Music recording history is full of songs that triggered paradigm shifts. Ones that shifted the very nature of songwriting, like Bob Dylan’s oeuvre, or evolved recording techniques, as The Beatles and The Beach Boys did throughout the 1960s. Other shifts gave birth to entirely new genres and sub-genres throughout the second half of the 20th century, like hip-hop, metal, and others.
Any list exploring these singular songs is going to leave some more than deserving ones out. With that in mind, what we have here are some songs that signified obvious paradigm shifts, and lesser known ones that deserve more credit.
Although effects had been applied to vocals before The Beatles (see below: Pete Drake’s talkbox), nothing like “Tomorrow Never Knows” had been heard before in pop music history. A suggestion from John Lennon on the first day of the Revolver sessions initiated radical rethinking of how vocals were processed. Lennon wanted to sound like the “Dalai Lama singing from the highest mountain top.” In response, Abbey Road’s sound engineer Geoff Emerick basically hacked a Hammond Organ’s Leslie speaker, running Lennon’s vocals through it so that the rotating speaker created a tremolo and chorus effect.
The Leslie effect itself didn’t become ubiquitous on recordings after “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but The Beatles’ adventurous approach to vocals inspired other musical artists to experiment. As the psychedelic era unfolded, vocals quickly become processed with more reverb, slapback delay, flanging and phaser effects, on top of being multi-tracked for other interesting sonic effects (think of the affected vocals on 13th Floor Elevators’ “Slip Inside This House” or the tremolo effect on Tommy James’ vocals in “Crimson and Clover”). And by the late 1960s, the Talkbox was popularized (more on that below).
But the sonic experimentation with vocals didn’t end with the Leslie speaker. Ken Townshend, Abbey Road’s lead recording engineer, developed automatic double tracking (ADT) because Lennon disliked having to sing a vocal twice. While Townshend did manual double tracking on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the rest of Revolver features a lot of ADT on The Beatles’ vocals. So while “Tomorrow Never Knows” can’t claim to be the first track with ADT, it had a very central role with Townshend developing it.
Joe Walsh and Peter Frampton get a lot of credit for popularizing the talkbox, an effect that modifies a frequency to create speech-like sounds on instruments, but someone else brought the effect into popular music. That artist would be Pete Drake, a Nashville-based pedal steel guitar player and music producer. In 1964, a few years before The Beatles’ Revolver dropped and blew minds, Drake recorded the single “Forever” using an early talkbox.
Now, because Drake was using this in a country western tune, it’s quite startlingly unique. But this was no mere gimmick. Listening to it now, over fifty years later, “Forever” still sounds remarkably creative. It’s a fascinating blend of country, rock and roll, proto-baroque pop, and early electronic music as Drake sings, “Hold me, kiss me, whisper, sweetly, that you’ll, love me, forever.”
Frampton himself recalled meeting Drake at a George Harrison All Things Must Pass recording session, where the country star was entertaining a group of musicians with this “talking guitar.”
“He was setting up his pedal steel right in front of me and got out this little box. I didn’t know what was doing,” Frampton remembers. “He had a pipe and plugged this in here and that in there, stuck the pipe in his mouth, started playing the pedal steel and it started coming out of his mouth. The pedal steel was singing to me, talking to me. That’s when my jaw dropped, and I said, ‘There it is. I’ve got to get that.'”
It’s now taken for granted that The Velvet Underground charted a lot of firsts in rock and roll history. “Heroin” was a minimalist epic of a track, with creative uses of fuzz and drone. Almost every Velvet track was a seedy offspring of Beat poetry. And then there was Lou Reed’s talk-singing style, with songs sounding more like poetry readings than properly sung tracks.
“I’m Waiting For The Main” and “Heroin” are exemplars of Reed’s hip, loose, conversational, and druggy vocals. No one had ever really sung like this before, except for Bob Dylan, who had his own approach to a hip, conservational style that was not the ideal of harmonic or melodic beauty. But Reed’s approach likely had a much bigger impact, especially on proto-punk and punk rock bands of the late 60s and 70s, whose vocals were similarly cool and imperfect.
People have spent years arguing over the first instance of rapping on a record. Some argue Gil Scott-Heron’s delivery of poetry on The Last Poets, while others give the nod to Fatback Band’s “King Tim III (Personality Jock),” which featured rapping back in 1979. But it’s pretty hard to deny that The Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 single, “Rapper’s Delight,” (which followed “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” by just a few months) was a watershed event in musical history.
Sure, rapping was already happening at New York discos and block parties at the time. But The Sugarhill Gang brought the vocal delivery into the mainstream, helping to cement a genre in the process, as well as forever alter how many recording artists decided to design and record vocals.
The vocals in “Rapper’s Delight” sound primitive now, but there can be no doubt that The Sugarhill Gang’s desire to record a rap song, while many other early hip-hop artists were hesitant, changed the popular music landscape.
Wendy Carlos, as an early collaborator in Bob Moog’s modular synthesizer designs, already stands tall as an innovator in analogue synthesis and electronic music film scores. But Carlos perhaps doesn’t get as much credit for revolutionizing vocals with her use of a vocoder on Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange.
Speaking with CMJ New Music Monthly editor Kurt B. Reighley years later, Carlos said she first discovered the vocoder in tech journals. To her, they seemed like magic. At the New York World’s Fair in 1964 (around the same time Drake was recording with the talkbox), Carlos visited the Bell Labs pavilion, where she first got to sing into a vocoder.
“When I figured how to make it not just speak, but sing, it earned an assured place in a forthcoming new album,” Carlos told Reighley. “[But] the first reactions were unanimous: everyone hated it! A playing synth was bad enough, but a ‘singing’ synth? Too much, turn it off! Thus Timesteps was born, to ‘ease into’ the first experience most folks would have with a ‘singing machine.’”
Together, Carlos and Moog developed a vocoder, which Carlos used on her rendition of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which is notably heard in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Not too longer after, the vocoder began showing up in Kraftwerk’s own pioneering electronic music, with artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Roger Troutman, Laurie Anderson, Daft Punk and Air taking it to even greater creative and popular heights.
It’s hard to know where to start in assessing Laurie Anderson’s impact on vocals with the 1981 single “O Superman.” Maybe more than any other artist in this list, Anderson’s work on this song is pure visionary experimentalism within the pop song format. Not only did Anderson play with timbre, rhythm, lyrics, and pure sound in this electronic track meets performance art piece, she combined multiple vocoded tracks with multiple sampled ones, including on the main “Ha Ha Ha Ha” vocal rhythm.
Looking back at “O Superman” from the vantage of 2018, Anderson’s recording still sounds ahead of its time. The song is avant-garde, odd, melancholic, sinister, and beautiful. The only artists that seem to be on Anderson’s artistic level—and decades later at that—are Björk, Thom Yorke, Holly Herndon, FKA Twigs, and Karen Dreijer of Fever Ray and The Knife. And so musicians are still just beginning to understand the possibilities of experimentally conceived and recorded vocals that were hinted at by Anderson in “O Superman.”
This track, recently heard on Guardians of the Galaxy’s Awesome Mix, Vol. 1 as well as in The Virgin Suicides, is one of the great experiments in vocal processing, or the voice as a musical instrument. 10cc’s 1975 release “I’m Not In Love” directly inspired Air’s hypnotic track “Run,” off of the 2004 album Talkie Walkie. To create what sound like synthesized vocals, 10cc engaged in some absolute studio multitracking and tape loop wizardry—things that can now be done quite easily in DAWs, but back then were time-consuming undertakings.
As band member Eric Stewart recalls in a making-of documentary, Kevin Godley (later of the duo Godley & Creme) suggested creating a wall of sound full of acapella voices with tape loops that could run “ad infinitum.”
“We spent another three weeks recording three guys—just Kev, Lol, and Graham [Gouldman]—recording just ‘Ahhhhh’ in the studio onto the 16-track machine,” Stewart explains. “Each note had 16 tracks of three people… and we had to record a chromatic scale of 12 voices that would fit any chord in the song.”
“We put the tape loops around this Studis stereo machine and then out to mic stands with little rollers on the top so the tape would run through there and we could tension the machine properly,” he adds. “Then I fed across to the 16-track machine and filled each of the 12 tracks with a separate note of these masked vocals, so I think eventually I wrote 256 voices on these tracks.”
Each of the four band members controlled faders on the mixing desk, feeding the vocals in and out of the mix as needed. This resulted in alternating swells of what sound like synthesized vocals. And because Stewart put gaffer’s tape at 24 dB on the faders, it created what he calls a lovely, breathy hiss that one might hear in a concert hall. And all of it worked to create one of the most groundbreaking instances of vocal multitracking in pop music and recording history.
T-Pain and Rihanna might have been, at one time, the king and queen of auto-tuned vocals, but Cher’s “Believe” is really where it all started. The 1998 dance pop track is notable for being the first instance of autotuning in popular music.
To create the effect, the song’s producer, Mark Taylor, experimented with Antares Audio’s Auto-Tune plug-in. Originally intended as a pitch correction tool, Taylor used Auto-Tune to add a synthetic quality to Cher’s vocal, with rapid pitch transitions. The song itself isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but Taylor’s work on the vocal stands out as incredibly significant, as it quickly found its way into hip-hop, R&B, reggaeton, and various other genres.
Brian Eno even experimented with auto-tuning on his track “Bottomliners,” which appeared on his 2005 album Another Day On Earth. Compared to the Cher song, Eno’s experimentation has a more artful quality, though on a technological level it’s no different.
It’s almost unfair to say “Strawberry Wine” is the song that redefined how some vocals were being produced in the late 80s and early 90s, given all of the iconoclasm of the My Bloody Valentine albums Isn’t Anything (1988) and Loveless (1991). But “Strawberry Wine,” the lead track off of the 1987 eponymous three-song single, is the first time that MBV’s Belinda Butcher and Kevin Shields took on the role of vocalists, doing so by burying their vocals in the mix.
The effect, even though not fully exploited until later EPs and LPs, caused a major ripple, as many bands across the world began recording and mixing vocals in this way. (It’s worth noting that MBV weren’t the first do this—REM’s first few records were notable for how low the band mixed Michael Stipe’s vocals.) The lyrics are near indecipherable, and Butcher and Shields both came off as sleepy, dreamy and druggy. But this approach also made their voices blend into the wall of sound, turning them into instruments in their own right.