The 30 Best Singers Of All Time
The human voice is simultaneously the easiest and hardest instrument to play. While all humans can hum a tune without even having to practice, it takes a genius to sing with enough quality, passion, and personality to influence a whole generation.
Coming up with a list of the 30 best singers of all time is a challenge, but only because so many great artists had to be left out. All best-of lists are necessarily subjective; however, I did my best to try to cover as many genres, musical expressions, and types of singing as possible. The names listed below are in no specific order.
1. Freddie Mercury
Making a list of the best singers of all time and excluding Freddie Mercury would make no sense. You knew this one was coming, so why not start with him? The man most rock fans think of when they hear the words “best” and “singer” used in the same sentence, Mercury was the whole package: he had the technical prowess, the showmanship, the creativity, the versatility, and even the eclecticism and finesse.
You’re probably aware of how talented Mercury was thanks to songs such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Barcelona.” To me, however, nothing beats watching him sing live with mind-boggling perfection at this seminal 1986 Wembley concert. Queen was and still is, a heck of a band, but I can’t help but wonder if it was mostly due to Freddie.
2. Dolly Parton
I could’ve gone with the utterly manly Johnny Cash, the ever-young Willie Nelson, or even the legendary Hank Williams. However, the living legend Dolly Parton is more than worthy of being called country music’s best-ever singer.
This Tennessee native does more than sing her heart out too: after all, she’s composed about 3,000 songs, including vastly-covered all-time hits such as “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You.” With over 100 million records sold and a personality that moves mountains, Parton is as iconically American as the bald eagle by now.
3. Elton John
The English singer Elton John would be worthy of the honorific address of Sir even if he hadn’t been knighted by the Queen in 1998. In collaboration with the legendary lyricist Bernie Taupin, John has released tunes as timeless as “Your Song” and “Tiny Dancer.”
Yes, John’s seemingly effortless vocal performances are undeniably great. But there’s much more to him than just his irresistibly bluesy, smooth, and deeply emotional vocal timbre. He is also known for his showmanship, extravagance, and philanthropic work. He’s pop-music royalty and just a man singing in front of a piano all at once.
4. Jeff Buckley
Fans of “Nirvana” will have to forgive me for picking Jeff Buckley over Kurt Cobain as the ultimate rock singer of the ’90s. Just like Cobain, Buckley has sadly left us way too soon, passing away tragically at the young age of 30. His unforgettable 1994 album “Grace,” however, remains a historic document of his vocal ability. Like his father Tim Buckley, Jeff sang with a heart-aching pain and sincerity that was just so real.
All of Jeff’s few remaining recordings are a powerful testament to his silky, unique vocal tone. But if there’s one song that makes him worthy of being considered one of the best singers of all time, that’s his cover of “Hallelujah.” Leonard Cohen’s iconic song was recorded by over 300 artists, but no version has gotten even close to Jeff’s.
5. Aretha Franklin
As the name implies, it takes a big soul to become one of the best soul singers of all time. Born to a humble Memphis, Tennessee family, the one-and-only Aretha Franklin had enough to spare. Her unforgettable vocal performances have earned her the respect of pretty much everybody, including former United States President Barack Obama.
When one thinks of a soulful American singer, it’s Aretha Franklin that comes to mind. In a country that gave us so many inspiring artists, that’s saying a lot. Aretha passed away in the summer of 2018, leaving behind a body of work that will continue to make humanity’s hearts beat faster 100 years from now.
6. Marvin Gaye
There’s no doubt that Marvin Gaye could sing. But while it’s impossible to name one bad thing about his smooth, versatile vocal tone, the “Prince of Motown” had a musical brain even more powerful than his larynx. In a way, he managed to glue all kinds of African-American music into one single, characteristic sound.
Gaye was the holiness of gospel music, the sensuality of R&B, and the groove of funk, all in one single package. At a moment when African-American musicians are finally getting the respect they’ve always deserved, it’s no wonder that Gaye’s “What’s Going On” was named the best album of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
7. Janis Joplin
The beautifully hoarse voice of the late Janis Joplin is still one of rock music’s very best. Whether she was leading The Big Brother & The Holding Company with songs as striking as “Piece of My Heart” or singing the classic “Mercedes Benz” acapella, Joplin was as memorable as unmistakable.
For a woman who was born in Texas and spent her entire (and tragically short) life soaked by the spirit of the ’60s, Joplin had a surprisingly soulful voice. To this day, her performance at the historic Woodstock Festival remains one of the most significant moments of the Flower Power movement.
8. Little Richard
Richard Wayne Penniman wasn’t a big man, that’s probably why most people knew him by the name of Little Richard. His voice, however, was as powerful as it gets. The ’50s have produced many talented, energetic, and dynamic rock and roll singers – Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and even Elvis Presley come to mind – but Little Richard was arguably the very best.
A bombastic and charismatic showman, as proven by this “Long Tall Sally” performance, Richard saw his classic song “Tutti Frutti” inducted into the National Recording Industry in 2010. Ten years later, rock-and-roll’s bigger-than-life singer passed away at the age of 87.
Electronic music is rarely about singers. Björk, Iceland’s most famous export, is a remarkable exception. Her electronic-based compositions feature elements coming from all sorts of musical spectrums, but Björk’s extremely versatile voice is always at the center of her art. After all, it’s no coincidence that she once released a fully-acapella album.
Notable eclecticism and longevity are just two of the things that make Björk so great. What sets her voice apart, though, is her ability to explore different dynamic ranges, mastering both extremely soft and extremely loud passages. “Bachelorette” is but one of the many incredible tracks she’s released over the years.
10. Joni Mitchell
What makes a singer-songwriter great? More than technical prowess, it’s the ability to tell a great story and to be as sincere as possible. The uncanny Joni Mitchell is one of the most honest songwriters of all time, and each of her songs feels like something a close friend is whispering to our ears.
But Mitchell isn’t just great at expressing herself and pouring her heart into tunes as beautiful as “California;” she’s also a truly gifted singer. No, you don’t need to sing in tune to be a great singer-songwriter (ever heard about Bob Dylan?), but Mitchell does anyway. She’s also an extremely knowledgeable musician, who has explored radical harmonic and rhythmic ideas and worked alongside jazz greats such as Jaco Pastorius and Herbie Hancock.
11. James Brown
Dubbed “the hardest-working man in show business,” James Brown was pure music from head to toe. His voice did the singing, sure, but Brown’s entire body was tuned in whenever he performed live or stepped into the recording studio. Abandoned by his mother at a young age and raised in extreme poverty, Brown turned his dancing and singing skills into a new, explosive kind of music the world would later know as funk.
What more can be said about the one-and-only “Mr. Dynamite?” Brown wasn’t just one of the ultimate showmen that have ever lived, but he was also a truly gifted singer! His powerful duet with Luciano Pavarotti continues to impress me every single time.
12. Tom Waits
What is it that makes the American artist Tom Waits one of the best singers of all time? He’s surely not the most versatile singer in the world, nor the most technical (even though he never misses a beat). What truly sets him apart is the fact that he’s perhaps the greatest singer-actor that has ever lived. When it comes to playing a character through a song, Tom steps right up!
Next to the piano, he’s as good as anyone else. Some of his compositions are breathtakingly beautiful, and his drunken-like vocal timbre only adds to the timeless ambiance of his best songs. There are numerous perfect tunes in his catalog, but “I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work” is the one worth noting above all else.
13. Ray Charles
Many years before Marvin Gaye stepped into the scene, Ray Charles was already putting all the great sounds of the African-American musical diaspora together to create something unique. Was his music soul, R&B, gospel, or jazz? The answer is: it was all of it at the same time. An extremely talented composer and pianist, “Brother Ray,” as he liked to be known, was also one of the best singers of all time.
Beloved by fellow musicians and music fans alike, Charles’ catalog is so diverse that he was inducted into both the Black Music & Entertainment Walk of Fame and the Country Hall of Fame! “Georgia On My Mind” and “Drown in My Own Tears” feature two of his best vocal performances.
14. Curtis Mayfield
When everybody thought that the creative spirit of the psychedelic ’60s was impossible to match, the fruitful ’70s started. Among many other great new sounds, the ’70s introduced us to a new brand of soul music that featured charismatic singers who tackled political issues and often relied on falsetto.
While the otherworldly Minnie Riperton could’ve made it to the list, the indisputable falsetto king of the ’70s was the politically-charged Curtis Mayfield. Utterly cool, refreshingly original, and unapologetically outspoken, Mayfield inspired, and continues to inspire, entire generations of singers, artists, and activists. “Pusherman” is but one of his irresistible (and still relevant) tunes.
15. Stevie Wonder
If you don’t love Stevie Wonder, do you even love music? This Motown child prodigy landed his first number-one hit at the precocious age of 13 and released five of the best albums of all time in a period of four years (from 1972’s “Music of My Mind” to 1976’s “Songs in the Key of Life”).
What can you expect from a Stevie Wonder song? Irresistible grooves, impeccable mixes, catchy melodies, and, above all, an angelic, silky voice that fits perfectly into any arrangement. “Isn’t She Lovely” and “Sir Duke” are great songs, but what about his mind-bending mastering of vocal modulations in “Golden Lady?”
16. Tina Turner
There are two Tina Turners. The one who delivered incredibly soulful performances next to Ike Turner, and the one who sold out Wembley with disco-inspired stadium anthems. Both have at least two things in common, though: a voice that puts all others to shame, and a sense of showmanship few have dared to match.
After turning Ike & Tina Turner into a global blues-soul phenomenon, Tina decided to make one of the greatest comebacks in music history by reinventing her persona in the ’80s. With over 100 million records sold, she was listed as one of The Greatest Artists of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine.
17. Frank Sinatra
The first crooners appeared in the ’20s. They only existed due to the democratization of the microphone, which allowed soft-singing artists to perform live and record in the studio. However, it wasn’t until the ’40s that the world was introduced to the greatest crooner that has ever lived: Frank Sinatra.
Listing the great Sinatra as one of the best singers of all time is a clichè, but clichès exist for a reason. After all, it’d be foolish to ignore the man many believe to have been the greatest singer of the 20th century. Born in New Jersey in December 1915, Sinatra passed away in May 1998 at the age of 82, leaving behind one of the most impressive legacies in the history of music.
18. Nina Simone
With a personality that could move mountains, Eunice Kathleen Waymon had nothing but life and was one of the best voices the world has ever known. That was enough for her to go from being the sixth of eight poor children from North Carolina to becoming Nina Simone, arguably the most powerful and charismatic female voice in the history of jazz.
While other jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan were immortalized for their nuanced, soft-singing style, Simone was raw power, dynamism, energy, and pure soul. Her ten-minute epic masterpiece “Sinnerman” is emblematic of her unforgettable talent.
19. Michael Jackson
Loving Michael Jackson is complicated. Controversy aside, though, it’s impossible to ignore that the “King of Pop” was one of the best singers of all time. Jackson’s talent was such that he was a superstar by the time he was a child. Over the years, he continued to transform his sound and release masterful pop tunes. The records he made with Quincy Jones are still among the most iconic artist-producer collaborations in music history.
Jackson could sing as well as anyone else, and he had an effortless knack for coming up with incredibly catchy melodies, irresistible hooks, and grooves that still drive crowds to madness today. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Billie Jean,” and “Earth Song” are some of my favorites.
20. John Lennon & Paul McCartney
The history of pop-rock music has presented us with many tough choices. But if there’s a debate no one will ever be able to settle, that’s the Lennon-McCartney debate. While I didn’t want to list both John Lennon and Paul McCartney separately, I wouldn’t dare to pick just one of the two most prolific Beatles.
The two most successful songwriters of all time, Lennon and McCartney did more than just come up with great songs: they could also sing their hearts out! Seeing these geniuses do their thing in the studio is out of this world.
21. Whitney Houston
The late great Whitney Houston is one of the best-selling music artists of all time without question. Her legacy is set in stone with multiple awards, and records, as well as being inducted in not one but three Hall Of Fames. What is there to deny?
Tragically passing away at the age of 48, Whitney left behind some iconic songs that will help the world remember her always. These include hits like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, “Run To You”, and “I Have Nothing”, as well as her amazing rendition of “I Will Always Love You”.
Despite her many ups and downs, her legacy is something that many look up to and try to achieve. She still inspires people with her amazing vocals and iconic songs.
22. Elvis Presley
Named the King of Rock and Roll for a reason, Elvis Presley is without a doubt an inspiring figure in the music industry. The Mississippi native is responsible for some of the most popular hits in music history with vocals that will astound many.
His vocal range is often overlooked but he was able to produce really low notes and switch to high notes with ease. Songs like “Jailhouse Rock”, “In The Ghetto”, and “Suspicious Minds” are just some of the legendary repertoire that just barely touches the greatness that was Elvis Presley.
23. Mariah Carey
Still belting out amazing vocals, Mariah Carey is, without question, one of the best female singers of all time. Nicknamed Songbird Supreme or Queen of Christmas, Carey has put down some iconic songs over the years that will certainly cement her legacy long after she leaves the stage.
Her many hits include “Without You”, “All I Want For Christmas”, “When You Believe”, and “Hero”, just to name a few. She has topped the charts numerous times and was the first artist to have her first five singles reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
24. Celine Dion
While on the topic of the greatest female singers, I can’t help but mention the ever-great Celine Dion. Her technical accuracy and stunning performances are enough to solidify her place among the greats. Every live performance is accurate to a tee and even surpasses expectations.
Celine Dion has brought the world countless hits such as “It’s All Coming Back To Me”, “All By Myself”, “My Heart Will Go On”, and “Power Of Love” among many others. Incorporating numerous different genres, she is the best-selling Canadian recording artist and best-selling French-language artist of all time.
25. Sam Cooke
A pioneering soul artist, Sam Cooke, nicknamed the King of Soul, made waves back in the day and is still remembered as one of the greatest to ever do it. His legacy influenced many iconic singers like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and more.
His soulful voice was what made him into a legend as well as songs like “A Change Is Gonna Come”, “Bring It On Home to Me”, and “Good Times”. He is currently ranked #3 on Rolling Stones’ Greatest Singers Of All Time which is enough for most.
26. Otis Redding
While on the topic of Soul music, another singer nicknamed the King of Soul, Otis Redding fueled his inspiration with gospel music. Shortly after his passing, he was awarded two Grammys and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Not long after, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Otis Redding left behind some iconic songs like “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”, “Respect” and “Try a Little Tenderness”. He had a way of singing and covering certain songs that astonished people even then. He is still a relevant figure that remains an influential name in the music industry.
27. Bob Dylan
Maybe not the most technical and powerful voice around, Bob Dylan cemented his legacy with his influence, legendary songs, and inventive lyrics. Winner of numerous awards and an inductee of three Hall Of Fames, Bob Dylan is still active and continues to inspire musicians across the globe.
His song repertoire is a goldmine. His most notable hit songs include “The Times They Are a-Changin'”, “Blowin’ In The Wind”, and “Mr. Tambourine Man”. He is one of the most impactful artists to have ever touched a microphone, without question.
Prince Rogers Nelson or just Prince, commonly referred to as The Artist, is still a highly influential figure in music. He was known for his technical guitar skills, amazing vocals, and stage presence. As a well-known multi-instrumentalist and proficient vocalist, he left behind a legacy that not many can attain.
His most notable songs include “Purple Rain”, “Kiss”, and “Nothing Compares 2 U”. Prince sold over 150 million records worldwide and was awarded numerous accolades throughout his career and even after his passing. He will remain a striking figure in music, without a doubt.
29. Luther Vandross
Most probably know Luther Vandross, the soulful vocal king who sold millions of records worldwide, and earned eleven consecutive Platinum albums and eight Grammy Awards. This is enough to sway any music enthusiast out there.
Among his many hits, Luther’s “Dance With My Father” is the most notable, still being played today and the reason why he won so many awards. He was technically sound when it came to his vocals and his legacy is set in stone.
30. David Bowie
The ever-popular baritone, David Bowie was and still is a remarkable figure in the world of music. He has influenced so many musicians and artists and is behind some of the most iconic hits from the 70s. Releasing more than 20 albums, he surely left behind a shining legacy.
His most notable songs include “Heroes”, “Starman”, “Modern Love”, and many many more. He was not only a successful musician but also a striking figure in the music industry. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is ranked among the greatest artists of all time.
The best singers of all time are a varied bunch, ranging from soul divas to pop idols to punk rockers. But they all have one thing in common: an incredible voice that sets them apart from the rest. From Tina Turner to Nina Simone to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, these singers have left a lasting impression on the world of music.
Freddy Mercury Featured Image by: Carl Lender, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons