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Best Rock Singers in Bands: Lead Vocal Legends

Aug 13, 2023

Lead singers: It’s almost a quaint topic to debate in 2023. These days, huge bands are increasingly rare, and many of the most important rock outfits are primarily the vision of one individual — with the backing band either inconsistent from project to project, or in some cases non-existent. But for the great majority of rock and roll history, the lead singer was more of a quarterback: Just one player on the team, but the one most responsible for calling the plays, for setting the tone and for generally putting numbers on the board. And also the one most likely to end up a superstar, an MVP or all all-time icon.

Here at Billboard, we’re taking a moment to honor those front-of-stage greats: The rock and roll singers who elevated their bands to stratospheric heights, and inspired entire generations of vocalists to follow in the paths they blazed. These are the most legendary avatars from rock’s seven-decade history, the folks who — with their singing, with their songwriting, with their ineffable live charisma and particularly with their undefinable, all-encompassing presence — have done the greatest job of spreading the music’s gospel to all corners of the world, serving as mouthpieces for their bands and spokespeople for the genre.

In assembling our list, we allowed that some bands could have multiple frontpeople considered lead singers, though we only ended up including one per group. But we were picky about the “band” part — groups had to be mostly consistent from one album to the next and play the majority of their own instruments — as well as the “rock” part; while many of the groups here span (and/or defy) genres, we had to be comfortable considering them largely a rock band for them to count here. And most challengingly, we opted to disqualify lead singers whose most famous bands are named after them — Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Joan Jett — because it made the lines between solo artist and band too blurry, and because we’d prefer to use this list to focus on the bands that were more democratically assembled, but whose frontpeople still led the way in singular fashion.

With all that in mind, here are our picks for the 50 greatest lead singers in rock history. Grab a microphone, some hair product and a feather boa or two and get ready to sing and preen along.

Early in Rage Against the Machine’s 2022 COVID-delayed reunion tour, Zack de la Rocha sustained an injury – later revealed as a torn Achilles – but soldiered on, telling the audience, “If I have to crawl across this stage, we’re gonna play for y’all tonight. We came too f–kin’ far.” Given his and Rage’s politics, de la Rocha’s livewire presence has always felt high-stakes, but it’s the rap-rocker’s gritty determination – and vocal ability to cut through the instrumental maelstrom created by the three legends who flank him – that cement him in the frontperson pantheon. — ERIC RENNER BROWN

Rubén Albarrán, the mercurial frontman of Mexican rock troupe Café Tacvba, stands as a luminous beacon of musical brilliance. With his unparalleled stage presence — and his uncanny ability to reinvent himself with every album release (which at times includes a new alter ego) — Albarrán intertwines exciting unpredictability and raw vulnerability with boundless passion. His voice is a multifaceted wonder, whether unleashing a crystalline coo that can pierce your heart (“María,” “Que No”), or an ominous growl that can turn severe and bitter (“Déjate Caer”). On stage, his ability to connect with the crowd is unrivaled, mixing a perfect storm of sardonic humor, silly dance moves, native pride, and Latin rock mystique. —ISABELA RAYGOZA

You know you’re a successful frontman when your own name is just as globally recognized as your band’s — without having ever stepped out on your own. Then again, when you can sing, play lead guitar and swap in on the drums, who has time for a solo effort? From his start in Nirvana to the Foo Fighters, Grohl has continually proven to be a chameleon on stage. But perhaps even more notable? He’s maintained his title of nicest guy in rock through it all. — LYNDSEY HAVENS

A mess on the ladder of success, the ‘Mats manifested, at great peril, the idea that rock ‘n’ roll was meant to be rebellious. And Westerberg, a charismatic smart-ass, epitomized the band’s often snotty ambivalence about mainstream success — even as he grasped for the brass ring with empathetic, heart-wrenching and self-deprecating songwriting that grew more brilliant with each album. The Replacements are dead, but they live on, partially because of their drunken live antics, but mostly because Westerberg-wailed gems like “Unsatisfied,” “Bastards of Young,” “Sadly Beautiful” and “Can’t Hardly Wait” still raise fists and melt hearts. — FRANK DIGIACOMO

One of the most distinctive vocalists in punk, Poly Styrene railed against consumerism, misogyny and artificiality with a voice that could go from a piercing howl to a rapidly vibrating roar. Wearing braces on her teeth and sneering at those who felt women in bands should be sex objects, Styrene steered the X-Ray Spex through a brief career (just one album, Germfree Adolescents, and five singles in the late ‘70s) that nevertheless proved indispensable to future generations of punks and riot grrrls. — JOE LYNCH

When Living Colour broke through with its 1988 debut, Vivid, and the album’s rock slab of a hit single, “Cult of Personality,” all eyes and ears were on Glover. Between his long braids, colorful outfits and a voice that was as menacing as it was fluid, Glover was a new force to be reckoned with, especially in tandem with guitarist Vernon Reid. Though Glover and co. won back-to-back Grammys for best hard rock performance, they still go down as one of the most underrated rock bands of all time — with one of the most compelling frontmen. — MELINDA NEWMAN

Aesthetically, Garcia spent most of his career as an anti-frontperson, eschewing the colorful psychedelic garb and intricate Nudie suit he wore in the Dead’s early years for plain tees and a stoic stage presence. But what Garcia lacked in traditional frontperson zeal, he compensated for as the Dead’s creative and spiritual engine, leading not just the band but attracting fans with an ineffable magnetism that lingered long after his 1995 death. — E.R.B.

Never totally at home in either riot grrrl or grunge, Courtney Love made Hole simply one of the most essential rock bands of any subgenre in the mid-’90s, with her spiky and soothing vocals, her heart- (and stomach-)wrenching lyrics, and her winkingly disruptive public presence. And when top 40 took back over in the late decade, she glammed it up and found herself just as at home on TRL as in the Buzz Bin, achieving pop iconicity without losing any of her artistic potency. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER

Some of System of a Down’s most memorable moments exist because of Serj Tankian’s guttural intensity — the “WAKE UP!” shout-sing verses of “Chop Suey!,” the wild-eyed chorus of “Toxicity,” the pummeling final movement of “B.Y.O.B.,” to name a few — but those performances were so effective because Tankian just as often pulled back into soft, fragile melodies. The tension between soft and furious sides crystallized System of a Down’s political and social commentary, as Tankian expertly lulled fans in before shaking them awake to the unacceptable realities around them. — JASON LIPSHUTZ

No doubt Gallagher was being at least a little bit cheeky when he declared “tonight I’m a rock ‘n’ roll star” on the opening track of Oasis’ 1994 debut Definitely Maybe. But the statement was nonetheless accurate not just for an evening but for the duration of the ’90s, with Gallagher’s soaring, sneering delivery coming to define the decade, and his on-and-offstage f–k you swagger also making him the de facto spirit animal of Britpop. — KATIE BAIN

There are few things in this world as captivating as watching Brittany Howard perform live. Her remarkable voice seems to emanate all the way from the soles of her feet as she bellows out some of the most tender lyrics, while backed by the stellar group of musicians in the Alabama Shakes. Howard’s presence is just as showstopping as her voice, as she stomps on the stage and channels the originators of rock and roll. — TAYLOR MIMS

The stereotype is that Paul McCartney was the poppy Beatle, while John Lennon was the band’s resident rocker. Like most stereotypes, that doesn’t tell the full story. Paul sang lead on many ballads, but he also fronted the group on such certified rockers as “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Helter Skelter” and “Back in the USSR.” One the most enduring images of the band’s early years is John and Paul, their faces close together, sharing a single mic as they sang. That’s just one of a hundred things The Beatles pioneered. – PAUL GREIN

Iggy Pop took rock frontman antics to their natural, brutal conclusion — doing everything one can imagine in front of a crowd, from cutting into his flesh to whipping out his penis and letting it vibrate on a speaker. Beyond the nihilistic antics, however, his voice – resonant and rich one moment, animalistic and shrieking the next – and distinctive phrasing would prove immeasurably influential on the birth of punk. — J. Lynch

It would be accurate to call Gwen Stefani a pop star, but it would also be reductive. While other singers of the era were polished to high gloss unrelatability, Stefani was more rock star than red carpet. Marching into mainstream consciousness with No Doubt’s 1995 breakout album Tragic Kingdom, her electric stage presence and elastic vocal delivery fused vulnerability, anger, femininity, honesty and edge, which — combined with her iconic bleached blonde ska punk aesthetic — made her an enduring role model for millions of fellow girls (and guys) in the world. — K.B.

Unabashedly political and deeply humanitarian, Joe Strummer brought a vocal range to punk music few could compete with. Sure, he could belt with the best of ‘em, sneering and ranting about everything from American imperialism to dead-end jobs to police brutality. But there was a haunted exasperation in his delivery, too, that was every bit as expressive as Roy Orbison – at least, until the Clash moved on to a song that required him to rip it up on stage like Jerry Lee Lewis or Jimi Hendrix. — J. Lynch

From the gloriously unpredictable and frizzy-haired face of the San Francisco psychedelic movement in the late ’60s with Jefferson Airplane to a pant-suited mannequin in the late ’80s music video for the singalong pop classic “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” with Starship, Grace Slick wielded her dynamic vocals and wild eyes to create a captivating stage presence that it was impossible to look away from, across genres and generations. – KATIE ATKINSON

The X factor that turned Linkin Park from a very good nu-metal band to true game-changers, Chester Bennington became one of the 21st century’s biggest rock stars by exorcising his demons on record, with ear-splitting ferocity and disarming tenderness. Always relatable and sympathetic even when superhuman in his performance, Bennington brought undeniable gravity to skyscraping pop crossovers like “In the End” and “What I’ve Done,” and was able to hold his own on a hit single across from peak Jay-Z. — A.U.

Gustavo Cerati, the late, great legendary frontman of Argentina’s Soda Stereo, emerged in the ’80s as a transcendent figure, whose stage presence was a symphony of mystical allure. With an ethereal voice that danced between haunting vulnerability (“Té Para 3”) and soaring intensity (“Persiana Americana”), Cerati conjured an emotional soundscape that enveloped audiences in a spellbinding embrace. A virtuoso at the guitar, his fingers glide effortlessly over the strings, possessing the ability to simultaneously pull at our heartstrings. His genre-defying compositions and showmanship, paired with evocative lyrics that ignited profound introspection, will forever be etched in Latin rock history. — I.R.

As a metal forefather, Ozzy Osbourne inspired countless vocalists – many of whom, admittedly, are far more technically proficient. But the Prince of Darkness’ distinctive tone and melodramatic delivery – fearful and traumatized one moment, fiendish and menacing the next – changed the way people thought about what a singer should do. Maybe a frontman wasn’t there to seduce you, but to scare the living sh-t out of you. — J. Lynch

Becoming one of the first famous punk rock musicians to come out as transgender in 2012 required an astonishing level of courage from Laura Jane Grace — but the leader of Against Me! had always exhibited a high degree of fearlessness throughout her career, whether leading countless mosh pits or prodding at her identity in her songwriting. The band’s first album after Grace came out, 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, stands as an indispensable piece of rock history, and demonstrated that Grace wouldn’t be losing an ounce of her snarl while speaking her truth. — J. Lipshutz

The late ’70s and early ’80s had plenty of arena bands with riffs and melodrama to spare, but only one of those had Steve Perry. Equipped with the rare male rock voice that could scale octaves without losing power, toughness or clarity — with enough character to still be unmistakable in its lower registers — Perry was a weapon that has allowed Journey to both stand out from the pack and transcend the decades, with signature smashes like “Don’t Stop Believin'” and “Separate Ways” remaining pop culture fixtures and karaoke staples. (Best of luck if you actually attempt ’em, though.) — A.U.

With her unmistakable and impossibly sky-high vocals matched only by Heart’s wailing guitars, Ann Wilson carved out a lane in the boys’ club of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1970s, assisted by the seamless harmonies of her sister, Heart guitarist/vocalist Nancy. Then in the ‘80s, the band found a second life, with Ann taking her powerful rock vocals to the top of the Hot 100 (twice) via undeniable pop ballads powered by those singular pipes. Fifty years in, Wilson’s captivating voice continues to command attention and respect. – K.A.

Part frontman (though he would deny such a title), part human jumping bean, Anthony Kiedis is one of the most captivating performers in music. He turns each set — no matter if the band is headlining a festival or playing a smaller club — into a high energy show that equally prioritizes live music and physical fitness, making it impossible not to sing and move along with him as he spits, scats and screams his way through the band’s nearly four decades of unsinkable hits. — L.H.

In the 1960s, most people probably passed by the unobtrusive Lou Reed without ever noticing him, let alone realizing they had come across the godfather of punk music. As the front man of The Velvet Underground, his unassuming presence delivered some of the most poetic rock and roll of the decade, sung in his deadpan manner. Reed, with his mop of curly hair, seemed like an everyman who managed to capture both the troubles of the late 1960s in his lyrics, before ushering in both the inglorious angst of the 1970s and a genre that helped people express it. — T.M.

Does Thom Yorke have the prettiest falsetto in modern music? For all of his many attributes as an all-time rock great — the treasure trove of powerful songs, classic albums, thoughtful lyrical passages and winning experiments — that haunting, delicate upper register will forever be a calling card, deployed expertly on Radiohead’s signature songs (“Idioteque,” “High and Dry”) and fan-favorite later-period cuts (“Nude,” “Lotus Flower”) alike. Within a wide vocal range, Yorke has always been able to climb up to notes so pretty they’ll make you cry. — J. Lipshutz

As the frontwoman for Big Brother & The Holding Company, Janis Joplin helped define a generation of psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll with her bluesy delivery and convulsive stage movements. Of course, lying under the surface of her emotive performances and inimitable vocal choices were demons that would eventually catch up to her, as Joplin would die of a heroin overdose in 1970 – meaning the world got only three years with the legend from when Big Brother broke out at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival to her tragic death at age 27. Imagine the impact she could’ve had with more time. – K.A.

With an operatic, four-octave voice, Rob Halford raised the bar for metal singers all the way up to Valhalla. His menacing growl brought a harrowing quality to Judas Priest’s chugging hard rock, but there’s a bluesy undercurrent to his tone, too – almost sensual when viewed through the leather-and-stud lens of his look. When you toss in that ear-splitting falsetto, you end up with an inimitable, once-in-a-generation talent. — J. Lynch

Karen O gave everything to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs: her voice, her energy, her style, her words and, most sacrificially, her body. Health be damned! If Karen O is on stage, she is going throw herself around like a glimmering pinball, thrust by the sheer force of her artistry. She created her own lane as a pioneering Asian woman in rock, and never let others define her role in the genre — an iconoclast in everything from her asymmetrical hairdos to the highest pitch of her scream. She defies all those who came before her and will never be replicated. — T.M.

In the early ‘90s, Vedder was a high-flying frontman, maniacally jumping off balconies, dangling from lighting trusses and somehow executing death-defying drops before crowd surfing back to stage. As he’s gotten older and wiser, he now keeps mainly earthbound, but the vocal intensity and his instantly recognizable vibrato still reign supreme. Virtually no singer sells his songs with as much bone-shaking conviction and raw ferocity as Vedder. You feel him as a lead singer as much as you hear him. — M.N.

In the late ‘60s, the Doors’ seemingly mythical frontman transcended the bounds of performance, navigating between melancholic introspection and fevered rebellion. With his brooding charisma, poetic soul and electrifying stage presence, Morrison became a conduit between realms of consciousness and artistic expression. His voice, a deep-yet-velvety amalgam of raw power (“Roadhouse Blues,” “Five to One”) and haunting delivery (“The Crystal Ship,” “Riders on the Storm”) possessed an otherworldly feel that could plummet into the depths of human emotion, or turn thunderous. He transformed into The Lizard King and wore skintight leather pants on stage, often prowling the stage in sinuous movements, an unsettling yet captivating presence. Morrison’s seductive provocations and fearless exploration of the human psyche have enshrined him as a timeless muse. — I.R.

Before he launched his solo career as a clown prince of rock in 1985 with his campy cover of “California Girls,” Roth wailed above the power chords of another cover, The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” to propel Van Halen into the Hot 100 for the first time in 1978. With the bare-chested blonde as its flamboyant frontman, the SoCal band transcended the hair-metal wave of the 80s, packing stadiums and topping the Billboard charts. While Sammy Hagar took over lead vocals when Roth went solo, the latter’s peerless presence — part game show host, part circus performer — remained inextricable with the band, and he returned for multiple reunions. Upon Eddie Van Halen’s death from cancer on Oct. 6, 2020, Roth said singing the band’s songs with the guitarist “was better than any love affair I ever had.” — THOM DUFFY

As a leading figure of the riot grrrl movement, Hanna’s Bikini Kill performances carried an extra weight: the group didn’t just want to stage stellar shows, it wanted to invert the power dynamics of punk music itself in the process. Of course, the former is something of a prerequisite for the latter, and with Bikini Kill — and later Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin — Hanna fused livewire performance and political urgency like few artists ever have. — E.R.B.

Jack White has become a near-spokesperson for rock, and a fixture in the music industry as a whole, for the various roles he plays in his career — from label founder to record plant manufacturer to artistic collaborator. But it’s the role he played in The White Stripes that set him up for such continued success, emerging as a singular vocalist and guitar virtuoso — while playing into the wild mystique of rock and roll in his fashion, his recording choices and his purposefully misleading relationship with “sister” drummer Meg White — and creating culture-defining riffs to last a lifetime. — L.H.

No other alt-rock singer of the ’90s compared to Chris Cornell in terms of sheer vocal juice; you’d have to go back decades and/or dip into entirely different genres to find another powerhouse to be considered his peer. His chest and throat pyrotechnics guaranteed Soundgarden would emerge from Seattle to national renown — even before Nirvana’s famous breakthrough, they were climbing the Billboard charts — while his sullen (and often shirtless) machismo also earned him heartthrob status, and his soulful songwriting ensured his endurance, including his later blockbuster success with Audioslave. — A.U.

Throughout the decades-long transformation of R.E.M. — from the jangly college-radio fare of their mid-‘80s debut to the mega-selling pop-rock of their ‘90s run to their alternative elder-statesmen 21st-century run — Michael Stipe’s voice was always their bellwether, mutating his own approach at the microphone while keeping his poetic lyricism and sense of perspective intact. Nobody else can both list off “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and croon “Everybody Hurts” with such agility and panache, and no one else could have kept R.E.M. on top of their game for so long with such inventive spirit and subtle grace. — J. Lipshutz

No punk-era frontperson could hope to match Chrissie Hynde’s versatility or richness as a singer, matching midwestern muscle with British wit and craft for songs that could delight, destabilize and destroy in equal measure. Not a powerhouse vocalist, the sheer character of Hynde’s voice made her Pretenders hits land like uppecuts — check out how she spits “f–k off” like she’s flicking a cigarette on “Precious,” then how her voice catches in her throat for the final “There’s nobody else here/ No one like me” on “Brass in Pocket.” And she could dial it back when she had to, as evidenced by ’90s ballad “I’ll Stand by You,” one of the only songs by a punk O.G. to ever serve as an American Idol perennial. — A.U.

Tyler has done more for the scarf industry than just about any lead singer outside of Stevie Nicks. While there has always been a fair amount of androgyny in his look, he also had some fun with the idea of gender-bending in one of Aerosmith’s best songs, “Dude (Looks Like a Lady).” Tyler, who wrote or co-wrote all but four of Aerosmith’s 28 Hot 100 hits, also plays the harmonica and piano — but it’s his vocal prowess, soaring over several generations of rock music, that earned him the nickname “Demon of Screamin.” — P.G.

When it comes to singers in contemporary rock, Hayley Williams reigns supreme. Her malleable voice has been the bedrock of pop-punk greats Paramore for nearly two decades and counting, lineup changes be damned. At once capable of blending gospel influences with rousing pop-rock arrangements (“Ain’t It Fun”) and capturing heartfelt moments of unflinching self-reflection (“Forgiveness), her voice packs the versatility necessary to carry Paramore through myriad musical eras while still retaining its core ethos. From her spiky stage persona to her trademark red hair, Hayley Williams is probably the most recognizable rock frontperson of the 2010s, and her winning contributions to Paramore’s latest record, this year’s chart-topping This Is Why, should keep her in that position for the 2020s. — KYLE DENIS

Nearly 60 years in, virtually no one can touch Roger Daltrey’s virtuosity. From the microphone twirling to the glass-shattering vocals and trademark curly locks, Daltrey is a standard-setter when it comes to frontmen. There’s the stage presence, which is palpable even when he’s just standing at the mic baring his chest, and his full-bodied, powerful vocals. And then there are the screams. The blood-curdling, primal scream in “Won’t Get Fooled Again” that comes more than 7 minutes into the song, is the purest essence of rock and roll. — M.N.

While few figures in rock history can claim to be as closely associated with an aesthetic as The Cure gothfather Robert Smith, his fashion iconography is just one shade in his full frontman palette. Smith’s robust and sneakily frisky tenor is also one of the most inimitable vocal tones in alt-rock — not that it isn’t fun to try — which, combined with his heartbursting songwriting, gives The Cure’s songs a rush that not even their frantic guitars and whooshing synths can quite keep up with. And while no one will confuse him for David Lee Roth in concert, he gets points for being the first rock superstar to make the stadium stage a safe space for pouty introverts. — A.U.

During the late ‘1980s, Axl’s remarkable vocal abilities and slithering live presence stood out from the pack and made him a dominant force in hard rock. Evoking strong emotions and delivering high energy through his songs, Rose hit powerful high notes in ripping rockers like “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” but showed his full range in unforgettable ballads like “Patience,” “Don’t Cry,” and “November Rain.” And when it came to fashion trends, he was 20 years ahead of us: His short shorts with a shirt around his waist, open leather jackets with no shirt underneath, and Scottish kilts as a tribute to his Scottish heritage challenged gender norms, and popped both onstage and on MTV. — INGRID FAJARDO

More than his vocal strength or range, Bono has something that transcends pure vocal talent — the ability to connect. One of rock’s greatest and most charismatic communicators, the U2 frontman often slides from a whisper to a scream and isn’t afraid to show the strain if it means revealing emotion. To see Bono on stage, even as his too cool, devilish MacPhisto persona during the Zoo tour, is to see a frontman who wants not only to be seen, but to see and to, somehow, reach up to the rafters. Five decades in, that unforgettable fire still burns with a desperation to bridge any gulf between performer and audience, in a way that often makes U2 shows a spiritual experience unlike any other. — M.N.

The hybrid band of Parliament-Funkadelic is perhaps the greatest American recording group of all time. Their fusion of rock, soul, science fiction, doo-wop, and Afrofuturism — spearheaded by George Clinton — made them one of the preeminent innovators of funk. As a frontperson, Clinton’s eye and ear for melding seemingly disparate sonic and visual aesthetics to create a product that is as singular as it is ingenious is simply unmatched. As a vocalist, Clinton was far from the strongest technical singer in the collective’s rotation of crooners. When he did provide lead vocals, the sweetness of his dry falsetto and conviction of his overall vocal performance added inimitable layers of nuance to each song. Clinton tends to prioritize raw feeling over technical prowess, and his balls-to-the-wall approach to interpreting the collective’s rich lyricism makes for some of the most arresting moments in their towering catalog — check out that gutsy scream at the end of “Everybody Is Going to Make It This Time.” — K.D.

Gliding across stages and screens with an imperturbable cool, Debbie Harry naturally exudes more street-smart swagger than literally thousands of rock frontmen who try much, much harder. Going from a sneering punk growl one moment to a smooth, girl-group-styled harmony the next, Harry imbues Blondie’s carefully constructed songs with a laughing, effervescent wink. With an unflappable self-possession and a classic American look that evokes a Lichtenstein painting or Chuck Berry song, Harry wields an enigmatic aura that puts the Mona Lisa to shame. — J. Lynch

David Byrne’s origin story — meeting bandmates Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth as freshmen at the Rhode Island School of Design, then moving to New York City and immersing himself in the burgeoning punk scene — informed how risk-taking fine art and shambolic live shows formed a compound within him and powered creative choices like, say, a certain way-too-large suit. Byrne’s singular voice, as both as unforgettable vocalist and endlessly curious writer, helped the fusion in his mind leap into reality, and turned him into an all-time great. The influence of Talking Heads’ art-pop still looms large across modern music, and while countless artists have attempted to reanimate the finer points of the long-defunct quartet, Byrne’s irreplaceable idiosyncrasies — from the incredulous “Once in a Lifetime” to the funk-peppered “Burning Down the House” to the careful soul of “Road to Nowhere” — have defined his one-of-a-kind greatness. — J. Lipshutz

An iconic Charles Peterson photograph of Cobain performing with a prestardom Nirvana in March 1991 at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom captures the rockstar seemingly defying gravity, hovering upside down and inches above the stage, guitar still in hand. As mainstream rock music shook off the glam excesses of the ’80s, Cobain’s kinetic stage presence fueled Nirvana’s spartan artistic presentation and provided a blueprint for another type of frontperson, the type who lives and dies by the passion of their performance and not the lights or confetti around them. Along the way, he became more than a frontperson – he became a figurehead for a generation finding its identity. — E.R.B.

Robert Plant always functioned as both frontman and prototype, strutting into the valhalla of fame by taking the Delta blues aesthetic that informed essentially all of ’60/’70s U.K. rock, adding a whole lotta sex and swagger, and thereby setting the golden god mold for what a rock singer should look, sound and feel like. With one of the mightiest and most recognizable voices of all time, Plant deftly handled both Zeppelin’s delicate side and its most soaring moments, with his guttural wails ultimately becoming as embedded into the foundation of modern music as the bluesmen he was singing in homage to. — K.B.

The self-assured strut. The four-octave vocal range. The deep catalog of hits. Freddie Mercury was born to be a frontman, and his theatrical stylings – in his music, fashion, stage presence and, really, just life — made Queen stand out in a crowded British rock scene in the 1970s. In addition to his immediately recognizable vocals, Mercury also wrote some of Queen’s biggest songs, penning half of the 14 tracks on the band’s 1981 Greatest Hits album. The 2018 biopic Bohemian Rhapsody only heightened Mercury’s already-legendary legacy, wrapping with the band’s venerated set at 1985’s Live Aid ahead of the singer’s death from AIDS complications in 1991 at age 45. Another tale of a virtuoso gone too soon, but between pop culture moments and an ever-relevant catalog, Mercury’s genius lives on. – K.A.

A lot has been said about Stevie Nicks’ witchy vibes over the past five decades, and there truly is indeed something enchanting about the Fleetwood Mac frontwoman. On stage or in a room full of some of the most talented musicians of a generation, Nicks couldn’t help but stand out in her flowing capes, and with a voice featuring enough grit to sand down the roughest of exteriors. The songs Nicks contributed to the Mac have gone down not only as among the band’s best, but some of the most enduring radio and pop culture staples of the entire ’70s and ’80s — through her ability to tap into the deepest crevices of her own soul to mesmerize and haunt listeners, in a way no other lead singer could ever hope to match. — T.M.

No one has moves like Jagger — nor the voice, the image, the fashion sense, or the remarkably enduring charisma of the frontman for the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band In The World. An announcer memorably shouts that claim in the opening moments of the Stones’ 1970 landmark live album Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!, and Jagger — who turned 80 years old on July 26 — has allowed the band to live up to that boast for well over half a century, from their Hot 100 debut in 1964 (with “Not Fade Away”) to the milestone-marking Sixty Tour of 2022. It takes nothing away from Jagger’s surviving current bandmates — the legendary Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, and their ace touring musicians — to credit the singer first and foremost for the Stones’ lasting importance to rock music and to the culture. After so many years, Mick Jagger continues to personify not only the Rolling Stones but rock’n’roll itself– powerfully sexual, threatening, liberating and joyous, all at once. — T.D.

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