When asked what constitutes exceptional singing ability, most music critics refer to strictly technical conventions: perfect pitch, pleasant tone, rich timbre, and a wide vocal range. But does a vocalist really have to meet all of these standards (or any of them, for that matter) to be considered “great?”
The seven musicians on this list have voices that are technically flawed—and, therefore, immediately polarizing. Love them, hate them, or remain stuck in a perpetual state of confusion as to how they became successful in the first place, but the widespread appeal of these legendary artists proves that vocal “perfection” is truly in the ear of the beholder.
“Sweet Jane” (from Loaded)
As the frontman of the Velvet Underground (and a kaleidescope of other personas in his solo career), Reed’s voice has always been flat…yet strangely memorable.
“Piece of My Heart” (from Janis)
In the process of straining her vocal chords, Joplin also pushed the boundaries of what was considered decent and broke new ground for women in rock and roll.
“Hold On” (from Mule Variations)
With songs achingly raw enough to cause physical pain, Waits’ scratchy croak (drenched in whiskey, cigarettes, and sorrow) sounds almost unbearably perfect.
“God Save the Queen” (from Live, Anarchy in the U.K)
Lydon’s petulent snarl is hardly ever in tune—making his voice the ideal vehicle for the Sex Pistols’ devil-may-care explosion of punk rock.
“Horses and Hey Joe”
Smith tends to talk rather than sing, but her highly intelligent lyrics have a way of setting their hooks in listeners’ ears and refusing to let go.
“Hallelujah” (from the Essential Leonard Cohen)
Cohen is another talk-singer with undeniable gravitas. His original version of “Hallelujah” (recited in a deep, gravelly, and oddly moving monotone) remains the consummate ode for broken hearts.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” (from Bringing It All Back Home)
This song is allegedly about drugs, but Dylan’s signature twang makes it sound like a magical, folksy lullaby. As a brilliant songwriter with a wonderfully weird voice, his impact on the music industry (especially in regards to vocal transcendence) is unparalleled.