As any good music geek knows, YouTube is a treasure trove of isolated tracks — a single vocal or instrument lifted from a familiar song, sometimes from the master tapes, sometimes pulled out of the mix by an enterprising amateur sound engineer. It's a fascinating, stark and entirely new context in which to hear a guitar solo, drum pattern or lead vocal that was heretofore as familiar as your couch. Sometimes the revelations are impressive. Sometimes less so.
A YouTube search for “isolated tracks” nets 35,700 results, including Sting’s “Message in a Bottle” bass, Adele's “Rolling in the Deep" vocals, Notorious B.I.G.’s “Machine Gun Funk” rap and a surprising amount of Dream Theater. So curating a list of the best-ever isolated tracks is a vast and somewhat impossible task. And here goes!
The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter” vocals
Mick Jagger’s multiple vocal personas can sell a song even better than his stellar stagecraft, but the best vocal performance ever on a Stones song belongs to someone else. New Orleans-born soul singer Merry Clayton’s reaches hallelujah bliss at the 1:46 mark in the doomy “Gimme Shelter.” Note Jagger’s enthusiastic exclamation immediately afterwards. Mick’s witchy intro (0:12 in) and Brit-blues belting are also impressive. Clayton would later give Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” extra oomph, as well.
Stevie Wonder, “Superstition” Clavinet
The Hohner Clavinet D6 keyboard is inherently funky. In the hands of R&B genius Stevie Wonder, it sounds like a robot spider that’s been turned loose after ingesting a gram of coke and two ecstasy tabs. Wonder reportedly overdubbed around six Clavinet tracks on “Superstition.” The 1972 cut remains undeniable to this day, no matter how many Caucasians dance badly to it at wedding receptions.
The Beatles, “Helter Skelter” lead vocal
Paul McCartney’s vocals are so unhinged on “Helter Skelter” that a struggling Los Angeles musician named Charles Manson thought The Beatles were trying to send him secret messages via this song. (And others from the 1967 Fab Four LP best-known as The White Album.) At about 2:32, McCartney appears to have invented hair-metal shrieking. This after inventing punk-rock only about 0:12 in. Dude, take it easy — you’re supposed to be the Cute Beatle!
Duran Duran, “Rio” synth
You can almost hear the black lacquer here. Nick Rhodes’ refracted synthesizer work on the title track from Duran Duran’s monster 1983 album perfectly matches the disc’s stylized cover art, designed by Patrick Nagel. Rhodes reportedly used a Roland Jupiter-4 synth on the song. Just FYI: If you’re looking to start a DD tribute band, Jupiter-4’s usually go for around $3,000 to $4,500 on eBay.
Van Halen, “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” guitar
You can assemble a respectable isolated tracks best-of list from Eddie Van Halen guitar parts alone. The easy choice — which we considered — is Eddie’s wildfire solo from Michael Jackson’s 1982 number-one hit “Beat It,” perhaps The Gloved One’s greatest single of all time. But those 32 seconds are burned into the DNA of virtually everyone who’s ever heard them. Guitar geeks and otherwise will hear “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” with fresher ears. From the first three aircraft-carrier-sized chords, Eddie’s wicked tone and vastly underrated rhythm playing is at the forefront. About 0:33 in, he begins a helicopter-blade rhythm. At 1:15, EVH starts another patterned accented with volume swells, which have the effect of sounding like time is being reversed. And then Eddie literally makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up with the first licks of his solo at 1:26.
The Jackson 5, “ABC” vocals
Michael Jackson was only around 11 years old when he cut this jaw-dropping performance. Yeah, the pre-puberty thing helped hit those helium-high notes, but what made Jackson such a musical phenom was the natural, worldly feel — at least a decade beyond his years — he brought to his singing at such an early age.
Whitney Houston, “How Will I Know” vocals
This isolated vocal almost sounds better than the entire mixed 1985 track from which it’s taken, which is marred by gaudy '80s production. Houston’s pre-debauchery upper-register sparkles like church stained glass. She reportedly sang her own background vocals on “How Will I Know,” a George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam composition originally intended for Janet Jackson, forming an all-Whitney choir. Her melisma curves without detouring into Diva City. And check out the cloud-piercing climb beginning at 2:49.
Beasties Boys, “Hey Ladies” vocals
The next time some jackass in the next cubicle tries to tell you there’s no art to rapping, cue up this clip. Beastie Boys Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D were masters of vocal orchestration and cadence, and with the platform-shoes-and-wah-wah jive removed from “Hey Ladies,” these talents are super-pronounced. It’s interesting how the Beasties’ individual vocal tones and personalities were so distinct, yet laced together as slickly as a pair of Air Jordan shoelaces.
Deep Purple, “Space Truckin’” organ
If The Devil ever opens a disco, he should play music like this. Deep Purple keyboardist Jon Lord opens “Space Truckin’” with a dramatic pattern and hairy, overdriven tone. At 0:33, Lord segues into a gliding boogie thing which at 0:57 disintegrates into an insane riff that sounds like that coked-out robot spider from Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” has grown to 90 times its original size and is now biting the heads off every bell-bottom-wearing human in sight.
Dio, “Holy Diver” vocals
The king of the blues, Ronnie James Dio. Wait, what? One of metal’s most metallic voices begins his signature song with a few juke-joint ad libs before spreading bat-wings to ascend into menacing vibrato. Dio’s syncopated growls swell into overdubbed oscillation during the choruses, like at 0:36, for example. The late great singer’s performance is dramatic without ever getting hammy.
Guns N’ Roses, “Welcome to the Jungle” guitars
It’s the echoed, descending guitar line that’s rocked hundreds of arena-rock concerts and thousands of stadium sporting events. Played, of course, by Slash (in the right channel), who is now not only a six-string legend but also a brand. At 0:09 bluesy, laid-back bends (in the left channel) introduce the least famous member of Guns N’ Roses’ 1987-1991 prime lineup, Izzy Stradlin. Around 0:18 Slash returns to windmill chords in time with Stradlin. Then, at 0:32, the duo merge into the savage riff that gives “Jungle” so much attitude you could play it on a kazoo and sound like a badass. It’s fascinating to hear how the two guitarists' slighting differing rhythm add to the song’s serpentine hiss. And during an era when Spandex guitar-flash was de rigor, Slash’s well-paced, soulful solos, which begin at 1:34 and 2:39, initiated a welcome return to more tasteful playing.
Led Zeppelin, “Fool in the Rain” drums
Led Zeppelin is one of few bands where a case can be made for each musician in the group being the best ever at their respective primary instrument within the rock genre. Of all of them, John Bonham probably comes closest to earning such an accolade. The main dusky shuffle on "Fool in the Rain" — which starts here at 0:14 — is hardly byzantine. But Bonham’s pocket was huge and a major reason Zep moved so many people. And check out the roll at 1:26 and 2:10, a hook onto itself, leading into jazz-cymbal technique. While Bonzo’s groove never stops, unfortunately this isolated track ends before the song’s vibrant samba coda begins.
Heart, “Barracuda” lead vocal
This is where Ann Wilson out-Robert-Plants Robert Plant. The Heart singer scorches her microphone with a Valkyrie yelp, first introduced at 0:24 and 0:31 on “Barracuda,” sister-led band Heart’s flagship number. Like a lot of hard rock vocal tracks, this one is doused in echo, which add to the powerful, airborne aesthetic of Wilson’s pipes. With most of the instrumentation out of the mix, some curious references to porpoises in the lyrics are easier to make out — but hey, try to read some of Plant’s Tolkien-inspired Zeppelin lyrics without laughing out loud.
Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” vocals
There’s 38 seconds of complete silence at the beginning... then that eloquent rasp eases in. Twenty years after his death, Kurt Cobain’s vocals still sound as stirring as ever, especially when isolated from Nirvana’s punk-metal stomp. The multi-tracked hello, hello, hello, how-lows sound much more out-there unaccompanied. It’s also interesting hearing the numerous punch-ins on the track. Cobain’s acidic howl ignites the song’s chorus beginning at 1:10, and from 4:34 on, it’s all catchy catharsis.
Rush, “YYZ” drums
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Did you really think we were going to omit this virtuosic Canadian power-trio? Prepare to enter sensei Neil Peart’s drum dojo. To avoid receiving angry corrective emails from firstname.lastname@example.org, we're going to steer clear of any technical descriptions of Peart’s playing on this instrumental tune from Rush’s breakthrough 1981 LP Moving Pictures. But in nontechnical terms, the “YYZ” drums evoke trigonometry, jazz, boxing and Keith Moon being hybridized in centrifuge.