8 Off-Key Songs and Singers

Person with their hands over their ears

So I have this off-pitch thing. Some call it a blessing, but I call it a curse. It’s the ability to detect within a quarter tone or so whether a voice or an instrument is not in tune.

You can tell when I hear off-key songs. My eyebrow rises, the hair on the back of my neck stands on end, and I pitch my head sideways like a dog sensing an earthquake. (Sounds pleasant, doesn’t it?)

Off-key singing — especially when you’re a star — can be difficult to do on tape. Producers have an amazing sense of hearing that makes me seem tone-deaf, and they usually will get the musician to go through countless takes until he or she gets it right. No off-key songs on their watch. Finding a recording with an out-of-tune instrument or voice can sometimes be challenging. (Finding out-of-tune performers singing live — that’s another story.)

So I’ve developed a list of Top 8 off-key songs and singers. A few disclaimers:

  • No Bob Dylan. In listening to his music I’ve discovered that he doesn’t really sing off-key. He just has a terrible voice. Same with Tom Petty.
  • No Ringo Starr, for two reasons: One, it’s too easy, and two, it somehow seems endearing, as if we’re not supposed to expect the drummer for the Beatles to sing, but doggone it if he isn’t trying!

#1 – Nick Lowe — ‘Cruel To Be Kind’

I love Nick Lowe — he’s still classy after 30 years of making music. But how did he not notice that his entire background vocal section was singing flat during the chorus of “Cruel To Be Kind”? The three-part harmony isolated would be quite good, and Nick Lowe, as usual, is singing right on key. But put the two together, and you have a train wreck.

#2 – Club Nouveau — ‘Lean On Me’

This one, Like Lowe’s “Cruel to be Kind,” doesn’t sound so bad at first. About two-thirds of the way through the song, though, lead singer Jay King sings with just a backbeat and an occasional bass note — but it’s not enough to keep him grounded, and he goes WAY sharp, but not enough to notice at first. But when the band comes in again, it’s about a half-step lower than the vocals. Ouch.

#3 – Joy Division — ‘Atrocity Exhibition’

Choosing a Joy Division song in which Ian Curtis is singing out of tune isn’t really a challenge. I chose the first one I came to — the opening song from their final LP, Closer. This one seems obvious.

#4 – Morrissey — ‘Suedehead’

Morrissey irks me in that his off-key singing is just bad enough to start the twitching. But his songs are still extremely melodic, and I find myself singing with him, trying hard to reproduce the same semi-tone that makes me go batty.

#5 – Meat Loaf w/ Katharine McPhee — ‘It’s All Coming Back to Me Now’

I couldn’t resist throwing in a live performance. Sometimes lip-synching is a good thing, and I wish Mr. Loaf had tried it on “American Idol.” To her credit, McPhee does a great job staying in tune with the Loaf screaming in her ear.

#6 – Soft Cell — ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’

Marc Almond has a nice quality to his voice, but he doesn’t have a good sense of pitch. Throughout this song, he goes off course, wandering at times a half-step sharp, and it’s punctuated by Dave Ball’s synth playing, which tries to keep him on the right note. It doesn’t work.

#7 – The Human League — ‘The Lebanon’

I don’t know how to fix this train wreck. The chorus is supposed to resolve back to a minor key, but it sounds like Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall opt for the major third instead of the minor third. When juxtaposed with the minor key of the instruments, it sounds awful. I’ve tried to modulate it to the minor key in my head, but it still sounds weird. It would have been best for them to not sing at all, but then what would they have done — just dance?

#8 – The Rolling Stones — ‘Dandelion’

The off-key harmonies hit you five seconds into the song. It sounds like they’re trying to sound like the Beatles, but they fail miserably. How did this ever see the light of day?

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  1. Travis

    ABSOLUTELY RIGHT on the Club Nouveau! That’s bothered me every time I’ve heard it for about 20 years now.

  2. AMD

    Ah, but try to find Bill Withers live version of Lean On Me from an excellent double album of a benefit concert in 1973 (which featured a who’s who in black music at the time. Roberta Flack sang “On A Clear Day…” accompanied by Quincy Jones, and Sammy Davis Jr sang a mindfuckingly great version of his great “I Gotta Be Me”). Anyway, Withers mis-hits the first note totally. The rest of the version is so good though, that I had that on my car mix-tapes, not the studio version. As a result, I have internalised that flat note, and sing it (with a knowing smile) when I hear the studio recording of Lean On Me.

    It’s not an easy song to sing, which is why Club Nouveau dude shouldn’t have attempted it in the first place.

  3. James

    Funny, I was just listening to Joy Division and immediately had to google: “Ian Curtis out of key,” which of course led me here. I scroll down and sure enough we’re both naming the same song. Our ears seem to be in tune with the out of tune and I agree with your top 5. Sometimes I wonder if it’s intended, as in Ian Curtis’ case -one note is so bad that it changes semi tones the way a leslie speaker might warble. Planned? Who’s to say. Can’t ask poor Ian. Oh, and give Ringo a break, he did write “Photograph.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6CMSuT98-E

    I find it amusing that Bob Dylan started bad, somehow got worse to the point of incomprehensible guttural moans and Tom Petty wanted to copy that vocal style? Just listen to the Traveling Wilburys http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwqhdRs4jyA It’s almost embarrassing when they take turns at the mic and Roy makes them all sound like my dog could do a better job.

    Damn I hate youtube commercial that can’t be “skipped in 5 seconds.” Actually I hate those ones too.

  4. James

    I mean they’re my dog, not Roy. Roy would be the top dog and my dog is runner up. Man, I’m tired.

  5. Harvey Weaver

    Club Nouveau! It drove me crazy every time that song came on the radio. I thought I was the only one who noticed.

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