What makes a great rock singer? Billboard looked through about six decades of rock and roll history and found the 25 bandleaders who’ve driven crowds the craziest. It’s part breaking boundaries, part stage presence, part slinging hits from a deep songwriting catalog. Overall, they’ve made us feel amazing things -- most of all, inspiration.
Can anyone rock an arena like Bon Jovi? Jon’s blue collar New Jersey charm and massive charisma have made him a hard rock superhero since the mid-‘80s. Bangers like “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “It’s My Life” can only be harnessed by a larger-than-life force, and he still comes through every time.
24. Steven Tyler
The ‘70s were full of flamboyant rock frontmen and Tyler was among the most exhilarating. Sure he had the hair, the scarves, and the drugs, but the Demon of Screamin’ has immense style and substance: Tyler had an otherworldly vocal range and treated the Y2K generation with hits like "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" almost four decades after “Dream On.”
23. Kathleen Hanna
Hanna hasn’t achieved the commercial success of most of the artists on this list, but her contributions to rock -- from punk band Bikini Kill and beyond -- can’t be underestimated. The Riot Grrrl movement continues to tear down rock’s embedded sexism, and Hanna has often been the most prominent voice associated with it.
22. Joe Strummer
The Clash were the thinking punk’s counterpoint to the destructive Sex Pistols, and they pulled that persona largely from their charismatic leader. The Clash was open-minded enough to eventually play stadiums opening for The Who, and even then, Strummer tried to meet with every fan he could.
21. Laura Jane Grace
Since 1997, Grace has fronted Against Me!, slinging punk hooks and fighting oppression like few others. Since 2012, her public activism as a transgender person in popular music has been an indispensable inspiration, all the while continuing to spread the hooks and activism via AM!’s most recent album, 2012’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues.
20. Debbie Harry
Harry’s dynamite stage presence fronted a band that hopped from CBGB to disco to “Rapture.” They liked to remind fans that “Blondie” was the band name -- not hers -- but really, what would the band, or punk, or new wave been without Debbie?
U2 ascended from punk beginnings to the apex of stadium rock in the 1980s and beyond. Behind those trademark shades, there’s a singer who really believes he can change the world, and from his numerous charitable endeavors to U2’s early Apple collaborations, Bono certainly has.
18. Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and changed music forever. By making folk music an acceptable rock-star medium, he pushed mainstream music in a bold, new direction, where activism and awareness were commonplace. He also proved someone without otherworldly vocals could still move millions.
17. Axl Rose
There’s no shame in losing the rock and roll throne to Kurt Cobain, especially after years of slaying the game and laying down the otherworldly vocals for an indomitable classic like Appetite for Destruction. Axl’s debauchery is a part of L.A. lore.
16. Ozzy Osbourne
The original metal frontman was such a polarizing personality, he basically had to start his own genre. As Black Sabbath approaches its farewell tour with three fourths of its original lineup intact, metalheads can rejoice in their Prince of Darkness getting to freak out the unconverted one last time.
15. Robert Plant
Led Zeppelin’s legendary frontman had the whole package -- a tremendous vocal range, flowing rock star locks, and magnetism for miles. At first a reluctant lyricist, Plant took over Zeppelin writing duties for Led Zeppelin II, when the band assumed the mysticism and grandeur that only he could offer.
14. Joni Mitchell
Mitchell embodies the fledgling singer-songwriter’s dream, moving from a small Canadian town and hitting it big in America. Her poignant, personal music was inspirational in itself, but just as important, it forced the industry to recognize women as independent songwriting forces in the ‘60s.
13. Jim Morrison
In The Doors’ late ‘60s heyday, Morrison pushed the boundaries of rock’s lyricism and made himself into a living legend. L.A. cool, baritone voice, tortured personality, and yes, leather pants -- Morrison helped define the rock star persona for years to come.
12. Stevie Nicks
Fleetwood Mac is one of rock and roll’s most legendary groups. Through the timeless records and the turmoil, Nicks was its most memorable presence. To this day, watching the swirling, scarf-twirling Nicks perform Mac classics like “Rhiannon” and “Dreams” is still a transcendent experience.
11. Kurt Cobain
Cobain never wanted to be a rock star, but he’s a shoo-in for this list anyway. Nirvana was most responsible for taking punk and college rock to the mainstream in the early ‘90s, and -- for better or worse -- guitar music has been turned on its head ever since.
10. Patti Smith
Beginning with her landmark 1975 album Horses, Patti Smith pushed rock music into uncompromising literary territory, often coupled with harrowing live performances. Whether it's for her music or reading her acclaimed 2010 memoir Just Kids, it’s an inspiration to watch Smith onstage.
9. David Bowie
He’s got a clean-cut menswear look these days, but this is just one of countless personas he’s slithered in and out of over his lifetime. From Ziggy Stardust to disco to Brian Eno-produced experimentation, Bowie has held it all together, making him a frontman in the truest sense.
8. Chuck Berry
For merging country licks with the blues, Berry is an obvious choice. Even better, every guitarist who’s ever showed off a solo or strutted their stuff onstage (so everyone) owes a massive debt to the rock and roll pioneer.
7. Mick Jagger
Would we even have rock stars without Mick? In the early ‘60s, Jagger’s swagger brought a style and sexiness to rock music that he built on for decades, from “Paint It Black" to “Start Me Up” and from "Get Off of My Cloud" to “Emotional Rescue.” Fifty-plus years on top makes the Stones the rock and roll band and Jagger the rock and roll frontman.
6. Paul McCartney
It’s a privilege to us all that Macca still tours, playing marathon sets spanning his Beatles classics, Wings and recent solo work. We’re not quite sure how one goes from writing “I’ve Just Seen a Face” to “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” in two years’ time, but at least you can try to figure out for yourself in person.
5. Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin was an artist who shared her soul with her audiences and left nothing to hide. The psychedelic era would never have been the same without her, and anyone who saw her rock “Piece of My Heart” live would probably attest. Had she lived longer than her 27 years, no doubt she would have continued to break musical ground.
4. Elvis Presley
Music was changed forever when the future King of Rock and Roll dropped “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956, as the mainstream fusion of country and R&B was underway. And he wasn’t called Elvis the Pelvis for nothing; his thrusts and croon pushed the boundaries of how sexually a singer could act onstage.
3. Jimi Hendrix
Hendrix opened the doors to experimental guitar technique and was one of the driving forces behind rock’s dramatic overhaul from the start of the ‘60s to the end of the decade. Soloing in ”Voodoo Child” andsinging lead in the Jimi Hendrix Experience? Yeah, he’s a legendary frontman.
2. Freddie Mercury
Did rock and roll ever have a better showman than Freddie Mercury? Aside from fronting Queen with his four-octave vocal range, Mercury was also an accomplished songwriter. Queen’s members often shared duty, but on classics like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Are the Champions,” he made his indispensable mark.
1. Bruce Springsteen
Bruce is the link between folk, ‘60s R&B, punk, and of course, rock and roll. He’s the common man’s arena superhero and in his mid sixties, his concerts still last over three hours. We could all stand to learn a little from Springsteen.