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The Ultimate Release: Top Male Screamers in Rock and Pop Music

Written by Stef Curran

Throughout the years, many metalheads have been debating the best hardcore screamers in the heavy metal genre. The list includes Spencer Charnas from Nine Inch Nails, Randy Blythe from Lamb of God, and Corey Taylor from Slipknot. I won't dispute any of these opinions as I think it is an amazingly skillful talent that I love to listen to and I am definitely not knowledgeable enough in the genre to argue these picks. However, there is no question that the art of screaming across music genres is something that you either really love or really hate.

There are many artists who rock my socks off with one loud wail who appear in genres like rock, but also pop and funk. Screaming doesn't always appear in these genres, but when it does it signifies the access to emotion and feeling that lives within a singer. These moments really make the intent of the music stand out and it becomes a release of energy that listeners can really feel.

For this article, I will countdown the top 6 male vocalists who send shivers down my spine with their increasingly haunting and impressive screams.

I should mention, this list doesn't include hardcore heroes like Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson who is known for his powerful belts and screams, or even James Brown, who likely has one of the most recognizable screams in music. It also doesn't include grunge pioneers Eddie Vedder or Layne Staley. This list focuses less about the quality of the scream and more about the intent of the scream, where it comes from, and where it hits me personally.

#6 - Chester Bennington - Linkin Park

Even though this singer is mentioned in many online lists of best heavy music male screamers, it would be wrong for me not to include him in this list. Bennington, who tragically took his life in 2017, left his mark on the world as one of the most powerful vocalists in rock. Linkin Park, an American rock band founded in 1996, covers a lot of musical territory, bouncing through genres and styles, yet somehow making it always sound like a Linkin Park song. This band really set the tone for what rock in the early 2000's was and how easy it is to experiment with other genres while still knowing exactly the sound your band wants to make and delivering that quality throughout their catalog.

Much like Pearl Jam's breakout debut, Linkin Park's debut album Hybrid Theory lifted the band into stardom and highlighted the incredible and unique vocals from Bennington, just like Vedder on Ten. Much like the next vocalist on this list, Bennington's vocal tone is haunting, with a sharp, piercing flow through his lyrics, which then opens up into this pit of power and rage. His vocals, combined with the inclusion of turntables and electric keyboard, creates the special Linkin Park effect that allows the band to truly stay to their style and sound, even when branching out to incorporate new genres and collaborating with artists like rapper Jay-Z.

Growing up, I always had a Linkin Park song in rotation. I loved the way their sound kind of teetered on the edge of rock, but also techno, but also punk. They had something that wasn't totally heard before, maybe hints throughout the nu metal era, but for the most part it wasn't heard and it hasn't been recreated since. The song that sticks out to me the most that displays the true power of Bennington's vocal genius is One Step Closer, as it was the song on Rock Band that I would attempt to sing (in an effort to impress) while playing with my friends. The verses are so haunting, with a very subtle sense of building anger and resentment, and then a small release for the choruses, but then we see the release of that build up is actually in the breakdown towards the end of the song when Bennington sings, "Shut up when I'm talking to you." Not only are his screams powerful, but they also reflect the intensity of how Bennington sings these words. You can hear the vulnerability in his voice, and when he screams you can hear the raw power that he uses to push these words out of him. Along with Bleed it Out and With You, these songs highlight the payoff that these screams give listeners.

#5 - Benjamin Kowalewicz - Billy Talent

Ben, the lead singer for Canadian rock band Billy Talent, is not only one of the most talented vocalists out of the Canadian rock scene, but also has annunciation skills like no other. Formed in 1993, Billy Talent (first known as Pezz) is one of the most recognizable Canadian rock bands with over a million sales both in Canada and internationally. Often on heavy rotation on Canada's TV station Much Music, many young fans were exposed to their distinct sound and emotionally, truthfully driven lyrics. With heavy songs like Nothing to Lose and This Suffering, this band became an outlet for teens and young adults to see themselves and their struggles echoed in mainstream music.

What makes Billy Talent so recognizable, even on a global scale, is the unique tone and diction from Kowalewicz, combined with the sharpness that makes up Billy Talent's music. Kowalewicz is a master of diction and annunciation when singing, making every word it's own entity and putting importance on every single word. Some may say it's a little too much, but I really appreciate the attention to clarity when it comes to vocals, and Kowalewicz is a singer who uses this attention to clarity to emphasize the sense of urgency. With Billy Talent's songs often touching on conflict, mental health, not feeling good enough, not being treated with respect, these vocal punches that he uses with annunciation puts even more focus on what he is singing, which allows listeners to get the meaning of these songs quicker and easier.

Billy Talent knows how to utilize their talents to achieve the unique sound they produce, combining harmonizing vocals between Kowalewicz and guitarist Ian D'Sa, creating this heavy foundation formed in strong understanding of harmonies and the power that can be unlocked when adding another layer onto a vocal. While Kowalewicz' voice is clear and piercing, D'Sa's voice is rough and jagged, creating this dance of voices that you wouldn't expect to work together, but are actually the secret to the bands quality rock sound.

Not only does Kowalewicz have a beautifully clean and concise tone to his vocals, but he also has a strong, effortless scream that pushes that energy through the roof. When this scream is combined with D'Sa's echoing of the melody behind him, Kowalewicz is allowed to open up and let go, screaming over the melody and adding even more power and emotion to their already strong sound. With a voice that already has such a high tone, when Kowalewicz lets out a scream, it gives the impression that it's breaking through a glass ceiling, beyond humanly possible. It is equally impressive and kick-ass.

There are excellent examples of this magic in songs like Covered in Cowardice, where D'Sa and Kowalewicz have a call and answer process in the chorus with D'Sa singing the melody, allowing Kowalewicz to wail the questions, "Can't you see that? Can't you hear that?". Then you have songs like Devil in a Midnight Mass and Nothing to Lose, where Kowalewicz builds the song up to this explosive ending, letting his voice just power right through the sound. Devil in a Midnight Mass also has the added element of the refrain ending the song is started as a whisper, then explodes into a guttural scream.

#4 - Kurt Cobain - Nirvana

When it comes to grunge vocals, it's fair to say that Cobain had a different approach from the other Big Four vocalists; he didn't necessarily play with the heaviness in his vocals, but rather in his lyrics and the emotion that coexisted with his performances. I'm not going to give a background for Cobain because I assume anyone reading this article would definitely know the history of this rock legend, but I want to highlight one performance in particular that reflects the importance of his screams.

MTV's Unplugged gave an outlet for musicians and bands to perform an acoustic set of their music, creating this very down to earth and real vibe. MTV toyed with the introduction of grunge bands like Nirvana and Alice in Chains doing the Unplugged series, but I would argue it was the perfect genre to unplug. When you strip down that hardcore exterior of grunge, you see the true importance of what is being sung and where the motivation for these songs come from at the base level. Nirvana's Unplugged session was, and still is, widely loved and cherished by fans and music lovers, highlighting the bands incredible and seemingly seamless flip to acoustic sound, the tight harmonies between Grohl and Cobain, and Krist Novoselic busting out his accordion to flex on everyone a little.

Nirvana's Unplugged is also where we were delivered one of the most haunting Cobain screams in history. Cobain was known for the screams and howls he would make while performing live, giving Nirvana this "angsty teen" attitude. It was also a staple in many songs such as Territorial Pissings where you can hardly decipher what is being said. But during Unplugged, one song took a different approach, screaming more for desperation and worry. On the night of filming, while Cobain was in the height of his heroin addiction, Cobain's wife Courtney Love was rumoured to be with ex-boyfriend Billy Corrigan from the Smashing Pumpkins. In Charles R. Cross' biography Heavier than Heaven, the author states that Cobain was in an extremely rough patch (Unplugged was recorded just five months before Cobain would take his own life) and was nearing his limit by the end of the night. The last song performed was the legendary over of Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, an American folk song covered by one of Cobain's favourite bands, Lead Belly. Lyrics like, "My girl, don't lie to me. Tell me where did you sleep last night?" hit extremely hard for Cobain, and it was rumoured Love was with Corrigan the night before. The song climaxed toward the end, with Cobain letting out a guttural, emotion filled wail, pushing these words out of his mouth, his voice cracking and his rawness exposed. It is one of the most beautiful, yet heavy screams Cobain has done, and it supposedly came from a real place of pain.

Even if this is just a rumour, there is no doubt Cobain had been experiencing a lot of pain and anxiety, struggling with an addiction and the weight of being the Voice of a Generation on his shoulders, and it was all exposed during this Unplugged performance.

#3 - Chris Cornell - Soundgarden, Audioslave

Next up at number three is another stellar and iconic voice that is known around the world for his insane vocal skills. Chris Cornell's voice has been praised from coast to coast from the moment he began, leading up to his tragic death in 2017 (just a few months before Bennington), and it still continues on. From Soundgarden tracks like Jesus Christ Pose, Mailman, Room a Thousand Years Wide, to Audioslave tracks like Show Me How to Live, and Gasoline, almost every track Cornell has sung with these bands has a moment that makes listeners have a "holy shit" moment. He was a musician that wasn't afraid to take risks, bear his soul, and try new things, like his controversial 2009 solo album Scream that was produced by Timberland, focusing on a mix of pop, rock, and hip-hop. Yet, even with the ability to throw his voice into the heavens for the Gods to hear, he also had nuanced and precise calmer moments that can be heard on his solo work. No matter how much of his discography you like or dislike, there is no denying his voice is one of the best male voices to grace our ears.

It's hard to identify Cornell's best screams because all are so impressive and come from a place of purpose. I want to highlight all of Soundgarden's album Badmotorfinger, as it contains songs like Slaves & Bulldozers, Face Pollution, Rusty Cage, New Damage, and Outshined, which are all the definition of raw emotional release.

But there is a song that I think deserves some more recognition for his vocal work. Hunger Strike by Temple of the Dog combines the incredible talent of Cornell and Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder singing about staying true to doing what you love regardless of the outcome and never pursing things solely based on financial gain or success, which I think is very true of Cornell and Vedder. During the chorus of Hunger Strike, listeners can hear Vedder carry the melody while Cornell belts the lyrics over Vedder. The repetition of "I'm going hungry" over top of Vedder creates tension, and shows the desperation and emotion behind the words Cornell is singing. The blend, the mix, everything in this chorus gives you chills.

#2 - Prince

In the number two position we have one of the most underrated pop icons of the century. I know what you're thinking, "Stef... Prince is not underrated", but I beg to differ, especially when you look at the global recognition of icons like David Bowie and Michael Jackson. Prince was a perfectionist, practicing every instrument until he was a master. Arguably, Prince is one of the best guitarists in music history, but many pass him off for a dramatic pop/funk artist who wasn't always the nicest or easiest to work with. Yet, when you really look at Prince's influence in today's music scene, you see all of the ways this artist was truly untouchable.

Not only is Prince a master of the guitar (and like the 10 other instruments he taught himself to play), Prince's vocal abilities were equal to Jackson's, maybe even better, depending on who you ask. Jackson could have made this list, but he wasn't know for raw screams like what I'm looking for, but rather natural noises that came from him when he felt the music. It's incredible to watch, but when we are talking about the raw power of a scream, Prince blows him out of the water.

Since I started listening to Prince years ago, I never fail to get goosebumps when listening to the final scream in When Doves Cry. When Doves Cry is a song that shows a partner questioning his lover on why they continuously find themselves in conflict, unable to move forward with the love they have for each other. The song is crunchy, starting with a nasty guitar riff that just rips the song open to this catchy pop beat, already creating that tension between two genres that will only grow throughout the song. Nearing the end of the song, we hear the physical product of the build of up frustration when Prince let's out the most incredible, lengthy scream that is not only raw and full of power, but also beautiful at the same time. Prince knew exactly how to use his voice and this song defines the lengths he could push himself to create the exact sound he desired.

#1 - Dave Grohl - Nirvana, Foo Fighters

And in first place is none other than rock and roll king (and my personal hero) Dave Grohl. While it may not be as clean as Prince or Cornell, there is no doubting that Grohl knows how to scream, and LOUDLY at that.

There are so many things I could go on about when it comes to Grohl and his voice. Some may criticize Grohl for not having the star studded voice of rock stars past, but Grohl knows how to do something better than many in the rock world, which is let go and show real vocals. He's not afraid to make a mistake or be dirty when it comes to the use of his voice, which allows way more truth and honesty to break through.

Raw emotion is not something that is hard for Grohl to express or blend into his music. Since his time in Nirvana, he has had to go through a lot of loss, a lot of conflict, and a lot of change, all of which he works out through his music. Recently, when we lost Taylor Hawkins, insanely talented drummer of the Foo Fighters, Grohl did what he knew how to do to overcome loss, which was put it into his music with the album But Here We Are that is dedicated to Hawkins and Grohl's mother Virginia. Fans saw with This Is A Call, the Foo Fighters first record (recorded before the Foo Fighters had even assembled, with Grohl doing every instrument and vocals on the album), that was released as a way forward for Grohl as a musician after the death of Kurt Cobain. Putting his feelings through music was Grohl's way forward through loss and tragedy.

But let's get into the best screams. The countdown list of the songs with the best Grohl screams could be an entirely other article, but two stick out to me to highlight here. One being more of a release, and the other being more of a feeling of freedom and confidence.

The first song is Free Me is one of my favourite songs off of Foo Fighter's album In Your Honor. This album contained some of the Foo's loudest hits in the first half with songs like Best of You and DOA, which were coupled with soft ballads in the second half, like Still, What If I Do?, and Friend of a Friend. Free Me is about exactly what you'd think it is: being freed from entrapment. The highlight of the song is after the second chorus when Grohl starts screaming "free me", truly letting go and throwing these screams at the wall at 100km/hr. It makes you want to scream along, feeling the urgency of these lyrics.

The second song, La Dee Da, is off their album Concrete & Gold. This song is what I would label the perfect "summer-driving-down-the-highway-with-the-windows-rolled-down" song, even though the meaning behind it is much more complicated. La Dee Da is a song about toxic masculinity surrounding young men in the USA, including his teenaged self. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Grohl said, "[La Dee Da is] a portrait of me as a teenager, feeling completely alienated and repressed by the conservative environment of the early to mid-'80s."

When listening to the song without trying to decipher the message, it's a feel good jam that makes you want to scream and move your body. The best thing about the chorus of this song is Grohl screaming lyrics, "Hate! Love!", which sounds like he used every single inch of energy in his body to get as loud and raw as possible. Screams don't have to wait until near the end of the song to create emphasis. Sometimes they have incredible pay off earlier on or as a fundamental piece of a song, like we hear in the chorus of La Dee Da.

If you made it all the way through this article, congratulations! It could have been much longer, but I know that not many people are as passionate as I am with decoding male singers screams. There are so many other artists that can be highlighted in this list, but these picks are the ones that connect with me emotionally, showcasing the real beauty when we just let it go and let it out.

Screaming in music has a true purpose, whether it is intended by the musician or not. It allows listeners to release that pent up aggression or angry, anything that they have been carrying throughout the day. I recommend you turn on La Dee Da, Devil in a Midnight Mass, or Slaves and Bulldozers, turn up the volume, and just allow yourself to scream. It's a form of self-care!


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