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The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time

on November 14, 2016, 12:00am
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30. Beyoncé

Next year will mark the 20th year Beyoncé has been singing for the world. The voice we hear from her now — husky yet energetic, irrepressible but impeccable — has developed and deepened over the years, and it made itself known early. When vocal coach David Lee Brewer met Beyoncé, who was a mere eight years old, she “let loose … one of the most impressive sounds I’d ever heard from a child,” he wrote. “Something about it grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. The sound was molten gold, with a distinguished timbre.”

Clearly Beyoncé has never been much of a shrinking violet, but B’Day did mark a turning point for Queen Bey as a singer. “Deja Vu”, “Ring the Alarm”, “Irreplaceable”: the album is teeming with tremendous vocal performances. She’d follow up with more incredible tracks like “Halo”, “Love on Top”, and “Rocket”, which left Justin Timberlake and Timbaland gobsmacked in the studio. That’s why we think of Beyoncé the singer most often in terms of power and strength, especially when she hits every note during her kinetic live performances. But more overlooked is how Bey twists her voice in the most thrilling and expressive ways, like the verse she laid on the “***Flawless” remix, where she took cues from her collaborator Nicki Minaj. Like her hypnotic monotone on “Haunted”. Like the gloriously self-assured dismissals of “Sorry” (“Suck on my balls, balls, I’ve had enough!”). And still — Beyoncé never sounds like anyone but herself. –Karen Gwee

29. Axl Rose

While Christians and Guns N’ Roses might not have much in common on the surface, it was in church that a young Axl Rose first began singing in a choir. Years later, he would be rightfully recognized for having one of the most versatile singing voices in all of rock and roll. Although websites give various accounts of his true range, it’s widely accepted that Rose is able to traverse about five octaves, moving from a low baritone (“There Was a Time”) to incredibly high notes (“Ain’t It Fun”).

Perhaps even more noteworthy is the emotive nature of Rose’s output. He can scream with the best of them, perhaps most memorably on “Welcome to the Jungle”, where his eardrum-shattering screeches became a poster child for hard rock. On (comparatively) more intimate songs, Rose is also able to bring all the feels. On “Sweet Child of Mine”, he is able to make the heavy heartfelt, culminating in his guttural cries that bring the song’s breakdown back into its final chorus.

It’s hard to imagine how many other voices could truly compete with Slash’s guitar work, stadium sound, and bombastic drums and still be wholly and unquestionably in the spotlight. Screaming isn’t meant to be pretty, but Axl Rose changed all that. He made the primitive into art and the dark into paradise. –-Zack Ruskin


28. Al Green

One of pop culture’s greatest disappointments is that the good reverend Al Green has once again turned his back on the secular music world. While it’s hard to fault his calling as a preacher, there’s something vital missing from the universe knowing that he’s not sharing his mouthwatering vocals with the folks outside of his flock. Listening through Green’s work since the ‘70s, his decision to join the church feels surprisingly natural. Even at his most worldly and carnal, there was always a hint of gospel underpinning his every shriek, moan, and croon. It’s not difficult to imagine him singing “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?” to a roomful of parishioners with their arms pointed heavenward and urging him on. The nucleus of every note that he’s sung during his 70 years on this planet, be it a hymn or a hypnotic love ballad, is passion. There’s no doubting that Green means every word and syllable that he’s intoning, and there’s even less confusion that he wants to make you feel the exact same way. –Robert Ham


27. Tina Turner

The power of Tina Turner cannot be ignored. Her voice breathes fire, beginning in her loins and coursing through her chest before belting out of her enormous hair. She embodies drama, a chaos that’s tied to her own troubles. Listen to her cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” — wilder than Robert Plant himself. Her upbringing was tumultuous: a childhood marred by constant change, relocations, and her parents’ eventual split.

Drawn to club culture, she hazarded upon Ike Turner’s band and joined them onstage one fateful night. It’s a rock and roll runaway story for a voice that’s been dicing with danger ever since. Her iconic hits begin smooth sailing laced in soul, before she roughs things up as if Tina herself is having a bust-up with the chorus. Take “Proud Mary”, which begins like a train leaving a station, picking up the pace, until it chugs full steam ahead down the river. “River Deep — Mountain High” too scales the depths of her grit and the peaks of her climb.

After liberating herself from Ike, she re-emerged in the ’80s, building her iconography with songs such as “Simply the Best”, her voice sugar-y intense and fractured by real guts. It’s little wonder Janis Joplin used to sing her praises. On “Private Dancer”, she possesses the character of a used entity, aware of her own cage. “I’m a private dancer,” she projects. “A dancer for money/ Any old music will do.” It’s devastating, and yet Tina Turner — born Anna Mae Bullock — still has the balls to brave the storm. –Eve Barlow


26. Jeff Buckley

Contextualized by the now clichéd vocal stylings of the handsome male vocalists that were his contemporaries, Jeff Buckley was and is undeniably unique. His range and control were second to none, but what made him so great in his all-to-brief career was the fearlessness with which he used his voice.

Buckley would sing operatic hymns like “Corpus Christi Carol”, allowing his voice to soar into upper octaves few dared to reach. He would sing in other languages as with Edith Piaf’s “Je n’en connais pas la fin” or Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn’s “Ye jo halka halka suroor hai”. He would cover everyone. From the vibrato mastery of Nina Simone and the classic stylings of Judy Garland to the emotional rawness of Dylan and the late Leonard Cohen, each cover Buckley took on was successful in rivaling the talent of the original performer and lending the song his own distinct flair.

No two performances Buckley gave were ever the same, and this too was because of his daring experimentation with voice. The sweetness of his tone and its effortless fluttering could cut you like a knife through warm butter, and like the other singers on this list, he possessed “it.” “It” being the inexplicable ability to connect to a listener’s subconscious and transmit emotion directly to your soul. –Kevin McMahon

25. Kate Bush

Without trying, Kate Bush changed the expectations of pop music. At age 13, she began writing original compositions and went on to release her debut LP six years after that, proving preteen songwriters should be taken seriously. She convinced label executives that her lead single should be the personable “Wuthering Heights”, not rock-heavy number “James and the Cold Gun”, which became an international hit, proving artists should decide the rollout of their work. Above all else, she sang with an unprecedented style, one that punched through glam rock, tucked folk croons into bed, and toyed with art pop, proving melodramatic vocals had a place in pop.

Bush flipped off industry standards, bearing a voice that not only went against the popularity of disco and punk of the late ’70s, but a voice that dramatized every pop cliche. She played with vocal techniques on “Wow”, exaggerating notes, pitch leaps, and vowel pronunciation. She screamed like a maniac on each chorus of “Babooshka” without the lyrics justifying so. Kate Bush’s voice has a mind of its own — and it inspires hundreds, from St. Vincent to Big Boi, to find theirs.

Weird vocal delivery aside, she’s a talented singer. When she isn’t mocking styles, she plays into conventional definitions of a “good” voice. She skates across notes while playing piano, be it on “This Woman’s Work” or “The Man With the Child in His Eyes”, and returned with theatrical beauty on 2005’s Aerial and 2011’s 50 Words for Snow. Kate Bush was a 19-year-old girl who sang because it fulfilled her, because she felt driven to do so by a creative force inside, and she returned after a decade-plus absence in the aughts for that same reason. Her story is that of a creative soul trekking down an unseen path — a route that seems to lead to the best things in life. –Nina Corcoran


24. Otis Redding

In just a few short years, Otis Redding made a remarkable impact, as if he were somehow aware that he’d need to emote a lifetime’s worth across a handful of albums. The Georgian singer released a remarkable amount of material in his brief recording career before tragically dying in a plane crash, fresh off of the recording of the stone-cold classic “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”. A burgeoning talent at songwriting, arranging, and producing, Redding was already a legend but only starting to establish his powers.

Where the pop machine of the time often favored sweet and proper, there was something raw about Redding. “If you want to be a singer, you’ve got to concentrate on it 24 hours a day,” Redding once explained, and that focus and fire is evident in every single track. His physical presence is palpable, the veins in his neck popping in intensity at the height of “Try a Little Tenderness”, the tears dripping on “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)”, the smirk on “Mr. Pitiful”. There’s not an Otis Redding recording in which he isn’t giving himself over to the emotion entirely. –Adam Kivel

23. Tom Waits

A young Tom Waits was once asked on a talk show, “How does a guy with a voice like yours go into show business?” Waits, awkward and shy on camera in those days, responded: “It was either that or an exciting career in home refrigerator repair.” All these years later, Waits has evolved from that early inebriated lounge act into a beatboxing junkman (perhaps with missing links of carnival barker and pot-and-pan banger in there somewhere), and listeners now understand what a treasure has been salvaged in this voice that most would have had hauled off to the dump. While other singers reach for impressive high notes, Waits hunkers down and excavates the compassion that most of us keep buried, his guttural, ragged, and worn voice coming to embody the plight of the heartbroken and downtrodden on songs like “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)” and “On the Nickel”. If St. Christopher is the patron saint of the traveler, then Waits is the hobo’s piano player – his wounds as raw and numerous as the keys he plunks for his suffering patrons. –Matt Melis


22. Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash had a voice like the eye of a storm. He rarely raised it to a shout, rarely screamed or whooped or hollered as so many country singers are wont to do. But go back and listen to Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison or Johnny Cash at San Quentin and you’ll hear him work those crowds of convicts into a frenzy, as if they were somehow able to hear the thunder rolling just beneath his calm bass-baritone veneer. At the height of its powers, that baritone made Cash an almost mythical figure, the kind who’d shoot someone to watch him die or fall, unphased, into a burning ring of fire. Late in his career, it began to waver, taking on a hint of vulnerability — maybe, even, of fear — as he edged closer to death. Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” ranks among the best covers in all of popular music, or at least the most human. His vocal performance is nothing short of devastating, standing tall while at the same time lurking in the shadows. –Collin Brennan

21. Diana Ross

Light as a feather but still sharp enough to cut through the crisp Holland-Dozier-Holland productions of The Supremes’ many hits, it’s clear why Barry Gordy decided to instill Diana Ross as the lead singer after the group’s first Top 40 hit, “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes”. With a warm joy and quiet passion simmering just beneath the surface of her confident delivery on seminal classics, including “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “You Keep Me Hanging On”, Ross’ voice was able to adapt to changing times.

By the mid-‘70s, Ross was delivering career-defining performances such as her uninhibited take on disco gem “Love Hangover”. Just a few years later in 1980, Ross proved the perfect foil for Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards’ electric style, vocally matching their powerhouse productions to release the one-two punch of signature singles “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out”.

While it could be considered facile to coin Ross as the original Beyoncé, for evidence of the true enormity of her star power at her early ‘80s peak, see recordings of her 1983 free concert in New York’s Central Park. Soldiering through a torrential rainstorm in front of nearly one million fans (and countless more via a live Showtime broadcast), she still gives the crowd flawless renditions of her vast catalog of hits, even as many of them fled to safety. She would deliver the whole thing all over again the following night to make up for the rain-shortened show. –Scott T. Sterling

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