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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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50. Bonnie Raitt

Born November 8th, 1949
Key Tracks “Nick of Time,” “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” “Angel from Montgomery,” “Love Me Like a Man”
Influenced Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, the Dixie Chicks

“For many years, I couldn’t stand listening to my own voice,” says Bonnie Raitt. “Not enough gravitas or experience to convey the depth of emotion I wanted to express.” But Raitt would become a blues force all her own on songs such as the ferocious “Love Me Like a Man” from 1972, combining influences ranging from Ray Charles and Joan Baez to Muddy Waters, as well as her father, John Raitt, a star of Broadway musicals. By the time of 1989’s Nick of Time and 1991’s Luck of the Draw, she had grown into her vocal ambitions, most obviously in her heart-rending delivery of ballads such as “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” “I’ve never been one to think about how to sing,” says Raitt. “Once I start, I’m just living it. I prefer to just let ‘er rip.”

49. Donny Hathaway

Born October 1st, 1945 (died January 13th, 1979)
Key Tracks “The Ghetto, Pt. 1” “Where Is the Love”
Influenced Alicia Keys, R. Kelly, John Legend

Donny Hathaway died in 1979, but his warm, suave soul has never been more influential. He’s been name-checked in songs by Amy Winehouse, Nas, Common and Fall Out Boy (the new “What a Catch, Donnie”), and Justin Timberlake calls “(Another Song) All Over Again,” from FutureSex/LoveSounds, “my homage to Donny Hathaway.” It’s easy to hear why Hathaway still appeals to modern-pop and neo-soul singers alike. He was equally comfortable with smooth ballads (“The Closer I Get to You”) and rolling funk (“The Ghetto”). He was a master of melisma (while never overdoing it), and his smoky voice wrapped superbly around his female duet partners, most notably Roberta Flack. No wonder Timberlake calls him “the best singer of all time.”

48. Buddy Holly

Born September 7th, 1936 (died February 3rd, 1959)
Key Tracks “That’ll Be the Day,” “Rave On,” “Not Fade Away”
Influenced John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger

“He had this totally unique, perfect blend of old hillbilly and new rock & roll,” says singer-songwriter Joe Ely. “And he had that bit of country in there to give it a sense of place.” Ely grew up in Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas, which made him especially susceptible to Holly’s signature vocal hiccup and other down-home touches. “It seemed like everybody in the whole town had a garage band and was playing ‘That’ll Be the Day’ and ‘Peggy Sue,’ ” Ely says. The future Beatles and Rolling Stones were doing the same thing across the Atlantic, trying to capture that quintessentially American vocal sound. “I saw Buddy Holly two or three nights before he died,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone. “He was great. He was incredible.”

47. Jim Morrison

Born December 8th, 1943 (died July 3rd, 1971)
Key Tracks “Light My Fire,” “Break On Through (to the Other Side),” “L.A. Woman”
Influenced Iggy Pop, Ian Astbury

The difference between Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley, Patti Smith says, “is that Elvis had humility. I don’t think Jim had it.” Still, Morrison, who was at least as influenced by Frank Sinatra as he was by Presley, was capable of surprising delicacy: On “People Are Strange” and “Light My Fire,” he lets his baritone glide, crooning just above a whisper. Otherwise, Morrison’s vocals were all mood, attitude and sex ”” he was grounded in roadhouse-blues hollering, but able to project the dreaminess of a mystical incantation (“Riders on the Storm”) or the sleaze of a boozy pickup (“L.A. Woman”). And on the Doors’ hardest rock songs ”” “Break On Through (to the Other Side)” stands out ”” his unhinged aggression presaged punk rock. “It was thrilling, sensual, powerful and experimental,” said Perry Farrell.

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46. Patsy Cline

Born September 8th, 1932 (died March 5th, 1963)
Key Tracks “I Fall to Pieces,” “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Crazy”
Influenced Loretta Lynn, Linda Ronstadt, k.d. lang

With her husky alto and aching hiccup on early-Sixties songs like “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces” and “Sweet Dreams (of You),” Cline was the first major country star to make a decisive crossover into pop, setting the stage for singers from Dolly Parton to Faith Hill. To Lucinda Williams, Cline’s voice exceeded any one genre. “Even though her style is considered country, her delivery is more like a classic pop singer,” says Williams. “That’s what set her apart from Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette. You’d almost think she was classically trained.” LeAnn Rimes has been absorbing Cline’s technique her entire life. “I remember my dad telling me to listen to the way she told a story,” says Rimes. “I remember feeling more emotion when she sang than anyone else I had ever heard.”

45. Kurt Cobain

Born February 20th, 1967 (died circa April 5th, 1994)
Key Tracks “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Lithium,” “All Apologies”
Influenced Dave Grohl, Gavin Rossdale, Rivers Cuomo

Kurt Cobain’s ferocious rasp clawed its way out of the rock & roll underground in 1991, transforming the fury and anguish of punk rock into pop singing like nothing else had before. He could scream himself raw in tune. (Listen, for instance, to his electrifying howls on Nirvana’s “Stay Away.”) What Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman said first caught his attention about Cobain’s voice was that “it was so emotionally versatile.” Beneath his singing’s bloody power, there was a subtler roughness that came from blues and folk music. His interpretation of the Lead Belly song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” Patti Smith says, “was just magnificent ”” when he sings ‘I will shiver,’ you can feel that he’s shivering, straight through his veins.”

44. Bobby “Blue” Bland

Born January 27th, 1930
Key Tracks “I Pity the Fool,” “Farther Up the Road,” “Cry, Cry, Cry” “Turn On Your Love Light”
Influenced Van Morrison, B.B. King

Bland called it a “squall” ”” the choked, gospel-inspired near-scream that became his trademark. “I got the idea from Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father,” Bland told Rolling Stone. “I had to work with that a long time before I got it to perfection.” But Bland, whose admirers range from Van Morrison to Jay-Z, was more than a blues shouter ”” on the quieter moments of signature tunes such as “I Pity the Fool” and “Turn On Your Love Light,” he could just as easily adopt a smooth, uptown croon, complete with elegant vibrato, like his early hero Nat “King” Cole. “If I could sing like Bobby Bland,” said his longtime collaborator B.B. King, “I’d be a happy man.” Adds Gregg Allman, “It’s a one-of-a-kind voice ”” I wonder how many people tore up their throats trying to imitate that shout.”

43. George Jones
James Taylor

Born September 12th, 1931
Key Tracks “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “She Thnks I Still Care,” “(We’re Not) The Jet Set”
Influenced Garth Brooks, Elvis Costello, Alan Jackson

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George Jones doesn’t sound like he was
Influenced by any other singer: He sounds like a steel guitar. It’s the way he blends notes, the way he comes up to them and comes off them, the way he crescendos and decrescendos. The dynamic of it is very tight and really controlled ”” it’s like carving with the voice.

He has had a huge effect on all of country music ”” you can hear a direct line from him to Buck Owens to Randy Travis to George Strait. The Beatles listened to Buck Owens and his Buckaroos, and I think through them, George Jones’ sound informed McCartney’s style ”” McCartney had that George Jones swoop, as I call it.

The first time I heard George was on a copy of his greatest hits. I was already familiar with Hank Williams and Porter Wagoner, but not George and his West Texas thing. I was amazed at what he was doing with his voice. Since then, I’ve covered a couple of my favorites ”” “Why Baby Why” and “She Thinks I Still Care” ”” and I wrote a song called “Bartender’s Blues,” where I tried to sound as much like George as I could. And then he recorded it himself! It was one of those things where it all comes around.

42. Joni Mitchell

Born November 7th, 1943
Key Tracks “Both Sides Now,” “Help Me,” “Raised on Robbery”
Influenced Robert Plant, Jewel, Fiona Apple

Joni Mitchell began as the archetype of the folkie female singer-songwriter, an heir to Joan Baez. But she quickly moved forward, incorporating influences from jazz and the blues. “Joni Mitchell heard Billie Holiday sing ‘Solitude’ when she was about nine years old ”” and she hasn’t been the same since,” says Herbie Hancock. Those lessons of emotional vulnerability are evident in her delicate soprano trill, as well as in the undisguised wear of the sultry voice of her later work, punctuated by her jazzy syncopation. “Joni’s got a strange sense of rhythm that’s all her own,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone. Above all, Mitchell won’t be boxed in. “The way she phrases always serves the lyrics perfectly, and yet her phrasing can be different every time,” Hancock says. “She’s a fighter for freedom.”

41. Chuck Berry

Born October 18th, 1926
Key Tracks “Johnny B. Goode,” “Promised Land” “No Particular Place to Go”
Influenced The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen

“You’re great, you sing country and rock & roll,” Jerry Lee Lewis’ mother once told him. “But Chuck is the king.” Chuck Berry approached the great rock & roll divide from the opposite side of Elvis Presley, synthesizing the singing styles of blues and country musicians. “When I played hillbilly songs, I stressed my diction so that it was harder and whiter,” said Berry. The result was that every rock singer of the Sixties ”” from Liverpool, London, L.A. or Long Island ”” sang with a mid-American accent, trying to sound like St. Louis’ own Chuck Berry. His mischievous, lilting voice, slaloming through his tricky banks of syllables, erased the distinction between white and black and made it simply rock. “If you tried to give rock & roll another name,” said John Lennon, “you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’ ”

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