Tuesday, August 18, 2009


"You've Lost That Loving Feeling," by the Righteous Brothers.

Great vocals are all about feeling. Sure, you can get Mariah Carey to hit six octaves or hire the Three Tenors to sing the Manhattan phonebook and it would all be technically perfect--and about as dull as dishwater. Good vocals are about feeling, and the spaces in between, and the surprising harmony that somehow lifts it all off the ground. The sand in the Vaseline is what makes it interesting. The great pop song makes you tap your feet, or stop and listen, or crank up the radio as you drive the great American highway.

"I Get Around" by the Beach Boys

The Beach Boys were an harmonic convergence of California sun, surf, girls, and souped-up hot rods. Their soaring vocals were instantly recognizable as the sound of summer. At the creative helm was Brian Wilson, who directed this juggernaut into teenage symphonies, but you can't beat these early transistor radio tunes. This sounds like summer.

"Cloud Nine" by the Temptations

Out of Motor City, The Temptations were one of the most successful soul acts, a tough little outfit with vocal harmonies that reached a gritty perfection. The Temps were cool. The sound of these soul survivors was tough and real back in the day, and folks may snicker at their outfits and dance steps because all style gets old eventually, but their vocals remain timeless. On top of that, they didn't just sing silly love songs. They could "tell it like it is."

"Get Back" and "Don't Let Me Down" by the Beatles

The Beatles...of course. With two of the greatest rock vocalists ever, Lennon and McCartney, not to mention unrivaled songwriting teams, The Beatles could do it all. They wrote their songs, and could play just about anything, but their vocals were a huge part of their success. Here they are, late in the game, after the screams of Beatlemania had died down playing on the Apple rooftop in London.

"Pancho and Lefty" by Willie Nelson & Bob Dylan

As if to prove my point, here are too technically imperfect voices--Willie's is thin and high and lonesome, and Dylan's is gravelly--that come together in a wonderful duet on an old Townes Van Zandt song. They make it their own, and you believe them. Sure, Mariah could sing this tune and toss in all that glissando but it would be like eating a cake made entirely of frosting. This is a plate of ribs, crispy and burnt on the ends, slathered with picante sauce that leaves you gasping for beer. This performance fits a story of outlaws and bandits beautifully.

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