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100 Greatest Singers of All Time

Aretha, Elvis, Lennon, Dylan and many more

Greatest Singers

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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."

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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.'"

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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."