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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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80. Frankie Valli

Born May 3rd, 1934
Key Tracks “Sherry,” “Walk LIke a Man,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”
Influenced Billy Joel, the Beach Boys, the Bee Gees

In 1962, a song called “Sherry” blasted from AM radios with a facile falsetto vocal so impossibly precise, many thought it had “one-hit wonder” written all over it. Forty-eight Hot 100 singles later, Frankie Valli (Born Francis Castelluccio) is still a giant of the male vocal pop of his era. He’s a complete singer, with a multi-octave range and the ability to handle a variety of styles: “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Rag Doll” showed off his doo-wop dexterity, with support from the Four Seasons. Valli’s solo hits, like “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” revealed his taste for more mainstream material, with a rich R&B influence. “Frankie Valli has become one of the hallmark voices of our generation,” said the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb. “He created a style that we all still strive to emulate.”

79. Mariah Carey

Born March 27th, 1970
Key Tracks “One Sweet Day,” “Vision of Love,” “Fantasy”
Influenced Brandy, Christina Aguilera, Leona Lewis

“When I was little,” Mariah Carey says, “I used to wake up with a really raspy voice and” ”” she shifts to her signature squeak ”” “talk in a really high voice. My mother couldn’t understand it, and she’s an opera singer. But then I started to try to sing using that voice.” Carey is famous for her staggering vocal range ”” including those ravishing high notes ”” and power. Her mastery of melisma, the fluttering strings of notes that decorate songs like “Vision of Love,” inspired the entire American Idol vocal school, for better or worse, and virtually every other female R&B singer since the Nineties. But technical skill alone doesn’t make for hits, and Carey’s radiant, sweetly sexy presence has been knocking them out of the park for two decades. She’s scored more Number One singles than any solo artist ”” 18 and counting.

78. Sly Stone

Born March 15th, 1943
Key Tracks “Everyday People,” “Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again),” “Family Affair”
Influenced Prince, George Clinton

“Sly was definitive cool,” says Gnarls Barkley vocalist Cee-Lo. Sly Stone’s funk was so revolutionary in its conception, its writing, its arranging, it can be easy to overlook his remarkable singing. “Sometimes he sounded like he wasn’t trying, and that confidence can be very attractive,” Cee-Lo adds. Stone’s vocals mutated from the wild exuberance of “Dance to the Music” to hazy isolation on There’s a Riot Goin’ On, creating moods that were radically different but no less powerful. “He started as that cheerleader,” says the Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, “then pulled back the Wizard of Oz curtain and revealed a lonely shell of a man.” Family Stone bass player Larry Graham says Stone’s singing was always shifting: “We were never surprised when he laid down a great vocal track. We all just expected it.”

77. Merle Haggard

Born April 6th, 1937
Key Tracks “The Fugitive,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Mama Tried”
Influenced Gram Parsons, Dwight Yoakam, George Strait

Merle Haggard’s tough but smooth baritone epitomized Sixties and Seventies country, from the stubborn attack of “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” to the delicate crooning on “Silver Wings” and “If We Make It Through December.” “The only thing that vies with Haggard’s poetic genius,” says Dwight Yoakam, “is the gift he has as a singer who delivers those songs with one of the most pure and profoundly powerful voices in music.” Haggard owes his biggest debts to country pioneers Jimmie Rodgers and Lefty Frizzell; when he dips down to his signature low notes, he’s invoking another key influence: Southern soul man Brook Benton. Check out “I Threw Away the Rose,” in which one of those low notes comes from out of nowhere, adding a visceral thrust to the lyrics’ desperation.

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76. Steve Perry

Born January 22nd, 1949
Key Tracks “Oh Sherrie,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Open Arms”
Influenced Chris Daughtry, Chad Kroeger, Rob Thomas

“Other than Robert Plant, there’s no singer in rock that even came close to Steve Perry,” saysAmerican Idol judge Randy Jackson, who played bass with Perry in Journey. “The power, the range, the tone ”” he created his own style. He mixed a little Motown, a little Everly Brothers, a little Zeppelin.” When he was 10 years old, Perry heard Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” on his mom’s car radio, and decided he had to be a singer. After singing in a college choir, he joined Journey at the age of 28, quickly revealing a penchant for quavering, reverb-soaked melodrama that appealed to millions of fans ”” but few rock critics. Yet his technical skills (those high notes!), pure tone and passionate sincerity now seem undeniable. “He lives for it and loves it,” says Jackson. “I just saw him not long ago, and he still has the golden voice.”

75. Iggy Pop

Born April 21st, 1947
Key Tracks “Search and Destroy,” “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “Lust for Life”
Influenced Jack White, Johnny Rotten, Nick Cave

Drawing inspiration from the most aggressively carnal moments of Mick Jagger, Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop’s force-of-nature vocals with the Stooges invented the snarling style that came to define punk rock. “I got the idea of the voice as an irritant from Mick Jagger,” Iggy told Rolling Stone. “When he sang, it was the opposite of nice.” But Iggy wasn’t all about provocation: In his more restrained post-Stooges work ”” on songs from the David Bowie-produced The Passenger to his 1990 hit single “Candy” ”” he let his baritone relax into a louche, affecting croon. “Iggy has a very manly voice, very sexual, very emotional, very fierce, very wry ”” a lot of humor,” says the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde. “He was just like a wild colt, and he grew into a wild stallion.”

74. James Taylor

Born March 12th, 1948
Key Tracks “Five and Rain,” “Sweet Baby James,” “You’ve Got a Friend”
Influenced Jack Johnson, Garth Brooks

“I want to be in tune,” James Taylor told Rolling Stone in 2008. “I want to sing pretty, I want to sing sweet.” Taylor boasts a classic American voice ”” a clear, vibrato-less instrument as reassuring as a warm fireplace. “Don’t get fooled by James’ understatement,” says David Crosby. “As beautiful as his voice is, there’s nothing mellow about a performance like ‘Fire and Rain’ ”” it’s about a man who’s experienced highs and lows.” Taylor’s steadiness as a singer has allowed him to handle coffeehouse folk, rock & roll, country music and R&B with equal ease. “Ultimately, I think James’ voice reflects the man,” says Crosby. “He’s kind, lovely and very much a gentleman. He doesn’t walk off the path too far, but what a path he’s walked. It also doesn’t hurt that, for me, he’s up there as a songwriter alongside Lennon and McCartney, Dylan and Joni Mitchell ”” the best of the best.”

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73. Dolly Parton

Born January 19th, 1946
Key Tracks “Jolene,” “I Will Always Love You,” “9 to 5”
Influenced Shania Twain, Natalie Maines, Alison Krauss

Dolly Parton describes her voice as “a cross between Tiny Tim and a nanny goat.” Such self-deprecation is typical, but others hear her childlike quaver and soulful delivery as effervescent, joyful, heartbreaking ”” sometimes all in the same song. Her range includes fingerpicked folk songs (“Coat of Many Colors”), soaring ballads (“I Will Always Love You”), classic country (“My Tennessee Mountain Home”) and mainstream pop (“9 to 5”). “Each song has its own message and its own dynamics and range,” she says. “I don’t try to do anything but listen to the words and act them out vocally, as an actor would act out a scene.” Parton has impacted stars as far-flung as Whitney Houston and Jessica Simpson. Says LeAnn Rimes, “Dolly made me realize that there are endless possibilities when communicating with your voice.”

72. John Fogerty

Born May 28th, 1945
Key Tracks “Bad Moon Rising,” “Fortunate Son,” “Proud Mary”
Influenced Bob Seger, Ronnie Van Zant, John Mellencamp

The backwoods yowl that put the fire into Creedence Clearwater Revival’s gritty late-Sixties hits like “Green River” and “Proud Mary” actually was not, as the man says,

Born on the bayou. John Fogerty’s abrasive baritone didn’t even come naturally at first. “In ’64, I got a job playing in a club, and I had a tape recorder with me,” he recalls. “I would record the whole night and then listen to myself back, and every day I would try to force myself to get that sound that was in my head.” He was trying to channel the voices of blues singers like Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley that he heard on the radio in his hometown of El Cerrito, California. “As a kid, there was that point I realized the stuff I liked was more dangerous than the stuff my parents liked,” he says. “It was that threatening sound.”

71. Toots Hibbert

Born December 8th, 1942
Key Tracks “Funky Kingston,” “Monkey Man,” “Pressure Drop”
Influenced Joe Strummer, Robert Palmer

Bonnie Raitt calls reggae pioneer Toots Hibbert “one of the most powerful and original soul singers ever,” singling out his “gruff, classic style.” In the late Sixties, Hibbert and his band, the Maytals, cut classic singles such as “Sweet and Dandy” and “Monkey Man,” which set a template for a couple of generations of ska revivals and garnered the Jamaican singer well-earned comparisons to Otis Redding. “A hundred years from now,” Hibbert says, “my songs will be played, because it is logical words that people can relate to.” He didn’t need fancy songs to come across: His most famous tune is “Pressure Drop,” which is just five lines repeated over and over. But his greatest performance could be “54-46 Was My Number,” his defiant, deeply funky memory of a short stint in prison. It was definitive proof that A-level soul wasn’t limited to the North American mainland.

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