As the new documentary "Whitney" celebrates the rare gifts of Whitney Houston, here are 50 other singers with the most outstanding voices in popular music, starting with the one and only Queen of Soul.
Her voice has been called "a gift from God." And no one ever fulfilled one of God's gifts with more heart and soul than Aretha Franklin. From her 1967 breakout hit "Respect" to her standing-ovation live performance of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, Aretha's church-rooted voice has galvanized and stirred.
From the extended growl on his "Listen to the Lion" to the sweet falsetto of his "Crazy Love," Van the Man has given voice to his Celtic soul in rock, blues, folk, jazz, soul and undefined categories unique only to himself. Spiritual and impassioned, always identifiable, it's the voice of a rock and roll mystic.
No voice ever ripped a heart out more thoroughly than Janis Joplin's. Wild and uninhibited, it had a passionate abandon not previously heard from a white female singer. Joplin could wail the blues or sing low on rough-hewn country soul. Her first hit, 1968's "Piece of My Heart," is a combination of both. It's raw. It's anguished. And it's no one else but Janis.
Joyful, sexual, vulnerable, pristine and soulful as soulful can be, Al Green's gospel-infused voice has been sending shivers down the collective spine since "Tired of Being Alone" hit it big in 1971. Kicked out of the family home as a teenager after his devoutly religious father caught him listening to Jackie Wilson, Green's vocal blend of the secular and the spiritual can have you dancing or crying, sometimes both at the same time. And while many soul singers have taken a stab at country, none have done it so thrillingly as Green. His take on Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away" is simply otherworldly.
There isn't much left to say about Sinatra—the definitive singing voice of the 20th century—that hasn't already been said. So let's just listen to him. How about "Summer Wind"? And then let's thank our lucky stars.
"I never set out to be a singer, so I don't think much about singing," said Nina Simone. Yet she could sing anything—barroom blues, sophisticated jazz, cabaret tunes, folk and even a bit of classical music. And, if nothing else, her "I Put a Spell on You" confirms Simone's exalted status as the High Priestess of Soul.
Elvis was the voice that shook the world. And four decades after his death, the King is still shaking it, with over 100 albums released posthumously—the most recent in 2018. Moving from rock and roll to country to his beloved gospel, Elvis made every song his own—and then ours. Take a listen to his improvised cover of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright." Presley barely knows the words, but that voice. The one and only. (Fun fact: Elvis also covered Dylan's "Tomorrow Is a Long Time." Dylan called it "the one recording I treasure the most."
There never was a more infectious voice. As Rolling Stone put it, "Ray Charles took the yelp, the whoop, the grunt, the groan and made them music." And more. Said fellow piano man Billy Joel: "When he sings, he's not just singing soulfully. He is imparting his soul." Charles' 1972 iconic recording of "America the Beautiful" presents an America of glorious all-inclusive dreams that only the blind Brother Ray could see.
McCartney's is—along with John Lennon—perhaps the most identifiable voice in pop music history. Having early on alchemized such influences as Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and the British music hall singers from his Liverpool boyhood, Paul could sing heartbreakingly sweet ("Yesterday," "Blackbird") or wildly raucous ("Helter Skelter," "Back in the U.S.S.R."). And though his vocals are a bit frayed these days, his voice lives in hearts and minds forever.
Like his bandmate and songwriting partner Paul McCartney, Lennon had a remarkably versatile voice. He could take a ferocious, throat-shredding approach to a classic R&B tune—or sing achingly sweet, as he did on "Julia" from the White Album. "It was a stunning thing—he always told the truth ... and that gives his voice a singular identity," said singer Jackson Browne. "It's not the chops of a heralded singer—no one goes on about his actual technique. He went right to what he felt, what he had to say."
Known for his smoother than smooth vocals on such '60s hits as "You Send Me," "Wonderful World," "Twistin' The Night Away" and the incomparable "A Change Is Gonna Come," Cooke could also get gritty and raw, as evidenced by the incendiary performance captured on his posthumously released album "Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963." "He had an incomparable voice," said Van Morrison. "Sam Cooke could sing anything and make it work. But when you're talking about his strength as a singer, range is not relevant. It was his power to deliver—it was about his phrasing, the totality of his singing."
Despite her struggles with bipolar disorder and prolonged hiatus from recording, Sinéad O'Connor's voice remains flat-out supernatural—as evidenced by her goosebumps-inducing performance of Shane McGowan's "You're the One" at the Pogues frontman's 60th birthday party in January 2018. And nothing compares to O'Connor's 1990 cover of the Prince song that became her biggest hit. A remarkable and forceful instrument, filled with fury and spiritual passion, the Irish singer's voice has always been one of pain and faith.
There's a reason why Paul Simon—no slouch as a singer himself—turned over lead vocals for his "Bridge Over Trouble Water" to his partner. Garfunkel possesses one of the purest, most beautiful voices around. After the song had become a worldwide hit, Simon said, "Artie would be singing 'Bridge,' people would stomp and cheer when it was over, and I would think, 'That's my song, man...'"
One of the central singers in jazz and pop history, Armstrong had a gritty untrained tenor that influenced practically every singer in popular music who followed him. To listen to his "What a Wonderful World" is to be embraced by all the warmth and humanity of Armstrong's generous soul. Oh, and he could play the trumpet, too.
Robinson's soul-drenched falsetto is the sweetest sound in music. Period. It's impossible to listen to "Tracks of My Tears" or "Ooo Baby Baby" without trying to sing along—and failing miserably. Said Paul McCartney of one of the Beatle's primary inspirations: "Smokey Robinson was like a God in our eyes."
With her warm, husky, quivering contralto, Nicks "is a combination of sheer vulnerability and power," said Sheryl Crow. Take a listen to the Fleetwood Mac front-woman's a cappella isolated-vocal version of "Landslide" and you'll mainline the essence of a voice that has influenced a generation of female singers.
One of the most iconic frontmen in history of rock and roll, Jagger is still out there with his voice of strut and swagger, still able to power through "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" in front of stadium crowds like it was 1965. "His sense of pitch and melody is really sophisticated," singer Lenny Kravitz told Rolling Stone magazine. "His vocals are stunning..." Jagger's 2017 double-sided single "Gotta Get a Grip"/"England Lost" is proof that a little sympathy for the devil can sometimes pay off.
The songs she sang may have been white bread, but Karen Carpenter was one of pop music's greatest torch singers, her voice almost shockingly intimate. Listen to her solo "All Because of You" from her posthumously released 1996 album "Karen Carpenter" and you'll easily convince yourself she's singing for you alone—while staring directly in your eyes.
Even in her teen pop days, Christina Aguilera had old-school singing chops that rivaled the greatest of the soul queens, with a vocal maturity that belied her years. Check out her cover of Etta James' "Something's Got a Hold on Me" from the 2010 "Burlesque" movie soundtrack. It proves that some are just diva born.
The debate over Dylan's singing voice—great or terrible?—has raged since his early Greenwich Village days. But there's no doubt that Dylan's is one of the most influential and iconic voices of our time—and not just for his words. Honored at the 2015 MusicCare Awards, Dylan addressed the controversy: "Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice… He said, 'Well, that's very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.'" To hear Dylan at his vocal best, check out his live 1966 performance of "Mr. Tambourine Man" at London's Royal Albert Hall. It's transcendental.
Prince's vocals are limitless and, in the words of one writer, "innocent, forlorn, bluesy, funny, horny, seductive, desperate and mysterious ... and in all these guises totally believable." Go back and listen to Prince's achingly beautiful "The Beautiful Ones" from the "Purple Rain" soundtrack and you'll hear him go from a slow falsetto ballad to an agonizing series of screams. And the whole thing is funky as hell.
Vulnerable and emotional, sultry and sensual, Mitchell's voice is touched by both sunlight and shadow. Compare her 1969 original recording of "Both Sides Now" with her 2000 take on the same song and you'll experience shades of every color. Said Mitchell of her matchless voice: "I'm just a spirit with a mouth."
With his octave-switching vocal range, Costello's voice changes like a chameleon—sometimes within a single song—but it's always unmistakably his. And while some find his voice abrasive, no one can toggle between rage and romance more seamlessly. Go back to 1977's "Alison" and listen to the very beginnings of a voice unique in rock and roll.
From his child prodigy days singing "ABC," Michael Jackson pushed the boundaries of pop and R&B. His vocal style—heavily influenced by fellow Motown artist Diana Ross, as he acknowledged—was described by Rolling Stone as "a feathery-timbered tenor that is extraordinarily beautiful. It slides smoothly into a startling falsetto that is used very daringly." And while Jackson's singing voice changed through the course of his long career, it only got better. The 2001 single "You Rock My World" is proof that Jackson's vocal prowess was still developing some 30 years after "ABC" knocked the Beatles' "Let It Be" off the top of the charts.
White and British, Springfield conquered American blue-eyed soul with such hits as "Wishin' and Hopin'," "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" and "Son of a Preacher Man." Her distinctive voice was emotional, vulnerable and resonant—as composer Burt Bacharach put it, you could "hear three notes and know it was Dusty." Check out her 1969 album "Dusty In Memphis" and revel in the voice Bette Midler called "haunting and husky, full of secrets and promises."
Inspiring generations of singers with her simmering voice, LaBelle is a soul-soaring diva with Maria Callas-like chops who can burn the house down or keep the fires burning low. Even Christina Aguilera, Mya, Pink and Lil' Kim couldn't outdo her original 1974 version of "Lady Marmalade" in their 2001 remake for the film "Moulin Rouge."
Sometimes bad is good. No, sometimes bad is great. Outsider artist Daniel Johnston has a voice like an exposed nerve. Recording in his parent's basement, Johnston—who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and manic depression—has created a catalog of music that expresses a pure and universal childlike soul. A favorite of Kurt Cobain, Johnston's "True Love Will Find You in the End" gives a universal vocalization to every person looking for love.
In a world of transcendent soul singers—Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke, James Brown—Jackie Wilson's voice was unmatched. Grounded in R&B, Wilson's four-octave instrument was operatic, as evidenced by his 1960 hit "Night," a take on an aria from the opera "Samson and Delilah." And, while singing live, Wilson could out-dance any of the lip-synching competition.
Disco's greatest voice. Summer was able to get down with the beat or soar to ethereal heights. Listen to her vocals on 1978's "Last Dance" and it's easy to understand why Summer was one of the disco era's most powerful pioneers. It's as exciting and rich as anything in pop.
"I want to make songs shimmer," Emmylou Harris once said. And in her four-decade career, that she has done exactly that. Whether harmonizing with Gram Parsons in the 1970s or headlining sold-out solo shows in the 2000s, Harris is the sweetest country music singing girl around. Listen to her cover of Butch Hancock's "If You Were a Bluebird"—and then thank the Lord.
By the time he collaborated with John Lennon on the 1974 album "Pussy Cats," Nilsson's choir-trained voice was ravaged by alcohol and drug abuse. But, for a time in the early '70s, Nilsson held top spot as rock/pop's purest vocalist. Track down his 1971 children's album "The Point!" It's wonderfully sung and the perfect bedtime story for your kids.
Though she describes her voice as "a cross between Tiny Tim and a nanny goat," Parton's quivering, country-hollow soprano defines the female country artist. "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 explained. Yes, and her 1974 hit "Love Is Like a Butterfly" is positively Shakespearean.
Cohen was one of the few singers whose voice got better as he aged. Early on a sort of nasal croon, in later years his voice became deep, resonant and grand. No octogenarian ever sounded so sexy. Listen to him, well into his 70s, singing "Hallelujah." And then check out "You Want It Darker," the title track of his last album, released less than three weeks before he died in 2016 at the age of 82. ("I'm ready, my Lord.")
A technically brilliant singer, Lennox has an operatically powerful voice, able to switch between different parts of her range with ease. But its source comes from deep inside. "That voice is within me, the voice is me," she said. "And through my voice I have the opportunity to express whatever I feel. Singing is so inherent to my existence that I can't separate myself from it." Wrote one reviewer of Lennox's 2003 solo album "Bare": "It's splattered with all the shades of the emotional palette." As is Lennox's voice.
No voice could take over a jukebox like country singer George Jones'. It was the sound of heartbreak—his "She Thinks I Still Care" could make you weep ... and then order another drink. Among Jones' countless fans is James Taylor, who said, "His dynamic is very tight and really controlled—it's like carving with the voice."
With a logic-defying voice firmly rooted in the front row of the gospel choir, Mavis Staples—first with family band the Staples Singers and then solo—has been raising the rafters for more than six decades. "I'll Take You There," her signature song from 1972, spent 15 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, making it all the way to No. 1. Said fan Bob Dylan of the first time he heard Staples sing: "That just made my hair stand up, listening to that. I mean, that just seemed like, 'That's the way the world is.'"
With a rugged, booming Jersey Shore voice and his legendary three-hour plus "you ain't seen nothing yet" concerts, the Boss seems to have been born to rock and roll. Still, Springsteen is modest about his vocal abilities. "I have a barman's power, range and durability, but I don't have a lot of tonal beauty or finesse," he has said. "My voice gets the job done. But it's a journeyman's instrument and on its own, it's never going to take you to higher ground." Legions disagree. Said Melissa Etheridge: "He uses his whole body when he sings, and he puts out this enormous amount of force and emotion and passion." So go back and listen—starting with Springsteen's 1975 hit "Born to Run"—and decide for yourself.
With her powerhouse cries and moans, Tina Turner rarely did anything "nice and easy." But who would want it any other way? Not Beyoncé, who said of Turner, "I'll never forget the first time I saw her perform. I never in my life saw a woman so powerful, so fearless, so fabulous." Go back and listen to the Phil Spector-produced "River Deep Mountain High" from 1966. It shows off everything great about Turner except her legs.
The one-song voice of a thousand soundtracks. Oh, but what a voice! If Hawaiian-born Kamakawiwo'ole had sung nothing else in his short lifetime (he died in 1997 at the age of 38), his glorious ukulele-backed medley of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World" would have placed him in the pantheon of great voices. Sweet, soaring and unadorned, it truly is the voice of an angel.
Like Billie Holiday before her, Winehouse's artistry was often obscured by her tabloid life. And, again like Holiday, her smoky voice combined all-out emotion with total control—she was capable of, in the words of one critic, "hopping from '60s girl-group sass to '90s hip-hop cadences and arriving at something revelatory." To listen to Winehouse's posthumously released cover of the 1963 Ruby & the Romantics hit "Our Day Will Come" is to realize that her voice is timeless.
With his half-talking, half-singing New York sneer, Lou Reed's voice wasn't the best instrument in rock and roll, but it was singularly his and his alone—despite the scores of imitators to follow. Said Reed himself, "I do Lou Reed better than anybody." And, with a song like 1989's "Dirty Boulevard," he out-talked and out-sang every challenger around.
The sweet-voiced Mayfield, who started out as a teen with Chicago's Northern Jubilee Gospel singers, contributed his high tenor/falsetto voice to the popular '60s soul group the Impressions before stepping out as a solo artist. Known for powerful and socially conscious songs—such as the magnificent 1965 civil rights anthem "People Get Ready"—Mayfield could also sing romantic like nobody else. Said Mavis Staples, "His register was soft and gentle, yet powerful. His love songs made you fall in love, and his message songs made you want to go out and do something good for the world."
Her strong and clear soprano has been called too perfect. Don't listen to that criticism—just listen to her, starting with the title track of Baez's 2018 album "Whistle Down the Wind," which is filled with warmth and vocals informed by a full life lived, Baez, at 77, may not be able to hit the highest notes anymore, but she has never sounded better.
James Brown's soaring vocal grooves and guttural ad libs demanded a new classification beyond the boundaries of pop and R&B. The Godfather of Soul invented funk single-handedly. Where to hear Brown in all his glory? Try the 1991 compilation album "Star Time," which opens with "Please Please Please." It's a bit pricey, but it takes you through all the hits and a bevy of deep cuts, too.
The daughter of Broadway musical star John Raitt has been giving voice to our emotions for more than 40 years, combining rock, blues, soul and roots music. Bonnie Raitt's smoky, rich voice is a master interpreter of other people's songs, and her 1974 cover of John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery" a prime example.
Though some still prefer Waits' early-'70s "Heart of Saturday Night" barroom crooning, there's no doubt that the deep, gravel voice that Waits adopted thereafter is one of the most distinctive in, well, what category do you put Waits into, anyway? Whatever. No one sings like him and, when he wants to, Waits can still sell a ballad with the best of them. His "Alice" from the 2002 album of the same name is simply heartbreaking.
Her last solo studio album, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," was released in 1998. But, with its astonishing vocals, this one album is enough to place Hill in the pantheon of hip-hop's greatest artists. "Everything is Everything," a single from the album, combines R&B, '60s soul, gospel and hip-hop influences as it displays Hill's multi-faceted vocal abilities at their most powerful.
Of course, Beyonce is the whole musical package—singer, songwriter, dancer, actress and businesswoman. Still, it's her voice—one of the most compelling in popular music—that makes it all tick. Wrote the Washington Post: "She is capable of punctuating any beat with goosebump-inducing whispers or full-bore diva-roars." Listen to Beyonce's nail-every-note isolated vocals for her "Love on Top." It'll give you shivers.
Jerry Lee Lewis
Never one for modesty, Jerry Lee Lewis once said: "There have been many great performers, but only four great stylists—Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis." Don't laugh, because at least in the case of Jerry Lee, he's spot on. A great musical interpreter, Lewis has a brilliant ability to inject himself—often by name—into any song he chooses. Whether it's rockabilly, pure country or even a musical production of Shakespeare's Othello (seriously, check out "Lust of the Blood" from that show), Lewis made everything he ever sang into his own. And he said there was a "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," he meant it.
Somewhere in the late '70s, Rod Stewart lost his credibility as a great rock and roller ("Do Ya Think I'm Sexy," anyone?). But, for a time, raspy-voiced Rod had one of the most compelling voices in music ("Maggie May," anyone?). "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," said the British-born Stewart. "This was a new world for me. I wanted to be able to sing like these people." And, for a time, he did—wonderfully.
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