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Best Frontmen And Women: 20 Iconic Singers Who Broke The Mould
In Depth

Best Frontmen And Women: 20 Iconic Singers Who Broke The Mould

Blessed with that something special that sets them apart, rock’s best frontmen and women have the ability to change lives – and history.

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What makes a great frontman or woman? A distinctive voice and bags of charisma are a good start, while the ability to command a crowd comes in handy, too. Yet it doesn’t always come down to technical excellence, showmanship or the ability to entertain. Indeed, some of the most iconic performers make the grade on intensity alone – they can transfix their audience simply because they’re so real they make it known they really couldn’t (and shouldn’t) be doing anything else. One thing’s for sure, they’re a rare breed, and the really great ones don’t come along too often. With that in mind, we salute rock and pop’s 20 best frontmen and women…

Listen to our Rock Classics playlist here, and check out our pick of the best frontmen and women, below.

20: Morrissey (The Smiths)

As soon as The Smiths released their debut single, Hand In Glove, it was obvious Morrissey was a unique talent. Brandishing acidic yet erudite lyrics, his eccentric sense of style (he usually sported thrift-store clothes and swung a bunch of gladioli on stage) struck a chord with disaffected youth and – whether fronting The Smiths or as a solo artist – he arguably remains the most singular frontman ever to travel from the leftfield right into the heart of the mainstream.

“Pop music was all I ever had, and it was completely entwined with the image of the pop star,” Morrissey told The New York Times in 1991. “I remember feeling that the person singing was actually with me and understood me and my predicament. A lot of times I felt I was engaged with an absolute tangible love affair.”

Must hear: The Queen Is Dead (live in London, 1986)

19: Ann Wilson (Heart)

Along with her sister Nancy Wilson and their band, Heart, Ann Wilson has stamped her authority on some of the best rock songs of the 70s and 80s, among them Magic Man, Barracuda and the twin US No.1 smashes These Dreams and Alone.

While never formally taught, Wilson has one of the most distinct voices in music, with her lyric soprano vocal range allowing her to project more like an opera star than a rock singer. She’s also renowned for her impeccable live performances, during which she can go from tender, quiet folk to raging metal with apparent ease. A big personality onstage, Ann Wilson is also one of very few veteran vocalists who can still sing all of her hits today in the same key as they were initially written.

Must hear: Little Queen

18: John Lydon (Sex Pistols)

If the Rock 101 manual tells us that fronting a band’s all about entertainment, then the young John Lydon clearly skipped that chapter. Indeed, when the man formerly known as Johnny Rotten first began playing live with Sex Pistols, he made a point of insulting his audience – or, at the very least, giving them one of his famous thousand-yard stares. Nonetheless, it worked: on attitude alone Lydon marked himself out as unique proposition, and he influenced future greats such as Morrissey and Joy Division’s Ian Curtis to boot. His fiery vocal performances on seminal records such as Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols and PiL’s Metal Box, meanwhile, ensure that his place among rock’s very best frontmen will never be in any doubt.

Must hear: Public Image

17: Patti Smith (Patti Smith Group)

Patti Smith really requires no introduction. Her ability to blend rock and poetry on her 1975 debut album, Horses, turned her into one of rock’s most iconic figures, and both her singular back catalogue and her emotional live performances have influenced successive generations of future stars. Indeed, The Smiths (Johnny Marr based the band’s early classic The Hand That Rocks The Cradle on Smith’s Kimberly) and R.E.M. (“I decided then I was going to start a band,” Michael Stipe said of hearing Horses) are just two of countless big names who made no secret of the debt they owe to this self-styled “punk poet laureate”.

Must hear: Hey Joe

16: Ian Curtis (Joy Division)

Arguably rock’s ultimate Jekyll and Hyde, Joy Division’s Ian Curtis was usually affable and gentle offstage, but onstage he became a man possessed – his intense vocal delivery and manic dancing capable of mesmerizing his audience and marking him out as one of rock’s best frontmen long before he ended his tragically short life.

“Live, Joy Division were heavy,” author and journalist Jon Savage said, recalling the band’s cathartic live shows in an interview with The Guardian. “Performers – and David Bowie is a good example – know exactly what to give and what to withhold, but Ian Curtis didn’t have that stagecraft. He just came on and gave everything. I didn’t know about his epilepsy at the time, but when I saw them at The Factory [in Manchester] in April 1980, it was so intense, I had to leave. Ian was for real, and that intensity was ferocious.”

Must hear: Transmission

15: Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane)

One of the earliest (and coolest) female rock stars to emerge alongside her close contemporary Janis Joplin, Grace Slick joined the pioneering San Franciscan psych-rock outfit Jefferson Airplane in 1966 and sang their two signature hits, Somebody To Love and the pro-LSD White Rabbit, which she also penned.

Quickly earning her stripes as one of the best frontwomen in rock, Slick embodied the rock’n’roll lifestyle and famously out-partied many of her male counterparts, but her talent (and her staying power) always kept pace and she enjoyed further mainstream success during the 80s, singing on the chart-topping power ballads We Built This City and Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now for one of the Airplane’s later incarnations, Starship. Slick’s dramatic vocal delivery and striking stage presence always marked her out as someone special, and she’s been cited as an influence by both Stevie Nicks and Patti Smith, with the latter recording White Rabbit for her covers album, Twelve.

Must hear: White Rabbit

14: David Byrne (Talking Heads)

David Byrne made his name fronting the quirky New York City post-punk outfit Talking Heads, whose landmark albums, among them Fear Of Music and Remain In Light, rank among post-punk’s most important touchstones and still sound futuristic today. However, while his band’s wired, cerebral records touched a nerve, Byrne also gradually mutated into one of pop’s very best live performers – something that’s all too apparent when you discover Talking Heads’ extraordinary, Jonathan Demme-directed concert film, Stop Making Sense.

On his post-Talking Heads solo projects, Byrne has remained one of rock and pop’s true individuals. He’s continued to explore the world-music aspects of Talking Heads’ work on albums such as Uh-Oh and Look Into The Eyeball while enjoying acclaim for his collaborative work with Brian Eno and St Vincent. Onstage, he still has the wow factor, with NME referring to his tour in support of 2018’s American Utopia album as “the most ambitious and impressive live show of all time”.

Must hear: Life During Wartime (from Stop Making Sense, 1984)

13: Suzi Quatro (The Pleasure Seekers)

A frontwoman who could play the guys at their own game from the off, Suzi Quatro grew up fronting The Pleasure Seekers, who recorded several collectable singles such as What A Way To Die, before she got a taste of things to come while sharing stages with fellow Detroit rock stars Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper.

When The Pleasure Seekers split in 1971, Quatro was headhunted by British pop impresario Mickie Most. She thus launched a hugely successful solo career, fronting her own band and creating a unique sound of her own from melding the double-tracked drums of glam rock with Motown’s strolling basslines.

One of the first high-profile female rock stars – and still one of the best frontwomen out there – Quatro has sold well over 50 million records to date, and scored chart-toppers with era-defining hits such as Can The Can and Devil Gate Drive. She also set hearts fluttering on legendary US sitcom Happy Days, playing Leather Tuscadero, the rebellious younger sister of Fonzie’s girlfriend Pinky. Not a bad CV by anyone’s standards.

Must hear: 48 Crash

12: Janis Joplin (Big Brother And The Holding Company)

A Texan expat in San Francisco, Janis Joplin first gained recognition with Big Brother And The Holding Company, putting herself on the map in no uncertain terms with her timeless performance of Big Mama Thornton’s Ball And Chain at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967.

A truly electrifying live performer, Joplin’s mezzo-soprano vocal range allowed her to excel whether tackling rock, soul or the most desolate of blues, but her time in the spotlight was short – she recorded just two albums with Big Brother (the second, Cheap Thrills, topped the Billboard 200) and two as a solo artist (I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! and the posthumously released Pearl) before she died of a heroin overdose in October 1970). However, despite her lean recorded legacy, Janis Joplin made a titanic impact on the music scene and her popularity has grown exponentially ever since her tragically early death.

Must hear: Ball And Chain (from Monterey International Pop Festival, 1967)

11: Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden)

Bruce Dickinson joined Iron Maiden in time for their breakthrough album, 1982’s The Number Of The Beast, and he’s led the UK metal titans to some truly glorious successes, helming chart-topping albums such as Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, Fear Of The Dark and The Book Of Souls.

Dickinson never received formal vocal training, but he worked hard at his craft with fellow New Wave Of British Heavy Metal outfit Samson before replacing Paul Di’Anno in Maiden. Affectionately known as “The Air Raid Siren” due to his powerful, quasi-operatic vocal range, he’s also earned his place among rock’s best frontmen due to his age-defying live performances.

In an interview with Billboard, Dickinson said he believes his role is to “shrink the venue… to turn that football stadium into the world’s smallest club”, and he’s done just that as Maiden have graduated to playing the largest venues on the planet.

Must hear: The Number Of The Beast

10: Joan Jett (The Runaways, The Blackhearts)

Often referred to as either the “The Queen Of Rock’n’Roll” or “The Godmother Of Punk”, Joan Jett’s pan-generational reputation rests primarily on her role in founding the pioneering all-girl rock act The Runaways with Lita Ford, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox and Sandy West. Incredibly prolific, the band released five albums between 1975 and 1979, and while mainstream success eluded them at home, they embodied the term “big in Japan”, with their popularity in the Far East resulting in 1977’s self-explanatory Live In Japan album – one of the biggest-selling imports in UK and US rock history.

A staunch feminist, Jett has also enjoyed considerable success with her post-Runaways outfit, Joan Jett And The Blackhearts. Her signature hit, a cover of The Arrows’ I Love Rock’n Roll, topped the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks in 1982, and her 1994 album, Pure And Simple, featured tracks written by some of her biggest fans, including Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, L7’s Donita Sparks and Babes In Toyland’s Kat Bjelland.

Must hear: I Love Rock’n Roll

9: Iggy Pop (The Stooges)

As we’ve already seen with the likes of John Lydon, Ian Curtis and Patti Smith, an ability to provoke can be as great an attribute as a fantastic voice when it comes to the best frontmen and women in rock. However, in terms of courting controversy, Iggy Pop definitely leads the field. His Detroit quartet, The Stooges, barely registered in the commercial sense, yet they were hugely influential – and Iggy’s persona played a major role in that, with his onstage antics (taking in everything from stage diving to rolling around in broken glass, and even walking on the hands of the crowd at 1970’s Cincinnati Pop Festival) immediately setting him apart as one of the wildest and most unpredictable performers of all time.

However, Iggy transcended the headlines because he had the music to back it all up. His lifelong friendship with David Bowie resulted in landmark solo albums such as The Idiot and Lust For Life, which helped him rebuild his career during the mid-to-late-70s, while, more recently, 2017’s Post Pop Depression (recorded with an all-star band including Josh Homme and Arctic Monkeys’ Matt Helders) rewarded him with his highest-ever chart placing and introduced him to a whole new generation of fans.

Must hear: Down On The Street

8: Siouxsie Sioux (Siouxsie And The Banshees)

Siouxsie Sioux immediately stood out from her punk contemporaries thanks to her dark, proto-gothic looks and commanding stage presence. Her vocal ability has long since attracted plaudits (“Her technique is a thread between the really far-out stuff and opera and pop music – it’s distinct and all her own,” TV On The Radio’s David Sitek said in an interview with FADER magazine), but she was also one of most forward-looking songwriters of her generation, daring to tackle subjects ranging from schizophrenia (Christine) to mental illness (Happy House) and domestic violence (Suburban Relapse) long before they became public domain.

Ranking highly among the very best bands to emerge during the post-punk melee, Siouxsie And The Banshees recorded era-defining albums such as The Scream, Kaleidoscope, Ju Ju and A Kiss In The Dreamhouse, while Siouxsie’s immaculate discography also includes excellent records with Banshees side project The Creatures and collaborations with Morrissey and John Cale.

Must hear: Happy House

7: Axl Rose (Guns N’ Roses)

During a 1991 interview with Rolling Stone, Skid Row vocalist Sebastian Bach said, “Axl [Rose] sings the most beautiful melodies with the most aggressive tones and the most outrageous, freakish range,” and it’s undeniable that Guns N’ Roses’ famous leader has all bases covered in his role as one of rock’s very best frontmen.

Once heard and never forgotten, pretty much anything Axl Rose sings is immediately identifiable, and he performs with combination of brute force and subtlety that is often easy to overlook amid Guns N’ Roses’ sonic assault. As Rolling Stone said in the same feature, “Ballads like Patience and November Rain reveal a startling intimacy, even vulnerability, but it’s his fearsome screech on full-throttle metal like Welcome To The Jungle that can still peel paint off the walls, more than 20 years later.”

Must hear: November Rain

6: Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin)

Though he’s usually lauded for his stadium-sized roar, Led Zeppelin’s frontman could seemingly do anything with his voice, adding power, subtlety, passion, anger and every emotion in between to his immense vocal delivery. His capabilities are all too apparent when you consider his masterful performances on Zeppelin songs as disparate as the hard-rock thunder of Immigrant Song, the sexual swagger of Trampled Underfoot and the smoky blues of Since I’ve Been Loving You, but Robert Plant’s diversity and ability to grow as a vocalist has also led him to maintain his credibility throughout his rich post-Zeppelin career, which includes collaborations with artists as diverse as Buddy Miller, Alison Krauss and Patty Griffin.

Must hear: Immigrant Song (live in 1972)

5: Debbie Harry (Blondie)

Arguably the biggest star to emerge from NYC’s 70s punk scene, which coalesced around the famous CBGB club, Debbie Harry’s distinctive, photogenic features and two-tone bleached-blonde hair ensured she quickly became one of rock’s most iconic female figures.

Significantly, though, Harry was considerably much more than a pretty face. She either wrote or co-wrote many of Blondie’s biggest hits, among them Picture This and the groundbreaking, disco and electronica-embracing Heart Of Glass, and the multi-platinum success of her band’s third album, Parallel Lines, led Harry to outdistance punk and become a superstar on her own terms.

Blondie split (temporarily, as it turned out) after 1982’s The Hunter, and Harry went on to an acclaimed solo career before reuniting the group in the late 90s. Their much-hailed comeback has led to acclaimed albums such as No Exit and 2017’s excellent Pollinator – titles which have offered Debbie Harry ample opportunity to demonstrate why she’s still right up there with the best frontwomen in rock.

Must hear: Heart Of Glass

4: Jim Morrison (The Doors)

When it comes to selecting rock’s best frontmen, Jim Morrison is pretty much mandatory. Amazingly, by all accounts, the one-time University Of California, Los Angeles film student was actually shy and retiring when he first started singing in public, but by the time The Doors signed their record deal with Elektra, in 1966, he was a fully-fledged performer and, 12 months later, he was a superstar. It’s not hard to see or hear why, either, because Morrison didn’t only write some of the most beguiling and poetic lyrics of his era, he also had his photogenic, leather-clad looks and his highly seductive croon to fall back on. Add to this already prize-winning package oodles of charisma, a masterful interview technique and the mystique that inevitably attaches itself to a sadly premature death, and you have an all-round iconic figure who fits the description of a truly great frontman to a T.

Must hear: Roadhouse Blues

3: Chrissie Hynde (Pretenders)

For over four decades, Chrissie Hynde has embodied rock’n’roll cool more than arguably anyone else on the planet, but she’s needed all her resources to survive. Her nomadic early life took her from her hometown of Akron, Ohio, to France and eventually to London, where she finally put her dream band, Pretenders, together as punk turned into new wave.

Though frequently singled out as the star of her own show, Hynde is very much a team player, and her ability to pick ideal collaborators (from original guitarist James Honeyman-Scott through to current Pretenders axeman James Walbourne) has stood her in good stead. However, it’s the quality of her tough and tender songs, her feisty attitude and her pragmatic approach which has seen Hynde through triumphs and tragedies alike, and helped her to create a truly enviable catalogue of music.

Must hear: Message Of Love (live in 1981)

2: Freddie Mercury (Queen)

In a 2019 article, Louder referred to Freddie Mercury as “the quintessential frontman”, and it really is hard to disagree, for the much-missed Queen vocalist really did touch the hearts of millions. He had a dynamic, four-octave vocal range, bags of charisma and – as his band’s groundbreaking signature hit, Bohemian Rhapsody, proved in 1975 – ambition to burn.

Mercury also wilfully defied the conventions of a rock frontman, with his highly theatrical style influencing Queen’s artistic direction and leading him to write hit singles as diverse as Killer Queen, the driving Don’t Stop Me Now and the camp, rockabilly-flavoured Crazy Little Thing Called Love.

As his band’s legendary slot at 1985’s Live Aid also proved, Freddie Mercury was one of rock’s most commanding live performers, and while he left us all too soon (he died aged 45, in 1991), his legacy ensures he’ll always come in near the top of any self-respecting list of the best frontmen in rock.

Must hear: Bohemian Rhapsody (live at Live Aid, 1985)

1: Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones)

No less a publication than Billboard has dubbed Mick Jagger “the rock and roll frontman”, and while he comes under pressure from most of the challengers in our list of the best frontmen and women, The Rolling Stones’ iconic leader has done more than enough to top the bill.

Known for his distinctive, drawling vocal delivery and energetic live performances, Jagger has broadened his horizons with acting roles and an on-off solo career, but the sum has always been greater than the parts when he lines up alongside his old sparring partner, Keith Richards, in the Stones. Jagger has achieved just about everything a great frontman can achieve in the business, but after a career now lasting six decades, he still shows no signs of slowing down.

Must hear: Brown Sugar (live in 1972)

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