Tuesday, June 24, 2008

My top 10 favorite heavy metal vocalists of all-time

Heavy metal as I see it: An irregular series about the highest form of music known to man.

I love heavy metal for many reasons, not the least of them the great singers. Metal's best frontmen--the Bruce Dickinsons, Rob Halfords, and the Ronnie James Dios--are insanely gifted vocalists whose voices soar operatically above--or brutally crush underfoot --the digitally-enhanced, studio-made, lightweight pop singers of today. I've definitely suffered some hearing damage over the years blasting these guys on my car radio, but you know what? It was worth it.

So who is the best heavy metal singer of all time? Everyone has their own opinion, but following are 10 that I believe epitomize the power, grandeur, range, and rage that define the very essence of heavy metal. I've included a clip from Youtube depicting a great vocal performance from each, so click through and decide for yourself.

1. Rob Halford, Judas Priest: Currently I have Rob Halford of Judas Priest ranked at no. 1, but depending on what day of the week you ask me, any of the "big three" are interchangeable in the top slot. Halford is so damned amazing. The clip from Youtube is a live performance of The Sentinel. Halford is not just singing here, but his voice is a literal instrument, a glass-shattering sound from another, futuristic dimension in which the Sentinel lives. It sends chills down your spine: http://youtube.com/watch?v=AgCe56T4HxU

2. Bruce Dickinson, Iron Maiden: Bruce has tremendous range, and while he may not pack the ethereal scream of Halford at his best, he has, for my money, the best sounding "metal" voice. It's strong and powerful and epic, and he hasn't lost a step with the passing of the years. In fact, I think he's singing much better now than he was at the tail end of his days with Maiden pre-split. Here's an early rendition of a live performance of Maiden's best song, Hallowed be thy Name, which captures the incredible strength and soaring heights of the "air raid siren": http://youtube.com/watch?v=7vP2hFFV57E

3. Ronnie James Dio, Black Sabbath/Dio: Dio's voice (and his lyrics) are the soundtrack of a Dungeons and Dragons game: He has a voice like an evil sorcerer in a fantasy opera, and its powerful and stirring to boot. I can't argue with those who think he's the best metal singer of all time. Here he is singing one of my favorites, Die Young, with Black Sabbath: http://youtube.com/watch?v=hA9d9sSWFRA

4. Geoff Tate, Queensryche: At his peak, Tate could hit notes like no one else, save perhaps Halford. He's an opera singer turned metal. Take Hold of the Flame showcases his considerable talent and that opening note (you know the one) remains an absolute marvel: http://youtube.com/watch?v=uUrnCLWqmzA

5. Tobias Sammet, Edguy: It's too bad Edguy isn't better known, especially over here in the United States. Sammet is a throwback to the Helloween/King Diamond school of metal singers, hitting impossibly high octaves with an ease that's scary: http://youtube.com/watch?v=SPI9fa-Rbow&feature=related

6. Hansi Kursch, Blind Guardian: Although more well-known than Edguy, Blind Guardian is also no household name, but with Kursch at the helm they deserve to be. Kursch can do it all, from powerful, angry, high speed metal to glorious, bardic, medieval hymns. Check this out: http://youtube.com/watch?v=pQDt7dP3Ksk&feature=related

7. Eric Adams, Manowar. Adams has a voice made for power metal and songs about dragons and warriors. Very clean, very powerful, epic, and the guy can scream with the best of them, too. Here's a good example of his considerable ability: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzJxP3Bh-eo

8. Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath. Sure, he's a running joke now and his voice is completely shot, but Ozzy had one of the most distinctive and coolest-sounding "metal" voices in the business back in the 70's and 80's. He did great work on all the old Sabbath albums, and here's one of my favorites: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBsJjVS8aPA

9. Phil Anselmo, Pantera. Anselmo is very different than any of the singers above and is definitely not a classic/power metal type singer. He's all rage and emotion, but its positively contagious and damned effective in getting fists and heads banging: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONZ9bL2WGBE&feature=related

10. James Hetfield, Metallica (pre Black Album): I know, I know. Hetfield is not a great singer and is out of his class on this list. But I think he was the perfect singer for early (pre 1991) Metallica, back when they were a very, very good band. For example, I can't imagine anyone else singing Welcome Home (Sanitarium): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WElvEZj0Ltw

So there you have my top 10. Some honorable mentions include Glenn Danzig and Dave Mustaine, who could have made the list on another day.

Footnote: If you Google "Best heavy metal singers," this top 100 list by Hit Parader comes up. This is among the worst pieces of garbage I've ever read, and again proves the point that the vast majority of music journalists and critics don't have a clue regarding heavy metal. And this was released in 2006! I mean, David Bowie? Eddie Vedder? Steven Tyler? Freddie Mercury? Steve Perry? By anyone's definition with half a clue, these guys are NOT METAL.

...Rod Stewart at no. 60?

Someone at Hit Parader needs to be punched dead in the face. I'm tempted to believe that this is some big jest, a cheap way to get fans stirred up. Heck, I'd buy the magazine just to burn it.


Sham aka Dave said...

Very Cool list! Me, I can only agree with Halford and Osbourne. I'm just an old geezer, I guess. Pretty much everything after these two was (in my opinion) garbage. Feel free to flame away, but that's my opinion. Metal could have been so much more that what it devolved into in the 80's. I know I'm treading into dangerous waters...but I'd have to be convinced otherwise.

JimLotFP said...

äahh, metal.

I'll agree with Dio wholeheartedly, Dickinson is good but Maiden has been some kind of boring for quite some time... Sammet last I heard was a Kiske clone (surprised he's not on your list) (and Edguy is crap and a fair example of everything wrong with euro metal)), good for you for recognizing Eric Adams!

Ozzy is and was always useless, who lives and dies by whatever guitar player he has at the time. Those early Sabbath albums are damn near unlistenable because of that whining idiot.

Hetfield and Anselmo I could take or leave. Mustaine isn't a good singer at all. I hate Tate's style, I'll listen to Crimson Glory if I want to hear that stuff.

My list would have names like Dan Swanö, Harry Conklin, Ralf Scheepers, Gillan/Coverdale/Hughes (if you tell me Purple mk II & III aren't metal we're going to fight), Warrel Dane, Dave Hill, Simen Hestnaes...

Reed said...

Excellent list, Brian. I must admit I'm not that familiar with your #s 5-7, and I'd probably have Dio farther down on the list. Halford deserves the top spot. I would have liked to see Mike Patton in there. He only sang "metal" a small portion of the time, but when he did it was a thing of beauty. Also, not sure if you'd actually call them Heavy Metal, but I continue to have a special place in my heart for the vocals of one W. Axl Rose, complete ninny though he may be.

Reed said...

Forgot one - I find Maynard James Keenan to be an entirely remarkable vocalist. Again, not sure if you'd strictly call Tool "heavy metal."

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Sham, I won't flame away, but I am curious as to why you think 80's metal was garbage. I think the 80's were the golden age of metal.

I do agree that metal's perception was indelibly tarnished during the 80's, by an offshoot of the genre that many continue to associate with heavy metal--I'm talking specifically about hair metal, bands like Poison, Warrant, Winger, etc. These guys were garbage, and unfortunately soured the great work being done by bands like Maiden, Priest, Megadeth, Slayer, etc.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Jim, it looks like you and I don't share a lot of common ground. I must say I don't recognize a lot of the vocalists you've identified, save for Kiske and the Deep Purple trio. Kiske is good and indeed shares a lot of similarities with Sammet, but I think that Sammet is better.

I am curious as to why you think Edguy is crap. I admit that they are completely all over the map, and for every awesome "Piper Never Dies" there's a silly, hair-metal influenced "Lavoratory Love Machine." But I think they're a fun and rather talented band, if not a particuarly serious one. I will admit to a limited understanding of Euro metal as I've just started nibbling at the edges (and so far I like a fair amount of what I've heard).

I also cannot agree about Maiden--I think that their last three albums are pretty amazing, and I can't see how you can consider songs like The Wicker Man, Paschendale, and These Colours Don't Run boring. But that's a matter of taste, I suppose.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Reed, I think that Patton is (or at least was) metal enough to qualify. Axl Rose is borderline, but I consider Guns and Runs hard rock in the vein of AC/DC, not metal.

Patton I'll admit has a pretty good voice, but Faith No More never did anything for me so he didn't make my list. Rose's voice is one of a kind and he was amazing on Appetite for Destruction, but I think his limited body of work with GNR keeps him off this list. Plus, if I started opening things up to hard rock singers, then I'd be looking at guys like Robert Plant, who of course would make it.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I feel Dickinson is the best vocalist period, not just metal vocalist. You begin to appreciate his style even more after listening to some of his solo material.

I also agree with you that Maiden have been anything but boring lately. I'd go as far as saying that AMOLAD was the best album they've ever done, even better than Powerslave and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. I think there are some out there who are just not listening, or they just want rehash after rehash of Number of the Beast. Not gonna happen with Maiden!

Matt Johnsen said...

Here's my top ten metal vocalists that aren't on your list. Most of my guys are better than your guys!

1. Ray Alder (Fates Warning) His voice is kinda shot now, but from No Exit through A Pleasant Shade of Grey, he ruled all.

2. Daniel Heiman (Lost Horizon) The best singer in metal today, bar none.

3. Erik A.K. (Flotsam and Jetsam) Who will deny this who has heard No Place for Disgrace?

4. Midnight (Crimson Glory) Yeah, he's only done two good albums. They just happen to be two of the best albums!

5. Klaus Meine (Scorpions) For some reason, this guy never gets the love that Halford and Dio get, but he was every bit as good in his prime!

6. Andre Matos (Angra) I'll take some heat for this one, no doubt, but there are few finer vocal performances in metal than Matos' work on Holy Land.

7. Jorn Lande (Ark) Yeah, he sounds a lot like David Coverdale. But, David Coverdale was never in Ark.

8. Martin van Drunen (Pestilence) One of the only death metal singers whose atonal howl is so distinctive and awesome that he must be considered among the guys who can, you know, actually sing.

9. Charles Sabin (Toxik) Who? I don't care how obscure he is, he was awesome. The high note in "Spontaneous" gives me chills every time.

10. Daniel Gildenlow (Pain of Salvation) No one else sounds like this guy, and his tonal and emotional range is off the charts.

As for the Trinity, I think Rob Halford is overrated. He was good, but not the greatest, and he's just embarassing himself now. Dio in his prime was pretty much unstoppable, and he's still pretty good for a geezer. Dickinson was great and still has some life in him. So says I!

Brian Murphy said...

Matt Johnsen

Thanks for stopping by. Some good picks on your part (I debated on Alder and Meine on my original list). But your comment about Halford makes me to duel with pistols at noon.

True, Halford is more or less a statue on stage now, but damn, the man can still sing.


Thanks for stopping by. You've said what I myself couldn't bring myself to say, but is true--Dickinson is one of the great vocalists of our time, not just in metal. He's the man!

Falze said...

I'll tackle some of these last few for you, since I'm pretty sure you've not heard them (or OF them), Brian (then again, some are pretty obscure, probably too obscure to fill anything but a 'personal' top ten list)...some of them, by the way, are VERY acquired tastes, including 'classic' Alder, who, when I first heard him, was akin to a cat in a bathtub. Now I find I appreciate him immensely, both old and new. Matt, you seem to like squealers, which would explain why you don't like the new and unsqueaky Alder. Although you do venture from that mold on your fairly impressive list.

Eric AK? Distinctive and, at times, wonderful voice. His problem is with 'the average'. When he nails it, he nails it. The rest of the time he can be annoying or, mainly, forgettable. Best 'angry' if you ask me, although he has some moments in slower songs. I don't think he's top 10, but I can see him making someone's favorites.

Andre Matos? No. Being able to hit high notes and sing like a girl get you some points...but top 10? C'mon. I like Holy Land, like it a lot, but where's the power? I don't hear much range, just variations on a theme.

Jorn Lande? I'm just getting into this guy, to be honest. I need to hear more of a body of work to truly judge. Again my issue with him would be 'the average'. When he's 'just singing' is it impressive? I'm not getting that, yet, but when he blows the roof is off the dump.

Charles Sabin? Impressive. But doesn't have the body of work. And I'm not sure how 'metal' Toxik was. I mean, I think they 'wanted' to be metal, but did they succeed? Not from what I heard - they're really a hair band that was too true and honest to really sell out or catch a break. He's a good singer, though.

Gildenlow? I have a goodly number of albums, more if you count the LPs and tapes I never replaced on CD, and quite a few of them I bought because I like the singer and no other reason. Warrel Dane's bands come to mind. Sanctuary would do little for me without his voice. I find Nevermore equally as tedious when he's not actively singing. But when a singer really doesn't do it, then I can't listen to the band. I happen to like the music of Dimmu Borgir, unfortunately with the opening "blaaaarrrgggghhh!!!!" of EVERY ONE of their songs, I find I can't listen to them. I can't listen to POS because of the singer.

As for my additions that now somebody gets to mock: Evergrey's Tom Englund. I think they qualify as metal, he has a good range that he doesn't try to stretch (and consequently fail), and has an emotive quality that most metal singers lack. I got Nightrage's first CD solely because he guested on it with a few lines on a few songs. Of course the whole album rocks, it turns out, but I bought it because of him.

Next for considering might be Mike Howe, particularly for his work with Metal Church. He can do the ballads, he can nail the power, and he does angry awfully well.

I suspect this will simply result in laughter, but I love Christopher Scott of Precious Death (yes, they were Christian Metal). Good range, good style range, clean and emotive.

Finally, Zak Stevens with Savatage. Great range, always clean (which might cost him points).

And how about Chuck Billy? GREAT range, pretty much can sing all the metal. Great body of work.

Oh, and that Cradle of Filth guy.

(that's a joke)

Mstt Johnsen said...

Hey Falze - good commentary! I rattled that list off pretty fast and as soon as I posted it I thought, "Shit! I forgot Mike Howe!" He was better than almost anyone on that list. I'll admit Sabin is probably not top 10 worthy, but his voice was awesome, and Toxik were 100% metal, no two ways about it! Have you ever heard their first disc? Total thrash. Next, you're gonna say Realm wasn't metal!

I do really think you're underselling Erik AK. Even when he stopped reaching for the stratosphere with his notes, he was able to sing with a ton of passion. And on that subject, I'll add that I do like the latter-day Alder almost as much as his squealy early days, but it's hard to listen to that new Redemption and think he's not past his prime, by a good stretch. His last great recording was Disconnected, I think.

You need to hear "Burn the Sun" by Ark. It will change your opinion of Jorn. He's kind of phoning it in now (like Dio does on his solo albums) but in Ark, he sang like no one else. Mindblowing!

I'm not going to budge on Gildenlow or Matos, but I do think it's weird that you dislike Daniel so much! I'm used to people hating on Matos, but Gildenlow's voice is so smooth and soulful! You're crazy :)

Tom Englund is a fantastic singer, no doubt, and I considered including him on the list. Is this the place where I mention that I spent a weekend at his studio to hear the first public airing of "The Inner Circle"? Would that be an offensive name-drop? Ha!

I have never heard Precious Death, actually. There were some good Tate clones in the Christian metal scene in the 80s: Recon and Sacred Warrior in particular had decent singers.

As for Zak: I've never liked him, and I never will! Jon Oliva, on the other hand, we should be talking about. Through "Gutter Ballet," the man was a god! Agreed?

Anonymous said...

I will also vouch for Jorn and his incredible vocal work. Look out for a track called "House of Cards" from the album The Gathering to hear him really belt one out. The music he does is maybe a bit more hard rock than metal, but it's still in the same hemisphere.

Falze said...

I will DEFINITELY be checking out more of Lande's work, I never fail to be impressed when I hear him and pretty much every time I hear him really nail something I start searching around to find something that really shows off his abilities, more than the little I've heard so far - maybe Ark is the way to go?

As for Toxik, I dunno, I feel like there's hair in my teeth whenever I think back to them. I have one Toxik song still in my catalog, There Stood the Fence, which is amazing, as I said, he's a great singer...maybe it's the fact that I like this ballad of their's best that makes me think of them less as a metal band. No, I haven't heard anything beyond Think This, that I recall. That was enough for me.

I happen to love Savatage and like Jon's singing. Jon's metal. But, to be honest, Criss drew me more to Savatage than Jon. I love the way he played. Being a fan of cleaner vocals I like Zak's work on the later Savatage albums, particularly Morning Sun. I don't think he'd make my own top 10, though, but thought he was worth bringing up. Jon definitely wouldn't make the top 10...probably not top 25.

Anybody want to argue for King Diamond? Eeek. Can't stand him, but I'm surprised no one else brought him up.

Playing the 'put together your own all-star metal band, living or dead' game, I really don't know who'd be behind the mike in my own head. On most day's it'd probably be the Air Raid Siren in his prime. As long as he wasn't writing the songs.

Impressive collection of pipes we've come up with here, though.

Falze said...

You guys have convinced me - I just took advantage of Century Media's 4th of July sale (check it out if you're looking for stuff, prices are pretty good) to pick up Masterplan's Aeronautics, Jorn's Starfire, Out To Every Nation, and The Duke, as well as Allen-Lande's The Battle. That's a lot of Lande. (also picked up, finally, Out Of Project's Subject To Anomalous Oscillations, Testament's new one, and Tad Morose's A Mended Rhyme to complete my collection of their Urban Breed period - another great singer IMO - decided to drop Nevermore's This Godless Endeavor and one or two others for wallet purposes - anybody care to comment on the quality of TGE compared to their last two albums, which I like a lot?)

Greyhawk Grognard said...

I was going to ask where Danzig was, until I read your postscript (saw them in NYC with Godflesh and Type O Negative; awesome show).

And I must confess I will always think of "Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure" when I hear Dio's "Rainbow in the Dark", because of the giant multi-colored cup thing in the middle of the large dark room. Not a very logical reason, but one of those associations that just kinda stuck with me.

firmanwy said...

Why forgetting Sebastian Bach of Skid Row?

Brian Murphy said...


Sebastian Bach was a talented vocalist, but I could never take Skid Row seriously, hence he's off the list.


I just watched these Youtube clips again and I must say, my God, Dickinson and Halford are good.

Anonymous said...

okay, i'm clearly not from the same decade as any of you. When i think heavy metal, or anything metal, the vocalists that come to mind are Randy Blythe-lamb of god, krysta cameron-iwrestledabearonce, corey taylor-slipknot, johny davy- job for a cowboy, etc. THESE guys have talent. people say "it takes no talent to just go up and scream on a stage". no. it takes insane voice control to be able to not wreck your voice when you scream.

Anonymous said...

just want to say i agree with ur list, but Hetfield after thier new album (i think) is returning to what used to be

Pennington said...

Great list, only one I would have left off would have been Phil Anselmo. This is mainly because I have never cared for Pantera, and I get "Your the first metal head I've met who doesn't like Pantera." Just never cared mainly for the vocals, music is alright. Honestly though, best list I've seen online. However I would have had to say Kim Bendix (King Diamond) as being the greatest metal vocalist of all time. You mentioned him, but it's as if he either was just not good enough to get more than a mention, or was just obviously the best EVER! I remember being 9 years old at my first metal concert and it was King Diamond on his "Them" tour. Watching him choke his grandmother out on stage with a cane was unbelievable as a 9 year old and he has maintained as a large influence in my life, myself being a metal vocalist. His voice is rough but damn, the man has a 6 vocal octave range. Not 1 vocalist listed above has anything near that, let alone any other vocalist I have heard in metal or rock. All in all a good list though.

Darren Duran said...

To not have King Diamond on a top 5 list of greatest heavy metal vocalists is a suspicious oversight. Diamond took what Halford and Gillan did before him and did something new, extreme, and exciting with it. He has influenced thousands.

Brian Murphy said...

Wow, a couple hardcore King Diamond fans weighing in. Maybe leaving him off is a unforgivable oversight on my part. I just never could get into King Diamond, though I admit he is a very talented singer.

rtk said...

That is a fine list and I agree with it but for a few details.

First and foremost: Dickinson is mandatory top vocalist in any heavy metal singer list. If I'm not mistaken there's even a law or amendment that demands it. From hell.

Second: wherever there's a Rob Halford there should be a Ralf Scheepers a couple of spots below = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rwa7qtxubzc&feature=BFa&list=AL94UKMTqg-9ADl2poZ7m2aFZY8mIyDuKB

Third: Very nice to see some Hansi appreciation. I would even go as far as put him one spot up on the list (two if you count the multitude of vocal appendages he summons during concerts, also known as 'the crowd').

Fourth and last: WHERE'S RUSSELL ALLEN?!?!?!111!1ONE!!1?
I'm not saying he should be there with Dickinson, Dio and co. but his singing surely is superior to James Hetfield's?
Seriously, Symphony X must be one of the most underrated metal bands out there. It's unbelievable how you can find some top metal guitarist lists round the interwerps that don't even mention Michael Romeo. You can't mention Malmsteen and not mention Michael Romeo. It's forbidden. By hellish law. Rly.

saimon said...

good list everyone is awesome especially Dio,Dickinson and Tate..

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