Michael Stipe helped define the sound of college radio's first big star, the now-retired R.E.M., with a vocal approach that was often all but incomprehensible and decidedly detached. Although he turns 51 today (January 4) and later refined his style somewhat as his lyrics became more socially and politically attuned, he built his band's career by making people guess what the hell he was mumbling about.
Ironically, R.E.M.'s early albums -- those that featured Stipe's rants and wail, arched way over the top and oddly indecipherable -- still rank as their best efforts overall. Murmur
, Fables of the Reconstruction
, and Reckoning
owed their success as much to the elusive nature of Stipe's singing as they do to the alt-Americana ethos that permeated their approach. "That voice. It's an extraordinary voice," Bono was once quoted as saying. "I often tell him I think he's a crooner, and he doesn't like that very much. But it is sort of one part some sort of Bing Crosby '50s laid-back crooner and one part Dolly Parton."
We would argue that that particular comparison is up for debate, but suffice it to say that in many cases, the most effective singers, at least as far as rock realms are concerned, aren't always the most disciplined. In fact, it's generally attitude and not aptitude that dictates cred and competence. Which means Stipe's not alone when it comes to posturing and preening. Here are a few examples of other so-called singers who boast more swagger than skill.
Bob Dylan: Dylan's slurred vocals and obtuse affectations marked him as much as his remarkably astute lyrics and makeshift melodies, even to the point where Dylan parodies became standard fodder for critics and satirists alike. In fact, when Dylan assumed a straight croon on Nashville Skyline, his followers were flummoxed. Fortunately, he quickly reverted to his standard style thereafter, although nowadays, his hoarse croak makes his early singing sound practically silken by comparison.
Captain Beefheart: The late Captain's gruff bellowing and menacing howl made him a cult fave early on but negated any possibility for commercial crossover. Like Dylan, Stipe, and others of this ilk, his obtuse lyrics and perverse poetry seemed suited to his odd persona, putting him in a category all his own.
Tom Waits: Although he started out in the traditional singer/songwriter vernacular, Waits' barfly persona, beatnik branding, and jumbled, dramatic imagery made his drunken, bellicose growl more attuned to one who might prefer howling at the moon. As the title of his latest album, Bad as Me, attests, Waits is as irascible as ever.
Neil Young: Look, we love Neil as much as the next guy -- maybe even more so -- but that strained, high-pitched wail sometimes sounds like two alley cats having at it. Plaintive as opposed to pretty, Young has also attracted his share of satirists, making him all the more appealing in a quirky sort of way.
Keith Richards: It's always kind of cool when the Stones allowed Keef the occasional lead vocal, even though it seems he's straining to hit each and every note. Still, being he's the eternal bad boy and degenerate rock star, he's cool regardless. When you're talking renegade rock 'n' roll here, there's no place for reverence or respectability.
Geddy Lee: With his high-pitched yelp, Geddy often sounds like he's got his nuts in a vice and has yet to find a way to free them. Still, Rush has its legions of fans, so who's to argue with the squeal of success?
Ozzy Osbourne: Ozzy is his own character, and he plays the role of the lovable but befuddled metal misfit quite well. Besides, when a good part of your reputation is based on biting the heads off bats, who would expect any real profundity to come from such a mouth?
When Kurt's old lady started talking trash about him, well, we knew she wasn't going to doll up her descriptions with anything sweet and tender. If nothing else, she proves that when it comes to spewing out the venom, she's every bit as gritty as the guys.
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