11 Of The Greatest Vocal-Only Performances In Rock

God bless Rock Band, Guitar Hero et al for giving geeks the power to extract individual song stems and upload them to YouTube.

A stem, if you’re wondering, is the technical term for an individual track in a song – aka it’s the vocal part on its own, a capella and stripped away from the rest of the music. Or the guitar line, or synth, or drums. Back in the day, the only way you could get hold of these recordings were if someone literally stole the multi-track tapes from a studio and bootlegged them. Nowadays, people just hack the aforementioned games, which all house the individual files in order for people to play properly.

What we’re left with is an abundance of incredible isolated performances on streaming sites. So, here are eleven incredible isolated vocal tracks, stretching from The Beatles to Queen to Kate Bush and The Clash.

The Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter (Merry Clayton backing vocals)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqXyjbgs5rU

Legend has it that Clayton, a bluesy session singer who’d gotten to know the Stones in the late 60s, had a miscarriage shortly after recording this. Cracked emotion has never sounded so extraordinary on record.

Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7ZyrTyyH2Y

Stripped of producer Butch Vig’s humungous guitar and drum mixes, Kurt Cobain’s vocals sound weirdly over-produced here – particularly on the “hello, hello” bits, which are heavily double-tracked. That’s more of a reflection of the studio techniques of the times than quality, by the way. Overall it’s nothing short of a shit-kicking performance from Cobain.

Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through The Grapevine
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87FjkqtK67o

The best vocal take of all time? Perhaps. Certainly, Gaye’s voice on this is as pure as music gets, switching effortlessly from falsetto to coarse growl.

The Beatles – Oh! Darling
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4pSumpSUeI

This is the sound of Paul McCartney at his most ripped and raw. “When we were recording ‘Oh! Darling’ I came into the studios early every day for a week to sing it by myself because at first my voice was too clear,” he once said of the track, adding: “I wanted it to sound as though I’d been performing it on stage all week.”

Michael Jackson – Beat It
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1lhhpYc4HE

Just check the backing vocals here, which were somewhat hidden in the finished version.

Queen & David Bowie – Under Pressure
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMQb9LCNGxs

Perhaps the most striking thing about this is how different Freddie and Bowie’s techniques are – the former as taught and regimental as you can get, while the latter ambles in like a brilliantly skewiff dramatist. It reaches a peak as they – with Queen drummer Roger Taylor making an appearance too – battle to outdo each other in the shrieking stakes, right around the three minute mark.

The Clash – Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LsDv7HK-1CM

A bit of an anomaly, being as Mick Jones’ vocals here sound completely weedy compared to titans like Freddie and Jacko. But with him, it’s ALL about the ‘vibe’ (plus the multiple yelps, wheezy deep breaths and whoops which help it along).

The Beach Boys – Wouldn’t It Be Nice
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPN53PHDwe4

I wrote about Brian Wilson’s genius when it came to arranging vocals in our piece on ‘Good Vibrations’. Nowhere is that more apparent than on this.

Blondie – Heart Of Glass
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrlAnaJzqxU

Surely, with its epic, cooed backing vocals and sky-high, streetsmart verses this is Debbie’s Harry’s finest moment?

Kate Bush – The Sensual World
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGPZZi-DVEs

In which a fan has tried to invert the recording to bring up with Bush’s mesmeric vocals. Pretty good job too – her voice sounds like honey here.

Oasis – Live Forever
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlrV4ycDUSw

‘Live Forever’ might just be Liam’s greatest achievement on record. It’s easy to just accept him now, seeing as he’s been singing/shouting like it for decades, but here, with Noel’s guitars deleted, you really get a sense of how much natural talent he was born with. Most other vocalists in this list would have likely relied on studio atmosphere (or equipment) to absolutely nail the right kind of performance. With Liam, it seems different – almost as if you could have just stuck a microphone in front of him wherever he was, told him to open his gob and listened in awe to what came out.