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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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30. Prince

Born June 7th, 1958
Key Tracks Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry,” “Kiss”
Influenced OutKast, D’Angelo, Gwen Stefani, Kevin Barnes

“Prince is the boldest black singer in postmodern music, hands down,” says Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson. “His voice has multiple personalities, he’s fearless, and when he screams, he truly sounds like he’s crazy.” Indeed, that throat-shredding climax to “The Beautiful Ones” sure feels like a man who has lost his mind ”” it’s as convincing as the passion dripping from the lighter-than-air falsetto in “Adore,” the pure-rock shouting of “Let’s Go Crazy” or the robotic deadpan of “When Doves Cry.” “His vocals are just limitless,” says Lenny Kravitz. “There’s the androgynous, very feminine Prince, there’s the James Brown-style Prince, the gospel Prince, the rock & roll Prince. He has so many different textures and dimensions with his voice ”” and everything is funky.”

29. Nina Simone

Born February 21st, 1933 (died April 21st, 2003)
Key Tracks “Mississippi Goddam,” “Four Women,” “I Wish Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”
Influenced Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Erykah Badu

“White people had Judy Garland ”” we had Nina,” Richard Pryor once said. Nina Simone’s honey-coated, slightly adenoidal cry was one of the most affecting voices of the civil rights movement ”” “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” is still heartbreaking, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” life-affirming. She could belt barroom blues, croon cabaret and explore jazz ”” sometimes all on a single record. “I heard her sing a song in French ”” I didn’t even know what she was saying, and I started crying,” says Mary J. Blige, who will play Simone in an upcoming feature film. “Then she goes from that to ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ singing it like a church record, but she’s cursing out the system. Nina could sing anything, period.”

28. Janis Joplin

Born January 19th, 1943 (died October 4th, 1970)
Key Tracks “Piece of My Heart,” “Cry Baby,” “Me and Bobby McGee”
Influenced Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams

“She was shaking that shake that she did, and was screaming. I’d never seen anything like it,” says Melissa Etheridge of seeing Janis Joplin on “The Ed Sullivan Show” back in 1969. Joplin’s gravelly rasp, over the psychedelic blues of Big Brother and the Holding Company (on 1968’s breakthrough Cheap Thrills), and the rough-hewn country soul on her later solo albums, represented an entirely different approach for female vocalists: wild and uninhibited yet still focused and deliberate. Her performances were more about passionate abandon and nuanced phrasing than perfect pitch. “She would just kinda sing and scream and cry,” says Etheridge, “and she’d sound like an old black woman ”” which is exactly what she was trying to sound like.”

27. Hank Williams

Born September 17th, 1923 (died January 1st, 1953)
Key Tracks “Lovesick Blues,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”
Influenced George Jones, Buddy Holly, Dwight Yoakam, Willie Nelson

“At first listen, Hank may not sound like a real good singer,” says Merle Haggard, “but he had a unique method of sincerity. I never heard anything Hank sang that I didn’t believe.” More than any other voice, the warm, nasally moan of Hank Williams ”” with its upbeat hiccup and downcast cry ”” defines country. His most famous songs, from “Hey, Good Lookin'” to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” set the template for all subsequent country music ”” and not just a little rock and soul. “He sounds like his heart is breaking,” says Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s. “It’s so perfect, so unfiltered, and he really embraced his hillbilly. He pronounced ‘can’t’ like ‘cain’t’ and ‘still’ like ‘steel.’ You don’t hear that kind of regionalism anymore. We’ve lost that.”

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26. Jackie Wilson

Born June 9th, 1934 (died January 21st, 1984)
Key Tracks “Lonely Teardrops,” “That’s Why (I Love You So),” “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher”
Influenced Al Green, Ben E. King, Bobby Darin, Michael Jackson

Jackie Wilson remains unmatched in the category of loosened-tie, high-energy rhythm & blues vocalists. The operatic drama in his voice, his on-the-beat phrasing and his clear, high range on late-Fifties hits like “Reet Petite” and “Lonely Teardrops” influenced everyone from Al Green to Elvis Presley. “Oh, God, was he exciting,” says Sam Moore, of soul’s dynamic duo Sam and Dave. “One time I was watching him from the wings at the Apollo, singing, ‘You better stop . . . yeaahh!’ ”” and he twists, jumps, falls into a split and slides back up holding the note ”” ‘your doggin’ around!’ James Brown could do that, but he was a shouter. Jackie Leroy Wilson had a pure voice. He was a complete singer within himself.”

25. Michael Jackson
Patrick Stump

Born August 29th, 1958
Key Tracks “I Want You Back” (the Jackson 5), “Billie Jean,” “Man in the Mirror” (solo)
Influenced Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, Usher

Michael Jackson is a perfect storm of innate talent and training. His singing as a child is astounding: He just nailed “I Want You Back” ”” there’s maybe one bum note on that song, which is crazy to me, because he was only 11 years old.

One of the key elements of his style is how he uses his voice as an instrument. His signature grunts ”” “ugh,” “ah” and all that ”” are rhythmic things that guitar players or drummers usually do. He’s one of the most rhythmic singers ever ”” Prince emulated James Brown a lot more, but Michael Jackson approximated it more naturally.

And he has insane range. I can sing pretty high, but I had to drop “Beat It” a half step when I sang it. He sings this incredibly high note ”” I think it’s a high C or even a high C-sharp, which no one can hit ”” on “Beat It,” as well as “Billie Jean” and “Thriller.” What people don’t realize is that he can go pretty deep too. You hear that on “Burn This Disco Out,” on Off the Wall ”” he goes deep into his range, which blows me away.

When somebody gets as big as he did, you lose sight of how avant-garde and revolutionary they are, but Michael Jackson pushed the boundaries of pop and R&B. Think about it: On “Beat It,” you had an R&B singer doing a full-on rock song with Eddie Van Halen. Or the intro on “Man in the Mirror”: He’s got this reverb in his voice, and any time he goes “uh!” it goes for miles. To me, that’s up there with some Brian Eno shit. That’s how far out there it is.

24. Van Morrison

Born August 31st, 1945
Key Tracks “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Moondance,” “Tupelo Honey”
Influenced Elvis Costello, Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Ray LaMontagne

John Lee Hooker called Van Morrison “my favorite white blues singer.” Morrison has left his mark on over 40 years’ worth of rock, blues, folk, jazz and soul, as well as several genres that only really exist on his records. He’s the most painterly of vocalists, a master of unexpected phrasing whose voice can transform lyrics into something abstract and mystical ”” most famously on his repetition of “. . . and the love that loves the love . . .,” on “Madame George,” from Astral Weeks. Morrison’s growls and ululations inspired singers from Bob Seger to Bruce Springsteen to Dave Matthews. Sometimes they can even be an overwhelming influence: Bono said that he had to stop listening to Morrison’s records before making U2’s The Unforgettable Fire because “I didn’t want his very original soul voice to overpower my own.”

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23. David Bowie

Born January 8th, 1947
Key Tracks “Life on Mars?” “Fame,” “Space Oddity,” “Heroes
Influenced Morrissey, Scott Weiland, Trent Reznor

There are singers with a more naturally beautiful voice than David Bowie’s dramatic, powdery, British-accented baritone, but nobody else in rock is as gifted at acting in song. Before he became a pop star, he studied theater, which served him well: Every great Bowie song has a specific persona behind it. His chameleonic transformations aren’t just in his appearance but also in his voice, from the androgynous curlicues at the edges of his Ziggy Stardust vocals to the Philly-soul affectations ofYoung Americans to the hard-boiled crooning of his Eighties arena-rock period. Bowie always keeps his cool, but as anyone who’s ever crashed and burned trying to sing “Ashes to Ashes” at karaoke can tell you, he’s a phenomenally agile singer ”” as his longtime collaborator Carlos Alomar said, “This dude can wail.”

22. Etta James

Born January 25th, 1938
Key Tracks “At Last,” “Sunday Kind of Love,” “Tell Mama”
Influenced Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, Christina Aguilera

“There’s a lot going on in Etta James’ voice,” says Bonnie Raitt. “A lot of pain, a lot of life but, most of all, a lot of strength.” James is often thought of as the ultimate blues mama, her voice a steamroller fueled by brass and sass. But as the lush, soaring “At Last,” a Number Two R&B hit in 1961, reveals every time it’s played as first dance at a wedding, James ”” still going strong in her sixth decade of performing despite a notoriously hard-knock life ”” isn’t limited to wailing; she’s equally powerful and entirely distinctive whether she’s singing pop, jazz, ballads or rock. “She can be so raucous and down one song, and then break your heart with her subtlety and finesse the next,” says Raitt. “As raw as Etta is, there’s a great intelligence and wisdom in her singing.”

21. Johnny Cash

Born February 26th, 1932 (died September 12th, 2003)
Key Tracks “Ring of Fire,” “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues”
Influenced Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Steve Earle

Johnny cash “sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire,” Bob Dylan wrote in Chronicles. “Johnny’s voice was so big, it made the world grow small.” The Man in Black’s rolling, stentorian baritone is one of the defining voices in American music, from his earliest singles for Sun Records through his commercial prime in the Sixties and Seventies to his Nineties rebirth. He approached novelty songs such as “A Boy Named Sue” and “One Piece at a Time” as seriously as he did gospel music. “I’d been hearing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ my whole life, but when I heard Johnny sing it, it dawned on me what it was about,” says his collaborator Rick Rubin. “It took on a whole new resonance and meaning. He said the words in a way that you really trusted them.”

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