The best singers ever: the unofficial list
by: Mike Benhaim
March 15, 2010
The oldest and most portable instrument in the world is the human voice. According to Wikipedia, "Singing is the act of producing musical sounds with the voice and (augmenting) regular speech by the use of both tonality and rhythm."
So regardless of whether you have good tonality and rhythm, anyone with a voice can sing. For example, Bob Dylan is a singer. So are Tom Waits, Courtney Love, Yoko Ono and Bjork. You may enjoy hearing them sing (I'm still waiting for the Yoko-Bjork "Duets" album myself), but are they technically good singers? Then there are singers like Celine Dion, Barbara Streisand, Michael Bolton and Sarah Brightman who are legitimately great singers, but does that make you want to listen to them any more than the others?
For the purposes of this list, I have examined several criteria that include vocal skill, unique vocal style and performance.
In order to avoid major controversy, hurtful statements, and threats of bodily harm (I still don't know who gave those Manilow fans my home address), the following list is in alphabetical order, and therefore all who appear have equivalent merit for the purposes of the discussion that will inevitably follow.
I could list fifty of my faves, and would still be omitting many worthy candidates, therefore this will run as a two-part series.
Here is part I of my list of greatest popular music singers of all time:
Christina Aguilera: I will probably get some negative feedback for including Christina in the absence of some of the greats, but here's what I think: This young woman has spectacular pipes, and has somehow managed to circumvent what seemed to be an inevitable path to self-destruction. Her marriage, and subsequent rebirth as a focused and serious vocalist have ensured a long and prosperous future. She can sing anything and I would listen...and watch.
Mary J. Blige: In ten short years, she went from being the bitchiest Diva in the business, to humbly praising the lord and saviour for her every achievement, and no one can decide which was more annoying. The important thing is that she has removed all "hateration and holleration from this dancery". (??) Alright, so maybe she overstepped her poetic license with that one, but girlfriend can sing! This can be witnessed from any number of her hits like; I'm Going Down, Feel Like a Woman, Not Gon' Cry and most recently, Color, from the soundtrack of the Academy award-winning motion picture, Precious.
James Brown: Don't let all the howling and hooting fool you. This grandaddy could sing in his own way. His expressions, whether vocal or movement were primal, raw and real. Despite being the hardest working man in show-biz, he always seemed to be improvising. That was because only if the band was perfectly in tune, and on time, could he have the liberty to be as true to the feeling of the moment as possible. Just listen to the song, I Got The Feelin', or Get Up Offa That Thing. If you want to really experience James, devoid of the hype, shrieks and Maceo's paramedical attention, then listen to Please, Please, Please or It's A Man's Man's Man's World. (Not a typo. Everyone knows English was not his first language) Even though most humans only ever understood very little of what James was talking about, the world will never be the same without him. James Brown has officially left the building.
Mariah Carey: If she would just shut up and sing... If not for the moronic blogs, dreadfully bizarre interviews, drunken speeches and unnecessary vocal acrobatics at every point in every song, she could just be the greatest pop singer ever. Vocally, her range is hard to top (Sorry Whitney) but just once, I would like to hear her sing a melody as it was written. It will probably never happen, but thankfully at least she has the voice to make it more than bearable.
Karen Carpenter: She's like onions. I am crying right now just from typing her name. Her voice is so hauntingly beautiful that I have put my manly reputation on the line to include her in this list. THAT'S RIGHT, I SAID IT. I LIKE KAREN CARPENTER! Everytime I even hear the words, "We've only just begun...to liiive...", I weep like like a small child whose mother's breast has been prematurely removed. Everyone knows Close To You, but take a moment to listen to her version of Leon Russel's A Song For You, or This Masquerade, or Rainy Days and Mondays... (sniff, sniff). Damn it, I've got a snag in my panty hose.
Kelly Clarkson: Idol number one is still number 1 in my book, and although she has grown in unexpected ways (like sideways), this girl has some undeniable pipes. She has become a succesful artist on the merits of her talent and work ethic, and she gets my vote because it seems there is very little that she cannot express vocally. She's a Pop/Rock singer now, but if you should doubt Kelly's versatility, check out her first few recordings including Before Your Love and The Trouble With Love. She always performs well, and should be around long after the world has forgotten her "Idol" roots, and that god-awful movie with Justin Guarini.
Aretha Franklin: She has a last name but doesn't even need it. Does anyone ever say, "Aretha who?". Arguably the best singer of all time, and certainly according to Rolling Stone magazine who last year published a list of their 100 greatest singers, and put her at number 1. Go ahead and do this. Make a playlist of all of the songs that Aretha has covered over the years. Listen to the original, and then listen to Aretha. It's like a religious experience. It's like looking at something beautiful, and then watching it become even more than you thought was possible. Need help? Listen to Aretha's version of Carole King's You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman), Ben E. King's Spanish Harlem, Otis Redding's Respect, The Band's The Weight, or the Dionne Warwick-famed Bacharach classic, Say a Little Prayer for You. Aretha doesn't just sing, she feels. Her vocals are powerful, yet sensitive and honest. She is the bar by which all others will be measured from now until forever.
Marvin Gaye: I am unsure that I am up to the task of adding to what has already been said about this man as a singer. He sang with absolute truth, love, yearning, and sometimes desperation. At a time when there was little you could do to enhance vocals, he made profound multi-levelled music where he sung lead, and then harmonized with himself, and even sung rounds and backgrounds like there were seven Marvins. Yet when he sang live, by himself, with nothing but his voice, it was pure transcendence. When he sang a duet, whether with Tammi Terrell, Kim Weston, or Diana Ross, he always managed to make them sound better, but you never doubted that the most necessary ingredient in the song was him. Take a moment to actually listen to What's Going On, Trouble Man, Inner City Blues and the live recording of Distant Lover, and you will see what I mean. He was a meteor that burned blindingly bright, and was extinguished too soon. There will never be another quite like Marvin.
Al Green: ?uestlove, of The Roots said the perfect thing in the "100 Greatest Singers" issue of Rolling Stone. He said of Al Green, "He takes amazing advantage of silence. Quiet is his strength." On numerous occasions, I have aggressively encouraged listeners to hear a part in the song, Tired of Being Alone, where Al says, "Sometimes I just fold my arms, and I say...hmmmm.....". That hmmm.... is just one of the most fantastic, minimalistic examples of how he works a song. Where others would belt out something forceful to ensure you hear, Al draws you in and seduces you into really listening. Now known as the Reverend, Al Green gave us some of the greatest songs during the 70s and early 80s. To hear him sing the words,
"Love is a flower in my soul. Love is a story that just can't be told" will make your woman forget she threw you out and set your underwear drawer on fire. Check out: Love and Happiness, Look What You Done For me, and his version of the Bee Gees' How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.
Michael Jackson: As tired as we all are of hearing his name (which you better get used to because it ain't going away ever!), the truth is that the boy could sing. From the earliest age, he possessed the ability to connect with the content of a song, be it about family, young love, or his relationship with a rat. He had that something special he always called "magic". Then as he got older, his ability to really sing evolved into something different, yet equally captivating. To MJ, every song was a blank canvas, and he was Monet. I recommend hearing Who's Loving You, and keeping in mind that he was no older than 11 when he sang it. Step outside of the typical hits and listen to I Wanna Be Where You Are, Good Thing Going and Farewell My Summer Love which were all pre-pubescently recorded. Also, his version of Charlie Chaplin's Smile is the best one I've heard.
Janis Joplin: Often imitated, but never duplicated, she did it all before the age of 28. She was wild, weird and always dared to be different, but no one could belt a tune like Janis. Everything she did had to be believed or it was of no use to her. The fact that she had any confidence at all was miraculous, as she had been told as a child that she had a terrible voice, and was taunted in school for her looks and her fascination with old blues. She was once quoted as saying "I was a misfit. I read, I painted, I didn't hate ni**ers." Needless to say, she gave quite the interview. Her voice set the stage for female rockers like Stevie Nicks, Melissa Etheridge and Bonnie Raitt to name just a few.
Some singers who deserve honourable mention above include: Sam Cooke, Roberta Flack, Etta James and Donny Hathaway.
Stay tuned for Part II.