Feature Artwork by Cap Blackard
It’s been observed that pop-culture writers have a penchant for ranking anything and everything. We’re cited for spending countless hours trying to assess, sort, and file that which seems patently subjective or, far more damning, so beautiful, transcendent, or numinous as to be above slotting on a mere list. Admittedly, we can often be found guilty of peddling our opinions as objective fact. But I can’t cop to the latter charge quite so quickly. If you read through the entries to come, I guarantee you’ll find the appropriate sense of gratitude and awe as my colleagues and I struggle to, as Nick Hornby once put it, “make the ineffable effing effable.” That is, try to explain why these singers move us as they do.
No task as daunting as ranking the greatest singers of all time comes easily. Rubrics were made, remade, and subsequently trashed. Compromises were struck, concessions made, hearts broken, lifelong friendships terminated – the usual. And that age-old question reared its ugly head once more: Can a person with a terrible voice by traditional standards still be a great singer? (Big surprise, the jury’s still out among us.) Even with science weighing in and telling us that Freddie and Whitney are no-brainers, we agreed that science can’t account for everything just yet. Instead, we went with our guts, hoping, as always, that our guts don’t have shit for brains. I think Nick Hornby may have said that, too.
So, here are the 100 greatest singers of all time. Read on, and you’ll find kings and queens, divas and introverts, dancers and wallflowers, belters and growlers, storytellers and testifiers, seducers and wingmen, Simon and, well, maybe just Simon. However you’ve come to define “great,” these are the voices that continue to touch, console, inspire, and empower us. Feel free to tell us who we missed or how we blew it in the comments section, but even more importantly, find a singer on this list that you love and share the gift of their voice with someone in your life. As 2016 has shown us time and time again, the artists we lean upon won’t be with us forever. Let’s make sure their music sticks around.
Rest in peace, Mr. Cohen.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Debates over whether Madonna is a great singer have floated around her for decades — her voice is too thin, her sinking into the low notes on ballads like “Live to Tell” too uncertain. But she’s undoubtedly one of the best straight-up performers that has ever graced top-40 radio, making up for any vocal deficits with the Whitneys and Mariahs of her various pop eras by putting her up-yours personality front and center while culture-vulturing her way toward the cutting edge. (The Internet appropriation machine caught up with her in the late ’00s, but she held out admirably long.) A chameleonic performer who could play the teen-on-the-verge of “Papa Don’t Preach” as effortlessly as she could portray the sternly sexual Mistress Dita on Erotica, Madonna’s ability to push pop forward through sheer force of will transformed the game. –Maura Johnston
89. Ronnie James Dio
Ronnie James Dio had that badass wail that’s made for karaoke goers to fail miserably at recreating, but that’s just one part of his appeal. Up until recently, people overlooked that he replaced Ozzy in Black Sabbath and that some of his records are better than Ozzy’s. Dio allowed Tony Iommi to open up his guitar playing into new melodic dimensions, helping break out from the more blues-based blocks he was in with Ozzy. He helped Sabbath make actual ballads, with “Die Young” and “The Sign of the Southern Cross” really showing off his mix of confidence and sensitivity.
Dio got his start in a group called The Vegas Kings, and that bygone era of showmanship was part of his stage presence throughout his career. Thanking an audience at a show is pretty rote, but his graciousness made it sincere that he, a Metal God, was thankful to you personally that you came to see him. On stage and off, he served as a guiding light for lost youth and youths-at-heart, never skipping on the inspiration. Dio’s awesome vocal power wasn’t tempered by his humility and warmth; they made him a relatable inspiration while maintaining a clear sense of leadership. There’s no “I” in metal, but there is “We” in “We Rock”. –Andy O’Connor
88. Ian Curtis
Ian Curtis went to a different place when he performed, but it took him a little while to get there. This was part of the thrill of Joy Division: watching Curtis close his eyes and retreat awkwardly into himself, then watching an arm begin to move, then flail, then watching both legs do the same. And then, suddenly, the formerly stoic frontman had completed his transformation into a blur of sound and movement. Though he possessed one of the deepest voices in punk, Curtis sang like the stakes were impossibly, unfathomably high. “Dance, dance, dance to the radio!” sounded less like a good time and more like a shadowy tidal wave about to consume the world. It sounded lonely. And that’s what made Curtis such an alluring vocalist and frontman — despite his bandmates up there with him on stage, he existed in an empty space of his own creation for two to three minutes at a time. –Collin Brennan
87. Van Morrison
There’s something special inside of Van Morrison’s voice. Greil Marcus once opined, “His music can be heard as an attempt to surrender to the yarragh, or to make it surrender to him.” The yarragh is a term that was originally coined by the Irish tenor John McCormack, and as Marcus defined it, it’s a “voice that strikes a note so exalted you can’t believe a mere human being is responsible for it.” Listen to songs like “Caravan”, “Into the Mystic”, or “Madame George”, and you’ll know it instinctively.
At the beginning of his career in the mid-‘60s, while he was still fronting the Them and bashing out singles like “Gloria”, “Baby Please Don’t Go”, and Here Comes the Night”, Morrison adopted a caustic, rapid-fire delivery that matched the frenetic pace of the music. It was only once he struck out on his own, slowed things down, and dove headlong into the sounds of blues and jazz that the full breadth of his emotive instrument revealed itself. On masterpieces like Astral Weeks and Moondance, he stopped chasing the songs and bent the music itself to the shape of his voice. As a performer, he lives inside the song. He breathes in the notes and exhales all the emotion of the universe. –Corbin Reiff
86. Ann Wilson
The inimitable Ann Wilson’s entryway into music stardom is immortalized in one of Heart’s most memorable tunes, “Magic Man”. At the time, Wilson says she was “existing in this very staid, suburban state of being” at home until she met the band’s Mike Fisher (her magic man). Wilson left home and went to Canada, joining Heart in the process. It’s a good thing she followed that path towards music: Wilson, along with her sister Nancy, took over the pop charts in the ‘70s with their dynamic, throttling rock songs that seemed to come with a distinct strut of their own.
Famously, Ann never had formal musical training before she took over as the lead singer of Heart — even more of a testament to her natural talent, given how potent and clear her voice is (check out how far away she holds the microphone in this performance of “Crazy on You”). Earlier this year, Us Weekly asked Wilson to give them a primer on how to hit those tough high notes. Her response? To not be “wimpy.” As for tips on how to be a rock star, which Wilson embodies in the 1977 video for “Barracuda”? That can’t be taught, only known. –Paula Mejia
85. Joe Strummer
On the surface, it doesn’t seem that hard to be a punk singer. As an art form rooted in anti-establishment values and clear, unfiltered expression, the genre necessitates a total lack of pretense, and by extension, an aversion to showmanship. Keeping in tune, staying in time, striking a pleasant tone — these are the cornerstones of the musical status quo, and accordingly, the trappings of punk’s very antithesis.
With the rise of The Clash, however, we saw that these two spheres — the melodic and the malcontent — could co-exist. Consider Joe Strummer, then, not a frontman, but an ambassador, the rebels’ Trojan Horse. Sure, his cockney crows are hardly Eurovision worthy — his winded style belies a lack of technical training, not to mention a barely controlled anger. But it’s that imperfection, that relatability, that transformed the dressed-down, rudimentary hooks of “I Fought The Law”, “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, “London Calling”, and so many others into global rallying cries. –Zoe Camp
84. Joanna Newsom
Sometimes you’re gifted with a voice unlike anyone else’s — and people tease you because it’s so out there. It’s an understatement to say Joanna Newsom sings unlike anyone else. Usually on first listen, people hesitate to comment. Is that how she actually sings? How old is she? Does she hear what she sounds like? It’s easy to mock her singing style on “Peach Plum Pear”, a delivery reminiscent of Kate Bush and other “weird” singers, but her pointed jabs hit out of left field. If people didn’t know better, her voice could be mistaken for a child’s playful song recorded in jest. No one knows if that’s a good thing.
But since her 2004 debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, Joanna Newsom’s vocal delivery has changed. Those yappy childlike notes and shrill pitches appeared on Ys with “Monkey and Bear”, but she cooed them. The note shifts became graceful on Have One on Me, softening into a cozy yawn on “Baby Birch”. Then, on 2015’s Divers, she found full-blown maturity, rephrasing her vocal delivery into a style that deepened its valleys and took on operatic softness with “Time, As a Symptom”, in part because of vocal cord nodules she developed in 2009 that left her unable to speak for two months. No matter how many people cite her singing as an example of obnoxious delivery, there will always be twice as many fans ready to defend her.
After all, Joanna Newsom is able to leap across notes with unexpected grace, her ability to engage with the storytelling all the more apparent and, when it comes down to it, successful, giving listeners plenty to trace in awe on no matter how many times they’ve heard a song. –Nina Corcoran
83. Paul Simon
Not every singer loves the sensation of holding long notes in their throat; Paul Simon, for example, seems to like the texture of words in his mouth. You can hear it on the “who” in “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”; the bouncy ‘b’ of “Bone-digger” on “You Can Call Me Al”; or in the way he revs into the ‘r’ for “You don’t need to be coy, Roy,” on “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”.
This wasn’t always the case. Along with his partner and frenemy Art Garfunkel, he was among the most successful purveyors of folk rock in the ‘60s. Those simple, haunting songs made Simon & Garfunkel icons in the counterculture movement. But for his solo career (and before our society had coined the phrase “cultural appropriation”), Paul Simon’s curiosity about the music of other cultures allowed him to reinvent pop music with sounds from the other side of the globe. Now at 75 years old, he’s got more tricks than ever in his “big bag of sounds,” and many think his 2016 album, Stranger to Stranger, is his best effort since Graceland. Just listen to the way he chews on “My man” from “Wristband”. The man is still having fun. –Wren Graves
82. Leonard Cohen
An unspoken necessity to be included in this list was that a vocalist needed to have an entirely unique style, something that made them unlike any other singer. When he first debuted on the scene, it wasn’t that no one could sing like Leonard Cohen, but rather that no one did. Lines would tumble out of his mouth, flat and straightforward, giving the simplest modulations in his tone massive impact. There was less showmanship and more raw honesty, his exquisite poetry and broken-hearted love stories delivered deftly and simply. As decades passed, his baritone dipped and resonated, deepening as the Canadian singer-songwriter grew in age and wisdom rather than suffering. Cohen may be better known as a writer (particularly for giving the world and Jeff Buckley “Hallelujah”), but his voice is equally worth celebrating. –Adam Kivel
81. Joe Cocker
Joe Cocker sings like a man who spent a year doing nothing but gargling hot, liquid asphalt. He sounds like a man who smoked four packs a day from the time he was a five-year-old. He sounds like a man who passed on whisky and went straight for the kerosene instead. Cocker’s voice is not “pretty” in the traditional sense, but it’s extraordinarily, almost supernaturally powerful.
It’s easy to get lost in Cocker’s imitable gravely delivery, but it would be for nothing without the soul underneath. The reason why his version of “With a Little Help from My Friends” is so much more effective than the Ringo-sung Beatles original has everything to do with his instinct for where the heart of the song lies. In Ringo’s hands, it’s a quaint pop song about his friend’s ability to lift him out of a lovelorn funk. In Cocker’s, it becomes about the pain itself. You can hear his world falling apart around him through his wails of agony. It’s as thrilling as it is chilling. It’s the difference between singing about something and embodying the emotion itself. –Corbin Reiff
80. John Lennon
The Beatles’ 1963 version of “Twist and Shout” was the first of many songs to indicate John Lennon’s singularity as a vocalist — thanks, in part, to the raucousness it brought to the track. In brief, the story is this: Lennon had a bad cold, his sips of milk and sucks of throat lozenges weren’t working as fast as he hoped, and yet the ailment led to now-legendary imperfections in his singing, emblematic of rock’s youthful energy and defiance.
That was on The Beatles’ debut album, Please Please Me. Over the next 17 years — and especially in his solo career — Lennon cemented himself as one of rock’s brilliant vocalists time and again. In his solo era, starting with the intense heights of “Mother”, the opener from his 1970 solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, he showed a previously unheard penchant for unapologetic catharsis, while songs like “Isolation” and its “I-I-I”s epitomized his soft touch. The next year, his single most iconic solo song, “Imagine”, encapsulated his wondrous humanity with that hopeful, dreamy vocal. Who knows what else he may have accomplished had his life not ended so abruptly in December 1980, but there’s no questioning the influence of the singing he did before his tragic death. –Michael Madden
79. Patti LaBelle
There was perhaps no greater tribute to Patti LaBelle’s influence than the 2001 cover of “Lady Marmalade”, wherein Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and Pink each lent their own distinctive vocal styles to the iconic tune. It’s a symbol of LaBelle’s wide-ranging influence, which extended far beyond her particular brand of soul.
Control is perhaps LaBelle’s greatest skill. That she’s able to instantly snap into high-octave belts and, even more impressively, sustain them for shocking periods is just one of her many powers. Conversely, her mid-range vocals are equally robust; she’s labeled a “dramatic soprano” for her ability to slice through a trumpeting orchestra at the mid-range. But it’s her vocal eruptions that remain most memorable; she was raised Baptist, after all. She brings music to life. She gives it pumping blood and flapping wings.
A Patti LaBelle performance is like opera in that way: the words don’t matter as much as the weight and power behind them. To her, a song isn’t a message or, really, an emotional release. It’s a performance, a vocal spectacle. –Randall Colburn
78. Karen Carpenter
The best female voice in the world? According to Paul McCartney, that designation belongs to Karen Carpenter, the vocalist of the melodic pop duo The Carpenters, who died of anorexia nervosa at the age of 32. Carpenter’s crystalline contralto, accompanied by her brother Richard’s twinkling Wurlitzer and masterful arrangements, heightened the melancholy and yearning that characterized songs like “Ticket to Ride” (a Beatles cover and their first-ever single released in 1969), “(They Long To Be) Close To You”, and “Goodbye To Love”.
But as impossibly delicate as Carpenter’s voice could be, it was never frail. For one, her enunciation was so immaculate that you couldn’t help but drink in every word she sang. And in the more gently upbeat parts of The Carpenters’ oeuvre (see “Sweet, Sweet Smile” and “Please Mr. Postman”), she had swagger; she was playful. The world lost Karen Carpenter too soon, but her incomparable voice has been preserved in The Carpenters’ music to enthrall generations to come. –Karen Gwee
77. Willie Nelson
In his most evocative moments, Willie Nelson doesn’t sing to his listeners, but rather wraps them up in intimate conversation. The country icon hasn’t strayed all that much from the unassuming, down-home vocal style that he first adopted during his honky tonk days in the early 1960s. But in the years since, it’s been his delivery that has made his music among the most cherished in the already-storied country music cannon.
Phrasing, the way in which a singer delivers his or her line or lyric, has long become a Willie Nelson hallmark. He can hang on a word for extra emphasis, speed up his lyrics, or slow them down and space them out, often within the same line. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, one of many standout cuts from Nelson’s 1975 classic Red Headed Stranger, sounds like your typically downtrodden broken love song. At its heart it is, but Nelson’s timing and use of space gives the song added emotional resonance. He might be one of the best performers in country music history, but his songs rarely come off as a performance or an act, and that’s the trick.
Nelson’s voice is anything but flashy or ornate, but it has the kind of heart that cuts right through to the truth of his words. That gift for confessional intimacy continues to influence countless acts in the alternative and outlaw country ranks today, from Ryan Adams to up-and-coming singers like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. –Ryan Bray
76. Alicia Keys
It might be that Alicia Keys’ old-school class is what’s kept the magnitude of her successes on the down-low. Her voice has taken her to shimmering heights, copious Grammy wins, and smashed records. She’s one of the biggest blockbuster stars around. Schooled by Clive Davis, there’s something in the lineage of diva dynasty that reaches Keys. Announcing herself via ‘Fallin” in 2001, the Hells Kitchen-born songwriter and piano maestro immediately communicated a cool-headed passion to the world. In that song, her voice carries the ebb and flow of a whirlwind romance, her fingers trace the steps of the story across the ivories of her piano, but her vocals are the essential accompaniment.
Neither the keys themselves, nor Alicia’s sweet, rousing tones ever out-perform one another. Instead, throughout her career, she’s employed each as two halves of a whole. Her gorgeous Prince cover “How Come You Don’t Call Me” is a masterclass, juxtaposed with her spoken-word swaggering comments, which always serve to remind you just how young she was (just 20) when she sang with the experience of someone who knows that initial infatuation only leads to future heartache. In her lower registers, she’s smokey and sultry, but her head voice is so bright it shines a light through the dark. That’s especially true of her latest album. It’s her most honest, soul-searching, and political work to date, possessed of a gospel quality and an ageless melody. –Eve Barlow
75. Joni Mitchell
The trajectory of Joni Mitchell’s career is mirrored in the evolution of her singing voice. As she set off in the late ‘60s, her bell-like tones were tinged with hope and joy and countered with small measures of fury at being spurned by her lovers and fears about society’s future. Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, her voice deepened as she expressed older and wiser sentiments and a growing interest in jazz and world music, as well as a weariness at commercial and critical expectations. From the ‘90s to today, she declares a kind of indifference toward the modern world, choosing to sing old standards and orchestral reinterpretations of her old classics, with a vocal sound that is thick with age and cigarette abuse, but never less than enrapturing. The key is that no matter what point you check in with Ms. Mitchell, she will rope you in with that unwavering, unmistakable voice that draws you close to either shake you out of your stupor or tuck you in for the night. –Robert Ham
74. Michael Stipe
For the first part of Michael Stipe’s singing career, he was known as a mumbler. It didn’t help the reputation that R.E.M.’s first LP was titled Murmur. 1988’s Green went as far as to include song lyrics in the packaging, and by the ’90s he was enunciating clearly, but it also didn’t matter. The actual content of his vocals was less significant than the way he expressed himself, with three primary gears: gentle and delicate like the verse to “Perfect Circle”, the hungover, five-o’clock-shadow grumble of the opening to “Country Feedback”, and, his best, the loose wail that could be the center of a song (“Nightswimming”) or provide emotional bursts (the end of “Country Feedback”).
Regardless of how Stipe sings a song, his delivery and voice are unquestionably his own. It flails itself into a song with abandon, working without a net, without worry about whether he will hit a note. Even when Stipe misses, it’s a flame out of clear-eyed emotional guts. He can take you to a dance with shiny, happy people in one moment and comfort you that everybody hurts the next. His nostalgia can veer from childhood innocence to the radio dials in homages to The Beach Boys, The Velvet Underground, or Leonard Cohen. His voice mirrors who he is on stage and who he is in the world, overcoming painful shyness to be an unlikely weirdo rock star with ideas that sound better as a melody than they ever could written on a page. Ann Powers once wrote that Stipe’s voice “cannot shake its own gift for meaning.” For Stipe, that was more about sounds than words. –Philip Cosores
73. Robert Smith
Born in England and forged in the fires of original punk, Robert Smith has always claimed to be the second-most talented musician in his family, behind his shy sister. He wore makeup from a young age, which is somewhat unusual for rock stars, and he has been married to the same woman for almost 30 years, which is positively unheard of. The Cure’s self-described “drunk rhythm guitarist” never intended to be a singer, but lineup changes, creative differences, and a lack of viable alternatives eventually saw Smith become not only the frontman and lead songwriter, but the very band itself. On early demos, he tried out a pretty tenor and a punk snarl before eventually settling on his signature, inimitable style. His voice is high and husky, like a pop star with a cold and a broken heart. And while his fashion sense is often called goth, and his genre punk, his best and most iconic songs are invariably about love. –Wren Graves
72. Florence Welch
Not every instrument is suited for every venue. A Stradivarius violin or a Steinway piano contain enough nuance to strike an audience of 500 like a thunderbolt; in front of 5,000, though, these exotic old instruments sound like just another part of the band. Conversely, someone like Kanye West can dominate a football stadium, whereas an intimate setting might reveal the cracks in the makeup. Florence Welch can do both, but her natural habitat is undoubtedly the overcrowded, unwashed wilds of the large music festival.
It takes technical skill to whip crowds into a frenzy — specifically, it takes breath control to hop around like a tabby on catnip while belting like a broadway goddess. Welch’s otherworldly voice can match a trumpet for volume and go toe-to-toe with an acid trip for bold, ethereal beauty. The British songstress has been writing her own music since her beginning in 2008, and while some will think that eight years isn’t long enough to qualify for a list like this, Welch’s peak has been high enough to justify her inclusion. She would have done well in jazz, pop, opera, classic rock, or musical theater, but her voice is even better suited for the ethereal epic. In building her songs around her unique instrument, she has created a unique kind of music. –Wren Graves
71. Thom Yorke
To sing of inbred hate, dystopian illusion, and human fears in real time while cradling those words with gentle delivery is a feat. It requires an interpretation of a song’s greater moral and a desire to twist its backstory. Thom Yorke manages to do so in Radiohead and then takes it a step farther. Why else would Radiohead be so revered? In his early days, Yorke’s voice was reckless. It yodeled and yelped, often delivering lines with nasal humming or shrill pitch. Even on “Karma Police” or “High and Dry”, songs with softer moments for crooning, he delivers lines with some weird nose blockage.
Where most singers lose their edge over time — their voices becoming scratched or damaged, turning towards surgery to keep them in shape — Yorke sands his down to a sleeker sound, in part because of the time he took to focus on solo material. This year’s A Moon Shaped Pool presents a new era for Yorke. His vocal delivery drips like distilled syrup, smooth and unified without losing its gloss. “Burn the Witch” creeps about, “Daydreaming” swirls through a depressive fog, and “True Love Waits” sits in a pool of tears, but Yorke sings quietly on each, that nasal sting now a marker of his past. It’s a voice that’s at once soft and sharp, weary and motivated, haunting and comforting. It’s unpredictable, especially live. And so it raises the question: What would Radiohead be like without Thom Yorke? Simple. No one could elevate the band’s songwriting the way he and his vocals do, even if you’re someone who can’t stand his voice. –Nina Corcoran
Bite the tongue before slinging new-age mockery. Avoid the nude yoga/Zoolander 2/granola jokes. Forget the ‘90s and how hip-hop sampled him something awful. Just for one minute. We can giggle about the dorkiness of The Last Ship later.
Sting, despite hip, contemporary wisdom, is kind of a titan with two faces. A guy with an interesting narrative, vocally. Once the haughty lead punker of punk rock sensation The Police, Sting evolved into a pleasing, soulful jazz crooner. Here’s a musician with both an utterly pleasing and provoking tone throughout his career. The infectious whines of “Roxanne” and the white reggae vibes of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” highlight a boisterous voice, triumphant and optimistic. But the haunting work of “Every Breath You Take” and “King of Pain” hint at Sting’s more emotional ambitions, his grand range and penchant for dramatic vocalizing. A deep, haunting style that would carry over into his solo acts. Try not to feel a little relaxed, but in a positive, upbeat way by “Fields of Gold”, “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You”, or “Brand New Day”. You just YouTubed that last one, didn’t you? Almost makes you forget the metal undies in Dune. –Blake Goble
69. Yusuf Islam (Formerly Cat Stevens)
Cat Stevens stepped away from music in the late ’70s as one of the biggest stars in the world. I doubt there’s an agent alive who would give that advice to a client. Stranger still is that when Stevens found his way back to recording and performing again as Yusuf Islam nearly 30 years later, it felt like the homecoming of a friend who hadn’t really been away. Part of those feelings of familiarity can be attributed to Islam’s warm, friendly voice, which had never left the airwaves. It’s a voice you can’t unhear, one that sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear when life stands you at a crossroads.
It’s not so odd then that the singer who abandoned stardom to seek his own spiritual path has come to embody the ideas of personal journeys and coming of age. In his rich tones, we hear spiritual curiosity (“On the Road to Find Out”), cautious rebellion (“Father and Son”), and bursting enthusiasm (“Can’t Keep It In”) for what may wait just beyond the horizon. Whether it’s his urging to “take good care” in “Wild World” or the timeless back-and-forth of “Father and Son”, in which a son’s desire to choose his own path runs headlong into his father’s different wishes for him, Islam’s voice remains a place we turn to for companionship during the stretches of life we must travel alone. –Matt Melis
68. Ms. Lauryn Hill
“She was that voice inside our soul — coming out and asking all of us, ‘How could we have gone so wrong?’ and ‘Can we have some grown folks talking about loving ourselves, before it’s too late? If it’s not already too late?’” radio DJ Jay Smooth told NPR, looking back at the impact of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. With just two full-lengths with the Fugees and that single debut album to her name, Lauryn Hill acted as the gateway for a generation, a hinge between R&B, rap, soul, and the mainstream, the voice of women in a genre in which they’d been underrepresented.
Hill’s rise was magnificent and inspiring, a majestic voice of raw vibrancy, spirit, and power. Her public songs about private problems were nonlinear tales of hard truths. Songs were intimate, her performances inherent, and such potent singularity feels like a remarkable triumph. Her sudden disappearance from the music world was then that much more frustrating. She had become a confidante, a challenger, an inspiration, a friend. She was invincible one moment and gentle the next, rapping a verse and then delivering a beautifully sung melody. Hill could do it all, an enigmatic, magical force that made an incredible impact in very little time. –Lior Phillips
67. Ozzy Osbourne
Ozzy Osbourne may have sang for the first metal band ever, but he’s not exactly the archetypical metal singer. He doesn’t have the piercing range of Rob Halford, and had he smoked as often as he snorted, he’d sound a lot more like Lemmy. Ozzy’s defined by his lack of technical ability, channeling American blues through his rough, industrial town upbringing. His voice brings together wonder, loss, apprehension, and hysteria in one signature yawp, a moan that’s always struggling to break into higher ranges. It’s these constraints where he’s made his mark, though.
In Black Sabbath, Ozzy primarily served as a mouthpiece for bassist Geezer Butler’s sometimes cosmic, sometimes apocalyptic, always grim lyrics. He had a knack for delivering existential concerns in an everyman voice, like when he yells “I’ve seen the future and I’ve left it behind” in the barreling “Supernaut”, somehow overcoming Iommi’s walls of wah. In Sabbath’s heyday, Iommi knew how to work around Ozzy’s limitations; “Symptom of the Universe” sent Ozzy into a seer-like frenzy, helping set the tone for thrash metal. His best performances in his solo career draw upon that same confusion, especially “I Don’t Know”, where he shrugs off his rock-god stature as the world’s ending while still sounding prophetic.
Punk’s often credited with the rise of “if anyone can do this, you can too,” but Ozzy showed how a limited range doesn’t impede you from rising above — and all before the New York Dolls first put on lipstick. –Andy O’Connor
66. Gladys Knight
My generation rightly anoints and acknowledges Beyoncé, also known as Queen Bey, as R&B and pop royalty. I think most my age would also know that Aretha Franklin will forever be the Queen of Soul. But, sadly, I doubt many could tell you that Gladys Knight reigns as the Empress of that same genre. Regal monikers may be a bit silly, but they’re also a way for us to honor those performers who touch, console, and empower us. And if those truly are the criteria for vocal royalty, then Knight, with The Pips often at her side, proves as regal as any singer on this list.
“Just sing the song and say the words,” Knight once advised. It’s the type of advice — useless to most of us — that reveals her natural ability to inhabit a song. Whether belting out a refrain, delicately dancing around a verse, or matter-of-factly telling us how it is, never does her sincerity come into question. She becomes that woman willing to leave it all behind for the right man (“Midnight Train to Georgia”), that friend acting as a beacon during life’s tempests, (“Storms of Troubled Times”), or that trapped lover who can’t bear to hurt someone she still cares for (“Neither One of Us”). And it only takes one listen to keep-on-keepin’-on anthem “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination” to understand that Knight was turning lemons into lemonade long before Beyoncé was born.
In a time when our president-elect regularly goes out of his way to devalue women, an emboldening voice like Knight’s remains as relevant and needed as ever. Long live the Empress of Soul. –Matt Melis
65. Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith’s voice has weight. Part of that is due to the man himself. He has a heavy voice: soft, yet muscular, with a wide range that’s too often overlooked in discussions that frame him as a “sad bastard” songwriter. But Smith also knew how to use that voice, to inflate and manipulate it so it could, within the space of a single sound or, in some songs, a single moment, leap between intimacy and grandeur. Many musicians multi-track their vocals, but Smith approached it more loosely than his contemporaries. Think of “Say Yes”, where the dual vocal tracks diverge during the bridge, with one eventually hissing out to leave the original on its own. Or on “Bled White”, when Smith draws upon his range to achieve the enveloping effect of a backing chorus.
For all its melancholy notes, Smith’s voice often encompassed a variety of emotions in each song. All it took was a gentle change in tone or pitch, often executed offhandedly or in minute bursts. Layering this across multiple tracks is what allowed his voice to resonate with so much humanity. We’re all powder kegs of emotion, routinely oscillating between a range of feelings at any given moment. Few captured this with the grace and complexity of Smith. –Randall Colburn
64. Paul McCartney
It could be argued that Paul McCartney made his fortune on the strength of his vocal harmonies. Sure, there was the impeccable songwriting and the magic he found with his fellow Beatles, but when examined in detail, it is McCartney’s voice that may be his most lasting legacy. From his ability to bring beauty to screams (“Helter Skelter”) to the harmonic uplift of the coda in “Hey Jude”, McCartney’s voice is notable not only for its range, but also its precision.
Take, for instance, “Eleanor Rigby”, a song in which McCartney serves almost as the story’s narrator. The slight fluctuation in notes that crescendo into the haunting chorus is an exercise in singing specificity. Too little intonation and the song could lose its emotion. Too much and the fragile heart of the work may bloat with melodrama. He can also be sweet, as with the stripped-down vocals he employs on “Yesterday” that helped turn the track into a lasting classic.
There is no question that Sir Paul has lost some of the nuances of his voice with age and 50 years of live concerts. Yet to this day, he is still fully able to induce the snarl of “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” and even find the quiet poignancy of the forever gorgeous “Michelle”. Few voices have had the impact of McCartney, and few ever will. It is a lasting gift to listeners everywhere and one for which we should all be grateful. –-Zack Ruskin
63. Emmylou Harris
Emmylou Harris has a voice that is often described as “poetic,” an odd thing to ascribe to a sound. With Harris, however, it works. Like a cracked, weathered stone, her sumptuous, celestial soprano seems to bear the marks of everyone who’s encountered it. Perhaps that’s why she spent much of her career in the company of others, including Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and her mentor, Gram Parsons.
Harris’ collaboration with Parsons was what brought her to the forefront of country music, even if she never quite identified with the genre. “I smoked country music, but I didn’t inhale,” Harris has famously said; she’s a folkie at heart, but her voice is as malleable as it is distinct. Whether she was dabbling in bluegrass with 1980’s Roses in the Snow, embracing pop the following year with Evangeline, or trying her hand at alt-rock with 1995’s fantastic Wrecking Ball, Harris’ vocals pulsed with soul, grit, and enough character to round out a Russian novel. It can soar, it can sigh, it can hover, that voice. More than anything, though, it will make you feel. –Randall Colburn
62. Fiona Apple
By our instant-gratification cultural standards, the pace at which Fiona Apple releases music — roughly one album every four years — is slower than dial-up. Yet Apple has a voice capable of delighting and devastating in the same breath, which makes the wait always worth it. The classically trained pianist first turned heads at age 18, when she released her preternaturally salient single “Criminal”, and hasn’t stopped fascinating people since.
Part of that mythology-building includes her hermetic way of living; remember the now-classic “the world is bullshit” speech she gave while accepting the “Best New Artist” award at the 1997 VMAs? There’s also the fact that with each subsequent album, Apple continues to contort her vocal gymnastics in unprecedented ways, which includes (but certainly isn’t limited to) scatting, screaming, and sighing.
Apple’s versatile voice makes her, yes, an extraordinary machine. But what makes it singular is the way that her own emotions inevitably seep into the affect of a song. On the Idler Wheel’s “Valentine”, for instance, the defeat in her voice is palpable when she clenches: “I’ll root for you/ I’ll love you” to a former lover. Maybe the real reason we can’t get Fiona Apple out of our brains is because in singing truths about herself, she’s spitting back truths about ourselves, too; truths in the minor key that we’d long known but, until now, perhaps never had the courage to articulate. –Paula Mejia
61. Phil Collins
Look, there are a lot of reasons to hate Phil Collins. He’s kind of a grump, he stole an Oscar from South Park, and his intoxicating cover of The Supremes’ “Can’t Hurry Love” has appeared in way too many romantic comedies. But, he’s also one of the most prolific singular artists in pop music history, and his influence has since surpassed most of his peers. That’s to say nothing of his vocal talents, which are all too often overshadowed by one iconic drum fill from arguably his most iconic song. And that’s a damn shame because nobody ever mistakes his voice, whether it’s his work behind Genesis, his solo stuff, or the few songs he’s contributed to Disney soundtracks. It’s a signature that can be written anywhere — and it has!
Throughout his incredibly lucrative career, which has brought him seven Grammy Awards, six Brit Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, an Academy Award, and a highly coveted Disney Legend Award, Collins has tackled everything from pop to soft rock to Motown to art rock to jazz fushion to even R&B. Not all of it has worked — 2010’s Going Back could be filed away under “humorously unnecessary” — but that’s never been on account of his vocals. In fact, even when he’s at his lamest — see: “True Colours” — there’s something strangely alluring about those pipes of his. They’re so unique, so metallic, so alien, but at the same time, they’re absolutely of this world. It’s hard to explain, which is kind of amazing in itself. –Michael Roffman
60. David Byrne
The Talking Heads potion consists of two parts anxiety and one part funk. And neither pole holds without David Byrne’s astonishing vocabulary of yelps, shouts, grunts, and paranoid outbursts. On the band’s early records, he sings in a jittery, nervous voice (“Who Is It?” becomes “Who! Who! Whoooo-iiiiis-it!”), as though his jaw was perpetually clenched after some unusual surgery. As the band’s titles suggest, it’s a style best used for conveying fear — fear of government, fear of war, fear of music, fear of being mistaken for The B-52s. As the band found success — and Brian Eno — Byrne became art-rock’s greatest talk-singer, ranting and raving his way through Eno’s polyrhythmic landmines with wild-eyed warnings about animals (“They ought to be more careful/ They’re setting a bad example!”) and politicians (“Take a look at these hands!”) and God knows what else. There’s a reason “Once in a Lifetime”, classic rock radio’s catchiest existential meltdown, is legendary: Byrne’s delivery is like a perfect cinematic performance, studied and hysterical in all the right places. And then, on the Heads’ spottier later albums (and solo work — seek out Rei Momo), Byrne revealed an understated melodic side to his voice, as on gems like “Dream Operator” and “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”. –Zach Schonfeld
59. Sly Stone
Here is a man that defined charisma. Confidence. Attitude. Sly Stone: working his throat like a sizzling frying pan filled with far-out soul and funk. His braggadocio can still be heard to this day in the voices of new soul songsters, looking to learn what makes a song hot. The frontman of Sly and the Family Stone is nothing short of a landmark vocalist, combining emotional and socially conscious lyrics with a haughty, mixed-up sound. Stone chanted proudly behind “Stand!” He soothes the soul and cools the body with his breezy work on “Hot Fun in the Summer Time”. When he tells you to “Dance to the Music”, you best get to steppin’.
Stone worked in mysterious ways, grooving and moving, leading the beat along and leaving his listeners riveted. But looking for the most exemplary work? An arguably defining moment of voice? You want style, range, and a complete and total mastery of freaky, super-‘70s power vocals? Then look no further than Sly Stone’s singing on the powerful, yet sensitively drawn “If You Want Me to Stay” from Fresh. Stone warms the thing up, slowly, carefully, using his words where other men might get down on their knees. It’s the full package, sharply earnest in the beginning, almost like a cry, then Stone woos, screams with might, scratching the whole mouth to make his point: Sly’s gotta be Sly, and if you want his voice, his essence, around, you have to let Sly do his thing. Which we always have. He’s a perfect voice for his genre and a leader of style. Sly Stone’s one of the all-time great growlers of soul and funk. –Blake Goble
The trajectory of Anohni has been captivating at each step of her career, but throughout it all, her voice has been a constant, especially its ability to gut listeners time and time again. The English composer, singer, and visual artist came to fame as the lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons in the late ’90s. Back then, she went by the name Antony Hegarty. A graduate of New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing, she holed up in Manhattan, bringing her art pop style to after-hours bars and clubs. A cult following accumulated. It’s the type of backstory that repeats itself in big names, especially pop stars with a pension for theatrics. But instead of pursuing the radio route, she honed her breathy tone, digging deeper.
That wavering, emotional voice gets people to burst into tears listening to an Antony and the Johnsons LP. Now, this year’s incredible HOPELESSNESS sees Anohni stretching her voice even further. It’s recognizable right from the first note. There are the lush qualities of a falsetto but with the deeper notes of a baritone. On “Watch Me”, she makes a song about protection in the face of child molestation bearable. Listen to 2009’s “Epilepsy Is Dancing” and the simple piano-work beneath her provides the focus of a stripped-down session. Even as far back as 2005’s “Hope There’s Someone”, Anohni beautifully warbles her lyrics, turning the vocal trick into something entirely different than how it’s used in country music. Her voice is the sound of someone struck by the pain of their wounds and life’s wounds simultaneously, but singing a lullaby to their child in hopes that the next day will bring healing. –Nina Corcoran
57. Curtis Mayfield
Both as the leader of the legendary ’60s soul vocal group The Impressions, as well as in his 1970’s solo career, Curtis Mayfield’s voice was most notable for its dexterity and the gossamer-light way it could smoothly navigate any composition and wrap itself around and between the notes. Whether he was singing to reassure you in “It’s All Right” or “People Get Ready”, sounding a warning in “(Don’t Worry) If There Is a Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go”, or providing encouragement in the glorious “Move On Up”, Mayfield’s voice was always perfectly pitched to the composition. He sang in an incredibly clear, mellifluous falsetto that hearkened back to his gospel roots and was utterly gorgeous whether he was singing soul with The Impressions or more funk-based material in his solo career (see “Superfly”, below). His voice fairly skips through the most complicated passages, articulating every syllable with effortless precision. Mayfield was also accomplished as a songwriter, composer, arranger, and guitar player, but it is his stunning, unmistakable voice — often imitated, never equaled — that he will be best remembered for. –Caryn Rose
56. Dolly Parton
When Dolly Parton recently received the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award at the CMA Awards, the songs chosen to honor her — “9 to 5”, “Jolene”, “Here You Come Again”, and “I Will Always Love You” — demonstrated the icon’s range as a vocalist. Try to steal her man, and she’ll get a steely edge to her voice. Navigating condescending bosses and a glass ceiling? She’ll do it with good humor, but with enough determined grit (and a sly vocal wink here and there) to let people know she’s taking no b.s. from anyone. And in songs that call for tender declarations of love, Parton softens and belts out lyrics to make sure each and every romantic word rings true.
That sincerity has helped Parton become a beloved country chart staple, of course. But her crossover success in TV, film, and even the pop charts can also be explained by her expressive vocals. Parton isn’t afraid to be vulnerable — just try not to weep during “Coat of Many Colors” — or add a well-placed tremble for effect. And on classics such as the Kenny Rogers duet “Islands in the Stream”, her sassy confidence makes her part indelible. –Annie Zaleski
55. Nick Cave
As frontman for the jaggedly aggressive Australian act The Birthday Party, Nick Cave was wiry and unbridled, his yawps and shrieks adding extra chaos to his bandmates’ instrumental attacks. When he formed Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, he smoothed out his approach a bit, although the simmering energy remained as he and his bandmates explored religion, mortality, and the various mythologies preoccupying the West. His voice sounds summoned from the hollows, giving his performances an added authority that sounds if not divine, then at least from an otherworldly place; his lyrics, informed by widespread knowledge of the stories people tell to get themselves through life and his grim wit, illuminate even as they cause listeners to flinch in recognition. Together, they give him a profile that’s part prophet, part weary chronicler of the foibles that make humans the imperfect beings running this place (for now, anyway). –Maura Johnston
54. Christina Aguilera
Christina Aguilera possesses the kind of pop sensibility belters wish for. Where many of her contemporaries — Pink, Britney Spears, etc. — pack a star power that eclipses their vocal inconsistencies, Xtina was blessed with a voice that’s as robust as it is approachable. And she isn’t afraid to show it off. Aguilera is often criticized for “oversinging” or allowing her runs to get out of hand, and while it’s true that she’s no master of technique, it’s hard not to be swept up in her hooks.
Aguilera, more than most other prestige vocalists, truly understands the appeal of a solid pop hook, and the multiple registers she can slip into make them that much more memorable. It’s a versatile thing, her voice, leaping nimbly between pop, jazz, blues, and gospel, not to mention mid-range coos and bright, piercing belts. All of this was notable from her earliest singles (“Genie in a Bottle”, “What a Girl Wants”), and her career choices since have often been in service to her talent rather than to her status as a pop star. Her voice has shown signs of aging, however, which is why it’s probably a good thing that she’s found a home as a mentor on The Voice. She’s a teacher to be trusted. –Randall Colburn
Biologists will tell you that the voice starts with the contractions of the diaphragm. Not so for Prince: His voice began much lower, with the rising and falling of the pelvis. The tools he used were different than most; many vocalists are improved with the use of filters or Auto-Tune, but by some acoustical trick, Prince sounded best when he was standing in front of a blowing fan, his gorgeous perm and copious chest hair waving in the breeze. In short, while many musicians on this list owe their placement to their natural gifts, Prince became a great singer by sheer force of personality.
Before his untimely death in The Great Rock Massacre of 2016, the artist formerly known as an unpronounceable symbol (the better to get out of a dispute with Warner Bros.) released a staggering 39 studio albums. Like the sex in his lyrics, Prince wrote songs because it gave him pleasure to do so. He didn’t care if his androgynous style left some questioning his masculinity, and he didn’t care if you made fun of his height. Prince reveled in the joys of a life uncensored; he was great because he was so uncompromisingly himself. –Wren Graves
52. Dusty Springfield
The singer formerly known as Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien didn’t have the most powerful voice around, nor the most dramatic range. What she had instead was access to a wellspring of emotion and mood that she could call up that would help push her performance perfectly into the red. That could range from the joyous and lovestruck tone of “I Only Want To Be With You” or “Stay Awhile” to the almost withered edge of her contribution to Pet Shop Boys’ Top 10 hit “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” to the agonized resignation in her version of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classic “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”. But what she will long be remembered for is the subtle heat she brought to her most sensually charged — and not coincidentally most well-known — performances. On “The Look of Love”, it sounds like she’s positively melting as she purrs out each word, and that rich tang of desire is thick on her tongue as she pays tribute to her beloved “Son of a Preacher Man”. The impact of her 40-plus years in the pop scene was delicate yet deep. –Robert Ham
51. Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan’s inclusion on this list was hotly contested (at least one unflattering impression was done), our opinions on his singing so polarized that he landed smack-dab in the middle as a compromise. While some of us argued the absurdity of “The Voice of His Generation” not appearing on this list, others made the case that it was Dylan’s message and the tumultuous ‘60s that made him such a powerful cultural figure in spite of his lousy singing. But you needn’t dig any deeper into Dylan’s catalog than The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his second release and first of all original material, to understand the power of Dylan’s voice.
On songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, and “Masters of War”, we hear the confusion, fear, and anger of real people put into poetry and sung back in a salt-of-the-earth, nasally Midwestern voice. The utter contempt Dylan expresses in the scathing “Masters of War” taps into the real rage felt by many Americans as mansions are built on the bones and blood of young men sent off to battle. While so many great singers on this list transport us to distant worlds, the power of Dylan’s voice in those earliest years was that listeners could hear themselves reflected in it. That’s why he became “The Voice of His Generation” and not “The King of Folk”. –Matt Melis
50. Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen has always viewed his voice as a blunt instrument. In his recent autobiography, Born to Run, he admits that, early in his career, he relied more on gusto and unfiltered rock ‘n’ roll passion than any kind of proper technique. Just listen to “Something in the Night” and “Streets of Fire”. With each one positioned as track 3 on the separate sides of Darkness on the Edge of Town, they function as sister songs built from full-chested vocal improvisations and lyrics largely made up on the spot. If delivered by many other singers, they wouldn’t work. Propelled from The Boss’ throat, though, they’re two of his strongest songs.
It’s living proof that gusto and rock passion are impressive, hard-to-obtain superpowers in themselves, but over the years, Springsteen has added to his toolbox. He credits quieter albums like The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils and Dust for forcing him to learn how to broaden the emotional range of his voice. Does that mean he considers himself a technically amazing singer these days? Probably not. But he doesn’t need to be. From the wounded survivor’s whisper on “Straight Time” to the thankful yet ragged falsetto on “All I’m Thinkin’ About”, he coaxes quiet emotion out of the almost invisible cracks — the tiny, open spaces in his music. That’s a subtler kind of rock ‘n’ roll, sure. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less powerful. –Dan Caffrey
49. Donna Summer
Dance and R&B music as we know it wouldn’t be the same without Donna Summer, who dominated the disco scene (and, later, the pop charts) in the 1970s on the strength of a powerful, elastic voice. After kicking off her solo career with the 1975 smash “Love To Love You Baby” — a funk-flecked slow jam during which Summer crooned in ecstasy — she spent the next half-decade showing off an impressive vocal range that was both traditional and forward-gazing.
Certain hits found Summer taking singing cues from the 1960s (the Motown-influenced “Back in Love Again”; the carefree-sounding “I Remember Yesterday”) or contemporary soul music (the glittery “Last Dance”). However, on disco smashes “Hot Stuff”, “Bad Girls”, and the wildly influential Giorgio Moroder collaboration “I Feel Love” — featuring her cascading, lilting vocal oohs — Summer made the case that a voice could be manipulated and molded in tandem with dance beats or an electronic backdrop. Unlike many of her peers, she successfully transitioned into the 1980s, courtesy of hits such as “She Works Hard for the Money”. Call it a case of music trends finally catching up to vocal genius. –Annie Zaleski
48. Solomon Burke
Solomon Burke’s voice was soul music, and it still is more than six years after his death. The iconic singer, who fathered such early soul classics as “Cry to Me”, “Down in the Valley”, and “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love”, laid claim to one of the most varied voices in the history of popular music, one that could command the attention of a room with a powerful boom one moment while keeping listeners hanging on every fragile note the next.
Burke’s inroad into music came through the Church, where he not only sang but also began serving as a minister from an early age. That’s more than an interesting backstory; it’s a window into where exactly the power and gravitas of his music comes from. Burke brought varied influences such as gospel, country, R&B, and swamp blues into a devastatingly effective pop package, but he made them all his own through an emotive vocal style that helped give “soul” its name. Burke sang through his bones, with all of his body, raising the bar for his peers and future soul superstars in the process. The genre would go on to produce many musical legends during the 1960s, many of whom recorded alongside him during his prolific run at Atlantic Records. But few singers proved an ability to be great in as many different ways as the King of Soul. –Ryan Bray
Sigur Rós have been rightfully hailed as one of the most influential post-rock groups of all time, memorable for their grandiose instrumentation and sweeping moments that actually earn the overused designation of “epic.” While the buildup of ornate orchestration into expansive climax is their defining sound, what elevated the group to a singular level is the gentle, beautiful voice of vocalist Jónsi.
Somewhere between Björk and Sade, Jónsi layers his voice as another instrument within the music, anchoring the song without overpowering the force on display. Alternating between Icelandic, English, and an invented language called Hopelandic, Jónsi’s soft but powerful voice is an inviting comfort to listeners, calming yet wrought with emotion.
As the band often built to thunderous explosions, Jónsi matched them in turn, belting out his forceful falsetto in harmony. On this 2006 live performance of “Olsen Olsen” in his home country, Jónsi offers a showcase of his awe-inspiring voice, a majestic tool that can make you feel, for a moment, as if anything is possible. –David Sackllah
46. Patsy Cline
They call Patsy Cline’s voice a contranaldo, but really no single term could box it in. It was low in register, sure, but it could also belt into the rafters, reaching a mournful cry, a seductive rasp, or a playful yodel at will. When she proclaimed sadness or lust or joy, the emotions weren’t simplified down to a word, either. She didn’t just sing about falling to pieces; she expressed it. It was a voice with a worldly experience that betrayed an old soul, even though a plane crash wouldn’t allow her to surpass 30.
The story goes that Cline got her voice following a throat infection at the age of 13, as if her singing could only be the result of some bit of celestial luck. That voice would elevate her not just to the top of the country charts, but the pop charts as well, making her one of the first crossover stars from country and western music. She was, in fact, the first woman in country music to become a headlining touring artist, setting the stage for generations of performers to follow. But the songs, often recorded in a single take, leave an even bigger legacy. They remain dusty and distant, with Cline’s voice offering a comforting hand on our shoulder from decades away. –Philip Cosores
45. Elvis Presley
Elvis had the hair, the hips and the lips, but it was his singular voice that lifted him from obscurity and elevated him to the position of Rock and Roll’s immortal Monarch. It was a unique instrument, multi-faceted — capable of telling a story through tone and texture as much as through actual verbiage. Take “Heartbreak Hotel”, for instance. At the top of the song, he sounds like a desperate man, wounded, aching for his lover’s return before plummeting in register to emulate the sound of real, crushing depression when he realizes she ain’t coming back. He doesn’t need to tell you he’s “so lonely, he could die.” You already feel it.
Elvis didn’t sing with the same kind of fire and brimstone as say a Little Richard or a Jerry Lee Lewis, but when he needed it, the extra gear was there. It’s there on his very first single, “That’s All Right”, on one of his biggest hits, “Jailhouse Rock”, and on one of his last hits, “Burning Love”. At heart, however, he was a crooner. His delivery stands somewhere at the crossroads between Frank Sinatra, Big Bill Broonzy, and Hank Williams. Songs like “Are You Lonesome Tonight”, “Don’t”, and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” wouldn’t be half as affecting if not carried by the weight and gravity of his soulful, arresting bellow. –Corbin Reiff
44. Mary J. Blige
The Grammys are usually the broadcast equivalent of an Ambien, but every once in a while an artist rises above the lame-joking, overlong variety show mess and justifies our watching. “No Drama”, a tale of overcoming alcohol, drug, and relationship abuse, isn’t Mary J. Blige’s very best song, and many fans of the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” wouldn’t put it in their personal top 10. But her Grammy performance was so energetic, so full of pain and longing, that it instantly became an awards show classic.
Mary J. Blige is one of the most innovative and underrated pop stars of all time. In an era when women were expected to bare it all like Madonna, she performed in baseball caps and combat boots. As Ethan Brown of New York Magazine has pointed out, her duets with Method Man and Ghostface Killah set the trend for songbirds and rappers sharing tracks, a formula that still dominates the Top 40 today. But what stands out most from her three-decade career is her vocal style: passionate, potent, fire-breathing soul. –Wren Graves
43. Louis Armstrong
There’s plenty of generous things to say about Louis Amstrong’s generosity, wit, and warmth. On the other hand, there’s always been sassy talk of Armstrong’s simplistic style. That voice as a one-note sort of thing. But here’s the deal: We all know that voice. How the hell does one get a voice like Louis Armstrong’s? That scrunched, bassy thing he had going for him. It’s like a voice rubbed in salt and pepper left out to dry. “‘Ol dippermouth,” folks called it. It’s not like there’s an insider’s guide hinting at years of smoking. Perhaps it was regional — Armstrong’s New Orleans upbringing coming up through gravel with some color when he spoke. And it only got grittier, bluesier, and more spirited as he got older. Whatever created Armstrong’s voice, you know exactly what it sounds like. Sure, one can loosely imitate it. Try turning throaty grumbling into words, and lower the voice an octave or two. What a wonderful voice. Imitated, impersonated. But no one sounds like Louis Armstrong. No one. –Blake Goble
42. Smokey Robinson
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Smokey Robinson helped build Motown. He and The Miracles had been working with Motown founder Berry Gordy from the beginning of Gordy’s career; it was Robinson who encouraged Gordy to start his own label; Smokey Robinson and The Miracles were the first artists signed to the label as well as the first to have a platinum record; and for years Robinson served as Motown’s Vice President. His songwriting prowess earned him the Gershwin Prize and a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but his singing style was arguably even more influential.
The great irony of Robinson’s career is that his voice isn’t exactly smoky: High, pure, and as mournful as flowers on a grave, Robinson influenced a generation of pop stars, starting with a young Michael Jackson. In his taped performances with The Miracles, Robinson almost seems to go into a trance. His head bobs along to the beat with his eyes half-closed, turned inwards. And if the hand gestures and foot shuffles are somewhat stilted, the voice is so full of life that no visuals are necessary. The story comes through even without words, even in a single, sad note. –Wren Graves
41. Frankie Valli
I’ve never seen Jersey Boys — neither the Broadway hit nor the Clint Eastwood film about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons — but I often feel bad for the Jersey Boys (or at least one Jersey Boy in particular). Every so often you’ll see an ad for the touring production, and there’s some poor schmuck in a red blazer trying to belt out “Sherry”. As far as white doo-wop singers were concerned, none were even remotely as unique as Frankie Valli, the Jersey kid with that inimitable, almost comically high falsetto. Despite doo-wop’s quick decline in the early ’60s, Valli and the Four Seasons were able to score hit after hit, like “Walk Like a Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry”.
“With ‘Sherry’, we were looking for a sound. We wanted to make the kind of mark that, if the radio was playing one of our songs, you knew who it was immediately,” Valli once said. “But I didn’t want to sing like that my whole life.” He wouldn’t, and still Valli’s solo records that followed were nearly as iconic, including the 1967 smash “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” and the theme to Grease. But it’s singing like that which will truly be Valli’s legacy, considering that on any given night in any given small American city, some schmuck in a red blazer is trying his damnedest to hit those high notes. –Zach Kelly
40. Elton John
Few artists have had as impressive a career as Sir Elton John. From a run in the 1970s that established the artist as one of the era’s most regarded singers to soundtracking the childhood of a generation with The Lion King and his unforgettable performance of “Candle in the Wind” at Princess Diana’s funeral, Elton John is an integral piece of rock history over the past half-century. Whether he was singing booming ballads like “Levon” and “Tiny Dancer” or raucous jams like “The Bitch Is Back” and “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)”, his booming bravado is one of the most recognizable sounds in rock. A true visionary with a tremendous grasp of showmanship and charm, John is one of the most reliable and beloved artists in pop culture.
A hero of everyone from Lady Gaga to Young Thug, Sir Elton’s influence can still be felt plainly in modern music, his singular, inimitable style a clear ancestor of many current stars. John’s resonance comes directly from his instantly recognizable voice, which reached extreme falsetto in his young years and a deep baritone in his later, yet always remained distinctly his. One of the all-time greats who has earned his due, Elton John is one of the few stars whose voice has more than withstood the test of time. –David Sackllah
39. Karen O
So much of Karen O’s greatness as a vocalist comes from the stylishness of her delivery. Emerging as an art rock band ready for bigger things in the early aughts, Yeah Yeah Yeahs were bursting at the seams with style. Karen O can deliver with lilting affectation one second and pounce with danger and mystery the next. Sometimes it is slightly broken, a hint of last night’s cigarette on her words. Other times it is a confident monster. But regardless of how she sounds at any moment, it’s always cool as all hell.
Her ability to overwhelm a song with her presence makes her more subtle performances all the more memorable. Some of her best vocal performances, “Maps” and “Soft Shock”, are notable for how precise they are. Sure, Karen O knows when to be a rock star, but she also knows when to flash her vulnerability. That’s why her most famous line, “they don’t love you like I love you,” gains its significance from how she sings it. There’s sadness there, there’s desperation, and there’s a risk. Karen O has never been afraid to show who she is when she sings, whether that makes her larger than life or as human as the rest of us. –Philip Cosores
38. Mike Patton
When it comes to harnessing the power of the provocative, nobody does it better than Mike Patton. The California native’s eyebrow-raising talents have been evident ever since he stormed out the gate in ‘84, sneering, spitting, and falsetto-ing his way through chaos alongside Mr. Bungle. Five years later, he hooked up with Faith No More — and before long, the world fell under the spell of the “Epic”, dark, and weird. In addition to offering a twisted respite from the smooth, glossy mores of the Madonna-dominated pop charts, his freewheeling delivery style and theatrical bravado went on to become the textbook example of unpredictability, co-opted by everyone from Dillinger Escape Plan’s Greg Puciato (a close associate, thanks to Patton’s ties with the post-hardcore legends) to Anthony Kiedis (who Patton subsequently mocked at a Mr. Bungle show on Halloween 1999 by performing Red Hot Chili Peppers covers dressed as the frontman). –Zoe Camp
37. Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin did more than just rasp, let us remember. She started as a folk singer, inspired by the likes of Joan Baez and Judy Collins. But this was the ‘60s, and Joplin didn’t have the look. Nobody was going to shower her with attention, no matter how talented she proved to be. She had to get that attention. Luckily, her rich, robust mezzo-soprano lent itself to that, especially in how she could maintain a beguiling guttural texture even as she belted high up into the fifth octave. That she could also achieve a softer, smoother timbre made her that much more distinctive; sometimes, she could even self-harmonize by producing multiple tones at the same times.
Taking a cue from the likes of Bessie Smith, Lead Belly, and Big Mama Thornton, Joplin dug deep, embracing the rough edges of her voice to exploit its true power. Her ability to be imperfect, to favor emotion and intensity over technique, was revolutionary in its own way, with its reverberations trickling down throughout history. “Janis in some sense was the great unrecognized protest singer of the 1960s,” says Joplin biographer Alice Echols. “No, Janis was not singing explicit protest songs. But in her voice, what people heard was somebody who was refusing the status quo.” Joplin was one of those rare artists who was important not just for what she sang, but for the way she sang it. –Randall Colburn
36. Little Richard
If vocalists were ranked solely based on the length of their musical shadow, the rock ‘n’ roll legend known as Little Richard would be much higher on this list. He should probably be higher in any case — this was the man whose voice once rendered John Lennon speechless, whose all-time hit “Tutti Frutti” convinced David Bowie that he was hearing God inside the vinyl grooves. God, maybe, or something similarly supernatural. Listening to a Little Richard record is an incongruous physical experience, the kind that lights a fire under your feet while sending a chill down your spine. To listen to the descending “woo!”s on “Long Tall Sally” or the intense, rhythmic delivery on “Lucille” is to locate exactly where rock ‘n’ roll got its groove, its ferocity, its hunger. Some critics claim that without Little Richard, there wouldn’t be The Beatles or The Stones. They’re wrong: Without Little Richard, there wouldn’t be rock music at all. –Collin Brennan
Plenty of vocalists have attempted to imitate Morrissey’s voice, but none have successfully captured his emotional complexity — specifically, his ability to convey empathy, drama, bravado, and sorrow all at once. While fronting The Smiths, he was a playful singer — adding saucy rolled rrrs to “A Rush and a Push and The Land Is Ours”, goofy yawps to “This Charming Man”, keening falsetto to “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, and anguished wails to “Hand in Glove”. That fit the band’s music, of course, but also spoke to his unselfconscious singing style: Emboldened by idols such as Sparks, New York Dolls and Patti Smith, Morrissey threw himself into the frontman role by never skimping on theatrical moves or vocal flourishes.
As a solo artist, Moz kept elements of that playfulness, but more often revels in being a world-weary, lounge-esque crooner favoring vibrato and a richer lower register. (In fact, over the years, his voice has aged into a velvety instrument permeated with resigned melancholy.) By this point, Morrissey knows he can command an audience using just his voice — something embodied by his crisper, firm enunciation, which just so happens to embody how his convictions have crystallized with age. –Annie Zaleski
People have said that Adele, currently one of the most revered singers of our generation, has a “timeless” voice. In truth, it may be the opposite. What Adele offers in smash hits like “Rolling in the Deep” and “Hello” isn’t a voice out of time, but one from a different time altogether. In comparing Adele to icons like Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald, we’ve pinpointed precisely what it is that has made her so universally adored — she is a flawed natural in the age of perfection.
While it may seem surprising, Adele isn’t necessarily in the upper-echelon for range (artists like Ariana Grande can boast a wider octave arsenal), but makes up for it with purity and stamina. Adele’s voice is athletic and authentic, an unapologetic powerhouse with a knack for tone and an ability to imbue her performances with genuine emotion.
Moving from the soul roots of her debut, 19, to the more country blues sentiments of her blockbuster breakthrough, 21, Adele has continued to evolve her voice, embracing its nuances. On her newest album, 25, that evolution is evident, as Adele finds way to stretch vowels and pivot from rasping to belting with a purity largely unseen in modern popular music. Most dazzling is the pleasure and warmth one feels when hearing her sing, elements made all the more enjoyable in conjunction with the vocal acrobatics she regularly employs.
Adele is not a perfect singer, but she is an authentic one. Clearly we’ve embraced the difference. –Zack Ruskin
33. Etta James
Though the genres in which she traded and the era in which she rose are filled with high-profile vocalists, few, if any, ever sang with the power and strength of Etta James — and that was unfortunately likely fueled and pushed by a rough personal life that would have knocked so many others down. James is one of many iconic singers whose addictions and struggles are inextricable from their perception, yet one listen to her voice and the whole world around it drops away. Even her subtlety was strong, the tender songs as powerful as the bombast, the lacy soft tones as resonant as the big, brassy ones. Her grasp on blues, jazz, R&B, and pop show a clever mind in addition to raw natural talent, all things that may not be immediately evident when overshadowed by the show-stopping power. –Adam Kivel
Bono sings about a variety of things. It could be as simple as romance or as complicated as the troubles in Northern Ireland, but as the years have passed, it’s clear that his voice means more than just what is conveyed in his songs. What started as a rock band became something much different, with U2 as interested in Irish peace, curing AIDS, and feeding the world’s hungry as they are with putting on rock concerts. With Bono, the possibilities of what singing can accomplish were taken to unprecedented new places
And as a singer, he is up to the task. He lets his voice soar as needed, crafting vocal lines that were ready for stadiums long before his band was. His words jab with purpose, portraying the kind of self-confidence that draws people to pop music in the first place. And when he opts for big moments, like the “love is a temple” line of “One” or the “I’m wide awake” line of “Bad”, there’s soul in his showiness. Sure, Bono’s voice can reach the cheap seats, but it’s the audible passion that seeks to invoke nothing short of a spiritual reaction. And often, it succeeds. Over the years, the cool may have faded from his black sunglasses, but not the ability to affect the masses. Others are happy singing songs, but Bono wants to inspire a better world. –Philip Cosores
31. Ray Charles
Ray Charles’ first decade as an artist led to countless comparisons to singers like Nat King Cole. But looking at it now, he was something uniquely special from the start, which was especially evident in his singing, alive with the essences of blues, R&B, gospel, swing, and more. 1954’s “I Got a Woman”, his biggest hit at that point, was absolutely pivotal, making audiences listen to him and his other music closer than ever before. They heard the realistic depth of loneliness he could so honestly convey, they heard the raw spontaneity of the way he sang certain notes, and they heard the physicality that was audible in his rasp. Having already made some of the most influential music of the era, he was far from finished.
1959’s “What’d I Say, Pt. I & II” was the stuff of legend. Its sexual throb — channeled so sensuously in Charles’ voice — was ahead of its time, heralding popular music’s future rebelliousness. Up until his death in 2004, the genius of his singing was obvious, whether it was in his sensational 1972 rendition of “America the Beautiful” or, much later, 2004’s posthumous album, Genius Loves Company. By all accounts, it was a fascinating journey for his longtime fans to follow, while a new generation of listeners first came to know him from Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Charles in Ray and Foxx’s chorus in Kanye West’s “Gold Digger”. –Michael Madden
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
20. Roger Daltrey
Roger Daltrey’s apotheosis as an almighty rock frontman would not have happened were it not for his loss of innocence. Before he reached adolescence and started playing music (his first guitar was a Stratocaster replica fashioned from a hunk of wood), the young man was on the path to escape his working-class upbringing and move up the traditional societal ladder; he earned top marks at a competitive Grammar School, making a prospective stint at university attainable, and inevitable — but destiny had other plans, and together with his schoolmates-turned-bandmates, Daltrey set out to deliver the yowled screeds of the post-war youth, pained but proud, angry but easily accessible. There’s a reason why his legendary scream in The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” became a meme: Aside from its latent catharsis, it’s a symbolic declaration of dissent, a molotov cocktail hurled at the establishment with primal force. Over 50 years later, we can still feel the flames smolder. –Zoe Camp
19. Mariah Carey
Over a career that has lasted nearly three decades, Mariah Carey sits at the pinnacle of tremendous voices in pop music. Throughout the ‘90s, she ruled the Billboard charts, hitting number one with 14 different singles over the course of the decade. Her booming voice, which stretches from a deep baritone up through multiple octaves, propelled her to be a defining star of the past 25 years. She may even be one of the last stars to turn an original Christmas song into an everlasting standard, no small feat. Though a sharp songwriter with an ear for the best hooks, it was her magnificent voice that had fans coming back time and time again.
For an example, look no further than this 1995 live clip of “Always Be My Baby” in the midst of her world-conquering run. While it may not rely upon the pure powerhouse of huge ballads like “Hero” or the Whitney duet “When You Believe”, the classic encompasses all of her strengths: the gentle falsetto, the doo-wop melodies, the signature vocal runs, all leading to the booming showstopper. Here you’ll find everything that made Carey one of the most powerful vocalists of her generation. –David Sackllah
18. Stevie Nicks
For a woman notoriously surrounded by band turmoil and emotional fallout, Stevie Nicks was capable of acting as a strong core that powered many Fleetwood Mac highs and solo showstoppers. Nicks served as both anchor and propeller, pushing tangents and outbursts — the music moved around her. She could be considered one of the world’s greatest vocalists for “Rhiannon” and “Landslide” alone — and for many who have yet to dig into her underrated solo catalog, she is. That strength in the face of adversity made her a thrilling inspiration, both to listeners who connect to her powerfully emotive, warm voice and to other singers attempting to convey that same fragility and sincerity with conviction. Nicks gives you a glimpse into a secret world, where familiar characters and sounds gallop behind her and morph into backdrops — beautiful settings that accent the striking voice above them.
She’s a singer able to carry hurt and hope with equal measure. Throughout her career, Nicks’ voice worked perfectly in collaboration, first with Lindsey Buckingham, the two then moving onto Fleetwood Mac, and her solo career highlighted by duets like “Leather and Lace” with Don Henley and “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with Tom Petty. Throughout, she deftly highlights the skills of the musicians she works with, fitting her voice into her surroundings and knowing exactly when to step confidently to the fore. Nicks finds ways to soften personal ideas, prodding them into a space where the listener can fit in, too. I find myself wanting to see like Nicks sees, to hear like she hears. She’s capable of eliciting tears through quiet heartbreak or awe-inspiring whirling dervishes of vocals, a magnetic presence that cannot be denied. –Lior Phillips
17. Frank Sinatra
Watch hours of footage of Frank Sinatra (aka “The Voice”) and you’ll realize that the original blue-eyed dreamer has never performed the same song in the same way twice. Sinatra’s baritone moved throughout his life, building and growing richer upon the experiences he had as the world’s first superstar. That’s only part of the reason for his diverse takes, though. For Sinatra, a song was an expression of wit and play, sadness and joy, longing and belonging, hope and despair. You could say his approach to singing was similar to that of a method actor. He’d be so in his head and yet make it look effortless. He’d open his mouth and sweet ecstasy would dispense like rose petals floating off a stem. You saw none of the hard work that created his genius because Sinatra was the original hustler, the pre-Jay Z, the definition of singing for your supper.
One of the smartest employers of his own instrument, he took advantage of a new tool — the microphone — and used it to establish a level of intimacy that hadn’t been communicated to audiences yet. You think Drake was the first hipster dude to make guys cry? It was Frank. For all his admirers, he was so much more than an inviting face, turning the American Songbook’s schmaltz into real grit. Re-visiting songs you’ve heard a thousand times, Sinatra still leaves you hanging on every curl of his syllables, as he dances through America’s favorite stories over and over. “I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet…” he sings on “That’s Life”. Frank played every part perfectly. –Eve Barlow
16. Stevie Wonder
Scientists have proven that when one sense is lost, corresponding brain sections pick up the slack, compensating so the body can carry on as it would’ve otherwise. In that sense, it’s no exaggeration to say that Stevie Wonder has overcome his blindness. The child prodigy-turned-icon first signed to Motown’s Tamla label at age 11 when a member of The Miracles heard him singing “Lonely Boy”. Even back then, Wonder played piano, harmonica, and drums, powering through music. But he wasn’t just playing music. He wasn’t just singing. Stevie Wonder seemed to find life within music, as if he himself came to life when a song channeled through him.
Even now, at age 66, Wonder sings as if he’s about to burst and tiny jewels of joy and gratitude will rocket into the air. He still performs for over three hours at his shows, grinning ear to ear for “Superstition”, “Isn’t She Lovely”, and “For Once in My Life”. He infuses his voice with a different type of soul. It’s as if by being blind, Stevie Wonder is able to channel his entire spirit into his voice, tilting his head back during “Sir Duke” and letting every gleeful note belt out of him. On record and on stage, Wonder sings like he’s seconds away from crying. But this is different. These are tears of joy, an extension of confidence, a hidden insight that life will be okay, life will be bearable, if we choose to look at it that way — an object so rarely captured by music. Stevie Wonder is a preacher lending out musical psalms, reviving faith in life itself as someone who sees, and sings, about a purity any of us would be lucky to see in our lifetime. That much he can promise. Nay, it’s already signed, sealed, and delivered. We just have to open it when we need reminding. –Nina Corcoran
15. David Bowie
Did you know that in elementary school, David Bowie’s voice was rated as “adequate” by his choir? There’s something to that.
Bowie’s voice may not have been classically tuned and perfected, but goodness, such charisma behind it. We know the Bowie sound, or sounds, rather. But when we talk about the range of David Bowie’s voice, we must be careful not to confuse that with the range of his characters. You know the covers, the personae. But what of Bowie’s dulcet singing? That soft baritone. Or is it a sort of cool caterwauling? Maybe he was smoky. Or sensational. His moody warble that breaks fast into cries and rapturous wailing at times or how he deepens the voice into this sort of sexy moan that turns boys and girls into jelly. Bowie and his voice were many things, but in simplest terms, the crooner was a deep beauty behind the mic because he exuded superb confidence. And that confidence, lord, it made him one of the handsomest singers on Earth. When you sing as powerfully as Bowie did, it’s no wonder the glitzy outfits must have come easy. –-Blake Goble
14. Ella Fitzgerald
The Queen of Jazz. The high priestess of song. The boss lady. Ella Fitzgerald was given plenty of nicknames, many by other vocalists in awe of both her technical prowess and emotional power. While Fitzgerald’s singing voice rivals any vocalist on this list, her scat singing simultaneously puts her in the same conversation with the best jazz instrumentalists of all time as well. Whether she was trilling out non-verbal syllables for instrumental impact or perfectly elocuting lovelorn lines, Fitzgerald connected with her audience at an instinctual level. That comes in part thanks to her precise sense of rhythm — both on the beat and in the pocket. Bouncing from line to line, register to register, key to key, Fitzgerald wouldn’t miss a note, flitting around as naturally as a songbird. Whether delivering Irving Berlin ballads or a swinging duet with frequent collaborator Louis Armstrong (particularly their exquisite take on Porgy and Bess), Ella reigned supreme. As a jazz musician with a long career, the Queen left behind hundreds of live and studio recordings, meaning a whole world of Ella Fitzgerald to live in. –Adam Kivel
13. Marvin Gaye
Alongside fellow Motown legend Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye’s voice would help define the label’s seminal sound, and would go on to transcend those confines and find new life in a panorama of settings for decades beyond. Rich with a palpable yearning that bordered on full-on desperation, Gaye’s voice could go from a gentle croon to a soaring falsetto without losing an ounce of intensity. Even as his career began as a slow burn before erupting in the late ‘60s with a string of hits like the Tammi Terrell-assisted “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, the silky-smooth dexterity of his vocals was easy to discern.
Starting with the landmark 1971 concept album What’s Going On, Gaye revealed even deeper nuances to his style, translating the critical hopelessness rippling through major cities across America. His ongoing battle between the sacred and profane came together perfectly on 1973 single “Let’s Get It On”, which still stands as one of the most sexually charged hits of all time.
By the time he leaned heavily towards the profane on his final studio album, Midnight Love, the results were seminal, particularly with the venerable single “Sexual Healing”. Oozing with conviction, Gaye caresses the song’s every syllable, slinking around the grooves like a panther in heat. Still, that definitive vocal performance was matched and possibly even surpassed with his erotically charged delivery of the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles. –Scott T. Sterling
12. Sam Cooke
You can’t have this list without Sam Cooke. And, no, that’s not music writer hyperbole. He deserves to be here, first and foremost, for his unparalleled smooth delivery that served up hit after hit in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. That type of run got him dubbed The King of Soul (also Mr. Soul), but even more importantly, Cooke is known as The Inventor of Soul. His pioneering efforts are credited for influencing Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and many others; popularizing the likes of Otis Redding and James Brown; and creating a blueprint for black entrepreneurship within the recording industry. Like I said, you can’t have this list without Sam Cooke. And yet, perhaps what Cooke will be best remembered for is his contribution of the de facto Civil Rights Movement anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come”. As long as injustice and hatred are allowed to fester, Cooke’s uplifting voice will be a source of hope for all dreaming of a better tomorrow for themselves and future generations. –Matt Melis
11. Nina Simone
Eunice Kathleen Waymon took on the stage name Nina Simone in order to disguise herself from her preacher father and other family members who might have heard that she was playing “the devil’s music” rather than performing classical piano as they’d hoped. Little did she or anyone know that as Nina Simone, she would wind up doing god’s work, leading a charge for civil rights and inspiring a country. Her lyrics told you that the heart was at stake, the voice a meditation on the way that time can never be captured, just acknowledged for being precious.
She used her golden tones in more traditional fare to begin her career (including her first top 20 success, a rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy” from Porgy and Bess), but a major shift occurred at the release of “Mississippi Goddam”, Simone boldly addressing the racial injustices of the American South. Her sticky, sorrowful cries lent a voice to the silenced, shed a light on the abused, gave a warm embrace to the marginalized. A song as haunting and beautiful as “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” would be powerful on its own, but in Simone’s voice it becomes revolutionary.
It’s nakedly aspirational, and some of the most poignant and compelling numbers in Simone’s oeuvre arrive at a point where she recalibrates language through vocal inflection, words floating out of her mouth reshaped and transformed: “slow” during “Trouble in My Mind”, “mine” in “I Put a Spell on You”, or “power” mid-“Sinnerman”. Each syllable falls like a teardrop on paper, inking through the words to create a timeless new world. Remember Simone for pure, aching passion, bursts of overwhelming power, and a range that reflects the roots of her work and how much she was able to grow within traditions. –Lior Phillips
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