The pleasant voices of rock and country


I’ve been thinking about voices lately. It’s bad form to be always categorising, but I’ve been thinking about the stuff I like to listen to and the ways in which my tastes have changed or evolved as I’ve got older.

Macca, of course, was the most versatile vocalist in the Beatles, able to croon, scream, roar, and emote. I guess my musical education started with the likes of him, and Lennon, and even Jagger’s ability to use a falsetto. You can be spoiled by the versatility of some musicians, but I don’t think that versatility should be considered a prerequisite for greatness. In fact, just because you can turn your hand/voice to anything doesn’t mean you actually should. Macca’s downfall as a solo artist was precisely his ability to muck around with unsuitable material. The same criticism can be levelled at Elvis, who made too many shit records.

I don’t like to listen to screamers, most of the time, which is why metal always left me cold, and so too that swaggering I-am-Jesus rock voice that borrows some of Jagger but forgets the country-soul side of his voice. In country there a lot of the female vocs borrow a belting style from Reba. Then there’s the more nasal twang. So Trisha Yearwood can belt them out, and can also croon a ballad or sing the blues. Martina McBride is another belter. Seeing her and Reba try to compete with each other on the CMA awards one time was awkward. Kelly Willis, on the other hand, is more obviously country nasal. Faith Hill was belting on her first two albums but with an untrained voice, which got her into trouble. Vocal rest and singing lessons led to a change of voice for her third and subsequent albums. She has a really good voice now, but I don’t think she can compete with Trisha for control and soul. Faith Hill has what I’d call a pleasant voice. Another belter is Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland. That woman has an amazing pair of lungs, but sometimes vocal pyrotechnics are too much and you want something more like a clear blue sky.

I like having the iPod on alphabetical because it will usually offer some kind of respite after a belter track.

Which is where we came in. I think the most pleasant voice I know has to belong to Alan Jackson. I admire his records for lots of reasons. His style is kind of effortless, his voice somewhere down there in the chest. I guess you’d call him a crooner. He doesn’t do falsetto or screaming, or even much shouting. He knocks out an album a year and keeps the quality high. The great thing about his records is that he flat refuses to participate in the loudness wars. His music has proper dynamics, and often seems quieter than everything else, which means it sounds great if you turn it up. I always welcome his stuff coming on in the car.

Competing with Jackson for the most pleasant voice award is, of course, Vince Gill, who has a sweet and soulful singing style that took me a long time to learn to love. When I first heard it, I just couldn’t reconcile it with country music, because it’s just not typical of that genre. I love it now, but it took repeated exposures over many years until I finally got it. Looking forward to seeing him live at the O2 next year.

One voice I never could stand was Elvis Costello. Very nasal. I can take Dwight Yoakam, who is also nasal, but something about the timbre of Costello’s voice put me on edge. Then there’s that Bono, who is what I’d call a whiner. I’ve never been able to take him seriously, and his bewildering popularity is an example of how millions of people can be wrong.

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