The 200 Greatest Singers of All Time
From Sinatra to SZA, from R&B to salsa to alt-rock
Aretha Franklin described her mission as a singer like this: “Me with my hand outstretched, hoping someone will take it.” That kind of deep, empathetic bond between artist and listener is the most elemental connection in music. And you can think of our list of the 200 Greatest Singers of All Time as a celebration of that bond. These are the vocalists that have shaped history and defined our lives — from smooth operators to raw shouters, from gospel to punk, from Sinatra to Selena to SZA.
When Rolling Stone first published its list of the 100 Greatest Singers in 2008, we used an elaborate voting process that included input from well-known musicians. The results skewed toward classic rock and singers from the Sixties and Seventies. This new list was compiled our staff and key contributors, and it encompasses 100 years of pop music as an ongoing global conversation, where iconic Indian playback singer Lata Mangeshkar lands between Amy Winehouse and Johnny Cash, and salsa queen Celia Cruz is up there in the rankings with Prince and Marvin Gaye. You might notice that, say, there isn’t any opera on our list — that’s because our purview is pop music writ large, meaning that almost all the artists on this list had significant careers as crossover stars making popular music for the masses.
Before you start scrolling (and commenting), keep in mind that this is the Greatest Singers list, not the Greatest Voices List. Talent is impressive; genius is transcendent. Sure, many of the people here were born with massive pipes, perfect pitch, and boundless range. Others have rougher, stranger, or more delicate instruments. As our write-up for the man who ended up at Number 112 notes, “Ozzy Osbourne doesn’t have what most people would call a good voice, but boy does he have a great one.” That could apply to more than a few people here.
In all cases, what mattered most to us was originality, influence, the depth of an artist’s catalog, and the breadth of their musical legacy. A voice can be gorgeous like Mariah Carey’s, rugged like Toots Hibbert’s, understated like Willie Nelson’s, slippery and sumptuous like D’Angelo’s, or bracing like Bob Dylan’s. But in the end, the singers behind it are here for one reason: They can remake the world just by opening their mouths.
When Rosalía sings, it feels as if she’s pulling out decades of history from her throat and resurrecting them into thin air. Her vocal tone, the intuitive melismas and rhythmic accents of which were built from training in flamenco for more than a decade, possesses a crystalline nature that in turn awakens emotions deep in the hearts of listeners. With her 2018 breakthrough album, El Mal Querer, she started heavily incorporating Auto-Tune — not to mask her voice, but to instead emphasize the nuanced texture of her performance, which fluidly shifts from ferocity to playfulness to sorrow. Continuing to bring tradition into a new future, she pushed harder into experimentalism with 2022’s Motomami. —M.K.
While his hardcore-punk contemporaries were ranting about alienation and social ills, the Misfits frontman was crooning about Astro Zombies, infanticide, and teenagers from Mars in a rich, defiantly melodic voice that harked back to his heroes Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, and Roy Orbison (one of the legends he would later write for, along with Johnny Cash). Later on, with his eponymous band, he kept heavy metal firmly connected to the roots of rock & roll with a range that could comfortably tackle earthy blues and haunted torch songs, while adding in a chilling occult aura and a penchant for rafter-rattling howls. “Growing up, just singing in bands, I didn’t have the same kind of voice as everyone else,” the singer said in 2015. “I had more of a deep, howling, kind of beastier voice. —H.S.
Opting for subtlety instead of force or volume, Billie Eilish’s restraint makes the big emotions in her writing all the more intense. After revealing her soul-inflected tone at 14 with “Ocean Eyes,” she’s since mastered the technical elements that now comprise her signature style: controlled slides, delicate vibrato, and breathy texture that has inspired a new generation of pop singers to emulate. Though she leaned into an ASMR-like deadpan for her spooky 2019 debut album, she played with the timeless sorrow of 1950s jazz and contemporary pop on her sophomore effort, Happier Than Ever, which also saw her releasing a cathartic belt on its title track. —M.K.
A Nigerian cultural giant, Burna Boy is the ambassador of Afrobeats as a global movement that can feel equally at home climbing the European charts and maintaining a subtle emotional connection with past African genres like highlife. Burna’s voice is sweet like caramel, but it can also soar on slickly produced tracks like his recent megahit “Last Last,” or the 2019 gem “Anybody,” amped up by deep bass accents and insanely sophisticated polyrhythms. His vocal lines find inspiration in everything from hip-hop and R&B to hooky pop and dancehall — the world is his playground. —E.L.
The Replacements frontman had a barbaric yap to match any musclebound hardcore psycho — but his ability to bring wit, deprecation, irony, and intimacy into that chaos made him the greatest Midwestern rock singer of the 1980s. The man who wrote “Fuck School” and “Gary’s Got a Boner” saved his real firepower for heart-wrecking ballads like “Unsatisfied” and “Within Your Reach,” where you could hear every cigarette he ever smoked as he seemed to dig deeper and deeper with each verse. In an era when lots of indie-rock guys were trying to channel heartland disaffection by singing like they’d lived through the Dust Bowl, Westerberg put no distance at all between his own voice and the world of broken suburban kids he ached to redeem. —J.D.
Poly Styrene, the lead singer of Londoners X-Ray Spex, was a heckler-as-crooner. A tiny, biracial dynamo who wore braces and delivered her brainy lyrics about consumerist self-delusion in a gleefully unholy screech, Styrene was perhaps the most instantly arresting vocalist of Seventies punk. When she went solo with the lost 1980 classic Translucence, she proved just as startling, and even more personable, while singing something closer to lullabies. “Poly lit the way for me as a female singer who wanted to sing about ideas,” Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna wrote when Styrene died in 2011. “She had one of the best, most original voices ever.” —M.M.
If you need proof of Kelly Clarkson’s vocal prowess, just turn on your TV on a weekday afternoon. There, you’ll see the American Idol winner turned talk-show host perform “Kellyoke,” her daily gift to the cover-song gods. Her choices run the gamut — “Dog Days Are Over,” “Rolling in the Deep,” “What a Fool Believes” — and she nails even the trickiest ones both in notes hit and emotional wallop. Her 2004 smash “Since U Been Gone” showed that Clarkson could wail with the best of them; nearly two decades later, she’s proving that her power hasn’t waned while her versatility has only gotten deeper. —M.J.
Brandy Norwood made the transition from Nineties teen queen — America’s sweetheart on the sitcom Moesha — to sophisticated adult R&B stylist. She grew up singing in church, graduating to prime pop bangers like “I Wanna Be Down” and “Sittin’ Up in My Room.” She hit Number One at the height of the TRL era with her Monica duet “The Boy Is Mine.” Brandy aimed for a more adult tone in her Coldplay-influenced 2004 Afrodisiac and a duet with her brother Ray J on the Phil Collins remake “Another Day in Paradise.” She also sang in a classic Verzuz battle in 2020, going up against her old rival (and friend) Monica. —R.S.
Since the mid-Nineties, Anohni has possessed a singular place in pop music, placing her soulful, smooth wail amid lush-yet-agitated avant-pop as the leader of Antony and the Johnsons and in collaborations with the likes of Yoko Ono and Bryce Dessner. In 2016, when Anohni publicly came out as trans, she released Helplessness, a protest album that garners its strength from the stark contrast between her supple voice and its confrontational lyrics (“I wanna see this world, I wanna see it boil,” she wails amid the crushing drums and blown-out synth brass on the apocalyptic “4 Degrees”). Her voice’s unblemished beauty adds crushing weight to the words she sings. —M.J.
Jung Kook, the multifaceted youngest member of BTS, boasts a long list of talents — he’s a strong performer, written several songs, and is known to be extremely hardworking and humble despite the success he’s experienced at such an early age. He’s also an extremely gifted singer. In 2022, when his track with Charlie Puth, “Left and Right” became the fastest song by a Korean soloist to surpass 400 million streams on Spotify, Puth referred to him as one of the only artists “to have ever sent me perfect vocals.” He hits high notes with ease and harmonizes with his members effortlessly, always giving his audience new ad-libs and unexpected vocal riffs to keep things interesting, from his official solo tracks like “Euphoria” to the covers he uploads for fans on BTS’ SoundCloud. —K.K.
Often touted as a voice of his micro-generation, Frank Ocean also has one of the most recognizable on-record voices in modern R&B — even when he shrouds it in distortion, as he does on the Blonde standout “Nikes,” his timbre and the way he sustains long vowels are unmistakable. Whether using his airy falsetto on the shyly vulnerable “Thinkin’ Bout You” or turning his voice into a rhythmic fulcrum for the sparse “Ivy,” Ocean brings his whole self into his vocal performances, making his innovative vision of soul even more compelling. —M.J.
Before Baez, the masters of folk and country sang their mournful ballads with craggy or imperfect voices. That only made Baez’s mighty, vibrato-laced soprano all the more imposing and exceptional when she fully arrived in the early Sixties. Her voice, so pure and unwavering, would lead to plenty of parodies, from National Lampoon to Saturday Night Live. But the way it conveyed both sorrow and undeniable resilience and strength was impossible to deny. “Her voice was like that of a siren from off some Greek island,” Baez’s onetime paramour, Bob Dylan, wrote about her. “Just the sound of it could put you into a spell.” —D.B.
Fela Kuti’s iconic songs of the 1970s and 1980s are sprawling orchestral instrumentals, an innovative swirl of African highlife, American soul, and jazz. Through his music, he shared an anti-colonialist, Pan-African vision and challenged Nigeria’s corrupt military government, which routinely subjected him and those around him to immense harm. Yet it wasn’t just Fela’s lyrical rebellion that makes him so important — it’s the way his voice carried his vision; the way he sang, his tone commanding and direct, plain and firm. His stern but conversational melodies made his movement more accessible. On 1986’s “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense,” where he tackles whitewashed education and failed governments, he coos, “I say, I sing, I beg everyone to join my song.” And he performed in such a way that they could. —M.C.
“When I’m happy I live it, I don’t sing it, but when I feel pain, the only way I can get that out is to sing it,” Bonnie Raitt explained to an interviewer in 1975. Yet her sly, world-weary tone — already in place from her first album, in 1971, cut when she was only 21 — is just as full of good times and good humor as downhearted blues. “Something to Talk About” works so well on the radio because of the lived-in way she sings it; her definitive reading of John Prine’s “Angel of Montgomery” convincingly inhabited the persona of an old woman hoping for a better life. —M.M.
Like a call to prayer, the opening phrase of Ofra Haza’s 1984 song “Im Nin’alu” is instantly transportive, sweeping the listener up in her expressive, fluttery mezzo-soprano. And when U.K. production duo Coldcut sampled that passage on their landmark 1987 remix of Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full,” it was a cross-cultural masterstroke that helped bring the Israeli singer’s unmistakable voice to the pop mainstream. Inspired by her Yemeni-Jewish ancestry, Haza combined traditional vocal conventions with modern technique to create something that felt at once ancient and ahead of its time. On albums like 1984’s Shirei Teiman, 1988’s Shaday, and 1992’s Kirya, her unprecedented splash in the U.S. pop market cemented her status as “The Madonna of the Middle East.” —I.W.
Alicia Keys was initially touted as a piano and songwriting prodigy, with pop impresario Clive Davis getting fully behind her when she was in her teens. Over the years, her voice only got stronger, and songs like the head-over-heels “No One” and the plush yet bruised “You Don’t Know My Name” were given extra potency by the nuanced, yet technically impressive vocal performances Keys offered. The soaring chorus of “Empire State of Mind” wouldn’t be half as memorable without Keys’ wide-eyed vocal, which captures the starry-eyed thrill of realizing New York’s limitless potential in a way that even Liza would envy. —M.J.
Karen O strutted her way into history with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a New York goth-punk diva in a swirl of beer, lipstick, and fishnets. But she’s always had her own unique vocal style of soul-on-fire passion. As a Korean-American kid who grew up idolizing Sam Cooke, Karen sings classics like “Maps” like a mix of Sam and Siouxsie. As one of her era’s only female rock voices, she sparked a rising generation of rebel girls. (Mannequin Pussy’s Marisa Dabice told Rolling Stone, “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have Karen O to look up to.”) As Karen says, “The wave against my surfboard is people saying, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ You think I can’t do that? I’ll fucking do this in your face, motherfucker.” —R.S.
Solomon Burke, who scored only a handful of Top 10 R&B hits in the Sixties but enjoyed 21st-century acclaim as an Americana star, liked to perform what he called sermonettes — singing of heartache like he was in church, then speaking/preaching a gospel of the power of love, then back to the song. Few soul singers have ever been so thrillingly melismatic while so precisely enunciating their message. On 1962’s “Just Out of Reach,” his voice glides gracefully from a burbling baritone to bracing gospel imprecations, then on up the scale to an inimitable country-soul croon. —D.C.
Philadelphia-born Jazmine Sullivan first turned heads with 2008’s “Bust Your Windows,” a vengeful anthem for the dumped that got extra heat from her smoldering vocal performance. Over the years, her lyrics have become more crystalline in their depictions of love’s ups and downs; her powerful alto magnifies their emotions, making her truth-telling hit even harder. Songs like the spitefully pithy “Pick Up Your Feelings” and the frustrated “The Other Side,” both from her 2021 romantic treatise Heaux Tales, could only be delivered by Sullivan’s knowing, raw wail. —M.J.
Bob Seger came from the Detroit tradition of “Old Time Rock & Roll,” but he didn’t use his mighty voice to boast or strut — he specialized in tales of hard-luck losers and dreamers, with a grown-up hurt in his growl. When he scored his massive national breakthrough with “Night Moves” in 1976, he became the first major rock star whose voice had never sounded young. His gritty warmth is there in rugged ballads like “Turn the Page,” “Mainstreet,” and “The Famous Final Scene,” but most of all in the 9-minute Live Bullet medley of “Travelin’ Man”/“Beautiful Loser,” where he’s barely in his thirties, but already looking back at a life of blown chances. —R.S.
In late 2022, SZA — Solána Rowe, the girl from New Jersey who loved dirty shoes and dirty men and weaved such idiosyncrasies into music that laid the foundation for the popularity of “alternative R&B” — scored her first Number One album with her sophomore project, SOS. This brilliant LP showed the ways her voice had evolved since her 2017 debut album, CRTL. Her syllables are more pronounced, but her words retain the swirls and curves that can make them run together and occasionally become alluringly hard to decipher. But that’s just one part of the magic of a voice that is powerful, compelling, and utterly, completely her own. —M.C.
The Queen of Clubland first earned fame as a backup singer for disco king Sylvester and as half of the Weather Girls, whose “It’s Raining Men” remains a camp classic. In the 1990s, her booming, powerhouse vocals propelled the world’s most ubiquitous dance songs, including Black Box’s “Strike It Up” and “Everybody Everybody” and C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat.” But Wash frequently saw other, skinnier women lip-sync her vocals in videos and appear on album covers without her knowledge, and she eventually sued multiple record labels for fraud. As a result, labels began assigning proper vocal credit for all albums and music videos and Wash became an unwitting industry pioneer. “She takes it to church every time she sings,” Paul Shaffer, who co-wrote “It’s Raining Men,” told Rolling Stone in 2014. “She’s just a pure musical spirit.” —J.N.
The Voice of Lightness is the name of the two-volume, five-hour overview of the Congo’s most beloved vocalist and bandleader from the Sixties to the Nineties; that title is an apt appellation for a tenor whose notes seem to float hypnotically in the air. His voice was almost startlingly sweet — but he sang with so much pure transport he never cloyed. Tabu Ley was also deeply funky — see his 1973 masterpiece “Aon Aon,” whose title translated to “Wah-Wah”: Yep, it’s about the guitar pedal, used here to bewitching effect. Rochereau doesn’t just match its effortless glide, he outdoes it vocally. It’s an absolute joy. —M.M.
From the late 1980s through the Garth-and-Shania 1990s, Loveless scored with catchy modern country hits like “Chains” and “Timber, I’m Falling in Love,” even as her plaintive cry kept the genre in conversation with inspirations George Jones and Ralph Stanley. In the 21st century, the hits stopped, but Loveless got even better, cutting a series of bluegrass albums of limits and loss where her stoicism somehow conveyed the deepest passions. She famously voiced grief and comfort simultaneously at Jones’ televised funeral and recently broke a public silence by bringing down the house at the CMA Awards. Best country singer alive. —D.C.
Even if he didn’t have that very-Sinatra baritone croon up his sleeve, the Detroit wild man born James Osterberg would have been one of the most attention-getting vocalists ever, thanks to his ready-for-anything, scenery-eating yowl. Iggy’s full-bodied screech was the musical embodiment of his dead-end-kid persona, a rock & roll essential, and the model for punk singing to come. As Lenny Kaye put it in his Rolling Stone review of Iggy and the Stooges’ 1973 classic Raw Power, Ig’s “double and even triple-tracked . . . voice cover[s] a range of frequencies only an (I wanna be your) dog could properly appreciate.” —M.M.
When Lana Del Rey’s breakout song “Video Games” started circulating the internet in 2011, the haunting melancholy lingering in the lower register of her voice stood miles apart from the bright pop hits of the time. Her style hovers between glamor and candidness, her words at times delivered casually to emphasize that there’s a banality behind the melodrama. Throughout her prolific discography, she pushes hard in both directions, as on 2014’s “Brooklyn Baby,” when she plays a coquettish character with her tone of feigned innocence, or 2021’s “White Dress,” on which she reveals all the scratches and imperfections of her airy head voice. —M.K.
Hiccupping and choking up, rushing the delivery here and slowly pumping the brakes on a syllable there, Buddy Holly’s singing style was as unpredictable and exciting as the young form of rock & roll itself. His career was tragically brief — Holly was only 22 when he died in the plane crash that, among other things, inspired Don McLean’s “American Pie” — but from the forthright growl of the rocker “Oh, Boy!” to the discreetly carnal swoops of the ballad “Raining in My Heart,” Holly’s singing matured in leaps. There’s a lot of it for the hearing; he recorded incessantly between 1956 and 1959. —M.M.
Faithfull began her career as a Rolling Stones affiliate in the Sixties and early Seventies. Her singing in those days — described by critic Greil Marcus as “sweet, quavering, well-bred” — was just a prelude to the stylist she became. Beginning with 1979’s Broken English, Faithfull’s voice had grown weathered and cracked — and full of immense character: “the perfect classic Woman Wronged voice,” in the NME’s words. She’s become a rock version of a great character actress, creating fascinating albums such as 2021’s She Walks in Beauty, on which she performed spellbinding renditions of Romantic poems. —M.M.
Juan Gabriel’s sass, charisma, and innate ability to channel the worst of the worst heartbreaks into his singing and songwriting made him one of the most beloved artists for generations of Mexican music lovers. His flamboyant persona, colorful capes, and pompadour immediately made a splash, and the strokes of Mexican patriotism in his songwriting gave everything he did a sense of grander purpose. Gabriel, who mixed pop songs with banda and ranchera music, had massive hits with emotionally wrenching ballads like 1978’s “Adios, Amor, Te Vas” and 1984’s “Querida.” But as a gay artist who rose to fame in the Seventies and Eighties, there was always a sense of pain underlying his performances. When asked about his sexuality, he inspired the LGBTQ community with the brilliant and treasured answer: “You don’t need to ask about what you can already see.” —T.M.
Trained in opera and raised on folk, Odetta’s powerful alto influenced the likes of Bob Dylan and Nick Cave, and led to her being crowned the “queen of American folk music.” She could tackle jazz, the blues, and her great 1970 album Odetta Sings featured re-imaginings of tunes by Paul McCartney, Randy Newman, the Rolling Stones and others. Odetta’s prowess was as rooted in her voice’s force and resolve as it was in her interpretative skill, which forced listeners to pay close attention to every syllable that she sang. “Few … possess that fine understanding of a song’s meaning which transforms it from a melody into a dramatic experience,” Harry Belafonte wrote in the liner notes for her 1959 album My Eyes Have Seen. —M.J.
Though he calls country music home, Chris Stapleton has more in common, vocally speaking, with Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin than George Jones or Hank Williams. The Kentucky native’s growling, raspy tone is amplified by control and power, allowing him to transform the country chestnut “Tennessee Whiskey” into an easy-sipping R&B ballad or sprinkle dazzling runs all over “Sometimes I Cry.” “He can take something so recognizable and turn it into something totally different where it’s almost unrecognizable, in the best way possible,” his wife and singing partner, Morgane, told Rolling Stone. He can certainly wail and shout with the best, but Stapleton is just as good when he pulls back and sings softly. Even when he’s not trying to blow out the windows, Stapleton imbues his work with deep-down feeling — like any good soul singer should. —J.F.
Sylvester James, who died of AIDS in 1988, was a trailblazer in every way — an out gay man at a time when even Elton John would cop only to bisexuality, a Black innovator whose Seventies and Eighties dance hits are among the first in the all-synthesized, “high-energy” disco style. Most importantly, Sylvester was disco’s most preternaturally gifted male vocalist — from surprisingly husky spoken-word passages to a tweeter-shattering falsetto that humanized all those synths. And the church never, ever left his phrasing — whether he was straight-up praising Jesus on the ecstatic “I Need You” or riffing with his backing vocalists (“Got yourself a friend”) on the 12-inch version of “Over and Over.” —M.M.
The effortless cool that exudes from photos of Deborah Harry in her Blondie prime — and even now — is matched only by hearing her come to life on record. She made it sound easy, though it wasn’t — the first two Blondie albums are winning but tentative, and so’s the singing. But by 1978’s Parallel Lines, Harry became a sharpie for the ages, whether airily kissing someone off on “Heart of Glass” or iterating the phrase “I can’t control myself” in “Hanging on the Telephone” three entirely different, fabulously controlled ways. Even when she tried her hand at rapping on “Rapture” in 1980, her Noo Yawk charm was irresistible. —M.M.
It was “Vivir Lo Nuestro,” a smoldering 1994 duet with La India, that heralded Nuyorican sonero Marc Anthony as the poster child for the end-of-the-century salsa revival. Antony felt equally at home in the syrupy romántica style — he croons like a drama prince on “Hasta Ayer” — and sharing the stage with Celia Cruz. He crossed over to the pop mainstream in 1999, but remained stubbornly faithful to his salsa roots. 2013’s “Vivir Mi Vida” — a tropical reinvention of a hit by Algerian star Khaled — found him at the top of his game, while the rugged title track of his 2022 album, Pa’llá Voy, confirms him as one of the most distinctive and expressive vocalists in the Afro-Caribbean spectrum. —E.L.
If all Morrissey aspired to be was the voice of Eighties teen misery, he would’ve sealed the deal in the early days of the Smiths. But he wanted more. He quickly bloomed into one of pop’s most emotionally articulate singers, flaunting his wit in classics like “Cemetry Gates” and “Suedehead,” sending high notes to heaven with an ironic kiss. Moz grew up a literary recluse in Northern England, worshipping female singers like Dusty Springfield and Joan Armatrading, but punk rock led him to his own voice. Nobody can top Morrissey when it comes to flamboyantly melancholy ballads, in the grandeur of “I Know It’s Over,” “Now My Heart Is Full,” or his signature song, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” —R.S.
Ronnie James Dio’s late-Sixties and early-Seventies work with Elf revealed him as a sturdy blues-rock shouter, but something clicked once he joined ex–Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, the band where the singer hit upon the combination of fiery belting and fantastical themes that would make him into a heavy-metal icon. On epics like “Stargazer,” he brought an Arthurian grandeur to the genre with a delivery that perfectly balanced soaring melody and wrenching grit. He then joined Black Sabbath, helping them regain their early glory in the wake of their split from Ozzy Osbourne on 1980’s classic Heaven and Hell. At his best, his voice always a conveyed a rare mix of passion, wonder, and hellbent determination. —H.S.
Denny’s buttery, mystical croon is so timeless that it sounds centuries older than the Sixties folk revival, making her the perfect choice to appear on a song about Middle-earth (and take home the award for Led Zeppelin’s only guest vocalist, on “The Battle of Evermore”). In both Fairport Convention and her solo work, she commanded a sense of longing with her phrasing and feathery register that gave her an ethereal quality on par with other tragic folk icons like Nick Drake and Judee Sill. She died in 1978 at just 31, making her obscurity all the more alluring to those who stumble upon her catalog. “What you heard was a kind of awe at the contingency of human life and the beauty of the world,” Greil Marcus wrote in her Rolling Stone obituary. “A certain reverence for the past, and a steady determination to take her place in the long story she was telling.” —A.M.
Bobby “Blue” Bland didn’t earn his nickname lightly. Listen to how he opens his 1959 classic “I’ll Take Care of You” — “I know you’ve been hurt . . . by someone else/I can tell by the way . . . you carry yourself,” every pause infused with a lifetime of observation and regret; it’s a vocal masterclass. Bland’s catalog teems with similarly perfect readings, from his unearthly moan to his bird-like squeal; everybody from Otis Redding to Van Morrison to Bonnie Raitt has learned from him. “It’s a one-of-a-kind voice,” said Gregg Allman. “I wonder how many people tore up their throats trying to imitate that shout.” —M.M.
Françoise Hardy epitomized French cool and Gallic heat simultaneously, with a breathy, deadpan alto that wafted like Gauloises smoke. Her words enhanced her tone: Writing her own material, unusual in the early mid-Sixties, especially for women, she also recorded work by masters like Serge Gainsbourg, and her take on Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” may be the most evocative ever recorded, his included. Dylan was so struck by her artistry, he addressed her in a poem on the back of Another Side of Bob Dylan (on their first meeting, he also serenaded her unsubtly — and unsuccessfully — with “I Want You”). Hardy recorded in English, German, and Italian, becoming an international superstar. But her magic was most pronounced in her mother tongue, as she proved on dozens of releases that still make existentialism sound impossibly elegant. —W.H.
Lee’s legacy as the first woman to be inducted into both the Country Music and Rock & Roll Halls of Fame speaks for itself. As an 11-year-old, in 1956, she tore into Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” showing off an already-polished blend of bubblegum sweetness and growling intensity that she’d channel into early hits like “That’s All You Gotta Do” and “Dum Dum.” Her deep songbook is a testament to the stunning versatility of her voice, which adapted perfectly to both the timeless holiday cheer of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and the soul-deep ache of “Emotions.” Lee’s many admirers include Dolly Parton, Elton John and Taylor Swift, who once described her as “the singer who mastered the sound of heartbreak so flawlessly that she made audiences not only identify with her but believe her.” —H.S.
Hailing from the Argentine province of Tucumán, Mercedes Sosa embodied the soulful idealism of leftist politics, which she expressed as leader of the nueva canción movement through a rich repertoire seeped in folk and militant protest songs. Her delicate vocalizing — ever so tender, but also anchored on incorruptible valor — turned Violeta Parra’s ode to life “Gracias a La Vida” into an intimate anthem. Censored at home and forced into exile during Argentina’s dictatorship of the late 1970s, Sosa became an international concert attraction, beaming onstage like a South American Mother Earth. Her last album before passing in 2009, Cantora, found her singing duets in the company of appropriately awestruck younger stars. —E.L.
The rare Delta blues legend who bowls you over with grace, generosity, and warmth, not raw power, Mississippi John Hurt was born in 1893 and first recorded in the 1920s. But the sharecropper and father of 14 didn’t find recognition until the blues revival of the 1960s, when he recorded several marvelous albums. Whether he was singing about sex, death, the joys of Maxwell House coffee, or the horror of “funky butt,” his patient delivery, burnished baritone, and the way he could make lyrical repetition feel reassuring rather than foreboding made it all feel relaxed and friendly, as if he was smilingly inviting you into his kitchen for breakfast. —J.D.
Carrie Underwood could’ve come out of American Idol and wound up a pop-cultural footnote like countless others. Instead, she’s one of country music’s most enduring modern stars, and that is due in no small part to her remarkable voice. An instrument of power, precision, and staggering range, it was the central feature of her debut album, Some Hearts, and hits like “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” “Before He Cheats,” and “Wasted.” Fifteen years and numerous hits later, she’s still singing like she’s got something to prove — 2022’s Denim & Rhinestones has a more aggressive rock edge than some of her past work and boasts some of her most demanding vocal work yet. —J.F.
Robert Smith is the goth Sade. With the Cure, he’s a master of breathy intimacy and erotic wit, as if he’s confiding secrets by candlelight, even when he’s singing about cats and spiders. He works his mopey voice into a powerfully expressive instrument, whether he’s going for sexy misery (“Close to Me”), self-mocking misery (“Let’s Go to Bed”), or miserable misery (“One Hundred Years”). “Just Like Heaven” is rightly his most famous vocal showcase, hitting emotional extremes from romantic bliss to alone-alone-alone despair. And damn, the way he purrs the line “Must have been asleep for daaaays” — the whole Robert Smith philosophy in one moment. —R.S.
Early on, George Strait earned a lot of comparisons to Frank Sinatra, which makes sense. Aside from being an avowed Sinatra fan, Strait expertly adapted the Chairman’s buttery smooth crooning style for country instrumentation and carved a wide path through the Eighties and Nineties with it. Coupled with an unparalleled ear for great songs — he doesn’t usually write many of his own — Strait could believably inhabit anything he recorded. It didn’t matter if it was classic country balladry (“Fool Hearted Memory”), slyly horny two-step (“The Fireman”), western swing (“Right or Wrong”), or honky-tonk (“All My Ex’s Live in Texas),” he sounded right at home doing it all. It’s no wonder why country fans still call him “King George.” —J.F.
Punk is full of loud voices, but Corin Tucker’s voice stands out even in that genre. The Sleater-Kinney singer-guitarist has the most distinctive wail in the music, heavy on vibrato, always controlled even when she’s conveying emotional torrent. Her bandmate Carrie Brownstein, in her memoir, described Tucker’s voice as “a wail not of mourning but of murder. And there was so much I wanted to destroy.” But there’s a lot more than sheer power — on the Corin Tucker Band’s 1,000 Years, for instance, she’s just as expressive, and engaging, at a more contained volume. —M.M.
In the early Sixties, Dion DiMucci was often lumped in with the other teen idols of the day. But virtually none of them could match the grit, street style, and range of influences that he brought to his music. We first heard him as a doo-wop singer (“A Teenager in Love”), but his love of blues, R&B, and folk music added depth to his repertoire and his voice. Dion had the swagger of a teen Sinatra (“Runaround Sue”), but he also had the heart of a premature old soul (“Abraham, Martin and John”). In his eighties, he continues to make unvarnished blues and R&B records with a voice that can still growl and saunter. —D.B.
They called him “The Lion of Soweto,” they sometimes called his singing style “goat voice.” When people need two different animals to capture your style, you’re doing it right. Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde was a peerless figure in the history of South African music, gifted with a cloud-rattling basso profundo groan, and a knowing, playful, at times diabolically incisive sense of what to do with it. With the ebullient Mahotella Queens and the elastic Makgona Tsohle Band backing him up, Mahlathini was essential in creating the township style known as mbaqanga in the Sixties and Seventies. Paul Simon’s Graceland took that sound to the world, but there’s still nothing like hearing the original. —J.D.
When R.E.M. began, they made waves in part because their singer, Michael Stipe, refused to enunciate clearly. But that mystery wouldn’t have resonated if his voice, filled with yearning and allure, hadn’t beckoned listeners to listen closer — it’s no coincidence that R.E.M. went pop right when Stipe began pronouncing clearly, or that the band’s early-Nineties commercial peak, Out of Time and Automatic for the People, are virtuosic showcases for Stipe’s burnt-honey voice. His happy burble on “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” from the latter, and his steely keen on the former’s closer, “Me in Honey,” tell the story as well as the hits do. And on songs like “Everybody Hurts” and “Beat a Drum,” a sublime moment from 2001’s Reveal, he proved himself one of the most luminous ballad singers of his generation. —M.M.
Diana Ross and the Supremes were sweet, but Martha and the Vandellas were powerful, starting with their lead singer. Martha Reeves’ gleeful, girlish, gritty voice cut straight through the airy harmonies of her group mates. Reeves had begun singing professionally as a teenager, working blues clubs in Toledo and around Michigan. “Motown didn’t get me cold — I already knew how to do it,” she said. And on immortal hits like “Heat Wave,” “Dancing in the Street,” and “Nowhere to Run,” Reeves did it — sang pop hits with deep soul, or made soul records that popped like corn — as well as anyone. —M.M.
Gawky, frilly, highfalutin — Bryan Ferry doesn’t exactly have what we think of as a classic set of pipes. Yet what his voice has accomplished has often been astonishing. Behold, Dracula as soul man: no joke. Ferry’s keening timbre and drama-ready intonation have the distanced stylization of his peer David Bowie — only Ferry is both cooler in temperament (as evident in his affinity for smirky asides) and more passionate vocally. He transforms other people’s material utterly — see his 1976 turning of Wilbert Harrison’s R&B plea “Let’s Stick Together” into a sweaty disco stomp — and is the letter-perfect interpreter of his own overloaded, overdramatic, overwhelming lyrics. —M.M.
One of the Queen of Rockabilly’s many nicknames was “the sweet lady with the nasty voice,” and that dichotomy is why she so artfully kicked in the door of the boys’ club that was early rock & roll. Rave-ups like the punchy “Hard Headed Woman” and the saucy “Cool Love” were given heat-lightning energy by her rasp-edged wail, but her versatility was apparent on more heartfelt tracks like the wistful “In the Middle of a Heartache.” Jackson retired in 2021, but her legacy lives on in many babyfaced baddies. —M.J.
Levon Helm was the Band’s only American member, and the Canadian quintet’s sepia-tinted down-home vignettes never would have had the same warmth or vividness if it weren’t for the drummer and sometime mandolinist’s guileless drawl. It’s hard to imagine any other voice but Helm’s injecting the “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a historically thorny tale of fictitious Confederate soldier Virgil Caine, with real pathos, or so convincingly embodying the weary traveler who pulls into Nazareth at the outset of “The Weight.” “His truth in that vocal could tear your heart out,” Band leader Robbie Robertson wrote in his memoir. Decades on, that same voice would also bring new richness to material by Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, and the Grateful Dead. —H.S.
She made her legend on standards and Broadway: “Look, I’m considered this kind of … institution thing,” she told Rolling Stone in 1971. “I play for middle-class audiences in Vegas.” But there’s a reason she’s here and her show-tune peers aren’t. Start with her chops: an unconventional mezzo-soprano that can span octaves, be brassy and sassy, and hold notes for stupefying long periods of time. And that voice isn’t merely capable of putting across cabaret and Sondheim, but pretty much the entire range of American popular music: Seventies soundtrack ballads, disco collaborations with Barry Gibb and Donna Summer, and rock-era classics by Laura Nyro, Carole King, even David Bowie. In her hands they all sound like … butta. -–D.B.
A R&B shouter with jazz chops, Ruth Brown arrived at that midcentury moment when her aggressive but always playful attack helped invent rock & roll — the way she snapped off lines with a squeal helped invent Little Richard specifically — and her many Atlantic Records hits had people calling the label the House that Ruth Built. On “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” those delighted squeals allow Miss Rhythm, as she was billed, to nail down the new big beat even as they let mama, and us, know that “mean” ain’t the only way she’s treated. —D.C.
“To me, the vocals are more important than guitar playing — or anything, really,” Polly Jean Harvey told Rolling Stone in 1993. She meant it: Harvey’s vocal approach has changed tack many times over the years, and every time, it’s striking. The rocking roar of Dry and Rid of Me, her first two albums, in 1992 and 1993, bent toward blues with To Bring You My Love in 1995, went toward a lighter, airier, clearer voice on White Chalk in 2007, adding a near-Broadway breadth and depth for Let England Shake in 2011. The opera lessons she began mid-career helped. But they were merely icing on a voice that was commanding from jump. —M.M.
Love may be the greatest singer on this list whose best-known songs don’t immediately come to mind. Her name didn’t appear on her first classic record, 1962’s “He’s a Rebel” (it was credited to the Crystals, not Love’s own group of session singers, the Blossoms). And in her prime, she rarely received credit for singing backup on classics like the Crystals’ “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” But the roof-raising force of her husky alt can’t be denied. Even though Love didn’t have an extensive solo career, no one could cut through Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound like she did, especially on “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” rock & roll’s greatest holiday epic and her signature song. —L.T.
I’ve never heard a bad Luciano performance live, even when he’s doing a backflip off a speaker. And in the studio, the Jamaican star is just as dynamic. The first time I produced Luci, I noticed his ability to instantly come up with a melody that seemed classic. When Luciano came on the scene in the Nineties, his tunes like “Sweep Over My Soul” and “It’s Me Again Jah” immediately entered the reggae canon. Luciano once sang that he had “the voice of a trumpet.” If anything, that’s an undersell; he’s got a range that extends from a rich baritone up to a strong falsetto. And he’s a master of the lost art of harmonizing — Luciano would be a top vocal arranger in N.Y. or L.A., if he weren’t so committed to the roots. —M.G.
Stylistics lead singer Russell Thompkins Jr.’s falsetto soared so high it almost squeaked — in his junior-high glee club, he said, “There was a girls’ chorus, and I was the only male in it.” There was an otherworldliness to his voice that gave his love plaints both grace and force. (Even his inhalations were gorgeous — see the spine-tingling breath intake preceding the first chorus of “People Make the World Go Round.”) On definitive early-Seventies love jams like “You Are Everything,” “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” and “Betcha By Golly, Wow,” his supernally precise singing defined R&B romanticism and gave the falsetto tradition new heights to hit. —M.M.
Boasting the biggest voice of the Y2K teen-idol crop, Christina Aguilera was as much a soul powerhouse as she was a TRL staple early in her career, with songs like “What a Girl Wants” and her posse-cut cover of “Lady Marmalade” making room for her jazz-inspired vocal runs. But when she recorded “Beautiful,” the self-esteem-boosting ballad from her 2002 album, Stripped, she leveled up; the take used on the final version was intended to be just a demo, but the raw emotional power she unleashed made it final-cut worthy. Since then, Aguilera has flaunted the versatility of her voice, with songs like the delicate ballad “Say Something” showing how her restrained moments can be just as powerful as the songs she belts. —M.J.
It’s easy to take Bono for granted since the artist’s commendable activism and outsized onstage personality often overshadow the reason he even has these platforms: his voice. Since the early Eighties, Bono has pushed his voice to every extreme as he has approximated how to be a singer. On “Pride (In the Name of Love),” his love letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he belts, croons, swoons, and hums as he calculates Dr. King’s passion. On “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” his voice winds and bends, with a little true grit thrown in for good measure. And on the soulful ballad “In a Little While,” he pleads with the same intensity of Marvin Gaye before slipping into his distinctively Bono falsetto with a range that spans both tone and emotion. —K.G.
Rocío Dúrcal is considered “la Española más Méxicana” (the most Mexican Spaniard). Her soulful renditions of rancheras, arrangements with Mariachi, and lioness-like theatrics during performances made Dúrcal one of the most beloved female artists in Latin America through the Eighties and Nineties. Dúrcal had a way of marrying a warm softness of her mezzo soprano with intense, dark belting on career highlights like the gorgeous Juan Gabriel-penned “Amor Eterno” or the romantic ballad “La Gata Bajo la Lluvia,” where the deep passion in her gorgeous runs summons the feeling of longing for a lost loved one like few singers could. —T.M.
Few singers in American popular music sang with more empathy than Merle Haggard, who delivered the tales of the restless wanderers, drifting drunks, lustful loners, and condemned convicts who populated his songs with the intensity of a method actor. Listen to Haggard’s phrasing on “If We Make It Through December,” lingering on words like “December” and “coldest” to convey hardship while he glides through the far-off fantasy when singing the words “California” and “summertime.” With his rich, expressive baritone, Haggard used space, breathing, and vibrato to communicate the universes of pain and longing in his songs. But more than his immense sheer technical ability, Haggard always knew better than anyone how to use his voice as a profound storytelling device. —J.B.
“I tend to shy away from people, from audiences and I have to acknowledge that I am uncomfortable … when people put me in the spotlight,” El DeBarge admitted in 1992. Thankfully, that reticence did not extend to the recording studio, where El’s voice blossomed, first in the family group DeBarge and then on his own — lean and elastic, zooming into falsetto with apparent breathtaking ease. The ribbons of notes he lets loose during the finish of the group’s “All This Love” are like caramel; nearly three decades later, he sang the solo “Second Chance” with such lithe grace that when his voice broke a little at the end, it took the listener with it. —M.M.
One of the many reasons that Ms. Lauryn Hill is an icon is because her pipes are as pristine as her high-level bars. Her singing voice is earthy and robust but also delicate, often in stark contrast to her bold and biting delivery as an MC. As a result, she has encouraged a generation of performers to tap into their dualities. Before releasing her bona fide classic (and only) album, 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she reportedly told one of the project’s background singers, Lenesha Randolph, that people were not ready for her approach to singing and rapping. “I don’t know if people are gonna like this album, because I’m just singing, and nobody wants to hear rappers sing,” she said. Randolph was shocked, “Because when you hear her sing, and then hear her speak — it had such power and volume and rasp. It was something to strive for.” —M.C.
Since her 2010 breakout hit “Good Day” (which garnered deserved praise for its magnificent three-note climax), IU has become one of the most highly regarded vocalists in South Korean music. Despite having a soft voice, she has a wide range, a powerful delivery, and a versatility that’s allowed her to move easily from bossa nova to Nineties chamber pop and from jazz to ballads. In 2022, she became the first Korean female soloist to headline a concert at Seoul’s Olympic Stadium, selling out the venue in five minutes, with peers and admirers like Jung Kook of BTS, Jihyo and Jeongyeon of Twice, and TXT’s Soobin and Beomgyu there to celebrate her triumph. —K.K.
Everything about Guns N’ Roses felt sleazier and more ruthless than what had come before, and the centerpiece of their sound was one of the most outrageous voices ever heard in rock. Throughout their 1987 classic, Appetite for Destruction, Axl’s voice shape-shifts constantly, conveying dead-eyed menace on the low end (“It’s So Easy,” “Mr. Brownstone”) and demonic fury in the high (“Welcome to the Jungle,” “Out ta Get Me”), while also touching on androgynous yearning (“Sweet Child o’ Mine”) and pure cocky swagger (“Paradise City”). Ballads like “Patience” and “November Rain” broadened his palette, and reminded fans that there was just as much Elton John as Freddie Mercury and Janis Joplin in his vocal DNA. —H.S.
Young’s falsetto has so much emotional baggage that it’s the heaviest in popular music. His instrument is distinct and complex, at times dizzyingly tender (“After the Gold Rush,” “Mellow My Mind,” “Expecting to Fly”) yet wise and unwavering (“Powderfinger,” “Ambulance Blues,” and the highly underrated “Touch the Night”). It’s influenced many — perhaps most famously a young Thom Yorke — yet Young doesn’t understand its greatness himself. “My own voice is a fuckin’ mystery to me,” he told Jimmy McDonough in the Young biography Shakey. “I don’t know where it is. It sounds so different all the time. I can sing soft and it sounds like one guy, I can sing loud and screamin’ and it sounds like another completely different guy. I got several different voices in me. And the looser I get, the more I sing — the better I get.” —A.M.
The phrase “hard country” was coined as an analog, not to hard rock, but to hard liquor — the strongest stuff on the shelf — and Loretta Lynn’s voice was 190-proof. She was a straight shooter, declamatory in the best sense: You were hearing not just a woman’s point of view, but this woman’s, and it was not going to let unfairness of whatever sort go unremarked. That she was a first-rate funny woman in song only made the angry stuff more convincing — see “Fist City” for the feisty version and “One’s on the Way” for the everywoman one. And her late-career renaissance was for real vocally; the remakes on 2021’s Still Woman Enough stand tall. —M.M.
Reflecting his roots in everything from Led Zeppelin and Yes to Edith Piaf and Barbra Streisand, Jeff Buckley was that rare vocalist of his era — the Nineties — who luxuriated in more than just alt-rock bemoaning. Like Robert Plant, one of his heroes, he could start a song quietly, with a whisper, before working his way up to an almost carnal, savage intensity (check out “Mojo Pin” from his lone fully completed studio album, Grace). He also added layers of vulnerability, tenderness, and melodrama that marked him as a chanteur, and one with a multi-octave voice. His death in 1997, at age 30, robbed pop of an artist whose voice was surely to venture to many more territories. —D.B.
Courtney Love came from a punk tradition of women who didn’t care about singing pretty, and she brought that sensibility closer to the rock mainstream than any other singer of the past 30 years. Her impact was immediate, most notably on her husband, Kurt Cobain. Love’s distinctive rasp personifies the agony and ecstasy of being a woman, and does so in a way that’s fun to yell along to. From the almost unlistenable intensity of 1991’s Pretty on the Inside to Hole’s breakout Live Through This, all the way through to more recent singles, like the 2015 toxic friendship anthem “Miss Narcissist,” no one sings like Courtney. “I was always the only person with the nerve to sing, and so I got stuck with it,” she once told MTV. And she’s right. No one has the nerve to remain so raw. —B.E.
Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford threw down a spiked leather gauntlet with his vertiginous opening wail on 1976’s “Victim of Changes” (“Whiskey woman, don’t you know that you are driving me in-saaaaaane!”), and in the decades since, the man known as the Metal God has kept on sharpening his voice into the ideal instrument for the genre he so proudly epitomizes. From the raspy, attitude-heavy style heard on early-Eighties classics like “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” and “Living After Midnight” to the banshee shriek of 1990’s “Painkiller.” Slayer’s Kerry King told Rolling Stone that Halford “hits notes and holds notes for a duration that’s almost inhuman. It’s like Eddie Van Halen playing guitar; that’s Rob Halford singing.” —H.S.
One of the great voices to emerge this millennium, the leader of Florence + the Machine is a powerhouse diva of the old but still powerful school: a leather-lunged dynamo with range, character, emotion, and daring. With an unafraid sense of brassiness that matches the sheer size of her voice, Welch’s sheer zest for her work is striking: Every oversized emotion is played for real, but her playfulness underpins everything. “Singing makes me feel in control and more powerful,” she once said. “On stage is where I understand myself best. It feels real and like something I can actually do. It verifies me, defines me … I really don’t know what I’d do without it.” —M.M.
The tremulous undertow of Tammy Wynette’s voice was both an effect and a cunning interpretive device — it made her tales of country housewives and the men they stood by feel upfront and urgent. It also has a specifically country instrumental analog: Wynette is like a vocal version of the pedal-steel guitar, with its weepy tonality. (Her early hits were practically duets between her and the steel.) But “Stand by Your Man” wasn’t all she sang. It wasn’t just on upbeat numbers like “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” where her iron will showed through — it also did on the immortal weepie “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” —M.M.
Forever associated with the holiday standard “This Christmas,” Donny Hathaway conveyed the sensuality, sociopolitical awareness, and spiritual angst of the Seventies Black experience. He studied music and piano at Howard University, and that training beams through songs like “The Ghetto,” where his voice shuffles and keeps time amidst the band’s funky, Latin-inflected arrangements. Hathaway epitomized warmth and vulnerability, the kind that could segue from an incandescent quiet storm moment like “The Closer I Get to You,” a duet with Roberta Flack, to the brilliantly anguished gospel prayer “Lord Help Me.” He may have been troubled, but he made his listeners feel protected. —M.R.
Joe Strummer always wore his heart on his sleeve. With the Clash, he could knock you flat with his mighty roar, but he could do a lot more than that — his deceptively gruff yowl was an astonishingly flexible instrument, which is how he could hit such a wide emotional range. Strummer could do rage, sure, but he had a unique gift for jolly let’s-go warmth, in the comic flights of “Bank Robber” or “Safe European Home.” He could do elegiac tenderness, as in “Spanish Bombs” or “Straight to Hell.” Or he could just could turn into the voice of doom, as in “Armagideon Time.” If you ever doubt his smarts as a singer, just listen to “London Calling,” in his intricate emotional swerves from anger (“Now get this!”) to mirth to terror. It’s a three-minute vocal master class. —R.S.
Much as Robert Johnson can sound like two guitarists in one, the 1930s Delta blues legend’s voice reveals different facets as his performances unfold. So many of the Johnson myths portray his talents as elemental, but in moments like the bittersweet wordless moan that precedes each verse on “Sweet Home Chicago,” or the way he echoes his yearning upper-register lines with rueful lower ones on “Hellhound on My Trail,” you can tell how much the nuances of a song mattered to him. Other Delta bluesmen could sound rougher (Charley Patton) or more forlorn (Skip James); Johnson’s gift as a vocalist was to make his solo renditions feel like miniature dramas unfolding in the listener’s mind. —H.S.
Birds may or may not literally suddenly appear every time she is near. But if they don’t, that’s on them, because Karen Carpenter is the ultimate easy-listening thrush-queen. She had one of the most Seventies voices of the Seventies — lilting, supple, vacant, and calming, with just the right air of emotional malaise to bring out the two-car, sunken-den, suburban-dream underbelly in classics like “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” Just as her brother Richard’s sheer orchestral-pop arrangements became an influence on Nineties indie-pop bands like St. Etienne and Stereolab, so did the glowing, imperious distance in everything Karen sang. —J.D.
A self-described method actress who worked her way into a song by immersing in its sentiment, Donna Summer had the pipes of a Broadway belter, but she made her fortune — and music history — by murmuring sensually over some of disco’s most delicious concoctions. Her vocal peak there isn’t even “I Feel Love,” immortal as it is, but “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It.” She was also a master narrator — her steel-edged delivery of “She Works Hard for the Money” (or should that be steel-toed?) could have worked on Hill Street Blues. —M.M.
Jackie Wilson had the vocal chops to make it as an opera singer, but he brought his four-octave range to the world of R&B and cut classics like “Lonely Teardrops,” “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher & Higher,” and “Baby Workout.” Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson were both enormous fans, and they were crushed when he fell into a coma while singing “Lonely Teardrops” at a 1975 show in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. “Jackie Wilson was key in helping bridge the gap between an old-style R&B and a new incarnation of soul,” said J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf. “Even Elvis Presley knew why Wilson was called ‘Mr. Excitement’: I heard that seeing Wilson perform made the King want to hide under the table.” —A.G.
An easy Southern tenor with a lot of natural husk — of course Charlie Rich could be, and often was, compared to Elvis Presley. But his slightly sandier tonality, and the fact that he sang jazz as adeptly as he did country and rockabilly, gave him his own highly individual tang. That was especially clear on ballads: Rich’s elongated vowels on “Life’s Little Ups and Downs” are pure edge-of-your-chair drama. And he makes the absolute resignation of “Feel Like Going Home” seem like a state of grace. —M.M.
If an air horn could sing, it’d sound like Barrington Levy: cutting, commanding, and a signal that the next tune is about to be massive. Levy became a Jamaican dancehall star at 14. A series of local hits followed. Next came classic albums like 1979’s Shaolin Temple and 1982’s Poor Man Style. Then international smashes like “Black Roses” and the iconic “Under Mi Sensi.” In the four decades that followed, Levy’s class of dancehall brethren petered out. But somehow, Levy managed to keep that horn of his loud as hell, and very much in tune. —N.S.
In Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose run of hits from 1969 to 1971 remains a stunning achievement, John Fogerty’s gut-bucket songwriting and way with a hook made him sound like an everyman. But so did his voice, a tenor that could move from a good-time chug to a meaningful roar. It’s also a little more nuanced than it first seems. The guy who rages on “Fortunate Son” and plays the backwoods prophet on “Bad Moon Rising” transmits casual joy on “Lookin’ Out my Back Door” and genuine sorrow on “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” A useful instrument for some of the most classic of classic rock. —J.G.
During her early days in Brooklyn with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith used to sing him to sleep. He liked her voice, even if she didn’t yet. “I guess I got a lot of guts, but I never really had that great a voice,” Smith recently told NPR. At the time, she wanted to be a poet, not a singer — but with the release of 1975’s Horses, she realized she could be both. Influenced by opera and Edith Piaf as much as Jim Morrison and Dylan, her unconventional approach to rock belting inspired generations of artists who were sick of being told how not to sing. Straddling the line between poet and singer, Smith twisted the borders of what music could be and say with her bold-as-brass voice. It’s music to hear her talk, and it’s storytelling to hear her sing. —B.E.
Chet Baker’s retiring sigh is a cool surface just barely hiding a reservoir of shattered emotion, a voice that acted as its own plunger mute. That seething introversion — not hurt by Baker’s strikingly high cheekbones — became his calling card, even more than his equally shadowy trumpet playing. “No one, least of all Baker, seems to have fully fathomed the widespread, long-term appeal of his singing,” American Songbook historian Will Friedwald wrote in his book The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums, pointing out how Baker’s powerful restraint impacted “Brazilian devotees like Joao Gilberto, who absorbed his vocal style.” —M.M.
Neo-soul pioneer Erykah Badu has a lithe, knowing voice and a precise, yet often-surprising approach to her lyrics that makes songs like her winding 1997 breakthrough hit “On & On” and her expansive, dreamy 2010 track “Window Seat” feel as if they’re floating on a cloud. Badu’s musical blend of jazz, hip-hop, soul, and future-minded mysticism nestles in beautifully with her instrument, which has the range and depth of old-school greats like Nina Simone and Billie Holiday while also possessing a defiantly 21st-century creative spark. —M.J.
The Pretenders frontperson has never liked being called a punk-rock guiding light. “It just means that I’m older than them, that I was there before they were. I wasn’t a pioneer,” she said in 2006. But a certain old-soul quality has always been a huge part of her mystique — from the way she mixed fierce swagger with cool remove on “Precious” to the tender intimacy of “Kid” and “Stop Your Sobbing.” It says something about her unique musical and emotional range that she’s felt at home doing duets with Sinatra and Cher, or covering tunes by Brian Wilson, Nick Drake, and Hoagy Carmichael on her 2019 album, Valve Bone Woe. That mix of style, power, and depth has influenced countless artists over the years, from Madonna to the Linda Lindas. —L.T.
Linda Caballero, known as La India, is known for her mighty belting power, and the way she releases her voice over intricate salsa arrangements often feels as satisfying as a long-held exhale. The singer was born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Bronx, where she drew the attention of salsa luminaries like Eddie Palmieri, who produced one of her earliest albums, and Tito Puente, who worked with her to re-create several swing classics. And though she’s proven her versatility across all styles of music, her vocal prowess is at its most effective on unapologetic salsa hits such as “Mi Mayor Venganza” and “Ese Hombre,” where she uses her stunning abilities to give women some of most enduring Spanish-language anthems of self-empowerment and independence. —J.L.
Ozzy Osbourne doesn’t have what most people would call a good voice, but boy does he have a great one. His bombastic shout is reminiscent of drill bits and electric guitar feedback, his phrasing is not nimble, but the way he sounds like no one else is a superpower. By theatrically embracing those unique limits, and by wholeheartedly committing to the bit — a grand guignol carnival barker, a crazy train conductor — Ozzy not only manages to out-blast guitar gods like Tony Iommi and Randy Rhoads but proves himself a riveting heavy-metal yarn spinner, menacing but full of good humor. —D.C.
Although it’s easy to focus on Fiona Apple’s brilliant lyrics, the way she uses her voice is where her superpower flexes hardest. She feels her songs deeply and performs them almost like show tunes, echoing two of her earliest influences, jazz vocalists Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. On an early career hit like “Shadowboxer,” her voice sounds deep and viscous, sliding in and out of her brooding and hopeful moods. On “Fast as You Can,” it quivers in semitones like twanging spring. She all but raps on “Shameika” but keeps it on pitch, adding a little airiness to her delivery. “I don’t feel like I’m such a great singer, like a beautiful voice, but I feel like I’m good at playing my voice,” she said recently. “It’s just another instrument now. But it’s the best instrument. It makes so many noises.” —K.G.
When Abel Tesfaye became a buzzy cult favorite in the early 2010s — and when he broke through to pop superstardom a few years later — his easy command of melody and his taste for dark, druggy imagery were part of the reason why. But his voice was the X factor that made him one of the most influential acts of his generation: a high, lonesome clarion call cutting through the fog of the pop charts. Tesfaye has credited his unique timbre to the Ethiopian artists he grew up listening to as a kid in Toronto, icons like Aster Aweke and Mulatu Astatke. “I’m not here to do Luther Vandross runs,” he told an interviewer in 2015. “I can’t do what Jennifer Hudson does. But the feeling in my music and in my voice is very Ethiopian and very African and much more powerful than anything, technically.” —S.V.L.
Pete Townshend wrote the vast majority of the Who’s catalog, but it was Roger Daltrey’s vocals that brought it to life. This didn’t come naturally to him until they recorded the rock opera Tommy. “Tommy gave me a canvas that was big enough to really, really take some chances,” he told Rolling Stone in 2013. “Once we got out on the road and sang it live, it just took off on its own and my voice grew with it.” That confidence is easy to hear on his primal scream at the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and the soaring climax of “Love, Reign O’er Me.” —A.G.
Brazil’s premiere singer-songwriter, the nation’s homegrown Dylan equivalent, a revolutionary rocker with a heavy literary bent, Caetano Veloso is a master performer, his velvety burr and palpable intelligence giving a surge even — especially — when he’s laying back and murmuring. But he’s also delightful when he revs the tempo and throws in excitable whoops and trills — and he gets all of it across in English as well as Brazilian Portuguese. “I think what’s difficult for us in the North to accept is that somebody can be radical politically, culturally, and musically, and yet can still be romantic and love a beautiful, sensuous melody,” David Byrne observed in 1999. “Caetano can pull that off.” —M.M.
Obviously, no one would consider Lou Reed’s singing virtuosic unto itself. But for personality, point of view, and a one-of-a-kind voiceprint that has, in turn, stamped generations of singers after it, Reed was indeed the man. Bands from the Feelies to Yo La Tengo to Parquet Courts copped Lou’s groovily flat vocal style, not just his churning rhythm guitar — hell, the singing on the third Velvet Underground album alone invented a sub-style of college-radio crooning. And in galloping rocker mode, his nervous flatness often goosed his songs — “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll” are just the beginning. —M.M.
Some singers let loose; Bill Withers never had to. Without resorting to histrionics, his voice conveyed absolute authority and sincerity, whether he was singing about longing (“Ain’t No Sunshine”), lust (“Use Me”), or familial love (“Grandma’s Hands”). His measured delivery collapsed the distance between folk and funk, gospel and AM gold, creating a new lane of salt-of-the-earth R&B on Still Bill, and classing up disco on Menagerie. “Not only has he written great songs,” Stevie Wonder said of Withers when inducting him into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, “he sang them incredibly well.” —H.S.
Eddie Vedder was a SoCal surfer dude who drifted to Seattle, where he blew up into one of the most iconic, influential rock voices of the past 40 years. With Pearl Jam, Vedder flexes his brawny baritone in pained ballads like “Daughter,” “Nothingman,” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” But he can also wail in the flat-out fury of “Black” or “Not for You.” Historically, he’s the link between 1970s Springsteen-style heartland growl and West Coast punk rage. He’s hugely influential on country, too — you can hear him in singers like Chris Stapleton. His most legendary performance might be Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike,” in his epic call-and-response with Chris Cornell. The ultimate grunge soul man. —R.S.
The fluttery edges of Aaron Neville’s tenor are subtle but cunning and sometimes thrillingly dramatic. Listen to the way he slightly raises the end of every line of the Neville Brothers’ “Yellow Moon,” the title track of their 1989 masterpiece, or go back to his 1966 solo classic, “Tell It Like It Is.” There’s a deep humanity and grace in his singing — an essential sweetness, like maple syrup spreading over a stack of pancakes. “People say they wish they could tell me what my voice does to them,” he said in 1989, “and I say I wish I could tell them what it does to me to be able to sing.” —M.M.
The cult of Leonard Cohen rightly centers on his lyrical genius, but without his voice, that dusky, quasi-biblical rumble, his words never would have had the same gravity. Even on his early albums, when his delivery was at its most supple, it had a singularly spooky quality, which only deepened as his range settled into its mature form, that deliciously sinister half-croon, half-croak that complemented the rakish, pitch-black wit of albums like I’m Your Man and The Future. By the end of his life — especially on his final album You Want It Darker, released just weeks before his death in 2016 — he was narrating more than singing, his range essentially nonexistent, but it was exactly the right medium for the existential bluesman he’d always been in the process of becoming. —H.S.
One could teach an entire class on Swift’s vocal evolution — it’s that fascinating. A decade ago, including her on this list would have been a controversial move, but recent releases like Folklore, Evermore, and Midnights officially settled the argument. That breathy timbre contains so much versatility — just think about the range from the triumphant “State of Grace” to the blissed-out “Lover” to the blast that is “Look What You Made Me Do.” Or the phrasing on the reflective “You’re on Your Own Kid.” Or even “Seven,” where she stunned us with a delicate upper register that made the word “pleaaaase” sound as angelic as any “pleaaaase” ever sung. With each passing year of her nearly two-decade career, her songwriting gets better and better — a never-ending quest in which her only competition is herself. The same goes for her voice. —A.M
Gladys Knight never quite gets the respect due to her. Her reading-the-riot-act crossover smash “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was instantly replaced in the popular consciousness by Marvin Gaye’s cover, and she tended not to be hailed as the queen of anything. Her church-trained voice, warm and wise, was more approachable than that. On classic tales like “Neither One of Us” and “Midnight Train to Georgia,” she played a woman who’d been around the block and who we knew (thanks to the Pips’ call-and-response community) had stayed there. The queen of loving and losing, but lasting. —D.C.
Elton John’s over-the-top pop-rock gets an added jolt from his voice, which can highlight the impish glee or profound emotion in his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin’s lyrics. John’s nonpiano instrument has evolved over the years; in 1987, he had surgery to remove what he said to Billboard were “nine cancerous … whatever it was on my vocal cords,” deepening his range and modulating the falsetto that gave emotional oomph to ‘70s hits like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” But, as he noted in that 2004 interview, that surgery gave his voice added resonance, and his performances of old chestnuts on his current farewell tour still pack an emotional wallop. —M.J.
A high tenor seemingly overcome with emotion, conveyed with a vocal arsenal full of dramatic swoops, gulps, growls, and falsetto leaps, Clyde McPhatter was a thrill a minute, a shot in the arm for R&B right at the dawn of rock & roll, and one of the most influential singers of the Fifties — you can draw the line from Frankie Lymon to Michael Jackson to Justin Timberlake. He led two of the best groups of the decade, joining the Dominoes and then founding the Drifters (Ben E. King came later). His lascivious version, with the latter, of “White Christmas” is now a deserved holiday classic. —M.M.
Influenced by James Brown’s funk declamations, the earthy equanimity of folk and blues, and the yearning hunger in rock’s search for mass connection, Bob Marley invented a down-to-earth yet heraldic idiom that reflected the struggles and aspirations of tens of millions of people throughout the world. His voice was lovably ragged even on smooth tracks like “Could You Be Loved,” but his command of the dramatic octave leap that signifies our shared search for a better tomorrow had few peers. And it says something about the communal gravity of his voice that one of his most deeply beloved recorded moments — the “No Woman No Cry” captured at London’s Lyceum Theatre in July 1975 — was created live out of thin air, bountiful warts and all. —J.D.
Usher was barely out of high school in 1997 when he released his breakthrough album My Way, which went six-times platinum and familiarized fans with his slick, sultry delivery. But while it could have been easy to pigeonhole him as just another smooth R&B heartthrob, each subsequent chapter of his career revealed new possibilities in his voice: He perfected his signature falsetto, deployed at just the right moments to boost the vulnerability in his confessional ballads; he matched his impeccable timing and phrasing to upbeat hits that climbed up the charts that proved his showmanship. Not only was he a standout performer of the 2000s, he remains one of music’s most agile singers two decades later. —J.L.
Sure, Chuck Berry was the most important rock lyricist before (and besides) Bob Dylan, but it isn’t just the words that captivate — it’s the voice singing them. He was sly like the uncle who offers you your first illicit sip or toot, wise like the teacher who sets you on your path, full of brassy fun — and since he wrote the words, he made sure you understood every single one. Those syllables ride the driving beat as hard as his guitar riffs: Berry’s knowing phrasing gave short stories like “You Never Can Tell” a deeper resonance. And then there’s “Memphis, Tennessee,” where he outright breaks your heart. —M.M.
Vicente Fernández’s unmistakable tenor, intense vibrato, and his hard-to-miss charro outfits earned him the title “The Idol of Mexico.” His classics like the boisterous “El Rey,” romantic “Hermoso Cariño,” and his heartbroken “Volver, Volver” have long served as the soundtrack of Mexico’s rich ranchera culture. His artistic peak is 1989’s “Por tu Maldito Amor,” from the film he starred in of the same name, perfectly encapsulated the breadth of Fernández’s ability to capture intense, tear-filled drama. Starting his career in the Seventies, the Jalisco-born singer followed in the footsteps of ranchera greats like Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, and Javier Solis who came before him, as he carried a traditional genre to new heights and cemented himself as the greatest ranchera singer of all time. His music continues to stand the test of time today and has drawn comparisons to Frank Sinatra. —T.M.
Reggae pioneer Toots Hibbert possessed a rough-edged, fierce voice that gave fire to the incarceration chronicle “54-46 That’s My Number” and added a slyly endearing wink to the wedding-jitters chronicle “Sweet and Dandy.” The Toots and the Maytals leader came to music through religion: “My voice was developed going to church with my family,” he told Uncut in 2020. “I love singing; singing was what I thought I should do because it was born in me and I grew into it, straight from the church.” Over the years, it evolved further, with Hibbert taking cues from gospel and soul, helping him fulfill the promise he laid out in the title track to his classic 1973 album Funky Kingston: “I want you to believe every word I say/ I want you to believe every thing I do.” —M.J.
There are so many layers to the Stevie Nicks mythology at this point that it can be easy to gloss over the precious stone at the center of it all: her gorgeous smoky quartz of a voice, which has always lent her crystal visions an unnerving power. Her disciples are legion, from Harry Styles to Florence Welch, but in particular, any female singer who has flaunted a raspy vocal style — Lorde, Sheryl Crow, Courtney Love — owes her a massive debt. “I think she has probably the sexiest voice of anyone that I can think of,” Love once said. It’s a voice that can make a Fleetwood Mac classic like “Gold Dust Woman” or “Sara” feel more like a spell than a song, or — in the case of immortal breakup anthems “Dreams,” “Silver Springs,” and “Wild Heart” — like an irresistible hex. —H.S.
Anita Baker was a devotee of gospel legend Mahalia Jackson and jazz belter Sarah Vaughan, and her full-throated performances — which have the fire of gospel and the improvisational nature of jazz — were in part a tribute to those singers’ artistry. “Although I wouldn’t presume to try to carry the torch, I can still hold it up,” Baker told The New York Times in 1986. Baker was being modest, although her singing was anything but; the vamping that closes out her massive 1986 ballad “Sweet Love” is just one example of how she built on her idols’ legacies, then combined them with her considerable talent and keen knowledge of R&B’s evolving ideals, to cement her place in soul music’s pantheon. —M.J.
Watching archival performances of the late Pakistani vocal master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan — an icon in the realm of Qawwali, a type of Sufi devotional song, whose family’s musical legacy stretched back hundreds of years — it’s easy to lose track of time, and to hear how his music easily reached global audiences in the Eighties when he began performing abroad and recording for Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. His many famous fans included Madonna, Eddie Vedder (who duetted with him on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack), and Jeff Buckley (who called the singer “my Elvis” and studied Urdu in order to properly cover him). “When I sing, I sing with the depth of my heart,” Khan told an interviewer in 1996, the year before his death at age 48. —H.S.
In 1971, Gal Costa recorded “Sua Estupidez,” a sappy balada by pop crooner Roberto Carlos, and turned it into a heart-wrenching declaration of beauty and regret. Such was the transformative power of her voice. Like a luminous queen Midas, the diva from Bahia turned everything she touched into gold: wide-eyed tropicália (“Baby,” a late ‘60s Brazilian classic), sexy samba-rock (“Flor de Maracujá”), exuberant carnival frevo (“Festa Do Interior”), and funkified bossa (her 1979 reading of the standard “Estrada do Sol” is so lush and mystical, it borders on the surreal). The most transcendent female vocalist of the post-bossa era, she continued making music until her death at 77. —E.L.
According to Quintanilla family lore, Selena was about six years old when she wandered into a guitar lesson her father was leading and showed off her natural, almost uncanny ability to sing. “Her timing, her pitch were perfect,” her father said in a 1995 interview. As she grew older, becoming a cross-cultural megastar with the family band Selena y Los Dinos, her husky vibrato and impressive belting power shaped cumbia hits that defined generations of Tejano music. Though her life was sadly cut short, her music hasn’t lost any staying power: She continues to top the charts decades after her death, and a posthumous album recently featured new, digitally created songs for fans who wished they could have heard more from her. —J.L.
Jimmie Rodgers wasn’t an overpowering singer but an amazingly sly one — even through the crackle of aged shellac, he comes on like the sharpest, hippest guy in the room. That didn’t mean there wasn’t feeling there: His Blue Yodel series, the records that made him a legend, are imbued with the high-lonesome sound that was his trademark. But even then, Rodgers seemed to be holding back a bit — and that lack of histrionics makes his piercing yodels and easy-rolling rhythms hit even harder. When he boasted about his prowess in bed, his lack of overt effect made you believe it. —M.M.
“I made the choices of who sung lead, and my opinion was always that Diana had the magic,” Berry Gordy said of Motown’s biggest act, the Supremes. And yes, Berry and Miss Ross were a clandestine but real item. Nonetheless, his commercial instincts were on the nose. Diana Ross’ sheer vivacity, not to mention her creamy timbre and flirty insouciance, added up not only to star quality but also a unique vocal style. She can seem like she’s talking as much as she’s singing, adding an everygirl quality to her fashionista façade and paving the way for future divas like Janet Jackson. —M.M.
Jackson’s best vocal moments thrived in their ability to transcend styles and transform expectations — the way the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” turns James Brown into bubblegum, the exuberance mixed with bite of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the way “Human Nature” dreams of connection while shivering in isolation. What we now know about his life makes his music harder to enjoy, and it’s been argued that as his world darkened his voice devolved into a parodic arsenal of tics. But even toward the end, given the right musical setting (such as the light-touch high points on 2001’s Invincible), his ability to sink into a song while also seeming to float above it remained peerless. —J.D.
In the Fifties, while on tour with Elvis Presley, country great June Carter met her future husband because, she said, “Elvis had been raving about what a great singer Johnny Cash was.” Indeed, for many, Cash’s mile-wide, wondrously fluid baritone is the sound of country music at its best. His ruggedness and his good humor were always in one another’s pocket — “One Piece at a Time,” from 1976, is a model for how to make a silly song even funnier by playing it lifelike. And his outlaw side — from “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955 to “Hurt” in 2002 — was usually rueful and always convincing. —M.M.
The crystalline, eternally girlish voice of “the Melody Queen” is a cornerstone of Indian pop music, with a global influence spread via Bollywood films, whose golden era she defined. Lata was the empress of playback singers, the vocal magicians who perform songs for actors to lip-sync in lavish movie musicals, recording over 7,000 such songs, by some estimates. Even Asha Bhosle, her younger sister and only true peer among playbackers, considered “Lata Didi” her “favorite singer” — and if Bhosle was more versatile and prolific, her elder sister remained the gold standard for the piercing brilliance of her tone. The Lata Mangeshkar songbook has informed songs far beyond Bollywood, from Britney Spears’ “Toxic” (which sampled the 1981 Lata duet “Tere Mere Beech Mein”) to electronic jams by Madlib and Four Tet (who made a section of Lata’s exquisite “Main Teri Chhoti Bahna Hoon” the centerpiece of his 2015 “Morning Side”). —W.H.
Amy Winehouse’s rich and smoky tone was at both nostalgic and timeless. In both her image and music, the British star paid tribute to Sixties girl groups like the Ronettes, but her own taste was too molded by Nineties and early aughts hip-hop to be glued to the past. The two albums she released in her too-short lifetime were a sublime fusion of classic soul with modern R&B, with that gorgeously deep and heartbreaking tone of hers serpentining through inescapable inner turmoil, romantic chaos, damp London streets, and decades of music history to shape one of pop’s all-time heaviest and unique voices. —B.S.
Steve Perry channeled his early love of Sam Cooke and the Drifters into a smoky yet soaring belt that became the gold standard of arena-rock theatrics. Wherever you stand on the shameless melodrama that’s made Journey an eternal staple of the FM dial, it’s impossible to deny the majesty of Perry’s delivery on rockers like “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart),” or the tenderness he brings to ballads like “Open Arms” and “Faithfully.” Perry hasn’t sung with Journey since 1991, or played a proper show in close to 30 years, but fans still keep their lighters raised for the man known as “The Voice.” —H.S.
One of the most powerful cultural movements to emerge from Latin America, bossa nova relied on three founding architects: Antônio Carlos Jobim was the composer, Vinicius de Moraes the lyricist, and João Gilberto its understated singer and guitarist. A master of cosmopolitan subtlety, the Rio de Janeiro native murmured and whispered with an ease that made every song feel like a casual gathering of friends. This style — its poetry and warmth — was a perfect match for the bossa narratives about contemplating life at Copacabana beach. Gilberto’s 1959 debut album set the tone for the ensuing revolution, and the jazzy 1964 classic Getz/Gilberto summed up its energy with “Garota de Ipanema,” which he performed alongside the broken English of his lilting wife Astrud. —E.L.
Whether it’s on Temple of the Dog’s gutting eulogy “Say Hello 2 Heaven” or Soundgarden’s brutal, beautiful “Burden in My Hand,” Cornell is the Seattle Sound in one singular voice. His nearly four-octave range hit the scene like a gut punch and left a deep mark, festering with emotion and power as it careened from a raw baritone to a wailing falsetto — sometimes within the same song. “I’ve been pretty lucky in that my voice has been a pretty reliable instrument,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015. “All it ever really required of me was just to figure out how to manipulate it in the best way to get what I want out of it.” —A.M.
“I’m an untrained, unschooled harmony singer,” Harris once said. But the singer-songwriter is arguably the greatest American harmony vocalist of the past half-century, beginning with her early Seventies work with Gram Parsons (listen to her use of vibrato in “Love Hurts”). In the 50 years since, she’s added her own angelic counter-harmony lines to hundreds of records by everyone from Bright Eyes to Willie Nelson, while shining as a lead vocalist on her own records. It’s the way she uses breathing and space on the country classic “Together Again,” or the way her phrasing accents the desolate heartbreak of “I Still Miss Someone,” or the way she deploys range and falsetto to further the lonely narrative of “Orphan Girl.” —J.B.
“Janis Joplin sings the blues as hard as any Black person,” B.B. King once said. Apart from time as a coffeehouse folkie with a taste for Ma Rainey, Joplin’s career as one of the great American rock stars was from June 4, 1966, when she joined Big Brother and the Holding Company, until her death on October 4, 1970, exactly 52 months. In less than five years, she became a legend (especially onstage, where she remains one of the great rock frontpersons) for an absolute bazooka of a voice that did everything a blues, rock, or soul singer’s voice should do: embody the song, and transmit every ounce of vulnerability or pain or rage the singer has. —J.G.
As a singer no less than a bandleader, Bruce Springsteen’s great gift is for dynamics. Whisper-to-a-scream is a big part of what he does — just listen to the second verse of “Born to Run,” which starts out like Roy Orbison chewing gum and then turns into Wilson Pickett on a motorcycle. It’s easy to goof on the gruff guy belting out his verse of “We Are the World,” but Springsteen’s emotional commitment is always on the money: honestly desperate on “The River,” starkly scary on “State Trooper,” utterly jubilant on “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” a sad, horny wreck on “I’m on Fire.” —M.M.
Few Sixties R&B stars had as propulsive a shout as Wilson Pickett — a late-night lover and a prime progenitor of funk. Singing gospel as a young man, Pickett said, “I got the sound that I would use as the basis for my whole style of vocalizing. I used that wild, abandoned style of singing and put it into the context of soul. … Singing in church has given me a certain feeling for music.” That rough testifying gave Pickett’s music its drive: Few soul singers had his unyielding rhythmic acuity, and he could sound peacock-proud without seeming merely arrogant. —M.M.
Thick as molasses or, per the title of his signature song, “Brown Sugar,” Michael Eugene Archer has one of the most ingratiating voices in R&B — instantly classic, almost out of time. In fact, it was D’Angelo who necessitated the term “neo-soul,” coined by Motown executive Kedar Massenburg to market him. Few modern singers so freely display their church roots — but rather than a showboat, his phrasing is often understated, building patiently to torrid screams that could make the stoutest church lady feel positively sinful. And with arrangements that mirror and embellish his vocal melodies, D’Angelo’s subtle phrasing makes his music deeply durable, just like his gorgeous natural instrument. —M.M.
A flamboyant belter whose fearlessness shone through in her ability to change keys and leap octaves, Patti LaBelle’s arresting voice gave pop music a jolt in both her solo work and as a member of the vocal group LaBelle. “I’m fabulous,” LaBelle asserted in a 2008 interview. “You can’t make me feel less than I am, because whenever I get the microphone I’m gonna show you who I am.” She wasn’t lying: The saucy “Lady Marmalade” wouldn’t have hit as hard without LaBelle’s ad-libs and down-and-dirty grinding, while the Michael McDonald duet “On My Own” worked so well because of the way her piercing soprano countered her partner’s raspy baritone. —M.J.
Salsa was never the same after Puerto Rican singer Héctor Lavoe left his native Ponce and moved to New York in 1963 at age 16. Blessed with a wicked sense of humor and a chocolaty voice able to manipulate at will the clave dynamics that make Afro-Caribbean music swing with reckless abandon, Lavoe was salsa’s own rock star — tragic, charismatic, suicidal. His tenure with the orchestra of virtuoso trombonist and producer Willie Colón took New York by storm with the urgency of hits “Che Che Colé” and “La Murga.” Going solo in the mid-‘70s, he turned progressive on majestic orchestral epics like “El Cantante” — a Rubén Blades composition that perfectly captures Lavoe’s mercurial persona. He died in 1993 at age 46.–E.L.
Smoky and ready with a laugh at the world, be it garrulous or rueful, Muddy Waters defined electric blues singing — though he himself would insist, “I am a country blues singer.” But whether higher and freer on acoustic when Alan Lomax recorded him in the Forties, or in the lower-down and more wryly knowing style his Fifties sessions for Chess Records augured, Waters sang with warmth, solidity, and a hint of power held in reserve. He could shout, but it was the way he’d build to it, from “Hoochie Coochie Man” to his walloping 1977 overhaul of “Mannish Boy,” where the thrill truly lay. —M.M.
Elvis Presley called him “the greatest singer in the world,” and he declined to cover his work out of respect. Dolly Parton said, “I have never been more moved by a voice.” Kris Kristofferson concurred: “One of the most beautiful voices in the history of recorded music.” On “Only the Lonely,” “Crying,” and “In Dreams,” Orbison used his control, three-octave range, and bone-deep sadness to transmit almost gothic melodrama. But check out the still-astounding Traveling Wilburys song “Not Alone Any More,” recorded and released less than two months before Orbison’s death in 1988 to hear exactly why it was impossible not to use the word “operatic” when describing Orbison’s overwhelming sound. —J.G.
Ronnie Spector and her fellow Ronettes were scheduled to sing background for a Phil Spector session. “We came into the studio that evening, and he heard my voice,” she recalled in 1979. “He said, ‘That’s it.’” Soon the Ronettes were Spector’s prize clients — their masterpiece, and his, was 1963’s “Be My Baby,” with the most yearning vocal in all of rock. Then Phil married Ronnie and essentially locked her away from the world. After she left him, her recording career was erratic, but her voice shone in any setting, from an E Street Band-backed tear through Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” to her elegiac, Joey Ramone-assisted version of Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” —M.M.
The earliest recordings of Youssou N’Dour, from the late Seventies with his band Étoile de Dakar — available on Vol. 1: Absa Gueye — are still startling, both for the surging Senegalese funk grooves and for N’Dour’s sky-high tenor, as instantly commanding as the young Michael Jackson. And N’Dour kept maturing as a singer: His basic thrill-a-minute style has modulated to a more human scale over the years, but he can call it forth with ease. On 2021’s Mbalax, N’Dour reinterpreted his own high-energy past with a tempered but still powerful approach, coming full circle. —M.M.
An alto whose range spans three octaves, Rihanna isn’t just one of the biggest pop singers around: She’s one of the biggest voices, period. Her low notes are particularly resonant — she dips into them to underline a phrase, or to add a hint of doubt to a line. But her keening top notes, which have grown more billowing with time, are still the main draw: Half of what made “Umbrella” indelible is her signature, nasal “ella-ella-ay-ay-ay”s. “Rihanna’s voice is just delicious for your ear,” Chris Martin of Coldplay declared. “She is the Frank Sinatra of our generation. She can turn anything into gold with that voice.” —M.M.
Dennis Brown was a child star — his first hit, 1969’s “No Man Is an Island,” came at age nine — who matured into homegrown superstar. With a voice as tough-yet-velvety as suede, he was one of Jamaica’s smoothest love men ever, not to mention a dispense of homespun wisdom on the immortal 1981 hit “Sitting and Watching.” Even in his later years, when his voice showed the ravages of prolonged cocaine use (he died at age 42), Brown’s soulfulness was unimpeachable — no less an authority than Bob Marley once declared Brown his favorite reggae singer. —M.M.
Take it from Bruce Springsteen: “‘I Wish It Would Rain,’ you’ve gotta be nuts to try and sing that song after David Ruffin sang it,” he told Rolling Stone’s Andy Greene this year with a laugh after he made the, yes, moderately hubristic decision to cover that 1967 Temptations classic. Bruce is just one of many great singers in awe of Ruffin’s distinctive sandpaper tone, a vocal texture that countless soul and rock musicians have envied in the peak Motown years and afterward. On hits like “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” and “My Girl,” Ruffin was the earthbound anchor for the Temptations’ heavenly harmonies, the guy whose flawed humanity enriched their greatest love songs. “I know you wanna leave me,” he sang, with a singular rasp that guaranteed we never would. —S.V.L.
Minnie Riperton is the definition of a songbird. There’s no better way to describe her fluttering, soaring voice, and the way she famously ascended five octaves into a honeyed whistle register on Seventies soft-soul classics like “Loving You” and “Inside My Love.” But Riperton also imbued her performances with earthy heft, and her shifts between corporeal and ethereal tones made for stunning results. Then there’s “Les Fleurs,” where her voice is multitracked by famed producer Charles Stepney, allowing her to sing gallantly in choral formation as her falsetto floats in the background. Riperton’s sophisticated vocal techniques have inspired many artists, notably another five-octave soul singer, Mariah Carey. Still, she remains in a class of her own. —M.R.
At one time around the turn of the century, it sounded as if dozens of vocalists tried to mimic the uncanny style of Björk Guðmundsdóttir. But it’s not easy to do. The Icelandic iconoclast is known for accelerating from a heavily accented tone that closely resembles a speaking voice to a cathartic upper range that feels like screams of passion and insight. She stretches and contorts her voice as if she’s manipulating time and the beat. Her highly conceptual catalog, a series of albums encompassing electronic music, trip-hop, cabaret jazz, and art rock spread across five decades and counting, only enhances the feeling of hearing a rare, unusual thing evolve and grow. —M.R.
As much flak as Robert Plant rightly gets for his liberal borrowings from blues lyrics, his actual vocal style, informed early on by sources such as Skip James and Blind Lemon Jefferson, quickly evolved into something unique. Take “Immigrant Song,” with its screechy wailing and weirdly languid croon, or the dreamy warble he adopts in “Kashmir.” As over the top as his Led Zeppelin work could get, some of Plant’s greatest performances came when he aimed for serenity rather than savagery (see: “Going to California,” “The Rain Song,” “Ten Years Gone”). It’s almost as if he always knew he’d reinvent himself as a mystical folkie — and one reason why his later collaborations with Alison Krauss and musicians from Mali and Morocco are some of the most credible late-career vocal work by an ex-arena rocker. —H.S.
The teen idol turned soul-pop master had a supple, yet strong tenor that could handle nearly anything thrown his way — the anguish of “Careless Whisper,” the motivational gospel-pop of “Freedom! ’90,” the steely-eyed protest of “Praying for Time,” the genre-spanning covers he tossed into his live sets. His crowning achievement came at the 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute concert in London, when he took on the vocal workout “Somebody to Love” — and thanks to his prowess and charisma, he had all of Wembley Stadium responding as if he were the second coming of the Queen frontman. Even Brian May agreed: “There’s a certain note in his voice when he did ‘Somebody to Love’ that was pure Freddie,” the guitarist told Q in 1998. But Michael’s total package was all his own. —M.J.
Umm Kulthum has no real equivalent among singers in the West: For decades the Egyptian star represented, and to an extent still does, the soul of the pan-Arab world. Her potent contralto, which could blur gender in its lower register, conveyed breathtaking emotional range in complex songs that, across theme and wildly-ornamented variations, could easily last an hour, as she worked crowds like a fiery preacher. Her death in 1975 brought millions into the Cairo streets to mourn, and while her influence among Arab singers is incalculable, it extended far beyond it. Dylan considered her “great.” Beyoncé prominently (and scandalously) used “Enta Omri” in her 2016 tour choreography. And Robert Plant conceded that “when I first heard the way [Umm Kulthum] would dance down through the scale to land on a beautiful note I couldn’t even imagine singing, it was huge: Somebody had blown a hole in the wall of my understanding of vocals.” —W.H.
Kate Bush was only 15 when she recorded a demo tape that made its way to Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who helped her get her first record deal. “I definitely thought she was a true original and a great talent,” he said. With no traditional label expectations tethering her, she performed acrobatic feats with her voice in the explosive ardor of “Wuthering Heights,” the determination of “Cloudbusting,” and the sense of feminine humanity of “This Woman’s Work” and “Running Up That Hill.” Even on “Wild Man,” a song she recorded in her 50s, after her voice deepened, she pushed herself into brilliant contortions in the chorus. “You have to break your back before you even start to speak the emotion,” she once said. —K.G.
Howlin’ Wolf’s voice hits you like an elemental force: The sheer amount of lung power the 6’3”, 275-pound Chester Burnett unleashes on classic sides like “Smokestack Lightnin’” and “Spoonful” brings to mind a fire-and-brimstone preacher possessed by the strength of a hurricane. He influenced a generation of blues and rock shouters — including Mick Jagger and Steve Winwood — but none of his disciples ever came close to capturing the abrasive bellow and eerie high-pitched moans that made his stage name seem incredibly apt. “When you’re a kid and you’re trying to find your own voice, it’s rather daunting to hear somebody like Howlin’ Wolf, because you know that you’ll never achieve that,” Tom Waits once said. “That’s the Empire State Building. You can scream into a pillow for a year and never get there.” —H.S
Lady Gaga’s early classics play like slightly more strenuous variations on the great Madonna hits, though Stefani Germanotta was born with a more robust vocal range, a huskier natural tone, and an easier way with vocal acrobatics. In short, this was someone who’d grown up singing show tunes. The rah-rah crowd-pleaser in Gaga is also the best part of her as a singer: She lives to rouse, be it with an instantly ingratiating hook like “Bad Romance” or a power ballad — the form she was born for — such as “You and I.” —M.M.
Brian Wilson is so renowned for his producing and songwriting skills that his gifts as a vocalist are often overlooked, especially since his bandmates were so incredibly skilled in that department. But listen to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and hear the sorrow and yearning he infuses into word. Check out “The Warmth of the Sun,” where he hits impossibly high notes. Even when he’s not singing lead, he still locks voices with his bandmates and creates some of the most sublime harmonies ever captured on tape. According to Wilson, it all came from the influence of Sixties vocal group Four Seasons. “That is where I learned to arrange harmonies and also where I learned to sing falsetto,” Wilson said. “Their four-part harmony was totally original.” —A.G.
Barry White swore that, growing up, his voice was trebly. That changed when he was 13: “It frightened me with all the vibrating and stuff going on, and it sure frightened the hell out of my mother,” he said in 1977. “From then on, the voice was what it is today. Superclass.” Repeat: “the voice,” a basso even its owner thought of as a separate entity. That’s how resonant White was. He sounded the most direct come-hither in all of disco (where there was lots of competition), then watched his music get revived in the Nineties, helped along by a canny guest appearance on The Simpsons. —M.M.
Raw, passionate, and ferocious: Tina Turner is the Queen of Rock & Roll for a reason. Her raspy, soulful delivery while fronting the Ike & Tina Turner Revue bridged the segregated relationship between R&B and pop, inspiring decades of rock singers in her wake to imitate her vivacious sensuality and emotional potency, which can be heard as clearly on record as it could be seen when she was onstage. While early Ike & Tina hits like “Nutbush City Limits” and “Proud Mary” set the tone, it was her miraculous Eighties comeback that solidified her legacy. Turner’s authoritative command of slick Eighties production trends on albums like Private Dancer and Break Every Rule turned her into the pop diva she was always destined to be, setting the tone for pop-rock anthems and power ballads for decades to come. —B.S.
As the Red Headed Stranger himself once put it, “I never pretended to have a great voice. It works and I can carry a tune. If you have a good song, that’s about all that’s required.” In fact, that kind of laid-back understatement is a huge part of what makes the country legend so great. For more than six decades, Willie Nelson’s unique baritone is plain-spoken yet complex, slightly nasal yet welcoming, earthy yet sophisticated. Besides all but rebooting country music in his 1970s outlaw era, Nelson has explored standards (the quintuple platinum 1978 album Stardust), jazz (Two Men With the Blues, his 2008 live album with Wynton Marsalis, hit No. 20 on the Billboard 200), and yes, his beloved reggae (Countryman, his 53rd album, released in 2005, on which he worked for a decade). Whatever he wraps his voice around, the song has the ring of eternal truth. —J.G.
Playful, sturdy, supple, and sharp, Miriam Makeba was a fountain of vocal personality. She could scat and swing on the township jazz hit “Pata Pata” or croon with bright warmth on the folk ballad “Lakutshon’ Ilanga,” a song she made famous in the 1959 film Come Back, Africa. As a South African musician living under apartheid, Makeba’s work could be inherently political, even though that’s a label she often rejected despite lifelong activism. Indeed, to listen to her now, years after her death, is to experience an artist who brilliantly communicates the joy of being alive. —M.R.
Each time he opens that extra-wide mouth to sing, Mick Jagger reveals one of his influences as a vocalist: His guttural-growl moments show off his love of the blues, his flights into falsetto reveal his deep bond with R&B and soul, and those deadpan drawls connect him to country and other roots music. But from the Stones’ earliest blues covers, Jagger was never a mimic. For all his influences, that sometimes sinister, sometimes insouciant, sometimes pleading voice has always been very much his own. Others have tried to ape him, but Jagger remains one of the most distinctive singers in rock history, whether he’s playing with fire, sympathizing with Satan, or just missing you. —D.B.
Sade Adu rose out of London’s New Romantic scene of the 1980s, a Nigerian-born fashion designer who crossed over to music. She proved herself the ultimate smooth operator, in hits like “Your Love Is King,” “Kiss of Life,” and “The Sweetest Taboo.” Her languid cool has a way of making everyone else sound histrionic. “I’m fairly understated, and that reflects in the way I sing,” Sade told Rolling Stone in 1985. “I don’t necessarily think that you have to scream and shout to move somebody.” In all these years, the serene poise of her voice has never faltered. —R.S.
“I used to be a breathy little soprano,” Joni Mitchell told us in 1969. “Then one day I found that I could sing low. At first, I thought I had lost my voice forever.” She didn’t, and she still hasn’t. Mitchell’s songwriting has long been revered — especially in recent years by younger generations — but her vocals are also unmatched, from the way she effortlessly climbs octaves to her mastering of both a high register and husky depth (listen to the incredible For The Roses gem “Lesson in Survival” for a taste of both). Despite years of smoking and health setbacks, she’s still reminding us of her greatness, whether it’s with surprise appearances or unearthed gems from the vault.–A.M.
Rod the Mod didn’t merely mimic his vocal hero Sam Cooke’s grainy earnestness; he reimagined it from the inside and grew into one of rock’s great interpreters. Stewart can break your heart while singing as a good-time rounder, can make you wince or smirk with equal facility — when he’s on, he can make ordinary material sound as good as a new suit. And when the material’s great, he’s irresistible. If all he’d ever made was 1971’s Every Picture Tells a Story — a vocal tour de force, every emotion precisely evoked — he’d belong on this list. But he’s still learning new tricks, as the Songbook albums show off nicely. —M.M.
“My voice was always low,” Toni Braxton told The Guardian in 2020. “I remember everyone in class singing ‘Joy to the World,’ and I was the only one who couldn’t sing it in the key. I was always the kid in the room with the low voice that made you turn around.” The R&B singer’s voice still makes people do double takes, but not because of what it can’t do; instead, it’s because of her smooth tone and ability to make even the simplest sentiments smolder. Her blockbuster ballad “Un-Break My Heart” showcases the full extent of her vocal power, but songs like the pensive “Breathe Again” show how she can slow-burn emotion to devastating effect, her steely-eyed resolve only breaking when it’s clear that feelings are about to take her over. —M.J.
The queen of country rock never wanted to be a soprano pigeonholed in one genre, so she spent four decades following her curiosity instead of what her fans wanted — a move straight out of her friend Neil Young’s playbook. She quickly established herself as the greatest interpreter in music history, dipping her paintbrush in everything from opera to standards to the traditional Mexican music of her family, exposing boomers to songs they wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. And with those legendary pipes that spanned several octaves, she could truly sing anything — who else could master both “Blue Bayou” and “Tú, Sólo Tú”? —A.M.
As a member of her family band the Staple Singers, Mavis Staples injected the power of gospel exclamation into the pop charts; just listen to her command on “I’ll Take You There.” On the records she’s made over the past two decades, Staples found her voice in more ways than one. Whether singing civil rights songs or working with sympathetic collaborators like Jeff Tweedy, she found the perfect frameworks for her instrument. But she also proved that voices can age in remarkable and expressive ways. Reflecting a life that’s had its shares of highs (joining the Band at The Last Waltz) and lows (the loss of her father and sisters), Staples imbues everything she signs with experience, warmth, wisdom, and acceptance. —D.B.
Voices change — that’s what aging does. But although Ella Fitzgerald’s style deepened — her voice gained in character and her phrasing in perception — her voice itself generated the illusion of youthfulness for decades, all the way to her sixties. What a run! Fitzgerald’s famously precise enunciation was right there from her first recording, 1938’s “A-Tisket — A-Tasket,” with Chick Webb’s orchestra. But if rock-raised ears may find Fitzgerald’s portrait-painter precision a mite proper, the very grain of her voice is always wonderfully earthy. She’s sensuous, learned, and spry, and she’s worth hearing in every phase of her career. —M.M.
To call James Brown merely a singer seems like a vast understatement. To hear Brown in his prime, say on a track like “Super Bad,” is to experience a lexicon of vocal effects, all jumbled together and delivered in a breathless barrage. That inimitable raspy croon is merely the launch pad. What sends the performance airborne is the way he offsets his phrases with attention-commanding asides — “Heh!” “Hey!” “Good God!” — hoarse exhortations, and, as he moves from the bridge back to the verse, that signature, paint-peeling scream, like Little Richard dialed way up into the red. Brown could belt out a melody with the best of them (see “Try Me” or “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”), but his real genius was turning the pop vocal into a contact sport — a technique that Michael Jackson, among others, would build an empire on. —H.S.
With a whistle tone that rivals Mariah Carey’s in her prime and a voice that is intricate and honeyed across four octaves, Grande became one of the biggest stars of the 2010s — but there are layers to her genius. Ariana is such an apt and knowledgeable vocalist that she also recognizes the power of restraint, wielding her gift in both showstopping (think “God Is a Woman”) and simple ways (Think “7 Rings”) across her already-expansive catalog. The set list for her last (and third) arena tour, named for her 2018 album, Sweetener, was absolutely relentless, a barrage of hits through which she never lost a breath. Even more impressive is her technical ability to make these massive songs. “She knows every detail about her voice,” says Savan Kotecha, a songwriting partner to Grande since her debut: “‘That note over there, that’s a little bit flat.’ We’ll be like, ‘What? No it’s not.’ She’s like, ‘Yes it is, that little syllable there.’ The way that Jimi Hendrix was with a guitar, Ariana Grande is like that with vocals.” —M.C.
Though he was one of the Seventies’ most important vocalists, it took years for people to learn Teddy Pendergrass’ name — he came to prominence early in the decade as the lead singer, though not the leader, of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, before going solo in 1977. But his voice simply couldn’t be kept in the background: Pendergrass’ timbre was deep, wide, and towering like a Redwood, and it was a fulcrum for equally gigantic emotions. Teddy’s big masculine rumble could make a breakup sound like the world ending — “The Love I Lost,” from 1973, is the most devastated — but it could also be transportingly gentle, as on the 1975 entreaty “Wake Up Everybody.” —M.M.
One of the quintessential voices in blues music, Etta James not only helped shape early R&B and rock & roll but would also become the blueprint for a new generation of musical standards. Her buttery, versatile contralto carried her across genres and the whole gamut of complicated emotions that filled her songs. She was a vocal heartbreaker, capable of immense fury as well as tender passion at the drop of one of her raspy riffs. Most notably, her earthy and warm delivery of “At Last” has come to usher in wedded bliss for millions of couples around the globe, intertwining her memory forever with the purest musical representation of deep, bewitching romance. —B.S.
Maybe the most remarkable thing about Aaliyah’s voice, besides its flexibility and crisp range, was its almost preternatural poise — she always seemed to be holding her power in reserve, to know every side of the scenarios she described. Yet that vocal restraint didn’t spell a limited emotional palate — far from it. Aaliyah’s careful phrasing emitted heat when the song was sensuous, and her musical intelligence is always right on the surface. We’ll never get to find out just how much deeper and richer she could have gotten with age; she passed away tragically at 22 in 2001. But the mark she made on R&B and pop during the Nineties remains permanent. —M.M.
The modern era of American popular music begins with Louis Armstrong. His voice, with its instantly distinctive gravelly tone, was also immediately lovable, working equally to comic (“You Rascal You,” from 1931) and tragic effect (his “Black and Blue,” from 1929, became a theme song). Moreover, his loose, sharp sense of swing utterly transformed pop’s sense of rhythm — not just in the instruments but the singing. Take a listen to this Fifties studio outtake, where he reteaches Lotte Lenya — the singer who originated the song — how to swing “Mack the Knife.” Hear how eager she is to learn — because she knew she was learning from the best. And that’s not to even mention his revolutionary trumpet playing. —M.M.
Some musicians dabble in the falsetto register; Curtis Mayfield lived there, singing in a honeyed croon that’s one of the most transporting vocal textures ever heard in pop music. It was a sound that paired perfectly with the Impressions’ doo-wop- and gospel-informed approach — Mayfield’s lead part on “People Get Ready” feels angelic in origin — and worked just as well in the context of the singer’s streetwise, often protest-minded solo work, whether he was chronicling the tale of a “victim of ghetto demands” on “Pusherman” or the violent death of a friend on “Billy Jack.” “The beauty of the vocal style is that the voice is tender and approachable, not aggressive or threatening,” singer Aloe Blacc said of Mayfield’s delivery in 2012, “but at the same time the lyrics are powerful and politically charged.” —H.S.
To experience the height of Van Morrison’s vocal genius, you have to get beyond the words. Zero in on, say, the free-form back half of a 1974 performance of “Listen to the Lion,” where he starts out with honeyed crooning and blissed-out humming, tries out around a dozen different cadences on the word “you” and eventually lets fly with full-on grunts and groans. Ever since his early days in Them, on through the overtly mystical years of Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece, and up to his current incarnation as a gruff R&B songman (yes, with profoundly wrongheaded views on Covid-19 vaccines and lockdowns), he’s always aimed to unify the moans and shouts of his idols like Lead Belly and Ray Charles with a insatiable quest for what Greil Marcus (via Ralph J. Gleason) likes to describe as “the yarragh” — the bedrock truth of a given song. —H.S.
Kurt Cobain’s voice was a sound at war with itself: often harsh to the point of being grotesque but resolutely melodic even at its ugliest. It’s a blend born out of his diverse vocal influences, from the twee sing-song of the Vaselines’ Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee to the wounded snarl of the Wipers’ Greg Sage. The result was a voice that could find the hooks buried within the caustic noise-metal of “School” or “Breed,” and expose the razor blade at the center of the grunge-pop apple on “Drain You” or “In Bloom.” “For me, it was always the voice that blew me away,” Deer Tick’s John McCauley, who has covered Nirvana with the band’s surviving members, told Rolling Stone. “I’d heard people with gravelly voices, but Kurt’s was different. It’s not a pretty voice; he was not a trained singer by any means. But it gave me hope.” —H.S.
Brassy and sexy and funny and sad, Dusty Springfield could blast through a wall of sound (her 1964 debut smash “I Only Wanna Be With You”), deliver the lusty shyness of “The Look of Love,” or exude the seductive sexual confidence of “Breakfast in Bed.” On “What Have I Done to Deserve This,” her 1987 hit with the Pet Shop Boys, she folded into a techno-pop context flawlessly. Her peak moment, of course, is her breathy, vulnerable, and ultimately joyful vocal on “Son of a Preacher Man,” the peak moment for an artist many call the greatest white soul singer who ever lived. —J.G.
The wounded falsetto that launched a thousand Chris Martins — none of whom came anywhere close to matching Thom Yorke’s haunted wail on “Street Spirit,” his out-of-body high note on “Let Down,” or his weirdly magnetic muttering on “Wolf at the Door.” What those other millennial moaners couldn’t mimic was the genuine edge of alienation in Yorke’s voice, the sense that he really meant it when he sang about feeling freaked out by cars, computers, and minotaurs. If you felt that way, too, he was your man. “I’ve always had that cathartic thing with music,” he told an interviewer years later. “Even though in moments of high stress it’s very difficult to connect with music in that cathartic way, what I found was that you do connect. You end up being surprised by music. It catches you unawares.” It’s a typically understated yet eloquent way of describing the gift he’s given the world for the past 30 years. —S.V.L.
The road to the Queen of Soul, and beyond, begins with the Empress of the Blues. Bessie Smith’s uptown blues of the 1920s and ‘30s made her Mahalia Jackson’s favorite singer, inspired Dinah Washington to cut a tribute album to her, and moved Janis Joplin to purchase a headstone for her grave. Whether declaiming intimately her “Down Hearted Blues” or belting “’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” with joyous agency, Smith sounds like a big sister to Lizzo’s shout and Rhianna’s moan — ancestor to any and all singers who glitter like royalty while still keeping it down to earth. —D.C.
David Bowie’s rich baritone and actorly intonations made him seem at first distant to ears raised on bluesy, conversational vocal styles. But there was no distance in his singing, and as he eased into the role of rock star, it grew looser and more commanding — particularly on the high-energy rave-ups that let him rip the scenery apart vocally. In fact, it was part and parcel with his theater-kid brashness — “Life on Mars?” helped set the power-ballad template. And his many détentes with American soul music produced some of his richest singing; the falsetto breakdown of “Young Americans” may have been Bowie’s royal peak. —M.M.
Soul crooner Luther Vandross was often referred to as “the velvet voice” during his performing days, and his smooth, supple tenor added heat to slow jams like the sparkling “Here and Now” and poignance to emotional offerings like the longing “A House Is Not a Home” and the mournful “Dance With My Father.” Vandross developed a keen knowledge of singing as an art form over his career; in 2010, session musician Marcus Miller talked to NPR about Vandross’ close study of his other vocalists, and how he’d lay out the techniques artists like Dionne Warwick and Donny Hathaway used to stoke emotion. But even though he was a scholar of singing, his performances came off heartfelt and effortless. —M.J.
As a singer, Hank Williams could yodel, moan, croon, shake, quiver, whine, shout, or, in the case of his Luke the Drifter records, preach. He had an uncanny ability to wrap an entire song’s world of emotion into the delivery of a single world: There was devastating heartbreak in the way he sings the word apart in “Cold Cold Heart.” When he sang “What, you got cookin’?” in “Hey, Good Lookin’,” his exuberant and drawn-out what communicated a novel’s worth of backstory about the song’s aggressively flirtatious narrator. Or the salvation in his trembling cool when he sings “Cool Water.” Why are Hank Williams’ songs still country standards, nearly 75 years later? A huge part of the reason is how the country legend first delivered them. —J.B.
Chaka Khan’s vocal performances can be thrill rides — just listen to the delighted way she commands the end of the Prince-penned “I Feel for You,” responding to Melle Mel’s invitation to “rock” her with a drawn-out top-of-the-range “Iiiiiiii” that showcases her vocal stamina and range. That moment alone would warrant her inclusion on this list, but her catalog both as a solo artist and with the funk band Rufus has many more thanks to the way she can knock any emotion out of the park: her sliding-down-the-scale verses on “Tell Me Something Good” are balanced by her full-throated swagger on the chorus, while she commands the proto-girl-power anthem “I’m Every Woman” with the fervor of someone ready to lead her fellow females to equality’s promised land. —M.J.
Even today, 50 years gone, no one embodies the image of the “gospel singer” like Mahalia Jackson: a big woman with a bigger voice, hands clasped in front of her, eyes lifted heavenward or squeezed shut — in wonder at how she got over. Capable of Baptist solemnity and holiness exuberance, Jackson’s never-the-same-way-twice performances of “Didn’t It Rain” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” feature both bluesy, gale-force improvisation and a falsetto delicate as lace. Her contralto was limited, technically speaking, but she bent and forged those limits into the solid rock of American popular singing. —D.C.
Clear as mountain air, ripe as a peach, girlish well into middle age but also deeply mature, Dolly Parton’s voice is far more than, as she once memorably described it, “a cross between Tiny Tim and a nanny goat.” It’s pure as country gets — yet her pop crossover in the late Seventies seems as natural in retrospect as her multimedia stardom, an obvious byproduct of her magnetism. Listen again to “Jolene” and get caught up in the understated, devastating drama of Dolly’s chorus pleas. Tune in to the elastic vowels and deep commitment of the Porter Wagoner-written hymn “When I Sing for Him.” —M.M.
Paul McCartney is a genius at so many things — songwriting, production, playing all the instruments but especially bass — that it’s no small claim that he may be a better singer than he is anything else. John Lennon’s scream was for the ages, but Paul’s was almost equally intense and even more virtuosic (cf. “Helter Skelter”). He can approach a ballad so tenderly he brings so-so lyrics to brilliant life — no one will ever top his original “Here, There and Everywhere.” And from “I Saw Her Standing There” to “Band on the Run” to the charged moments of the recent McCartney III, few in rock can match him as a pure belter. —M.M.
Growing up, Mary J. Blige turned to singing as an escape, and early on she often wrestled her demons in performance. “There would be times where she would be in the studio singing and it would be the dopest take in the world, but she would be crying,” producer Chucky Thompson recalled of working on Blige’s second album, My Life. But the singer took a firmer grip on her life and career, and her singing gained in turn — the deep emotion intact, the pitchiness eliminated. Most of all, the character — someone who’s been through it and refuses to give up. —M.M.
George Jones’ dynamic range was huge, and he utilized it to the full, but he seldom seemed to be showboating. Though his high spirits could be wildly entertaining, from the speedy early “Why Baby Why” to the goofy late “Yabba Dabba Doo! (So Are You),” Jones was country music’s master brooder. The way he’d dip low on a word in the middle of a line (“He said, ‘I’ll love you till I die’,” the opener of “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” from 1980) to give the word, and the listener, a shiver, conveyed a man so full of feeling he doesn’t know what to do with that it bursts out of him in fits. —M.M.
Smokey Robinson is such a giant as a songwriter, but his voice is the heart of his legend. As his fellow Motown star Martha Reeves said, “With his tone and delivery, you could fall in love with Smokey.” The Motown empire was built around Robinson — when he hits those impossibly delicate high notes, it’s the essence of romantic pleading. He was raised on Fifties doo-wop, but he invented his own soul style with the Miracles, squeezing so much emotion out of ballads like “Ooo Baby Baby,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” or “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage.” He taught the Beatles how to sing — as Paul McCartney put it, “Smokey Robinson was like God in our eyes.” Yet his voice got more powerful, more seductive, over time, in mature classics like “Cruisin’” or his hugely influential A Quiet Storm. Cruise on forever, Smokey. —R.S.
Listen to the way Adele has matured over the years and you’ll hear a woman literally finding her voice. Her mezzo-soprano had a world-weary edge to it from the late-‘00s days of “Chasing Pavements,” but the combustible “Rolling in the Deep” portrays her pain in full flower, her voice breaking into a near-weep as she reels with vengeance and regret. On “Someone Like You,” her tear-jerking smash from 21, she gives a performance worthy of a single-spotlighted stage, with rich, rounded vowels that give away her growing sense of self in the wake of a breakup. Adele’s range has grown on her recent records; her pinched kiss-offs give the glitchy 25 cut “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” added bite, while on the loose-limbed “All Night Parking,” from 30, her vocal style borders on effervescence. As Adele’s commanding, raspy wail’s stylistic range grows, she only becomes more powerful. —M.J.
“Birds flying high, you know I feel/Sun in the sky, you know how I feel,” Nina Simone sang on 1965’s “Feeling Good.” And anyone who’s ever heard it knows how she felt, too; the euphoria pulsing through her voice spoke for itself. Simone could channel every facet of lived experience. She brought out the rage in her civil rights protest songs (“Mississippi Goddam,” “Four Women”), her pride in “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and her joie de vivre in her rendition of Hair’s “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life.” Commenting on Simone’s 1976 performance of Janis Ian’s “Stars,” Brittany Howard recently said, “The way Nina sang that was so incredibly visceral and true and real, like she was singing about her life, even though she didn’t write the words.” —K.G.
Interviewers often remarked on the precision of Marvin Gaye’s speaking voice, and that quality shone through his singing, as well — every ad-libbed syllable is crystal clear, even when he slurs the note. It’s his richness that draws the ear: velvety, yearning, endlessly assured, with a sandpaper roughness he calls on for key moments, to balance out his swooning head falsetto. And his gift for drama was first-rate: Listen again to how he rolls out the lyric of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” or creates palpable erotic heat with “Let’s Get It On.” And then listen some more. It’s irresistible. —M.M.
The breath control, the careful study of every lyric, the relentless search for vocal perfection — Sinatra was a titan behind the microphone before he was anything. Few singers have conveyed the depth of emotion Sinatra could: “How Insensitive,” his 1967 collaboration with Antônio Carlos Jobim, is as morose as a man can sound while still standing up, while on the immortal “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” from 1956, he shades the song’s ebullience with a relaxed maturity that communicated the good life to postwar Americans who’d grown up with Frankie on the radio. Sinatra’s rakish charm and ability to excavate a song’s emotional core can still amaze. —M.M.
You can hear so much of Celia Cruz’s life story in her voice: Her rich, inimitable tone captured the warmth and vibrancy of Havana, often evoking the call of street vendors and the power of Afro-Cuban santero songs from her childhood. Though she rose to fame in Cuba, she became a star in New York City, showcasing her endless charisma and mighty vocal strength alongside history’s biggest salsa acts. No matter who she performed with, Cruz always shone radiantly, her magic tied into her ability to make people feel: She could capture nostalgia and yearning, or she could let out a call of “Azúcar!” and embody the exuberance for life that continues to make her one of the most transcendent singers of all time. —J.L.
Elvis Presley’s voice was a sui generis instrument: weepy highs and rich lows, capable of landing “Don’t Be Cruel” at No. 1 on the U.S. pop, R&B, and country charts in 1956. Elvis’ heroes included Fats Domino, Roy Orbison, and Dean Martin, but he didn’t sing like any of them. Orbison, in fact, said, “There are a lot of people who are good actors at singing … with Elvis, he lives it altogether.” Early sides such as “That’s All Right, Mama” were joyful blasts of enthusiasm. His palette expanded in the Sixties and Seventies: 1961’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” is a transcendent example of his skills as a crooner, and his passion for gospel shines on “How Great Thou Art,” a thunderous live staple. But 1969’s “Suspicious Minds” might be the ultimate Elvis moment. From the controlled opening to the explosive chorus, Elvis drives this juggernaut with swagger to spare. He lived them all. —J.G.
There’s no choir quite like a choir of Princes. Play “Adore,” the heavenly climax of 1987’s Sign o’ the Times, and bask in that plush assemblage of overdubbed voices, in multiple registers, assembled with audible glee by the guy who also sings lead and plays most of the instruments. Singing seems to have been personal with Prince — he routinely ordered his engineers out of the room whenever he cut a vocal — and on the masterful “When Doves Cry” or the Emancipation highlight “The Holy River,” he achieves a rare, stunning intimacy that only deepens showman moves like the fluty falsetto of “Kiss.” —M.M.
To some listeners, Bob Dylan’s voice, especially the wheezy and/or aggressively twangy strains he favored in his early years, will always sound like a caricature of itself. But the confidence with which he owned his ugly-duckling delivery, and shaped it into something as expressive as his wildly inventive lyrics, has made him one of America’s great vocal eccentrics. Once he was fully in control of his instrument, he could use it to express everything from wry disdain (“Like a Rolling Stone”) to deep devotion (“If Not for You”), wrenching pathos (the Basement Tapes masterpiece “Goin’ to Acapulco”) and sardonic venom (“Idiot Wind”). (On 1969’s Nashville Skyline, he even morphed into a clean-voiced crooner.) And in his later years, he’s built an entire mature style out of his increasingly ragged-throated sound, moving freely between wistful romance (see Triplicate readings like “My One and Only Love”) and bawdy black comedy (“False Prophet”). —H.S.
Freddie Mercury’s soul-stirring vibrato and four-octave vocal range — as well as his overwhelming charisma — ignited the music of Queen, making their art rock an arresting spectacle. “Bohemian Rhapsody” offers a crash course in Mercury’s greatness, thanks to its balladic bookends, feisty rock moments, and operatic middle — including the breakdown where Mercury’s vocals, accompanied by guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor’s, were mega-dubbed into a giant choir. Queen’s catalog is stuffed with other moments that show just how talented Mercury was: “Somebody to Love” floats on air as Mercury soars through octaves and moods effortlessly, “Another One Bites the Dust” is all snap and swagger, and “The Show Must Go On” is a ruefully appropriate coda, Mercury putting in a full-throated performance even as he sang of his deteriorating health. —M.J.
Country-pop pioneer Patsy Cline’s career was cut short — she passed away in a plane crash at age 30 —but her strong yet supple voice is why she remains the standard-bearer for aspiring heartbreak chroniclers in Nashville and beyond. Cline attributed her contralto’s richness to a particularly grisly bout with rheumatic fever she’d had at 13: “You might say it was my return to the living after several days that launched me as a singer,” she wryly noted in 1957. But the nuanced way she interpreted her lovestruck material — her bursting-dam approach to the self-flagellating “Crazy,” her besotted seething on “I Fall to Pieces” — gave her performances emotional heft, and it’s a big reason why she’s still plucking heartstrings six decades after her death. —M.J.
John Lennon’s voice was like his mind — agile, bright as a bell, startlingly alive. From his screamed-out version of Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” with the Beatles out-rocking the Motown original to the seething motormouth of “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” to even a lesser later rocker like “What You Got,” singing with everything he had was Lennon’s trademark. His first solo album, 1970’s Plastic Ono Band, is still astonishing — as critic Robert Christgau put it, “a complete tour of rock timbre from scream to whine.” The same can be said for the White Album — in particular, the transition from “Julia” to “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” —M.M.
Little Richard is the patron saint of every singer who’s ever pushed their voice to the limit, and right past it, in the name of sending the listener into a frenzy. His immortal hits are clinics in how to generate excitement via constantly upping the vocal ante: On “Long Tall Sally,” he roars out of the gate with a gritty shout before switching to a vertigo-inducing falsetto “whoo-oo-oo-oo!,” and on “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” he chases further extremes of supercharged intensity, settling into a peak snarl that sounds hazardous to try to emulate and, leading into the sax solo, letting loose with a proto-punk scream that foreshadows everyone from Prince to Iggy Pop. —H.S.
There’s something feline about Al Green’s voice — a sinuous flexibility that flares up in places the listener isn’t expecting, which is always welcome. Few singers create the illusion of being carried away by the very song they’re singing the way he can. Whether he’s lying in a hard Memphis funk groove, like a python ready to dart (see the early “I’m a Ram”), or overdubbing multiple ethereal falsettos (a la the climax of “Have You Been Making Out OK”), the Rev. Green can evoke rapturous transport like it’s effortless. The truth was quite different — he worked hard on his classics — but whether he’s singing about God or eros, Green is the ultimate soul man. —M.M.
Onstage — start with his commanding performance at 1967’s Monterey Pop festival — Otis Redding was so boundless and revved up that he could literally make a stage shake. But especially in the studio, his emotive rasp was a marvel of controlled restraint. In his most penetrating soul ballads, like “Try a Little Tenderness,” “Mr. Pitiful,” and “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” Redding relished each anguished word, adding exclamatory lines at the end of phrases but never overdoing them. Another testament to his power: the way he could cover rock & roll hits, like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “A Hard Day’s Night,” and make you forget that anyone had sung them before he had. —D.B.
In Beyoncé’s voice lies the entire history of Black music. She is one of pop’s great historians, an artist so in love with the heroes who shape her that she can’t help but find opportunities to pay homage to them in her music, performance and, of course, her singing. But there’s nothing derivative about what Beyoncé does: Instead, she has heeded the lessons she can glean from Prince, Tina, Diana, Michael, Janet, Donna, and more and shaped herself into an icon worth standing next to those titans, even while still at the top of her game. At times brashly Southern or cherubically hymnal, her malleability and penchant for vocal theatricals have allowed her range to successfully fit into everything from funk to country to hard rock (sometimes all on the same album). And she’s as good a rapper as she is songbird, mastering each turn with ineffable control and power. —B.S.
Whatever tone Stevie Wonder is aiming for, from starry-eyed romance to gritty realism, his voice can convey it with ease. Few other singers could so convincingly sell both the unabashed tenderness of “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” or “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and the simmering anger that underlies “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” or “Living for the City.” The last song showcases Wonder’s patented growl, one of many vocal tactics he uses to push a song into overdrive (see also: the upper-register melodic acrobatics heard on “Sir Duke” or the gospel-like swoops on the climax of “They Won’t Go When I Go”). Talking about singers who “squall,” or favor an overheated delivery, in a 2014 interview, D’Angelo singled Wonder out. “The thing about Stevie Wonder,” he said, “was that he brought these vocal mechanics into the squall that other motherfuckers just couldn’t do.” —H.S.
“People call me a jazz singer and a blues singer, but I don’t really know the difference,” Ray Charles told an interviewer in 1963. “I just try to sing a song, and I only sing songs I like to sing. And I try to put a little bit of soul into everything.” He meant everything — Charles was a titan of R&B, pop, jazz, and country alike, and the reason his first retrospective box set, in 1991, was titled The Birth of Soul is because it was Ray’s rewriting of a gospel song as the straightforwardly lascivious “I Got a Woman” that made soul music happen. And he turned one of the most anodyne of national hymns, “America the Beautiful,” into a soul-wrenching epic. The man could make anything soulful. —M.M.
Range, dahhling, is exactly what Mariah Carey possesses. Across five staggering octaves, the Elusive Chanteuse can pivot easily between a biting, taunting growl to an unreal whistle tone so sharply delivered it could cut steel. Since 1990’s “Vision of Love,” the singer-songwriter has always straddled the delicate balance between old-school soul and R&B with modern, often forward-thinking pop. Her secret has long been a sweetness that can be at times either angelic or devilish, depending on how she wields the multitude of secret vocal weapons she has in her arsenal. Everything from coy, breathy coos to guttural, full-bodied belts can be deployed with equally electrifying results. By combining her operatic vocal talents with a tough attitude and penchant for high glamor and drama, Carey birthed generations of imitators in her wake. But those she influenced still can’t beat the architect of modern pop’s sound. —B.S.
Other jazz-vocal legends like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald thrived on refinement; Billie Holiday privileged emotional truth. It’s a quality that gave her a special status among fellow artists, from her longtime saxophone foil Lester Young to Miles Davis, who wrote in his autobiography that when Holiday would sing a ballad like “I Loves You Porgy,” about a woman tormented by an abusive lover, “you could almost feel that shit she was feeling. It was beautiful and sad the way she sang that.” She’ll always be known as a poet of gloom, her slow-drip delivery perfectly suited to the forlorn (“Lover Man”) or downright morbid (“Strange Fruit,” an aptly sickening condemnation of lynching), but she could also use the openness in her voice to convey overflowing elation (“Too Marvelous for Words”). “Billie Holiday makes you hear the content and intent of every word she sings — even at the expense of her pitch or tone,” Joni Mitchell once said. “Billie is the one that touches me deepest.” —H.S.
There is American popular music before Sam Cooke and popular music after. He was already a gospel superstar with the Soul Stirrers when he went solo in 1957 and immediately began defining the idea of “soul music” both as a crossover star and musical innovator. His tenor seduced on 1957’s “You Send Me,” and it enchanted on “Wonderful World,” a song that in lesser hands might’ve sounded corny. But few singers savored being inside a song the way Cooke did. He did spotless standards on 1964’s Live at the Copacabana and a smooth version of gutbucket R&B on One Night Stand — Live at the Harlem Square Club, a badass 1963 set unreleased until 1985. And then there is his 1964 masterpiece “A Change Is Gonna Come.” A civil rights activist inspired by hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin in the Wind,” Cooke wails “I was booorrrn by the river…” over rising strings and matches the music emotion for emotion. —J.G.
The standard-bearer for R&B vocals, Whitney Houston possessed a soprano that was as powerful as it was tender. Take her cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” which became one of the defining singles of the 1990s; it opens with her gently brooding, her unaccompanied voice sounding like it’s turning over the idea of leaving her lover behind with the lightest touch. By the end, it’s transformed into a showcase for her limber, muscular upper register; she sings the title phrase with equal parts bone-deep feeling and technical perfection, turning the conflicted emotions at the song’s heart into a jumping-off point for her life’s next step.
Houston’s self-titled 1985 debut came out a bit more than six months before her 22nd birthday, and it established her as one of pop’s most potent vocalists. That was no accident: In 1993, Houston recalled how her upbringing, where she was around R&B greats like Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack — as well as her mother, the gospel singer Cissy Houston — immersed her in the idea of belting out her feelings. “It had a great impact on me as a singer, as a performer, as a musician. Growing up around it, you just can’t help it,” she said. “I identified with it immediately. It was something that was so natural to me that when I started singing, it was almost like speaking.” Houston’s natural delivery made the moments where she broke into record-breaking vocal runs; “Saving All My Love for You,” from her 1985 debut, feels like a wrenching talk with a skittish lover even as she’s hitting high notes, while the way her glum loneliness gives over to giggly jubilance on the sad-happy standard-bearer “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” remains as delightful on the 100th listen as it did on the first. Houston voice will resonate for decades beyond her 2012 passing. —M.J.
A force of nature. A work of genius. A gift from the heavens. Aretha Franklin’s voice is all that and more, which is why she remains the unchallenged Queen, years after her final bow. Her singing is the most magnificent sound to emerge from America — more universal than Coltrane’s horn, bolder than Hendrix’s guitar. She blew up worldwide with her 1967 hit “Respect,” claiming her throne as the greatest pop, rock, or soul singer ever. As Mary J. Blige told Rolling Stone, “She is the reason why women want to sing.”
Aretha could express jubilation, as heard in her gospel doc Amazing Grace. She could summon the deepest heartbreak, in ballads like “Ain’t No Way.” Her artistry is the greatest achievement of American music, if not American history. But her voice is the crossroads where all different musical traditions meet, from gospel to funk to rock to the blues. As she said, “I guess you could say I do a lot of traveling with my voice.”
She grew up as Detroit gospel royalty, getting her lessons in the church from Mahalia Jackson. At first, her label tried to mold her into a slick lounge singer, but she quit the crossover game, after meeting another young outsider on the label whose voice didn’t fit the pop mold: Bob Dylan. As she told writer Gerri Hirshey, “Neither of us was what you call — ah — mainstream.”
Aretha went to Muscle Shoals and became Lady Soul, creating her own raw, intense R&B sound. She forced the mainstream to cross over to her, changing the way music sounded ever since, all over the world. Her genius has taken so many forms: 1970s gospel, 1980s glam-disco, her collabos with disciples like Whitney Houston and Lauryn Hill. Or the night she stole the Grammys, singing “Nessun Dorma” without a rehearsal.
But whatever she sang, she claimed it as her own. And as long as you live, you’ll never hear anything like Aretha Franklin. That’s why her voice still goes right on changing the world. Singer of singers. Queen of queens. All hail Lady Soul. —R.S.
From Rolling Stone US.