Even if Björk’s visual presentation was tragically limited to badly composed photos of her wearing roomy sweatpants and Abercrombie & Fitch sweaters and her musical backing never ventured beyond, say, adult contemporary folk pop, she would still be an icon for the ages, because she would still have that voice.
Unless one was a devoted follower of the Icelandic jazz-cabaret scene or just really into The Sugarcubes, the majority of us were first introduced to Björk by the big-hearted pop songs of her 1993 album, Debut, a coming-out party for a singular talent in love with the world, unable to contain her joy. But Björk was never content to stay in one place. As she explored new sounds and moods, she pushed her voice as well, and the same instrument that gave us the galaxy-swallowing awe of “Big Time Sensuality” made adult contentment sound steamy on “Hidden Place”, turned into the avenging mother this world doesn’t deserve on “Declare Independence”, and held back not even a speck of her shattered soul on “Black Lake” to pick but a few highlights.
Her approach to phrasing, the notes she chooses to emphasize, and the melodic angles she finds simply can’t be replicated; no other singer on earth could twist up the word “logic” into a beguiling shape the way she does on “Human Behaviour”. No other singer should even bother with “whale” after she stole the word forever with “Bachelorette”.
But even at her lowest moments (and her last album, Vulnicura, got pretty damn harrowing), the most impressive thing about Björk’s voice is that you feel how indestructible this woman’s heart is, every single time. –Michael Tedder
09. Robert Plant
It’s an image that for many defines the peak of ‘70s rock: Robert Plant, bare-chested and clad in crotch-hugging jeans under bright stage lights, leaning back to back against guitarist Jimmy Page while screaming into a microphone during a Led Zeppelin show. It’s an apt metaphor for Plant’s vocals during his storied tenure leading one of the most powerful bands to ever assemble in the name of rock and roll. The bright, spiritual yin to Page’s dark magical yang, Plant’s extreme take on Delta blues pioneers like Skip James and Bukka White resulted in his signature roar that would drive many of rock’s most indelible moments.
Standing tall amidst the maelstrom of sound conjured by the band around him, Plant’s vocals erupted with the same majesty as John Bonham’s thunderous drums and John Paul Jones’ brutal bass lines. He just as easily pumped the brakes down to a passionate purr to narrate the band’s softer side. Nimble enough to adapt his style throughout the band’s continual evolution, Plant was still delivering show-stopping performances on the group’s final studio effort, In Through the Out Door, most notably with his assertive and carefree attack throughout 1979 hit “Fool in the Rain”.
Plant’s post-Zeppelin career has been just as inspired. Delving into his original influences with the Honeydrippers, he has proven himself a genuine crooner. Now in his late ‘60s, he’s come full-circle with his latest outfit, Sensational Space Shifters, reinterpreting Led Zeppelin classics while still displaying elements of his original roar. –Scott T. Sterling
08. Amy Winehouse
What separates Amy Winehouse from the truly classic jazz singers — your Billie Holidays, your Ella Fitzgeralds — isn’t her talent, but rather her timing. The precocious Jewish girl from north London arrived decades after the greats had come and gone, leaving her to stand alone in a room while her huge, smoky voice sucked up all the atmosphere. Winehouse may have sung with that mixture of all-out emotion and total control that characterized the jazz greats, but she was also the most uniquely modern singer of her time, capable of hopping from ’60s girl-group sass to ’90s hip-hop cadences and arriving at something revelatory. Her rotten luck was to possess that kind of otherworldly talent at the same time the media went digital and lost all semblance of integrity. Perhaps she might have lived to make another Back to Black had we only listened to the first one closely enough. –Collin Brennan
07. Roy Orbison
Promising that we can get everything we want seems like a tall order from a stranger, but when listening to Roy Orbison’s musical orbit, that sky-high goal suddenly seems like it’s slapping you on the back. Though songs like “Tell Laura I Love Her” and “In Dreams” detailed Orbison sinking into the pangs of love lost, his crystalline falsetto radiated a sense of confident calm — every note worthwhile and within reach. The acute lyrical observations come thick and fast, qualifying Orbison’s often underrated songwriting. The sweet, the breezy — you got it. Orbison knew the farthest realms of his voice as well as the comfort zones and could map out perfectly orchestrated routes to draw the listener into his world, making the pains that much more palpable and the highs that much more jubilant. While the music industry today spans across an archipelago of disparate sounds and styles, in Orbison’s day, there was still something close to a unified culture, but his take on standard fare always felt a little quirky, even mysterious.
The smooth-talking love-hustler’s wink was as clear as the notes he laid bare. Even Bob Dylan agreed: “the voice of a professional criminal.” He wasn’t carping at Orbison’s slick balladry, but commending his devotion to it. Take the ubiquitous “Oh, Pretty Woman”. The title seems pretty edifying, but then Orbison twists his voice down to offer an eyebrow-raising “mercy.” It wasn’t just the sunglasses and black clothes that brought a sense of mystery; Orbison’s voice was capable of sounding uncracked even as it quaked. The lonely man’s heart collapsed into a pool, and he often made existential unease charming (“Crying”) and ordinary life exceptional (“I’m Hurtin’”). With a voice ranging from furtive cheek to broad-smoldering bawl, and a falsetto that lilts even as it mopes, he gets mad, sad, and sentimental, but mostly you hear him traversing a musical map of his life, tough times and all. –Lior Phillips
06. Whitney Houston
It is a cosmic injustice that the woman who would eventually be nicknamed “The Voice” was created in such a way that she could begin her career as a fashion model, but that was Whitney Houston: Aretha Franklin and a Covergirl rolled into one impossible package. According to a recent scientific study, she could hit notes that were a bajillion octaves apart. Her velvety lower registers, powerhouse middle notes, and piercing head voice were employed at will, bouncing from one end of the spectrum to the other with invariably perfect pitch. But it was Houston’s emotional depths, the way she could wail in longing and hurt (enhanced by her public pains: her abusive relationship with Bobby Brown and her lurid, drugs-and-drowning death), that made her a spokesperson for the downtrodden and a beloved figure worldwide.
Whitney Houston had two separate entries in the Guinness Book of World Records: First, for Most Simultaneous Hits (UK) and second, as the most awarded female artist of all time. That second record is obviously incredible, but the simultaneous hits are just as telling. Whitney Houston charted 12 singles in the weeks after her death, 30 years after she had begun her career and an ocean away from where she was born. Her passing was grieved everywhere that English is spoken and many places that it is not — her music celebrated around the globe. –Wren Graves
05. James Brown
In James McBride’s new book Kill ‘Em and Leave, there is a story about the time James Brown shared a bill with The Rolling Stones in 1964. The Stones were offered the closing slot. And though the band was the hot new thing at the time, Keith Richards later remarked that following a Brown performance was the dumbest move of their career.
That was James Brown. Beneath the pompadour, the man was an explosive performer whose electric stage presence was equaled only by the sheer force of his voice — a coarse, guttural shriek that spit in the face of polite doo-wop crooners. During the 1960s and early ‘70s — years he spent towering over the music industry before his precipitous decline — that inimitable wail became the symbol of black pride (see: the iconic black power anthem “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”), of unbridled sexuality and lust (Sex Machine), of R&B and soul music’s commercial peak, of Blaxploitation flicks (whether it was actually Brown, as on Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off, or a cheap imitation), and far more. He had rivals, like Barry White and Isaac Hayes, but none who matched him in longevity or influence, from the sheer power of Live at the Apollo to the deep grooves and chicken-scratch guitar of his ‘70s work.
And none who fell quite as steeply. By the end of the 1980s, the Godfather’s band was shattered, his personal life was a disaster, his finances nearing bankruptcy. (Even today, his legacy is sullied by the legal purgatory that keeps his fortune from being distributed to poor children as he intended.) But his influence, particularly his vocals and style, formed the living vocabulary of modern pop and R&B. There is a reason Brown is the only musician who made both Michael Jackson and Prince nervous. Neither artist’s career would have existed without him. –Zach Schonfeld
04. Aretha Franklin
“Being a singer is a natural gift,” Aretha Franklin once said. That’s easy to say when you have one of the most naturally powerful voices in history, the kind of gift that can change the world. She’s the original diva, a talent recognizable from a single second of audio, capable of growling out the raw sexuality of “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)”, boiling with sweetness on “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, and swaggering bravado on “Think” — or all three at once, on the legendary “Respect”. Even at her most tender moments, Franklin delivers soft tones with the utmost confidence.
Aretha started singing at her father’s church, and there’s a minister’s daughter intensity to all of her emotions. She finds spiritual highs and lows informed by an intense personal connection with the sublime. But she also has an equally powerful connection to the base-level feelings of everyday life, able to emote the joy and pain of love and loss to the degree that we all feel them but can’t quite express. Her mezzo-soprano tones flex from grit and gravel to falsetto space exploration. And through it all, over the course of 60 years of releasing music, the living legend has remained entirely unique, her style unmatched and unrivaled. Aretha Franklin can do everything, and no one can do what Aretha Franklin does. –Adam Kivel
03. Freddie Mercury
Some frontmen had it all. Freddie Mercury rocked the moves, flaunted the outfits, and, above all else, brought a voice too astounding to comprehend as raw talent. That’s exactly what it was, all the way up to his death in 1991. Watch live footage (or relive memories should you be so lucky to have seen Queen during their prime). Barely a minute in, it becomes apparent that Mercury’s voice didn’t rely on studio tweaks or production. He grabbed the bar for classic rock vocals and catapulted it into the horizon.
The long-held rumor that Mercury’s range spanned four octaves remains unproven by science, but listening to Queen makes it apparent just how wide his vocal range was. The revered epic “Bohemian Rhapsody”, for all of its ridiculousness, pushes Mercury to run in circles, jumping from low octaves to high falsettos. What’s more, he does so in seconds. A new study proves both speed and intensity are something that Freddie Mercury excelled in, in part because he vibrated his ventricular folds — a part of the throat that goes unused unless you’re a Tuvan throat singer — while singing subharmonics. (It checks out on “Don’t Stop Me Now”, too).
Play “Under Pressure”, “You’re My Best Friend”, or “Another One Bites The Dust”. Each note shines with clarity. Even on Queen’s goofiest songs (here’s lookin’ at you, “Bicycle Race”), Mercury sings with a phenomenal voice. It sounds like he’s trying to outdo himself, going faster and faster, but when you take a step back, it’s clear Mercury is giddy from having fun for fun’s sake. To achieve technical feats while playing around is a thing in itself. That, folks, is someone who balances work and play. Mercury does so with just the right attention to each. Maybe that’s the secret to having one of the best singing voices in history. –Nina Corcoran
02. Billie Holiday
It’s a profound web of seductively calm and spontaneous: Words plunge out of her mouth of an equal kind with the instruments, threading through the trumpet, around the sax, and over the strings. Never rushed, never raucous, revealing the same skill and invention that jazz instrumentalists bare. This is Eleanora Fagan. Lady Day. Billie Holiday. One woman capable of commanding the creative charge of music as if it were the only way to be brought to life.
The First Lady of Jazz couldn’t be contained by cabaret pizzazz, but loved theatrical emoting that marked time and advocated a multilinear improvisational style devoted to melodic variation. Her irresistible rhythmic technique allowed her to seep behind the beat and give it a kick from beneath. You never knew where she was going — and in art, creativity, and life, you’re sometimes better off not knowing. She was brilliant enough to make it all mesmerizing, her ability to appear both whacked by the world and naïve enough to believe in it, enchanting listeners worldwide.
But it’s pain that makes Billie Holiday boundless. Gardenia in hair, microphone in hand, she became a proverb for romance. Tragically, she could never surpass her past and lived a life trying to forget it. Born as Eleanora Fagan in 1915, and nicknamed “Billie,” she worked as a teenage prostitute, suffered through rape, cruel marriages, and addiction. Her nerve became a shield, but like many icons, Holiday fell victim to drugs and drink, and in 1959, passed away at just 44 years old.
While it’s fair to believe Holiday achieved her greatest peak when her songs ruptured with equal amount of rebellion and delight between 1937 and 1944, it was her sessions with pianist Teddy Wilson and saxophonist Lester Young that allowed her to burst with abandon rather than stretch the perfect pitch. You can hear it on “The Man I Love”, “When You’re Smiling”, “He’s Funny That Way”, or “Miss Brown to You” — and on her signature songs, “Lover Man”, “God Bless the Child”, “Solitude”, and “All of Me” too.
But being mentored by John Hammond, a devotion to fellow African-Americans let her courage ripen. “Strange Fruit” finds Holiday seducing, raging, and confessing, with a voice like coiling fire full of controlled heat and wonder, addressing inequality, inhumanity, connection, and heart, all in one furnace. Holiday imbues songs with plaintive immortality by revealing her own visceral mortality: This is Eleanora Fagan. Lady Day. Billie Holiday. –Lior Phillips
01. Michael Jackson
Have you ever watched Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker? Odds are if you were born between 1975 and 1985, the VHS tape sat somewhere next to your equally worn copies of Back to the Future, E.T., and Star Wars. Anyways, if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and find it somewhere on YouTube as it’s worth a watch, if only for the captivating videos and the way it more or less bottles up the timeless magic and appeal of the King of Pop. The reason I’m bringing it up now is specifically for its opening segment, which captures Jackson singing “Man in the Mirror” during his colossal Bad Tour across Europe. For a good three or four minutes, you can watch everyone lose their shit as he triumphantly lifts up their spirits with arguably one of the greatest songs ever. But look closer: It’s people of all nationalities, united and feeling it together.
That was ultimately the power of Michael Jackson; he had the ability of stopping everyone in their tracks, both in life and death. Some might credit this to his unprecedented dance moves, and they’d be right. Some might say it was his masterful production, and they’d be right. Some might point to the archive of hooks that fueled each of his songs, and they’d be right. And some might say it was his voice … and they’d be right. He was the full package in a way we haven’t and probably never will see again — the greatest performer who ever lived. So, yes, you could sit here and make cogent arguments for any of the multifaceted reasons behind his undying legend, but really it starts and ends with his voice. It’s his voice that connected the world together, and it’s his voice that never wavered as he slid into every kind of genre imaginable, from disco to rock to pop to hip-hop to R&B.
What’s more, it’s his voice that keeps on giving: Name any groundbreaking artist of the last 30 years and they’ll all point to him as a major influence, whether it’s his work fronting The Jackson Five, his salad days in Motown, or the decade and a half he turned his music into both a lifestyle and a brand — doesn’t matter, it’s all in regular rotation. Even now, after all the dark and disturbing controversies that have surfaced over the last two decades, he remains an unstoppable, influential enigma. “One of the first times I ever performed in front of a big group of people was at my kindergarten graduation,” Chance the Rapper, then 20 years old, told XXL. “I did, like, a Michael Jackson impersonation as, like, a five-year-old. I had the suit and blazer, the glove and the fedora, and I just performed a whole Michael Jackson song. I’m sure it was ‘Smooth Criminal’.” Shit’s off the wall. –Michael Roffman