Rock's Best All-Time Frontmen And Women

  1. EDITOR'S NOTE: When's staff began brainstorming a list of the best rock frontmen and -women of all time, you can imagine how long it was — about 150 names from all eras and genres. So how'd we narrow it down to this sleek gallery of 31? Well, we set a couple ground rules: First, we stripped down the word frontman to its strictest definition — that is, the artist whose sole responsibility it is to stand in front of his/her mates to sing, rap, and entertain, as opposed to playing an instrument to boot. (Sorry, Billy Joe Armstrong, Gregg Allman, and Jerry Garcia!) Then, we cut the artists who have led bands bearing their names — like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, or the Jimi Hendrix Experience — simply because, well, it seemed like they're really solo artists with a band in support.
    Now that we've cleared that up — and, we hope, staved off tons of angry e-mails about omitting, say, Sly Stone — let's get this thing rolling, with the coolest Icelandic rocker ever...

    (Entertainment Weekly)

    The Sugarcubes

    Before wearing that infamous swan gown, filming Dancer in the Dark, and honing her unique solo persona in dozens of supremely imaginative videos, Björk fronted Icelandic rock group the Sugarcubes from 1986-1992. Her uncanny ability to crank out live vocals as pure as studio-recorded ones — wearing random accessories like glasses composed entirely of neon (pictured) — set her apart. And as a side note, it's reassuring to find out that even in the '80s, she was as delightfully weird as ever

    Bon Jovi

    He's seen a million faces, and he's rocked them all...with his voice, his hair, and his butt. (All, incidentally, still in great condition.) What makes Jon special? (1) His ability to headline your ultimate '80s karaoke playlist and today's top arenas simultaneously. (2) The way he's managed to have a band bear his name and still have us thinking of it as five guys. (3) The hair and the butt. Always worth repeating.


    Though his style has changed radically over the years (from mullet to folkie to Fly), one thing has remained constant about the Irishman born Paul David Hewson: He's always had something meaningful to say in his lyrics, whether they're about politics or personal matters of the heart. In recent years, Bono has become more than just the leader of a band — he's become a leading voice for world change, making people care about issues affecting Africa, raising awareness about AIDS, and calling for solutions to end global poverty. But don't think this Nobel nominee and Time Person of the Year has gone soft or anything — anyone who's seen him in concert lately will tell you he still rocks.

    Joy Division

    Thanks to Control, Anton Corbijn's new biopic about the legendary Joy Division frontman, we get a richly detailed look at the shadowy figure credited with kick-starting the '80s post-punk movement. The Manchester, U.K., born-and-bred Curtis, who suffered from seizures, depression, and an unraveling marriage, committed suicide in 1980 at the age of 23, leaving two short albums and a fanbase that has grown exponentially over time. And really, is there anything more rock & roll than that?

    Public Enemy

    With S1W foot soldiers getting funky behind him and Sergeant at Arms Flavor Flav holding it down at his side, Chuck D was as much a general of an army as a frontman, battling for social justice by any means necessary. Donning his trademark ''P'' hat and all-black gear, Chuck ''the Hard Rhymer'' and his crew scared suburban parents in the '80s in a way rock & roll never could.
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    The Who
    With his liberal open-vest policy, lion's mane of curly hair, and wide blue eyes everyone wanted to get ''Behind,'' the Who's lead singer was every bit the flashy frontman. He swung his microphone cord like a lasso and fine-tuned the art of stomping animatedly in place, as if presiding over an instructional video called March Like You Mean It! And with the release of 1969's concept album Tommy and beyond, Daltrey's onstage presence developed a keen emotive quality that could finally match his powerful vocals.

    Rage Against the Machine
    Guitarist Tom Morello may have helped shape Rage's leftist persona, but Zack was the one who got the message out, with his high-pitched, rapid-fire vocals and profanity-riddled chants (''F--- you, I won't do what you tell me!''). The band has been accused of empty sloganeering for the sake of record sales, but no one who's ever witnessed Zack slow-boil his blank, wide-eyed stare into a screaming, well, rage could ever doubt that his anger was very real.

    Iron Maiden
    British metal bands, with their emphasis on vocal theatrics, laid the foundation for modern-day hard rock, so any list of seminal frontmen has to include either Judas Priest's Rob Halford or our favorite, Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson. Clad in spiked leather and second-skin-tight spandex, his eyes gleaming madly through his long, stringy hair, Dickinson and his operatic vocals were every bit as huge as the 13-foot-tall Eddie that joined him on stage.

    Jane's Addiction
    Sometimes outliving your prime isn't good in terms of shoring up your legacy, but Perry Farrell has maintained his flamboyant bad-boy image for so long it's not surprising some still consider him the king of alternative rock & roll. Farrell founded the seminal alt-rock band Jane's Addiction in '85, and the megafest Lollapalooza as a vehicle for the band's farewell tour in '91. While Lollapalooza went on to become an annual touring Woodstock for disenfranchised Gen-X'ers everywhere, Farrell underwent a somewhat painful stint as a techno DJ (holla at yer boy, DJ Peretz!). But heck, there's nothing that dressing like Raggedy Ann on acid won't fix.

    Full of style and attitude, Harry was the most stunning woman to come out of CBGB's golden era. But putting aside her magazine-cover looks, she also makes this list for being one of the era's most versatile talents: She rocked (''Call Me''), she rapped (''Rapture''), she discoed (''Heart of Glass''), she ruled.
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    Michael Hutchence's life and untimely death oozed rock-star excess. He had the swagger of Mick Jagger and the style of a contemporary Jim Morrison. Bonus points for being the only singer who could pull off a synth-pop homage to Bob Dylan (1987's video for ''Mediate'').

    The Jackson 5
    Forget the scandal-plagued recluse you know now. Think back to the little dynamo in this picture, the pop music prodigy who moved like James Brown and sang with astonishing authority on Ed Sullivan (especially belting out ''Who's Lovin' You''). For better or worse, by age 10 Michael was a consummate performer, more exciting to watch than artists with decades more experience — and all the while, he made it look easy as 1-2-3, simple as do-re-mi.

    The Rolling Stones
    If Elvis was among the first musicians to allude to sex, then Mick Jagger was the first to personify it. Once he and the rest of the Stones shed their early, mod-college-boy look, Mick became the poster boy for 1960s sex, drugs, and rock & roll. And though he may take flak for continuing to tour well into his geriatric years, lucky is the man who can shake his hips at 40 the way Mick does in his 60s.

    Big Brother and the Holding Company
    Undoubtedly one of the most mesmerizing artists of all time, with a soulful, gritty voice that knocked you down with its passion and power. Try not to get shivers while watching her perform ''Piece of My Heart''.

    The Red Hot Chili Peppers
    This dude came on stage wearing nothing but a sock. (I think you can surmise on what.) Even if you don't dig that sort of thing, you've gotta admit: That's 100 percent commitment to entertaining the crowd.
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    What do you get when you cross the doe-eyed beauty of Shirley Temple with the hard-rock edge of Marilyn Manson? Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson, of course. But Manson is more than just red hair and green eyes. Her voice adds haunting gravitas to the band's lush sound, and ''Stupid Girl'' remains one of the most played songs on my iPod. Plus, how many rock frontmen can also look good in an evening gown?

    Pansexual elven theatricality found a home in Farrokh Bulsara, the son of Persian emigrants who took the stage under the divine-sounding name Freddie Mercury. Even though he could've stood ramrod straight and still dazzled with his thick, operatic voice, Mercury held audiences in sway with a mélange of court-jestery pomp and stylized imperiousness. Fitting for a band named after royalty.

    The Doors
    As the famous Rolling Stone cover read: ''He's Hot, He's Sexy and He's Dead.'' Dying (relatively) young was perhaps the inevitable career move for the charismatic lead singer of the Doors: His behavior on stage and off (from charges of indecent exposure to alcoholism and drug abuse) was one of willful excess, even self-destruction. But such is his legacy — epitomized by his smoldering sexuality and the psychedelic poetry of his lyrics — that even today, the Lizard King still rules.

    The Smiths
    Not only is this handsome devil one of the wittiest lyricists ever, he's also got one of the most distinctive voices in rock, a beautifully yearning warble that still strikes a nerve with angsty teens today. Plus, what a stylish gentleman! The trademark pompadour, the button-down shirts, the long-stemmed flowers...What adoring fan wouldn't want to get smacked with gladiolas as he croons favorites like ''This Charming Man''?

    Yeah Yeah Yeahs
    Whether she's furiously screeching (''Date With the Night'') or plaintively cooing (''Maps''), Karen Orzolek performs with an intensity that's rare for today's too-cool-for-school artists. And though I haven't been lucky enough to attend a Yeah Yeah Yeahs concert, my New York City hipster friends swear she puts on an insane show. (Yep: a Google image search confirms it.)
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    Black Sabbath
    Ozzy Osbourne's early years as the Prince of Darkness, the lead singer of the pioneering doomsday-metal act Black Sabbath, appear almost quaint now, in light of all the drug abuse and suicide scandals and bat-head biting and ridiculous reality-show stardom that followed. And yet, looking back on those halcyon days, you realize there's a reason that we focused on the paranoid Iron Man in the first place: a diabolical persona that, like nothing before it, was at once scary and alluring, with a one-of-a-kind voice that could raise the dead or even lull a baby to sleep.

    Led Zeppelin
    It took a big voice to all but define the sound of a band that already featured the prodigious talents of Jimmy Page, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones. As the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, Plant added a high tenor and guttural howl (plus a powerful stage presence) to their dazzling and trippy mix of rock & roll, Mississippi blues, and Tolkienesque mysticism. His bandmates were absolutely irreplaceable, but it was Plant who wielded the Hammer of the Gods.

    The Stooges
    Yeah, Iggy Pop (born James Osterberg) helped invent punk, but more than anyone else, the Stooges singer tore down the barrier between frontman and audience. Whether stage-diving, slathering his torso with peanut butter or shards of glass, daring his audience to kill him with hurled beer bottles, or simply singing ''I Wanna Be Your Dog,'' Iggy Pop threw himself into a sadomasochistic union with his fans. More than three decades after the band's heyday, the Stooges reunited in 2007, with 60-year-old Iggy still lean, taut, and snarling and roaring like a ''street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm.''

    Joey Ramone was no James Brown — his stage choreography pretty much began and ended with which leg he decided to shift forward as he leaned on the mic stand. And he was no Elton John in the costume department — find a shot of him on stage in anything other than a leather jacket, T-shirt, and ripped jeans, and you've probably got a photo as rare as one of Bigfoot. But with Johnny and Dee Dee hammering away on either side, and Tommy or Marky banging away in the back, the gangly kid from Queens, N.Y., eyes hidden behind sunglasses and hair, was the center of attention, with a voice born for two-minute celebrations of hoppin' cretins, teenage lobotomies, and brats beaten on with baseball bats. Did Joey find a home in the world of great rock & roll frontmen? Gabba Gabba, We Accept You, We Accept You, One of Us.

    Guns N' Roses
    The tattoos, the snake-charmer dance, the incoherent on-stage tirades, the self-destructive disputes with bandmates, and, of course, that uncanny singing range, from baritone growl up to screeching soprano: Indiana's favorite son, W. Axl Rose, epitomizes the flashy, white-trash rock & roll brat we just can't get enough of. Even if he never gets that Chinese Democracy record done, Axl has already done plenty to rank on this list.
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    Van Halen
    Of all the hair bands that came out of Los Angeles in the late '70s-early '80s, none of them were as fun to see live as Van Halen. And that's in good part to David Lee Roth, the spandex samurai. Here was a guy who looked like he could go all night — hell, was probably still going from the night before — and that Energizer bunny charge flowed straight into his audience. Did I mention he could sing like a banshee and occasionally rode onto stage on a suspended surfboard?

    The Sex Pistols
    ''I am an Antichrist,'' sang Johnny Rotten on the Sex Pistols' signature song. With that line, Rotten & Co. hawked a loogie (both metaphorical and real) into the face of rock & roll. The firebrand frontman influenced generations of punk singers, creating a legacy even he couldn't shout down (during his long tenure leading Public Image Ltd. under his given name, John Lydon). Thirty years later (paunchier but as bilious as ever in front of the newly reunited Pistols), he still sounds like no one else, and no one can match him as a punk provocateur.

    Even though AC/DC had its biggest commercial success after his death in 1980, the band's early years with Bon Scott as frontman cast a long shadow. The gleeful naughtiness of ''Big Balls'' (the kind meant for, uh...debutantes), the sing-along sociopathology of ''Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,'' and the roadmap to rock & roll ruin of ''Highway to Hell'' became FM radio staples. And while the music hit all the right hard-rock buttons, and Angus Young's schoolboy outfit became their visual trademark, what sold those records was that voice — strained to the breaking point and suggesting his Down Under could as easily have been Hell as Australia, leaving a lasting impression of a singularly sleazy showman whose high-voltage recordings still sound current more than 25 years after the lights went out.

    No Doubt
    Style and personality — we knew Gwen had it in spades way back when. As talented as bandmates Tony Kanal, Adrian Young, and Tom Dumont are, they might have been just three guys from Anaheim were it not for the secret sauce of Stefani, who, besides being an endlessly energetic performer, managed to be both Hollywood glamorous and girl-next-door accessible at the same time. ''Just a Girl''? We know better than that.

    In the late '80s Stipe was the Big Man on Campus Radio, and that made perfect sense: You could spend hours holed up in your dorm room trying to parse his intriguingly enigmatic lyrics, and even though you never really figured out for sure what they meant, they all at once seemed to speak to your homesickness/your broken heart/your political angst/your hangover. Plus: those outfits!
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    Oh, those lips, those teeth, those gums. He might be all mouth, but damn, that boy's got a voice that no one can match — not to mention an undeniable stage presence, scarves and all.
  8. Interesting and I'm sure no two people will agree. Having seen The Who in person, along with a bunch of other concerts, I'd put Roger Daltrey in first. The stadium was packed, and you could hear a pin drop waiting for him to walk out in the spotlight.

    Wish I'd seen Freddie Mercury in person, too. It must've been awesome.
  9. I too wish I had seen Freddy Mercury. He had an amazing voice. I did see Led Zep a few times, fun factoid, Robert Plant was an accountant before he was a rocker.
  10. Ita!