A great way to kill time over a beer (or a month depending on passion of the topic) is discuss which singers are overrated. There may be some cases where everyone is in agreement, but what you will find more often is that you will disagree on many more.
This list focuses on the mainstream, I’m sure there are hundreds of indie bands with sub-par vocalists (and many more that kick ass), but I’m going to go with the majority here. Also, the focus is going to be pop and rock. I’m not going to pretend I can tell a good country singer from another, and hip hop, well that’s an entirely different skill set altogether.
A few have always walked the line and it’s really based on personal preference. I believe Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins), Dave Mustaine (Megadeth), the late Layne Staley (Alice in Chains) and Neil Young are average to good lead singers – some will adamantly disagree. In the pop world you could make the argument that Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson are severely overrated, but I don’t think people focus solely on their voices; instead, it’s the songs and performances that made them elite pop stars. Anyone who claims Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose are overrated I disagree with; in fact I would put both in my top 10 rock vocalists of all time. Just needed to get that out of the way and move on. Here are the 15 most overrated lead singers of all time.
15. Vince Neil (Motley Crue)
In the early nineties Motley Crue broke up and replaced Vince Neil with a new lead singer. The band sounded very different and did not resemble the old Motley Crue. After Neil rejoined the band, founder (and bass player) Nikki Sixx would go on the record that Vince Neil is the sound of Motley Crue. That doesn’t mean he can sing well. In fact, this appears to have been the perfect (and only) match for Neil. There is really no debating Neil’s voice; he often struggles in live performances, missing words and over straining. The good news for Neil is that his unique squeal leaves his mark with his hit songs, especially their biggest hit “Home Sweet Home,” a song often covered with little success.
Madonna was a trail blazer for female pop musicians, but she has relied as much on style, attitude and controversy as the actual music. Have you heard “Santa Baby?” Spoiler Alert: It’s not great. Madonna deserves all the accolades and success she has received, but her voice could never compete with today’s divas. I mean, it would be embarrassing to see her go up against Katy Perry, Beyonce or even Lady Gaga. There is a reason she befriended Britney – it was her equal. Again, I’m not debating her pop culture relevance (remember the SEX book) nor do I think her songs are not catchy, they are. However, her voice has never been elite.
13. Britney Spears
This one is pretty easy really, her voice is terrible. Britney Spears was the young sex kitten who, like Madonna, has made a career out of catchy pop songs and sex appeal, without a great voice. We all remember the shaved head, the MTV performance and Kevin Federline. There was a time when she may have been THE pop culture icon. She is still important today, but definitely not at the same level. Her voice has gone from soft to squeaky to just plain talking. Spears could perform naked and still no one would walk away thinking she could sing. No one has gotten more mileage out of a school girl outfit than Britney Spears.
12. John Lydon/Johnny Rotten (Sex Pistols)
Rock singers aren’t necessarily the greatest vocalists, but punk rock lead singers definitely push the lack of “top-notch” voice to a new level. Johnny Rotten was the stage name of John Lydon, the lead singer of Sex Pistols. Think of Rotten and you picture a straight jacket, spiked hair or blood. You probably don’t think of him as a great singer as you should not. His vocal style would be the punk “sneer” that has been used by thousands of punk bands since. Johnny Rotten proved on stage that being a rock singer is as much about attitude as anything else.
11. Brandon Flowers (The Killers)
Some love him, others hate him, same goes for the band. The Killers (and Flowers) are rarely a middle-of-the-road type band; you either own none of their albums or the whole catalog. The same is said of Flowers’ voice, many think his vocals are wonderful while others laugh at the thought of him fronting a band with his voice. His voice is definitely unique, a high pitched “whine” that can go low as well as high – making him an ideal vocalist for arenas. The question is really whether you believe it’s unique or too whiny. You may also want to consider their songs and if you are in the group that thinks all their songs are the same then that probably isn’t going to help Flowers’ case.
10. Anthony Kiedis (The Red Hot Chile Peppers)
This is an upset pick, right? Everyone loves Anthony Kiedis and The Red Hot Chili Peppers! Well, not everyone, and if you listen to their early music you can’t help but cringe at some of the vocals laid down by Kiedis. Had this been Kid Rock (and he sounded like Kiedis on some of his early music) he would have been laughed out of Detroit. Since “Under The Bridge” we have heard a softer voice as well as more range, both putting Kiedis and his vocals center stage. For the most part critics have welcomed this “new” sound as far as vocals go. It all comes down what your preference is, but I stand by the fact that Kiedis was not a great vocalist for many years and this band succeeded despite his lack of vocal abilities.
9. Chris Martin (Coldplay)
Coldplay and Chris Martin have gotten a free ride ever since “Clocks,” a magical song that continues to get major play despite having been released many years ago. If you isolate the vocals, this song (and many other Coldplay songs) are an absolute mess. Those who believe this have lived in the minority until recently when Martin played in New York City with U2. Bono was out (car accident) so Martin filled in for him, which makes perfect sense given that it’s pretty obvious Coldplay has been heavily influenced by U2. Here’s the thing, Martin couldn’t sing the songs even close as well as Bono does. Granted they are not “his” songs, but it’s not like he was filling in for Celine Dion, it was Bono. Case closed.
8. Bob Dylan
First, Bob Dylan is the best folk singer of all time, and secondly, he may be the greatest songwriter of all time. However, Dylan has never been a great singer. It’s hard to put into words because everyone associates his voice with “that sounds like Bob Dylan.” Anytime your songs are played during karaoke performances and sound better than the original that is a pretty good sign you are not a great vocalist. This happens in every karaoke bar every night with Bob Dylan songs. Anytime I see Dylan performing I think “what a waste” because he could be using that time writing more killer music.
7. Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters)
Dave Grohl is one of the greatest rock drummers of all time, having played drums for Nirvana, and he also fronts his band, Foo Fighters. For the latter he has been the primary vocalist since the start. I’ll listen to the “great rock voice” argument, but I’ve heard him enough to know that his band has succeeded based on song writing, not his vocals. Don’t get me wrong, the songs rock, but they all follow the same format. A typical Foo Fighters song starts soft and then the chorus is Grohl screaming. Sometime near the end of the song Grohl will scream even louder – you can actually feel his vocal chords it is so loud. It works for his band, but may be a reason they are forgotten once they stop putting out new music. Lucky for Dave, he will always have Nirvana.
6. Dave Matthews (Dave Mathews Band)
At this point it doesn’t even matter if Dave Matthews sings any vocals. His fan base is so loyal they would come to watch him sit on a toilet for two hours and walk away pumping their fists. Matthews’ low, gravel-like voice may be charming for a song or two, but there isn’t much of a range beyond. When he made “Gravedigger,” his dark song (from his dark album), he didn’t even try to sing, instead mostly talking through the lyrics and then just yelling during the chorus. Maybe it’s just preference and you could possibly say the same about Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam (I disagree), but like Dylan, Matthews has gotten by on superb songs coupled with inadequate vocals.
5. Liam Gallagher (Oasis)
The boys from Oasis always wanted to be the Beatles, so it’s hard to say whether Liam Gallagher was singing or just trying to sound like John Lennon. His songs always sounded as if they were being pushed, or forced out. It’s also quite possible he sang like this just to piss off his brother Noel, given their constant feuding. After a few hits Oasis and Liam were unable to put out another and many of their songs just sounded like copies of their original songs (which sounded like copies of Beatles tunes). Liam always had a great front man stage presence, which a good thing, covering up some of his deficiencies behind the microphone.
4. Janet Jackson
Michael Jackson gets a pass, but Janet does not. She got by on her last name, some catchy pop songs and being a female in a male dominated industry. Janet was one of the first to rely on sex appeal and dancing to cover up for her lack of voice and range. She knew it too, once she started fading she was smart and kept herself in the headlines (Super Bowl nip slip is one example) because her music wasn’t going to carry her. Granted, she had a great run including a few years where she was able to sell out arenas and put on dynamite shows, but that was due more to the song writing and dancing. It wasn’t her voice which would be highly regarded given the dominating diva field today.
3. Lou Reed (Velvet Underground)
If you appreciate lead singers who talk their vocals then you will want to skip this one. The Velvet Underground represented a lot of great things about rock and roll and music in New York City, but Lou Reed’s vocal ability was never one of them. Apparently Lou Reed was the guy who did just the right amount of heroin, but that didn’t make him a better singer. When Mark Wahlberg (Marky Mark) covers you song (“Wild Side”) and does a better job than you, that’s not good. Reed was a legend, but not a great singer, or even a good one, or average. Unfortunately he kept going, working with Metallica before his death. The album was essentially thrash metal guitars and drums with Reed talking over it. Just awful!
2. Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen has had so many hit songs and so many hit albums that I get it if someone thinks he is one of the great rock and roll icons, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good singer. His vocals range from karaoke bar to drunken car ride sing along songs. Grunting does not make you music “more real,” unless you live in New Jersey, there apparently that is the only way to sing a song. Comedians love to do their Bruce impressions and no one does one better than Jimmy Fallon. At least Springsteen seems to have a sense of humor about it. He knows he’s a rock God and I’m assuming knows he’s never been that great of a singer. I will now make sure I stay out of New Jersey for at least a year.
1. Jim Morrison (The Doors)
Reading poetry is not singing. Jim Morrison never set out to be one of the biggest rock legends of all time; instead, he just wanted to be a poet. He also liked being a rock star, too much probably, but that’s okay. I don’t think he ever considered himself a good singer and that’s good because he wasn’t. Sure, he had a great baritone voice, but a lot of his other vocals were either him yelling or talking or straight up reading his poetry. Were The Doors a great band? Yes. Was Jim Morrison a great front man? Yes. Was Jim Morrison a great lead singer? Absolutely not!