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The Best Singers of All Time
The Best Vocalists of All Time

compiled by Michael R. Burch

Who were the greatest singers of all time? While I have paid homage to the best of the grit-voiced growlers and howlers, I have given higher marks to the vocal purists. How anyone can compare Bob Dylan to the sweetest, purest voices is beyond me. Yes, Dylan is great, but he is great despite his voice, not because of it. Some people may not care for Celine Dion's song choices or style, but the power and clarity of her voice is undeniable: when she sings a song like "Alone," people in the audience weep. I think tears are better judges than prejudices. The young Elvis nearly brings me to tears with his lovely rendition of "Blue Moon," so I have no doubt that Elvis was a great singer, even though I'm not a fan of some of his later efforts. Still, he always sounded good, if not outrageously great. And the man could sing anything from gospel to blues, from hillbilly bluegrass to lilting pop songs like "Crying in the Chapel," from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to "Ave Maria." And I'm sure someone was weeping with joy nearly every time he sang. Now here, without further ado, are my personal picks as the best singers/vocalists of all time. Some great singers ended up in my high honorable mentions because they didn't have enough great songs to their credit, or because they were similar to another singer who seemed slightly better. For instance, Harry Nilsson was a fantastic singer, but he had fewer great songs than some of the other singers capable of hitting the same high notes.

(30) Paul Robeson: perhaps the greatest bass singer ever, for Sweet Chariot, Jerusalem, Shenandoah, Ol' Man River and other classics
(29) Howlin' Wolf: the best of the legendary bluesmen, in my opinion, for Smokestack Lightning, Spoonful, and great songs
(28) Roger Daltry of the Who: he was especially otherworldly on the ultimate rock anthem Love Reign O'er Me
(27) Ray Charles: he sang with "infectious joy" and changed the course of modern music with songs like Georgia and What'd I Say
(26) Al Green: beyond soulful and utterly stellar on Let's Stay Together, Tired of Being Alone, Love and Happiness, I'm Still in Love with You
(25) Joss Stone: gorgeous and glorious on I Put a Spell on You, People Get Ready, Son of a Preacher Man, You Had Me
(24) Tony Williams of the Platters: impeccable on Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, The Great Pretender, Only You, My Prayer, Twilight Time
(23) Mick Hucknall of Simply Red: simply captivating on Holding Back the Years, If You Don't Know Me By Now, You Make Me Feel Brand New
(22) Smokey Robinson: devastation delivered softly and sweetly on Tears of a Clown, Tracks of My Tears, I Second that Emotion, Ooh Baby Baby
(21) Michael Jackson: he displayed "insane range" on Beat It, Man in the Mirror, Smooth Criminal, Ben, Got to Be There, You Are Not Alone
(20) Prince: regal on Little Red Corvette, When Doves Cry, Kiss, Raspberry Beret, The Beautiful Ones, Purple Rain, 1999
(19) Meatloaf: the best sort of musical bombast on Bat out of Hell, Paradise by the Dashboard Lights, Heaven Can Wait, I'd Lie for You
(18) Roy Orbison: for hitting those impossibly high notes with such power on Leah, Crying, In Dreams (songs that might sound silly in lesser hands)
(17) Aretha Franklin: glorious on Spanish Harlem, Chain of Fools, Respect and other classics
(16) Sam Cooke: wonderfully soulful on his anthem A Change is Gonna Come; wonderfully sweet on Cupid; wonderfully sad on Chain Gang
(15) Steve Perry of Journey: impossibly high and sweet on Foolish Heart, Send Her My Love, Good Morning Girl, Open Arms, Oh Sherrie (solo)

"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."

(14) Bono: incredible, passionate vocals on One, With or Without You, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Where the Streets Have No Name, Lemon
(13) Frankie Valli: for his remarkable four-octave range and powerful, laser-like falsetto on Rag Doll, Sherry, Dawn, Stay, Walk Like a Man, Big Girls Don't Cry

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."

(12) Vince Gill: unbelievably pure and sweet on Go Rest High on that Mountain, When I Call Your Name, I Still Believe in You
(11) Art Garfunkel: for singing like an angel on Bridge Over Troubled Water, All I Know, Scarborough Fair/Canticle, Kathy's Song, Cecilia 

"He is a pure and beautiful tenor voice, and there really is no one like him," says James Taylor about Art Garfunkel, whose singing blends lyricism with a remarkable ease of delivery. He brought sweetness and wonder to his classic harmonies with Paul Simon, a delicacy that defined those songs, and some of the hopes of the late Sixties. "I'm looking for controlled beauty," he says, a standard he learned as a child from the likes of Italian opera star Enrico Caruso. "Those arias — I love a song with a high, pole-vault peak." That describes solo hits such as 1973's "All I Know" and 1975's "I Only Have Eyes for You." "I like to sing heartfelt, where you address the mike with your honesty," says Garfunkel. "You try to be authentic as a person, with all the doubt, wonder and mystery of being alive."

(10) Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin: powerful keening on Immigrant Song, Black Dog, Stairway to Heaven, Whole Lotta Love

In 2006, Heavy Metal magazine Hit Parader named Plant the "Greatest Metal Vocalist of All Time". In 2009, Plant was voted "the greatest voice in rock" in a poll conducted by Planet Rock. In 2008, Rolling Stone editors ranked him number 15 on their list of the 100 best singers of all time. In 2011, Rolling Stone readers ranked Plant the greatest of all lead singers.

(9) Axl Rose of Guns 'n Roses: otherworldly six-octave range on Sweet Child O' Mine, Patience, Knockin' on Heaven's Door, November Rain, Welcome to the Jungle

"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.

(8) K. D. Lang: her versions of Crying and Hallelujah have to be heard to be believed, then still defy belief
(7) Tina Turner: so incredibly good on Proud Mary, River Deep—Mountain High, What's Love Got to Do With It, Private Dancer

"I'll never forget the first time I saw [Tina] perform," said Beyoncé. "I never in my life saw a woman so powerful, so fearless." Turner started touring with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue almost half a century ago; her breakthrough was their blazing 1971 cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary," which included the declaration that she never does anything "nice and easy." "She was so direct, so raw," says John Fogerty, who wrote the song. Age has only deepened the ache and grit in her powerhouse cries and moans during her long career as a solo artist. Melissa Etheridge said that Turner's voice defies classification. "You can't say soul, R&B, rock & roll," Etheridge said. "She's all of it! She can squeeze passion from any line."

(6) Celine Dion: celestially stellar on Alone, All By Myself, It's All Coming Back to Me Now, My Heart Will Go On
(5) Freddie Mercury: the ultimate showman/singer with four-octave range on Bohemian Rhapsody, Who Wants to Live Forever, Somebody to Love, Killer Queen, Crazy Little Thing Called Love
(4) Little Richard teaching the world (and the Beatles, MJ and Prince) how to really rock-n-roll with songs like Tutti-Frutti, Good Golly Miss Molly, Long Tall Sally

"When I heard ['Long Tall Sally'], it was so great I couldn't speak," said John Lennon. "I didn't want to leave Elvis, but this was so much better." Little Richard taught the Beatles the secrets of his falsetto and primal screams when they toured together. His influence can clearly be heard in songs like "Twist and Shout."

(3) The Bee Gees: for impeccable harmonies on Words, Run To Me, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, and many other soul-searers
(2) Enya: if you haven't heard her sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel, you haven't really lived, and she is utterly stellar on Orinco Flow (Sail Away), and other gems

My co-winners, male and female, are:

(1) Janis Joplin: for her unmatched passionate anguish and grit on Piece of My Heart, Heartbreaker, Cry Baby, Mercedes Benz, Try
(1) Elvis Presley: especially the early recordings such as Fever, Blue Moon and That's Alright ... but also the thundering apocalyptic high notes in "How Great Thou Art" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic"

Robert Plant, lead singer for Led Zeppelin, explains how Elvis greatly influenced him: "The first Elvis song I heard was 'Hound Dog.' I wasn't equipped with any of the knowledge I have now, about the Big Mama Thornton version or where all that swing was coming from. I just heard this voice, and it was absolutely, totally in its own place. The voice was confident, insinuating and taking no prisoners. He had those great whoops and diving moments, those sustains that swoop down to the note like a bird of prey. I took all that in. You can hear that all over Led Zeppelin."

High Honorable Mentions

Andrea Bocelli, James Brown, Maria Callas, Patsy Cline, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Placido Domingo, Fats Domino, Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holliday, Mahalia Jackson, Michael Jackson, Etta James, Mario Lanza, Luciano Pavarotti, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Hank Williams Sr., Stevie Wonder

Up-and-Comers

Angelis: for soaring, piercing, picture-perfect notes on Even Though You're Gone, Morning Has Broken, Pie Jesu, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, O Holy Night
Jackie Evancho: her performances of Ave Marie and Pie Jesu at age ten showed otherworldly talent, as if an angel became human ...
Josh Krajcik: his wonderfully moving rendition of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" during a talent contest is one of the most moving performances I have ever witnessed
Adam Lambert: his cover of "Mad World" was crazy good, and Brian May of Queen said Lambert is the only male singer who can match Freddy Mercury's high notes

Honorable Mentions

Adele: lust and longing infuse Someone Like You, Rolling in the Deep, Set Fire to the Rain, Rumor Has It
Christina Aguilera: unbelievable talent on Hurt, Oh Mother, At Last, It's a Man's World, Genie in a Bottle, Beautiful, What a Girl Wants
Ron Argent of the Zombies:/Argent: stylistically ahead of his time with Time of the Season, She's Not There, Tell Her No, Liar, Hold You Head Up
Jon Bon Jovi: fan-pleasers on Livin' on a Prayer, Runaway, Wanted Dead or Alive, Always, I'll Be There for You
David Bowie: Fame, Space Oddity, China Girl, Young Americans, All the Young Dudes, Modern Love, Let's Dance
Eric Burdon of The Animals/WAR: House of the Rising Sun, Spill the Wine, Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
Eric Carmen: for All By Myself, Hungry Eyes, Never Gonna Fall in Love Again, Go All the Way (with the Raspberries)
Mariah Carey: crazy range and near-supersonic melisma on Vision of Love, I Don't Wanna Cry, Someday, One Sweet Day
Johnny Cash: not the best voice, perhaps, but habit-forming on I Walk the Line, Ring of Fire, Hurt and other classics
Kurt Cobain of Nirvanna: for All Apologies, Come As You Are, Lithium, Where Did You Sleep Last Night
Judy Collins: Bread and Roses, Send in the Clowns, Both Sides Now, Someday Soon, Amazing Grace
Dido: impeccable (but more importantly, moving) vocals on White Flag, Thank You and Here with Me
Ronnie James Dio: Holy Diver, Rainbow in the Dark, The Last in Line
Phil & Don Everly: the Everly Brothers: were much-emulated stylists who influenced the Beatles, the Bee Gees and other "boy bands"
Dan Fogelberg: Ghosts, many others
John Fogerty: gritty bridge from Dylan to Springsteen with Fortunate Son, Who'll Stop the Rain, Lodi, Someday Never Comes
David Gates of Bread: Clouds, Everything I Own, If, Pieces of April
Andy Gibb, Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb, Maurice Gibb: the Bee Gees (Brothers Gibb) and their other brother Andy were all remarkable singers
Russell Hitchcock of Air Supply: Lost in Love, All Out of Love, Making Love Out of Nothing at All
Buddy Holly: Rave On, Not Fade Away, That'll Be the Day and many others
Whitney Houston: impressive range, power and control on everything she sang in her prime: Run to You, I Have Nothing
Chris Isaak: a sweeter, more ethereal Elvis on Wicked Game, Blue Moon, Somebody's Crying
Mick Jagger: for Angie, Miss You, Paint it Black, Satisfaction ... and that's just for starters
Elton John: for Levon, Tiny Dancer, Love Lies Bleeding/Funeral for a Friend
George Jones: country at its best on He Stopped Loving Her Today, She Still Thinks I Care, Golden Ring, Choices
Patti LaBelle: power and panache on Lady Marmalade, On My Own
Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet: for his wonderfully smooth, rich, lush vocals on True, Gold, Only When You Leave
John Lennon: for Imagine, Give Peace a Chance and so many classic Beatles songs
Annie Lennox: truly great on Why, Walking on Broken Glass, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)
Leona Lewis: Bleeding Love, Trouble
Paul McCartney: for Let It Be, Yesterday and so many classic Beatles songs
Michael McDonald: I Keep Forgettin', What a Fool Believes, On My Own, Sweet Freedom
Bob Marley: a real wailer on Redemption Song, I Shot the Sheriff, No Woman No Cry, Red Red Wine
Alanis Morissette: Ironic, Uninvited, Your Learn, Thank U
Jim Morrison of the Doors: Riders on the Storm, Gloria, People are Strange, Light My Fire
Van Morrison: Tupelo Honey, Moondance
Aaron Neville: exquisitely delicate quavering on I Don't Know Much, Ave Maria, Tell It Like It Is, Everybody Plays the Fool
Harry Nilsson: his Without You is the perfect voice matched with the perfect song (Paul McCartney called it the best rock song ever)
Sinead O'Connor: especially for Nothing Compares 2 U, perhaps the most touching song of love and loss of all time
Katy Perry: I Kissed a Girl, Firework, E.T. (Alien), Part of Me, The One that Got Away, Wide Awake
Bonnie Raitt: grit and gravitas on Have a Heart, Nick of Time, I Can't Make You Love Me, Something to Talk About
Sade: exquisite on Smooth Operator, No Ordinary Love, The Sweetest Taboo, Your Love is King
Nina Simone: You Know How I Feel, Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, I Put a Spell on You, Here Comes the Sun
Patti Smith: Because the Night, Gloria
Bruce Springsteen: the male Janis Joplin with Born to Run, Thunder Road, Jungleland and many others
Ann Wilson of Heart: for Alone, Dog and Butterfly, many other classics
Brian and Carl Wilson: the Beach Boys: helped set the standard for artistry and vocal perfection in early rock 'n roll
Jackie Wilson: Lonely Teardrops, Higher and Higher
Neil Young: a bit whiny/nasally, but with great songs like Old Man, Heart of Gold, After the Gold Rush

Others Coming Soon

Chuck Berry, Beyoncé, Bono, Michael Buble, Jeff Buckley, Cher, Lou Christie, Bruce Dickinson, Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Josh Groban, Merle Haggard, George Harrison, Bobby Hatfield, Jimi Hendrix, Mick Hucknall, Billy Joel, Tom Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Madonna, Bob Marley, Bruno Mars, George Michael, Olivia Newton-John, Pink, Otis Redding, Rihanna, Shakira, Smokey Robinson, Jimmy Scott, Paul Simon, Ringo Starr, Sly Stone, Rod Stewart, Sting, Taylor Swift, Steven Tyler, Usher, Luther Vandross, Muddy Waters, Roger Waters, Amy Winehouse

Related Page: The Best Singers of All Time, The Best Singer-Songwriters

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