The 20 Best Singers of All Time

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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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