The 20 Best Singers of All Time
Courtesy of A24 Films and the documentary Amy
Editor's note: In light of Prince passing away yesterday, we're publishing this list of the 20 Best Singers of All Time, on which Prince appears.
They've yet to invent the musical instrument that can move us more than the human voice. Great singers convey a world of emotion in a single note, turn simple melodies into symphonies, and imbue the most straightforward lyrics (think of Aretha's "Baby, I love you") with the depth of a Russian novel. No guitar solo can do all that.
In compiling this list of our favorite singers, we looked beyond range, technique, and pitch to consider other factors: expressiveness, phrasing, originality, showmanship — and, let's be honest, how much fun they are to imitate at karaoke. We also inevitably got subjective, and compared apples to oranges. Is Axl Rose really a better singer than Frank Sinatra? Are there really four R&B singers more talented than the greatest opera soprano of all time? Probably not, but ranking them and arguing about those rankings is half the fun.
Here, then, are L.A. Weekly's picks for the 20 greatest singers of all time, in any genre.
20. Ronnie James Dio
Ronnie James Dio was the voice of heavy-metal thunder for four decades. Whether he was singing about the “Man on the Silver Mountain” with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, revitalizing Black Sabbath in the wake of Ozzy Osbourne’s departure, or flying solo on classics like “Holy Diver,” Dio’s voice soared with an operatic grandiosity that matched the often fanciful nature of his fantasy-themed lyrics. But he also anchored his delivery with a sense of serious gravitas, which dignified such over-the-top lyrics as “Love can be seen as the answer/But nobody bleeds for the dancer” — verses that would have fallen flat in lesser hands. Even well into his 60s, almost right up until his death, his voice — and stage mannerisms — carried far into the cheap seats. — Jason Roche
19. Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey is the quintessential pop diva. When she first swooped audiences away back in the early ’90s, she was young and beautiful and could also hang with the boys, trading verses with the likes of Boyz II Men and even, at one point, Ol’ Dirty Bastard. But in the end, her enduring legacy has everything to do with her voice. With her multi-octave range and impressive versatility, she's been able to modulate between big-and-brassy and breathlessly fragile modes (sometimes in a single tune), and of course there's that "whistle register" that lets her float into the highest heavens. Sure, she’s probably overdone it with the melisma more than a few times, but her influence on current greats like Ariana Grande shows how Carey has helped to lay the foundation for contemporary R&B and beyond. — Peter Holslin
18. Diamanda Galás
This Greek-American singer-pianist-provocateur made her solo recording debut in 1982 with The Litanies of Satan, a bloodcurdling blast of screaming, spitting sonority based on texts by poet Charles Baudelaire. Recorded in a freezing basement studio in London after Galás had been awake for 24 hours, Litanies is a glossolalic galaxy further perverted by fiendish floods of spatial delay, complex signal processing, and overdubbing. It remains a terrifying work, one that established Galás as a troubling, troublesome singer of “homicidal love songs” who boasted a multi-octave voice of ungodly power and technical prowess. Even at age 60, her performances remain tour de force affairs that fling the Galás voice around in wicked wars between the Devil, God, and all we wretched victims caught in the middle. — John Payne
17. Marvin Gaye
Forget for a moment that Marvin Gaye wrote some of the most memorable songs in pop history, or that he was practically inventing his own sophisticated fusion of R&B, jazz, and funk when he was tragically shot to death by his own father in LA in 1984. Instead, consider that voice, which encompassed a three-octave range that roamed smoothly between tenor and baritone but could also soar exhilaratingly into a soulfully purifying falsetto. Sinuous and sensual on “Sexual Healing,” Gaye’s pleading yet soothing voice alone communicates more heartbreak and yearning than the lyrics of his eternal cry for love, “What’s Going On.” — Falling James
16. Ella Fitzgerald
In an early example of talent overcoming body shaming, Chick Webb in 1935 agreed to hire a chubby teenager for his vaunted Savoy Ballroom Orchestra, despite her disheveled appearance. Yet nothing could have been more graceful and gorgeous than the heavenly voice of Ella Fitzgerald, and the awkward young woman eventually became the First Lady of Song and the Queen of Jazz. A quick imagination and perfect pitch allowed her to scat-sing jaw-dropping improvised solos unmatched by anyone before or since. Fitzgerald’s countless albums have forever ensconced the tunes of the Great American Songbook in a voice of equal parts matronly elegance, girlish charm, and playful sassiness. Saying Ella is one of the best simply doesn’t give her enough credit. — Gary Fukushima
For Prince, his voice was merely another instrument that he had dutifully mastered. Like his virtuosity on guitar, Prince’s vocal dexterity was a thing of beauty, something he could use to subtly shade a song or to completely melt your face off, sometimes over the course of a single track (see “Little Red Corvette” and “When Doves Cry”). He crafted it into a multifaceted tool that covered a range of notes and emotions, from a sweet, soaring falsetto to an attitude-laden, low-end growl. — Scott T. Sterling
14. Maria Callas
Maria Callas had a voice that was even bigger than her larger-than-life persona. To the general public, the Greek-Italian star (born in New York and raised in Athens) was the epitome of a clichéd diva, with torrid love affairs and overhyped business scandals. But Callas was actually a diva in the classic sense, a supremely gifted and technically skilled coloratura soprano with an atypical, distinctive, and otherworldly voice. At her early peak, she could cast her voice aloft to the highest aeries while still retaining a powerful ferocity, even in such vocally tricky bel canto operas as Norma and Lucia di Lammermoor. —Falling James
13. James Brown
It's hard to separate James Brown's singing abilities from his renowned performance style. For the "Godfather of Soul," singing was an intensely physical act. He pushed his voice to emotional extremes. The party songs ("I Got You (I Feel Good)") were joyous; the sorrowful ones ("Please, Please, Please") were devastating. So rousing was Brown's voice that he could keep the words to a minimum and still make an impact. His use of call-and-response was incredibly effective, especially when making a political statement as on "Say It Loud — I'm Black and I'm Proud." Brown's legacy extends to every aspect of his performance, from the caliber of musicians who joined him onstage to his costumes and dance moves. But none of those elements would have meant much if he didn't have a voice that demanded your attention. —Liz Ohanesian
12. Jimmy Scott
Jazz balladeer Jimmy Scott, who started singing professionally with Lionel Hampton in 1948, didn’t just inhabit his songs — he used them as a vehicle to expose and exorcise the darkest, most painful, soul-deep human truths. His mournful alto, capable of stratospheric reach, and his drastically idiosyncratic delivery — always staying just a shade behind tempo and relying on a brilliantly timed use of sustained, drawn-out single notes — could completely redefine a lyric. Conflict, loss, and yearning were his primary focus, but Scott also excelled at unspeakably tender, bittersweet declarations of love. Whether exploring a romantic high or a punishing low, Scott conveyed such a perpetually innocent sense of wonderment and poignancy that it was often impossible to tell where his own personal experience left off and his artistic genius began. — Jonny Whiteside
11. Elvis Presley
Before Elvis, white America was shackled by crippling conservatism. Then, four years into the 1950s, a hillbilly with greasy hair sang like the American teenager felt inside. The singer from Tupelo, Mississippi, had what record producer Sam Phillips was looking for, a “white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel” (language that makes us cringe now — but at the time, Elvis' "sound" and "feel" did more to break down color barriers in popular music than any white singer ever had). Elvis’ low, trembling transmission to teenage America was emancipation in the form of rockabilly, gospel, schlocky love songs, Christmas standards and muddy blues. In the ’60s, his voice was muted by forgettable films, but in 1968, wearing a leather jumpsuit, he reminded America that the suffering in his voice was sex in a sexless society — a pink Cadillac crashing into daddy’s station wagon. — Art Tavana
10. Ann Wilson
How many other singers on this list are established flautists? Zero. Ann Wilson, the voice of Heart and accomplished flute player, is a force of nature. She’s one of two female rock singers on this list, and that’s because she can bring Robert Plant to tears singing his group’s most famous song back to him. While the group has covered and released several Zeppelin classics, Heart’s own discography — from the more aggressive and bluesy tunes in the ’70s to the softer stylings of their ’80s output (like “These Dreams,” the group’s biggest commercial hit) — is well worth appreciating on its own merits. Ann is a strong songwriter but an even stronger singer. Her clear, plaintive voice immediately evokes a bygone era when rock music actually mattered. — Jonny Coleman
9. Amy Winehouse
From the opening scene of Amy, it’s clear that Amy Winehouse had once-in-a-generation vocal talents from a young age. The smoky timbre is worthy of note, sure, but at the age of 12 she has more control than most professional singers three times her age. That she died so young came as a surprise to precisely no one. We were left with two full-length albums and outtakes from one of the greatest voices in human history. Like any normal human being, she wasn’t ready for her “Nirvana moment,” and fame ate her alive. Shame on all of us for enabling her addictions. — Nicholas Pell
8. Michael Jackson
Even at age 9, Michael was clearly the star brother of The Jackson 5; he sang lead on the group's very first single, 1968's "Big Boy," and Joe Jackson's boys never looked back. Michael's precociously emotive vocals on other Jackson 5 hits like "I Want You Back" and "I'll Be There" are still wondrous to hear, but it was as an adult, on his twin masterpieces Off the Wall and Thriller, that the second-youngest Jackson boy established his vocal genius, mastering a shivery falsetto that could reduce a lovelorn ballad like "She's Out of My Life" to tatters and make the jittery funk of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" even more spine-tingling. Oh, and he danced pretty well while doing it, too. — Andy Hermann
7. Frank Sinatra
He began his career as a teen idol, causing young females to swoon with his Bing Crosby–influenced crooning. Just as that career appeared to be fading, Frank Sinatra remade himself in the 1950s as both a tough guy and a romantic, signing a new record deal with Capitol Records and recording some of the finest vocal jazz albums ever. Sinatra’s newfound gruffness and uncanny sense of swing was a perfect foil for his golden tone and operatic power, making him perhaps the only singer in history who could sing love songs and still sound like he could kick your ass. No man has ever sung with such simultaneous power and eloquence, which makes Sinatra an untouchable icon in American music. — Gary Fukushima
6. Janis Joplin
Even her Southern Comfort–coated cackle was musical. Such was the lightning-bolt talent of Janis Joplin, who took hippie-blues belting to spellbinding levels never since equaled. Witness her masterful performance of Big Mama Thornton’s moody ballad "Ball 'n' Chain” (with acid-garage combo Big Brother and The Holding Company) at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Joplin opens with smoky restraint, and then soon launches into the scratchy, witchy melisma she’s known for — and which would heavily influence Robert Plant’s tight-jeans Led Zeppelin vocals. Joplin made some strong records — I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! and the posthumous Pearl, in particular — but she was born for the stage. The tie-dye–R&B ecstasy in her Woodstock version of “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” is completely undeniable. — Matt Wake
5. Billie Holiday
Being a great singer isn't always about having perfect pitch, or a three-octave range. Lady Day had a lovely, seductive purr of a voice, but what made her the most influential jazz singer of all time was her genius for phrasing. Holiday could turn a lyric on its head, crooning against the tempo or hitting unexpectedly pitchy notes to inject a seemingly innocuous love song with both humor and heartache. She is perhaps most famous for her steely rendition of "Strange Fruit," a harrowing account of a lynching, but it was on her good-love-gone-bad torch songs — "My Old Flame," "Fine and Mellow," "Don't Explain" — that her gift for understated delivery really shone. Holiday lived a tough life, and that experience came through in her music; when she tells an unfaithful lover, "You're my joy and pain," the listener feels both those emotional extremes in a single lyric. — Andy Hermann
4. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Pakistan's king of Sufi devotional music, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was already a superstar in his homeland when he was introduced to Western audiences through his collaborations with artists such as Peter Gabriel and Michael Brook. His style of music, called Qawwali, features elaborate, improvised vocal passages that resemble a cross between gospel-inspired melisma and jazz scat-singing, and Khan could do it better than anyone, unleashing dazzling runs of notes that would make Ella Fitzgerald's head spin. "He's my Elvis," said another of his Western acolytes, Jeff Buckley. Khan died in 1997 when he was just 48, a devastating loss not only for Qawwali music but for anyone who appreciates the kind of artistry that transcends barriers of language and culture. — Andy Hermann
3. Axl Rose
Axl Rose was the last rock 'n' roll singer, and in a perfect world he’d enjoy more critical acclaim than a certain divorce-rock godfather from Aberdeen. “A small-town white boy just trying to make ends meet,” Rose possesses perhaps the most instantly recognizable voice in all of rock. His nearly six-octave range is among the world’s largest, which is bragworthy, but more important is how he uses it. He goes from a mean growl to a soaring screech to a soulful croon on a single album side. His little asides in songs (my favorite is “That’s right!” but there’s also “All right, that sucked!”) add that extra something that only a master can. — Nicholas Pell
2. Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin, the universally acknowledged Queen of Soul, is a vocalist with an innate ability that goes so far beyond any discussion of technique, influence, or what, if any, training she received that it beggars description. Her gospel background is, of course, a critical element (it bears repeating that her father was the famed Baptist Bishop C.L. Franklin, aka “the Man With the Million Dollar Voice”), but even that sanctified foundation pales beside what is clearly a profound and God-given natural talent. Aretha’s expressive, masterly phrasing, sheer atmosphere and color, and ability to communicate such manifest depths of palpable emotion and psychic information provide her a transcendent superiority that no other singer, alive or dead, can possibly aspire to match. — Jonny Whiteside
1. Freddie Mercury
Singing isn't just about the notes that you can hit; it's about the way you use your ability. No one exhibited that more than Freddie Mercury. His astonishing range and purely powerful voice allowed him to tackle a myriad of genres — from rock to folk to opera to funk — all of which he infused with his own style.
He was always more than simply a (really, really) good singer. His was the voice that could bring folks to the dance floor in droves ("Another One Bites the Dust") and inspire terrible, yet entertaining, sing-along sessions ("Bohemian Rhapsody"). In his quietest moments, as with "Who Wants to Live Forever," he could trigger tears. His flexibility as a singer gave him broad appeal; he attracted the jocks ("We Will Rock You," "We Are the Champions") and the nerds (shout out to the fellow Highlander fans). Now, nearly 25 years after his untimely death at age 45, his voice will make you stop flipping through radio stations. You stay still and listen until your heart hurts, because there will never be another Freddie Mercury. — Liz Ohanesian
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