Freddie Mercury. Steve Perry. David Bowie. Stevie Nicks. Yeah, we’re not here to talk about them.
These are the unsung heroes of rock music, the powerhouse vocalists who deserve so much more credit than they get. From the founding fathers–and mothers–of rock who are all but forgotten by listeners today to singers who never quite reached legendary status despite their impressive pipes, here are the most underrated rock vocalists of all time.
Without Roy Orbison, where would rock music be today? One of the most enduring and influential figures in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, Orbison spun multiple hit records throughout the 60s. His voice swooped from mournful wails to delicate, vulnerable vibrato. There’s something wonderfully delicate about his vocals, especially given his well-known stage fright.
Passionate and versatile, Orbison suffered major personal and professional setbacks during the 70s before finding a new generation of fans in the late 80s. He passed away in 1988 at the age of 52.
Is Tina Turner a rock vocalist? Well, she’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so…
For decades, from her scorching cover of “Proud Mary” to the heartfelt “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” she’s been a titan of the music industry. I’ve always been partial to her barnstorming performance of “Nutbush City Limits,” which proves she can growl with the best rockers out there. She’s obviously a legend, but I don’t think she gets enough credit as a legit rockstar.
Little Richard’s flamboyant performance style and barely constrained falsetto would influence generations of rock performers. In this video from 1955, the squares in the audience clearly don’t know what to make of Little Richard as he roars his way through “Long Tall Sally” and “Tutti Frutti,” struggling not to rock the heck out. At one point, he can’t resist putting his foot up on the piano and grinding on the keyboard.
Jenny Lewis, Rilo Kiley
Jenny Lewis combines the pop-punk pout of Gwen Stefani with the edge of Kim Deal and Kathleen Hanna. Both with Rilo Kiley and as a solo artist, Lewis has continued to crank out incredible music for two decades. But the multi-instrumentalist and former child actress (she was in Troop Beverly Hills) has had to fight for respect every step of the way. When she first firmed Rilo Kiley, she had to push to sing lead vocals. If you read reviews of her albums, both with Rilo Kiley and her later solo projects, you find a theme of minimizing Lewis’s talent in favor of talking about her looks and fashion sense.
Nick Cave has two modes: sinister and achingly sensitive. When you hear him growl and swagger through a murder ballad like ‘Stagger Lee” or “Red Right Hand,” it’s hard to remember that he’s also capable of a tender, thoughtful song like “Into My Arms.” While his trademark baritone calls to mind Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed, Cave has more range than either of them. He’s also got a hypnotic intensity onstage, especially alongside longtime collaborator Warren Ellis’s electric violin.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Rock and roll has always had one foot in the blues and one foot in gospel. That’s never more evident than when you see Sister Rosetta Tharpe perform. Seriously, look at her shred that Gibson. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of her before now–Tharpe’s legacy as the great-grandmother of rock is only recently being recognized. She’s a little bit Chuck Berry, a little bit Etta James. And music fans owe her a huge debt.
Britt Daniel, Spoon
I’m a little bit biased here because Spoon is my favorite band of all time–and has been since I was in college. Britt Daniel is the band’s frontman, primary songwriter, and lead guitarist. In addition to his percussive guitar style, Daniel switches from a plaintive falsetto to a rockstar growl with ease. I can personally vouch that Spoon is very, very good live. Simply put, these guys from Austin, Texas, are phenomenal. And they’ve got a new album coming out soon!
Scott Weiland, Stone Temple Pilots
When you talk about the greatest vocalists of the grunge era, a few names immediately come up. Chris Cornell, obviously. Eddie Vedder. Layne Staley. But Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots is too often left out of the conversation. Although he was best known for the raspy, powerful baritone featured on STP’s biggest hits, Weiland continued to explore new styles and genres throughout his career. Tragically, Weiland’s talent was no match for his demons, and he passed away at the age of 48 in 2015.
Paul Rodgers, Bad Company
Paul Rodgers isn’t a household name–unless you’re a huge fan of 70s rock. That’s a shame because he’s one of the best in the business. His soulful voice is beautifully controlled, even live, with the perfect amount of grit and swagger. Look at how effortless he is in the clip above from Woodstock ’94. (Yes, that’s Slash on guitar.) Why isn’t Rodgers enshrined with the rest of the great classic rock frontmen?
Serj Tankian, System of a Down
It seems wild to even need to put Serj on a list of underrated singers. Doesn’t everyone know what a versatile powerhouse System of a Down’s frontman is? Out of the Nu-Metal scene of the 90s and early Aughts, System emerged as one of the most thoughtful and politically confrontational acts. “Chop Suey” and “Aerials” are very popular with react videos on YouTube, as shocked listeners hear the songs for the first time.
Ronnie James Dio
Standing at just 5’4″ tall, Ronnie James Dio had a voice like a thunderstorm. People who know about music will tell you that Dio was the greatest voice in metal, maybe in all of rock. Yet he doesn’t get the same recognition as his more famous contemporaries. He spent three years as Ozzy Osbourne’s replacement in Black Sabbath, and–sorry–his cover of “Dream On” is better than Steven Tyler’s theatrical screeching. Dio passed away in 2010, but we’ll always have his music–and the iconic “rocker” horns, which he invented.
Jeff Lynne, Electric Light Orchestra
Why wasn’t ELO a much bigger band? That’s one of life’s great mysteries. The band’s quirkiness hit at the exact wrong moment in music history. The world wasn’t ready for them–and wouldn’t be until the orchestral neo-psychedelic indie rock of the 90s. Although ELO scored a handful of enduring hits, including “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Don’t Bring Me Down,” they never reached their potential as the spiritual successor to the Beatles. Think that’s an exaggeration? John Lennon himself called the band “sons of the Beatles.”
Jeff Lynne was also a member of the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup that also consisted of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty.
Ann and Nancy Wilson, Heart
It doesn’t get much better than Ann Wilson, the lead singer of Heart. Alongside her virtuoso guitarist sister Nancy, the Wilson sisters led Heart to the top of the charts throughout the 70s and 80s. I’ll admit that she’s much better in recordings than live; in fact, you can argue that Nancy is actually the more reliable vocalist of the pair. Luckily, they sang plenty of duets so you don’t have to choose.
Although Ann Wilson is widely considered to be one of the best female rock vocalists, she and Nancy deserve to be counted among the best–period.
Axl Rose, Guns N’ Roses
Axl Rose hasn’t exactly done himself any favors in recent years, what with the attitude and the struggle to actually record a new album. But we’re here to talk about the voice, not the singer, okay? Obviously, Axl Rose is very famous. But I truly don’t think he gets enough credit for his vocal ability.
He has one of the most impressive vocal ranges in music history–surpassing even Mariah Carey for octaves spanned. His snarling, whining, squalling vocal style is immediately recognizable, even from a three-second clip. Even if you’re not a Guns N’ Roses fan, you’ve got to respect his skill.
Mike Patton, Faith No More & Mr. Bungle
Mike Patton’s range is insane–not just in terms of sheer number of octaves but also vocal styles. He can travel from a deep heavy metal growl to soaring, operatic notes to a lounge singer croon. Often in a single song.
Patton is a technically gifted singer with powerful control over his voice. Yes, he often gets very weird with it, and I understand if that’s not your thing. But you can’t deny that the guy has talent.
Maynard James Keenan, Tool & A Perfect Circle
This one is for my fellow 90s weirdos. Maynard James Keenan is an odd duck, and his stage presence is kind of an acquired taste. When I saw him with A Perfect Circle, he spent the entire set facing away from the audience. But when you sound that incredible, you can be as off-putting onstage as you want. The performance above is 100% live with zero Auto-Tune.
Robert Plant–But Not With Led Zeppelin!
I couldn’t choose anyone else to wear the crown of the greatest rock vocalist of all time. But we all know what he sounded like with Led Zeppelin–and that’s not why here’s on this list. Plant’s later work is seriously underrated.
While his tenure as Led Zeppelin’s lead vocalist is the stuff of legends, Plant is also one of the best examples of a classic rocker who reinvented himself later in his career. He might not be able to hit those scorching high notes anymore, but Plant’s Americana-influenced albums with Alison Krauss prove that he’s still the best.