From soul and Motown to modern indie rock, the falsetto vocal technique has been in popular use throughout a variety of genres and for a variety of expressive purposes. Some use their upper-register head voices to be powerful and virtuosic, while others have used it to be vulnerable and emotionally fragile. There’s probably some musicological essay on sexuality and masculinity to be written on the topic, but for now, here’s a list of our 11 favorite falsetto vocalists.
When Justin Timberlake announced he would embark on a solo career, the big question on everyone’s mind was whether or not he would be able to move beyond the boy-band image that plagued the careers of the other former members of N’Sync. The success of the more “mature” image portrayed in his two solo albums had a lot to do with the exploration of a new range of his voice, particularly his falsetto. Although he called upon artists like Michael Jackson and Prince, Timberlake also owned the technique and made it his own, particularly in singles like “Cry Me A River” and “My Love.”
Long before he recorded with Kanye West, Justin Vernon had always had a dash of R&B hidden within his woodsy, folk music. This mostly came from his overdubbed, falsetto vocal technique he began using ins his debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago. Vernon doesn’t have, by any means, a strong or confident falsetto, but instead one that instantly evokes emotion and vulnerability.
Because of his multitude of talents, you don’t often hear about Michael Jackson’s smooth falsetto. But honestly, watch the video below and tell us having an incredible falsetto voice doesn’t just scream Michael Jackson. Like his colleague Prince, Jackson’s falsetto was as sexual as it was virtuosic. Just another thing to praise the “King of Pop” for.
(Earth, Wind, and Fire)
Some falsetto voices should be acknowledged based purely on virtuosity alone. Not only does Philip Bailey have one of the highest falsettos you’ll ever hear, he could also hold it out for ungodly lengths of time and still somehow make it sound both sensual and incredibly smooth.
Jonsi’s angelic falsetto was quite unlike anything that came before it. Because he primarily sung in Icelandic or his own made-up Hopelandic (until recently), to those outside of Iceland, Jonsi’s delicate voice always had a remarkably otherworldly quality to it as if he was singing in the tongues of heaven, making it both intimate and insanely epic.
Every male vocal group needs a tenor who can do a falsetto, but Eddie Kendricks took it to another level. Taking the lead in quite a number of hit songs by The Temptations, Kendricks was one of the most significant falsetto proponents coming out of Motown in the 1960s.
Ah, yes, the falsetto coo unlike any other. Although highly influenced by Jeff Buckley in the early ‘90s, Thom Yorke’s take on the falsetto presented in songs like “High and Dry” and “Reckoner” is sweet and cautious, where his falsetto in songs like “Climbing Up The Walls” and “Lotus Flower” is utterly haunting. Thom Yorke’s influence on vocal delivery and falsetto use can be seen all over the place, but most clearly in bands like Muse and Coldplay.
The “King of Motown” is one of the reasons singing in falsetto became such a sought-after sound in the Motown and R&B music scenes in the ‘60s. Smokey could twirl his falsetto vocals all across a melody and still have time to throw in some extra ornamentation. Falsetto had always been a part of vocal groups and barbershop quartets but Smokey Robinson was one of the key players in making it a popular vocal technique in pop music and bringing out the sexual nature of it in songs like “Ooh baby baby”.
No list of awesome falsettos is complete without Frankie Valli, the man who brought the falsetto vocals to the forefront of pop music in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. In his singing group, The Four Seasons, Valli somehow made it okay to sing a song about unbridled masculinity in the range of an alto. Although the falsetto didn’t contain the same countercultural weight it would carry later at the time, Valli still picked up some heat for it. Fortunately, he managed to normalize the technique so much that it became a staple of both rock ‘n’ roll and soul throughout the ‘60s and on.
Prince is known for incorporating a wide variety of genres in his music including funk, disco, rock and pop. Even still, we’re pretty sure no one used the falsetto technique to this effect before Prince. With his flashy costumes and extravagant personality, Prince certainly made his mark in the world of mainstream pop. But his falsetto might been the biggest gift he gave us as his unique style has claimed its influence across the entire spectrum of pop music.
Jeff Buckley was one of those singers who always kept his vocals quite understated. Because the emphasis of his music was always songwriting and lyricism, showing off his octave-leaping vocal range was never the highest on Buckley’s priority list. Even still, he gives us just enough of that heart-stopping emotion to always give you the impression that Buckley had a monster voice in him. If Thom Yorke hadn’t heard Buckley on his last tour for what would be his final album, the falsetto surely would have never made its way into popularity in mainstream pop and rock the way it had throughout the ‘90s and beyond.