A good frontman (or frontwoman) has to play many roles – part hype-man, part banshee howler, part rally leader, part sex-god – and while some manage to do one or two of those things really, really well, the best of the best manage to do them all. These aren’t solo artists with their names on the marquee, they’re leaders in the truest sense, the ones out in front, the spokesmen for a gang of musicians bent on conquering the world. They’re the ones with the microphone, the ones with the most groupies, the ones who cajole and plead and wail and gyrate and force you to stare, mouth agape, and simply listen. They are the 50 best frontmen of all time.
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Jon Bon Jovi took a dash of blue-collar wannabe Springsteen storyteller, combined it with the flash of glam rock style, mixed it with the up-front sex appeal of an arena rock horn ball and came up with the formula that created perhaps the most successful hair-metal superstar of them all. He frequently crosses over into the world of the corny but you can’t deny his success – or the fact that he could probably walk into your living room right now and steal your wife.
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With a voice that helped define power-metal and a “just go for it” persona that embraced everything ridiculous and awesome about that genre, Ronnie James Dio earned his spot in the pantheon of ‘80s rock gods. He’s probably slightly underrated today on account of his rather vagabond career but nobody had a more powerful voice than Ronnie James Dio.
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His critics have called him a second-rate Mick Jagger, but hey, that’s still pretty damn good in its own right. Ignore the crazy old cat-lady American Idol judge persona of Steven Tyler and try to remember that back in the day, he embodied the phrase “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll” perhaps better than just about anyone who ever lived.
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Stevie Nicks led one of the most commercially successful groups of all time in Fleetwood Mac, and she did so with a unique blend of earthy sexiness, a voice that was laced with both sadness and passion, and a mystical style that lent her an air of mystery and excitement. She is the leader of rock n’ roll’s coven, a woman not afraid to dabble in both witchcraft and cocaine, and the result is one of the most intriguing – and successful – frontwomen of all time.
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The leader of The Kinks, Ray Davies has always just seemed a little bit cooler than everyone else – a good quality to have as a frontman – and although he may not get quite the level of publicity of some of his peers, Davies helped to create the image and position of the rock ‘n roll frontman. He’s a pioneer, and even though it’s been almost 50 years since he started, there still aren’t many who can say they’ve followed in his footsteps and managed to do it better.
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Often overlooked because of the inevitable comparisons to his legendary former bandmate, Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl is perhaps one of the most underrated figures in pop history – and one of the most underrated frontmen. Not many can match the level of success he’s had over the past twenty plus years, and with good reason – no one works harder, and no one connects better with a crowd.
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You’d have to be an exceptionally talented frontman to replace a legend and somehow end up leading your band to even greater heights but that’s exactly what Brian Johnson did when he replaced Bon Scott as the frontman for AC/DC following Scott’s death in 1980. It’s especially amazing when you consider that Scott’s unique voice was considered integral to both the image and success of AC/DC, and yet Johnson’s own voice has become just as integral – and just as recognizable.
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Nobody managed to marry the mysterious sex-god howler of old school rock with the earnest passion of the Grunge era better than Eddie Vedder. He’s half Neil Young and half Jim Morrison. Just go back and watch one of his early ‘90s Saturday Night Live appearances. You can hear women in the audience literally screaming like out of control fangirls whenever they so much as show his face.
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The leader of southern rock gods Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ronnie Van Zant was so good, and so important to the band’s success, that after his death, the band simply couldn’t go on. No one had a more haunting voice, filled with passion, sadness and the collective longing, pain and, yes, joy of the simple men and women of the South.
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Nobody understood the operatic possibilities of rock better than Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson. Combining visual flair with vocal theatrics that helped create the power-metal genre, Dickinson will always be a rock icon – and one of the best frontmen of them all.
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The leader of The Clash, Joe Strummer took punk music and infused it with a sort of political integrity, turning his performances into something resembling a freakish hybrid of rock concert and rally. In another age, Strummer would have been the one standing in the middle of the town square, exhorting his fellow citizens to fight for their causes, but in this age, the age of pop-stardom, Joe Strummer stood on a stage and refused to yield to anything less than his vision of the power of creative possibility.
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When people think of punk they think of Joey Ramone. His voice, his style – both musically and visually – and his absolute devotion to a sort of do it yourself simplicity characterized punk for years to come and inspired legions of disaffected teenage kids to follow in his footsteps. He is the patron saint of garage rock frontmen everywhere.
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There has never been a more intense or more haunting frontman than Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. Lots of people sing about depression and the dark parts of the human soul, but Ian Curtis lived it. It was ever-present, both in his voice and in his performances. There was always a sense that it could end at any moment and one day, it did.
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As the leader of The Replacements, Paul Westerberg was the ultimate frontman of the alternative movement. He combined a deep-seated integrity with the sort of out-of-control personal recklessness of earlier rock and helped create something new and vital – and in the process gave a whole generation of disaffected kids an icon.
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Perhaps no one in the last 20 years has embodied the rock frontman image better than Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley. Cool, slightly dangerous, with a unique voice that cuts and haunts, Staley was also fatally broken, infamously ruined by drug abuse. It’s a combination which has always been alluring, and nobody lived it more than Layne Staley, right to the bitter end.
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His very name has become a buzzword for emo ennui and there’s a very good reason for that. Sure, he’s kind of ridiculous but back in the day, as the frontman for The Smiths, Morrissey basically defined the concept of emo, and people both loved and worshipped him for it. Anytime you can say that you almost singlehandedly created an entire genre it’s safe to say that you’ve done your job as a frontman.
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Let’s get one thing out of the way – Liam Gallagher of Oasis fame is completely ridiculous. And yet, he’s completely ridiculous because he so embodies the pop frontman cliché that it’s hard to see him as anything else. He’s standoffish, difficult to deal with, selfish as hell… and he’s loaded with charisma and stood at the forefront of the Britpop movement of the ‘90s. No matter what he’s doing, Liam Gallagher will be the center of attention, and that’s what makes him such a great frontman.
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Marilyn Manson is so theatrical and so over the top that it can be hard to take him seriously, but nobody since Alice Cooper has had more success with the Dark Prince of Rock persona than Manson. He’s made a career out of being weird and shocking the middle class and no matter what he’s doing, he forces people to watch, which really is exactly what you want in a frontman.
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As the leader of the band Pulp, Jarvis Cocker’s voice became one of the most interesting and seductive in pop music history. Audacious and cocky in the way that would allow a man to live in Paris without bothering to learn French, Jarvis Cocker has always been effortlessly cool.
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Incredibly intense and with a mouth that could cut anyone to shreds, Henry Rollins stood at the forefront of punk’s confrontational side. As the leader of Black Flag, Rollins gave angry, in your face punk a signature frontman and reminded everyone that if they didn’t get their shit together, he was coming to kick their asses.
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One of punk’s trendsetters, Siouxsie Sioux combined a unique visual style with a voice that was as haunting as it was alluring. Dudes watching her were both in love with her and terrified of her, and she used that power to craft one of the most compelling frontwoman personas of all time.
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The frontman for the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave has been described as the thinking-man’s goth, hypnotizing audiences with a seductive baritone. But more than anything, Nick Cave deserves his place on this list because of one simple reason – he’s just cooler than everyone else.
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Sure, the freakshow aspect of her life has kind of overshadowed the fact that she’s actually really, really good at the whole fronting a band thing, but even that sort of chaotic mess only adds to her power as a frontwoman. She does messed up pain better than anyone else, and when she’s up on stage there’s always the kinetic sense that something could go horribly, horribly wrong – or that something awesome could happen.
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Lemmy is basically a Viking from Hell, someone you’d expect to see boning your wife in your own bed while eating all the food and drinking all the beer out of your fridge, all while you thanked him for it. As the frontman for Motorhead, Lemmy is the alpha male of the hard rock world, the man all other frontmen bow to – if they know what’s best for them.
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Lou Reed is one of the most influential frontmen who ever lived. The coolest of the cool worshipped him back in the day while he was doing his thing with the Velvet Underground and many more did their best to try to be him. But there’s only one Lou Reed, and no matter how hard you try, he’ll always be cooler than you.
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Sure, Metallica has kind of become a parody of itself and Hetfield himself has slowly morphed into a screaming billy goat who looks like the Cowardly Lion, but don’t tell that to the people who still show up to their concerts where Hetfield’s almost demonic energy forces them to pay homage to one of the godfathers of metal. And they still come in droves because that’s how great James Hetfield was once upon a time, leading the masses with a ferocious growl in concerts that were as much rallies of rage as anything else.
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Nobody in the history of rock music can better Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell when it comes to sheer vocal power. His range is absolutely ridiculous, and when he was at the top of his game he could summon a howl that could shatter the eardrums of God himself. Of course, it also helps that perhaps more than any other icon of the grunge era, the ladies found him, uh, fairly attractive.
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Who’s a bigger badass than Joan Jett? The answer is nobody. Back in the day, she seemed like the type of woman who would seduce you, rock your world and then kick your ass and leave you tied to the bed while she robbed the place and you smiled and thanked her for it. Every rock frontwoman since has either consciously or subconsciously tried to emulate her.
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Perhaps the eccentric frontman for Radiohead is kind of pretentious and maybe his wounded seriousness is a turnoff to some people, but you can’t deny his power as a frontman – or his otherworldly voice. He commands your attention as well as anyone, and no one – no one – can stand on stage with only an acoustic guitar and his own primal wail and utterly transfix an audience better than Thom Yorke.
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Robert Smith isn’t just one of the best frontmen of all time, he’s a goth god. His voice and his image both almost defined the entire goth subculture, and made him a hero to millions of weirdoes all over the world. His voice is the soundtrack to a broken heart – and to the possibility that there is a sublime sort of beauty hidden within sadness.
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With a primal scream and a microphone twirl, The Who’s Roger Daltrey helped define the frontman as a rock archetype. From the defiant almost proto-punk sneer of “My Generation” to the heartbroken loneliness of “Behind Blue Eyes”, Daltrey wasn’t just one of the fathers of rock frontmen, he was also one of its most versatile.
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Nobody embodied cool sex-appeal better than Blondie’s Debby Harry, whose style and talent caused her to become an icon of both punk and new wave. To most people Blondie was Debbie Harry, which speaks to her power as a frontwoman. She’s everything Gwen Stefani wishes she could be.
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As the frontman for AC/DC, Bon Scott took one of the most unique voices in rock history and created something that was never seen before, and hasn’t been seen since. With an almost mocking leer, Scott’s version of AC/DC was maybe a little more subversive than Brian Johnson’s more in your face “Let’s bone” version of the band, and no matter how successful Johnson is, or how long he’s been with the band – 33 years now – Bon Scott will always be AC/DC’s frontman.
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Yes, he’s kind of a clown and no, he can’t really sing but nobody in history has understood the showmanship of the frontman better than Van Halen’s David Lee Roth. If you looked up the word frontman in a dictionary, there would be a picture of Diamond Dave, leering at you with a shit-eating grin, popping his spandex with girls in bikinis on either side of him.
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As the front-man for the Sex Pistols, Johnny Rotten – and his style – basically became synonymous with everything punk. And then when punk had run its course, Johnny left to form the more experimental band Public Image Ltd and in the process created and defined the whole post-punk movement. So yeah, I’d say he’s earned his place on this list.
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With an otherworldly voice that resonated with both passion and pain, Janis Joplin, frontwoman for Big Brother and the Holding Company, managed to turn her ephemeral time in the spotlight into the stuff of legends. She was one of the very first female frontwomen, and she helped to define one of the most culturally important eras not only in rock history but also in American history.
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Sure, it seems sort of campy today but Alice Cooper basically invented the creepy/shocking frontman shtick. He turned being a rock musician into something more resembling performance art and helped set the stage for every metal act that came after.
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Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that Jim Morrison almost created the messianic rock star persona. Vaguely out of control, absurdly self-indulgent, with hypnotic charisma and sex appeal, Jim Morrison was everything that people both love and hate about the rock cliché – and everything a good frontman should be.
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As the frontman for T. Rex, Marc Bolan was the man responsible for Glam Rock – and for ushering in the age of exotic and otherworldly frontmen who seemed more like alien gods than simple singers. He is probably the most underrated frontman of all time and even though many people don’t know his name, they surely know all the successful frontmen and bands he directly influenced.
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A lot of people these days dismiss Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant as a caricature of the clichéd rock god, but the only reason they do that is because Robert Plant played the part better than just about anyone in history. The cliché exists because he existed, not the other way around.
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Overly earnest, kind of preachy… and also intensely charismatic and captivating - all of those are true about Bono, who brought U2 to the heights of rock godhood by casting himself as Rock Jesus and preaching to the assembled flock, whether it was a few hundred people in a Dublin pub or 100,000 people at Wembley Stadium. He spoke to every one of them and made them listen.
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This might seem like kind of a surprising pick for this high up in the frontman hierarchy but go back and watch a Youtube clip of any of Michael Hutchence’s performances with INXS and you’ll see a dude who was as natural a frontman as anyone who ever lived. He basically boned the entire audience with both his voice and his presence.
Photo credit: YouTube/INXS
Kurt Cobain would absolutely hate being lumped in with all these other dudes and lady dudes but here’s the thing – as the ultimate anti-frontman, Cobain basically redefined the concept of what a frontman could and should be. The grunge movement wouldn’t have existed without him and his haunting charisma, and neither would anything else that’s come since. In trying to obliterate the rock frontman cliché, he basically managed to create a brand new one.
Photo credit: YouTube/Nirvana
Iggy Pop is one of a kind. There’s simply no other way to put it. With his shirt off, bleeding and dying into a microphone night after night, Iggy created a savage, kinetic out-of-control niche in the frontman pantheon and set the stage for the primal aggression of the punk movement.
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Ozzy is rock n’ roll. He’s everything grandiose, ridiculous, excessive and out of control about it. He’s also got one of the most distinctive and powerful voices ever, and it’s that combination of excess and talent which has led to Ozzy being worshipped around the world as the ultimate hard rock frontman.
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As the frontman for his E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen has earned a reputation as rock’s preeminent storyteller, a hard-working, blue collar ass kicker who will keep going for hours and hours every night. There’s a reason his nickname is The Boss, and it’s because nobody can command a stage like he can.
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Yes, he’s completely ridiculous and quite possibly insane but Guns ‘N Roses frontman Axl Rose is also the world’s last great rock star. He’s always been unapologetically a rock star and everything that means. He’s incredibly self-indulgent, out of control and notoriously moody, and with an unearthly scream and a ferocious, unyielding charisma that owns everything around him, he’s also one of the greatest frontmen in history.
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I’m cheating a little bit here since I said no solo-artists when I listed the criteria for inclusion on this list, but there’s no way I could keep Bowie off of it. He’s the ultimate frontman and his persona – or various personae I should say – has served as the template for countless frontmen. Half of the dudes on this list directly cribbed from Bowie’s style. He is the pop frontman, in all its forms.
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Mick Jagger created the concept of the rock frontman as sex god and in doing so helped give pop music a harder edge and broadened its appeal beyond screaming teenagers. He was the first frontman who seemed kind of dangerous. His influence is obvious and undeniable and his tenure has made him the godfather of both the rock frontman and of rock ‘n roll period.
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Queen’s Freddie Mercury is the best showman in pop music history. That’s a powerful statement to make but it’s true. Just go back and watch his performance at 1985’s Live Aid, in which he stands on stage and leads over 100,000 people in a mass rally disguised as a rock concert. Marvel as he gets each and every one of them to clap in time with him and finally stop and take a moment to appreciate that no one – no one – in history has ever done it better than Freddie Mercury.
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(Previously published on June 26, 2013.)