Critical 5: Voices Without WordsBy Stewart Mason
Five vocalists who entrance without words.
As Sigur Ros release their latest album of songs incorporating singer Jonsi's self-invented language "Hopelandic," let's look back at other artists whose vocal stylings didn't always include recognizable words. Spotify listeners can hear an adapted version of this playlist at Critical 5: Voices Without Words.
1. The Ray Conniff Singers
Starting with his iconic 1956 hit "S'Wonderful," Attleboro, Massachusetts native Ray Conniff went on a two-decade binge of recording pop standards (and increasingly on his late '60s and '70s albums, rock and roll hits) in bouncy big-band arrangements topped with a creamy mixed-gender chorus that usually stuck to nonsense syllables. No less an icon than Brian Eno has named Conniff a childhood influence, and the obvious craft and skill of these recordings puts them a step above the dozens of knockoffs that you'll find moldering in thrift stores across America.
2. Edda dell'Orso
A household name among fans of Italian soundtracks of the 1960s and '70s, soprano Edda dell'Orso's keening, wordless vocals were used by every major film composer in Rome. They're probably the sound that best defines this style of music, in fact. I own literally hundreds of songs recorded by dell'Orso, and I'm not sure I've ever heard her sing a single recognizable word in any language. Danger Mouse brought dell'Orso out of retirement to appear on last year's Rome, his heartfelt tribute to Italian soundtrack classics.
3. Patty Waters
Stepping away from the lush easy listening settings of the first two entries, there's New York free jazz singer Patty Waters. Notorious for her 14-minute deconstruction of the folk standard "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair," Waters moved beyond contemporary jazz vocal experimenters such as Boston's cult heroine Jeanne Lee into sounds that at times seemed barely even human. Her second album, 1966's live College Tour (from which comes "Song of Clifford," her tribute to the late jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown) was even further out than 1965's Patty Waters Sings. Together, these two albums for the legendary ESP-Disk label went on to influence even harsher mistresses of the wordless vocal like Meredith Monk, Yoko Ono and Diamanda Galas.
This French progressive rock's wordless vocals are central to their legend: Drummer and bandleader Christian Vander has written all of their lyrics since 1970's self-titled debut in a language of his own devising called Kobaian. Even better, all of Magma's albums tell the ongoing story of a group of celestial refugees who escaped an apocalyptic Earth to land on the planet Kobaia. All of this is set to a particularly aggressive form of jazz-prog heavy on the distortion pedals, synth bleeps and multiple crashing drummers, like some kind of unholy mashup between vintage Hawkwind and Miles Davis circa In a Silent Way.
5. Cocteau Twins
The thing about Liz Fraser's vocals on most of the Cocteau Twins' best songs is that even on those rare occasions that she seemed to be singing recognizable English words, they made no logical sense. In retrospect, it seems that she wasn't singing complete gibberish as often as many listeners assume -- some have said, only half-jokingly, that the problem is that so few people can penetrate her thick coastal Scotland accent -- but her haunting, otherworldly delivery still bewitches a generation of dream-pop fanatics.