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From Blondie to Janis Joplin: The 10 greatest isolated vocal tracks of all time

Isolated vocals can make you fall in love with a track all over again, indulging in a classic song like never before. There’s an irresistible intimacy that derives from hearing just the vocals in a track, and, by stripping away the rest of the song you can connect with the lyrics, the sentiment and the singer’s emotion much more easily. Here are ten of the best.

We’ve been traipsing through the dark depths of the internet to uncover some of the most delicious isolated vocals in existence. Thankfully, there is an army of fans that have spent hours editing the tracks to scrape them down to the bare vocals and create something new from something old.

The lyrics jump to the forefront with isolated versions, and they take on extra gravitas when there’s no music to drown out the vocals. Although not every song lends itself to being isolated, and the track’s emotion can occasionally be lost, thankfully, with the ten highlighted below, it’s a different story.

Take time out of your day, and absorb yourself in ten splendid isolated vocal performances. Enjoy.

The 10 best isolated vocals:

Radiohead – ‘No Surprises’

Focusing solely on Thom Yorke’s vocals, the isolated version takes away the lullaby nature of the track and, in turn, makes his vocal delivery more direct and puts the listener into a trance-like state.

Speaking to BBC Radio 6 Music about ‘No Surprises’ in 2016, the Radiohead frontman revealed: “We wanted to sound like we’d all taken Mogadon. We tried to play it as slow as we could, but it was never slow enough, because we weren’t on Mogadon. So what we did was, we took an earlier version and just slowed it right down…It always gets this huge reaction, the ‘bring down the government bit.’ People just start yelling spontaneously. It’s great. I don’t know why. It’s such an unpunk song [to] have released this weird anger.”

Joni Mitchell – ‘Court and Spark’

The isolated vocals are glorious in the way that the absence of instrumentation ironically take Joni Mitchell back to her ‘60s folk roots that she was trying to get away from. Her vocal melody is fluid and organic, as suited to a grassy Californian knoll during summer 1967, as it is to the golden halls of stardom and the Grammy Awards.   

Furthermore, the isolated vocals serenely portray Mitchell’s female character as being too perceptive and smart for the flirtatious drifter, singing “he saw me mistrusting him”. In addition to this, the closing lines candidly display the woman’s noir-esque preoccupation with L.A.: “The more he talked to me, the more he reached me, but I couldn’t let go of L.A., city of the fallen angels.”

The closing lines hint at a broken heart left in the city of fallen angelsa soul occupied with another man, and another time, invoking personal loss and the death of innocence. This goes some way in explaining why she is quick to halt the drifter’s advances. His movements are reminiscent of the dark side of hippiedom. That one-dimensional, misogynistic trope encapsulated by Charles Manson et al. 

The Beatles – ‘Paperback Writer’

It seemed the subject of love was cannon fodder for the quartet’s fans but not for Paul McCartney’s Auntie Lil, who begged the singer to write a song about “something interesting” instead. That song wouldn’t just be their tenth number one but perhaps one of the most beloved songs from their entire back catalogue — the uncompromising ‘Paperback Writer’.

Credited to the Lennon-McCartney partnership, Lennon would later admit that the song was entirely McCartney’s idea, bar a few words and some inspiration. “I think I might have helped with some of the lyrics. Yes, I did. But it was mainly Paul’s tune,” Lennon told Hit Parade in 1972, later confirming with Playboy that “‘Paperback Writer’ is son of ‘Day Tripper’, but it is Paul’s song.”

McCartney isn’t always famed for his vocal power, his songwriting usually takes precedent, but on this performance, he really shines. Whether it is the added reverb or the trippy sounds of Revolver finding their way onto the single, vocally Macca is nearing his peak here.

Tom Petty – ‘Free Fallin’

Tom Petty may not be regularly championed for his vocal style, but when you isolate it, the tone and strength of his singing voice comes shining out, with ‘Free Fallin’ being the perfect example.

Full Moon Fever is arguably one of the defining rock albums of the decade and ‘Free Fallin’’ is one of the finest tracks that Petty has ever written. This era re-established Petty as a star once again after some years spent treading water. This break from The Heartbreakers was exactly what he needed. The album was produced by ELO’s Jeff Lynne, who also co-wrote ‘Free Fallin” and this opportunity to create with new people was one that reinvigorated Petty’s artistic outlook.

Fleetwood Mac – ‘Dreams’

Rumours marked a momentous juncture in the band’s history. With pain consuming their personal lives, the issues clearly had a great artistic effect on the band. Nicks penned ‘Dreams’ in response to the breakdown of her relationship. She remained as philosophical as possible about the break-up, attempting to present a slither of hope in the lyrics. In contrast, Buckingham’s response to the situation was to write the classic ‘Go Your Own Way‘.

The isolated vocals only convey Nicks’ sadness and confusion further, allowing the listener to forensically understand the emotional turmoil that engulfed the band at the time. The harmonised isolated vocals are hauntingly beautiful and have an ethereal, almost gothic quality.

Kate Bush – ‘This Woman’s Work’

‘This Woman’s Work’ is a stand-out moment from Kate Bush’s near faultless sixth-studio album The Sensual World and has become one of her most-loved tracks. Natasha Khan from Bat For Lashes once described the mercurial nature of the song better than anyone else, “I really thank Kate, because these touchstones like ‘This Woman’s Work’, that kind of song, it’s celebrating everything that’s so wonderful about being a woman, and being nurturing, and intuitive and emotional, and gentle and sensual, and just like really intimate.”

Adding: “People don’t put their hearts on the line in that vulnerable way very much, and me, as an artist myself, it’s helped me to not be frightened, to show all, as much of my vulnerability as a woman as possible, and in that be powerful.”

The vulnerability that you can hear in Bush’s voice when it has been isolated is spellbinding, and even by her lofty standards, it is breathtakingly beautiful. Take a few minutes out and inject some much needed Kate Bush into your life.

Janis Joplin – ‘Mercedes Benz’

Just three days before her death, Joplin recorded vocals on the track ‘Mercedes Benz’, an iconic number that is even more astounding when you realise that it was the very last time she would step foot in a recording studio.

The true origin of the track is recounted in Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, in which she discussed an afternoon trip to Vahsen’s with her friend, Bob Neuwirth, as well as the actor’s Rip Torn and Geraldine Page who joined them.

Smith recalled that Joplin started reciting the line, “Oh, Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz” – the first line of McClure’s song. The four others then started banging beer mugs on the table to form a rhythm, and Neuwirth wrote down lyrics he and Joplin came up with on a napkin. Janis later introduced the song at her show that evening by saying, “I just wrote this at the bar on the corner. I’m going to do it Acapulco.”

Arctic Monkeys – ‘R U Mine’

Arctic Monkeys song ‘R U Mine’ is the track that helped the group finally earn the plaudits that they deserved on the other side of the Atlantic. With their American audience in mind, the group went 100mph full-throttle rock ‘n’ roll on this barnstorming anthem, one which sounds fierce as ever through Alex Turner’s piercing isolated vocals.

It marked a poignant moment in their illustrious career, a time when the four members displayed a new level of musical maturity, their sound elevated into a new genre-melding chart-topper. The effort from the Sheffield band signals the moment that they shifted from boys to men and marked a major transition in their sound.

Growing up under the spotlight of the British media, Arctic Monkeys were no longer considered ‘the boys from next door’ by 2012, and their change in direction was a true reflection of their new desire. They were now bonafide rock gods with ‘R U Mine’ acting as a teaser for what fans had in-store 18 months later when AM would pick up exactly where the track leaves off.

Bruce Springsteen – ‘The River’

Inspired by his familial connections – something confirmed by The Boss in his 2016 autobiography – the song allows Bruce Springsteen to pull off his neatest trick: the art of connection. The singer can connect with humanity unlike any other singer of his generation; the songs he sang were as gritty and real as the dirt under your fingernails. On ‘The River’, the singer takes on the idea of life being set out for you too quickly.

Though the isolated vocal is far from clean, in fact, it can irritate a little, it does have an honest dynamism that feels akin to what made Springsteen so loved in the first place. There are no grand notes, no lullaby trills or run-offs—Springsteen is well aware of the instrument he was given. Instead, he delivers straight from the heart, singing his poetry like a renaissance bard who’s just finished a shift at the steel mill.

Blondie – ‘Heart of Glass’

When Blondie arrived on the punk scene in the late seventies, they had something no other band did…they had Debbie Harry. The enigmatic leader of the band and the face of the bubbling new wave scene, her good looks and effortless style made her a poster child for the mainstream media desperate to put a face to the name of punk.

From the shimmying disco-tinge of ‘Call Me’ to the classic rock sound of ‘One Way Or Another’, the band were the sum of their individual parts, and because of that, the singular talent of each member can be somewhat overlooked. None more so than Debbie Harry’s unstoppable vocal.

There’s no better way to truly appreciate this vocal than to hear it as an isolated track. With it, you can hear the crystalline tone of Debbie Harry’s New York cool, as she emanates that nonchalant power of her internal and mental strut. It’s a stunning sound that puts her in the upper echelons of rock singers.

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