In contemporary popular music, female vocals are melodic and perfectly mixed to create a middle-of-the-road experience that can chart well. Katy Perry, Ke$ha and Rihanna are getting drunk and brazenly exploiting their sexuality in their singles, while Adele and Beyoncé use love and passion to move the listener. But what about the women who aren’t afraid to be off-putting and strange? Below are four female singers who sacrifice confectionery pop for haunting, stratospheric vocal technique, all beautifully hypnotizing and eerie at the same time. And just in time for Halloween! (We’re a little late to the party. Sorry.)
Best known for her role as the lyricist and vocalist of the seminal dream pop group Cocteau Twins, Elizabeth Frasier’s soprano range has often been described as angelic and lofty. However, it just as often scans as a nightmarish, dark entity. Much of “Heaven or Las Vegas” and “Treasure,” the group’s two landmark albums, were primarily a contrast between Frasier’s delicate, agile vocal exercises and an impressionistic use of words to convey dark tones. Tracks like “Lorelai” and “Fifty-Fifty Clown” defined an entire genre of music that continues to grow and change through artists today without uttering a single intelligible sentence. Instead of using language to convey narrative, Frasier wove words together into nonsensical phrases that conveyed emotion, fully embodying the romantic fantasy of dream pop.
Especially Haunting: “Lorelai,” “Pink Orange Red,” “Pandora”
Forget about the swan dress, the app album and the SNL parodies. First and foremost, Björk should be honored for her incredible impact on alternative female vocals. Her visceral soprano curlicues are filled with passion at every turn, from her early days with the Sugarcubes to her newest solo album, “Biophilia.” No one can deny her stunning version of “It’s Oh So Quiet,” with its cutesy beginnings which quickly escalate into an all-out manic assault, or her feminist anthem, “Army of Me,” which threatens the listener with its industrial brooding. Then there’s “Jóga,” where Björk flies above elaborate orchestration with an ethereal roar, eerily capturing emotional confusion in a “state of emergency.” The organic, spontaneous nature of her voice is what makes it so strange and thrilling.
Especially Haunting: “It’s Oh So Quiet,” “Jóga”
As half of the contemporary duo Beach House, Victoria Legrand is known for her ethereal contralto. Ever since their self-titled debut came out in 2006, Legrand has existed as an intimate vocal powerhouse that has recaptured and revitalized the dream pop era of the eighties. From the first moments of “Saltwater” on the eponymous release to “Irene,” the closer of this year’s “Bloom,” Legrand’s deep, often androgynous vocals have existed in a cloudy, nostalgic world of reverb and echo. As a modern act, Beach House has achieved incremental positive acclaim; each album has been better than the next, and has seen Legrand mastering her resonant voice in ways that pay homage to that first moment of swooning, passionate love in anyone’s teenage years. Her vocal composition is like the ghost of this passion’s past, letting it boil and overflow for the listener in time to any Beach House song.
Especially Haunting: “Gila,” “Master of None,” “Lazuli,” “Walk In The Park”
It’s irrefutable that Kate Bush, the British art-pop mastermind that set the stage for so much pop music innovation today, should be mentioned in a list of ghastly voices. “Wuthering Heights,” her 1978 breakout single, introduced Bush to England as a well-read intellectual who wasn’t afraid to reference classic literature in a song. That audacity is what captivated an entire country — Bush’s career was defined by her animated, graceful soprano that lilted through her albums, and her unapologetic interest in tackling controversial subjects such as societal problems in England and the acceptance of homosexuality. She was new and challenging, and immediately raised eyebrows through her spirited vocal delivery. “Wuthering Heights,” “And Dream of Sheep” and “The Fog” are all excellent examples of Bush’s unconventional, creepy voice. At one moment it’s deep and guttural before skyrocketing into a high register of heavenly coos. And while her voice is a constant, driving force, her instrumental background is always in flux, constantly changing the sonic scenery for over 30 years. Not convinced? Listen to her ’80s opus, “Hounds of Love,” and then listen to 2011’s “50 Words For Snow.”
Especially Haunting: “Wuthering Heights,” “And Dream of Sheep,” “Lake Tahoe”