The energy, the sexual appeal, the unyielding artistry and defiant angst — these artists embody what it means to be a rock icon. The definition is never the same twice. While stars like Janis Joplin use their softness as the most biting weapon, others like Jim Morrison capture a frenetic, untouchable energy that’s as captivating as it is uncomfortable. These enigmatic singers have wailed, crooned, and shaken their hips into the rock and roll history books.
Few frontmen embody the heart and soul of working-class America. Bruce Springsteen isn’t just a New Jersey rock and roll treasure – his work also draws from ’60s R&B, punk, and folk, aligning him to paint inspiring tales of blue-collar heartbreak.
In 2018, Springsteen is a superhero of sorts. The rocker is well into his sixties and regularly throws three-hour concerts. He’s also managed to never forget his roots. The rock hero recently played a secret, small-venue show in his old Asbury Park, NJ, haunting grounds. Though his career led him to 20 Grammy wins and 50 nominations, he still plays for the love of it.
Try and name one person who hasn’t cried while belting the chorus of “Landslide.” You probably can’t. Stevie Nicks, the enigmatic frontwoman behind Fleetwood Mac, has a knack for nailing timeless classics despite struggling with inter-band turmoil and substance abuse through her project’s 51-year career.
As a frontwoman, Nicks is categorized by her smoky voice and scarf-twirling energy. She manages to craft a performance that’s nothing short of magical — so much so that many people wonder if she isn’t a witch herself.
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Kurt Cobain may have never wanted to be a rock star, but those were the cards he was dealt. The Nirvana icon singlehandedly launched the ’90s grunge scene into the mainstream with hits like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Heart-Shaped Box.” In each performance – from MTV’s iconic 1993 Unplugged session to the time Nirvana slaughtered Top of the Pops — Cobain embodied a melancholy defiance that practically defined 20-something angst.
Even today, it’s not uncommon to hear the singer’s his greatest hits on modern alt radio. Cobain’s legacy remains strong launching generations of power chord-driven guitar bands out of their garages and onto the airwaves.
David Bowie was a frontman of pure creative ingenuity – from his 1960 debut, through the Ziggy Stardust era, and into his last 2016 album, Blackstar. Rolling Stone hailed Stardust as the “alter ego that changed rock.” Never before had a concept album about an omnisexual alien rock star resonate so poignantly with the mainstream. How could it? It sounds almost too insane if you didn’t hear it for yourself. The stories were fantastical, but the emotion was aching and urgent.
The thing about Bowie was that every creative choice was a clear commitment. He spent months notoriously crafting Stardust’s orange-mulleted image and adeptly waved through genre barriers, paving the way for experimental pop artists everywhere.
Everyone remembers that iconic Wayne’s World scene. There’s no denying it wouldn’t have been the same without Freddie Mercury’s dynamic range. As the lead singer of the 1970s rock band Queen, Mercury is an accomplished songwriter behind the mega-hits “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Are the Champions.” If there was ever a front man who embodied the idea of ’70s stadium rock, it was Mercury.
Though no one can contest Mercury’s sheer chops as a showman, what most people don’t know is that he was an artist in more ways than one. The hitmaker designed Queen’s iconic “Royal Crest” logo to embody their full vision: being “regal and majestic” and “shocking and outrageous.” Mission accomplished.
Liam Gallagher is the quintessentially British rock star – equally as charming as he is bratty. In a Q magazine poll, the star was rated the greatest frontman of all time. Everything about Oasis’ sound is perfectly designed to be played through stadium speakers, but their massive success can be pinpointed on Gallagher’s impossible personality. Everything he says is drenched with a biting sarcasm that would make him a parody of an English rock star if he didn’t first invent that persona.
In between the near-constant arguments with his brother and bandmate, Gallagher possesses a type of pop sensibility that makes his songs poignant but easy to listen to. They’re as deep as you’re willing to delve at any given time – like sitting on the edge of a community pool’s diving board before deciding if you want to jump in head first
When you think of the idea of a drugged-out, hard-partying, hip-shaking ’60s rock star, you think of Mick Jagger. The Rolling Stones could teach a masterclass on blues-tinged music industry excess, and Jagger embodies the debauchery that defined classic rock and roll. The singer’s sexy swagger is so notorious, Maroon 5 named a song after it.
Today, Jagger has enjoyed a 56-year career that’s somehow still kicking. It’s filled to the brim with the type of rock and roll lore icons are made from – the spontaneous Bali wedding ceremony, the alleged 4,000 groupies, and drug-related jail stints. It doesn’t get much better than that.
There are few rock stars who have been in the game as long as Paul McCartney. The former Beatle was such a captivating frontman that he helped launch his band into a level of fame that was previously unmatched. Beatles mania was short-lived but it was fierce — just take the iconic Shea Stadium performance where the crowd was screaming louder than the band.
Today, McCartney is still an icon who’s regularly playing shows as a solo artist. Though you won’t see the star gigging with Wings anytime soon, you may just see him on an episode of Carpool Karaoke or collaborating with Linkin Park and Jay-Z. McCartney isn’t just one of the greatest songwriters of all time, but he’s also willing to change with the decades – the mark of a true star.
Imagine being so notorious that your impersonators have become a Las Vegas staple. That’s a level of fame even the cream of the Hollywood crop can’t touch. Elvis Presley has been hailed as the King of Rock and Roll and changed the music industry forever with his groundbreaking mix of country and R&B. From his slicked-back hair and bedazzled suits to his heart-pumping hip thrusts and dreamy croon, the rock icon made scores of fans simultaneously weep and shake their hips.
Not only was Presley the musician behind hits like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” but the star was an accomplished actor who could put on a show on and off the stage.
Without Jimi Hendrix there’d be no St. Vincent and no John Mayer. The star paved the way for experimental, guitar-based rock but inspired everyone including certain blues-tinged singer-songwriters and indie pop stars. From his booed-off-the-stage opening slot on a Monkees tour to his 1969 Woodstock performance, Hendrix’s shows were always eventful, controversial and cutting-edge.
Hendrix had a certain air of cool that oozed edginess – from his afro to the psychedelic clothes to feedback soaked amps. He wasn’t afraid to champion for his political opinions, and his moody rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” served as a battle cry for a generation rocked by the Vietnam War.
It’s almost impossible to think about the color purple and not think about Prince. The star had a strong vision that was embodied by his defiant sex appeal – it was aesthetics, it was sounds, it was emotions. He was so remarkable that he didn’t need to be defined.
Amidst contract disputes with Warner Bros., the star changed his name to an “unpronounceable symbol whose meaning has not been identified” and claimed “it’s all about thinking in new ways.” The press hailed his choice as “crazy,” but he went on to amass seven Grammy awards and 38 nominations for hits like “Purple Rain” and “Musicology.” In 2000, returned to his original name once his Warner Bros. was complete. Not only was he a rock icon, but he was a stick-it-to-them business mogul.
Janis Joplin managed to capture a vulnerability that was exceedingly rare in the booze-soaked, groupie-stocked atmosphere of ’60s rock. The star changed the psychedelic era by exposing the deepest parts of her soul in songs like “Piece of My Heart” and “Summertime.” She championed the strength in femininity and inspired generations of female singer-songwriters that came in her wake.
Rolling Stone hailed Joplin as one of the 100 greatest singers of all time. Anyone who witnessed her 1967 Monterey Pop Festival performance wouldn’t dare disagree. The star was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 for her groundbreaking contributions and her posthumous album Pearl has been certified 4x platinum.
Smith was an icon since her 1975 debut Horses. The strong-willed songstress was hailed by the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame as the “high priestess of punk poetry.” The singer’s literary approach to ’70s rock added a certain softness and poignancy to her shrieking, howling performances. From the streets of New York’s dingiest punk spaces to Grammy nominations, the star has never been afraid to paint a world that is gritty and cold.
Smith has inspired generations of literary greats, from Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Shirley Manson of Garbage to the notoriously judgmental Morrissey of The Smiths (if he co-signs your band, that’s pretty huge). Sonic Youth even released an album in Smith’s honor. Without Smith’s powerful performances, the modern music world probably wouldn’t be the same.
Jim Morrison was a legend for the way he broke down boundaries with stream-of-consciousness lyricism and unpredictable on-stage antics. The star embodied the cliché of a tortured artist before it was a cliché. It somehow felt equal parts original and gut-wrenching.
From the leather pants to the flowing long hair, Morrison patented the idea of rock star cool, but the enigmatic frontman and his hyper-sexualized stage persona was not sustainable. From on-stage arrests (and indecent exposure charges) to smashing gear and rambling through performances, the star made The Doors’ shows wholly unpredictable, which eventually led the band to call it quits after a disastrous New Orleans performance just months before Morrison’s untimely death.
Joni Mitchell changed the face of folk music by wearing her heart on her sleeve. According to The New Yorker, the star “made the best music of her generation by falling in love, over and over, while defending her sense of self.” Mitchell’s catalog reads like self-surgery – she picks apart her flaws and failures to figure out exactly how she ticks. This wasn’t lost on the Recording Academy, who threw the star eight Grammys and 16 nominations.
It wasn’t just Mitchell’s music, marked by her guitars open-tuning, that made her a captivating frontwoman. The Canadian-native dove into politics and became an activist later in life.
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Lennon may be the second Beatle on this list, but his merits as a frontman were clear since before the band’s very first LP was even released. In 1963 after a 12-hour recording session for Please Please Me, Lennon’s vocals were completely shredded. He managed to gargle some milk, suck on some throat lozenges and nail the parts in “Twist and Shout” in a single take.
Years later and Lennon’s songs would be regarded as the Beatles’ most thought-provoking hits. Where McCartney wrote buoyant, timeless love songs, Lennon’s words were grounded in political strife and heartache. Every McCartney needs their Lennon.
Image credit: Gie Knaeps / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Vedder’s voice is one of the most distinct in rock and roll, but he wasn’t always the grunge hero we know him as today. In 1990, Vedder was a gas station attendant when a friend gave him Pearl Jam’s voiceless demo. He thought of some lyrics while surfing, recorded them, and sent the tape back to the band. The tape held what would later become “Alive,” one of Pearl Jam’s most iconic hits.
Since then, Vedder has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His emotive voice and signature, low-noted growl has been widely imitated but never mastered by anyone else.
Bono embodies what it means to be an ’80s rock star – from his knack for writing a sweeping, stadium-ready chorus to his radical activism and immense philanthropy. He didn’t get his name out of nowhere. The star, whose real name is Paul Hewson, was nicknamed Bono Vox, the Latin words for “good voice.” Of course, the Irish rocker ended up shortening it to Bono. As a singer, the star adeptly switches from powerful rockers like “Sunday, Bloody, Sunday” to softer, moody jams like in “Did You Wear That Velvet Dress.”
Let’s also be totally real: the fact that he automatically uploaded a U2 album onto every single iPhone in America reeks of ’80s music industry excess. It doesn’t get much more in-your-face than that.
A list about the greatest frontmen of all time wouldn’t be complete without Robert Plant’s signature, high-pitched wail – and we’re not the only ones who think so. In the wake of the Yardbirds’ breakup in the late ’60s, Jimmy Page sought out the greatest singer he could possibly find. That wasn’t actually Plant – it was Band of Joy frontman Terry Reid. Reid turned him down, but suggested Plant for his soaring range.
Plant landed the gig with Led Zeppelin, and ’60s rock was never the same. Plant’s wail is his signature. Unlike Eddie Vedder’s baritone moan, the star’s range is so wide that he’s rarely skillfully imitated. He’s a true original.
In an era where guitars are notoriously fading from popular music, Chris Cornell unleashed Audioslave. The Soundgarden singer was considered an architect of ’90s grunge. Where Cobain frenetically wielded his Fender Jaguar, Cornell adopted a more polished version of unbridled angst. For that, he racked up 15 Grammy nominations, two Grammy wins, and a Golden Globe nomination.
Cornell’s talent broke down genre barriers. He collaborated with everyone from Rage Against the Machine to Santana and inspired famed hip-hop producer Timbaland. Rolling Stone ranked Cornell as one of the best lead singers of all time, and his catalog has sold over 30 million records worldwide.
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Chester Bennington didn’t just take on Linkin Park and herald the nu-metal wave of the early aughts with his powerful, emotive voice. The rock star filled in for the iconic grunge band Stone Temple Pilots after gaining worldwide fame from his band’s seminal album Hybrid Theory.
Bennington is often regarded as one of the greatest vocalists of the 2000s and his fame was inevitable. The singer effortlessly shifted from polished belting and rapping to his signature, gritty growl. It was equal parts beauty and aggression. Bennington’s talent was so widely recognized that it transcended genre with Linkin Park’s Jay-Z collaboration Collision Course. Even after his tragic death, the star is still recognized as modern rock royalty.
Also known as “The Prince of Darkness,” Ozzy Osbourne rose to fame in the 1970s as the frontman for one of the original heavy metal bands Black Sabbath. Although he was fired from the band for his partying habits in 1979, he continued to have a solo career, releasing 11 albums.
After his solo success, he returned to Black Sabbath in 2013 releasing 13 with them. His contribution to rock and roll and his ability to last throughout the ages have also given him the nickname of the “Godfather of Heavy Metal”.
Steven Tyler is a renowned frontman, songwriter, and musician. He is best known for being the frontman of the iconic rock band Aerosmith where he plays the harmonica, piano, and percussion on occasion.
Throughout his career, he has been referred to as the “Deamon of Screamin'” for his ability to reach and hold incredibly high yet powerful notes with his voice. On top of his singing abilities, he is also known for his live shows and his on-stage acrobatics and high-energy concerts. He’s also distinguished by his very flamboyant outfits.
James Hetfield is the co-founder, rhythm guitarist, main songwriter, and frontman for the heavy metal band Metallica. Although he mainly plays rhythm, he is also known for his skills performing guitar duets and even solos on some occasions.
Metallica started back in 1981 and has been one of the top heavy metal bands ever since its inception. In 2009, Hetfield was ranked the no, 8 in Joel Mclver’s both 100 Greatest Heavy Metal Guitarists of All Time and was ranked no. 24 in Hit Parader’slist for 100 Greatest Metal Vocalists of All Time.heavy
Although he came into popularity and the drummer for Nirvana, after Kurt Cobain’s death, Dave Grohl wanted to continue. So, he started the band Foo Fighters and took the position of frontman and lead guitarist. Over the years, Foo Fighters have risen to become one of the most popular rock bands in the world.
Driven mostly by Grohl’s songwriting abilities and his notable talent for being able to move a crowd he is known for playing particularly long sets and being deeply involved in philanthropy projects. Since Foo Fighter’s inception, the group has released nine albums so far, winning countless Grammy Awards along the way.
With a career spanning over 50 years, Alice Cooper has established himself as one of the most respect singer and songwriters in the rock and roll community. He has a distinctive raspy voice and is well-known for his use of countless props during his live performances.
Described by music journalists as “The Godfather of Shock Rock,” he is heavily influenced by horror films, vaudeville, and garage rock in order to put on his outrageous performances. In addition, he is known for songs such as “Schools Out For Summer,” “I’m Eighteen,” among numerous others.
Roger Daltry rose to fame as the frontman for the legendary rock and roll band The Who in the 1960s which released 14 Top 10 songs in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Some of these songs included “I Can’t Explain,” Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and “Pinball Wizard.” While still with The Who, Daltry began a successful solo career which he has continued up until this day.
His success in music has led to him being inducted into numerous Hall of Fames and has received countless awards throughout his career. In 2010, he was ranked by Rolling Stone as no. 61 on the list of the 100 Greatest Rock Singers of All Time.
James Newell Osterberg Jr., otherwise known as Iggy Pop, is best known as being the frontman for The Stooges that began in the 1960s through the 70s, which then reunited in 2003. Known as the “Godfather of Punk,” he is well known for his absurd onstage antics that involved fighting members of the audience, self-mutilation on-stage along with a slew of other unbelievable acts.
His music is influenced by genres ranging from jazz, blues, garage rock, and even electronic. Some of his most popular songs include “Seek and Destroy,” “The Passenger,” “Lust For Life,” and more. In 2010, he along with the Stooges were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Bon Scott was an Australian singer and songwriter that is best known for being one of the frontmen for the rock and roll band AC/DC. Although he played in other rock groups such as The Valentines and Fraternity, he replaced Dave Eans as the lead singer for AC/DC in 1974. AC/DC blew up in popularity with Scott behind the microphone releasing albums such as Highway to Hell.
Unfortunately, Scott passed away in 1980 after a long night of partying in London. In 2004, Classic Rock named Scott one of the Hundred Greatest Frontmen of All Time and Hit Parader named him no. 6 on their own.
Axl Rose is the lead vocalist of hard rock band Guns N’ Roses and remains its only original member since he helped start the band in 1985. In addition, he also spent some time as the lead singer for AC/DC since 2016. Axl Rose established himself as one of the biggest rock stars of all time after Guns N’ Roses first album Appetite for Destruction took the world by storm.
Since then, the band has remained one of the most popular rock bands of all time. Since the start of his singing career, he has been named one of the greatest rock singers of all time by numerous media establishments including Rolling Stone and NME.
Eric Clapton is a renowned blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on three separate occasions, once as a solo artist, then again as a member of the Yardbirds, and finally for his work in Cream.
He has been considered one of the most influential guitarists of all time and has been placed in number Top 100 lists. In total, Clapton has received 18 Grammys, a Brit Award, and has been awarded a CBE at Buckingham Palace to the influence that he’s had on music throughout his career.
Jon Bon Jovi
Born John Francis Bongiovi Jr., Jon Bon Jovi is a wildly successful songwriter, singer, and producer, and philanthropist. He is the founder and frontman of the rock band Bon Jovi which was formed in 1983. Along with the 12 albums he released with his band, he also has two solo studio albums, selling over 130 million albums worldwide, making him one of the top-selling musicians of all time.
He has been inducted into the Songwriter Hall of Fame, been named the “Sexiest Rock Star” by People, and has been ranked no. 31 by Hit Parader in the Top 100 Heavy Metal Vocalists.
Tom Petty was a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer. He is best known for being the frontman for the band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers which formed in 1976. He is also the co-founder of the supergroup The Travelling Wilburys which were established in the late 1980s.
During his career, he sold over 80 million records worldwide and was inducted into the Rocka and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, along with the rest of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. In 2017, he passed away although he is remembered as one of the most influential musicians of his time.
Steve Perry is an American singer and songwriter. He is best known as being the lead singer of the rock group Journey during the band’s height from 1977 and 1987 and again from 1995 to 1998. For his singing, he has been named “The Voice,” a term that was originally used by Bon Jovi.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 and was ranked as no. 76 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. After a 20-year hiatus, he announced his return to music in 2018.
Bruce Dickinson is best known for his work as the lead singer of the heavy metal group Iron Maiden. He is respected by the metal community not only for his on-stage antics but also for his wide vocal range and high-energy shows. In 1981, he joined Iro Maiden and made his debut with the album Number of the Beast.
Along with Ronnie James Dio and Rob Halford, Dickinson is considered to be one of the major pioneers of the wide-range vocal style, which later was adopted by power metal vocalists. Today, he is considered one of the greatest rock frontman of all time by numerous media outlets for his skill and influence on the genre.
Ronnie James Dio
Ronnie James Dio, commonly referred to as Dio, was a singer, songwriter, and musician. He is credited with either founding or fronting major metal groups such as Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Dio, and Heaven & Hell. He is also considered to be the original person to use the “metal horns.”
He was known for medieval-style lyrics, stage performances, and dress. he is also renowned for being such a versatile singer being able to sing strong and rough lyrics as well as calm and soothing ballads. After being diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2009, he underwent treatment but passed away on May 16, 2010.
Anthony Kiedis has been the frontman of the rock bad Red Hot Chili Peppers since its inception in 1983. He is commonly referred to as a musician, singer, songwriter, and rapper for what he’s accomplished with the Chili Peppers.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 along with the other members of the band. Kiedis has credited many of his influences ranging from Neil Young to Prince, which is apparent in the band’s inability to stick to one single genre in their music.
Debbie Harry came into prominence as the lead singer of the new wave band Blondie. Her music has reached no. 1 on charts in both the United States and the United Kingdom on numerous occasions and was even considered as the first “rapper” to top the charts in the United States.
It wasn’t hard with her looks and attitude to quickly become popular in the punk scene. She took advantage of the rise of the music video craze and was even featured on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1979. After Blondie, she went on to have a solo career along with joining up with other bands later on.
Rob Halford is best known for being the lead singer of the heavy metal band Judas Priest. AllMusic claims that “There have been few vocalists in the history of heavy metal whose singing style has been as influential and instantly recognizable…able to effortlessly alternate between a throaty growl and an ear-splitting falsetto.”
Commonly referred to as a “Metal God,” he was voted no. 33 by Planet Rock listeners as no. 33 of the Greatest Voices in Rock. He has had an impressively long and successful career with no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Lead singer and songwriter of Heart, Wilson has been praised for her impressive soprano range, one of the staples of the band. Over the years, and especially in the 190s, Heart grew in fame, releasing hit songs such as “Crazy on You,” “Barracuda,” among many others. Today, Heart has sold over 35 million records and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.
Anne Wilson has also been the most constant member of the band drawing influences from folk music, hard rock, and even heavy metal. In 2006, Wilson was listed as one of the Top Heavy metal Vocalists of All Time by Hit Parader magazine.