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.

Tabak/Sunshine/Retna

83

Patti Smith

Born
December 30th, 1946

Key Tracks
"Gloria," "Rock N Roll Nigger," "Because the Night"

Influenced
Chrissie Hynde, PJ Harvey, Cat Power

As a teenager, Michael Stipe considered Patti Smith his favorite singer. Her voice, he said, "wasn't a strained, perfect crescendo of notes. It was this howling, mad beast." Smith unleashed that beast in signature tracks like "Gloria" and "Land" — combinations of classic R&B songs and Smith's stream-of-consciousness slurs, grunts and moans. "She was just real guttural," said Stipe. "It was like all the body noises you make." Smith credits Grace Slick with opening the doors for that kind of vocal anarchy. "She gave us permission to bring a whole new level of strength and intelligence," Smith says. "She created a space for other people to explore." Smith passed that forward: "[Her] whole zeitgeist was that anybody could do it," said Stipe. "I took that literally. I thought, 'If she can sing, I can sing.'

Corio/Redferns

82

Tom Waits

Born
December 7th, 1949

Key Tracks
"New Coat of Paint," "Downtown Train," "Dirt in the Ground"

Influenced
Nick Cave, James Hetfield, Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse)

Tom Waits' voice "has the smoothness of Barry White, but the raspiness of a mountain lion," says hip-hop producer RZA. The "smoothness" may be hard to believe, but on early solo LPs like 1973's Closing Time and 1974's The Heart of Saturday Night, Waits was more like Hoagy Carmichael than a wild animal, with a jazzy croon lightly covered in gravel. But as Waits' songs got darker and weirder — more dada than doo-be-doo — on albums like 1985's Rain Dogs and 1992's Bone Machine, so did his singing. It is now one of the most dramatic instruments in pop, a deep, pitted bark — part carnival hustler, part crackling furnace. Waits can still sell a ballad, too, like the haunting "House Where Nobody Lives," on 1999's Mule Variations. "He has a little bit of James Brown," says Rickie Lee Jones. "And a whole lot of Louis Armstrong."

Persson/ Redferns

81

John Lee Hooker

Born
August 22nd, 1917 (died June 21st, 2007)

Key Tracks
"Boom Boom," "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer," "Boogie Chillen"

Influenced
Van Morrison, Jim Morrison, Robert Plant

Everything parents don't want you to get into as a teenager — that's what you could hear in John Lee Hooker's voice. Everything you love about the night, about love and desire, sex and retribution, all those sides of us the blues was meant to call up.

His voice encompassed such a deep range of emotions, the widest range of colors of any blues singer. It was as seductive as it was foreboding. Pain, defiance, anger — all those emotions were so acute with John Lee, and that's what draws us to the blues.

My favorite part of his voice was actually his cry. His low, slightly menacing tone made the other side of his singing that much more powerful. There was a gravity to his tone — with his shades, the suit — but there was also this impish, elfin quality, and you could hear it when he laughed, which he did a lot onstage because he enjoyed playing so much. Especially on the boogie tunes, he would go from growl to glee in quicksilver time.

Because we had been friends since 1969, I wasn't prepared for how overwhelming it was singing face to face with him when we did "I'm in the Mood" for his album The Healer. When he turned it on, that was as powerful an erotic pull as I've ever had from a singing partner. I was just swept away by the power of his voice. And, you know, I was a grown woman, but I was literally trembling and had broken out in a sweat by the time we were done. If I were a smoker, I would have needed a cigarette.

My favorite singing of his was when he would call me on the phone and sing to me, sometimes for an hour. It was a little flirty, but he was never actually hitting on me, he was just having fun. It was all the power and none of the guilt! I miss him so much. If they could make a drug that was John Lee, I'd never be sober.

Brown/Getty

80

Frankie Valli

Born
May 3rd, 1934

Key Tracks
"Sherry," "Walk LIke a Man," "Can't Take My Eyes Off You"

Influenced
Billy Joel, the Beach Boys, the Bee Gees

In 1962, a song called "Sherry" blasted from AM radios with a facile falsetto vocal so impossibly precise, many thought it had "one-hit wonder" written all over it. Forty-eight Hot 100 singles later, Frankie Valli (Born Francis Castelluccio) is still a giant of the male vocal pop of his era. He's a complete singer, with a multi-octave range and the ability to handle a variety of styles: "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man" and "Rag Doll" showed off his doo-wop dexterity, with support from the Four Seasons. Valli's solo hits, like "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," revealed his taste for more mainstream material, with a rich R&B influence. "Frankie Valli has become one of the hallmark voices of our generation," said the Bee Gees' Barry Gibb. "He created a style that we all still strive to emulate."

Winter/Getty

79

Mariah Carey

Born
March 27th, 1970

Key Tracks
"One Sweet Day," "Vision of Love," "Fantasy"

Influenced
Brandy, Christina Aguilera, Leona Lewis

"When I was little," Mariah Carey says, "I used to wake up with a really raspy voice and" — she shifts to her signature squeak — "talk in a really high voice. My mother couldn't understand it, and she's an opera singer. But then I started to try to sing using that voice." Carey is famous for her staggering vocal range — including those ravishing high notes — and power. Her mastery of melisma, the fluttering strings of notes that decorate songs like "Vision of Love," inspired the entire American Idol vocal school, for better or worse, and virtually every other female R&B singer since the Nineties. But technical skill alone doesn't make for hits, and Carey's radiant, sweetly sexy presence has been knocking them out of the park for two decades. She's scored more Number One singles than any solo artist — 18 and counting.

Putland/Retna

78

Sly Stone

Born
March 15th, 1943

Key Tracks
"Everyday People," "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again)," "Family Affair"

Influenced
Prince, George Clinton

"Sly was definitive cool," says Gnarls Barkley vocalist Cee-Lo. Sly Stone's funk was so revolutionary in its conception, its writing, its arranging, it can be easy to overlook his remarkable singing. "Sometimes he sounded like he wasn't trying, and that confidence can be very attractive," Cee-Lo adds. Stone's vocals mutated from the wild exuberance of "Dance to the Music" to hazy isolation on There's a Riot Goin' On, creating moods that were radically different but no less powerful. "He started as that cheerleader," says the Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, "then pulled back the Wizard of Oz curtain and revealed a lonely shell of a man." Family Stone bass player Larry Graham says Stone's singing was always shifting: "We were never surprised when he laid down a great vocal track. We all just expected it."

Aaron/Retna

77

Merle Haggard

Born
April 6th, 1937

Key Tracks
"The Fugitive," "The Bottle Let Me Down," "Mama Tried"

Influenced
Gram Parsons, Dwight Yoakam, George Strait

Merle Haggard's tough but smooth baritone epitomized Sixties and Seventies country, from the stubborn attack of "Okie From Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me" to the delicate crooning on "Silver Wings" and "If We Make It Through December." "The only thing that vies with Haggard's poetic genius," says Dwight Yoakam, "is the gift he has as a singer who delivers those songs with one of the most pure and profoundly powerful voices in music." Haggard owes his biggest debts to country pioneers Jimmie Rodgers and Lefty Frizzell; when he dips down to his signature low notes, he's invoking another key influence: Southern soul man Brook Benton. Check out "I Threw Away the Rose," in which one of those low notes comes from out of nowhere, adding a visceral thrust to the lyrics' desperation.

Gershoff/Retna

76

Steve Perry

Born
January 22nd, 1949

Key Tracks
"Oh Sherrie," "Don't Stop Believin'," "Open Arms"

Influenced
Chris Daughtry, Chad Kroeger, Rob Thomas

"Other than Robert Plant, there's no singer in rock that even came close to Steve Perry," says American Idol judge Randy Jackson, who played bass with Perry in Journey. "The power, the range, the tone — he created his own style. He mixed a little Motown, a little Everly Brothers, a little Zeppelin." When he was 10 years old, Perry heard Sam Cooke's "Cupid" on his mom's car radio, and decided he had to be a singer. After singing in a college choir, he joined Journey at the age of 28, quickly revealing a penchant for quavering, reverb-soaked melodrama that appealed to millions of fans — but few rock critics. Yet his technical skills (those high notes!), pure tone and passionate sincerity now seem undeniable. "He lives for it and loves it," says Jackson. "I just saw him not long ago, and he still has the golden voice."

Echenberg/Retna

75

Iggy Pop

Born
April 21st, 1947

Key Tracks
"Search and Destroy," "I Wanna Be Your Dog," "Lust for Life"

Influenced
Jack White, Johnny Rotten, Nick Cave

Drawing inspiration from the most aggressively carnal moments of Mick Jagger, Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop's force-of-nature vocals with the Stooges invented the snarling style that came to define punk rock. "I got the idea of the voice as an irritant from Mick Jagger," Iggy told Rolling Stone. "When he sang, it was the opposite of nice." But Iggy wasn't all about provocation: In his more restrained post-Stooges work — on songs from the David Bowie-produced The Passenger to his 1990 hit single "Candy" — he let his baritone relax into a louche, affecting croon. "Iggy has a very manly voice, very sexual, very emotional, very fierce, very wry — a lot of humor," says the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde. "He was just like a wild colt, and he grew into a wild stallion."

Putland/Retna

74

James Taylor

Born
March 12th, 1948

Key Tracks
"Five and Rain," "Sweet Baby James," "You've Got a Friend"

Influenced
Jack Johnson, Garth Brooks

"I want to be in tune," James Taylor told Rolling Stone in 2008. "I want to sing pretty, I want to sing sweet." Taylor boasts a classic American voice — a clear, vibrato-less instrument as reassuring as a warm fireplace. "Don't get fooled by James' understatement," says David Crosby. "As beautiful as his voice is, there's nothing mellow about a performance like 'Fire and Rain' — it's about a man who's experienced highs and lows." Taylor's steadiness as a singer has allowed him to handle coffeehouse folk, rock & roll, country music and R&B with equal ease. "Ultimately, I think James' voice reflects the man," says Crosby. "He's kind, lovely and very much a gentleman. He doesn't walk off the path too far, but what a path he's walked. It also doesn't hurt that, for me, he's up there as a songwriter alongside Lennon and McCartney, Dylan and Joni Mitchell — the best of the best."

Barr/Retna

73

Dolly Parton

Born
January 19th, 1946

Key Tracks
"Jolene," "I Will Always Love You," "9 to 5"

Influenced
Shania Twain, Natalie Maines, Alison Krauss

Dolly Parton describes her voice as "a cross between Tiny Tim and a nanny goat." Such self-deprecation is typical, but others hear her childlike quaver and soulful delivery as effervescent, joyful, heartbreaking — sometimes all in the same song. Her range includes fingerpicked folk songs ("Coat of Many Colors"), soaring ballads ("I Will Always Love You"), classic country ("My Tennessee Mountain Home") and mainstream pop ("9 to 5"). "Each song has its own message and its own dynamics and range," she says. "I don't try to do anything but listen to the words and act them out vocally, as an actor would act out a scene." Parton has impacted stars as far-flung as Whitney Houston and Jessica Simpson. Says LeAnn Rimes, "Dolly made me realize that there are endless possibilities when communicating with your voice."

Persson/ Redferns

72

John Fogerty

Born
May 28th, 1945

Key Tracks
"Bad Moon Rising," "Fortunate Son," "Proud Mary"

Influenced
Bob Seger, Ronnie Van Zant, John Mellencamp

The backwoods yowl that put the fire into Creedence Clearwater Revival's gritty late-Sixties hits like "Green River" and "Proud Mary" actually was not, as the man says,

Born on the bayou. John Fogerty's abrasive baritone didn't even come naturally at first. "In '64, I got a job playing in a club, and I had a tape recorder with me," he recalls. "I would record the whole night and then listen to myself back, and every day I would try to force myself to get that sound that was in my head." He was trying to channel the voices of blues singers like Howlin' Wolf and Bo Diddley that he heard on the radio in his hometown of El Cerrito, California. "As a kid, there was that point I realized the stuff I liked was more dangerous than the stuff my parents liked," he says. "It was that threatening sound."

Rabanne/Getty

71

Toots Hibbert

Born
December 8th, 1942

Key Tracks
"Funky Kingston," "Monkey Man," "Pressure Drop"

Influenced
Joe Strummer, Robert Palmer

Bonnie Raitt calls reggae pioneer Toots Hibbert "one of the most powerful and original soul singers ever," singling out his "gruff, classic style." In the late Sixties, Hibbert and his band, the Maytals, cut classic singles such as "Sweet and Dandy" and "Monkey Man," which set a template for a couple of generations of ska revivals and garnered the Jamaican singer well-earned comparisons to Otis Redding. "A hundred years from now," Hibbert says, "my songs will be played, because it is logical words that people can relate to." He didn't need fancy songs to come across: His most famous tune is "Pressure Drop," which is just five lines repeated over and over. But his greatest performance could be "54-46 Was My Number," his defiant, deeply funky memory of a short stint in prison. It was definitive proof that A-level soul wasn't limited to the North American mainland.

Weiner/Retna

70

Gregg Allman

Born
December 8th, 1947

Key Tracks
"Midnight Rider," "Whipping Post"

Influenced
Ronnie Van Zant, Warren Haynes, Darius Rucker

For Gregg Allman, all roads lead back to Ray Charles: "When I heard him, I was like, 'That's my goal in life,' " says Allman, who grew up mimicking the R&B records he heard in his segregated childhood hometown of Daytona Beach, Florida. "Ray Charles is the one who taught me to just relax and let it ooze out. If it's in your soul, it'll come out." Allman's mournful wail comes out on Allman Brothers standards like "It's Not My Cross to Bear" and "Whipping Post." Dwight Yoakam says Allman's white-blues tradition goes back to Hank Williams. "It's not just the African-American influence but the country side of his voice," says Yoakam. "You could take 'Midnight Rider' and do it to 'Lovesick Blues.' " Even in his earliest recordings, says Sheryl Crow, "He sounded like he'd already lived a thousand lifetimes."

Walter/Retna

69

Ronnie Spector

Born
August 10th, 1943

Key Tracks
"Be My Baby," "Baby I Love You," "Walking in the Rain"

Influenced
Joey Ramone, Patti Smith, Billy Joel

Backed by future husband Phil Spector's wildly romantic production, Veronica "Ronnie" Bennett's knife-blade belting with the Ronettes became a defining voice of the early Sixties, and it filtered down to everyone from Patti Smith to Joan Jett to the E Street Band. Steve Van Zandt grew up listening to hits such as "Be My Baby," but the true power of Ronnie Spector's singing only reached him later. "It was when Marty Scorsese screened a movie he had just done, called Mean Streets, for me and Bruce," Van Zandt says. "I was, like, 'Whoa!' " Scorsese's use of "Be My Baby" perfectly captures the innocence and erotic promise of Spector's voice. Van Zandt would later produce Spector. "I was a little too reverent," he says, looking back. "I didn't want to put anything around her voice. I just wanted to hear her."

Bascop/Dalle

68

Wilson Pickett

Born
March 18th, 1941 (died January 19th, 2006)

Key Tracks
"In the Midnight Hour," "Land of a 1,000 Dances," "Mustang Sally"

Influenced
Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Cocker

"When Wilson Pickett screamed, he screamed notes," producer Jerry Wexler once said. "His voice was powerful, like a buzz saw, but it wasn't ever out of control. It was always melodic." Pickett's signature shout served as the climax for many of his 38 hit singles. "You can feel it comin'," said Pickett, "and you don't let go until the moment is exactly right." The man known as "the Wicked Pickett" and the "Midnight Mover" was soul's purest badass: Immortal songs like 1965's "In the Midnight Hour" and 1966's "Mustang Sally" brought a new level of ferociousness to R&B belting. But Pickett's good friend Solomon Burke notes that Pickett had another side. "Wilson was able to hold that note until you felt it," says Burke. "He made you listen."

K&K Center of the Beat/Retna

67

Jerry Lee Lewis

Born
September 29th, 1935

Key Tracks
"Great Balls of Fire," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," "Breathless"

Influenced
Elton John, Kid Rock, John Fogerty

Few artists have attacked singing with the ferocity of Jerry Lee Lewis, a key combustible element in the rock & roll Big Bang of the Fifties. Just as he percussively hammered the keyboard of his piano, the Killer could transform his voice exclusively into a rhythm instrument, often tearing at his lyrics until the words become staccato nonsense syllables and he sounds like one of the faithful speaking in tongues. "It was evangelical," Steve Van Zandt says of Lewis' singing. Lewis moved effortlessly from shouting rockabilly to pure, classic country, scoring eight Number One hits on the country-singles chart. "He mystifies me, he's so good," says Art Garfunkel. "He's having a great time. He's rhythmically united with the piano, and the groove is sublime. He leaves you speechless."

Celotto/Getty

66

Thom Yorke

Born
October 7th, 1968

Key Tracks
"Fake Plastic Trees," "Karma Police," "Everything in Its Right Place"

Influenced
Chris Martin, Jim James, Tom Champlin

By the turn of the century, the broad, emotive sweep of Thom Yorke's voice had made him one of the most influential singers of his generation. His high, keening sound, often trembling on the edge of falsetto, was turning up on records by Coldplay, Travis, Muse, Elbow and numerous others. "I tried to sing like Thom Yorke," Coldplay's Chris Martin told Rolling Stone. "The Radiohead influence on us was plain to see." But Yorke himself "couldn't stand the sound of me anymore" — and went on to reinvent his voice beginning with 2000's Kid A. Using electronic trickery and exploiting what he called "the tension between what's human and what's coming from the machines," he changed his voice into a disembodied instrument; songs like "Everything in Its Right Place" sound like fragmented transmissions from some distant galaxy.

Petard Collection/Redferns

65

David Ruffin

Born
January 18th, 1941 (died June 1st, 1991)

Key Tracks
"Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "My Girl," "Walk Away From Love"

Influenced
Hall and Oates, Michael Jackson, Rod Stweart

Motown founder Berry Gordy said that any of the five Temptations could have been a lead singer, but it was David Ruffin who stood out most from the pack. In contrast to his heavenly-voiced partner, Eddie Kendricks, Ruffin sang as if every word was a plea — pain and desperation filled his lead vocals on "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "(I Know) I'm Losing You" and "I Wish It Would Rain." "His voice had a certain glorious anguish that spoke to people on many emotional levels," says Daryl Hall, who briefly recorded and performed with Ruffin in the Eighties. "I heard in [his voice] a strength my own voice lacked," said Marvin Gaye, who added that Ruffin's work "made me remember that when a lot of women listen to music, they want to feel the power of a real man."

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."