic), have great lyrical ability or have a great group of performers around them.
Looking at instruments, a guitarist who can’t put together a riff and has poor uncoordinated hands will find himself in some dive bar playing for five drunks very quickly, and the same can be said of a drummer who botches the rhythm. But with singers, there is plenty of wiggle room in terms of what constitutes talent. Song writing talent and a distinct tone, or style can make a singer popular while having a less than perfect voice.
This article will detail some such vocalists, who are well known and successful but don’t sport particularly great voices. This will focus on real singers however, and not the sad excuses for cretins we now call singers who have made a career due to autotune. That nonsense is like steroids in sports, shooting fish in a barrel and any other metaphor used to describe something easy. They don’t even really count as performers. This is a list of (at least somewhat) talented musicians who, in spite of actual musical gifts, have voices that are frustrating to (many) listeners.
10. Eddie Vedder
It should be noted that Eddie Vedder is not on this list because he has a terrible sounding voice, but that he is one of the most notable mumblers the business has ever seen. His musical career has been outstanding, and he’s the most famous grunge band front man to survive heroin (Layne Staley and Kurt Cobain both having suffered deaths related to the drug). On top of his success with Pearl Jam, he has created some amazing solo work.
His more recent music is more comprehensible, but much of his early singing with Pearl Jam sounds more like howling during a drunken stupor than an actual song. “Yellow Ledbetter” is one of the most beautiful, emotional songs of the 90’s, but for God’s sake there is one partially intelligible line “I don’t know whether I’m the boxer or the bag”. Okay, that’s kind of deep, and the song is about a friend’s response to his brother being killed in war, but understanding the rest of the lyrics would help. No disrespect to Vedder, he’s one of the best of the past few decades, but a bit of enunciation could go a long way.
9. Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin is an icon and a trailblazer of sorts for women in music. Her passion, song-writing and charisma are what made her famous, but her voice was really nothing special. By “really nothing special” I mean that her vocal style was more shrieking and shouting, as opposed to actually singing the lyrics. To get more precise, when she was singing with minimal volume, her voice sounded unremarkable; a decent example of psychedelic rock singing, but the more the volume went up, the more the “nails-to-chalkboard factor” also went up.
All respect is due for this woman’s brief but amazing career, but don’t ever let anyone tell you she was a great singer. I’m sure there is a crazy woman in an alley somewhere who can belt out “Piece of My Heart” with as much vocal talent. Come to think of it, she kind of sounds like Axl Rose in parts of that song. Spoiler alert; more on him later.
8. Geddy Lee
I’m a Rush fan, but even we have to admit that Geddy Lee’s voice sounds like a twelve year old girl who has been taking testosterone supplements. Alright, maybe that is too harsh, but he certainly has a “unique” voice that is not only polarizing, but also the reason that some can’t listen to the band.
Neil Peart is among the best drummers rock music has ever seen, up there with the likes of John Bonham and Keith Moon, and Alex Lifeson is a gifted guitarist. As a trio, they have produced some amazing music, blending philosophical lyrics, catchy tunes and a sound that is all their own. Unfortunately, while Geddy Lee is an icon, and gifted musician, his voice is a deal-breaker for many people. I’ve often wondered if YYZ was released just so that fans could hear the band without Lee’s wailing.
7. Bob Dylan
Much like Eddie Vedder, Bob Dylan isn’t on this list because he sounds like nails to a chalkboard, but because much of his work is indecipherable. In reality however, Bob Dylan is less of a musician and more of a poet. Even though by his own admission, he isn’t even that. He has told interviewers that while he is thankful to his fans and for his success, he does not consider himself a poet, and just created rhymes for the sake of the words working together rather than because of any deeper meaning. With regard to his mumbling, he said he started early in his career and it caught on, and he never decided to stop. Like many of these artists, the music is good, catchy and fun, but Bob Dylan’s mumbling is as much of a calling card as it is a reason to criticize.
6. Neil Young
He’s one of those artists who Canadians love to point to and say “look, our country produces awesome musicians!” but that high pitched, shrill voice is by no means the reason he is famous. He’s widely recognized as one of the best songwriters out there and is proficient with just about any instrument, but Neil Young has the voice of a younger man, a man so young he’d be referred to as a boy. Plenty of people like it and think that his voice works well with his tunes and guitar style, and I can’t imagine anyone else singing Rockin’ in the Free World, or Southern Man, but still his distinct voice is enough for some music fans to cringe.
5. Jack White
Undeniably one of the most talented popular musicians out there right now, Jack White is outstanding in every way other than his vocal skills. He’s a great song writer, solid performer and can work a guitar like most people only wish to. On top of that, he can do with a guitar and a pair of drums what most cannot do with many more pieces. Unfortunately, his voice is a serious weak part in his game. But, again, as with many of the artists on this list, he has found a sound that works with his voice. Furthermore, on quite a few songs, notably 2005’s Blue Orchid, when the volume of the vocals goes up, so does the guitar and drums, it works to mask the fact that his singing is nothing special.
4. Scott Stapp
Many people like to call Creed a “post-grunge” band but I prefer to label them “post-skill”, as they are among the most offensive sounding groups of the last several decades. Let me be clear, the guitars, drums and lyrics aren’t terrible, it’s Scott Stapp’s groaning vocals that ruin the whole listening experience. The problem isn’t so much his power or his range, but just the sound of the odd pronunciation that makes him the epitome of the weird trend of vowel confusion that started in the 90’s and has almost died out now. Make it go away, I’d rather listen to a rusty chainsaw hack through a car with Nickelback’s Animals playing in the background. Okay, maybe the Nickelback comment was too far.
Please note that with that reference to Nickelback, Chad Kroeger is not on this list because he is a talented musician in the same way O.J. Simpson is a lawyer; he is in the same room as them sometimes.
3. Britney Spears
The “little girl voice” that she sometimes puts on may get some older gents riled up, and auto-tune has been shown to be her best friend, but Britney has a pretty terrible natural voice. I know I said I wouldn’t just let this be a list of auto-tune using “artists”, but I defend my use of Britney Spears on this list because she is one of the pioneers of that fad, rather than just one of the mass produced subhumans who call themselves singers these days.
Find any one of the clips floating around the world wide web of her singing without auto-tune, they are truly vile. We shouldn’t criticize her too much for that voice though, because Britney Spears isn’t a singer, nor was she ever. Back in the late 90’s she was marketable jail bait, and now she is an aging star with novelty value. Neither of these necessitate vocal skill. Seeing as the title of this article includes the word “talented” maybe Britney doesn’t belong here for that reason…discuss in the comments section.
2. Bryan Adams
The songs aren’t bad, and he should be praised for writing a song about a sex position, but having everyone think it’s about youth and nostalgia (Summer of ’69), but that voice is problematically unpleasant for the ears. It almost sounds like he is yelling but at half his capable volume. Sung by someone with a smoother voice, all of it may be far more easy to take, but after about 30 seconds it’s hard to believe his vocal cords have kept up with the screeching.
1. Macy Gray
This was an easy one. I’m no Simon Cowell, but I do like to think I can think up a creative insult from time to time. Macy Gray sounds like one of Marge Simpson’s sisters on her death bed, being strangled. She sang I Try back in 1999, in which she stated “my world crumbles when you are not here”. Well, my dear, my world crumbles when you start to sing. Check that, calling her style “singing” is just inaccurate, this woman hisses her lyrics.
This isn’t to say she isn’t talented as a songwriter, but she sounds like she has been a four-pack-a-day smoker for the past three decades. It’s mind-boggling but she still makes music. Given her voice, it must be a painful line of work, but with five Grammy nominations and a single win, she’s got to be doing something right.