Music » Soundcheck

Hung -- and Well

A tribute to singers who've made the most of the least.


William Hung is making a very good thing off a voice - that isn't. - PETER KRAMER/ GETTY IMAGES
  • Peter Kramer/ Getty Images
  • William Hung is making a very good thing off a voice that isn't.
Take it from us, the Steve Guttenberg of rock journalists: Talent is overrated. Maybe that's why we dig William Hung so much. The bite-sized American Idol flunky has no discernible musical aptitude, just an off-key stammer that sputters like a car running out of gas. Yet he's looking down on Courtney Love's sorry ass on the Billboard charts.

In its first week, Hung's debut album, Inspiration, moved close to 40,000 copies. He's performed on Leno and headlined the Today show; he even sang during halftime at a Lakers game. Never mind the Sex Pistols -- this is the great rock-and-roll swindle.

Of course, Hung's not the first to break the bank with rusty pipes. Some of the most popular singers of all time had lousy voices: Bob Dylan is the atonal archetype, his nasal whinny as tuneful as a trash compactor. The same goes for the boozy bray of Tom Waits and the cat-coughing-up-a-hairball vox of Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister -- both of them proof that a lousy voice can be a very good thing. Here are our picks for the best of the worst.

Kurt Brecht -- "I've got no rhythm/I've got no pitch/I couldn't hit an octave/If it meant I'd get rich," the D.R.I. frontman barked on the aptly titled "Tone Deaf." Brecht has long possessed one of the most distinctive voices in hardcore -- a loud, flat monotone that makes Ben Stein sound expressive. It's a poker-faced shout that lends deadpan humor to the band's mix of satire and social commentary. Thanks to Brecht, D.R.I. can sing about acid rain one minute and puking in a van the next.

Russell Jones -- The man best known as Ol' Dirty Bastard actually grew up singing in church. So he'd probably sound great nowadays, if he hadn't drunk so deeply from the communion chalice. He's got the pipes, but they're always thirsting for booze, so by the time he staggers into the vocal booth, he's a slobbering, slurring mess (he once dropped a rhyme about America's 52 states; gin and geography don't mix well, apparently). Dirty's powerful soul shout too often erupts into a tremulous wail as shaky as his hands, but it's also oddly endearing. In a genre built on boasting, he's the rare rhymer who isn't afraid to flaunt his shortcomings. "Ooooh, baby, I like it raw," he warbles at the onset of Return to the 36 Chambers. So do we.

David Yow -- On the first four albums from Chicago noise-rock greats the Jesus Lizard, it was hard to tell just how damaged and deranged the vocals of frontman/penis-waver David Yow were -- they were so low in the mix, they could have been recorded from a barstool in Toledo. But the band finally got a big budget for its two Capitol releases (1996's Shot and '98's wrongfully overlooked Blue), and Yow's drunken yelp was front and center. For once, you could hear what the guy was saying, and we're not sure this was such a good thing: He sang of killing his family and of "pattin' Jesus on his jelly roll," in a hoarse yammer sautéed with hops and homicide. One of the best showmen of his day, Yow'd spit, snort, and scream into the mic as if bugs were crawling over him.

Daniel Johnston -- Johnston's papier-mâché voice is as fragile as his mental health. The talented, troubled singer-songwriter has long battled depression and dementia while plucking at a chintzy Casio and singing pretty little odes to love and Captain America. His upper register is off-key and childlike; he couldn't hit a high note if it were on a tee. But perhaps it only makes sense that a man who sings so much about the spoils of romance would have a voice as flawed as love itself.

Jordan Blilie and Johnny Whitney -- There are no women on this list, but dueling shriekers Jordan Blilie and Johnny Whitney of the Seattle screamo quintet the Blood Brothers could pass for damsels in distress. And by distress, we mean having one's genitals pierced with a paper punch. That's the kind of agony this duo's high-pitched screeches seem to emanate from. But there's an ear-grating artfulness to their surrealist grind: They trade screams the way Slayer's Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman trade guitar leads: fast and furious, with astounding dexterity. If Mike Patton holds the gold medal in vocal gymnastics, these guys take the silver and bronze.

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