The 10 Greatest Rock Singers of the '90s

The ’90s boasted some of the most unique voices to ever come out of the rock scene. You had everyone from the nasal yet emotive Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins to the subterranean baritone Brad Roberts of Crash Test Dummies. PJ Harvey dipped low into the bounds of womanhood, and Mike Patton of Faith No More stretched his vocals into operatic regions.

But when it comes to sheer talent, versatility and a knack for hitting those goose bump-inducing notes, these 10 singers stand out.

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Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star

Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star
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Just one listen to the ethereal 1993 hit “Fade Into You” is enough to make you a lifelong fan of Mazzy Star. Hope Sandoval’s willowy delivery is like a whisper on the wind. Her alto resonates with the isolation and heat of the Southern California desert. The band’s mystique is bolstered by dark stage productions and Sandoval’s long brunette hair obscuring her face. It’s as though her singing is from another dimension and her body is the conduit of emotion.

Standout track: “Fade Into You”

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Kurt Cobain of Nirvana

Kurt Cobain Nirvana 1993

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Here’s where proficiency isn’t a positive. Kurt Cobain, arguably the voice of Generation X, was at once a fierce and vulnerable performer. His yelps, cracks, grits and screams were the weapons of an artist at war with himself. When he would masticate on lines like “I’m so ugly/But that’s OK/So are you,” it was like a dog whistle to the weird kids— only they could truly hear and understand his pain. Cobain spoke the language of the survivors of broken homes, of misfits, of the marginalized. And sometimes it didn’t sound pretty. That was the point.

Standout track: “All Apologies”

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Daniel Johns of Silverchair

Daniel Johns of SILVERCHAIR

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Certainly inspired by Cobain, Daniel Johns of Silverchair started out grunge but ultimately went glam. His evolution from teenage roustabout on 1994’s Frogstomp to theatrical adult on 1999’s was tremendous. Today, he stretches his muscles even further with seductive falsetto on his solo album, Talk. He’s a phoenix that emerged from the ashes of naivety to soar as a self-made man.

Standout track: “Ana’s Song (Open Fire)”

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Darius Rucker of Hootie & the Blowfish

Darius Rucker of Hootie & the Blowfish
U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Val Gempis

It’s easy to make fun of Hootie & the Blowfish, for all their soccer-mom appeal and their silly name. But front man Darius Rucker is a real-deal powerhouse. He cut his teeth on gospel and show choirs, then made college rock palatable for the masses. His runs on “Hold My Hand” and his plea to “Let Her Cry” still give this writer the chills. He’s flexible, too, carving out a massive following in the country music scene.

Standout track: “Let Her Cry”

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Shirley Manson of Garbage

Shirley Manson of Garbage 1998

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Though her first taste of rock stardom was with a band called Angelfish, it’s the devil in Shirley Manson that gives her an edge. She has this sexy quality that’s almost scary. (See 1995’s “Queer” for what we’re talking about. You don’t know whether to run away or to ravish her.) There’s something in Manson’s approach that’s reptilian— slithery as Axl Rose yet sensual as Donna Summer. No wonder her band was asked to perform a James Bond theme song.

Standout track: “I Think I’m Paranoid”

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Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots

Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots

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It’s remarkable that the man who growled through “Sex Type Thing” is the same artist who sang the cosmic “Barbarella.” Scott Weiland’s range is just one of the reasons he makes our list. His throaty vengeance can flatten you. His bedroom swoon can pick you right back up. He was like the drugs that led to his demise in 2015: unpredictable, erratic, soothing, adventurous and terrorizing all at once.

Standout track: “Plush”

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Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes

Chris Robinson of Black Crowes 1995

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He talks to angels with that voice of his. The former Mr. Kate Hudson has the Southern Rock thing down pat, and his twinkle of hippie magic gives him a mystical cool. His are the kind of inflections that steal the thunder of the gods. Thanks to his gusto on 1990’s “Hard to Handle,” the Black Crowes became synonymous with the Otis Redding number. No one can handle an uproarious outro like Robinson.

Standout track: “She Talks to Angels”

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Dolores O'Riordan of the Cranberries

Cranberries Dolores O'Riordan

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Possessing a precious Irish brogue, Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries sounds like a fantasy-novel character. It’s as though her voice could move mountains or resurrect the dead. (They actually do revive a corpse in the video for “Dreams.”) But she isn’t maudlin— in songs such as “Zombie,” her wails and alarming bleats could inflict panic. O’Riordan was the key aural interpreter of the political dangers in Ireland during the 1990s.

Standout track: “Dreams”

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Maynard James Keenan of Tool

Maynard James Keenan of Tool

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This prog-metal maestro is an alluring boogeyman. With songs like the fluid “Sober” from 1993’s Undertow, he becomes a revenant, outside of any earthly body. He can sneak into your psyche or come at it with gale-force conviction. He’s a joker, too— confronting punk rock hypocrisy in the scathing “Hooker with a Penis.” No wonder one of his side projects is called Pucifer; his persona is part Lucifer, partly… pretty, we’ll say, to remain PG.

Standout track: “Sober”

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Chris Cornell of Soundgarden

Chris Cornell of Soundgarden

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You know the saying that so and so could sing the phonebook and they’d kill it? Chris Cornell is one of those guys. His volcanic scream, down to his melancholic baritone have been the crowning glories of Soundgarden, his solo career and Audioslave. Who could forget his rock-god moment on Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike” when he overshadowed another great front man, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam? Cornell’s command of his instrument is unparalleled in the alternative scene. So much so, we’ll even forgive him for his album with Timbaland.

Standout track: “Burden in My Hand”