Supine in the dentist's chair recently and trying to distract myself from the squeal of his drill, I fell to pondering the scream – one of music's least discussed vocal signatures. When I think of my favourite moments in pop and rock, it's surprising quite how many of them can be distilled to a singer throwing his or her head back and letting rip a lung-bursting scream. I'm not talking about wailing, or yelling – any buffoon can do that. Screaming is a skill, a test of the vocal range that can be purely enlivening, even ennobling. It can take a sung note – of pain, of rage, of entreaty, of untrammelled joy – to a higher plane, an abrupt, piercing shock that transforms the moment dramatically. It's a delicate and volatile substance. Like chilli in a sauce, a little of it goes a long way.
I've never had much time for the glass-shattering sound of the opera diva. The technique of it is impressive but still sounds to me like showing off, a bit like being able to hold your breath under water. The scream is something to be practised sparingly: too much and you end up wanting to stuff socks down the singer's throat. Yoko Ono, who once practised scream therapy, unwisely transferred it to performance. Her screaming on "Don't Worry Kyoko" – about the daughter she was trying to get back from her first husband – is, more or less, unendurable.
The following list, is a salute to 10 of pop music's great screams. It is an entirely personal selection. You may have your own favourites – these are mine.
From his transitional and marvellous 1983 album Swordfishtrombones, this offbeat tone poem tells the story of a lonely sailor mooching around an Eastern port, like a refugee from a Conrad novel, and wondering "how the same moon outside over this Chinatown fair/ could look down on Illinois/ and find you there". The stalking marimbas seem to be fading out when, in a bizarre coda, Waits – no stranger to vocal mannerisms in the 25 years since – quietly sobs/screams the title words over and over, like a cat lost in a junkyard at the dead of night. It takes the song to a whole other level of magnificent strangeness.
'DO ME, BABY'
Prince has always shown a talent for screaming – there's a real lung-buster in the middle of "Purple Rain" – and this slow-tempo come-on, from his infamous satyr-in-satin-underpants phase of the early 1980s, is perhaps rivalled only by his "It's Gonna Be Lonely". At 2:46 minutes in, the last word of the line "I just want you so bad... so" takes off into the spheres, with Prince experiencing a moment of erotic abandon.
'I FEEL FOR YOU'
Prince wrote this song, of course, and sang it on his first album, way back in 1979, but it was Chaka Khan who made it famous. Revved up by Arif Mardin's whizzy production, with rimshots ricocheting off every surface, the song was played almost by law at discos in 1983-84. Just listen to the way she has two passes at the note before nailing it on the third go (time 4:34) – not quite a scream, either, just a beautifully modulated high note. Great female screams are quite scarce, it seems. Joplin does a good one at the end of "Piece of My Heart", but the song itself is draggy and repetitious. I listened carefully to favourites –Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro – but found nothing suitable. Do women singers simply have better self-control?
Watch Chaka Khan's video for 'I Feel For You'
'LOVE IS THE ANSWER'
I owe a debt here to Giles Smith, whose magisterial essay on Rundgren in his memoir Lost in Music first alerted me to this formative moment. This pop hymn originates from his experimental sideline outfit Utopia, on their 1977 album Oops! Wrong Planet, and features one of those gospel clap-along endings that would usually make me duck for cover. This being Todd, however, he sings over the crescendo like a man possessed, and on the line "If you need a friend" his voice cracks into an impassioned scream (time 3:02) the likes of which could probably never be repeated: believe me, I've tried.
Was Lennon the Great White Screamer? He made an early bid for the title with his terrific dancehall howling on "Twist and Shout", and later on Plastic Ono Band he screamed over the closing moments of "Mother" to alarming effect. Unlike his wife, he had an instinct for what you could get away with. I think he reached his apogee on "Yer Blues" (from The White Album), "a gutbucket 6/4 blues in E" as Ian Macdonald describes it in Revolution in the Head, his half-satirical, half-desperate vocal bursting out on the final refrain, "Wanna die... YEAH-EAH-EAGH wanna die..." He sang it again with the Plastic Ono Band on Live Peace in Toronto 1969, by which point he probably had more than enough screaming at home.
With James Brown gone, Bobby Womack can truly claim to be the Great Soul Survivor. Brown would perhaps feature in many a Best Ten Screams list, but his stuff still leaves me rather cold – too strident, too boastful, too familiar. Womack, aside from an illustrious past that includes collaborating with The Stones, Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett, has one of the greatest voices in R&B. But he also has a kind of humility, as this 1968 song shows. The husky, pleading tone, which eventually breaks out into a stuttered scream (at 2:14 and 2:29) sounds almost as if he's about to be sick with longing. "There ain't no harm to moan sometime"... Or, indeed, to scream.
'(YOU CAUGHT ME) SMILIN'
Sly and The Family Stone
Womack also played guitar on Sly Stone's seminal 1971 There's a Riot Goin' On, from which this is taken. Stone's voice is extraordinary on this album; disinhibited by drugs, he swoops crazily up and down (and occasionally off) the register, stretching and bending notes until they practically beg for mercy. This loose-limbed, bubbling, funk squib is by no means the strongest track on it, and his voice now and again distorts by being too close to the microphone, but at 1:42 minutes it soars, gloriously, into the ether – no matter the relative inconsequence of the remainder. You want to hear that scream again.
'CHILD IN TIME'
Heavy rock has done more to discredit the scream than any other musical genre. A wine-dealer friend of mine, who's also a heavy-metal freak, insisted that Rob Halford's screams on Judas Priest's "Victim of Changes" should be on this list, but one listen had me reaching for the ear-muffs. The spandex-wearing posturers who front these bands have turned screaming into a joke, apparent as long ago as This is Spinal Tap. "Child in Time" is afflicted with the generic faults – po-faced solemnity, extravagant length – yet Ian Gillan's screams are incontrovertibly musical even as the song spirals into absurdity. There's a proper vocal concentration there.
The command and reach of Cray's vocal on the Midnight Stroll album is staggering. This track, bolstered by its ringing guitar riff and ominous Hammond organ, unfolds a familiar story of romantic indignation ("You're gonna miss me," he warns, "one of these old days") and builds to such a pitch that by the last verse he's positively steaming. The identical double scream, at 3:24 and 3:28, unleashes a blast of pent-up grievance that will have his loved one immediately calling for security.
'TOO MUCH HEAVEN'
The Bee Gees
The brothers Gibb practically invented the male falsetto, and this misty-eyed ode comes from a period when their voices were indeed reaching towards an almost celestial perfection. The Bee Gees touch the parts other lyricists can't, and perhaps would rather not – "Love is such a beautiful thing", they warble – but you'd pardon the cheesiness for the honey of those harmonies. The screams on this one aren't markedly more accomplished than those on "Tragedy" or "Stayin' Alive" – by the end they're just freestyling falsettos, the way other men crack their knuckles. They're still going strong over the fade: fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and The Bee Gees just carry on screaming.