Thursday, January 22, 2015

Best Female Vocalists: Favourite Voice Edition

In the world of music I think my tastes can be pretty varied. I like lots of bands and solo artists from lots of different genres. While I'm not nearly as eclectic in this as, say, Shane, I still think it's a fair statement. That said, if you were to take gender and suddenly make it a relevant detail within the musical spectrum, then suddenly my tastes don't appear all that varied at all, particularly with regards to singers. My favourite singers, an overwhelming amount of them in fact, are male.

Now I don't believe there are any deep-seated meanings to be found behind that fact. If you do, feel free to continue believing it, but I have no plans to delve into or dwell on it. Instead I thought something I could do here is celebrate those female vocalists whom I truly do adore. I can assure you that despite my earlier comment, the five on this list represent only a few of the female singers I'm a fan of. I decided to strip things down and make them as simple as possible for the criteria: I'd select those women whose voices I like the most. While it's true a prerequisite for this was also producing music I actually like, it's still less important than the first issue.

And with THAT SAID, I'll also point out that in this life so far I believe I have encountered two perfect human voices, one for each sex. These voices are pleasing to me when raised in song but also when simply engaged in normal everyday speaking as well. For the record, those two are David Usher and Mandy Moore, both of whom I would be content to listen to reading the phone book. But since Moore hasn't really produced a body of work that I like so much, she won't make this list even though I've already deemed her voice as "perfect". Maybe that's weird, I don't know, but it's how I've decided to proceed.

5. Holly McNarland
I think it took seeing McNarland live to really drive home to me just what an incredible voice she has. Some of the details of that experience can be found on this list from several years ago. And as I mentioned in that list, it was her set's opening song, "Water", that was the real vocal showcase. I still can't get over how powerful she is. She may be no taller than 5'2 but she has one big voice.

But she sounds great when performing less bombastic material as well. For songs like "Elmo", in the verses anyway, she has a delivery that reminds me a lot of Ani Difranco. Quick and biting. When her lyrics are dark and/or sarcastic, you can really feel that. I don't think there are a lot of singers who can pull that off. For something more heartfelt and emotional, check out "Beautiful Blue".

McNarland has a voice that reminds me of an elastic band with the way it stretches and bends. But never breaks.

4. Amy Milan
This list is dominated by Canadians which you might take as a sign that I just don't look very hard for material and I'm simply presenting what I know best. Not so, I can assure you. It's not laziness or nationalism or any lack of experience. It just is what it is.

Here we have indie rock darling, Amy Milan. A sometimes solo artist but probably known best for her work in bands Broken Social Scene and Stars. It's mostly for her Stars content that I'm putting her here. Her voice has an almost ethereal quality to it that makes me feel extremely peaceful.  No matter the content of the song, there's just something about her vocal delivery that makes me feel a little less pessimistic (to say "a little more optimistic" would be going too far). It also possesses an innocence that helps make certain lyrics come across much better. I don't know how many singers, female or male, could sing lines like "After I am caught, touch turns into fisticuffs" ("Fixed") and not sound silly.

My heart always breaks a little every time I hear her croon: "I dreamed I was dying as I so often do, and when I awoke I was sure it was true" ("Calendar Girl"), not because it sounds sad to me but because it makes me wonder if this is the female version of myself that never was, somehow loosed upon this world in comic book parallel universe fashion, reaching out to me.

3. Plumb (Tiffany Arbuckle Lee)
Well before Amy Lee of Evanescence fame was crowned the goth princess of alternate rock, there was Plumb. Which is something Amy Lee herself is well aware of. The fact is Plumb was someone she looked up to and wanted to emulate. Well, mission accomplished. I'm not saying Lee is just some poor imitation - I even like some of the music she's produced and she's certainly a very talented vocalist - just pointing out Plumb did it first and, in my opinion, does it better.

How highly do I think of Plumb's voice? Highly enough to not even mind the Christian themes and messages found in many of her lyrics. At the very least they're not preachy and exclusive. There's nothing about saying there's a God that loves us all that's offensive to me and that's pretty much all that's really expressed in her songs that are more religious in tone. And lots of songs don't contain any such lyrics at all. Anyway, I realize that by saying that stuff isn't a big deal, I kind of have inadvertently made it into one so let's talk about her voice.

It is a little tricky sometimes to describe such things as singing voices in words but if I had to pick just one to sum up Plumb, it would be "warmth". As this list will reveal, one kind of female vocalist I really can't stand is the kind that seems to just try to imitate males. I know that's kind of an iffy statement and I don't mean to come across as sexist. But I just prefer female singers who embrace their femininity and channel it into their vocals. I'm not saying a female singer can't be edgy or raunchy or whatever in her vocal delivery, I'm not saying things like hard rock and metal vocals should be left to men. All I'm saying is Plumb knows her vocal capabilities and strengths and employs them in her music wholesale. As with Milan, I would apply the term "ethereal" to Plumb's voice. I guess it's pretty clear that's the kind of thing I like. But there's also a versatility there that allows for some very powerful songs ("Better" comes to mind).

Probably my favourite vocal moments can be found in the electronica-esque "Damaged", which, incidentally, is the first Plumb song I've ever heard.  Her delivery there is so spellbinding to me that it's almost hypnotic. One of the very few songs that can put me in a sort of trance.

2. Lights (Valerie Anne Poxietner)
Speaking of "electronica-esque", here's the artist who is entirely responsible for me discovering the genre of "electropop" to actually be to my liking. In some cases anyway. She's also partially responsible for giving me some faith that there are indeed some artists out there producing music that can be heard on Much Music as well as many radio stations that aren't completely fucking terrible.

Several years ago after another sleepless night, sometime between I think seven-thirty and eighty-thirty am, I turned on my tv because I guess I was completely out of other options at that point. I turned to Much because the guide actually said a word that had all but disappeared from programming in recent years: "videoflow". So I decided to see what videos were current. After watching about three (and WAY too many commercials), what looked at first like just another pop video started, with an absolutely gorgeous girl playing around with paint. I'll admit that at first, that was all that grabbed my attention. To call Lights stunning is probably an understatement by most aesthetic standards.

The video was for a song called "Second Go", and yes, it was hot. But...I found I really liked the song too. And that voice - it sounded...almost like the way I WANTED  female vocalists to sound but had never actually heard until that moment. Is that going a bit too far? Probably. But still, it was a pretty big "wow moment" for me and I wanted to get that across. Soon after I would do a little research through youtube and such and the more I learned, the more I liked.

Conversely, I can completely understand where people who hate Lights's voice and vocal style are coming from. They might call it "whiny" or "squeaky" or something and accuse me of only liking female singers who sound like "little girls" rather than "real women". I can understand it but beyond that, I don't really care.

Lights doesn't just sound good with electronic instruments either. Many songs rely heavily on simple acoustic guitars or traditional piano. I actually prefer the scaled down, piano version of "Pretend" to the original. Not sure how to end here so I'll just ask: How catchy is "Up We Go"?

1. Utada Hikaru
Proof that to appreciate a singing voice, always understanding the language it performs in isn't necessary abounds. My own personal proof is Utada Hikaru, J-Pop idol supreme.

Maybe it's because I've reached the end of the list and haven't completed any in awhile that I really don't feel like being articulate anymore. So let's try this: 2002. Kingdom Hearts. Internet. Always heard similar stuff in anime. Absolutely gorgeous. A sprinkling of English language covers. Writes a lot of her own material. Can actually play several instruments. Voice of an angel. Complete infatuation. Fin.

Give "Sakura Nagashi" a listen and tell me I'm wrong.