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Where Have All the Great Rock Singers Gone?

Today, 17 years after Freddie Mercury’s passing, I’ve found myself wondering: Where have all the great rock singers gone?

On Rolling Stone‘s list of the greatest vocalists of the rock era, the Queen frontman comes in at No. 18. I’d argue him up a few notches, but that’s me. What’s much more interesting about the list is that, out of one hundred entries, only five are still arguably in their recording heyday. Of those five, only one is male or fronts a band: Thom Yorke (No. 66). The others are female solo artists: Mary J. Blige (No. 100), Mariah Carey (No. 79), Björk (No. 60), and Christina Aguilera (No. 58).

Think about this for a second. According to Rolling Stone, of all the frontmen making career-defining music today, Radiohead’s introverted, reedy-voiced singer is the best. Even including those left off the list, can any rock singer today — especially in an era of nasal whines — stand up against a master like Freddie Mercury?

The greatest rock frontmen combine vocal skill with stage showmanship. We remember Mercury for his bombastic performances as much as for his four-octave range. David Bowie propped up his otherworldly personas with a voice that could scratch out the brattiest of jeers before delving down into an incomparable baritone croon. Robert Plant’s bluesy moans were delivered with an open-shirted, akimbo-stanced wink. What would Mick Jagger have been without that chicken strut, Axl Rose without his mesh shirts and rubber-legged sway, or Iggy Pop without his — or rather, with his shirt?

Many talented singers today don’t have the presence or style to distinguish themselves as lasting personalities. I’d group most honey-throated folk singers in here (think Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold singing for thousands while slouching in a chair), as well as Caleb Followill of Kings of Leon and Matthew Bellamy of Muse — both examples of how even the most powerful and elastic vocals, without a matching personality, can’t elevate a singer’s name above that of the band.

But even more common are the flamboyant exhibitionists who strut and yell their way into the hearts of fans, but lack transcendent vocal powers. Think Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington, whose legendary live antics make it almost impossible for him to maintain a melody; or the Hives’ Pele Almqvist, whose tailored suits and garage antics eclipse his indistinctive howls; or My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, whose decent voice is significantly less important to the band’s popularity than his pale skin, knit brow, and wide-mouthed bawl.

So what does contemporary rock have to offer, apart from Thom Yorke?

I can think of a few contenders, but they all fall short in some regard. Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes stages ever-more-elaborate shows, and unashamedly flaunts a fluid sexuality (and occasionally a willingness to, ahem, reveal himself), but his falsetto wordsmithery doesn’t exactly inspire singalong choruses. Former Darkness and current Hot Leg singer Justin Hawkins was once hailed as the falsettoed, jumpsuited, split-kicking savior of glam rock, but he couldn’t keep it together long enough to stay on top. Of everyone out there, Cee-Lo Green may be the superlative frontman of the past few years, with his Motown-worthy pipes and superfreak persona, but Gnarls Barkley can’t really be called “rock.” Then again, with the dearth of real vocalists on the scene these days, I’ll take what I can get.

Watch: Queen, “We Are The Champions” (live)
Queen, “Under Pressure” (Live At Wembley Stadium, 1986)
Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (live)