Most Emotional Vocal Performance

I like singers who put their heart and soul into a song.  Some examples that come into  mind:


Etta James, "Sugar On the Floor", LIVE IN SAN FRANCISCO CD.  This lady puts emotion into all her songs but she reaches a new peak on this one.


Van Morrison, "Caravan", LAST WALTZ.  Van has a number of other versions but the aura of the night's events on LAST WALTZ took this version to new heights.


Levon Helm, "The Night They Drove Dixie Down", LAST WALTZ.  Same as Van Morrison rationale.


Bruce Springsteen, most any song on his live CD's.  I especially like the hunger he shows on HAMMERSMITH ODEN, LONDON 1975.  As the AllMusic description indicates "these guys were scared, it fueled the gig, and they pulled it off in spades".  The pressure was due to press hype about  their first overseas tour and maybe a desire to build the yanks up and then put them down.


Doc Watson, "What A Friend We Have in Jesus", DOWN SOUTH by Doc and Merle Watson as well as a number of gospel compilation CD's.  The one to look for is the a capella version.  Just Doc by himself on a heart-rendering performance.


Eric Clapton, "Layla" with Derek and the Dominoes.

What songs can you think of?


I tried to think of some others but ran into the problem of how to highlight songs with a strong emotion base versus just great vocal efforts.  It seems that on the emotional songs the artist needed a particular reason to go all out.





Merry Clayton's vocal on "Gimme Shelter" is so emotionally raw. Keith's opening riff is for the ages, but she is the heart and soul of that song. She gave it the texture that captured the emotion of the times. There is the well-documented story that she was pregnant at the time and miscarried soon after. Some have said that vocal may have been the cause, so its hard to imagine anything more emotional.

Patsy's "Leaving on your Mind" and "Strange" immediately come to mind as well as many others she recorded. She gets me right in my guts, taught me everything I know about life and about vocal performance. 

"Lungs"- TVZ   The urgency, ugh, chills...

Cat Power's "Good Woman" makes me leak liquids from my eye-holes.

There's also a live version of Dolly's "Coat of Many Colors" that gets me every time- just her voice and acoustic guitar, no bells and whistles or flashy production bits. I envision her sans wig when I hear it, no makeup, no cleavage out- just a beautiful soul singing a beautiful song. 

It's great to hear a performer get to that "dangerous" zone, one simultaneously of fragility and strength, total exposure. So many vocalists will feign the emotion- it sounds transparent, hammy, ridiculous.

I'll take the real stuff, thanks...


The No Depression community has already mentioned some of my favorites like Jason Isbell, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, Etta James and Otis Redding. To me, Redding is in his own league. His songs are outpourings of emotion, especially “These Arms of Mine,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and “Cigarettes and Coffee.”

But these singer/songwriters haven’t been mentioned much or at all:

Jeff Buckley
not only had a great voice, but he sang his heart out when he performed, no more so than on “Last Goodbye” and “Lover, You Should Have Come Over.”

Willie Nelson should get more credit for putting himself into his singing, especially on his best covers album, Stardust, and his more recent Pearl Jam cover of “Just Breathe”

Sinead O’Connor. She’s as emotionally raw as it gets plus THAT voice, especially on “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “Last Day of our Acquaintance.” 

Gretchen Peters on Hello Cruel World. You can feel her pain on this album.

Johnny Cash’s Rick Rubin produced albums showcased his brilliance at doing covers, most notably on Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat.”

Damien Rice on his first album, “O”. Sparse instrumentation so his voice and Lisa Hannigan’s harmonies had to carry the album with their emotional heft, and they did.

Lady Lamb the Beekeeper really lets it all hang out on her debut album, at times even screaming her lyrics. Her performing approach is emotional and moving.

Kristin Hersh, especially the vocals she did with her 50 Foot Wave group.

John Murray ... 'Little Colored Balloons' at End of the Road Festival (UK) ... Gut wrenching!

Just 5 from 500:

Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham - "Cry Like A Baby" (Live, "Moments From This Theater")

Kimmie Rhodes (with Joe Ely) - "Just One Love" 

Lucinda Williams - "I Asked For Water (He Gave Me Gasoline)"

Holly Williams - "Drinkin'"

David Halley - "Rain Just Falls"


You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive- Patty Loveless's version. By the end of the song I just want to cry. 

Jeff Tweedy singing "I Hate it Here " Johnny Cash doing "Hurt" Warren Zevon's cover of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" Billie Holliday "Strange Fruit"

Paul Westerberg- "Answering Machine", it sounds like he is on the edge of a breakdown

Jeff Tweedy- "Misunderstood"

Rick Danko-"IT Makes No Difference", the quiver in his voice is heart wrenching 

Wow. Thanks.

BAM! Aretha's album is a vocal marvel from start to finish. We earthlings are beyond fortunate to be the recipients of such a thing.

Loretta Lynn, "She Got You."

Lee Ann Womack's version of the same is also absurdly good.

More recently, this: http://youtu.be/6RNToUJWX_o

Oh you Deadheads.

Fred Eaglesmith - Water in The fuel

Better include Rosanne Cash on her CD's INTERIORS and WHEEL as she explores the break-up of her marriage to Rodney Crowell.  KING'S RECORD SHOP may have some similar songs.

Emmylou Harris, Too far Gone.

"The Rose" was just on TV this weekend here in Minneapolis.


I don't really think it's Americana, but...

Bette Midler's rendition Of  'Stay With Me Baby' in the movie 'The Rose' is just an emotional powerhouse. I've watched it several times, and the performance still brings tears to my eyes.


i agree, Bill Dempsey.....first song i thought of when i read the post title...

Both Patty Loveless and Darrell Scott do a soulful version of Scott's "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive".  Both hailed from coal mining country and this must have fueled the emotions in the song. A good way to hear Scott's version is on LIVE IN NC cd he recorded with Kenny Malone (drums) and Danny Thompson (bass)

I'm a big fan of Otis but i think OV Wright  , James Carr and Sam Cooke were better singers.

How about Billy Joe Shaver's Tramp on your Street?  Every time I see him do it , knocks me out.

I think pretty much ever song Otis redding recorded nothing else even close

That was such a moving performance,thanks for sharing Andre! And just seeing Elvis' expression while watching Jesse perform is goose bump heaven :)

One that gets me very time would be Cash singing That Lucky Old Sun , the version he recorded with Rick Rubin.

Oh, you can really hear the weariness and the pain when he sings "show me the river, take me across it"/ Beautiful stuff.

Good call Duke.

I still get chills listening to Rick Danko sing "It makes no difference"

Without a Doubt

My 5?  This afternoon, as of this moment ...

5.  A couple of people its pretty much all or most of anything they've recorded---Case in point, Van Morrison.  Specifically I'll go with "Caravan" as others have before.

4. Otis Redding.  Again, pretty much anything but I'll cite "I've been Loving You too Long" from Mont. Pop.

3. Springsteen.  Yep, a long list.  I'll say "Drive All Night" moves me everytime I hear it.

2.  Steve Earle-"I Feel Alright"

1.  Jackson Browne- The single line, "Oh God this is some shape I'm in" from Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate on The Pretender.  He digs deep and pulls up a bunch of baggage on that line.

Lucinda Williams - "God I'm Missing You"  on Rodney Crowell & Mary Karr's "Kin"


Steve Goodman - "My Old Man"

For me, more recently, John Murry, Little Coloured Ballons at this year's Kilkenny Roots Festival

this is one of the most emotional songs i've heard in years...

Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding - Jesse Winchester on Elvis Costello's "Spectacle"


A superb album , one of my favourites from last year.

Little Colored Balloons... John Murray from the album 'The Graceless Age' ... Killer performance at End of The Road Festival (UK)


I have to agree. I loved Waitin' on June on CD, but was not ready for the full emotional impact when seeing her perform in Boulder last month. Great storytelling and wonderful performance. 

Sorry the link on this got busted..it was to a live performance of  "Get it While You Can''' (it may not be there when you wake up) - I'm sure you guys - and girls - are familiar with it...Just amazing, though almost anything Janis did/does qualifies...Here's another one, a little number called "Try Just A Little Bit Harder'' - hopefully the YouTube police won't come after it, too..


Dave Van Ronk performing Wandering (always gets me...)

Bob Dylan - Moonshiner (probably one of his best vocal performance if you ask me)

and recently Jason Isbell - Cover me up

and many more I guess. This just the ones I can think about right now 

Rickie Lee Jones, "Last Chance Texaco"

Lady Day, "Strange Fruit"

These are a few of many, but off the top of my head:

Janis - "Kozmic Blues"

Jeff Tweedy in Wilco's "Dreamer In My Dreams"

Nicki Bluhm - Kill You To Call

This version of "How Blue Can You Get"

And I have to agree with the above people mentioning Elmore and Howlin' Wolf.  Those two could make the phone book impassioned.

How could I have forgotten Hank Williams Sr.?  If any singer had a reason to sing about life's troubles, it was Hank.  "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" is my favorite.

In addition, my new gospel/soul/blues discovery is Nashville's Mike Farris, who overcame alcoholic addiction when a member of a rock back and found religion.  He does not wear his faith on his sleeve in his music but the sense of joy comes through on his cd's SHOUT!LIVE (with Roseland Rhythm Revue including family gospel group the McCrary Sisters) and SALVATION IN LIGHTS.   He blew the audience away with his lead vocals on Hillside Album Hour at Merlefest when the Waybacks and friends did Dylan/Band BEFORE THE FLOOD.  

  I forgot to mention one more; Aretha Franklin's version of Carole King's (You Make Me Feel Like a)Natural Woman. She sings as if she's really in love.

No Other Love by Chuck Prophet

Five Hearts Breaking by Alejandro Escavedo on More Miles Than Money

Two amazing contemporary writers/singers.

What I love about reading these posts (ie Dave Crotts above) - there are some serious music scholars on here....guys who know way more than I ever will.

Linda Thompson, Walking on a Wire.

Steven Fromholz  (Lyle Lovett) ,  Texas Trilogy.


Blues scholars would say that each member of the "holy trinity" of delta blues (Son House, Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson) had a lot of fire in their vocals.  In fact, I was just reading that Clapton gives Son House a lot of credit for shaping his vocal style.  John Mellencamp does a good job on Son House's "Death Letter", which is a chilling song that many folks have done.  Gregg Allman was especially deep on LOW COUNTRY BLUES CD, produced by T-Bone Burnett.


In the gospel arena, we have not only Aretha and Sam Cooke (with Soul Stirrers) but a boxed set called FIRE IN MY BONES:  RAW, RARE AND OTHERWORLDLY AFRICAN-AMERICAN GOSPEL 1944-2007, which contains a lot of early gospel with feeling.

OK I know this is kind of a cliche song, but Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Pride and Joy" from the live Carnegie Hall album certainly passes the emotional intensity/great singing test. And as a special added bonus, the guitar playing is not bad, either http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXSLpL2nR_k

Michael Stipe in REMs "The One I Love" is amazing. Although I never understood his lyrics, he communicates so much with sound and inflection, it's stunning.

Graham Parker's "You Can't Be Too Strong". I don't think there is another singer that does passion or sarcasm better. 

Joan Osbourne's first record was very good, except the designated single, "What If God" which just didn't fit her style. "Spider Web" was just terrific and "Right Hand Man" and "Pensacola" are great. 

I would have to add a couple of country singers here.Johnny Rodriquez 1st album.The phrasing of the vocal,every word in the songs are heard.Anything Dawn Sears sings with the Time Jumpers.My jaw dropped when I first heard Sweet Memories.

In recent memory... Got to see Darrell Scott sing a song with a kinda dumb title- The Man Who Could Have Played Bass with Sha Na Na- but really big and sad emotion. Just killer. I cried. Don't tell nobody.

Saw Malcolm Holcombe do his song "In Your Mercy". Same thing.

I posted this song because well its a newer group that has blown me away there is emotion in all of there songs which you don't get from a lot of artist today, and here is the story behind the writing.


That sentiment lies at the heart of the album and Zach Williams’ own career to date. The native Georgian first came to songwriting via near tragedy. While still living down south, Williams’ young wife was catastrophically injured in a horseback riding accident. Physicians initially told Williams that, at best, his wife would leave the hospital a paraplegic. But doctors at the pioneering Shepard Center in Atlanta thought otherwise and after months of rehab there she ultimately regained the ability to walk. Throughout the ordeal, Williams had been scribbling his thoughts into a journal; good friend Caleb Clardy, co-writer of “Teach Me To Know,” suggested he turn his writing into songs. The couple’s friends had rallied around them, practically living in the hospital waiting room with Williams, organically becoming the support group he needed. Williams admits, “That was the first time I really experienced somebody trying their best to carry someone else’s burden. It was very moving to me. I was going to classes on how to bathe and feed my wife, and I was trying to process all the fear and anger and the numbness. I started reading my friends these journal entries. I was writing in a kind of rhyming form because it helped to keep my mind focused. Caleb said, these are songs, man, you need to learn how to play the guitar and sing at he same time.”

Good point about the Wolf and Elmore.  My favorite Elmore is "Something Inside Me", an unusually long 5 minute ballad.  I can't think of a single Elmore James vocal that does not have an emotional feel with both voice and guitar.  One of my desert island artists, along with the Wolf.

Some great choices already with Van, Dave Alvin,Patty Griffin and Mavis. 

The blues have always produced impassioned vocal performances and no one tops Howlin' Wolf.  On "Moanin' at Midnight", "Goin' Down Slow" and especially "Evil", Wolf was stirring and even frightening. 

But to me the quintessential blues song and performance is Elmore James version of  "It Hurts Me Too".  The vocal performance had to be strong to stand up against Elmore's biting slide solo.   

Solomon Burke- "None of Us Are Free" gives me goosebumps!

Gary Stewart "Ten Years Of This", "Whiskey Trip", "Drinkin' Thing", "She's Actin' Single", "I See The Want To In Your Eyes" just to mention a few of his best. That guy just made you feel what he was singing and you believe he lived every word. Almost everything George Jones ever sang, especially the obvious "He Stopped Loving Her Today", "Choices",and "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes"..... I second the earlier post by drivingtheview, Guy Clark (and Waylon's harmony part) "Anyhow I Love You" and Johnny Cash "Hurt". victoria nowak mention of Roy Orbison "Running Scared" is right on!

Ed's mention of  a Dave Alvin song reminded me that on his ELEVEN CD he has two songs dedicated to folks no longer with us:  his best friend and fellow musician Chris Gaffney ("Run Conejo Run") and his former bandmate Amy Farris ("Black Rose of Texas").  I saw Dave do an acoustic concert with a couple of Guilty Women soon after these events and it was very emotional.

Other folks have picked up on Van Morrison.  "Tupelo Honey" is one of the more emotional songs I have heard as well as "Wavelength".  In the Dave Marsh book on 500 Greatest Rock singles the author explains that Wavelength is important to Van because Irish music was mostly a torch or old-timey traditional song wasteland when Van was growing up.  However, once a week for one hour Luxemburg radio would broadcast rock and roll from the States and Van would listen in on a primitive radio with static and the signal bouncing in and out.  That's why the synthesizer does what it does on the record and why this music was an escape for a lonely Irish teenager.  In addition to the studio cut, Van has a good version on King Biscuit Flower Hour CD.  Check out the lyrics and you'll see what Van means. 


Sweet Carolina - Ryan Adams.  Especially the last verse. "I miss Kentucky, and I miss my family"

Hands on the Wheel - Willie Nelson, especially the line, "With a Lady they both enjoy, It's the same damn tune..."

Send a Boat, Chris Knight

I don't think there's ever been a more nakedly emotional, or giving performer, than Janis Joplin:


Have to say "Ruby and Carlos" by James McMurtry does it for me..Hard for me to listen to it without tearing up, even after about 500 listens.

A couple of others...."Let Him Roll" by Guy Clark  and "Sweet Old World" by Lucinda Williams, as well as "The Dutchman" by Steve Goodman.

These get me every time.

The Lone Bellow

Jason Isbel - Dress Blues   Van Morrison - It's All In The Game/ Do You Know What Thet Are Talking About( from Into The Music)

Steve Earle - 'Goodbye' is a brilliant mention. Brings to mind another 'Goodbye' - by Patty Griffin. Song can almost always move me to tears. Here's a few more off the top; Jay Farrar (UT) - 'Still Be Around' Townes - 'Tecumseh Valley' Guy Clark - 'Anyhow I Love You' And of course the famous cover... Johnny Cash - 'Hurt'

I saw Joan Baez live about 15 years ago, and when she sang Woody Guthrie's Deportees, much to my surprise, I began to weep.  It was one of the strongest emotional responses I've ever had to singer and song.  Another similar response was to my first listen to Dave Alvin's The Man in the Bed.  This time it was rooted in some deeply personal factors.

Louis Armstrong singing "Wonderful World"

Two more I just heard recently, both from the same artist, Holly Williams. The songs are Drinkin and Waitin on June. One tells the sad story of a family falling apart while the other does a great job telling about a longtime love affair that starts with a young boys infatuation with the girl next door and ends after a lifetime of being together.
Townes Van Zandt-"Marie", a great, sad and moving song Steve Earle- "Goodbye", you can feel his drug addiction and how it affected his life and how he was changing all of that

As much as I loved Vans performance on the Last Waltz,including his little kicks near the end, I loved his soulful voice on Tupelo Honey.

 Roy Orbison's Running Scared,the way it builds up from drums and acoustic guitar to full instrumentation and unbelievable vocal still amazes me.

Patty Griffin's Up to the Mountain...makes me cry!

Hank Williams' I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, and House of Gold.

Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris on Love Hurts. You can just hear the emotion in both their voices.

No one could stir the emotion like Jerry Garcia, vocally or instrumentally. That's why there are so many deadheads! You had to be there though!!

Another one that comes to mind, on a positive note, is "Circles Around Me" by Sam Bush on the CD of the same name.  I don't know history of song but it is either a celebration of life or maybe some good news on his medical struggles (two-time cancer survivor who has been cancer-free since 1987).  The emotion is subtle but is still there.

Yeah , thats a good one, along with Sweet Bitter Love , Skylark and a few others, a highlight of her Columbia years.

On the one i mentioned previously i'd go for her rendition of A Change Is Gonna Come , you can really hear that she's thinking of Sam Cooke, a superb rendition.

Yes, Van has a number of great emotional songs.  I just ran into "Listen to the Lion" on the shuffle mode on my iPod.  The live version on IT'S TOO LATE TO STOP NOW is slightly better than studio version.   We had esp on Aretha.  I just could not come up with "emotionally great" songs versus just plain great vocal renderings.  She does a good job on one of her blues CD's, DELTA MEETS DETROIT.  Try the standard "Going Down Slow".

Glad you mentioned Van as that's who sprung to mind for me straight away.

I've been re-visiting his album Veedon Fleece this week , it's not everyone's cup of tea of course but , for me, it's a vocal tour-de-force, he puts his heart and soul into every inflection. A classic album , maybe even the great man's best and that's hard for me to say given how much i adore Astral Weeks.

Also , Aretha's "I Never Loved A Man The Way i Love You" greatest album ever by a female singer !!!!