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The 200 Greatest Singers of All Time

The 200 Greatest Singers of All Time

By  Rolling Stone – January 01, 2023


From Sinatra to SZA, from R&B to salsa to alt-rock

Aretha Franklin described her mission as a singer like this: “Me with my hand outstretched, hoping someone will take it.” That kind of deep, empathetic bond between artist and listener is the most elemental connection in music. And you can think of our list of the 200 Greatest Singers of All Time as a celebration of that bond. These are the vocalists that have shaped history and defined our lives — from smooth operators to raw shouters, from gospel to punk, from Sinatra to Selena to SZA.

When Rolling Stone first published its list of the 100 Greatest Singers in 2008, we used an elaborate voting process that included input from well-known musicians. The results skewed toward classic rock and singers from the Sixties and Seventies. This new list was compiled our staff and key contributors, and it encompasses 100 years of pop music as an ongoing global conversation, where iconic Indian playback singer Lata Mangeshkar lands between Amy Winehouse and Johnny Cash, and salsa queen Celia Cruz is up there in the rankings with Prince and Marvin Gaye. You might notice that, say, there isn’t any opera on our list — that’s because our purview is pop music writ large, meaning that almost all the artists on this list had significant careers as crossover stars making popular music for the masses.

Before you start scrolling (and commenting), keep in mind that this is the Greatest Singers list, not the Greatest Voices List. Talent is impressive; genius is transcendent. Sure, many of the people here were born with massive pipes, perfect pitch, and boundless range. Others have rougher, stranger, or more delicate instruments. As our write-up for the man who ended up at Number 112 notes, “Ozzy Osbourne doesn’t have what most people would call a good voice, but boy does he have a great one.” That could apply to more than a few people here.

In all cases, what mattered most to us was originality, influence, the depth of an artist’s catalog, and the breadth of their musical legacy. A voice can be gorgeous like Mariah Carey’s, rugged like Toots Hibbert’s, understated like Willie Nelson’s, slippery and sumptuous like D’Angelo’s, or bracing like Bob Dylan’s. But in the end, the singers behind it are here for one reason: They can remake the world just by opening their mouths.


Mary J. Blige

25 | Mary J. Blige

Growing up, Mary J. Blige turned to singing as an escape, and early on she often wrestled her demons in performance. “There would be times where she would be in the studio singing and it would be the dopest take in the world, but she would be crying,” producer Chucky Thompson recalled of working on Blige’s second album, My Life. But the singer took a firmer grip on her life and career, and her singing gained in turn — the deep emotion intact, the pitchiness eliminated. Most of all, the character — someone who’s been through it and refuses to give up. —M.M.


George Jones

24 | George Jones

George Jones’ dynamic range was huge, and he utilized it to the full, but he seldom seemed to be showboating. Though his high spirits could be wildly entertaining, from the speedy early “Why Baby Why” to the goofy late “Yabba Dabba Doo! (So Are You),” Jones was country music’s master brooder. The way he’d dip low on a word in the middle of a line (“He said, ‘I’ll love you till I die’,” the opener of “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” from 1980) to give the word, and the listener, a shiver, conveyed a man so full of feeling he doesn’t know what to do with that it bursts out of him in fits. —M.M.


Smokey Robinson

23 | Smokey Robinson

Smokey Robinson is such a giant as a songwriter, but his voice is the heart of his legend. As his fellow Motown star Martha Reeves said, “With his tone and delivery, you could fall in love with Smokey.” The Motown empire was built around Robinson — when he hits those impossibly delicate high notes, it’s the essence of romantic pleading. He was raised on Fifties doo-wop, but he invented his own soul style with the Miracles, squeezing so much emotion out of ballads like “Ooo Baby Baby,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” or “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage.” He taught the Beatles how to sing — as Paul McCartney put it, “Smokey Robinson was like God in our eyes.” Yet his voice got more powerful, more seductive, over time, in mature classics like “Cruisin’” or his hugely influential A Quiet Storm. Cruise on forever, Smokey. —R.S.



22 | Adele

Listen to the way Adele has matured over the years and you’ll hear a woman literally finding her voice. Her mezzo-soprano had a world-weary edge to it from the late-‘00s days of “Chasing Pavements,” but the combustible “Rolling in the Deep” portrays her pain in full flower, her voice breaking into a near-weep as she reels with vengeance and regret. On “Someone Like You,” her tear-jerking smash from 21, she gives a performance worthy of a single-spotlighted stage, with rich, rounded vowels that give away her growing sense of self in the wake of a breakup. Adele’s range has grown on her recent records; her pinched kiss-offs give the glitchy 25 cut “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” added bite, while on the loose-limbed “All Night Parking,” from 30, her vocal style borders on effervescence. As Adele’s commanding, raspy wail’s stylistic range grows, she only becomes more powerful. —M.J.


Nina Simone

21 | Nina Simone

“Birds flying high, you know I feel/Sun in the sky, you know how I feel,” Nina Simone sang on 1965’s “Feeling Good.” And anyone who’s ever heard it knows how she felt, too; the euphoria pulsing through her voice spoke for itself. Simone could channel every facet of lived experience. She brought out the rage in her civil rights protest songs (“Mississippi Goddam,” “Four Women”), her pride in “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and her joie de vivre in her rendition of Hair’s “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life.” Commenting on Simone’s 1976 performance of Janis Ian’s “Stars,” Brittany Howard recently said, “The way Nina sang that was so incredibly visceral and true and real, like she was singing about her life, even though she didn’t write the words.” —K.G.


Marvin Gaye

20 | Marvin Gaye

Interviewers often remarked on the precision of Marvin Gaye’s speaking voice, and that quality shone through his singing, as well — every ad-libbed syllable is crystal clear, even when he slurs the note. It’s his richness that draws the ear: velvety, yearning, endlessly assured, with a sandpaper roughness he calls on for key moments, to balance out his swooning head falsetto. And his gift for drama was first-rate: Listen again to how he rolls out the lyric of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” or creates palpable erotic heat with “Let’s Get It On.” And then listen some more. It’s irresistible. —M.M.


Frank Sinatra

19 | Frank Sinatra

The breath control, the careful study of every lyric, the relentless search for vocal perfection — Sinatra was a titan behind the microphone before he was anything. Few singers have conveyed the depth of emotion Sinatra could: “How Insensitive,” his 1967 collaboration with Antônio Carlos Jobim, is as morose as a man can sound while still standing up, while on the immortal “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” from 1956, he shades the song’s ebullience with a relaxed maturity that communicated the good life to postwar Americans who’d grown up with Frankie on the radio. Sinatra’s rakish charm and ability to excavate a song’s emotional core can still amaze. —M.M.


Celia Cruz

18 | Celia Cruz

You can hear so much of Celia Cruz’s life story in her voice: Her rich, inimitable tone captured the warmth and vibrancy of Havana, often evoking the call of street vendors and the power of Afro-Cuban santero songs from her childhood. Though she rose to fame in Cuba, she became a star in New York City, showcasing her endless charisma and mighty vocal strength alongside history’s biggest salsa acts. No matter who she performed with, Cruz always shone radiantly, her magic tied into her ability to make people feel: She could capture nostalgia and yearning, or she could let out a call of “Azúcar!” and embody the exuberance for life that continues to make her one of the most transcendent singers of all time. —J.L.


Elvis Presley

17 | Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley’s voice was a sui generis instrument: weepy highs and rich lows, capable of landing “Don’t Be Cruel” at No. 1 on the U.S. pop, R&B, and country charts in 1956. Elvis’ heroes included Fats Domino, Roy Orbison, and Dean Martin, but he didn’t sing like any of them. Orbison, in fact, said, “There are a lot of people who are good actors at singing … with Elvis, he lives it altogether.” Early sides such as “That’s All Right, Mama” were joyful blasts of enthusiasm. His palette expanded in the Sixties and Seventies: 1961’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” is a transcendent example of his skills as a crooner, and his passion for gospel shines on “How Great Thou Art,” a thunderous live staple. But 1969’s “Suspicious Minds” might be the ultimate Elvis moment. From the controlled opening to the explosive chorus, Elvis drives this juggernaut with swagger to spare. He lived them all. —J.G.



16 | Prince

There’s no choir quite like a choir of Princes. Play “Adore,” the heavenly climax of 1987’s Sign o’ the Times, and bask in that plush assemblage of overdubbed voices, in multiple registers, assembled with audible glee by the guy who also sings lead and plays most of the instruments. Singing seems to have been personal with Prince — he routinely ordered his engineers out of the room whenever he cut a vocal — and on the masterful “When Doves Cry” or the Emancipation highlight “The Holy River,” he achieves a rare, stunning intimacy that only deepens showman moves like the fluty falsetto of “Kiss.” —M.M.


Bob Dylan

15 | Bob Dylan

To some listeners, Bob Dylan’s voice, especially the wheezy and/or aggressively twangy strains he favored in his early years, will always sound like a caricature of itself. But the confidence with which he owned his ugly-duckling delivery, and shaped it into something as expressive as his wildly inventive lyrics, has made him one of America’s great vocal eccentrics. Once he was fully in control of his instrument, he could use it to express everything from wry disdain (“Like a Rolling Stone”) to deep devotion (“If Not for You”), wrenching pathos (the Basement Tapes masterpiece “Goin’ to Acapulco”) and sardonic venom (“Idiot Wind”). (On 1969’s Nashville Skyline, he even morphed into a clean-voiced crooner.) And in his later years, he’s built an entire mature style out of his increasingly ragged-throated sound, moving freely between wistful romance (see Triplicate readings like “My One and Only Love”) and bawdy black comedy (“False Prophet”). —H.S.

See full list at rollingstone.com

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