20 greatest punk-rock vocalists of all time
Punk rock would never escape society’s accusations of ineptitude. To mainstream ears, the music was ugly — tuneless, arhythmic, untalented. Worst of all, the vocalists couldn't sing. How could that garbage be called music?
We all know the naysayers were wrong. But a degree of talent was required for it to be good. Which meant the singers, even if harsh in timbre, needed to be able to really sing. Not every band were melodic or poppy. But even the biggest buzzsaw outfits in the punk-rock world needed some semblance of a proper singer, even if their technique was improper.
Read more: 20 greatest punk-rock guitarists of all time
Many qualify for this list. Their absence is not a slight, nor an indication of a lack of merit. It’s merely reflective of only 20 places here. Bearing this in mind, we present the 20 greatest punk vocalists of all time, complete with a custom playlist of select highlights from their catalogs.
CLAIM TO FAME: The Stooges
SIGNATURE MOVE: Iggy Pop is history’s first punk-rock singer. He perfected the shock/outrage performance style that all other blowtorch nihilists perched before a microphone followed. But most importantly, Pop could really sing. He had an amazing range, from a subterranean basso profundo croon that David Bowie made his vocal signature to a shrieking, growling tenor that reads as saw-toothed as Ron Asheton’s ultra-fuzz guitar. The best place to experience Pop’s genius: 1970’s "Dirt." Across the track, he unleashes every vocal trick at his command, but not histrionically. His performance is a master class in control and execution.
BEST HEARD ON: Fun House
CLAIM TO FAME: Ramones
SIGNATURE MOVE: Ramones set the standard for the speedy, minimalist, chord-heavy attack that became punk’s dominant signature. Yet no one in punk sounded like Joey Ramone. Like Pop, Ramone was the rare punk vocalist who actually sang. He had a deep, throaty croon that was round and fat, slicing through Johnny Ramone’s Gatling gun guitar work. What cut through more was his phrasing — he was likely the only male vocalist in rock history to pattern his singing after the Ronettes’ Ronnie Spector, whom he later produced. His style remains distinctive to this day.
BEST HEARD ON: Rocket To Russia
CLAIM TO FAME: The Clash
SIGNATURE MOVE: Joe Strummer had to be one of the most poetic lyricists punk has seen, without ever embracing the mantle of “poet,” unlike segments of the New York scene. It stands to reason that his one vocal role model was likely Bob Dylan. Mind you, Dylan hardly ranted the way Strummer did across early Clash recordings. As time went on, his growl grew increasingly expressive, capable of great tenderness, as in the ode to mixed-race Vietnam War children’s plight "Straight To Hell." The song is a study in passion and emotion he hardly could have managed in the days of "White Riot."
BEST HEARD ON: London Calling
CLAIM TO FAME: Sex Pistols
SIGNATURE MOVE: The sonic sneer that launched a million bands, Johnny Rotten frequently suffered accusations of being a non-singer. Yet like Dylan, the former-and-future John Lydon has always been in pitch and exercises amazing vocal control, even at his most blustery. It is the timbre of his tonsil shredding that grates ears used to more conventional singing. As progressed into Public Image Ltd.’s post-punk art screech, his old Pistols attack gave way to a high-pitched whine seemingly rooted in Middle Eastern modality. But it was his mocking, leering, Rotten best that made him the punk singer’s punk singer.
BEST HEARD ON: Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols
CLAIM TO FAME: MC5
SIGNATURE MOVE: With their demonic energy and Marshall-amps-set-on-stun drive, bolstered by atypical jazz-inflected chops, Detroit’s MC5 became huge punk role models while seeing their ethic adopted by early metal bands. Fronting their I-IV-V-in-overdrive was the mile-high afro of Rob Tyner. As a frontman, he had the rabble-rousing power that a revolutionary leader required. As a singer, he kept his tenor centered within a relatively small range. But it didn't feel like he was limited. There was a universe of expressiveness within the handful of notes he sang so well. Tyner may have been the last great singer of the late ‘60s.
BEST HEARD ON: High Time
CLAIM TO FAME: The Avengers
SIGNATURE MOVE: San Francisco’s Avengers were one of the greatest American punk bands of the late '70s. You had Greg Ingraham's Black & Decker six-string work, coupled with Danny Furious’ frenzied drumming and Jimmy Wilsey’s subterranean basslines. But frosting it all was the rebel charisma of singer Penelope Houston. The rare actual teenager working within what was hyped as “teenage rebel music,” she had power and intensity that burned bright. The force with which she bit into her ringing phrases was astonishing.
BEST HEARD ON: Avengers
CLAIM TO FAME: Dead Boys
SIGNATURE MOVE: Stiv Bators is hardly the only rock ‘n’ roll frontman to ape Pop. But his take on Iggyness is more slapstick — Iggy And The Three Stooges, anyone? Where Bators is unique is that he may be rock's first singer influenced by the vocal stylings of Alice Cooper. Which made his growl perfect to top the Dead Boys’ mishmash of ‘70s punk and classic Midwestern hard rock. As his brief career progressed beyond Dead Boys, into the power pop of his solo album Disconnected and then the psychedelia-influenced Lords Of The New Church, he displayed more subtlety and versatility in his voice. But Bators could always unleash that bark when needed.
BEST HEARD ON: Disconnected
CLAIM TO FAME: Patti Smith Group
SIGNATURE MOVE: Patti Smith, the poet laureate of the mid-’70s Bowery, swaggered like the street-walkin’-cheetah lovechild of Arthur Rimbaud and Mick Jagger, before the tough street rock of Patti Smith Group. Clad in the castoff discards from Keith Richards’ closet, she wrote the greatest rock poetry since Dylan, and sang them in the voice of a disgraced angel. Many couldn’t stand her voice, the same way they couldn’t stand Dylan’s, Lou Reed’s or Van Morrison’s. The detractors were tone-deaf. Her voice was perfect for delivering beautifully profane verses.
BEST HEARD ON: Easter
SIGNATURE MOVE: Asked by the Hüsker Foöd Zine website in 2020 who his favorite Black Flag singer was, Henry Rollins — Black Flag’s best-known and longest-running singer — answered, “Keith Morris. He’s just one of the best singers of all time anyway.” Morris would tell you it’s because he grew up on ‘60s a.m. radio. It gave him a melodic sense no other hardcore howler possessed. Hence, once he went from BF to the tight, intricate thrash rock of Circle Jerks, anything Morris grunted was tuneful beyond belief.
BEST HEARD ON: Wild In The Streets
CLAIM TO FAME: Bad Brains
SIGNATURE MOVE: If we were to take this “Signature Move” category at face value, we’d say H.R.’s was the standing backflip. But the singer’s vocal gymnastics are as nimble and mind-blowing as his stage presence in the day. His baritone can easily descend from high-tension shrieks to magma-deep lows, then ascend back again in the same measure. As with the rest of his Rastacore brethren’s musicianship, H.R.’s singing is simply astonishing.
BEST HEARD ON: Bad Brains
CLAIM TO FAME: X-Ray Spex
SIGNATURE MOVE: Poly Styrene had a wail that could shatter brick walls and destroy microphones. She used it in service of lyrics lampooning consumerist, synthetic society with its own marketing jargon. She used it to destroy class and beauty standards. That voice created ripples that grew into tidal waves, surfed by feminist punk warriors for decades. Those waves are being surfed to this day. To learn more about this extraordinary punk historical figure, read Dayglo! The Poly Styrene Story or watch Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, both co-productions by her daughter Celeste Bell.
BEST HEARD ON: Germ Free Adolescents
CLAIM TO FAME: Black Flag
SIGNATURE MOVE: Rollins is, in many ways, the ultimate punk story. He's the fan who stepped out of the audience while seeing his favorite band and ended up joining. In his case, it was Hermosa Beach hardcore bruisers Black Flag. He took over from leather-lunged Dez Cadena, who assumed guitar duties alongside founder Greg Ginn. Rollins developed an even more potent shout, one that became the longest-lasting and most identified with Black Flag. In the process, alongside his childhood pal Ian MacKaye (who deserves his own entry on this list), he helped create the mic-clutching power stance adopted by every hardcore vocalist since.
BEST HEARD ON: Damaged
CLAIM TO FAME: The Muffs
SIGNATURE MOVE: She was initially spotted playing bass for Los Angeles garage revivalists the Pandoras. But Kim Shattuck blossomed and came into her own once she and co-Pandora Melanie Vammen formed the melodic garage-punk outfit the Muffs. From that point, she displayed a preternatural knack for British Invasion-inspired songwriting and screaming and growling in pitch. She certainly rivaled Kurt Cobain in the latter department. It became the Muffs’ sonic signature, alongside her considerable abilities as a bent-string filth-guitarist of the Johnny Thunders school. Since her passing in 2019, she is much missed.
BEST HEARD ON: Hamburger
CLAIM TO FAME: Dead Kennedys
SIGNATURE MOVE: Jello Biafra is hardly Luciano Pavarotti, but there’s no room in punk rock for operatics, anyway. He’s distinguished by penning some of the sharpest socio-political satire in punk. He delivers it in a quavering, vibrato-laden tenor clearly indebted to Sparks vocalist Russell Mael. Which further sets him apart and above the 1,001 identikit punk vocalists out there. But he rarely goes off-pitch, and time has deepened and seasoned his voice. If there were some sort of Hall of Fame for punk singers, he would be inducted with the first class.
BEST HEARD ON: Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables
Exene Cervenka and John Doe
CLAIM TO FAME: X
SIGNATURE MOVE: Los Angeles’ X pioneered many things that helped shape West Coast punk as much as the Ramones or Sex Pistols. Among them was a commitment to American roots music as source material that had repercussions well beyond the punk scene. Then there were co-singers Exene Cervenka and John Doe’s lyrics, which tapped into a West Coast literary tradition — Charles Bukowski, Nathanael West, Raymond Chandler — and bohemianism containing more warmth and humanity than the usual slash-and-burn nihilism. But Cervenka and Doe’s duets and Gregorian chant harmonies were a unique delivery system for their street poetry.
BEST HEARD ON: Wild Gift
CLAIM TO FAME: Descendents
SIGNATURE MOVE: Milo Aukerman would sit on a throne alone for fronting Descendents, the band who invented the modern pop-punk form more than anyone (and still do it better). But to be a moonlighting research molecular biologist, too (now his former profession)? But Aukerman could never have delivered those gorgeous melodies were he not a fine singer. His sandpapery tenor has enough of a tremble to add a touching vulnerability to the band's outsider lyrics. This adds to Descendents’ infectious approachability.
BEST HEARD ON: Somery
CLAIM TO FAME: Mudhoney
SIGNATURE MOVE: What set Seattle’s Mudhoney apart from the endless grunge hordes they launched into the ‘90s was the strong dose of fuzzbox garage firmly interwoven into their DNA. The rest of the flannel-shirted guild picked up on the Black Sabbath murk, and that was it. On top of it all, no rock singer in the world distilled Pop’s essence better than Mark Arm. He yowls and drawls like he’s launched himself shirtless into the third row from the lip of the Grande Ballroom stage in 1969. But he has enough lonesome polecat swagger of his own not to be called a copycat.
BEST HEARD ON: Superfuzz Bigmuff
CLAIM TO FAME: The Cramps
SIGNATURE MOVE: The Cramps didn't play psychobilly, though they were the mothership that launched all those upright bass-slappin’ players out there thrashing their way through rewritten Carl Perkins outtakes. Rather, they were an alternate universe take on punk in which New York Dolls owned as many Sun Records 45s as ones by the Shangri-Las. Because Lux Interior’s stage persona could best be described as “Iggy Presley,” it stands to reason he sang as well as those icons. His rich, hiccupping baritone, calling from within a surfeit of reverb, was ideal for the Cramps’ minimalist stomp and grind.
BEST HEARD ON: Psychedelic Jungle
CLAIM TO FAME: The Pretenders
SIGNATURE MOVE: The Pretenders came out of punk, taking the energy and attack to emerge as a world-class rock ‘n’ roll band. Leader Chrissie Hynde couldn't deny her love of ‘60s a.m. radio. It went into her songs, which applied decades of raunch to sweet 1965 pop structures. But what really moved the Pretenders several leagues above every other band in the world was not their musicianship, top-notch as it was. It was Hynde’s singing. Her husky alto was burnished enough, with a catch in her throat and a subtle vibrato that deeply humanized her beneath her granite-hard public persona. Sure, she projected “don’t fuck with me” vibes. But there was a deep sensitivity not far from the surface.
BEST HEARD ON: Pirate Radio