We’ve just wrapped a really interesting project researching and developing a branded voice for a new European project launching next year. As we always do, we made a point of pressing to the client the importance of making the voice itself what we call 'ownable'. Non-generic or bland. Instead, make it distinct. Make it synonymous. Make it memorable. As in music, the character of the voice is what often stays with the listener long after the track has finished.
In this incontrovertibly flawed list, we traverse the unenviably subjective (and seemingly office-row-eliciting) question, which voices are the most unmistakable in music history?
In our list of ten below, we spread the net far and wide to answer who are the most distinctive and unique vocalists ever recorded. Without the need for any gimmicks or clangorous name show-boating (bypassing the modern trend many artists do of prefacing every single they make by actually name-checking themselves at the beginning of the record - Craig David, Jason Derulo, we’re looking at you), these singers are instantly recognisable, undeniably just…well, them.
It was once argued that you can’t be a true great without such a voice. I guess it depends on how good your songs are and how much the song endears the message. But hey, it certainly helps…
Mumble Rap, this is not folks. In we go…
1. Louis Armstrong
Such is the undeniable character, embodied through a Bayou-wide sized gravelly grin prevalent throughout any Ole Satchmo vocal, it’s easy to forget that Louis (pronounced Lewis, for the record) Armstrong was one of the, if not the most, accomplished of instrumental jazz musicians. Often heralded as the father of modern swing, his unorthodox trumpet playing fusing his New Orleans Roots with the birth of Chicago style jazz heralded a departure from ensemble to soloist playing and the improvisation era.
It was only in the late 1920s when he began performing cameos such as Ain’t MisBehavin’ that his undeniable vocal prowess began to flourish (his version of this Real Book staple is still the highest selling of all time). Armstrong became an early pioneer of this path from gifted instrumentalist to popular singer that came to be a well-worn one in jazz and RnB, with the likes of Nat 'King' Cole (piano), Nina Simone (piano) and Lionel Richie (sax) following a similar career trajectory.
Perhaps his most famous vocal performances came in the twilight of his career with the John Barry / Hal David 1969 tune, We Have All The Time in the World (which ironically did not chart in either the UK or US at the time) and of course the sublime What A Wonderful World (1967), set against a backdrop of the escalating US involvement in Vietnam.
Arguably, her indubitable style can be attributed just as much to her unconventional angular melodic gymnastics as much as the dynamism of her delivery. From intense growl to euphoric high notes, Bjork (real name Björk Guðmundsdóttir) is a true one-off.
A veritable chameleon in terms of the eclecticism and innovation, her body of work has been consistently delivered over a nearly 30-year career. From working with Venezuelan producer Arca to her 90s classic cover of Betty Hutton’s 1951 big band smash Its Oh So Quiet, Bjork's truly individual voice is the single stunning constant that retains her music’s unequivocal core identity.
There remains no-one quite like her both as a singer, visual artist or performer.
3. Snoop Dogg
There are a number of voices from the world of hip-hop that are instantly recognisable: Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, Chali 2na, Ol' Dirty Bastard, even Eminem, but none are more instantly spottable than the laid-back, soft snarling flows of Snoop Dogg.
Like Eminem later, Snoop was discovered by the mastermind of Dr Dre way back in 1992 where he was a central figure in the evolution of the West Coast G-Funk sound. His debut album Doggystyle sold more than a million copies in the first week alone. Indeed, Snoop Dogg (real name Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr) has remained a constant in the evolving hip-hop and rap scenes for the past 25 years which is no mean feat considering the tragic demise of so many of his contemporaries, and his prominent involvement during the bitter Death Row / Bad Boy rivalry that came to a boil in the mid 90s.
As diverse and controversial as he is recognisable, Snoop’s chequered résumé includes acquittal for murder, directing a porn flick for Hustler (inevitably called Doggystyle) and more recently producing production music library albums. He has continued to evolve as an elder statesman of the genre including his rebirth through Rastafarianism as Snoop Lion in 2012, and his self-parodying roles in films such as Starsky & Hutch and Bruno. But in his music, his laconic drawl has remained a constant - a herb-induced antithesis to the fast paced rhymes of the likes of Busta Rhymes or Eminem.
4. Barry Gibb / The Bee Gees
Leading Bee Gee's brother Barry Gibb's intense hyper-falsetto made their vocal sound truly one of a kind during the 70s and 80s. Even when on backing duties such as on Diana’s Ross’s 1985 Chain Reaction (coincidentally written by Gibb), there is no mistaking who you’re listening to.
However, the band’s earlier work during the late 60s stylistically was far more idiomatic of the vocal groups of the era - tight two and three-part harmonies. And as such, they are a far less recognisable entity, despite a string of classic hits such as Got To Get a Message To You and Massachusetts.
But it wasn’t until their 13th studio album Main Course in 1975 that their singing style began to incorporate soprano harmonies as a countenance to brother Robin Gibb's deeper, more Orbison-influenced lead vocals. Jive Talkin' was perhaps the first single to make the world mindful of the group's transformation, shepherding in the Bee Gees golden mid-disco period, with the vocal style becoming increasingly extreme throughout the decade.
Admittedly, the style is borderline ridiculous at times. But it’s undeniably them. And having sold more than 220 million records worldwide, who has the last (very high pitched) laugh…?
5. Horace Andy
Originally born Horace Hinds, the Kingston roots reggae singer Horace Andy's famous tremolo style of singing makes him instantly recognisable. Instead of varying the pitch at the end of notes (vibrato) as most singers do, Andy’s wavering technique (varying amplitude or ‘volume’) creates a unique rhythmic sound, influencing vocalists such as Elvis Costello, Aaron Neville, and RnB folk singer-songwriter, Terry Callier. His later collaborations with Massive Attack (the only vocalist to appear on all five of their studio albums) particularly on the seminal Blue Lines and Mezzanine, introduced the now 67-year-old to a whole new audience.
6. Liam Gallagher
A nasal hybrid pastiche of early 70s John Lennon and Madchester forebear Ian Brown make former Oasis frontman, Liam Gallagher's vocal delivery undeniable recognisable. And quintessentially British. His trademark emphasis on elongating “i” sounds (“sheeeeiiiine”) coupled with his unerring, brash and ego-centric confidence made Liam a frontman de force prototype for a generation that followed.
7. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
The Emperor of Qawwali singing, Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has one of the most renowned and technically incredible voices in recorded music history. Most often performing the devotional music of Sufi-ism, Qawwali has a rich musical heritage heralding from the Indian subcontinent, stretching back over 700 years - a fusion of Persian, Indian and Turkish styles.
Qawwali utilises a Hindustani notation system that divides the octave unlike in Western music into twelve equalled tempered notes, but instead into 22 distinct pitches centred around 7 non-fixed key tones, known as Swaras. As a result, the vocal delivery often sounds dissonant or out of tune to Western ears due to targeting these micro-tones (Shrutis) that sit between understood Western intervals. Khan popularised the integration of Khayal styles of singing using the Sargam technique, in which the performer sings the names of the notes he is singing, often a great speed and rhythmic syncopation.
His prowess as a singer is matched only by his prolonged stamina. Qawwali is a famously intense and extended art form and he has more than a handful of individual songs (including Ye Jo Halk Halk Suroor Hai) that run at well over an hour each. He also currently holds the Guinness Book of Records title for most Qawwali albums recorded, at an impressive 125.
In 1995, he collaborated with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder on the soundtrack to Dead Man Walking and his friendship with world music advocate Peter Gabriel, brought the Qawwali tradition further into the European spotlight. Jeff Buckley even described Khan as “my Elvis.” Despite Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan bringing the art form to audiences beyond the Muslim faith, unlike Bhangra or other forms of Hindustani Classical music, Qawwali has remained almost an exclusively male art form.
8. Nina Simone
Some have described Simone’s rough and raw vocal delivery, the female equivalent of Bob Dylan. Granted, her pitch isn’t always perfect, but like her fellow Greenwich village neighbour, judging Nina Simone on her technical vocal adroitness is to judge a Michelin-starred meal by the bowl it’s served in.
Simone’s heart-wrenching yet inimitable vocal style, combines gospel-infused sermon-isms derived from Methodist minister parents, with a heavy blues sadness, set against a jazz sensibility and a deep connection to African roots music. A passionate advocate of the Civil Rights Movement, born out of personal injustices in earlier life, her work was timely and socially aware - often tackling prickly or controversial subjects with tracks such as Mississippi Goddam (her response to the 1963, murder of Medgar Evers and the September 15, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young black girls and partially blinded a fifth).
She cut a divisive figure in black music during the Sixties especially as she outwardly espoused a more pro-confrontational stance on addressing civil transgressions, that was directly at odds with the non-violent approach of Dr King at the time. Never a stranger to fits of outrage even in later life, 1985 saw her attempt to shoot a record executive accused of with-holding royalties at point-blank range but missed. Her short temper can be heard in her vocal delivery and her earlier stage performances were often characterised as off-hand or difficult.
Indeed now, it seems practically indecent that her work be licensed so frivolously and so much in advertising such is the substance and context of her music and lyrical content. Tracks like the African American spiritual Sinnerman (ever an ad-man favourite) Feeling Good and I Put a Spell On You have been placed countless times from Chanel to Apple, Muller Rice and Renault.
9. Jonsi Birgisson (Sigur Ros)
Testament to the sheer intrigue and seemingly unilateral connection listeners feel for the emotion in the Sigur Ros frontman’s vocal delivery, unlike Bjork our second Icelandic entry is one of only two non-English speaking singers to make our humble list. His soaring reverb-laden vocals on albums such as Takk and Ágætis byrjun (A Good Beginning) manifest a shimmery, child-like vulnerability that is both intensely human and yet remains deeply intimate, often semi-mumbling his lyrics in the band's self-proclaimed gibberish language, monikered Hopelandic. Nonetheless, his influence can clearly even be heard in English speaking bands such as Alt J’s Joe Newman and ambient post-rock peers, Múm.
And it seemed almost every brief we received in 2012 in one way or another seemed to reference the euphoric simplicity of Hoppipolla. Which in itself, tells it’s own flatter-some story…
10. Curtis Mayfield With respectful nods to Roy Orbison, Prince and Jackie Wilson, Curtis Mayfield’s controlled delivery is often-imitated but never equalled. He is the quintessential falsetto voice.
His politically charged songwriting, even in his early years as a member of the Impressions, set him on a path towards the gritty ghetto-funk Blaxploitation sound of the early Seventies that would come to define his legacy with tracks such as Pusherman, Move On Up and Superfly. Indeed, much of Mayfield’s work as a socially-aware songwriter provided the backdrop to the civil rights movement, with Keep on Pushin' even being banned from several urban radio stations after riots broke in cities across the country in the late Sixties.
Mayfield’s trademark almost whispering falsetto countered the often throaty, deep tones eschewed by the likes of Isaac Hayes and Barry White and in the late 60s and early 70s, borrowing stylings from earlier high register pioneers such as Eddie Kendricks and Smokey Robinson. An undeniable influence himself vocally on the likes of Prince and Bruno Mars, Mayfield was a double inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, both as a member of the Impressions in 1991 and again in 1999 as a solo artist.
Honourable mentions for those close but not quite: Brian Wilson, Freddie Mercury, Edith Piaf, Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits, Florence Welch, David Bowie, Barry White, Kurt Cobain, James Brown, Bon Iver, Shaggy, Axl Rose, Sting, Michael Jackson, Brian Molko, Jarvis Cocker and Doloros O’Riordon. Anyone we missed off? Tweet us @thefutzbutler and let us know…