Home Music Music Lists

100 Greatest Singers of All Time

Aretha, Elvis, Lennon, Dylan and many more

Greatest Singers

Getty

There’s something a bout a voice that’s personal, not unlike the particular odor or shape of a given human body. Summoned through belly, hammered into form by the throat, given propulsion by bellows of lungs, teased into final form by tongue and lips, a vocal is a kind of audible kiss, a blurted confession, a soul-burp you really can’t keep from issuing as you make your way through the material world. How helplessly candid! How appalling!

Contrary to anything you’ve heard, the ability to actually carry a tune is in no regard a disability in becoming a rock & roll singer, only a mild disadvantage. Conversely, nothing in the vocal limitations of a Lou Reed guarantees a “Pale Blue Eyes” every time out, any more than singing as crazy-clumsy as Tom Waits guarantees a “Downtown Train.” Yet there’s a certain time-tested sturdiness to the lowchops approach forged by touchstone figures like Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison and Jonathan Richman, one that helps define rock & roll singing.

For me, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, just to mention two, are superb singers by any measure I could ever care about — expressivity, surprise, soul, grain, interpretive wit, angle of vision. Those two folks, a handful of others: their soul-burps are, for me, the soul-burps of the gods. 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. It’s as if they’ve fooled us into loving them, diddled our hard-wiring, located a vulnerability we thought we’d long ago armored over. Falling in love with a singer is like being a teenager every time it happens.

This is an excerpt from Jonathan Lethem’s introduction to the Greatest Singers of All Time feature in the November 27, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone. A panel of 179 experts ranked the vocalists.

Busacca/WireImage

64

Axl Rose

Born
February 6th, 1962

Key Tracks
"Sweet Child o' Mine," "Paradise City," "November Rain"

Influenced
Josh Todd (Buckcherry), Marilyn Manson, Chester Bennington

"Axl sings the most beautiful melodies with the most aggressive tones and the most outrageous, freakish range," says Sebastian Bach. "There's maybe five people in the world that can sing in his range." Slash once described the sound of Rose's voice in slightly different terms: It's like "the sound that a tape player makes when the cassette finally dies and the tape gets ripped out," he said, "but in tune." It's immediately identifiable, with a combination of brute force and subtlety that is easy to overlook amid the sonic assault of Guns n' Roses. Ballads like "Patience" and "November Rain" reveal a startling intimacy, even vulnerability, but it's his fearsome screech on full-throttle metal like "Welcome to the Jungle" that can still peel paint off the walls, more than 20 years later.

Andrews/Redferns/Retna

63

Dion

Born
July 18th, 1939

Key Tracks
"Teenager in Love," "The Wanderer," "Runaround Sue," "Abraham, Martin and John"

Influenced
Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen

Art Garfunkel describes Dion as "a bold extrovert of a singer," and Steve Van Zandt hears "the sneer of punk" in his late-Fifties and early-Sixties hits such as "The Wanderer" and "Runaround Sue." A key figure in doo-wop's transition to rock & roll, the Bronx-born singer defined an attitude of white-boy rebellion — and delivered his lyrics with a casual, swinging phrasing that rivals Sinatra. Heavyweights such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon were all on record as fans of his rowdy vocals. But Dion's favorite compliment came from an even more unimpeachable source. Once, at a television taping, Little Richard's mother, Leva Mae, took Dion aside and asked him, "You the boy that sings 'Ruby Baby'? Son, you got soul."

Leon/Getty

62

Lou Reed

Born
March 2nd, 1942

Key Tracks
"Satellite of Love," "I'm Waiting for the Man," "Venus in Furs" (the Velvet Underground)

Influenced
The Strokes, David Bowie, Patti Smith

"I do Lou Reed better than anybody," Reed once boasted onstage. He was only half-kidding. There is no voice in rock like Reed's: a confrontational blend of dry intonation and hard New York-native attitude that suited the dark, frank songs he wrote about sex, drugs and lost souls for the Velvet Underground and on a lifetime of provocative solo albums. "I don't do blues turns, because I can't," Reed told Rolling Stone in 1989. "And I'm not trying to put on a phony accent." But underlying Reed's acidic talking-blues delivery is a deep love of Fifties R&B and doo-wop. As a teenager, he listened to vocal groups such as the Paragons and the Diablos on the radio, influences that can be clearly heard in his most romantic songs, such as "Satellite of Love" and "Perfect Day."

Putland/Retna

61

Roger Daltrey

Born March 1st, 1944
Key Tracks "My Generation," "I Can See for Miles," "Pinball Wizard," "Won't Get Fooled Again"
Influenced Ian Gillan (Deep Purple), Robin Zander, Eddie Vedder

"You don't realize how great a singer Roger Daltrey is until you try to do it yourself," says the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, whose band did a Tommy medley at VH1's 2008 Rock Honors special for the Who. From the anxious stutter in "My Generation" to the glass-breaking wail that tops off "Won't Get Fooled Again," the voice of the Who is one of the most powerful instruments in hard rock. Daltrey didn't write his own lyrics, but he had an uncanny ability to adapt to whatever character songwriter Pete Townshend came up with (the vulnerable, Christlike Tommy cooing "See Me, Feel Me," the cocky thug of "Slip Kid" spitting out the words). "It's a very strange process," Daltrey says. "That's why I shut my eyes when I sing — I'm in another space, and the characters are living in me."

Favre/AFP/Getty

60

Björk

Born
November 1st, 1965

Key Tracks
"Army of Me," "It's Oh So Quiet," "Human Behavior"

Influenced
Thom Yorke, Jonsi (Sigur Rós)

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 Björk. 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 from 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 on Homogenic, 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," from Post: She can go from zero to 60 faster than any other vehicle in terms of singing. And then to angry.

In the movie Dancer 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 Björk'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 Björk.

Winter/Getty

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.

Gries/Getty

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."

Persson/Redferns

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."

Winter/Getty

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.'"

Kimura/Getty

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."

Harrison/Getty

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."

Redfern/Redfern

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 was Hard Again. That record has been on repeat my entire life. And also 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.

RB/Redferns

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 the 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, That Lucky Old Sun.

Winter/Getty

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."