“There’s a paradox at the heart of great harmony singing: when voices combine in so elemental a way that they disappear into each other, the effect is dizzying, mystifying, disorienting, and yet by far the most satisfying sound in music. Here’s a VERY incomplete playlist, spanning a few generations, of bands defined by their harmonies, who set my mind spinning with their vocal arrangements, execution, and pure chemistry as singers.
“Full disclosure: my own band is included aspirationally and for the sake of self-promotion. Author’s Note: Sorry not sorry for naming this playlist with a pun.” — Joey Ryan, The Milk Carton Kids
The Jayhawks – “Blue”
That unison in the first few lines is so thrilling cause you know what’s about to happen, and when the parts separate it just feels so good.
Gillian Welch – “Caleb Meyer”
The harmonies and Dave’s playing are so intricate in this song you’d be forgiven for glossing over the lyrics, which tell the story of an attempted sexual assault victim killing her attacker with a broken bottle. Check out the Live From Here version with Gaby Moreno, Sarah Jarosz, and Sara Watkins, and catch the alt lyric subbing “Kavanaugh” for “Caleb Meyer” about halfway through.
Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris – “Hearts on Fire”
Just one of the all-time great duets. Who’s singing the melody, Emmylou or Gram? Hint: trick question.
Our Native Daughters – “Black Myself”
Do all supergroups hate being called supergroups? I wouldn’t know. Our Native Daughters is a supergroup though, and the power of their four voices in the refrains and choruses of this one are all the proof I need.
Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, & Emmylou Harris – “Those Memories of You”
It’s insane that three of the great singers of their generation just so happened to have this vocal chemistry. Their voices swirl together like paint and make a color I’ve never seen before.
boygenius – “Me & My Dog”
Favorite game to play when this song comes on is “try not to cry before the harmonies come in.” Very difficult. Impossible once they all sing together.
The Smothers Brothers – “You Can Call Me Stupid”
GOATS. IDOLS. Favorite line is, “That’s a pun isn’t it?” “No, that really happened.”
The Milk Carton Kids – “I Meant Every Word I Said”
My band. Imposter syndrome. We recorded the vocals on this whole album into one mic together. It helps us disappear our voices into each other’s.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – “Carry On”
For me, CSNY are the pinnacle of that disorienting feeling harmonies give you when you just have no idea what’s going on. I’ve never been able to follow any one of their individual parts and I LOVE that.
Sam & Dave – “Soothe Me”
When the chorus comes around and you can’t decide which part you want to sing along with, you know they did it right.
Louvin Brothers – “You’re Running Wild”
The Louvins sound ancient to me. Primal. The way their voices rub against each other in close harmony is almost off-putting but I’m addicted to it.
The Highwomen – “If She Ever Leaves Me”
There’s probably even better examples of the Highwomen doing that crazy thing with their four voices where they become one entirely unique voice, all together, but this song is just so good I had to go with it. And the blend in the choruses is just as intoxicating as it gets.
I’m With Her – “See You Around”
Really an embarrassment of riches in modern music on the harmony front. Hearing I’m With Her perform around one microphone drives me insane with the best possible mix of confusion, jealousy, and joy.
Mandolin Orange – “Paper Mountain”
The melancholy is so satisfying when either one of them sings alone, and then they bring that low harmony and I have to leave the room.
Skaggs & Rice – “Talk About Suffering”
This whole record is a masterclass in two-part harmony. It changed my entire concept of singing. I’m Jewish, but when this song comes on it makes me sing wholeheartedly of my love for Jesus.
The Everly Brothers – “Sleepless Nights”
The absolute masters of both parts of a two-part harmony standing alone as the melody. Credit to Felice and Boudleaux for that, for sure, but the Everlys executed it better than anyone before or since.
Simon & Garfunkel – “59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) — Live at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY – July 1970
This is far from my favorite S&G song, but this live version especially showcases what geniuses they were at arranging crossing vocal lines, unisons, parallel melodies, nonsense syllables and swirling harmonies. Plus the nostalgic “awwww” from the crowd gives me hope that a sensitive folk duo could one day achieve mainstream success again.
Shovels & Rope – “Lay Low”
This starts out as a song of profound loneliness with just one voice singing, then the harmony comes in and it gets… even lonelier? Harmony is magic.
Boyz II Men – “End of the Road”
I’m a child of the ‘90s, don’t @ me. I never realized at all those 8th grade slow dances that we were subliminally being taught world-class harmony singing and arranging. Good night.
Photo Credit: Jessica Perez