On unique vocals

One of the things that has always fascinated me about music is examining the properties that endear an artist to a specific listener. I know I prefer bands that put emphasis on drums and bass, while a friend of mine has distilled her “perfect formula” for listening down to something like: syncopated beat, handclaps, British male singing.

No area of music is more difficult for people to understand their preferences in than vocals. Much has been written about Bob Dylan’s love-it-or-hate-it voice, but that’s just the beginning. A different friend of mine and I have had a long-standing debate on the subject.

It started with an artist named Max Tundra, who asked his vocally untrained sister to sing on a few tracks of his album Mastered by a Guy at the Exchange. Her voice is technically terrible, I’m sure, but I really enjoy it, while some of my friends can’t stand listening to it, calling it “breathy and grating.” Then there was Joy Division, the vocalist for which I find forced and straining, but some of my friends find natural and powerful.

The confusion about vocals doesn’t start and end with my friends, though. Witness critically acclaimed but technically horrendous Slint and Sonic Youth. Or, one person might love old Kate Bush records, the next despises them. More recently there are bands like Battles (who “sound like robots”), Joanna Newsom (who alternately receives glowing praise and comments that she “sounds like a frog” from reviewers), or the Knife (heavily accented and indescribable). The list goes on, full of conflict with little explanation but personal preference.

Then there are artists who do non-traditional things with vocals. Bogdan Raczynski pitches his voice way, way up and sounds sort of like a children’s special gone wrong. Experimental German group Can’s Damo Suzuki blabbers about nothing, repeats words incessantly, and even just burbles vague sounds — yet fits the music surrounding him perfectly. Halfway through Naked City’s “Leng Tch’e” the guitars drop out and an utterly bloodcurdling scream comes in, lasting for 15 minutes. I was actually frightened when I heard it the first time. Would it have been possible to get this effect with words or singing? Would it have been possible with instruments only?

We have a large vocabulary of terms that we use to describe instrumental parts, yet I’m not aware of any technical terminology like this for vocal parts. Is there any? Or are we just doomed to the cliché observation that in popular music, listeners prefer vocalists of the gender they want to sleep with? This correlation is borne out when I think back over discussions I’ve had in the past, but I have to believe there’s more to it than that.