11 singers who helped define the vocal style of punk rock in the ‘90s
Vocalists such as Kurt Cobain, Kim Shattuck and Donita Sparks taught the world how to scream in pitch.July 22, 2021
The ‘90s: the decade punk went mainstream. First, SoundScan made radio safe for Nirvana and the grunge-ified hordes. Then Green Day and other pop-punk acts moved in and squatted at the top of the Billboard charts. True, it seemed to be finished two years later, only to be reinvigorated at the turn of the century. Pop music is a fickle lover, constantly requiring novelty. And it apparently needed wimpy boy bands, teen pop divas and jocks playing downtuned rap-metal fusions more than it needed loud, high-energy guitar crunch with an attitude. At least for a moment.
What is most notable in looking at the best punk singers of the ‘90s is how many could truly sing. It’s as if someone flipped a switch and punk crooners like Joey Ramone or Glenn Danzig were now more influential than vintage punk screamers like Johnny Rotten or Richard Hell, or the drill instructor tones of hardcore heroes like Henry Rollins or Ian MacKaye. True, you could still find plenty of old-school non-vocalists out there. But a standard was now set—the best were those with truly golden throats.
Women were a major presence in music of the era.. The times had well and truly changed. Hardcore made an annoying sausage party out of ‘80s punk, after the original ‘70s punk scene completely ignored gender or color lines. But the ‘90s saw women storm the stage and wrest the instruments out of the hands of macho idiots with shaven heads and big boots, be it due to the riot grrrl movement or the advent of grunge. The music they made rocked more vitally than what had been made in years. For this, we are eternally grateful.
So, without further adieu, Alternative Press proudly presents the 11 best punk vocalists of the ‘90s.
Claim to fame: Nirvana
Best heard on: Nevermind
It took the most poptastic of Seattle grunge bands to fully inject punk into the Billboard charts, MTV and radio. Nirvana had several weapons in their arsenal that overcame any typical mainstream adversity to this music and culture. Most important was Kurt Cobain’s songwriting. His tunes were tight, hooky and well constructed, supporting lyrics chronicling the angst, frustration and ennui of the latchkey kid generation now grown into young adults. And no one could say they couldn’t play, especially Dave Grohl, truly one of rock’s greatest drummers. But Cobain was one of the most expressive singers of the day, with the rare Lennon-esque ability to scream in pitch. This likely was what sold those pained screeds more than anything.
Billie Joe Armstrong
Claim to fame: Green Day
Best heard on: Dookie
The band who ultimately sealed punk rock’s commercial fortunes three years after Nevermind possessed many of the same characteristics that helped Nirvana beat down mainstream misgivings. The major difference was that Green Day’s own expressions of youth frustration were brighter and seemingly more upbeat than grunge’s loud manic depression rock. Billie Joe Armstrong’s melodic sense was as steeped in the Beatles as vintage punk-pop outfits such as Buzzcocks or Generation X. He had a permanent Billy Idol sneer atop his vocal cords that let you know this was punk, but that British-inflected singing never strained or went off note. This is ultimately why he is one of punk’s best singers.
Claim to fame: The Muffs
Best heard on: Blonder And Blonder
L.A.’s Muffs were the band who should’ve brought poppy, garage-raw punk to the top of the charts. They were delightfully messy and fuzzy, seemingly about to descend into chaos with every sugar-coated melody leader Kim Shattuck penned. Like almost everyone here, Shattuck was a world-class songwriter, capable of conveying ache (“New Love”) or angst (“I Don’t Like You”) in 20 words or less. It was her delivery that really sold the goods. More than Cobain, even, Shattuck perfected the tuneful scream. Her screech could get even gnarlier than anyone’s, though. The Muffs should’ve been the biggest band in the world.
Kim Warnick and Lulu Gargiulo
Claim to fame: Fastbacks
Best heard on: Zucker
Neither of the duo fronting Seattle punk pioneers Fastbacks wrote the songs—that was twisted guitar hero Kurt Bloch’s department. He had a genius for constructing pristine pop gems that elevated the ordinary, mundane and everyday into something precious and beautiful. Which meant Bloch couldn’t have found a better delivery system for those delicate lyrics than his two best friends from high school, bassist Kim Warnick and guitarist Lulu Gargiulo. Warnick took the lion’s share of the vocals, but both had this relaxed, unpretentious and distinctly un-rock delivery that was absolutely perfect for the Fastbacks. It’s simple, charming and sweet.
Claim to fame: L7
Best heard on: Bricks Are Heavy
L7 were the greatest of grunge bands, and they were from Los Angeles, not Seattle. The fact that they were assertive women was the foam in the cappuccino—they were the revenge of the Runaways for all the shit Joan Jett’s first band had to endure in the ‘70s. Therefore, they were louder, nastier and more distorted than anyone. Which meant they needed a vocalist who amped up the snarl factor even more. Donita Sparks more than lived up to that task. She has the best growl of anyone on this list, as well as a vibrato that a sheep would kill for.
James Dean Bradfield
Claim to fame: Manic Street Preachers
Best heard on: The Holy Bible
Welsh glam-punks Manic Street Preachers barely made a blip in the U.S., except among those same Anglophiles who previously became deadly Stateside cults for deeply British acts like the Kinks or the Smiths. Perhaps it was the way they initially combined the Clash with the New York Dolls with Sunset Strip glam-metal? Therefore, it was fitting that singer/lead guitarist James Dean Bradfield wasn’t your typical punk singer. Rather, he had a high-pitched wail that would have been more comfortable on the stage of the Whisky A Go Go in 1988, clad in Capezios and reeking of Aqua Net.
Claim to fame: Elastica
Best heard on: Elastica
Elastica became the most successful of the ‘70s British punk revivalists the U.K. rock press dubbed the New Wave Of New Wave. They had the U.S. hits S*M*A*S*H and These Animal Men unfortunately couldn’t. Alas, the band had to share compositional royalties with such classic bands as Wire and the Stranglers, post-litigation. The riffs leader/singer/guitarist/songwriter Justine Frischmann pilfered couched lyrics possessed of a natural, untutored feminism and sense of empowerment, which surely made Elastica cousins of riot grrrl. Frischmann delivered them in a bored, upper-class British accent that was perfect in its apathy.
Claim to fame: Bikini Kill
Best heard on: The First Two Records
The greatest riot grrrl band ever, Bikini Kill are also possibly the greatest punk band of the ‘90s. They possessed a sense of moral authority no other band of the time had, delivered with the conviction of the Clash or Minor Threat at their most ferocious. This lies beyond the righteous feminist fire that was their birthright and overriding message. Bikini Kill completely rewrote the punk-rock rulebook while also remaining firmly in the tradition. No one embodied this more than Kathleen Hanna, whose commitment was total. She also owned a singing voice capable of simultaneously crooning sweetly and cutting through sheet metal by sheer blowtorch force.
Claim to fame: D Generation
Best heard on: No Lunch
D Generation reinvigorated the NYC rock ‘n’ roll tradition in the ‘90s, in some ways by creating an Americanization of Manic Street Preachers’ glam-punk template, or maybe emphasizing Guns N’ Roses’ punk side. They had swagger, style, raunch, riffs and plenty of angry, rockin’, well-crafted songs like “No Way Out.” While ears immediately gravitate to the Clem Burke-x-1000 slam of Michael Wildwood’s drumming and the Joe Perry-meets-Johnny Thunders sheen of Danny Sage and Richard Bacchus’ twin Les Paul attack, Jesse Malin’s vocal attack is important. His wailing tenor could tense up into a scream or growl that never strayed from the melody. It’s a shining feature of the package.
Claim to fame: The Gits
Best heard on: Enter: The Conquering Chicken
There will always be a deep sense of regret and what-if involved in considering the tale of the Gits. They created some of the most powerful and righteous music in the ‘90s punk-rock canon. But their career was cut tragically short after singer Mia Zapata was attacked and killed on the streets of Seattle in 1993. She was key to the Gits’ power and influence, a fiery and charismatic performer inspirational to all who saw her. Crucial was her wailing, blues-drenched voice, with all the saber-toothed snarl of vintage Johnny Rotten. It was a weapon with an extraordinary kill radius, one that’s much-missed.