I have always envied singers (the songwriter kind, specifically) for the lives they lead. Writing is such a solitary craft. I know, nothing compares to the highs one reaches in solitude, but we almost never experience the instant satisfaction of seeing your audience’s reaction there and then. It does happen in poetry readings sometimes, but 100,000 listeners watching you and cheering for you? Never. I read somewhere that it happened to Neruda in Chile and Brazil; but that was in the 70s, the same period here in the Philippines when the Balagtasan was still a popular form of public entertainment.
I am actually a bigger fan of music than of literature. True, literature masturbates my intellect better; but music hits my gut stronger and cuts my heart deeper. This is why this list of my top singers of all time is ultra-difficult to make. This is not a list of my favorite music artists (for that would definitely include John Lennon and Bob Marley), but of the best male singing voices I have ever heard. The prerequisite is that I must like their music. Most of the singers listed here are songwriters themselves, which is also my usual prerequisite for liking an artist. I will name them in typical countdown manner, along with the song in which I believe their vocal prowess is in full display. (Side note: I will make a separate post soon on my Top 10 Female singing voices, as well as another list on my Top 10 Pinoy singing voices.)
I will name several honorable mentions: Freddie Mercury, Tony Hadley, Mick Jagger, Marvin Gaye, Ron Sexsmith, Elton John and Seal. Here goes my Top 10:
10. Eddie Vedder
So who has the ultimate rocker voice? Offhand, I can give you Anthony Kiedis, or Thom Yorke, or Chris Cornell, or even Kurt Cobain and the legendary Jim Morrison. But even though I like those singers more, I really think the ultimate rocker voice belongs to Eddie Vedder. Booming and commanding, his voice has been my benchmark for rockers since I first listened to Pearl Jam’s Ten back in senior high school. My proof? Just listen to Alive (from Ten, of course), where his vocal capability is in full use. Sino ngayon ang tunay na raker? Eddie Vedderrr!
His is not your typical singer’s voice with the full range of vocal calisthenics, but he just sings with what I call Style with a capital S. I will not write much about how good his music is, as it will just make me feel bad he is not ranked higher on my voice list. Let me just tell you about how his voice works: it pierces straight through the heart, and one is left amazed at how he can just so easily deliver those powerful poetic lines in perfect musical fashion. The most difficult part for me about Sting is naming which is my favorite album, as I am equally torn among The Dream of the Blue Turtles, Nothing Like the Sun, The Soul Cages and Ten Summoners’ Tales. Wala pang The Police diyan ha! It even gets more difficult trying to name my favorite song: Fortress Around Your Heart, If You Love Somebody Set Them Free, Lazarus Heart, Fragile, They Dance Alone, Be Still My Beating Heart, Moon Over Bourbon Street, Englishman in New York, Why Should I Cry For You, If I Ever Lose My Faith, The Hounds of Winter, Valparaiso? Shit, that alone would require a separate list! It’s easier for me to name his best vocal showcase, and it can be heard on his classic hit with The Police: Roxanne. It is especially difficult to sing; ask George Michael, or anyone who has tried to sing it on videoke.
8. Dave Matthews
I could be rating this guy too high, but what the heck. I’m just so into his voice I could listen to even his crappiest songs (those from their recent albums) all day. Anyway, he can be forgiven for having “lost his touch” (still a highly debatable topic), if only for that Magnum Opus of an album called Under the Table and Dreaming, as well as the equally-good Crash. His voice has all the strength and raspiness I look for in a band lead, and the piercing/emotional/longing/sexy/hungry tone of a broken man. Some of my favorites include Ants Marching, Jimi Thing and Cry Freedom; but his vocal showcase is this great song called #41. And that’s notwithstanding the fact that the song has a deep, deep personal significance to me. I will have to stop here.
7. Michael Jackson
I keep on forgetting how good Michael Jackson’s voice is (or was), especially when I see that whiter-than-white face on TV. We always have to remind ourselves of the Michael who was black, who was Bad, and who was the phenomenal kid fronting Jackson 5. The kid who sang about the rat Ben. That kid is my number 7 on this list. Just listening to Happy and Got to be There gives me goosebumps. Lampaso ang lahat ng batang narinig ko, including Charice Pempengco, Makisig Morales, or even the unforgettable Banig Roberto. And did I mention his best vocal display? People Make the World Go Round. Listen to it. NOW.
When I first heard The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get as an eager teenager back in the early 90s, I couldn’t quite place Morrissey’s music in my limited and promdi knowledge of the genres. All I cared for then was the familiar sound of the Seattle grunge bands. I would soon learn that this Brit did 80s rock with the seminal group The Smiths. One thing was clear, though: he possessed a voice that’s not easy to forget. He has this New Wavish voice with the unmistakable boldness of a rocker’s. Listen to Suedehead, for example. Over the years, his voice just got better and better and his music darker and darker. What stayed the same was the fantastic cynicism and irony of his lyrics. Perhaps my favorite Morrissey album is You Are the Quarry, simply because it sounds older (and wiser) than all of his other albums. Now I have the words to describe Morrissey’s voice: it is snobbish, mayabang, masungit. Says a lot about his sexuality, if I must say. Or better yet: his voice is such a bully. Listen to The World is Full of Crashing Bores, and you will understand what I mean.
5. Stevie Wonder
Huwag na tayong magbulag-bulagan pa, wonderful talaga ang boses ni Stevie Wonder! I am a big, big Stevie fan. I first came to like him for the popular songs (read: di ko na gusto ngayon) I regularly heard growing up in the early 80s—I Just Called to Say I Love You, Ebony and Ivory, Part-time Lover. It progressed exponentially in high school when I began to appreciate the romantic depth of Lately and Overjoyed, and came full circle in college when I began really listening to his older (and best) albums from the 70s: Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life. Take All in Love is Fair and Love’s in Need of Love Today for example, which are some of the best songs ever written. But Stevie’s best recorded voice is in the song Ribbon in the Sky; and in the one he wrote for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders, Stay Gold. Ginto talaga, makikita nyo.
4. George Michael
The fact that I have a video of his featured in this blog says a lot about how much I love the man. Who doesn’t? Women fell in love with him as the tight-jeaned member of Wham; men fell in love with him in his videos for Fast Love and As; even Paula Abdul cried genuine tears watching him sing at the Idol finale. He with The pure, scintillating voice. This man breathes music, and has the all the trademark characteristics of a gifted artist (including, of course, the regular involvement in scandals). My favorite GM album (and one of my favorites of all time) is Older, which contains the maddeningly-beautiful Jesus to A Child—a song he wrote after the death of his Brazilian lover. But as for his best vocal display, I will have to point you again to Praying for Time, MTV Unplugged version. You may opt to watch the video, if you want to get into an emotional high.
Who has the ultimate rocker voice? Did I say Eddie Vedder? So who has the best (as in DA Best) rocker voice? Naman, eh di si Bono! Upon hearing The Joshua Tree for the first time from a friend’s kuya’s cassette tape back in Grade 6, I was hooked. For life. The music did it for me, of course. It defined what rock meant for me, and would later serve as my benchmark for rock albums. It still is my benchmark to this day. But one must not forget that the other defining factor of U2’s music is that big voice behind all those big songs. If God had a singing voice, it must sound like Bono’s. I expect nothing less. For if there was a God, he must have gravitas, that virtue that makes people listen to you. And that’s what Bono exactly has, a gravitas that makes people think: I must listen to him, he must be saying something. So go listen to Sunday Bloody Sunday and Please, or my favorite Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses. He surely is saying something.
2. Elvis Costello
Thank God for Jasper’s sophisticated CD collection, otherwise I would not have been directly exposed to perhaps the most gifted musician ever. Beyond knowing his name, the song I Want You, and a previous brief encounter with his album Brutal Youth, I did not know much about Costello’s music prior to 1998. I cannot claim to be a Costello authority, but this much I can say about his music: you can never predict where he is taking you, yet you can be assured he will take you to a place you’ve never been to. He always does, and it always is a rapturous experience. And his voice? Ahh, tanginang boses yan! He has all of Dave Matthews’s broken-manness, all of George Michael’s scintillating-ness, and Bono’s God-ness—all rolled into one! And that unique rasp in his voice that grates and scrapes through your gut has the power to drive you nuts and drive you to laughter and tears all in one go. I have one final word to describe his voice: PRIMAL. Listen to his longing sound in Alison, or hear him lament in All This Useless Beauty. Or listen to him at his very best, wailing in This House is Empty Now, or screaming in God Give Me Strength (both from his collaboration with Bacharach, Painted From Memory a.k.a. the best album of the last 10 years). If there’s one voice I wish I could steal, it is certainly Costello’s. The better Elvis.
1. Nat King Cole
Much of my musical orientation is founded on Nat King Cole. I literally grew up listening to him, as he was my late dad’s favorite singer. When I think of childhood, I think of his songs playing from our old “stereo” while my cousins and I play syato or taguan or holen in the yard all day. Then all the fun ends as soon as the music stops, as Nat’s voice would be replaced by my dad’s—calling me over to help him do things, from picking out his grey hair to repairing an old radio set to installing electrical implements. My dad had a solid singing voice, and it is what I miss most about him. When I miss my dad, I listen to Nat King Cole and his soothing voice. This is as personal as it can get, so I must restrain myself. Suffice it to say that for me, Nat King Cole is the best. His voice is best immortalized in my 4 favorite Nat songs: On The Street Where You Live, Nature Boy, Autumn Leaves, and The Very Thought of You.
I had planned to end on a lighter note, but the last item on Nat King Cole has inevitably driven me to a state of melancholy. Forgive me, but I am just such an emotional scumbag. So I will try to enjoy this state while it lasts, and I will now turn to listening to Nat King Cole to lull myself to sleep. It’s Monday 4 AM, just about the perfect time to set my focus back on a few important things needing my full attention. But for now, it’s all about Nat King Cole. I am home.