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
Born November 1st, 1965
Key Tracks “Army of Me,” “It’s Oh So Quiet,” “Human Behavior”
Influenced Thom Yorke, Jonsi (Sigur RÃƒÂ³s)
When you land in Iceland, you feel like you’re somewhere a bit magical. Maybe it’s the volcanic activity, maybe it’s the dried fish, but something’s going on: Everyone seems to be extraordinarily beautiful, and everyone appears to be able to sing. Their singers are so far ahead of everyone else ”” especially BjÃ¶rk. Her voice is so specific and such a new color. Now that she’s been around for 20 years, everyone forgets quite how extraordinary she is. She could be singing the theme fromÂ Sesame Street, and it would sound completely different to how anyone else would do it, and completely magical. She first crossed my radar on “Big Time Sensuality,” from that video where she’s on the back of a flatbed truck. I really got into her onHomogenic, largely because there’s so much space left for the singing. On that album, there are strings and beats, but it isn’t very full musically, so she has to do all the dynamics and everything. If you really want to hear what she can do, listen to “It’s Oh So Quiet,” fromÂ Post: She can go from zero to 60 faster than any other vehicle in terms of singing. And then to angry. In the movieDancer in the Dark, she’s singing as a different person and it stills sounds completely genuine. She could be an opera singer or she could be a pop singer. Dulux Paint has a catalog that has all the colors you can buy of paint, right? That is how BjÃ¶rk’s voice is. She can do anything. In our studio, there are pictures on the wall of our favorite artists. I can see Mozart, Jay-Z, Gershwin, PJ Harvey … and BjÃ¶rk.
59. Rod Stewart
Born January 10th, 1945
Key Tracks “Maggie May,” “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright),” “Downtown Train”
Influenced Bryan Adams, Melissa Etheridge
The gravelly crooner who brought so much soul to Seventies rock & roll left school at 15 to go to work as a silk-screener. “I had this little handheld transistor radio that I used to sleep next to,” Stewart remembers. “I would listen to all the black singers that came over from America ”” Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, blues singers like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. This was a new world for me. I wanted to be able to sing like these people.” His attempts would produce aching ballads like “Maggie May” and “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright),” as well as Stones-like rockers such as “Stay With Me” (with the Faces) and “Hot Legs.” Before long, singers such as Paul Westerberg and then Chris Robinson would bring the Stewart rasp into Eighties punk and Nineties mainstream rock.
58. Christina Aguilera
Born December 18th, 1980
Key Tracks “Genie in a Bottle,” “Beautiful,” “Ain’t No Other Man”
Influenced Danity Kane, Kelly Clarkson
“I knew she could really sing,” Herbie Hancock said of his 2005 collaboration with teen pop’s most accomplished vocalist. “But I didn’t know she could sing like that. She knocked me out.” Christina Aguilera has had the finesse and power of a blues queen ever since she was a child star (she appeared on Star Search at age 11). Even in her teen-pop “Genie in a Bottle” days, she was modeling her dramatic, melismatic technique on old-school soul heroines like Etta James; you could hear it first come to fruition on 2002’s “Beautiful.” Patti Smith, of all people, says Aguilera’s rendition of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” at last year’s Grammys was “one of the best performances that I’ve ever seen…I sat and watched it, and at the end, I just involuntarily leapt to my feet. It was amazing.”
57. Eric Burdon
Born May 11th, 1941
Key Tracks “The House of the Rising Sun,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “It’s My Life” (the Animals), “Spill the Wine” (War)
Influenced Bruce Springsteen, Iggy Pop, David Johnsen
Of all the British Invasion singers, Eric Burdon had the most physically imposing voice. When he burst onto the scene in 1964, his voice was “big and dark,” says Steve Van Zandt. “He invented the genre of the white guy singing low.” Nor was the depth of Burdon’s pitch lost on Steven Tyler when he first heard Burdon sing “The House of the Rising Sun”: “I thought, ‘Aha! You start off the song an octave lower so you can flamb? the tail end of it an octave higher.’ ” After his run of hits with the Animals (“It’s My Life,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”) ended, Burdon showed he could handle Seventies funk during his stint in War, recording the torrid “Spill the Wine” and a souled-out version of “Tobacco Road.”
56. Mavis Staples
Born July 10th, 1939
Key Tracks The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself,” “Let’s Do It Again”
Influenced Prince, the Pointer Sisters, Amy Winehouse
By the time the Staple Singers’ string of R&B hits kicked off in the early Seventies, Mavis Staples’ liquid contralto had already been tearing the roof off with her family’s gospel group for two decades and had become the signature voice of the civil rights movement. She’d had some trepidation about playing to secular audiences, but as her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, told her, “The people in the clubs won’t come to church. So we take the church to them.” It worked: She’s got the most undiluted gospel technique of any pop star ever. (Check out the Staples’ transcendent take on “The Weight” in The Last Waltz.) In 2001, Bob Dylan described the first time he heard her sing: “That just made my hair stand up, listening to that. I mean, that just seemed like, ‘That’s the way the world is.'”
55. Paul Rodgers
Born December 17th, 1949
Key Tracks “All Right Now,” “Bad Company,” “Can’t Get Enough”
Influenced Ronnie Van Zant, Lou Gramm, Brian Johnson
“His voice is so tough and so masculine,” says Alison Krauss, who grew up a big fan of Paul Rodgers, “he might as well be standing there with a gun while he’s singing.” With his throaty, impeccably controlled roar, Rodgers was born to sing over big guitars ”” which he did again and again, most notably with pioneering rockers Free and the Seventies hitmaking machine Bad Company. From “All Right Now” to “Can’t Get Enough,” his combination of macho blues power and melodic sensitivity still sets the standard for hard-rock frontmen. Rodgers was idolized by the late Freddie Mercury (whom he is now replacing in Queen) and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant. “The sound of his voice represents a whole kind of man to me,” says Krauss. “Incredibly masculine, sexy, hardworking.”
54. Luther Vandross
Born April 20th, 1951 (died July 1st, 2005)
Key Tracks “Never Too Much,” “Superstar,” “A House Is Not a Home”
Influenced Alicia Keys, John Legend
No singer made the Top 40 sound so intimate ”” often painfully so ”” as Luther Vandross. “Singing allows me to express all the mysteries hidden inside,” he once said. Vandross grew up worshiping at the altar of Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross, then labored throughout the Seventies singing everything from Burger King commercials to sessions with David Bowie (on Young Americans), before emerging as the dominant R&B vocalist of his era. His warm, rich singing on hits like “Never Too Much” defined soul during the years between disco and hip-hop, influencing a generation of vocalists ”” including Mariah Carey, who was petrified to duet with Vandross on a cover of “Endless Love” in 1994. “It was intimidating to stand next to him,” she says. “Luther was incomparable ”” his voice was velvety, smooth, airy, with an unmistakable tone.”
53. Muddy Waters
Born April 4th, 1915 (died April 30th, 1983)
Key Tracks “Got My Mojo Workin’,” “Mannish Boy,” “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”
Influenced Mick Jagger, Robert Plant
If you really check Muddy Waters out in performances on tape, he’s almost not even there. He puts his whole body and his whole energy into his voice. When he’s singing, something else enters the room. For a certain sound, if you don’t put your body into it, you’re not going to get the note.
It takes everything, every faculty you’ve got. He was absolutely confident and superbrave. I first heard Muddy when I was a kid, around my family’s music store. His baritone always stood out ”” not only above other blues singers but above all voices and styles of music that I heard. His voice really pierced me in a way that wouldn’t let go. The specific record that I wore to the bone wasÂ Hard Again. That record has been on repeat my entire life. And alsoÂ Electric Mud ”” that was my go-to record when I was making my album with the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Recently, I’ve been playing “Hoochie Coochie Man” in my set. I’ll just come out and say it: My approach is to do my best Muddy Waters impersonation, straight out. I’m trying to dig down into that part of my vocal range, and there’s no reason to stray too far from where he took it.
A song like “Mannish Boy” is to the blues what “Purple Haze” is to rock. And Muddy’s voice carries that whole song ”” there’s no musical changes at all. It’s hip-hop in a way ”” before there was hip-hop. It grabs you by the throat. If it doesn’t move you when you hear that, I’m curious as to what does move you.
52. Brian Wilson
Born June 20th, 1942
Key Tracks “In My Room,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Carline, No”
Influenced Elton John, David Crosby, Ben Folds
In the mid-sixties, Brian Wilson was the ultimate singer’s songwriter, composing the California-dream hits sung by the Beach Boys’ main lead vocalists, Mike Love and Brian’s brother Carl. But Brian’s own high, bright tenor was often the top voice in the group’s intricate surf-angel harmonies, and when he stepped out front, the vulnerable tremor that came with his plaintive falsetto made songs like “Don’t Worry Baby” and theÂ Pet Sounds jewel “Caroline, No” sound like profound melancholy. Brian’s singing was “adult and childlike at the same time,” said John Cale. “It was difficult for me not to believe everything he said.” Art Garfunkel describes that voice as “this unique, crazy creation, a mix of rock & roll and heartfelt prayer” ”” a magic still heard in Brian’s solo shows and on his latest album,Â That Lucky Old Sun.
51. Gladys Knight
Born May 28th, 1944
Key Tracks “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Neither One of Us,” “Midnight Train to Georgia”
Influenced Mariah Carey, Jill Scott
Gladys Knight’s advice about great singing: “Just sing the song and say the words.” Knight combined precise classic-pop elegance with pure soul power on songs like “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye).” She approaches singing with impressive seriousness and does not like to improvise: When it came time to record the rocking coda (“I got to go…”) to “Midnight Train,” her brother, Bubba, who was one of her famed support group, the Pips, sang the parts live into her headphones, and she delivered them in her own inimitable style. As Mariah Carey said when inducting Knight into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, “She’s like a textbook to learn from. You hear her delivery, and you wish you could communicate with as much honesty and emotion as she does.”