When it comes to punk music, the quality of the singer in the band is not the first thing that comes to the forefront in the minds of critics or fans. However, a good vocalist can make a difference in the punk genre. It is not just about screaming until the throat blows out, after all. Quality punk music has to be intelligible in terms of the lyrics actually being heard and subsequently understood. Otherwise, what is the point?
Each of these singers below sang for a band that at one point or another in its existence was considered part of the punk scene. The bands may not have stayed in that category for long, as some evolved and learned their artist's craft more ... professionally. However, the best punk singers still left an impression on listeners that has never faded, even decades later.
Without further delay, enjoy our list of the Top 13 best punk singers!
Honorable Mention(s): It was hard to find a place for these two influential punk singers, so our list is expanded here with the inclusion of David Johansen of the New York Dolls and Joey Ramone of the Ramones. What would the punk scene have been in the 1970s without these two vocalists? When you hear—and watch—Johansen rip through "Personality Crisis" like it is nothing, you know you are watching something special. He exudes charisma like a punk-rock Mick Jagger. As for Ramone, it is hard to imagine "Blitzkrieg Bop" with anyone else singing it, really. Perhaps music of the 1970s evolves in different directions without these two frontmen leading the way.
13. Henry Rollins: Whether with Black Flag or the aptly named Rollins Band, it is hard to shake the sound of Rollins once you hear it. Who else can take the classic-rock "Louie Louie" and turn it into a punk anthem? Like many of these singers, Rollins could take a song and make it his own easily, to the point it is impossible to imagine someone else singing the song. Forget The Kingsmen, right?
12. Jello Biafra: The Dead Kennedys were an influential band in their own right during the early 1980s punk scene, and Biafra—and what a great name, to boot—took center stage. The cadence of his vocals in songs like "Stars and Stripes of Corruption" kept pace with the furious rhythm the band produced, and it all felt like it worked in a smooth, machine-like flow.
11. Iggy Pop: He is the "Godfather of Punk" to some, and whether as the lead singer of The Stooges or on his own solo journey, Pop has left his mark on listeners for decades. After all, who didn't cover "I Wanna Be Your Dog"? The Sex Pistols did, and so did Joan Jett. But did anyone really sing it like Pop? No. His later solo work, into the 1990s, became more polished and smooth, but his punk origins define Iggy for most of us.
10. Johnny Rotten: Speaking of the Sex Pistols, their lead singer certainly left an impression as well, despite the short-lived heyday of the band itself. The first song on the first side of the band's first LP album announced a new presence on the scene, really: Listening to "Holidays in the Sun" today is still a breath of fresh air. The voice would remain the same for a long time, too, regardless of what Rotten was doing. We just cannot forget it.
9. John Doe & Exene Cervenka: The two singers shared the vocal responsibilities for the band X, and it is hard to separate them on a list like this. Listen to the group's first single, "Adult Books," and when they sing together in disharmony, there is an unmistakable brilliance to the performance. The sound would evolve from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, but Doe and Cervenka remain inseparable in our mind.
8. Ian Curtis: He might have made it higher on this list if he had lived longer, but Curtis' haunting vocals left a deep impression for a long time after his untimely demise. The vocalist for Joy Division, Curtis delivered dark lyrics in a dark way. An excellent example of this lingers on in a recent film, Hounds of Love, that used a Joy Division song over its final scene: Would this visual tapestry even work with a different vocalist singing "Atmosphere"? No way.
7. Karen O: The lead singer of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, O may be best known to the masses for her cover version of "Immigrant Song" that was used in the 2011 film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This is a singer who attended Oberlin College and New York University, so there is some serious talent in there, of course. There is just the right amount of art in her punk, you know?
6. Paul Westerberg: We all remember The Replacements, although perhaps not as a punk band. Yet Westerberg's evolution as a singer has its origins in punk. Like many of the singers above, he simply learned to hone his craft to be more effective. From "I Will Dare" to "I'll Be You" we hear this transition, and it is beautiful to behold. Even in the latter example, you can hear strains of Joe Strummer (see below) in Westerberg's delivery. That is as punk as it gets.
5. Patti Smith: Speaking of art, Smith has been referred to as the "punk poet laureate" with a voice that lingers in the listener's memory. That is a common attribute for everyone on this list, clearly. Listen to "Dancing Barefoot" from the late 1970s, and you see what we mean. She can write, and she can sing her own lyrics in a way that no one else can even come close to replicating. The performance-art aspect of her music truly stands out in the punk crowd.
4. Joe Strummer: The Clash made some memorable music in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it was Strummer's voice conveying all the emotion to the audience. The best thing about Strummer was his incredible range and flexibility: Listen to "The Right Profile" and "Lost in the Supermarket"—both tracks from London Calling—and it is hard to believe it is the same guy singing both songs.
3. Kurt Cobain: Oh, if he had just had another decade to give us his music, what a world it could have been. One of the best performances highlighting Cobain's awesome voice was the Nirvana live version of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night": It is simply stunning in its emotional impact. When you combine it with the smooth, albeit grinding, vocals in "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ... well, there is not a lot we would not give to have heard more of his voice.
2. Billie Joe Armstrong: The band Green Day took a lot of flack for allegedly selling out way back when, but like any punk musicians worth their salt, they simply learned to play their instruments and evolved as artists. Over the decades, it has been an adventure and an experience listening to Armstrong's delivery change—for example, from "Geek Stink Breath" to "¡Viva La Gloria!"—into something pretty impressive for any category of modern music.
1. Bob Mould: Whether as a member of Hüsker Dü or in his solo career, Mould's voice is something to behold. A cover of The Byrds classic "Eight Miles High" reveals this in the Hüsker Dü era, while "Wishing Well" from his early solo days really emphasizes it. The latter example is not "punk" enough for people, perhaps, although the vocals resonate just as much as the "punk" version of Mould's younger days. Live, he is even better than in the studio, so catch him in the act when you can.