The Ears Have It: 5 Shining Examples of Great Vocal Tracks

great vocal tracks - retro microphone on a stageOver the past few years, with the advent of modern recording technology, came the weak singer’s best-loved tool that makes them sound like a million bucks. The tool is called pitch-correction, or perhaps it is better known by the company that pioneered the technology, Autotune. It analyzes the input (vocal) frequencies and matches those frequencies to the most closely related tones in a scale by artificially adding in some harmonic tones and subtracting others. This effect, can find the closest match on its own, or be told where the reference pitch is via midi technology.

You’ve no doubt heard this effect used subtly on recent music without even noticing. And conversely, there have been a few instances where this effect has been used, well, as an actual purposeful instrument where you can hear the pitch correction (Cher and T-Pain both have material that utilizes Autotune as more of an instrument). Here’s Cher’s pitch-correction filled hit song, “Believe”:

Personal opinions aside, the tool itself is pretty amazing. Taking the analog signal, analyzing and making adjustments to it digitally on the fly, and then outputting for you to not even notice, all the while making the singer sound near amazing. But on the other side of the spectrum, this technological advancement can make one appreciate the power and impressiveness of vocalists who succeeded without ever relying on Autotune. And it’s on that note, that I jump into the point of this post: How awesome past vocalists were.

Luckily the advent of modern recording technology has allowed for us to do something also very sophisticated – strip out all other instruments from a recording and just isolate the vocal track. Doing so lets us remove the accompanying music and focus our ears on the vocal arrangement in a tune.

5 Great Vocal Tracks

Fleetwood Mac – “Go Your Own Way”

This classic Fleetwood Mac tune features Lindsey Buckingham making an impassioned, heartfelt plea to a lover. One of the best musicians to come out of the 70s, Buckingham’s isolated vocals on this tune make you really appreciate all the effort he’s put into this song. What’s more, the layered vocal harmonies towards the end (where we hear Stevie Nicks, amongst others), is an impressive vocal feat in its own right. Another bonus to this tune? It doesn’t have the repetitive earworm-creating melody that is “The Chain.”

Queen – “Somebody to Love”

This one is another impassioned plea from a 70s rock powerhouse, but this time it is from the Freddie Mercury and Brian May helmed group, Queen. Listen and you will hear Freddie’s dynamic vocal range showcased throughout this track. You’ll hear that dynamically and melodically he’s all over the place – in an amazingly good way. So much talent on display for our ears in just one song. It will, most likely, give you chills.

The Rolling Stones – “Gimme Shelter”

Mick Jagger. Keith Richards. Ronnie Wood. Charlie Watts. (not to forget past members such as Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman, etc). Those are some of rock and roll music’s most important names. But what makes this tune, from the band’s 1969 album “Let it Bleed”, amazing, isn’t a Keith Richards guitar lick, or a Charlie Watts snare hit, or even Mick Jaggers famous howl (or even a cool, simple harmonica part). No, what makes this tune amazing is the backing vocals of Merry Clayton. The song, written in the midst of the Vietnam war, has an apocalyptic feel, and Merry’s vocals put an exclamation mark on them. Fast forward to around 3:04 and you’ll hear Merry strain her powerful voice to get the notes out, followed immediately by an encouraging, impressed Jagger “whoo.”

Led Zeppelin – “Ramble On”

Ok, so I was only going to do three songs, but I love Led Zeppelin and once I rambled…er…stumbled onto this song, I couldn’t resist including it. Again, you get to hear a singer show off their dynamics control, as well as impressive range. Bonus points to Robert Plant for some Lord of the Rings references.

The White Stripes – “Seven Nation Army”

After looking back at this, I noticed that all my tunes were from the 60s-70s, so I thought I’d throw on a recent example. But to ensure that there is no pitch-correction, I went with The White Stripes “Seven Nation Army”. Why’s that? Jack White is known for eschewing modern technology in an effort to maintain the wonderful sound and feel of past tunes. The result? A tune that feels as much at home in the 1960s as it did when the group released it in the 2000s.

There are countless other examples that I could share with you that showcase the awe-inspiring ability these singers have been able to put down on tape. And I hope you like and appreciate them as much as I do. Which one is your favorite? Is there a song where you’d like to hear the isolated vocal part?