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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Hang on to your ego: 16 great bands with more than one prominent lead singer

Illustration for article titled Hang on to your ego: 16 great bands with more than one prominent lead singer

1. The Beatles

Apple Records printed "Lennon-McCartney" under each Beatles song—at least those not written by George Harrison—but it's never been too hard to figure out which of the two main Beatles was primarily responsible for which timeless hit. Just listen to the voices: John Lennon's is like his songs, unrestrained and slightly sardonic, while Paul McCartney tends toward the sweet and earnest. Both men collaborated on each other's work from time to time, and Harrison and Ringo Starr took their turns at the mic, either singing their own songs or L&M;'s. But as the band played on, each personality separated out, until they all fit into little individual boxes, just like on the cover of Let It Be.

2. Fugazi

Ian MacKaye is generally seen as Fugazi's "leader," because he gives the most insightful interviews and always has something to say, but the D.C. band would be a completely different animal if Guy Picciotto hadn't joined—first as a background singer, and eventually as a full-fledged singer and guitarist. Live, MacKaye and Picciotto tend to trade lead vocals: MacKaye delivers the more terse, straightforward songs (like "Birthday Pony"), while Picciotto is slightly more elastic and sing-songy ("Do You Like Me?"). One without the other works amazingly well; together, they're like punk's peanut butter and chocolate.

3. Fleetwood Mac

Even before the culty British blues-pop band Fleetwood Mac hit the big time by adding SoCal singer-songwriters Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham to the mix, they were already a multi-vocalist act, with songs sung by a rotating cast of men and women, many of whom were only around for one album or tour. The Fleetwood Mac lineup stabilized in the Buckingham-Nicks era, with holdover Christine McVie providing airy, piano-driven pop songs like "Over My Head," "You Make Loving Fun," and "Everywhere" as a contrast to twangier, more biting Buckingham offerings like "Go Your Own Way" and "Big Love," and mystical, swirling Nicks ballads like "Sara," "Rhiannon," and "Gypsy." These were three distinct voices, held together by the steady rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, who'd been keeping the band tight but mellow from the beginning.

4. The New Pornographers

Conscious attempts to form supergroups rarely work out well (sorry, fans of The Firm, Damn Yankees, and Bad English), but when Zumpano frontman Carl Newman invited obscure art-rocker Dan Bejar of Destroyer and then-obscure alt-country chanteuse Neko Case to join with some fellow Canadian rock scenesters, the near-seamless quality of the resulting project caught even the participants by surprise. Though The New Pornographers remain Newman's show primarily, Case's tuneful belting and Bejar's more gentlemanly, Bowie-esque lilt provide a necessary complement to Newman's "maximum Bacharach" approach. Over the course of four terrific albums, the low-budget supergroup has proved as potent as any arena-rock act.

5. Hüsker Dü

In the early days of legendary Minneapolis punk band Hüsker Dü, drummer Grant Hart wrote and sang the poppier, more classically rock-oriented songs, providing a relief from guitarist Bob Mould's primal howls. But by the end of the band's run, Mould was working in a much catchier vein, and an increasingly drug-addled Hart was favoring distortion and screech. No matter which end of the spectrum they fell on, Mould's deep, growly vocals and Hart's high, boyish ones remained distinctive, providing two takes on the punk ethos: intellectual fury and childlike primitivism.

6. Eagles

The California country-rock scene drew fellow travelers from around the world, all arriving in L.A. to write songs and play gigs, even if they had to stay in the background. The musicians who made up the Eagles were session players with more ambition, and when they got their chance in the spotlight, they fought and scrapped to present their own material in their own voices. For the most part, over the course of the last 35 years, the band has been dominated by two singer-songwriters: the laid-back, country-inflected Glenn Frey, and the raspier, more acidic Don Henley. But the voices of Randy Meisner, Don Felder, Bernie Leadon, Timothy B. Schmit, and Joe Walsh have all contributed to the idea of the Eagles as a country-rock collective, offering welcome to anyone with a potential hit song to sing.

7. Drive-By Truckers

Adopting the old Beatles maxim of "you wrote it, you sing it," Drive-By Truckers have had as many as three singers performing their own first-rate songs over the years. Between 2002's Decoration Day and 2006's A Blessing And A Curse, main songwriter Patterson Hood was augmented by long-time foil Mike Cooley and soulful newcomer Jason Isbell. When Isbell left for a solo career in 2007, bassist Shonna Tucker stepped forward to contribute three tracks to DBT's latest effort, Brighter Than Creation's Dark, bringing a welcome dose of femininity to the band's drawling vocal attack.

8. The Band

If anything personified the down-home, come-as-you-are communal spirit of The Band, it was the vocal interplay between singers Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, and Rick Danko. Each singer took the spotlight on classic Band tracks—Manuel on "I Shall Be Released," Helm on "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," Danko on "It Makes No Difference"—but they were most effective when singing together, trading off lead vocals and harmonizing on a dime. Calling themselves The Band was an act of unapologetic hubris, but what made The Band great was the singers' willingness to selflessly play off and support each other. They didn't just sing "put the load right on me," they practiced it.


9. Beach Boys

Mike Love is credited as Beach Boys' lead singer, but his nasally vocals fell into the background as the group's music grew sadder and more complex. (Not to slight the underrated Love—he's an obvious influence on Joey Ramone, and therefore a major influence on the signature punk-rock vocal style.) Al Jardine and Dennis Wilson also made worthy vocal contributions on the upbeat songs, but the band's ballads were always carried by Carl and Brian Wilson, both of whom were blessed with flawless tenors that carried the Beach Boys' most beautifully uplifting and devastating music. Singing together, they weren't too shabby, either.

10. Grateful Dead

Nobody in the Grateful Dead could sing all that well, including Jerry "Captain Trips" Garcia, the most prominent vocal presence on the Dead's records. So while Bob Weir and Phil Lesh are pedestrian singers at best, they aren't that much worse than Garcia, who surrendered the microphone whenever his bandmates made songwriting contributions. While The Dead aren't known for vocal harmonies, they sounded better singing together than on their own, as shown on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young-style "Uncle John's Band" from Workingman's Dead.

11. Sloan

It's possible that perpetually underappreciated (in the States, anyway) Canadian power-pop band Sloan is too democratic. Fans tend to gravitate to bands where the members have clearly defined roles and responsibilities. In Sloan, everybody sings, writes, and trades off instruments. This means there's no leader or star in Sloan, though a surplus of wonderful songs and killer harmonies would make up for that in a just world. Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland, Andrew Scott, and Jay Ferguson have enough songs and vocal ability to carry a band on their own, but it's what they do together that makes Sloan one of the great unheralded power-pop bands.

12. Uncle Tupelo

In retrospect, it seems amazing that Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy—the songwriting core of the trailblazing alt-country band Uncle Tupelo—were able to make four albums before their creative and personal relationship flamed out. They were never all that compatible to begin with: They had such separate, strong sensibilities that they each formed a thriving, distinctive band around them after breaking up (Farrar's Son Volt and Tweedy's Wilco). While each Uncle Tupelo album coheres around a unifying sound—like the acoustic minimalism of March 16-20, 1992, say, or the more ornate, string-laden studio record Anodyne—their individual songs stand out like lumps in oatmeal. Farrar was the more austere and affected of the two, with a thunderous voice that drove propulsive country-rock classics like the No Depression opener "Graveyard Shift" or aching ballads like Anodyne's title track. Tweedy was more of a wild card: Rather than outbelting Farrar, he took playful pop end-run-arounds, from the deft Minutemen tribute "D. Boon" off Still Feel Gone to Anodyne's single "The Long Cut," which hinted at a commercial potential the band wouldn't stay together long enough to realize.

13. The Clash

For two singers with jarringly dissimilar voices, the gruff, gravelly Joe Strummer and the sweetly melodic Mick Jones pulled off some great vocal interplay in The Clash. Strummer, of course, will always be remembered as the band's driving force and political conscience, but Jones had his fair share of high points: Tracks like "Stay Free" and "Lost In The Supermarket" show a vulnerability that only Jones could pull off. Even Strummer wrote the lyrics for the latter song with Jones in mind. At the height of The Clash's worldwide popularity, Jones outnumbered Strummer when it came to radio hits: While Strummer belted out the roaring "Rock The Casbah," Jones sang lead on the soulful, bittersweet "Train In Vain" and the raucous "Should I Stay Or Should I Go."

14. Mission Of Burma

While less polarized than Strummer and Jones, post-punk champs Mission Of Burma had a similar dynamic: guitarist Roger Miller sang the rawer, more cryptic stuff, while bassist Clint Conley tackled the poppy and personally poetic. And as with Jones' songs, Conley's tracks are the catchier ones. The band's most indelible songs, "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate" and the oft-covered "That's When I Reach For My Revolver," came from the bassist—and Burma's debut single from 1981 is the perfect distillation of Conley's anthemic tunefulness ("Academy Fight Song") and Miller's cerebral angularity ("Max Ernst").

15. The Go-Betweens

Like many of the bands on this list, The Go-Betweens sometimes inspired division: Fans could like both Robert Forster and Grant McLennan's songs, but they tended to have a clear preference. That makes sense, since the two have striking differences: Forster's voice was a little flatter and his lyrics more heady ("Spring Rain"), while McLennan tended toward gentler, more melodic songs like "Streets Of Your Town." And though they complemented each other with backing vocals, more often than not, they stayed out of each other's way. The duo split for most of the '90s to make solo discs, but reignited The Go-Betweens in 2000, with different backing musicians. McLennan died suddenly in 2006, ending the band for good.

16. Pink Floyd

Throughout the '70s, David Gilmour and Roger Waters brought complementary voices to Pink Floyd: one husky and anthemic (think "Wish You Were Here"), the other dramatic and high-strung (see "Brain Damage"). But their partnership unraveled on their later rock operas, as Waters seized the vision and lyrics on The Wall and The Final Cut. After Waters split, he and Gilmour struggled to replace each other on their respective tours, with Gilmour clubfooting his way through the verses of "Comfortably Numb," and Waters resorting to Bryan Adams and Cyndi Lauper at his solo The Wall (Live In Berlin) concert.

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