Rolling Stone made a recent effort to raise some interest in their dying and increasingly irrelevant magazine by putting out a controversial and yet oh so predictable ‘200 best singers of all time’ list, ranking their top picks in return for tik- tok outrage and a flurry of tweets. It won’t make any difference: Rolling Stone is now a tool of the status quo, and generally can’t inspire me to pick up a copy and give it more than a passing glance in my favorite retro local magazine and newspaper shop. While the battle rages between those who want McCartney higher, or who are engaging in a bitter battle of the songbirds on behalf of their heroines, I thought it might be time for a scuzzball’s top 100.
My top voice of all time is Mile Davis’s trumpet, but that will never be allowed within the rigid confines of this list. I still want it marked that I chose it as the top voice of all time, and that I am sulking that it is to be rejected as not human enough. I do not concur: Davis’s trumpet is the sound of longing, suffering, joy and defiance, and is the most expressive voice that humankind has ever heard. The end. Sulk Over.
So here is my ‘to hell with it all, I have opinions and I don’t care who cancels me’ aging punk, music-freak’s top 100. I might have stonedly missed someone out. I don’t care. This is my party, and I’ll cry if I want to, or something like that. Be outraged. Be horrified. Call me wrong, call me misguided, tell me that my ears aren’t up to the job, and I have pudding for a brain – I won’t care. I won’t pretend to be objective. Let’s face it the Rolling Stone list took teams many fraught meetings and terse round robin emails to come to their dire, sometimes offensive and mostly dullsville conclusions. I am just one music nerd, sitting here, standing before their readers, not asking you to love my picks, but at least to hear me out. Here goes nothing….
101) Yael Naim
French Israeli singer, made popular due to her song New Soul being used by Apple to advertise something or other. Her accent adds to her charm. She has a beautiful clarity to her voice that is like a prayer or a wish. Yael has a very special voice and richly deserves adding a spot to the list just for her.
100) Marianne Faithful
Marianne Faithful’s fragile uncertain delivery, infused with privilege, smack and feminine seductive power has a gorgeous tone and musicality, but more than that, it has that ingredient x that makes you want to dive in deeper into whatever she is on and whatever she is doing. She sings like the descendent of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch that she is. Eloquent masochism. Butterfly on a wheel stuff.
She only needs one name. Odetta. There could only ever be one. Her strident and strong tones strike the fear of the Almighty into whoever hears her one women band in one voice. She needs no accompaniment, no adornment. She is power personified. Listen in awe.
98) Mississippi John Hurt
Mississippi John Hurt used his beautiful voice to comfort and woo the listener. The gentleness drips from his vocals, with a luscious and pure tone that is very special indeed. I never tire of hearing his open hearted kindness that pours from his songs. His voice is soothing and quietens an unquiet soul in need of comfort. All the hurt, all the pain imbued Mississippi John Hurt’s voice with empathy. A voice used to great power, but with great restraint. They say the eyes are the window to the soul, and that may be true, but it is the voice that is the open door. It says everything you need to know about a person.
97) Andrew Eldritch of Sisters of Mercy
Game-changing gothic growl. An iron fist in a velvet glove. The kind of voice that gets people up on the dance floor to shake their hair over their eyes and sway enticingly towards the objects of their leather-clad affections. The Sisters paved the way for grunge and inspired many a deep-chested male singer. He can do almost metal rock, and shoe-gazing croon without breaking a sweat or taking off his shades. Class.
96) P.J. Harvey
Existential yowl with a tuneful edge. She sounds like revenge, PMT and the embodiment of Tank Girl, wrapped up in something between a caterwaul and a songbird’s warble. No one sings it like PJ.
95) Merle Haggard
You might not own a truck, drink whiskey or have lost the love of your life, and yer dog might be perfectly healthy, but that is ok, listen to Merle’s country twang and you can feel by auditory osmosis how Merle’s dog is dead, his bottle is half empty, his truck is piece of shit, and the love of his life has fucked his best friend and run off to Califor-i-a with the rest of the dirty dope smoking hippies. The sound of country lonesomeness.
94) Daniel Johnston
No, no…hear me out! Part of being a vocalist is being unique and presenting the material in a way that enhances the meaning of the lyrics. Great vocalists become part of their songs, and their songs in return become part of who they are. Daniel’s voice was perfectly him, and projected his ‘broken dreams’ into sharp relief. Best does not mean tuneful. A voice is more than the sum of its bum notes.
93) Big Mama Thornton
Forget Beyonce, Rhianna and Maria Carey: Big Mama Thornton is sex distilled into sound. Sensual, physical and visceral. She did the original Hound Dog, and better than Elvis too.
94) Roy Orbison
The thinking listener’s crooner. Crooning mostly devoid of the cringe, apart from the purr in Pretty Woman. When he was young his voice was so pure and perfect that it was almost unreal. A voice that accompanied a million lost virginities, marriages, and break ups for the boomer generation. Drive me to the Blue Bayou and take me to watch the sunset, Roy!
93) Wilson Pickett
His voice is so cool it could replace refrigeration for a good part of the United States of America. His vocals are full of pep and vigor and that looseness that came so naturally to him. No one can be uptight when Wilson Pickett is singing, and his exclamatory whoop is the best in the business!
92) Richard Harris – For McCarthur Park
Look, anyone who can sell the line ‘someone left the cake out in the rain’ must be a great vocalist. His vocals did the impossible. I believed him when he sang that we will never have that recipe again. Man was a genius.
91 to 81) I am putting everyone in here who is popular and have very vocal fans, but who I don’t consider to be a spectacular vocalist. I am putting them in under duress so as not to piss everyone off. Shout out to Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Adam Levine, Freddy Mercury, Madonna, Aretha Franklin, Olive Newton John, George Michael, Annie Lennox, Sting, Tina Turner, Bryan Addams, Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet, David Lee Roth from Van Halen, Joe Elliot from Def Leppard, Foreigner’s Lou Gramm and Heart’s Nancy Wilson and The Journey Man Steve Perry..oh yes and Ozzy Osbourne, Jung Kook and the fucking Osmonds..Michael Jackson..in fact all of the Jackson crew….and anyone else you can think that belongs in the ranks of popular and possibly dare I say mediocre, and not my cup of tea. …Now we got that out of the way, we can move back to the real work. I don’t care if they sang whilst gargling crack and champagne cocktails and accompanied the summer of your life and you just ‘wanna dance with somebody’, this is all they get in my house. We have serious business to attend to. Share the spoils. They get 10 spots between them.
80) Etta James
I have some serious Etta James based trauma involving next door neighbors having a drug and group sex party in the room next to me in the shelter I was at. I can’t listen to her without feeling a little queasy, but that is not the wonderful Etta’s fault. There is a reason she was the choice of music for that particular scene – Etta is powerful. She speaks to people. She speaks for people and she does it with conviction – even crackhead sex junkies. Voice of an angel with slightly shattered wings that still soars. Shame I can’t listen to her any more.
Back on some solid ground for me. The sweet voiced little femme doyenne of CBGBs. Her voice is infused with bubblegum, uppers and distain. Crystal-clean poppy and fresh, Blondie always sounds uniquely like herself. Much imitated, never usurped.
An operatic range within a quirky little package. She packs so much into each note, plays with dynamics and still has room to bedazzle and amuse.
77) Robert Smith
The Cure would never have made it without Robert Smith. It was not the look, it was the voice of disinterest and longing. Gothic light voice with a side of pop.
76)Arthur Lee of Love
I don’t know what fueled Arthur Lee but he never seemed to slow down or stop. He gave his vocals a hundred percent every single song, and each song fizzed with life because of it. Perhaps I should have put His Loveness higher in the list.
75) John Prine
Sometimes there is a voice that is so ‘of the people’, and that captures the zeitgeist of human experience at a point in time, that the voice becomes a voice for many people. Prine’s voice was the voice of small town America: the ordinary man, with extraordinary kindness and humor and wit. Prine’s voice sounds like your favorite Uncle who lives out on some rural mountain road – and that is the charm of it. Beautiful man. Beautiful voice.
74) Phil Lynott
Thin Lizzy would have been an average bar band without the rough honied tones of Phil Lynott. Lynott was not an ‘oversinger’ like so many male singers in rock bands of this era, but was also not scared to let his powerful voice rip. He knew how to use dynamics, and his power and range is astounding. “A rocker and a roller too, baby”…nothing like Lynott on a roll. Some guys can’t sell the pose, their voice is too much of a pose in itself: Lynott’s vocals were the real thing. The quintessential rocker.
73) Iggy Pop
Iggy once claimed to not be able to sing unless he was moving, even in the tiny recording studio, in order to get a take he had to throw himself around. Iggy’s voice wriggles out of his body as a mix between Berlin smokey bars and pure Detroit noise. Iggy can tear a melody from a song, infusing it with darkness, or he can tear himself apart to get to that visceral speed punk sound. There is a trick to punk vocals: the require a delicate balance between melody and anti-tunefulness. It is vox humana – the voice of the people, the sound of Detroit. The sound of peanut butter-smeared chests, blood streaked bodies and amphetamines. Iggy’s voice is the counterpoint to the dissonance, another instrument in its own right. He has about a three note range but boy does he make the most of those three notes! (In a sidenote scalpers have bought up all the tickets for Iggy at the masonic in San Francisco, putting it out of reach for me. I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed).
72) Nancy Sinatra (There will be no Frank on this list)
Listen, crooners are a dime a dozen. Stick Frank in that 91-81 spot if you must. Yeah, he made noise, but it was all much of a muchness after a while. It all blended into one boring and way too sugary and oversung song. There will be no Frank in my list….Frank’s daughter, Nancy, however deserves this spot. There is a spooky creepy back-room go-go bar quality to her vocals. Her tone is pure, but missing the fake sugary over-polish of her daddy.
71) Michael Stipe.
Stipe has a voice that does not get in the way, but more than that, his is not a voice that gets tiring to listen to. It is more neutral than a milk hotel. He has the ability to deliver a song and make you want to hear more, unmistakably Stipe, but it is easy on the soul and easy on the ear. Smooth, hints of Georgia in the mix, tuneful and at times playful. Ask me what 90s radio sounded like and I will play you an REM song: it sounded like Stipe and Stipe sounds good.
70) Sam Cooke
Soulful smoothness. Sam Cooke had a voice so rich and velvety that it poured over songs making everything sound special and important.
69) Elvis. What other number to give the great Pelvis?
Elvis earned spot 69. Nice. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny him. What Elvis had was not just a voice, but the sheer balls to allow himself to fully inhabit that voice. Sometimes overblown, a bit like its owner, but Elvis made it work. That characteristic tremble, that vulnerability combined with his innate sexiness. A voice with a hip thrust of its very own.
68) Steve Miller
Little Stevie Miller might have not been much too look at, but this is not a beauty contest…Boy, could Stevie sing! He looked like a potato but sounded like he should look like James Dean. Leather clad cool. Goin’ down to the quarry with a fifth and a chevvy and Mary Lou with the best boobs in town, after getting sodas made by a nerdy soda jerk who wears Buddy Holly glasses in some gas station diner kinda voice. If you don’t love Stevie, you don’t love America, or the early 70s.
67) Joey Ramone
I did say this was the scuzzball’s top 100, and here is the scuzz. Joey sounded like he sniffed too much carbona and was perpetually puzzled, yet without Joey’s voice punk would never be the same. He has that vocal affectation that punk demands, and that is so hard to nail down…even when you have all the needles and pins in the world. It is a combination of vocal distortion, pronunciation, affectation, accent and projection of an entire nihilistic philosophy. With Joey I suspect it was entirely natural, with a hint of talent that made him instinctively know just how to alter the tone and sound and projection of his voice. Perfect punk poppet of a voice.
66) Otis Redding
Otis Redding could sing. He belongs in the pantheon of great soul singers who have that power and delicacy, that sadness and that joy. His was a voice of extremes, and above all extremely beautiful.
65) Johnny Cash
Cash is country with a twist. He managed to straddle the genres to become a great American singer, and his voice remained intact to the end. No one sounds like Cash. He sang like he spoke. There was no artifice with Cash, no pose. What you heard was what he was, and his voice struck a chord with people. He was that wild man everyone wanted to go drinking with, do time in Folsom Prison alongside, and sit with a bottle and drink to.
64) Syd Barrett
Syd sang for Pink Floyd on their first album, had a breakdown and carried on alone for a while, doing Brit-infused psychedelia. There was a reason he was the first choice as vocalist for Pink Floyd: the man could sing his heart and soul out. He saw no need to hide his accent and was a natural partner for the hip and fresh lsd-infused sound and songs of Piper at the Gate of Dawn. Syd had a voice that became another instrument, a tool in the Pink Floyd box. When he became sick, the band had to change or go under. They chose change, but this is the voice that inspired all those later Floyd albums.
63) Gram Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris
Both a joint award, and the sum of their parts. Some voices sound better together, and the combination of Gram Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris is greater than the sum of its parts. Without her voice the songs would sound empty, but Emmy Lou Harris, a singer in her own right, never sounded as good as she did when she was with Gram, and became a more mundane and conventional instrument alone. Cosmic country heaven in a duo.
62) Neil Diamond
This is a top vocalists list. We are judging the voice not the materia,l no? Yes, sure Neil Diamond is not considered cool nowadays, but we are forgetting, Neil can sing! He can really sing. Neil Diamond’s range is immense, his vocals soar, and he is infinitely listenable. In fact he was so listenable that he has melted into the public concsciousness of the era and that has meant he is considered ‘yer mom and pop’s music’. He still deserves this spot. The thinking person’s oversinger, and the only one that gets a spot on my list...I challenge you to listen to him and not be moved. Neil sings like he means it and he makes us feel it too.
61) Tori Amos
It is almost easy to lose Tori Amos amidst the flurry of female singers of the 90s, but she is a bit too special for that. Crystal clear soprano with an effortless delivery. She has her poise and her pose, she does not warble and she delivers her songs with passion and power.
60) Sheryl Crowe
Sheryl Crowe can sing. The end. Slightly country twang, mature delivery, a voice that exists to reach out a best friend hand and offer some poppy, energetic, powerful company on the road of life. Her voice is made to travel down the interstate to. The perfect radio voice, she needs no top-notch hi fi to appreciate it. Her voice is so strong that all it needs is a car speaker and a smile.
59) Barbara Streisand
Be still my beating heart! Barbara’s voice is perfect. Perhaps too perfect to be any higher on my list and she is a predominantly showtunes kinda girl, but my girl has pipes! She is a songbird. Her voice comes out of her body as ‘soft as the easy chair’ she sings about in Evergreen. Barbara never sounds as if she is straining, never sounds forced. Infinitely listenable. Evergreen as a pine tree.
Prince. It is impossible to listen to Prince and not be moved. He would get on the list simply for his performance in Purple Rain. His delivery, timing, effortlessness, passion, emotion and perfect purple-princeness puts him on the higher half of the list. The emotion he infuses his vocals with hits home every time. Infinite.
57) Jim Croce
I love Jim Croce’s voice. He has a tenor range, a clear tone, a gentle delivery not prone to oversinging, never overblown. This is my tomato soup voice, this is my pair of slippers and a good book voice. This is comfort-food made audible. He could sing the phone book and I would be content.
56) Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries
Dolores’s voice was unmistakably Irish, and that was the charm of it. Her accent became a tool. She had that ability to shift notes and perform that human tremolo effect to great affect and power. Her voice soared and growled, it yelped and yowled and crooned. A force of nature.
55) Suzanne Vega
Vega has the quintessential female New York folk bar voice. She sounds perpetually youthful, like a folk-singing vampire. It is a voice that oozes innocence and yet conversely is so of the City, so urbane that she never comes across as the ingenue she sounds like. Vega never sounds dated, has the right balance for her mix of acoustic and electronica, and intrigues. Vega is the sound of mystery and enigma.
54) Adrienne Lenker of Big Thief
Lenker manages to be professional whilst sounding as if she is living constantly on the edge. She is practiced and polished, but does not let that bleed through. Her delivery is raw when it needs to be, and restrained when it is required. Her versatile voice is breathy, playful and sometimes infused with rock and roll spirit. She is the natural successor to the crown of Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Blondie and the punk riot grrrl generation with all the verve and vocal idiosyncrasies that demands. No doubt she will move up the list over the years. One to watch.
53) Cat Stevens
Cat Stevens has a beautiful voice. It sounds like peace, love and understanding. It is the hippy voice that Jerry Garcia wished he possessed. I robbed him by only putting him at 53, but there are others ahead of him who had more character to their voices, even if they did not possess the purity and peacefulness of Cat’s heart and soul that poured through his voice and into our lives.
This was a tricky one. She only had one album that did anything. A lot of odds and ends of songs…then the smack finally tipped her over the edge and she kinda disappeared. I truly believe Nico did so much smack it was impossible for her to be anything other than perpetually flat. She sang consistently flat all the time, with a Germanic filter. Hers is a voice that is so unique, so truly her own that without it the Banana album would not have been the same. There is an exchange on the outtakes from The Velvet Underground and Nico between her and Lou Reed where he is modelling a phrase from I’ll Keep It With Mine, trying to get her to hear the melody, and she repeats it back to him, eternally flat, time after time, clearly infuriating Lou. She might have been flat, but she was perfect as she was.
51) Bruce Springsteen
Bruce! Broooooce! Bruce sounds like blue collar America. He sounds like his voice rolled off the production lines at Ford in Detroit, along with all the trucks and cars and dreams of the USA. His voice is distilled patriotism, barely controlled horniness and a measure of New Jersey boardwalk hustler. Too cheesy to be any higher, too iconic to be any lower.
50) Bob Marley
Bob Marley has a beautiful voice. It is the sound of struggle, of empathy for his people, of spiritual growth and really really good marijuana. Passion, power and glory delivered in a package so authentic and emotionally charged that his voice could move mountains and change hearts.
49) Chris Whitley
Whitley’s voice is the sound of rural small town trailer parks. A soulful, bluesy affectation with a steel-string delivery. I swear this man’s vocal chords were made of scrapyard steel strings and cubic zircona discarded engagement rings. White-boy-bluesy trashy alchemy – turning poverty and and hopelessness into pure vocal gold.
48) Chrissie Hynde
Sorry Chrissie to put you one step below the irritating but iconic Johnny Rotten, but it is what it is. She might be cursed with knowing the Sex Pistols for 45 plus years, but she is blessed with a perfect rock chick voice. She is tuneful, strong and full of desire to succeed. She sounds like a woman constantly getting after the vocal for her songs, plenty of attitude and aggression spills out, but with the sweetness that should attend it.
47) Johnny Rotten
Johnny is Rotten indeed, but has the perfect English punk voice. He lacks any self-consciousness and that is snottily charming. He is iconic, and it was his voice and not his clothes that secured that assignation. There is nothing like Rotten’s snarl, spit and vigor. Unique, hard edged and no London poser-boy like Strummer can take his crown.
46) Jeff Buckley
From the rough to the sublime. Jeff Buckley. Voice of an Angel. His voice was his whole appeal. From his version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, to the sublime vocal gymnastics of Lover, You Should Have Come Over, Jeff has the kind of voice that takes the listener’s breath away.
45) Jackson Browne
Boyishly charming, carries a song with aplomb, Jackson Browne has an appealing and youthful tone, that matured but did not deteriorate. Some singers can project their soul and pain through their voice and Jackson was particularly good at doing this. He sounds like Laurel Canyon California days, longing and love. I always feel it right in the heartstrings when Jackson sings.
44) Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton is a better vocalist than he is a guitar player, and I will stand on Robert Plant’s coffee table table and shout it out to his assembled fans and critics any day. Vile human being, but his vocal talent can’t be denied. He command a stage, bend a song into shape and power it into being. No politics in my list – I’m judging the voice, not the person.
43) Blaze Foley
Cowboy-soul singer. You can hear the hurt in his voice, and the longing in his tone. He has such a beautiful voice, hammered by the road and the bottle. I challenge you not to wish you were there at that picnic as he sings his heart out while people eat and live and love. Gorgeous voice forged in sadness.
42) Mick Jagger
The Rolling Stones needed a singer and boy did they get a good one. Mick is a missing piece of a puzzle. He sounds like he is from Carolina, but is just a nice boy from the burbs of outer London. Jagger invented himself and his band with that voice. Any different and they would have been just another British invasion band, another Small Faces sidenote. His transatlantic chameleon act, transmitted through his voice forged the biggest band in the world. Powerful, energetic, Mr Jumpin’ Jack Flash! It is always a gas to listen to Mick.
41) Donna Summer
Disco queen with the best voice in the genre. Donna Summer has attitude and pizazz in huge amounts. Her range and projection is amazing, her voice is like a vitamin pill, a shot of summer. Donna Summer deserves all the accolades and respect!
40) Tom Verlaine
Effortless reedy punky avant guarde cool. He sounds like you could kick sand in his face and he would enjoy it. His voice made Marquee Moon one of the best albums of all time. Vulnerable, don’t-give-a-fuck whine, and perfectly suited for his songs.
39) Ian Curtis
The sound of depression. How such a deep and dark gravelly voice came out of his skinny little body I will never work out. He sounds like he listened to Nico and took notes. He has that tuneful edge, dulled down by the rain and the hopelessness and the way life blunts the sensitive souls. Joy Division was made great by Ian Curtis’s voice.
38) Kris Kristofferson
Kris’s voice is a thing of beauty. Infused with whiskey and bar-stool lonesomeness. He soars and falls like an eagle on the wind. Emotional and gorgeous.
37) Van Morrison
Astral Weeks was not the only thing Van Morrison did to earn his place in this list, but its improvised vocals with their ups and downs, scat-influenced hiccups and stream of consciousness diatribes is a masterclass in freedom. Perhaps one of the least fettered most natural singers on the list. The phrasing of ‘the love that loves to love the love that loves….’ is pure perfection in vocal form. Van Morrison is all about the sound. The sound is his mistress and he paints such beautiful pictures with that voice of his, squeezing every single drop of magic from every note.
36) Smokey Robinson
Smokey Robinson is Motown personified. It doesn’t get much more perfect than Smokey on a roll. Soulful, polished, professional, cool and in control.
35) Margot Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies
Margot Timmins woos me every time I listen to her, whether it is Cowboy Junkies material, or her gorgeous covers. The intensity of her voice and delivery, her perfect alto voice, her narcotic hypnotic tones all add up to an outstanding vocal performance catalog of greatness.
34) Carole King
Very much of the ’70s, yet utterly timeless. Carole King’s voice is a thing of wonder. Barbara Streisand, but cooler. She can do anything from soul to disco to folky little pop numbers. Versatile and powerful and always feminine.
33) Sinead O’Connor
Sinead O’Connor is a vehicle for her voice. What a voice! What range! What scope and power and breathy fragility and perfection. Soaring and strident. Prince agreed with me – he gave her Nothing Compares 2 U, and that decision was the right one. The undercurrent of anger is there fueling her performance. Just beautiful. For a while there her voice made her supernatural. Spellbinding.
32) Joan Baez
Joan is one of the pantheon of folk greats. She was already established as an artist when Dylan burst onto the scene looking to her for help. Her voice is timeless, classic and eternal.
As the list goes on, I keep second guessing my choices. When this rarified air of the top 40 is reached it becomes a matter of subjectivity, nuance and personal favorites, I suspect, despite the fact I am trying not to play favorites some might creep through. Morrisey is a great singer. He has a delivery all of his own, unmistakable and hip. His voice carries the songs and he is an all round talented vocalist who never loses sight of the wit and fun of it. Oscar Wilde with a microphone.
30) Howlin’ Wolf
Quintessential blues man. Improved with age like all good blues men do. Gruff and cool: the Delta Blues personified. Even his voice was electric!
29) Warren Zevon
Warren was a great vocalist fueled by booze and pharmaceutical enhancements. Sometimes bombastic, sometimes gentle, sometimes funny, always powerful, committed and on the ball, Warren’s voice was pop with intelligence. Folk with edge. Rock with an IQ and his voice had that perpetual hint of sarcasm and frustration. He was always quintessentially himself. His live shows demonstrated his vocal prowess. Warren was a powerhouse of vocal talent.
28) David Crosby 28b) Graham Nash, 29c) Stephen Stills 28d) Neil Young
Ok, so I am dealing with this package of greats together. The order matters. Crosby was the greatest, sweetest vocalist of the bunch, Nash followed in his shadow. Still’s has a good blues voice and Neil…well…Neil has his place, but comes in last of this bunch for his precious and alarmingly high reedy tones. Together they were perfection. Those harmonies! Better than the Beach Boys any day of the week.
27) Garfunkel…and then 27b) Paul Simon
Another purveyor of harmonies – Garfunkel and Simon. Garfunkel was the better vocalist and Paul knew it. Without Garfunkel’s dulcet tones and rich voice those iconic songs would have fallen flat. Alone Paul Simon does not function without a full band and its glitz and power – that is how good Garfunkel is. Irreplaceable.
26) James Taylor
Gorgeous folk-pop voice. The singer’s singer. I prefer it when he lays off the jazz and bigger band sounds, and sticks to enhancing his songs and guitarwork with that mellow soothing voice.
25) Kurt Cobain
Cobain sacrificed his voice to Nirvana. He tore his voice and his throat up in service to the grunge sound. Often imitated but never bested. Those who tried to copy him sounded like they were imitating a bad Jim Morrison whilst trying to puke. Kurt, however, sounded like Seattle rainstorms infused with heroin chic and under-the-bridge desperation. Quintessential grunge vocalist.
24) Jimi Hendrix
Totally missing from the Rolling Stone list which was a travesty. Hendrix was as good a vocalist as he was a guitarist. He yelped and yowled and soared through the songs, infusing his considerable presence with his prowess. He culd do the gorgeous lullaby of Wind Cries Mary, or the sexual thrust and jive of Crosstown Traffic. His little interjections are perfectly placed. Hendrix’s “HUH!” could bring the house down!
23) Peter Green
How did he do it? How did he talk like he was from some UK posh part of the British south, and yet sound as if he was an American soul singing blues man about two decades older than he was at his prime when he sang, Need Your love So Bad? Vocal alchemy. He was not just a tone master of the guitar, but also of the voice. His voice could make a soul hug itself closer and start swaying with the emotional power and vocal perfection of it all. Peter Green was a vocal genius. He created a sound so perfect and pure, it felt like it changed everything on the scene at the time.
22) Dave Gilmour
Pink Floyd got lucky. They had a great singer in Syd Barrett, and they accidentally replaced him after his breakdown with an even greater one. David Gilmour can sing. His voice is iconic, it is perfect. It has grit and gravel and the right amount of drift and fuzz. One of the best band lead singers of all time. He carried the band vocally and musically, if not lyrically and conceptually.
21) Roger Daltrey
Little guy. Big voice. Huge ego – most of it justified. Roger is a performer and his vocals are the mainstay of his performance. Huge vocal talent that managed not to get drowned out in the huge noise The Who made. His voice is bigger than he is!
20) Patti Smith
Patti Smith needed a voice to present her poetry and she made a perfect vehicle for the delivery of her songs. She sounded as if she was summoning the Goddess and dying on stage only to be reborn every night. Punk Princess. Arthouse doyenne of New York City. Patti Smith worked out the perfect amount of distortion to add to her pronunciation and her delivery, and her voice became a work of art in its own right. Androgenous, pissy, aggro punk riot leader, whose voice said it all and still does.
19) Muddy Waters
Muddy had a blues voice that made an audience swoon. Melancholy power. Crossroads cool. He summoned up a voice from the depths of his soul that spoke Truth and the essence of the blues.
18) Johnny Thunders
Johnny Thunders had the best voice of all the CBGBs generation of punksters. Johnny might not have liked to admit it, but he could really sing. He got that perfect balance of pose and distortion, pose and pronunciation and musicality down to a fine art. His vulnerable high pitched voice was perfectly showcased in his later years, apart from the New York Dolls, when he performed with his acoustic guitar. The punk crown goes to Thundres.
17) Tom Waits
Tom Waits started off in his early albums with a really lovely deep voice. He sounded like a beat lit vocalist, with hints of tobacco and leather and whiskey. It was not long before he took that voice and messed it up apparently by gargling gravel rocks, whiskey, and bile. Alcoholic, immediately identifiable, unique and gorgeous. This is a voice of life, loss and living at the edge. He didn’t just burn this voice down at both ends, he burnt the middle too. He burned it down and his voice rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the perfectly lovely voice he started with. He has that emotional vulnerability every drunk is prone to, but only Tom managed to make that beautiful. I could listen to Tom every day of my life and never tire of his life sounding out of his vocal chords. Tom has a pretty voice, you just have to be quiet and listen for the beauty in it. Love ya, Tom. (This whole 1974 performance is pure genius)
16) Stevie Nicks
Pink Floyd was not the only band that got lucky with replacement vocalists. Stevie Nicks has a voice that never fails to raise a smile. She is so emotionally honest and blessed with a voice that does what she needs and wants it to. Her voice made Fleetwood Mac post Peter Green into a triumph.
15) Thom Yorke
The Radiohead singer has a voice that melts with electronic stylizing, acoustic offerings or good old rock and roll. Thom has a voice that transmits sadness and desperation. He is a cute little freak who wants to be the best loser he could ever be, and he succeeded. Thom is a powerful singer, and when he lets rip he overpowers the entire stage. Watch him yowl his way through Paranoid Android. His falsetto is unparalleled. Thom is the only one who could ever make those Radiohead songs work.
14) Kate Bush
Oh Kate! What a voice! Girlish but mature, it is a creature of contradiction. Her range and ability is immense, and her skill astounding. She belongs up here at the top due to her mastery of her own voice. Her voice is uniquely her own, she is not pretending or playing, she is emitting her soul through her vocal chords and she never fails to wow.
13) Jim Morrison
There is a fine line between crooner who sings too much from the belly and overdoes the power and the schmaltz and the genius velvety rich heavy cream of the highly talented male singer. Jim Morrison treads that line with enough cool to never slip over into that crooning horror-show. Nick Cave is an example of what goes wrong when a man tips over that line and becomes unlistenable and insufferably full of himself and his own voice. Cave’s voice makes me want to vomit. Jim’s voice makes me question my innate queerness. He roughs up his performance with drunken buffonery and exclamations, and desperate exhortations. Listening to Jim feels like taking a first class trip through the doors of perception. Jim is shamanic, powerful and magickal.
12) Lou Reed
Deadpan delivery, he stole some of Nico’s flatness and fused it with his natural sarcasm. Lou Reed’s voice is a thing of beauty and power and gutter-dwelling grit. Lou’s voice inspired a whole generation of punks (including Iggy Pop), shoe-gazing indie kids and hipsters who saw Lou’s ability to be different and wanted to see if they could capture some of that essence of rebellion that oozed through Lou’s every sung syllable. Lou was influenced by the early doo wop bands, and this shows in his musicality and respect for the tune. His genius lies in his visionary ability to push beyond the pretty and the harmonious and find the tune within the noise. One man vocal instrument of cultural reformation.
11) David Bowie
David heard Lou Reed and the Velvets and claims to have been influenced by the sound. It can be heard in the Berlin Burlesque bar-room vocals, that borrow heavily from the dark world of early musical theatre. Bowie soars. He listened to Lou and just pipped him at the post. Lou might have had better songs, but Bowie has a better voice. Bowie was a performer. He cared, whilst Lou pretended not to care at all. I might disagree with myself tomorrow and put Lou ahead of Bowie, but not today.
10) Townes Van Zandt
Best country voice in musical history. He doesn’t lay it on too thick, nor does he try and hide his country roots. He sounds like he is from the farm, the road and the next mountain over. Townes has that hound dog howl without the corniness that often comes along with it. Everything is perfect about Towne’s voice, and even when he aged, his voice remained intact. It just doesn’t get any better than this down on those country roads.
9) Robert Plant
Led Zep wins the battle of the big rock band vocalists on this list. From here on in it is all solo singers. Plant is as good as it gets. He soars and powers his way through these huge songs, plowing through them like the powerhouse he is. Lanky hippy boy who summoned a voice that could wake the heavens out of his fragile human body. His voice is so powerful it is mythical. The sheer virtuosity of his vocal performances is a feat to behold. He can yowl better than Page’s guitar and screamed his way into rock and roll history like it was but a trifling matter. Rock God. That said…he did steal a lot of his schtick from Janis J….
8) Janis Joplin
Janis is the mistress of powerful rock vocals. She inspired Plant to rock and roll greatness, but pips him at the post – he never quite bested her. Bluesy, a force of nature and emotional vocal stylist, Joplin is capable of holding back the vocal horsepower, and in the next second letting it all burst forth. Electric like lightning, thunderous and melodic. Janis always holds a piece of my heart. She was so free – and to express that freedom as a vocalist is to lay yourself bare and open and infinitely vulnerable. So beautiful. Such a talent and a voice. Janis! Let’s hear it for Janis!
7) Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday: I can’t listen to her voice without crying. Every. Single. Time. That has to be worth something, and it is: number 7. Billie Holiday transmits her heart and soul through the soundwaves. Oh my heart!
6) Robert Johnson
The blues voice that started it all. Iconic.
5) Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse had the best soulful, blues-infused, jazz voice of all time. Period. I know people will disagree. It is my honest opinion. She had this ‘thing’, this vocal outpouring that was a lioness roar of power and beauty. Everything was perfect about her voice – its strength, its power, its fragility, the way she expressed herself with scat elements. Amy. She belongs right here in that top five. Her range of expression, and yes, even her deterioration and the way her voice broke itself down in front of us – everything screams jazz genius. She gets two songs because I know her placement this high might get me in trouble…I don’t care. I didn’t pretend to be infallible, but Amy Winehouse deserves this spot.
4) Bob Dylan
Dylan. He created himself a persona, an act, an entire human being out of the voice he forged that was not his own. He mixed Woody Guthrie, a million stolen folk records, a ‘thousand telephones that don’t ring’ and whatever ingredient x that he found down on those crossroads up and made “Bob Dylan” real. Wheezy or Country, Guthrie hick or urbane New Yorker, doesn’t matter which mode, his voice enhances every single note he sings. His voice is not just a tool, it created a man. Genius artifice.
3) Leonard Cohen
…is better than Bob Dylan, at least as far as his voice goes. A natural talent, not a practiced-in-front-of-a-mirror artifice. He once sang “I was born with the gift of a golden voice” – in others it would be an embarrassing boast, for Leonard, ti was the truth. Leonard was a cantor, to watch and listen to him was a spiritual experience. Dylan once told Leonard that Leonard was number 1, but that he, Dylan was zero. Not quite. Dylan is 4 and Cohen is 3. The boys did always dismiss the girls too quickly. Cohen’s voice is famously deep
2) Nina Simone
Nina Simone’s voice was a force of nature like the wind or rain or thunder or lightning. I imagine it being bestowed upon her like a blessing…or a curse. Nina Simone brought out the very best of whatever she sang. Passion breaking through the perfection just enough to make her humanity show through. Nina Simone’s voice is stunning. Sometimes she flattens me with her intensity, sometimes she brings me to tears. Her sheer force and her talent never cease to amaze me. The wonderful Nina Simone – brave, free and supremely talented.
1) Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell – the best vocalist of all time. Clear sweet tones, vast range, expressive and empathic. She never hits a false note and yet there is that vox humana, that fragility, that openness, that humanity! She is a chanteuse, a singer of the soul, a singer of sadness, and glee and joy. She is playful and she is serious, and she never shies away from letting herself bleed dry for her audience and yet gives more and more of herself and her voice. She is unparalleled. She is a natural talent, and now, even after great illness, is singing once more and her voice still has a magickal quality. Joni is a spellbinding singer. Joni. Number 1. The best vocalist of all time. I would give her a crown – she rarely gets the kudos she deserves – but her voice would shatter any token with its purity and clarity. Joni. Queen. The Voice. Herself. Free.
Listen to Milton Nascimento and Elis Regina
I love Nina Simone…I actually got introduced to her by way of a French film at a film festival back in the…80s? Early 90s? (La Femme Nikita, of course.) And it’s where I also fell in music love with the band Devotchka! And, even though it was only a handful of meetups, both Robert and Perry were super nice in person (not what I expected from “rock stars”, truthfully)…Thanks for this background music as I go about my “Every Day is like Sunday” work day! Ha!
It is always good to hear when rock stars are decent human beings as well as being…well…rock stars…Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy the background music. Working today? The horror of it! Stay safe out there! ~D
Yes, I had almost hated to see the Cure perform live, because they were all wrapped up in rare bits of childhood magic I had managed to keep safe. They did not disappoint! The whole experience was, actually, magical! Just like being in one of their more fanciful songs! And, yeah, no rest for the wicked! 🙂
No fun for the good, either, my friend! You were brave to go see the Cure. I wouldn’t dare. I am so glad they kept the magick intact.
I remember that Richard Harris cake song from when I was a kid, but for some reason, I remember the music and voice a little differently…but, yeah, that cake line…whew! (Can’t remember if it was a record, but it might have been on an eight-track.)
Eight track – That is my love-language. Sigh. Perfect. No better way to hear that strange little song.
I just was like “No wonder I ended up liking goth music and such!” I mean, Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang, that cake song, the flower song (not in your list), the levy song, the doors, pink floyd, and lots more… *wry laugh*