Alternative female voices

The ‘female vocal’ is a classic of Hi-Fi demonstrations and test discs, used by countless audiophiles to reveal something about a system or a separate component. We know, we use female vocalists a lot; they reveal detail and precision in a part of the audio bandwidth that nothing else seems to reach. There is something incredibly revealing in the voices of Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Nora Jones and of course Eva Cassidy, who seems to still be a crowd favourite at Hi-Fi shows.

But while these artists have their merits and are often great acts in themselves, there is obviously a much, much wider range of female vocalists out there that don’t get played enough in a Hi-Fi context, and would provide an excellent antidote to the same few tracks you often hear using to demo speakers and systems in Hi-Fi shops and shows. And let’s be honest, it’s always good to hear something fresh and new.

This baker’s dozen of a list is by no means definitive, and feel free to add to it, but we hope you enjoy our selection of alternative female voices, and perhaps find something new in there that will go on to become one of your reference discs. Or, better still, something that you will love and enjoy just for yourself.

The Delines
Album of Choice: Colfax

This album got significant coverage at the time of release as the side project of Willy Vlautin of Richmond Fontaine, whose song writing on this record is up with his best. But it’s the wonderful voice of Amy Boone that makes Colfax something special. Her ability to deliver the downbeat lyrics with her distinctive country tinged soulful manner is at times breath-taking on here. We just hope this isn’t the only album they ever record.

Emily Hall (composer) / Olivia Chaney (soprano)
Track of Choice: Eternity

This is one of the most amazing three minutes of music we have ever heard. Composed by Emily Hall and using the words of a Rimbaud poem, Eternity is a site-specific work. It was recorded in a disused submarine base in Bordeaux, where the echo is of such immense proportions that Olivia Chaney was able to duet with herself. It sounds simply sublime.

Listen here

Track of Choice: Royals

Kiwi artist Lorde is only 20, but with a couple of Grammy’s and a Brit under her belt she is already making waves. This track was used extensively in the development of the 800 Series Diamond, and is a stunning mix of fantastic vocals and some seriously deep bass – which makes it the perfect test track for the 800 D3s! But whatever speakers you are listening to, it’s well worth adding to your test disc collection.

Cat Power
Album of Choice: The Greatest

Cat Power has been producing great music for over two decades now, although her often erratic career has been plagued by depression, alcoholism and stage fright – making Cat Power live performances something of a lottery in the past. However, with 2006’s amazing, southern soul infused The Greatest she produced an album that should definitely be on your listen-to list if you haven’t already experienced its beauty. Power’s breathy vocals are a joy to behold, and even though she has surrounded herself with the best musicians Memphis has to offer, her voice remains solidly centre stage. Amazing stuff.

Scout Niblett
Album of Choice: It’s up to Emma

Scout Niblett’s first self-produced album retains much of the style, sound and presentation of her previous Steve Albini recorded offerings. Crystal clear, soul bearing vocals blow you away while scratchy, heavy guitars and a wonderfully recorded set of drums provide the engine for the experience. The effect on a great Hi-Fi system is almost visceral in its power, and well worth investing in. A favourite of some in our Steyning engineering team.

Kristin Hersh
Album of Choice: Wyatt at the Coyote Palace

For 30 years Kristin Hersh has been making incredible music, either as the lead of Throwing Music, with 50FootWave or on her almost countless collection of solo outings. Our choice of album is her latest, but it could have been almost any from her long career. Her vocal style and guitar playing are not to everyone’s taste – as we have discovered from bitter experience – but to our ears she is one of the most creative, hard-working and best-sounding singer-songwriters around.

Jenny Lewis
Album of Choice: Rabbit Fur Coat

Jenny Lewis’ solo albums are great – as was her time as lead singer of Rilo Kiley – but it’s this collaboration with the Watson Twins that gets played a lot when checking out speakers. Nicely recorded, occasionally poppy, but always engaging – this album is a hidden gem.

Neko Case
Album: Furnace Room Lullaby

Canadian Neko Case has one of those irresistible country voices that sounds timeless, while simultaneously sounding bang-up-to-date when delivering new, modern material. There’s so much depth and subtlety in her voice that listening to it becomes addictive as you try to hear more and more detail – and the better the system, the more subtlety and nuance you will be blessed with.

Listen here

Anna Van Hausswolff
Album: The Miraculous

Anna Van Hausswolff is one of the most talented and innovative singer-songwriters and composers around today. Born in Sweden, she loves to blend her at times ethereal voice with well-recorded massive organs – which she herself plays – before hitting her stride with drone-like metal. It really does have to be heard to be believed, and is best played good and LOUD!

Agnes Obel
Album: Citizen of Glass

Danish-born Obel manages to combine a beautiful voice and an ear for a tune with a restless desire to experiment and push the boundaries of her music. At times simple – with just Obel’s piano and voice – at other times large and dramatic with luscious orchestration: this album in particular is a fantastic test disc.

Diamanda Galás
Album: The Singer

The American avant-garde soprano, pianist and composer has enjoyed a long, and at times controversial and challenging career. Her distinctive voice and powerful, energetic piano style make for a completely gripping listening experience, and while we don’t want to diminish her own creations, this incredible album of classic blues songs is a great entry point.

Shirley Collins
Album: Lodestar

Shirley Collins first made a record in 1959, and was a major player in the British Folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s. However, after an emotional crisis she found herself unable to sing. That was 1978, and for almost four decades she pretty much disappeared. Lodestar is her first offering since she started singing again, and is a beautiful, characterful folk album. Okay, it’s not for everyone, but if it works for you this is an immensely rewarding listen.

Joanna Newsom
Album: Divers

American harpist and singer Newsom, manages to combine classic Appalachian-tinged American folk with avant-garde influences into music that is joyful and challenging at the same time. At first listen, her unusual voice could put you off, but longer exposure is fully rewarding, because you soon realise it is stunningly beautiful and engaging.


  • Jim says:

    Audrey Assad and my P7 is a match made in heaven.

  • toonminer says:

    Cheryl Dilcher’s Butterfly album and in particular the song Butterfly with is #1 in my top 10. The range and delivery from this vinyl album is pure listening pleasure.

  • Donald George says:

    I would like to recommend another female singer to your list, she is a Canadian jazz artist Emilie Clare Barlow

  • Peter C. Ross says:

    Jesca Hoop – The house that Jack Built

  • Marco Barrios says:

    What is this ‘Female Vocal’ you are referring to?

  • AJ says:

    Great list, but you forgot Hiatus Kaiyote!!! Nai Palm is incredible and really should be on here! Check out Breathing Underwater or Nakamarra.

  • Dexter Yarza says:

    Here is my list.

    Ashelyn Summers: Track – “One”.
    The Be Good Tanyas: Album – “Blue Horse”; Track – “Oh Susanna”
    Bjork: Album – “Biophilia”; Tracks – “Thunderbolt”, “Dark Matter”, “Hollow” and “Mutual Core”.
    Brandi Carlile: Album – “The Story”.
    Cara Dillon: Album – “Hill of Thieves”; Track – “The Parting Glass”.
    Cat Power: Album – “You Are Free”; Tracks – “Good Woman”, “Werewolf”, “Fool”, “He War” and “Maybe Not”.
    Eilen Jewell: Album – “Sea of Tears”; Tracks – “Shakin’ All Over” and “One of Those Days”.
    Fiona Apple: Album – “The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screwdriver”; Tracks – “Jonathan”, “Left Alone” and “Hot Knife”.
    Gillian Welch: Album – “Revival”.
    Hayley Westenra: Album – “Odyssey EP”; Track – “O Mio Babbino Caro”.
    Joss Stone: Album – “The Soul Sessions”; Tracks – “The Chokin’ Kind” and ” Fell in Love With a Boy”.
    Katie Melua: Album – “Piece by Piece”; Tracks – “Piece by Piece” and “Just Like Heaven”.
    Lhasa de Sela: Album – “Lhasa”; Track – “Love Came Here”.
    Marie Digby: Album – “Unfold”; Track – “Spell”.
    Patty Griffin: Album – 1000 Kisses”; Tracks – “Rain”, “Stolen Car” and “Making Pies”.
    Priscilla Ahn: Album – “A Good Day”; Track – “Dream”.
    Regina Spektor: Album – “11:11”; Tracks – “Love Affair”, “Rejazz”, “Mary Ann” and “Wasteside”.
    Rhiannon Giddens: Album – “Tomorrow is My Turn”; Tracks – “Last Kind Words”, “She’s Got You” and “O Love is Teasin'”.
    Rose Cousins: Album – “We Have Made a Spark”; Track – “One Way”.
    Sarah Jarosz: Album – Build Me Up From Bones”; Track – “Mile on the Moon”.
    The Secret Sisters: Album – “The Secret Sisters”; Tracks – “Tennessee Me” and “The One I Love is Gone”.
    She & Him: Track – “I Put a Spell on You”.
    The Wailin’ Jennys: Album – “40 Days”; Tracks – “One Voice” and “The Parting Glass”.

  • Dr. Remus says:

    Thanks, Sir.! Awesome;0

  • Albert Jochems says:

    What a great list! You guys are inspiring me to listen to new music almost as much as my just acquired 803 D3!

    With some funny side effects: “dad, are you listening to Lorde? Really? Aren’t you too old for that?” :)

    Although I still love to walk into a demo room, ask them to play “Famous blue raincoat” by Jennifer Warnes and I know in 30 seconds what I like about the system and what I don’t like. And even better: after playing this song for 30 years now I still love the song and usually play it all the way to the end, even when the system is not thát good.

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