At this very second I am listening to a brand-new song by Stone Temple Pilots called “Out of Time.” To my surprise, I don’t hate it. “Out of Time” is the first (though perhaps not the last) STP track to feature Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington on vocals — and not the “officially terminated” Scott Weiland. It’s a little odd hearing the singer from the most overtly commercial rap-rock group of the early ’00s on a song by the most overtly commercial grunge group of the mid-’90s in 2013; it’s a little like Snow deciding to collaborate with Vanilla Ice in 2002. But after about 30 seconds, “Out of Time” is starting to make sense. After all, Bennington was once rumored to be a replacement for Weiland in Velvet Revolver; he’s basically the margarine of lead singers. More important, Bennington is a metaphor for our failing musical front-person economy, where demand is dangerously high and supply is precariously low. The number of viable lead singers has dwindled in recent years: Our Beyoncés and Justin Timberlakes have abandoned their groups, and in the process created a surplus of “solo artists” and a deficit of compelling figureheads representing an all-for-one, one-for-all group identity. In this market, even diminished goods like Weiland and Bennington have LSV, or Lead Singer Value.
What is LSV? And who has the most right now? Let’s address the former first: LSV is a way to measure exactly how much worth a lead vocalist/entertainer/person who gets people off has for a band he or she is fronting. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of LSV, because I hadn’t either. I made it up this weekend.1 Here are the four criteria that determine LSV (measured on a five-point scale):
Estimated Vocal Prominence (EVP): This measures the importance of vocals vs. all other elements in a band’s sound. It’s not a barometer of vocal quality — bad singers can score well if their bad singing ranks among the top two or three things that characterize their bands. (For instance, Metallica’s James Hetfield gets a 4.5.)
Approximate Creative Engagement (ACE): This is based on how much the singer contributes to the songwriting, production, and every other aspect of the creative process. As one of the primary songwriters in Led Zeppelin (who otherwise let Jimmy Page oversee the making of the band’s records), Robert Plant gets a 3.5 — though he’s docked a half-point for “borrowing” his lemon-squeezing shtick from blues greats.
Potential for Replacement Index (PRI): This one is self-explanatory: The higher your score, the more difficult you are to replace, for a variety of reasons (including high EVP and ACE). Weiland’s PRI is actually pretty high — it’s been five years since he left Velvet Revolver, and that position remains empty. As for STP, it’s unclear whether Bennington is viable in the long term. Considering the Weiland-ish option already has a full-time gig, I’d put the original Weiland’s PRI at a robust 4.
Earned Stardom Quotient (ESQ): Also known as “intangibles,” this is a composite of all the qualities — charisma, mystique, celebrity — that lead singers are supposed to grant the bands that back them up. Freddie Mercury is a perfect 5; the dude who wears the hat in the Lumineers is, like, a 1.5.
So which lead singer has the highest value as of mid-May 2013? Below is a scouting report ranking 20 singers in ascending order of LSV. Before we get to the list, here’s why I didn’t include certain singers:
• I considered groups that have been active (either by releasing an album and/or touring extensively) only between today and May 21, 2012. (That means no Bono, no Win Butler of Arcade Fire, and no Carrie Brownstein of Wild Flag, among others.)
• I did not consider “and the” bands like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, or Kurt Vile & the Violators. The lead singer of a group makes the other members seem cooler and more glamorous by association; the members of an “and the” group subsume their identities for the sake of one person’s vision. Including “and the” lead singers would tip each LSV category to the point of meaninglessness.
• No bands that are really solo projects for a lead singer plus a revolving cast of backing musicians, i.e., Nine Inch Nails or Bon Iver.
• No two-person bands, because it’s impossible to be a front person for one other person.
Also, I must stress that this list applies only to this specific moment in time. It is not an all-time list. Legendary performers will be graded strictly on their very recent output, not their track records. This means that LSV is extremely volatile. If I had compiled a lead singer scouting report in the spring of 1984, David Lee Roth would’ve come in at no. 1. Two years later, when DLR’s PRI plummeted in the wake of Van Halen going to no. 1 with the Sammy Hagar–assisted 5150, things would be much different. By next week, this list will already be slightly (or perhaps dramatically) out of date.
Got it? Good. Let’s do this.
20. The guy who sings “Radioactive,” Imagine Dragons
EVP: 3; ACE: 2.5; PRI: 2; ESQ: 1.5 = LSV: 9 His name is Dan Reynolds, and without Wikipedia his identity would be a secret known only to the other three (?) people in Imagine Dragons. Whatever personality can be discerned from the current Top 10 hit “Radioactive” comes primarily from Reynolds’s voice, hence the respectable EVP rating. Otherwise, he’s an interchangeable cog in a faceless (though highly successful) pop-rock band, which killed him in PRI and ESQ.
19. Thomas Mars, Phoenix
EVP: 2.5; ACE: 3; PRI: 2.5; ESQ: 2.5 = LSV: 10.5 Mars is the most recognizable member of Phoenix, but I’m not sure that his vocals are essential to the band’s appeal. (Not that anyone could’ve sung “1901” and “Lisztomania,” but a lot of people probably would’ve done at least as well as Mars, even what’s-his-name at no. 20.) He’s married to Sofia Coppola, which raises his profile a bit, but Mars is not the most important part of that union, either.
18. Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath
EVP: 2.5; ACE: 1.5; PRI: 3; ESQ: 5 = LSV: 12 Ozzy Osbourne is unquestionably the greatest metal lead singer of all time, but even in Ozzy’s prime his PRI would’ve hurt him, considering Sabbath’s post-Oz success with Ronnie James Dio on 1980’s Heaven and Hell and ’81’s Mob Rules, and later with the Sabbath-under-another-name, Heaven & Hell. (In the interest of space I won’t delve into the lineups headed by Ian Gillan, Tony Martin, and several other singers of less successful Sabbath editions.) Also: Ozzy’s EVP has been compromised for years, and the recent Sabbath reunion single “God Is Dead?” (from the forthcoming 13) isn’t doing his ACE any favors.
17. Brandon Flowers, the Killers
EVP: 2.5; ACE: 3.5; PRI: 3; ESQ: 3.5 = LSV: 12.5 I’ve long believed that Brandon Flowers is a little overrated as a lead singer. He’s ostensibly the most famous guy in the band, though drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. is equally magnetic. (I’m also a fan of the vaguely French-looking bassist, though not enough of a fan to know his name or have any interest in hearing his 2011 solo album, Another Life.) Flowers’s stage presence is vital to the Killers, but his vocals aren’t ever the best part of the best Killers songs. If he ever bolted, I think he’d be replaceable.2
16. Kevin Shields, My Bloody Valentine
EVP: 2.5; ACE: 5; PRI: 5; ESQ: 0.5 = LSV: 13 Kevin Shields is a musical visionary that 98 percent of active music listeners — and even 75 percent of My Bloody Valentine fans — couldn’t pick out of a lineup. He’s the architect of one of rock’s most innovative bands from the past 25 years, but he’s done virtually nothing (in terms of LSV) to raise his band’s profile. His overall score mixes power and meekness as deftly as this year’s mesmerizing m b v.
15. Julian Casablancas, the Strokes
EVP: 3; ACE: 3; PRI: 4.5; ESQ: 3 = LSV: 13.5 The Strokes started out as a dictatorship ruled by Casablancas, and as the band has grown more democratic it has gotten less popular. His PRI remains high, but Casablancas’s other scores are as sluggish as the recent Comedown Machine.
14. Matt Berninger, the National
EVP: 4.5; ACE: 3.5; PRI: 4; ESQ: 2 = LSV: 14 Berninger’s voice is what binds the dozens of fussy sonic details that make up the National’s music. Take it out, and it’s like a Chandler novel without the first-person narration. All that’s missing is a decent ESQ. The new Trouble Will Find Me should affect Berninger’s LSV decisively in the positive direction, and not at all in the negative.
13. Bradford Cox, Deerhunter (tie)
EVP: 3.5; ACE: 5; PRI: 4.5; ESQ: 1.5 = LSV: 14.5 Here’s another weirdo genius responsible for nearly everything great about an oft-brilliant band whose LSV is crippled by low ESQ. If Cox had been allowed to sing to a rat on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, as he requested, he’d be a lock for the top 10.
13. Mick Jagger, the Rolling Stones (tie)
EVP: 3.5; ACE: 1; PRI: 5; ESQ: 5 = LSV: 14.5 Mick is still among the best and most famous lead singers in the game. But since the current Stones reunion is centered more on regurgitating oldies than recontextualizing those oldies into similar-sounding new material (outside of the OK-ish “Doom and Gloom”), his ACE is presently in the pits.
11. Josh Homme, Queens of the Stone Age (tie)
EVP: 4; ACE: 4.5; PRI: 5; ESQ: 2 = LSV: 15.5 Josh Homme is the Roy Orbison of pop-metal — his vocals keep even the knuckle-draggiest moments in Queens of the Stone Age’s catalogue solidly tuneful. There’s been a surprising amount of buzz for the forthcoming … Like Clockwork — “surprising” because QOTSA hasn’t put out a record since the year that Mad Men premiered — which might edge up that draggy ESQ a bit.
11. Kimberly Perry, the Band Perry (tie)
EVP: 3.5; ACE: 3.5; PRI: 4.5; ESQ: 4 = LSV: 15.5 Not only does she front one of the most reliable hit-making machines in country music, Perry is also a member of a family band, which substantially lowers her chances of ever getting fired — and therefore helps her PRI tremendously.
9. Nate Ruess, fun. (tie)
EVP: 4; ACE: 4; PRI: 4; ESQ: 4 = LSV: 16 Ruess is an example of how a singer can be valuable (his voice is the most distinctive aspect of fun.’s sound) without being great (his voice is distinctively annoying).
9. Hayley Williams, Paramore (tie)
EVP: 4; ACE: 4; PRI: 5; ESQ: 3 = LSV: 16 As Paramore’s obvious figurehead, Williams earns her perfect PRI, even if her ESQ has slipped from the group’s emo-pop prime in the late ’00s. Paramore is practically an “and the” band now — if Williams left there would be no band.
7. Wayne Coyne, the Flaming Lips
EVP: 3.5; ACE: 4; PRI: 5; ESQ: 4 = LSV: 16.5 Wayne Coyne’s primary responsibilities in the Flaming Lips include (1) striking the right balance of childlike whimsy and off-kilter intelligence in interviews, (2) acting as a charming front for Steven Drozd’s increasingly disquieting soundscapes, (3) keeping Flaming Lips relevant in pop culture by making a WTF-worthy appearance in a television commercial every few years, (4) continuing to wrest whatever vocal power is left from inside his raspy, limited pipes. Coyne continues to perform these duties extremely well.
6. Ezra Koenig, Vampire Weekend (tie)
EVP: 4; ACE: 5; PRI: 4.5; ESQ: 3.5 = LSV: 17 There isn’t a finer display of EVP in a song this year than Koenig’s earworm-y “baby baby baby” part in the chorus of Vampire Weekend’s “Diane Young.” Factor in that Koenig writes the lyrics, creates much of the music, and helps out with the production on the band’s records — and is also semifamous enough to do cameos on Girls and give bro-hugs to Jonah Hill onstage at SNL — and you have indie rock’s current LSV champ.
6. Brittany Howard, Alabama Shakes (tie)
EVP: 5; ACE: 4; PRI: 5; ESQ: 3 = LSV: 17 Alabama Shakes is a bland Black Keys rehash on record and a schlubby bore in concert, but they would be even blander and schlubbier if not for Brittany Howard. This is not to say that I believe she redeems Alabama Shakes, just that she’s the only thing remotely special about a group that I happen to strongly dislike. (This also testifies to LSV being driven by indisputable science, not my personal opinion.)
4. Matthew Bellamy, Muse (tie)
EVP: 5; ACE: 4.5; PRI: 4.5; ESQ: 3.5 = LSV: 17.5 Bellamy’s defining attribute during the early years of Muse’s career was that he sounded like an off-brand Thom Yorke. But Yorke hasn’t dared to belt like Bellamy in at least 10 years. Bellamy is this generation’s unrivaled master of electrifying hyperbolic arena-cheese. If Muse continues on its current trajectory, and Radiohead on its path, Bellamy and Yorke could switch spots on this list very soon.
4. Marcus Mumford, Mumford & Sons (tie)
EVP: 4; ACE: 4.5; PRI: 5; ESQ: 4 = LSV: 17.5 Mumford & Sons is very close to being an “and the” band. (All that’s missing is the “the.”) Marcus Mumford’s wholesome and inspirational persona doubles as his band’s principal hook and has inspired a legion of suspenders-slapping copycats. This guy’s handsome, perpetually smiling mug is the face of strummy, festival-clogging “hey!” folk. The only thing keeping him out of the no. 1 slot is the fact that Mumford & Sons didn’t win any Grammys last month.
2. Thom Yorke,
Radiohead Atoms for Peace
EVP: 4.5; ACE: 4.5; PRI: 5; ESQ: 4 = LSV: 18 Judging Yorke strictly by his tenure with the “gettin’ wasted with Flea” side project Atoms for Peace, he’s still only a floppy ponytail’s length away from greatest LSV. Yorke’s greatness is that he’s a true original even when his music isn’t exactly noteworthy, as evidenced by the exceptionally decent Atoms for Peace record Amok and Radiohead’s fabulously serviceable 2011 release, The King of Limbs. Only Yorke is capable of making music so highly anticipated and listlessly received.
1. Adam Levine, Maroon 5
EVP: 5; ACE: 4 PRI: 5; ESQ: 5 = LSV: 19 Maroon 5 is still technically a band, right? As a courtesy I gave Levine an ACE of 4, since I assume the other guys in M5 must do something, even if it’s keeping Levine’s collection of pristine white undershirts clean and properly stored. Otherwise, Levine would’ve scored a perfect 20 — which explains why he is verging on crossing over into “solo artist” territory. Again, I can only point to science — Levine’s vocals are clearly the most prominent part of M5’s songs, he’s the group’s primary creative force, he would be impossible to replace in a band that’s recognizably Maroon 5 (though he could easily fire his bandmates and retain the name), and he’s an A-list pop star. As of right now, Adam Levine is the world’s richest human in LSV.