Tuesday, September 17, 2013

NMT's Favorite Singers

In the previous post on Neko Case's most recent solo album (NMT), I anointed her "the best vocalist in contemporary music." Which is to say she is my favorite singer currently releasing relevant new material. Obviously, there's no objective standard for ratings of this kind, merely just personal preference. I will provide warrants to support the claims I make, but there's no scientific or mathematical formula behind it. And I should explain that while singers have a wide range of impact on the songs they record and perform, what I'm talking about here is sheer vocal talent. For instance, Craig Finn (NMT) is – by form – not a particularly great singer, but is a perfect frontman for The Hold Steady (NMT). Likewise, The Rural Alberta Advantage's (NMT, NMT) Nils Edenloff has a voice as smooth as vinegar, but that's irrelevant as he tears through "Deathbridge in Lethbridge." Neither will make an appearance on this list.

Another key note before getting underway is originally this list was going to be a Best Female Singers list. But as I prepared and thought about the list, the gender distinction is unnecessary. Great singers are simply great singers. Moreover, I was having trouble putting together a list that had more great male singers than female. The selections below will bear that out, so here they are in descending order from 10 to 1.

10) Mikel Jollett – Airborne Toxic Event (NMT)

Baritone frontmen are rarities (think of The National's Matt Beringer and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder) and Jollett's rich, meaty stylings represent the only deep register selection here. Jollett possesses a strong, sustaining vibrato (the ability of vocal chords to quiver on a given note) and enjoys hanging on to long phrases. His stylistic range encompasses everything from punk to new wave, and as I noted in my review of 2011's All At Once, can conjure reflections of Bono and Neil Diamond as easily as some of his more contemporary peers.

9) Greta Morgan – Gold Motel (NMT), The Hush Sound  

Imagine if Sheryl Crow had more consistently produced songs that weren't merely photocopies of previous material geared only for Top 40 radio. That's what Greta Morgan does in her work with Gold Motel. No doubt her crisp vocals are ideally suited for very accessible pop-rock, but what she has to work with is far more enjoyable than anything Crow did after Tuesday Night Music Club. Her carefree performance on the bouncy exuberant "Safe in L.A." is what earned her a spot on my list.

8) Wes Miles – Ra Ra Riot (NMT)

Blending faux-Reggae vocal syncopation of Sting with intricate, yet buoyant chamber pop structures is Ra Ra Riot's Wes Miles. Over the band's first few records, Miles (who's name sounds too similar to a certain LSU head football coach) established a playful, genre-bending use of his tenor range that matched perfectly with the group's overall quirky vibe. It's a shame that the outfit's third full-length release from earlier this year, Beta Love, was such an unnecessary diversion to dance and electronica – so much so that I refused to review it – and wasted much of Miles' unique charm.

7) Erin Passmore – Rah Rah (NMT)

The temptation to discuss Ra Ra Riot and Rah Rah within a few sentences of each other is just too hard to resist, which is why the latter's co-lead vocalist winds up at #7. Think of Regine Chassagne from The Arcade Fire (NMT) as an alto and a more accessible tone, while replicating her same mult-instrumental talents (when I saw Rah Rah live earlier this year, Passmore played drums, guitar and keyboards, although she could learn a few tricks from Chassagne on stage presence). Her standout "Prairie Girl" off The Poet's Dead – released last fall – will tell you everything you need to know about her vocal capabilities and should be all the band needs to hear to offer more time at the lead mic.

6) Nate Ruess – fun. (NMT, NMT), The Format

By far, my greatest discovery during the course of this blog's tenure is fun., which is now a Grammy Award-winning, large venue act just a few years after I helped them load out gear in the alley outside the 9:30 Club while opening for Jack's Mannequin. No small part of the groups skyrocketing place in mainstream pop is due to their frontman, Nate Ruess. After making fantastically catchy pop-rock tunes with The Format but finding little broad appeal, he shifted to fun., producing some of the most elaborate and purposeful pop music since Jeff Lyne's Electric Light Orchestra. Ruess' style is schizophrenic at times and can occasionally crack at the upper limits of his first tenor range, but check out his show-stopping performances in "Barlights" and "At Least I'm Not As Sad As I Used To Be" off the group's 2009 debut, Aim & Ignite, or the intro to the 2012 commercial smash, Some Nights, to hear a singer in full command of both their talent and their mission.

5) Tracyanne Campbell – Camera Obscura (NMT)

As the only foreign entry on this collection – and therefore the only Scot – Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell has well-qualified to represent the world's premiere singers on this list. While her quintet's folk-rock tendencies don't present her with the same anthemic opportunities as some of her peers here, Campbell nonetheless shines among band's rich instrumental tapestries. Spend some time with 2006's Let's Get Out of This Country – and, in particular, its title track – and you should come away impressed with Campbell's enjoyable mix of tone and delivery. 

4) Sherri DuPree Bemis – Eisley (NMT)

We're decidedly entering the power territory of this ranking, the domain of large lung capacity, full-throated chorus anthems and healthy vibrato. One of the defining characterises of these power vocalists – a trait shared by all Top 4 singers on this list – is their ability to deliver great volumes of sound in an effortless fashion. Among these is decidedly the strongest voice in the North Texas-based, family-only power-pop quintet Eisely. Sherri DuPree Bemis' vocals – especially on the band's third full-length release in 2011, The Valley – is striking in both the force she injects in numbers powerful anthemic rockers like "Better Love" and "Smarter" with the restraint to hold back some of that muscle on ballads such as "Mr. Moon."

3) Jenny Lewis – Rilo Kiley (NMT), Solo

If you've paid attention to this blog in recent months, you'll notice my several statements of regret in missing the active lifespan of the Los Angeles-based quartet, Rilo Kiley. The contributions of the group's primary vocalist, Jenny Lewis, are the reason why. Lewis' vocal approach is frank, determined and nearly always beautiful. Her signature moments at the mic include heart-wrenching, bluesy ballads like "Does He Love You?" and "I Never" as well as thundering rockers like "Spectacular Views" and "It'll Get You There," not to mention the pop-rock hit, "Potions For Foxes." Lewis often makes you feel guilty and abused for the sake of her characters, and that's no small consequence of her persuasive and demanding delivery.

2) Aaron Perrino – Dear Leader (NMT), The Sheila Divine

Full disclosure on this one: Perrino is originally from Western New York, and I consider it a grave injustice to the cosmos that his acts never received broader recognition outside Buffalo and Boston. I remember the first time I saw Perrino and The Sheila Divine live. It was sometime in the fall of 1999 and the band was opening for another of my favorite Buffalo/Boston acts, Tugboat Annie, at Nietzhe's in Allentown. I'd never forget them after I heard Perrino wail away at Morrisey-via-U2 rock anthems like "Hum" and "Like A Criminal." He possesses a once-in-a-generation mix of power and vibrato that fuel antagonistic, often political numbers in both acts to arena rock territory. Dig up "Glacier" off Dear Leader's 2006 release, All I Ever Wanted Was Tonight, and be captivated in the song's titanic crescendo as Perrino's vocals transform into the tidal wave his lyrics suggest. 

1) Neko Case – The New Pornographers (NMT), Solo (NMT)

This should be no surprise given the lede. As a Case apologist, I simply need to point to her extensive solo catalog and time with The New Pornographers. Her solo work demonstrates her emotional delivery range – incorporating everything from multi-layered gospel choruses to rusty alt country – while her explosive power is self-evident in nearly everything she touches with The New Pornographers. The latter is often labeled as an indie-rock supergroup; it's doubtful it would have achieved that title without Case's thundering presence on numbers such as "Letter From An Occupant" or "The Laws Have Changed." Perhaps the greatest barometer for her overall capabilities is frequent New Porngraphers' main set closer, "The Bleeding Heart Show." At first, its a tad sleepy as frontman A.C. Newman leads the group through the verses, but Case absolutely dominates during the track's seemingly-unending chorus, although it should be noted drummer Kurt Dahle provides crucial fuel to the fire there.

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