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The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time

on November 14, 2016, 12:00am
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100. Lou Reed

The late Lou Reed grew up on doo-wop and, in his early days, played guitar in lickety-split early rock and roll bands like The Jades. And while his guitar-playing was pretty, his voice wasn’t. Reed’s voice was vicious — almost as dry as his speaking tone and just as sarcastic. The way he said certain words sounded like a joke you were never entirely sure if you were in on. But those idiosyncrasies are what made his voice so resonant, too.

The former Velvet Underground frontman’s voice often sounded like he was frantically trying to tell you something, the nervy words tumbling out of his mouth seemingly faster than he could control them, which makes songs like “Run Run Run” sound more like a sprint than a song. Reed got swaggier in the ‘70s, allowing his voice to snap and crackle in the name of pop (look no further than how he enunciates the words “oh baby” on Transformer’s “Make Up” for some prime Reed sing-speak-slurs). But on gentle cuts, like “Pale Blue Eyes”, Reed’s voice quivered with the kind of melancholy that can only come from a lifetime of hurt. And that’s the kind of honesty that saved lives through rock and roll. –Paula Mejia
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99. Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt was born in Southern California, but her musical education took place in the bars and cafes of New York City, where she performed alongside legendary bluesmen Mississippi Fred McDowell and Howlin’ Wolf and learned what a voice dripping with soul is supposed to sound like. Raitt carried that voice with her throughout the subsequent years and decades, lending a quiet strength and gravitas to songs like “Angel from Montgomery” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. Her guitar playing is a rollicking force in its own right, but there’s something in that bluesy, slightly raspy cadence that almost makes the rest of the track recede into the background. –Collin Brennan

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98. Justin Vernon

Before he sang like a robot, Justin Vernon was a folksy guy who balanced a soulful, delicate falsetto with a ravenous bark. On his first widely known song, “Skinny Love”, both were displayed, portraying a singer who didn’t bank on his technical gifts, instead letting his voice go wild and unpredictable with lovely results. Its vulnerability was accentuated by the choices Vernon made. He didn’t have to sing like this, but he knew it was the best way to transport listeners to a smoldering fireplace, to fresh footprints on a snowy road, or to a solitary pine-lined hiking trail. This is what made him a star.

And then, like any great experimenter, he slowly began to disassemble the way people heard him. Some may see vocal effects as a disqualifier for a great singer, but for Vernon, it’s become as distinguishing (if not more so) than his natural vocal characteristics. He’s never used vocal manipulation to mask the shortcomings of his singing. Instead, it accentuates his talents. There’s never a question of who you’re hearing when he fronts Bon Iver or Volcano Choir or steps into a Kanye West song. He’s not the first person to imbue machines with humanity, but he might be the best. –Philip Cosores
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97. Jim Morrison

Perhaps Jim Morrison said it best when he described himself as “an intelligent, sensitive human being with the soul of a clown, which always forces me to blow it at the most important moments.” Make no mistake, the late poet was a total hound dog — with women, with drugs, with life, with words. You can hear it in every song by The Doors, whether he’s throwing bloodied punches on “Break on Through (To the Other Side”), dangling from a ship on “Spanish Caravan”, getting messy with vivid oil paintings on “Moonlight Drive”, or surfing over good vibes on “L.A. Woman”. Some have argued he was the voice of the ’60s, a leaky bottle of rage and love, which seems like such an obvious dichotomy yet one that rarely ever adds up.

It did with Morrison. Although a few notable critics have since written off his work as high school poetry — and yeah, it doesn’t help that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “drunken buffoon” barb from Almost Famous tends to shadow his name everywhere nowadays — the whiskey-drinking crooner was an ideal voice at a time when vitriolic rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t exactly there yet. Singers back then were angry, sure, but nobody played with fire like Morrison, not even the likes of Mick Jagger. No, there was a flamboyant edge to the Lizard King, steeped mostly in underground theater, and the guy knew how to not only connect with his audiences but prod them. Some listened, some laughed, but nobody ever forgot him. –Michael Roffman

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96. Annie Lennox

Nostalgia culture will likely enshrine Scottish singer Annie Lennox as an icy dominatrix, sporting a close-cropped shock of red hair and wielding a cane in the video for Eurythmics’ storming “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”. But her smooth burr also has a ton of warmth to it, adding a rich humanity to the splendid productions that her collaborators, like fellow Eurythmic Dave Stewart and pop-fantasia architect Trevor Horn, would offer her. Adjectives describing plushness — velvety, sumptuous, lush — certainly apply to her voice, although those moments of tension before it opens up into a full-on trill, or sails into a falsetto, give gravitas to even the most over-the-top arrangements surrounding her. –Maura Johnston

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95. Iggy Pop

If there’s any question as to whether or not Iggy Pop is the godfather of punk, there’s absolutely no doubt that he’s the goddamned grandaddy of punk vocalists. At the climax of “No Fun”, from The Stooges landmark self-titled 1969 debut, Pop ravenously clamors that guitarist Ron Asheton use his gnarled squalls of distortion to tell the people what this rock and roll thing is really all about. “Tell ‘em how I feel!” he snarls, and as Asheton’s serrated riffs contort with unhinged carnality, Pop doesn’t even have to sing a word; he is pure electricity.

Over the course of his 50-plus-year career, he would sing many words — strange, wonderful words — but the true key to his eternal charm was that come-hither baritone (“Gimme Danger”, “Nightclubbing”) that would become his true calling card, purring through your temporal lobe like some deranged, horny Jedi ready to hypnotize you into doing things you usually wouldn’t and definitely shouldn’t. But with a voice as perfectly sunken and rakish as Iggy Pop’s, singing isn’t always even necessary. Sometimes a simple “hi” will do just fine. –Zach Kelly

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94. Steven Tyler

Aerosmith would probably have been just another New England bar band had it not been for Steven Tyler, the serpentine frontman who knew how to fill every available opening with something — a shimmy, a scat, a sustained note. On Aerosmith’s first album, he sounds at times almost adolescent, his scruffy voice spinning tales of breaking out — the wise-beyond-its-years “Mama Kin”, the anxious “Dream On”. As his band got bigger, so did his vocal command, although he never lost his desperate edge, swaggering and scatting through come-ons like the chugging “Lord of the Thighs” and painting paranoia on “Nobody’s Fault”.

While he’d always been good at the big, squishy ballad — the way he burrows into “Seasons of Wither” and “You See Me Crying” turbocharge their grandeur — Aerosmith’s late-’80s revival seemed perfectly timed with the Desmond Child era of power balladry, allowing Tyler to introduce a new generation to his band’s greatness via his all-in performances on the sweeping “Angel” and the honky-tonked “What It Takes”. –Maura Johnston

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93. Patti Smith

When Patti Smith emerged out of the Bowery in the early ’70s, she didn’t sound like any other woman in rock and roll and alchemized her own version of what a frontwoman could be. Trying to measure her greatness as a singer by any conventional method will fall flat on its face, but she shared many of the same qualities as her other punk brothers and sisters at the time: fearlessness and unstoppable conviction, alongside her own near-shamanic ability to create explosive energy the second she stepped to the mic. Smith’s voice commands attention out of sheer force of will. She sings with great love and with great anger, often simultaneously.

Smith is at her best in those compositions that explore multiple dynamics — once again, her ability to shape and control the power of the vocal and the performance — where she can modulate from whisper to shout to high priestess, calling the tribe to order on epic journeys like “Land”, “Gloria”, or even “Birdland”. But it’s important to remember that she would break through to the mainstream with “Because the Night”, a love song, and it’s not accidental that that’s one of the few songs others have dared to try to cover over the years. Her energy has not waned with the years; if anything, she’s more comfortable with it now, more in control, more willing to let the throttle back a little — although just a little. The likes of “Free Money” or “Privilege (Set Me Free)” can still steamroll an audience today, leaving them breathless. –Caryn Rose

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92. Maynard James Keenan

The clearest example of the might of Maynard James Keenan’s voice is so powerful that even he can barely handle it.

“Ticks & Leeches”, the centerpiece of alt-metal overlords Tool’s third album, Lateralus, is an epic jeremiad about greed and music industry bloodsuckers, inspired by the protracted legal battle the band had with their label that prevented them from recording a new album for several years. As the song builds to peak intensity, Keenan screeches “suck me dry,” and the “suck” is really the key here. On this word, Keenan hits the absolute highest point he can possibly go with his voice, and then holds it for as long as he possibly can. By the end, he sounds beaten. Nearly spent. He then does it three more times. Keenan has said this song was so physically taxing to record — though necessary to convey the anguish the band felt about their predicament — that despite his bandmate’s frequent requests, Tool almost never play it live. (Though, apparently, the band did play it once at Mike Patton’s request when Tomahawk was touring with them, Patton being a man that appreciates singing as a form of self-masochism.)

Tool is perhaps most famous for songs that allow Keenan to vent, at great volume, about his personal demons and display his contempt for a shallow, materialistic, anti-intellectual society. But Keenan never allows himself to be kept in the box of “angry rock dude,” as his true muses are love and empathy (and really good wine). Dig in deeper to his work with both Tool (especially on Lateralus) and his second band, A Perfect Circle, and he’s just as likely to use his voice to soothe and comfort his listeners. He can sound almost unnervingly fragile as he encourages them to move past their anger and look within themselves for healing. Then there’s the matter of whatever he’s doing with his conceptual art-joke project Puscifer, which is bafflingly impenetrable, but at least proves there’s no end to what he can will his voice box to do. –Michael Tedder
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91. Glenn Danzig

Glenn Danzig was the only Misfit to really believe in the Misfits — not the band itself but its swirling universe of horrific imagery. Danzig wanted to live in a world where social outcasts get to have their say, and if that world happened to include zombies and werewolves and things that go “bump” in the night, well, that was great, too. Whether we’re talking about Danzig’s time in the Misfits or his later work with Samhain and his eponymous metal group, part of his allure lies in his unwillingness to separate fact from fiction. His deep, bellowing baritone wraps itself unironically around phrases like “I need your skulls” and “I killed your baby today,” and thus it is like nothing rock music has seen before or since. Someone needed to carve out a space between Elvis and horror b-movies, and Danzig proved to be the guy with the sharpest knife. —Collin Brennan

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