Feature Artwork by Cap Blackard
Editor’s Note: This list was published original published 2016 prior to the latest round of allegations levied against Michael Jackson.
It’s been observed that pop-culture writers have a penchant for ranking anything and everything. We’re cited for spending countless hours trying to assess, sort, and file that which seems patently subjective or, far more damning, so beautiful, transcendent, or numinous as to be above slotting on a mere list. Admittedly, we can often be found guilty of peddling our opinions as objective fact. But I can’t cop to the latter charge quite so quickly. If you read through the entries to come, I guarantee you’ll find the appropriate sense of gratitude and awe as my colleagues and I struggle to, as Nick Hornby once put it, “make the ineffable effing effable.” That is, try to explain why these singers move us as they do.
No task as daunting as ranking the greatest singers of all time comes easily. Rubrics were made, remade, and subsequently trashed. Compromises were struck, concessions made, hearts broken, lifelong friendships terminated – the usual. And that age-old question reared its ugly head once more: Can a person with a terrible voice by traditional standards still be a great singer? (Big surprise, the jury’s still out among us.) Even with science weighing in and telling us that Freddie and Whitney are no-brainers, we agreed that science can’t account for everything just yet. Instead, we went with our guts, hoping, as always, that our guts don’t have shit for brains. I think Nick Hornby may have said that, too.
So, here are the 100 greatest singers of all time. Read on, and you’ll find kings and queens, divas and introverts, dancers and wallflowers, belters and growlers, storytellers and testifiers, seducers and wingmen, Simon and, well, maybe just Simon. However you’ve come to define “great,” these are the voices that continue to touch, console, inspire, and empower us. Feel free to tell us who we missed or how we blew it in the comments section, but even more importantly, find a singer on this list that you love and share the gift of their voice with someone in your life.
100. Lou Reed
The late Lou Reed grew up on doo-wop and, in his early days, played guitar in lickety-split early rock and roll bands like The Jades. And while his guitar-playing was pretty, his voice wasn’t. Reed’s voice was vicious — almost as dry as his speaking tone and just as sarcastic. The way he said certain words sounded like a joke you were never entirely sure if you were in on. But those idiosyncrasies are what made his voice so resonant, too.
The former Velvet Underground frontman’s voice often sounded like he was frantically trying to tell you something, the nervy words tumbling out of his mouth seemingly faster than he could control them, which makes songs like “Run Run Run” sound more like a sprint than a song. Reed got swaggier in the ‘70s, allowing his voice to snap and crackle in the name of pop (look no further than how he enunciates the words “oh baby” on Transformer’s “Make Up” for some prime Reed sing-speak-slurs). But on gentle cuts, like “Pale Blue Eyes”, Reed’s voice quivered with the kind of melancholy that can only come from a lifetime of hurt. And that’s the kind of honesty that saved lives through rock and roll. –Paula Mejia
99. Bonnie Raitt
Bonnie Raitt was born in Southern California, but her musical education took place in the bars and cafes of New York City, where she performed alongside legendary bluesmen Mississippi Fred McDowell and Howlin’ Wolf and learned what a voice dripping with soul is supposed to sound like. Raitt carried that voice with her throughout the subsequent years and decades, lending a quiet strength and gravitas to songs like “Angel from Montgomery” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. Her guitar playing is a rollicking force in its own right, but there’s something in that bluesy, slightly raspy cadence that almost makes the rest of the track recede into the background. –Collin Brennan
98. Justin Vernon
Before he sang like a robot, Justin Vernon was a folksy guy who balanced a soulful, delicate falsetto with a ravenous bark. On his first widely known song, “Skinny Love”, both were displayed, portraying a singer who didn’t bank on his technical gifts, instead letting his voice go wild and unpredictable with lovely results. Its vulnerability was accentuated by the choices Vernon made. He didn’t have to sing like this, but he knew it was the best way to transport listeners to a smoldering fireplace, to fresh footprints on a snowy road, or to a solitary pine-lined hiking trail. This is what made him a star.
And then, like any great experimenter, he slowly began to disassemble the way people heard him. Some may see vocal effects as a disqualifier for a great singer, but for Vernon, it’s become as distinguishing (if not more so) than his natural vocal characteristics. He’s never used vocal manipulation to mask the shortcomings of his singing. Instead, it accentuates his talents. There’s never a question of who you’re hearing when he fronts Bon Iver or Volcano Choir or steps into a Kanye West song. He’s not the first person to imbue machines with humanity, but he might be the best. –Philip Cosores
97. Jim Morrison
Perhaps Jim Morrison said it best when he described himself as “an intelligent, sensitive human being with the soul of a clown, which always forces me to blow it at the most important moments.” Make no mistake, the late poet was a total hound dog — with women, with drugs, with life, with words. You can hear it in every song by The Doors, whether he’s throwing bloodied punches on “Break on Through (To the Other Side”), dangling from a ship on “Spanish Caravan”, getting messy with vivid oil paintings on “Moonlight Drive”, or surfing over good vibes on “L.A. Woman”. Some have argued he was the voice of the ’60s, a leaky bottle of rage and love, which seems like such an obvious dichotomy yet one that rarely ever adds up.
It did with Morrison. Although a few notable critics have since written off his work as high school poetry — and yeah, it doesn’t help that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “drunken buffoon” barb from Almost Famous tends to shadow his name everywhere nowadays — the whiskey-drinking crooner was an ideal voice at a time when vitriolic rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t exactly there yet. Singers back then were angry, sure, but nobody played with fire like Morrison, not even the likes of Mick Jagger. No, there was a flamboyant edge to the Lizard King, steeped mostly in underground theater, and the guy knew how to not only connect with his audiences but prod them. Some listened, some laughed, but nobody ever forgot him. –Michael Roffman
96. Annie Lennox
Nostalgia culture will likely enshrine Scottish singer Annie Lennox as an icy dominatrix, sporting a close-cropped shock of red hair and wielding a cane in the video for Eurythmics’ storming “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”. But her smooth burr also has a ton of warmth to it, adding a rich humanity to the splendid productions that her collaborators, like fellow Eurythmic Dave Stewart and pop-fantasia architect Trevor Horn, would offer her. Adjectives describing plushness — velvety, sumptuous, lush — certainly apply to her voice, although those moments of tension before it opens up into a full-on trill, or sails into a falsetto, give gravitas to even the most over-the-top arrangements surrounding her. –Maura Johnston
95. Iggy Pop
If there’s any question as to whether or not Iggy Pop is the godfather of punk, there’s absolutely no doubt that he’s the goddamned grandaddy of punk vocalists. At the climax of “No Fun”, from The Stooges landmark self-titled 1969 debut, Pop ravenously clamors that guitarist Ron Asheton use his gnarled squalls of distortion to tell the people what this rock and roll thing is really all about. “Tell ‘em how I feel!” he snarls, and as Asheton’s serrated riffs contort with unhinged carnality, Pop doesn’t even have to sing a word; he is pure electricity.
Over the course of his 50-plus-year career, he would sing many words — strange, wonderful words — but the true key to his eternal charm was that come-hither baritone (“Gimme Danger”, “Nightclubbing”) that would become his true calling card, purring through your temporal lobe like some deranged, horny Jedi ready to hypnotize you into doing things you usually wouldn’t and definitely shouldn’t. But with a voice as perfectly sunken and rakish as Iggy Pop’s, singing isn’t always even necessary. Sometimes a simple “hi” will do just fine. –Zach Kelly
94. Steven Tyler
Aerosmith would probably have been just another New England bar band had it not been for Steven Tyler, the serpentine frontman who knew how to fill every available opening with something — a shimmy, a scat, a sustained note. On Aerosmith’s first album, he sounds at times almost adolescent, his scruffy voice spinning tales of breaking out — the wise-beyond-its-years “Mama Kin”, the anxious “Dream On”. As his band got bigger, so did his vocal command, although he never lost his desperate edge, swaggering and scatting through come-ons like the chugging “Lord of the Thighs” and painting paranoia on “Nobody’s Fault”.
While he’d always been good at the big, squishy ballad — the way he burrows into “Seasons of Wither” and “You See Me Crying” turbocharge their grandeur — Aerosmith’s late-’80s revival seemed perfectly timed with the Desmond Child era of power balladry, allowing Tyler to introduce a new generation to his band’s greatness via his all-in performances on the sweeping “Angel” and the honky-tonked “What It Takes”. –Maura Johnston
93. Patti Smith
When Patti Smith emerged out of the Bowery in the early ’70s, she didn’t sound like any other woman in rock and roll and alchemized her own version of what a frontwoman could be. Trying to measure her greatness as a singer by any conventional method will fall flat on its face, but she shared many of the same qualities as her other punk brothers and sisters at the time: fearlessness and unstoppable conviction, alongside her own near-shamanic ability to create explosive energy the second she stepped to the mic. Smith’s voice commands attention out of sheer force of will. She sings with great love and with great anger, often simultaneously.
Smith is at her best in those compositions that explore multiple dynamics — once again, her ability to shape and control the power of the vocal and the performance — where she can modulate from whisper to shout to high priestess, calling the tribe to order on epic journeys like “Land”, “Gloria”, or even “Birdland”. But it’s important to remember that she would break through to the mainstream with “Because the Night”, a love song, and it’s not accidental that that’s one of the few songs others have dared to try to cover over the years. Her energy has not waned with the years; if anything, she’s more comfortable with it now, more in control, more willing to let the throttle back a little — although just a little. The likes of “Free Money” or “Privilege (Set Me Free)” can still steamroll an audience today, leaving them breathless. –Caryn Rose
92. Maynard James Keenan
The clearest example of the might of Maynard James Keenan’s voice is so powerful that even he can barely handle it.
“Ticks & Leeches”, the centerpiece of alt-metal overlords Tool’s third album, Lateralus, is an epic jeremiad about greed and music industry bloodsuckers, inspired by the protracted legal battle the band had with their label that prevented them from recording a new album for several years. As the song builds to peak intensity, Keenan screeches “suck me dry,” and the “suck” is really the key here. On this word, Keenan hits the absolute highest point he can possibly go with his voice, and then holds it for as long as he possibly can. By the end, he sounds beaten. Nearly spent. He then does it three more times. Keenan has said this song was so physically taxing to record — though necessary to convey the anguish the band felt about their predicament — that despite his bandmate’s frequent requests, Tool almost never play it live. (Though, apparently, the band did play it once at Mike Patton’s request when Tomahawk was touring with them, Patton being a man that appreciates singing as a form of self-masochism.)
Tool is perhaps most famous for songs that allow Keenan to vent, at great volume, about his personal demons and display his contempt for a shallow, materialistic, anti-intellectual society. But Keenan never allows himself to be kept in the box of “angry rock dude,” as his true muses are love and empathy (and really good wine). Dig in deeper to his work with both Tool (especially on Lateralus) and his second band, A Perfect Circle, and he’s just as likely to use his voice to soothe and comfort his listeners. He can sound almost unnervingly fragile as he encourages them to move past their anger and look within themselves for healing. Then there’s the matter of whatever he’s doing with his conceptual art-joke project Puscifer, which is bafflingly impenetrable, but at least proves there’s no end to what he can will his voice box to do. –Michael Tedder
91. Glenn Danzig
Glenn Danzig was the only Misfit to really believe in the Misfits — not the band itself but its swirling universe of horrific imagery. Danzig wanted to live in a world where social outcasts get to have their say, and if that world happened to include zombies and werewolves and things that go “bump” in the night, well, that was great, too. Whether we’re talking about Danzig’s time in the Misfits or his later work with Samhain and his eponymous metal group, part of his allure lies in his unwillingness to separate fact from fiction. His deep, bellowing baritone wraps itself unironically around phrases like “I need your skulls” and “I killed your baby today,” and thus it is like nothing rock music has seen before or since. Someone needed to carve out a space between Elvis and horror b-movies, and Danzig proved to be the guy with the sharpest knife. —Collin Brennan
Debates over whether Madonna is a great singer have floated around her for decades — her voice is too thin, her sinking into the low notes on ballads like “Live to Tell” too uncertain. But she’s undoubtedly one of the best straight-up performers that has ever graced top-40 radio, making up for any vocal deficits with the Whitneys and Mariahs of her various pop eras by putting her up-yours personality front and center while culture-vulturing her way toward the cutting edge. (The Internet appropriation machine caught up with her in the late ’00s, but she held out admirably long.) A chameleonic performer who could play the teen-on-the-verge of “Papa Don’t Preach” as effortlessly as she could portray the sternly sexual Mistress Dita on Erotica, Madonna’s ability to push pop forward through sheer force of will transformed the game. –Maura Johnston
89. Ronnie James Dio
Ronnie James Dio had that badass wail that’s made for karaoke goers to fail miserably at recreating, but that’s just one part of his appeal. Up until recently, people overlooked that he replaced Ozzy in Black Sabbath and that some of his records are better than Ozzy’s. Dio allowed Tony Iommi to open up his guitar playing into new melodic dimensions, helping break out from the more blues-based blocks he was in with Ozzy. He helped Sabbath make actual ballads, with “Die Young” and “The Sign of the Southern Cross” really showing off his mix of confidence and sensitivity.
Dio got his start in a group called The Vegas Kings, and that bygone era of showmanship was part of his stage presence throughout his career. Thanking an audience at a show is pretty rote, but his graciousness made it sincere that he, a Metal God, was thankful to you personally that you came to see him. On stage and off, he served as a guiding light for lost youth and youths-at-heart, never skipping on the inspiration. Dio’s awesome vocal power wasn’t tempered by his humility and warmth; they made him a relatable inspiration while maintaining a clear sense of leadership. There’s no “I” in metal, but there is “We” in “We Rock”. –Andy O’Connor
88. Ian Curtis
Ian Curtis went to a different place when he performed, but it took him a little while to get there. This was part of the thrill of Joy Division: watching Curtis close his eyes and retreat awkwardly into himself, then watching an arm begin to move, then flail, then watching both legs do the same. And then, suddenly, the formerly stoic frontman had completed his transformation into a blur of sound and movement. Though he possessed one of the deepest voices in punk, Curtis sang like the stakes were impossibly, unfathomably high. “Dance, dance, dance to the radio!” sounded less like a good time and more like a shadowy tidal wave about to consume the world. It sounded lonely. And that’s what made Curtis such an alluring vocalist and frontman — despite his bandmates up there with him on stage, he existed in an empty space of his own creation for two to three minutes at a time. –Collin Brennan
87. Van Morrison
There’s something special inside of Van Morrison’s voice. Greil Marcus once opined, “His music can be heard as an attempt to surrender to the yarragh, or to make it surrender to him.” The yarragh is a term that was originally coined by the Irish tenor John McCormack, and as Marcus defined it, it’s a “voice that strikes a note so exalted you can’t believe a mere human being is responsible for it.” Listen to songs like “Caravan”, “Into the Mystic”, or “Madame George”, and you’ll know it instinctively.
At the beginning of his career in the mid-‘60s, while he was still fronting the Them and bashing out singles like “Gloria”, “Baby Please Don’t Go”, and Here Comes the Night”, Morrison adopted a caustic, rapid-fire delivery that matched the frenetic pace of the music. It was only once he struck out on his own, slowed things down, and dove headlong into the sounds of blues and jazz that the full breadth of his emotive instrument revealed itself. On masterpieces like Astral Weeks and Moondance, he stopped chasing the songs and bent the music itself to the shape of his voice. As a performer, he lives inside the song. He breathes in the notes and exhales all the emotion of the universe. –Corbin Reiff
86. Ann Wilson
The inimitable Ann Wilson’s entryway into music stardom is immortalized in one of Heart’s most memorable tunes, “Magic Man”. At the time, Wilson says she was “existing in this very staid, suburban state of being” at home until she met the band’s Mike Fisher (her magic man). Wilson left home and went to Canada, joining Heart in the process. It’s a good thing she followed that path towards music: Wilson, along with her sister Nancy, took over the pop charts in the ‘70s with their dynamic, throttling rock songs that seemed to come with a distinct strut of their own.
Famously, Ann never had formal musical training before she took over as the lead singer of Heart — even more of a testament to her natural talent, given how potent and clear her voice is (check out how far away she holds the microphone in this performance of “Crazy on You”). Earlier this year, Us Weekly asked Wilson to give them a primer on how to hit those tough high notes. Her response? To not be “wimpy.” As for tips on how to be a rock star, which Wilson embodies in the 1977 video for “Barracuda”? That can’t be taught, only known. –Paula Mejia
85. Joe Strummer
On the surface, it doesn’t seem that hard to be a punk singer. As an art form rooted in anti-establishment values and clear, unfiltered expression, the genre necessitates a total lack of pretense, and by extension, an aversion to showmanship. Keeping in tune, staying in time, striking a pleasant tone — these are the cornerstones of the musical status quo, and accordingly, the trappings of punk’s very antithesis.
With the rise of The Clash, however, we saw that these two spheres — the melodic and the malcontent — could co-exist. Consider Joe Strummer, then, not a frontman, but an ambassador, the rebels’ Trojan Horse. Sure, his cockney crows are hardly Eurovision worthy — his winded style belies a lack of technical training, not to mention a barely controlled anger. But it’s that imperfection, that relatability, that transformed the dressed-down, rudimentary hooks of “I Fought The Law”, “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, “London Calling”, and so many others into global rallying cries. –Zoe Camp
84. Joanna Newsom
Sometimes you’re gifted with a voice unlike anyone else’s — and people tease you because it’s so out there. It’s an understatement to say Joanna Newsom sings unlike anyone else. Usually on first listen, people hesitate to comment. Is that how she actually sings? How old is she? Does she hear what she sounds like? It’s easy to mock her singing style on “Peach Plum Pear”, a delivery reminiscent of Kate Bush and other “weird” singers, but her pointed jabs hit out of left field. If people didn’t know better, her voice could be mistaken for a child’s playful song recorded in jest. No one knows if that’s a good thing.
But since her 2004 debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, Joanna Newsom’s vocal delivery has changed. Those yappy childlike notes and shrill pitches appeared on Ys with “Monkey and Bear”, but she cooed them. The note shifts became graceful on Have One on Me, softening into a cozy yawn on “Baby Birch”. Then, on 2015’s Divers, she found full-blown maturity, rephrasing her vocal delivery into a style that deepened its valleys and took on operatic softness with “Time, As a Symptom”, in part because of vocal cord nodules she developed in 2009 that left her unable to speak for two months. No matter how many people cite her singing as an example of obnoxious delivery, there will always be twice as many fans ready to defend her.
After all, Joanna Newsom is able to leap across notes with unexpected grace, her ability to engage with the storytelling all the more apparent and, when it comes down to it, successful, giving listeners plenty to trace in awe on no matter how many times they’ve heard a song. –Nina Corcoran
83. Paul Simon
Not every singer loves the sensation of holding long notes in their throat; Paul Simon, for example, seems to like the texture of words in his mouth. You can hear it on the “who” in “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”; the bouncy ‘b’ of “Bone-digger” on “You Can Call Me Al”; or in the way he revs into the ‘r’ for “You don’t need to be coy, Roy,” on “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”.
This wasn’t always the case. Along with his partner and frenemy Art Garfunkel, he was among the most successful purveyors of folk rock in the ‘60s. Those simple, haunting songs made Simon & Garfunkel icons in the counterculture movement. But for his solo career (and before our society had coined the phrase “cultural appropriation”), Paul Simon’s curiosity about the music of other cultures allowed him to reinvent pop music with sounds from the other side of the globe. Now at 75 years old, he’s got more tricks than ever in his “big bag of sounds,” and many think his 2016 album, Stranger to Stranger, is his best effort since Graceland. Just listen to the way he chews on “My man” from “Wristband”. The man is still having fun. –Wren Graves
82. Leonard Cohen
An unspoken necessity to be included in this list was that a vocalist needed to have an entirely unique style, something that made them unlike any other singer. When he first debuted on the scene, it wasn’t that no one could sing like Leonard Cohen, but rather that no one did. Lines would tumble out of his mouth, flat and straightforward, giving the simplest modulations in his tone massive impact. There was less showmanship and more raw honesty, his exquisite poetry and broken-hearted love stories delivered deftly and simply. As decades passed, his baritone dipped and resonated, deepening as the Canadian singer-songwriter grew in age and wisdom rather than suffering. Cohen may be better known as a writer (particularly for giving the world and Jeff Buckley “Hallelujah”), but his voice is equally worth celebrating. –Adam Kivel
81. Joe Cocker
Joe Cocker sings like a man who spent a year doing nothing but gargling hot, liquid asphalt. He sounds like a man who smoked four packs a day from the time he was a five-year-old. He sounds like a man who passed on whisky and went straight for the kerosene instead. Cocker’s voice is not “pretty” in the traditional sense, but it’s extraordinarily, almost supernaturally powerful.
It’s easy to get lost in Cocker’s imitable gravely delivery, but it would be for nothing without the soul underneath. The reason why his version of “With a Little Help from My Friends” is so much more effective than the Ringo-sung Beatles original has everything to do with his instinct for where the heart of the song lies. In Ringo’s hands, it’s a quaint pop song about his friend’s ability to lift him out of a lovelorn funk. In Cocker’s, it becomes about the pain itself. You can hear his world falling apart around him through his wails of agony. It’s as thrilling as it is chilling. It’s the difference between singing about something and embodying the emotion itself. –Corbin Reiff
80. John Lennon
The Beatles’ 1963 version of “Twist and Shout” was the first of many songs to indicate John Lennon’s singularity as a vocalist — thanks, in part, to the raucousness it brought to the track. In brief, the story is this: Lennon had a bad cold, his sips of milk and sucks of throat lozenges weren’t working as fast as he hoped, and yet the ailment led to now-legendary imperfections in his singing, emblematic of rock’s youthful energy and defiance.
That was on The Beatles’ debut album, Please Please Me. Over the next 17 years — and especially in his solo career — Lennon cemented himself as one of rock’s brilliant vocalists time and again. In his solo era, starting with the intense heights of “Mother”, the opener from his 1970 solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, he showed a previously unheard penchant for unapologetic catharsis, while songs like “Isolation” and its “I-I-I”s epitomized his soft touch. The next year, his single most iconic solo song, “Imagine”, encapsulated his wondrous humanity with that hopeful, dreamy vocal. Who knows what else he may have accomplished had his life not ended so abruptly in December 1980, but there’s no questioning the influence of the singing he did before his tragic death. –Michael Madden
79. Patti LaBelle
There was perhaps no greater tribute to Patti LaBelle’s influence than the 2001 cover of “Lady Marmalade”, wherein Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and Pink each lent their own distinctive vocal styles to the iconic tune. It’s a symbol of LaBelle’s wide-ranging influence, which extended far beyond her particular brand of soul.
Control is perhaps LaBelle’s greatest skill. That she’s able to instantly snap into high-octave belts and, even more impressively, sustain them for shocking periods is just one of her many powers. Conversely, her mid-range vocals are equally robust; she’s labeled a “dramatic soprano” for her ability to slice through a trumpeting orchestra at the mid-range. But it’s her vocal eruptions that remain most memorable; she was raised Baptist, after all. She brings music to life. She gives it pumping blood and flapping wings.
A Patti LaBelle performance is like opera in that way: the words don’t matter as much as the weight and power behind them. To her, a song isn’t a message or, really, an emotional release. It’s a performance, a vocal spectacle. –Randall Colburn
78. Karen Carpenter
The best female voice in the world? According to Paul McCartney, that designation belongs to Karen Carpenter, the vocalist of the melodic pop duo The Carpenters, who died of anorexia nervosa at the age of 32. Carpenter’s crystalline contralto, accompanied by her brother Richard’s twinkling Wurlitzer and masterful arrangements, heightened the melancholy and yearning that characterized songs like “Ticket to Ride” (a Beatles cover and their first-ever single released in 1969), “(They Long To Be) Close To You”, and “Goodbye To Love”.
But as impossibly delicate as Carpenter’s voice could be, it was never frail. For one, her enunciation was so immaculate that you couldn’t help but drink in every word she sang. And in the more gently upbeat parts of The Carpenters’ oeuvre (see “Sweet, Sweet Smile” and “Please Mr. Postman”), she had swagger; she was playful. The world lost Karen Carpenter too soon, but her incomparable voice has been preserved in The Carpenters’ music to enthrall generations to come. –Karen Gwee
77. Willie Nelson
In his most evocative moments, Willie Nelson doesn’t sing to his listeners, but rather wraps them up in intimate conversation. The country icon hasn’t strayed all that much from the unassuming, down-home vocal style that he first adopted during his honky tonk days in the early 1960s. But in the years since, it’s been his delivery that has made his music among the most cherished in the already-storied country music cannon.
Phrasing, the way in which a singer delivers his or her line or lyric, has long become a Willie Nelson hallmark. He can hang on a word for extra emphasis, speed up his lyrics, or slow them down and space them out, often within the same line. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, one of many standout cuts from Nelson’s 1975 classic Red Headed Stranger, sounds like your typically downtrodden broken love song. At its heart it is, but Nelson’s timing and use of space gives the song added emotional resonance. He might be one of the best performers in country music history, but his songs rarely come off as a performance or an act, and that’s the trick.
Nelson’s voice is anything but flashy or ornate, but it has the kind of heart that cuts right through to the truth of his words. That gift for confessional intimacy continues to influence countless acts in the alternative and outlaw country ranks today, from Ryan Adams to up-and-coming singers like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. –Ryan Bray
76. Alicia Keys
It might be that Alicia Keys’ old-school class is what’s kept the magnitude of her successes on the down-low. Her voice has taken her to shimmering heights, copious Grammy wins, and smashed records. She’s one of the biggest blockbuster stars around. Schooled by Clive Davis, there’s something in the lineage of diva dynasty that reaches Keys. Announcing herself via ‘Fallin” in 2001, the Hells Kitchen-born songwriter and piano maestro immediately communicated a cool-headed passion to the world. In that song, her voice carries the ebb and flow of a whirlwind romance, her fingers trace the steps of the story across the ivories of her piano, but her vocals are the essential accompaniment.
Neither the keys themselves, nor Alicia’s sweet, rousing tones ever out-perform one another. Instead, throughout her career, she’s employed each as two halves of a whole. Her gorgeous Prince cover “How Come You Don’t Call Me” is a masterclass, juxtaposed with her spoken-word swaggering comments, which always serve to remind you just how young she was (just 20) when she sang with the experience of someone who knows that initial infatuation only leads to future heartache. In her lower registers, she’s smokey and sultry, but her head voice is so bright it shines a light through the dark. That’s especially true of her latest album. It’s her most honest, soul-searching, and political work to date, possessed of a gospel quality and an ageless melody. –Eve Barlow
75. Joni Mitchell
The trajectory of Joni Mitchell’s career is mirrored in the evolution of her singing voice. As she set off in the late ‘60s, her bell-like tones were tinged with hope and joy and countered with small measures of fury at being spurned by her lovers and fears about society’s future. Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, her voice deepened as she expressed older and wiser sentiments and a growing interest in jazz and world music, as well as a weariness at commercial and critical expectations. From the ‘90s to today, she declares a kind of indifference toward the modern world, choosing to sing old standards and orchestral reinterpretations of her old classics, with a vocal sound that is thick with age and cigarette abuse, but never less than enrapturing. The key is that no matter what point you check in with Ms. Mitchell, she will rope you in with that unwavering, unmistakable voice that draws you close to either shake you out of your stupor or tuck you in for the night. –Robert Ham
74. Michael Stipe
For the first part of Michael Stipe’s singing career, he was known as a mumbler. It didn’t help the reputation that R.E.M.’s first LP was titled Murmur. 1988’s Green went as far as to include song lyrics in the packaging, and by the ’90s he was enunciating clearly, but it also didn’t matter. The actual content of his vocals was less significant than the way he expressed himself, with three primary gears: gentle and delicate like the verse to “Perfect Circle”, the hungover, five-o’clock-shadow grumble of the opening to “Country Feedback”, and, his best, the loose wail that could be the center of a song (“Nightswimming”) or provide emotional bursts (the end of “Country Feedback”).
Regardless of how Stipe sings a song, his delivery and voice are unquestionably his own. It flails itself into a song with abandon, working without a net, without worry about whether he will hit a note. Even when Stipe misses, it’s a flame out of clear-eyed emotional guts. He can take you to a dance with shiny, happy people in one moment and comfort you that everybody hurts the next. His nostalgia can veer from childhood innocence to the radio dials in homages to The Beach Boys, The Velvet Underground, or Leonard Cohen. His voice mirrors who he is on stage and who he is in the world, overcoming painful shyness to be an unlikely weirdo rock star with ideas that sound better as a melody than they ever could written on a page. Ann Powers once wrote that Stipe’s voice “cannot shake its own gift for meaning.” For Stipe, that was more about sounds than words. –Philip Cosores
73. Robert Smith
Born in England and forged in the fires of original punk, Robert Smith has always claimed to be the second-most talented musician in his family, behind his shy sister. He wore makeup from a young age, which is somewhat unusual for rock stars, and he has been married to the same woman for almost 30 years, which is positively unheard of. The Cure’s self-described “drunk rhythm guitarist” never intended to be a singer, but lineup changes, creative differences, and a lack of viable alternatives eventually saw Smith become not only the frontman and lead songwriter, but the very band itself. On early demos, he tried out a pretty tenor and a punk snarl before eventually settling on his signature, inimitable style. His voice is high and husky, like a pop star with a cold and a broken heart. And while his fashion sense is often called goth, and his genre punk, his best and most iconic songs are invariably about love. –Wren Graves
72. Florence Welch
Not every instrument is suited for every venue. A Stradivarius violin or a Steinway piano contain enough nuance to strike an audience of 500 like a thunderbolt; in front of 5,000, though, these exotic old instruments sound like just another part of the band. Conversely, someone like Kanye West can dominate a football stadium, whereas an intimate setting might reveal the cracks in the makeup. Florence Welch can do both, but her natural habitat is undoubtedly the overcrowded, unwashed wilds of the large music festival.
It takes technical skill to whip crowds into a frenzy — specifically, it takes breath control to hop around like a tabby on catnip while belting like a broadway goddess. Welch’s otherworldly voice can match a trumpet for volume and go toe-to-toe with an acid trip for bold, ethereal beauty. The British songstress has been writing her own music since her beginning in 2008, and while some will think that eight years isn’t long enough to qualify for a list like this, Welch’s peak has been high enough to justify her inclusion. She would have done well in jazz, pop, opera, classic rock, or musical theater, but her voice is even better suited for the ethereal epic. In building her songs around her unique instrument, she has created a unique kind of music. –Wren Graves
71. Thom Yorke
To sing of inbred hate, dystopian illusion, and human fears in real time while cradling those words with gentle delivery is a feat. It requires an interpretation of a song’s greater moral and a desire to twist its backstory. Thom Yorke manages to do so in Radiohead and then takes it a step farther. Why else would Radiohead be so revered? In his early days, Yorke’s voice was reckless. It yodeled and yelped, often delivering lines with nasal humming or shrill pitch. Even on “Karma Police” or “High and Dry”, songs with softer moments for crooning, he delivers lines with some weird nose blockage.
Where most singers lose their edge over time — their voices becoming scratched or damaged, turning towards surgery to keep them in shape — Yorke sands his down to a sleeker sound, in part because of the time he took to focus on solo material. This year’s A Moon Shaped Pool presents a new era for Yorke. His vocal delivery drips like distilled syrup, smooth and unified without losing its gloss. “Burn the Witch” creeps about, “Daydreaming” swirls through a depressive fog, and “True Love Waits” sits in a pool of tears, but Yorke sings quietly on each, that nasal sting now a marker of his past. It’s a voice that’s at once soft and sharp, weary and motivated, haunting and comforting. It’s unpredictable, especially live. And so it raises the question: What would Radiohead be like without Thom Yorke? Simple. No one could elevate the band’s songwriting the way he and his vocals do, even if you’re someone who can’t stand his voice. –Nina Corcoran