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Top 10 '80s Lead Singers Who Also Played an Instrument Most of the Time


Although lead singers who strap on a guitar and actually play it don't have quite the same opportunity to unleash athletic David Lee Roth leaps or vamp it up like Deborah Harry, they certainly advance a higher level of credibility as musicians than their generally more theatrical brethren. For this reason, I thought I'd take some time to spotlight the best of this often overlooked group of musical purists. It's about time these talented men and women got a little press.

1. Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens

Album Cover Image Courtesy of EMI
New Jersey's Smithereens were an '80s diamond in the rough, a band that intriguingly combined hard rock, melodic pop and a rough-and-tumble bar band sound to create something wholly unique. As a frontman, DiNizio was an Everyman figure, never seeking to overshadow his bandmates and only interested in providing impassioned vocals to interpret his fine songwriting. Vocally, DiNizio sounds a bit like a male mirror image of the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, employing a tuneful and engaging vibrato on well-crafted tracks like "Behind the Wall of Sleep" and "Blood and Roses."
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2. Tom Keifer of Cinderella

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Island Def Jam
Now, I don't make this selection out of a particular affinity for this key hair metal vocalist of the late '80s, but rather as a deserved badge of honor for any man who could put his voice through the astounding amount of abuse his style demanded, all for the sake of hard rock glory. Before turning to a somewhat confusing fascination with blues, Keifer & Co. churned out a fairly tuneful yet aggressive brand of metal on '80s classics like "Shake Me," "Somebody Save Me" and "Nobody's Fool."
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3. Paul Weller of The Jam & Style Council

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Polydor
An immensely talented singer-songwriter fluent in an impressively wide array of styles, English rocker Paul Weller sprang onto the scene initially as the leader of the vital but expansive punk rock outfit the Jam in the late '70s. But as a restless and accomplished musician, Weller quickly drifted away from the crunching guitars of punk, becoming interested in dance music of many varieties and exhibiting more clearly his fascination with pop music in general in his follow-up band Style Council.
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4. Aimee Mann of 'Til Tuesday

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Epic
As leader, bassist and charismatic frontwoman for the Boston-area new wave outfit she founded in 1983, Mann forged a uniquely seductive image in spite of the prominent rat tail she sported in the video for the band's only hit, 1985's MTV favorite "Voices Carry." She has sustained s cerebrally sexy aura in the last decade or so of a productive, engaging solo career, but most importantly Mann has churned out literate, moody pop songs that rank her as one of rock's finest singer-songwriters today.
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5. Jack Blades of Night Ranger

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen
As bass player and clear-voiced lead singer of Night Ranger through the '80s, Blades helped communicate some of the decade's finest mainstream rock melodies, from the affecting power ballad "Goodbye" to the rousing, mid-tempo gem "When You Close Your Eyes." Night Ranger has always been one of hard rock's most vilified bands, both for its supposed status as a faceless band and its so-called weakness for keyboards and slow-dance favorites. Still, Blades is a fine, expressive singer with a penchant for melody.
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6. Black Francis of The Pixies

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Cooking Vinyl
One of college rock's premier odd birds, Black Francis occupied a slightly unnerving position front and center for this band of beloved heroes of the American underground. His lyrics were often obscure and cryptic, exploring dark or strange subject matter. But the singer has always been underrated when it comes to the singular, intoxicating nature of his vocals, especially on fan favorites like "Where Is My Mind?" or "Debaser." He also gave hope to slightly overweight rock star wannabes everywhere.
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7. Paul Westerberg of The Replacements

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino/Warner Bros.
Though arguably famed most for his drunken exploits as leader of one of rock's most revered underground bands, Westerberg actually comes off as a rather classic frontman. Blessed with wiry good looks and a convincing, rebellious sneer, Westerberg reveled in challenging mainstream sensibilities but never at the expense of melody and songcraft. It was probably inevitable, then, that the singer-songwriter would soon outgrow the sloppy nature of his first band, but it was fun while it lasted, particularly on classic tunes like "I Will Dare" and "Within Your Reach."
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8. Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses

Album Cover Image Courtesy of 4ad/Ada
It's appropriate to select Hersh as a significant '80s frontwoman in a world where frontmen have always attracted the lion's share of rock audiences' attention. After all, in Throwing Muses - along with stepsister and another important feminine rock icon, Tanya Donelly - Hersh labored to fill a persistent void of female participation in alternative rock. With her cerebral, surreal lyrics and haunting vocal delivery, Hersh would prove highly influential to the explosion of female singer-songwriters to come in the '90s.
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9. Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Hux Records
I was just noticing my heavy focus on alternative rock for this list, but you know, why not? The '80s had a bevy of college rock acts with intriguing lead singers, not the least of which was this Milwaukee-area band's angst-ridden lead singer and guitarist. Gano perfectly embodied the misfit experience of almost all of us trapped on the outside looking in at some point in our social lives. The beauty of Gano's seemingly unstable vocal interpretations is that they always felt genuine and perfectly suited for the music of the Violent Femmes.
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10. John Doe of X

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Rhino
One disadvantage of being co-founder, bassist and frequent lead singer for X, one of rock music's greatest but least heard bands is that not many people know who you are. Maybe an expectation of that kind of obscurity is partly why Doe took on his well-known moniker of anonymity, or maybe not, but either way Doe harmonized innovatively and passionately with bandmate and one-time wife Exene Cervenka, anchoring one of the decade's sharpest and most scorching live acts of all time. Doe also continues today as a touring troubadour.
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