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Best Ever Lists

100 Greatest Singers

The beauty of the singer’s voice touches us in a place that’s as personal as the place from which that voice has issued. If one of the weird things about singers is the ecstasy of surrender they inspire, another weird thing is the debunking response a singer can arouse once we’ve recovered our senses

Rolling Stone May 17, 2011
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100. Mary J. Blige

Born January 11th, 1971
Key Tracks “Real Love,” “Not Gon’ Cry,” “No More Drama”
Influenced Beyoncé, Keyshia Cole

“I can do a record with Elton John, I can do ‘One’ with Bono, I can work with Method Man, Jay-Z, and no one says, ‘Why is she doing that?’ ” says Mary J. Blige. “And that’s because I know exactly who I am and what I want.” Blige’s 1992 pairing with rookie Sean “Puffy” Combs forWhat’s the 411? defined a new era for R&B, matching new-jack attitude with old-school emotion and songcraft. “She’s the true heir to Aretha Franklin,” duet partner Sting once said. Sixteen years later, Blige’s exposed-nerve vocals keep getting more precise and more powerful. “I’m vocally the strongest I’ve ever been,” says Blige. “I did the work, and now I can do whatever I want to do.”

99. Steven Tyler

Born March 26th, 1948
Key Tracks “Sweet Emotion,” “Dream On,” “Walk This Way”
Influenced David Lee Roth, Axl Rose, Scott Weiland

Steven Tyler has a theory about how singing first began. “It had to be with the first primate uttering a moan during sex,” he says. “I truly believe that’s where the passion of voice comes from.” Every line Tyler sings is informed by a leer and a wink, whether overtly (“Love in an Elevator”) or with more subtlety (“Walk This Way”). In the course of nearly four decades fronting Aerosmith, Tyler has defined both the sound and style of the lead singer in a hard-rock band. “It’s hard to separate the singer from the person,” says Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry. “You need personality to be a frontman.” Tyler has that in spades, along with ”” amid all the yelps, groans, growls and squeals ”” an unerring sense of pitch. “As Tony Bennett said, ‘Without heart, this is no art,’ ” Tyler says. “I wear my heart on my sleeve.”

98. Stevie Nicks

Born May 26th, 1948
Key Tracks “Landslide,” “Dreams” (Fleetwood Mac) “Stand Back” (solo)
Influenced Natalie Maines, Sarah McLachlan, Courtney Love

Sheryl Crow calls Stevie Nicks’ voice a “combination of sheer vulnerability and power,” and Courtney Love swoons over “that ridiculous beautiful tone.” Nicks’ strong, deceptively versatile voice ”” by turns husky, warm, velvety and childlike ”” has provided the color and texture for songs ranging from smooth and mysterious Fleetwood Mac hits such as “Rhiannon” and “Dreams” to solo rockers like “Stand Back.” “She’s so tiny, and this big, deep voice comes rattling out, and I think that’s very sexy,” said Debbie Harry of Blondie. Nicks has influenced and mentored a wide generation of younger female singers, from the country of the Dixie Chicks to the sweet pop of Vanessa Carlton. “Her voice soothes me,” says Love, “gives me something to aspire to and leaves me feeling courageous.”

97. Joe Cocker

Born May 20th, 1944
Key Tracks “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “You Are So Beautiful,” “Feelin’ Alright,” “Cry Me a River”
Influenced Bryan Adams, Brian Johnson

“He brought Ray Charles to the mix as an influence on rock & roll,” says Steve Van Zandt. Joe Cocker’s voice is an irresistible force that combines a love of American soul music with an undeniable depth of feeling: The Northern English belter supercharged Charles’ raw-throated vocals with rock & roll attitude, most famously on his hit cover of the Boxtops’ “The Letter” and his monumental Woodstock performance of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The response to that helped push along a wave of blue-eyed-soul acts, including Leon Russell, and Delaney and Bonnie. Cocker would go on to interpret tunes by Randy Newman and Traffic as if they were R&B classics. And once he was done with them, that’s what they were.

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96. B.B. King

Born September 16th, 1925
Key Tracks “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Early in the Morning,” “Ain’t Nobody Home”
Influenced Eric Clapton, Ben Harper

“The beauty of B.B. is that the guitar playing is an extension of his voice,” says the Allman Brothers Band’s Derek Trucks, a longtime fan of King. “He’s the embodiment of breaking through and keeping your spirit. There’s no bitterness. When he sings, it lifts the spirit of the place.” The notes that King squeezes from his guitar, Lucille, are so sharp and pointed that it’s easy to overlook the sounds that emanate from his mouth. King brought a new level of nuance to blues vocals, beginning with his limber tone in early ballads like “You Know I Love You” and later with the poignant huskiness in “The Thrill Is Gone,” from 1969, and the genial roar in his powerhouse version of “Every Day I Have the Blues,” cut live in 1965 at the Regal Theater, in Chicago.

95. Patti LaBelle

Born May 24th, 1944
Key Tracks “On My Own,” “If Only You Knew” (solo) “Lady Marmalade” (with LaBelle)
Influenced Alicia Keys, Christina Aguilera, Mary J. Blige

Patti LaBelle pushes everything she sings over the top, from her early-Sixties hits with the Bluebelles through her politically minded Seventies records with her space-funk trio, LaBelle ”” including the French Quarter funk of “Lady Marmalade,” from 1975 ”” to the past few decades’ solo albums. She has inspired generations of soul singers ”” a pre-fame Luther Vandross was the first president of her fan club. Her love of the spotlight is legendary, but she earns it with her astonishing force and control; when LaBelle’s voice simmers in its churchy low register, it’s usually a sign that she’s about to leap up and howl the roof off. “She makes lyrics come alive,” says producer Kenny Gamble. “And after all these years of singing, she’s hitting notes that some opera stars can’t hit.”

94. Karen Carpenter

Born March 2nd, 1950 (died February 4th, 1983)
Key Tracks “Close to You,” “Goodbye to Love,” “We’ve Only Just Begun”
Influenced Sheryl Crow, Kim Gordon

Karen Carpenter’s white-bread image and sad fate ”” she died of anorexia in 1983 ”” have overshadowed her chocolate-and-cream alto voice. But other performers know the score: Elton John called her “one of the greatest voices of our lifetime,” and Madonna has said she is “completely influenced by her harmonic sensibility.” Impossibly lush and almost shockingly intimate, Carpenter’s performances were a new kind of torch singing, built on understatement and tiny details of inflection that made even the sappiest songs sound like she was staring directly into your eyes. Still, she’s a guilty pleasure for many. “Karen Carpenter had a great sound,” John Fogerty once told Rolling Stone, “but if you’ve got three guys out on the ballfield and one of them started humming [a Carpenters song], the other two guys would pants him.”

93. Annie Lennox

Born December 25th, 1954
Key Tracks “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” “Here Comes the Rain Again” (Eurythmics), “Why” (solo)
Influenced Beth Gibbons, Sinéad O’Connor, Duffy

“Anybody my age turning on MTV and seeing Annie Lennox sing ‘Sweet Dreams’ ”” that was enough right there,” says Rob Thomas. “There was something so soulful in the way she sang songs like ‘Walking on Broken Glass.’ ” Lennox combines a childhood love of Motown with an operatically powerful voice ”” crystalline in tone, yet sultry. She introduced R&B to New Wave with Eurythmics, and in her solo career, she invented a sort of New Age soul, based around shimmering synths, horn blasts and, most important, layer upon layer of that voice. “Annie is amazingly versatile,” says Thomas. “She can sound like a beautiful angel ”” or she can make it sound like she’s gargling glass. A great singer is somebody who makes you believe what they’re saying, and you always believe Annie.”

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92. Morrissey

Born May 22nd, 1959
Key Tracks “How Soon Is Now?” “William, It Was Really Nothing,” “What Difference Does It Make?” (the Smiths), “Irish Blood, English Heart” (solo)
Influenced Thom Yorke, Brandon Flowers, Colin Meloy (the Decemberists)

Bono said that when he first heard Morrissey singing the Smiths’ acid-tongued “Girlfriend in a Coma,” “I nearly crashed my car and ended up in a coma. He has that gift.” An icon of New Wave from his days in the Smiths and in his solo career, Morrissey owns a voice that’s mannered, ironic, even consciously feminine ”” his phrasing owes more to tuxedoed crooners than to any rock singers before him. But his rejection of convention is also why he redefined the sound of British rock for the past quarter-century. With his falsetto cries, rolled r’s and warbling yodels, he pulled off lyrics few other singers could possibly have gotten away with, and he opened up possibilities for rockers who’ve followed him, from Oasis to Interpol.

91. Levon Helm
Jim James

Born May 26th, 1940
Key Tracks “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
Influenced Jeff Tweedy, Lucinda Williams, John Hiatt

There is something about Levon Helm’s voice that is contained in all of our voices. It is ageless, timeless and has no race. He can sing with such depth and emotion, but he can also convey a good-old fun-time growl.

Since Papa Garth Hudson didn’t really sing, I always felt that, vocally, Levon was the father figure in the Band. He always seems strong and confident, like a father calling you home, or sometimes scolding you. The beauty in Richard Manuel’s singing was often the sense of pain and darkness he conveyed. Rick Danko had a lot of melancholy to his voice as well, but he could also be a little more goofy. They were all different shades of color in the crayon box, and Levon’s voice is the equivalent of a sturdy old farmhouse that has stood for years in the fields, weathering all kinds of change yet remaining unmovable.

The best thing about Levon is that he has so many sides, from the sound his voice gave to the Band’s rich harmonies to how he can rip it up on songs like “Yazoo Street Scandal,” “Don’t Ya Tell Henry,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Rag Mama Rag.” He can pop in for sensitive moments, such as in between Manuel’s vocals in “Whispering Pines.” And he laid down one of the greatest recorded pop vocal performances of all time: “The Weight.” I was fortunate to get to go to one of his Midnight Rambles a few years back when My Morning Jacket were recording up in the Catskills. To see him walk out on that stage and sit down behind the drum kit in person was a thrill. No one else plays the drums or sings like Levon, much less doing it at the same time.

There is a sense of deep country and family in Levon’s voice, a spirit that was there even before him, deep in the blood of all singers who have heard him, whether they know it or not.

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