Lists are an inane waste of time and perhaps the most obvious piece of evidence that someone doesn’t have anything new to say, but I can’t help it — I love them. Rolling Stone, having recently downsized its format to better look exactly like Blender, just named their “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” and in response, I’m just dying to weigh in with my own thoughts.
Now when it comes to “all time,” Rolling Stone seems to have forgotten that the world was invented slightly before Elvis showed up on the Ed Sullivan Show. So since neither Frank Sinatra nor Enrico Caruso appear on Rolling Stone’s list, we’ll assume that what they meant was the greatest singers of the rock era.
Before we start, let’s acknowledge that this is pretty much an impossible task. Exactly how do you compare the instrument that Aretha Franklin was born with to the one that Bob Dylan has been lugging around for the past 50 years? How many points do you get for being an entertaining front man? Can I pop Roger Daltrey up a few slots for his mesmerizing microphone hurling?
Personally, I give a lot of points for showmanship, but in my mind singing is all about conveying emotion, which means that I’ll take Kurt Cobain’s gut-wrenching screams over Patti Labelle and Michael Bolton’s stale vocal acrobatics every day of the week.
Number 1 Reason That the Rolling Stone List Sucks: Uh, dudes — where the hell is Levi Stubbs? You know the amazing leader of the Four Tops, the one that was just all over the news! Stubbs should have been in the top 20 and whoever forgot that he existed needs to be immediately shot.
1. Aretha Franklin
Aretha’s usually a consensus choice in these things, but despite the fact that she has a nuclear powered howitzer inside of her, she wouldn’t be number one on my list. She’s fantastic, but she never really surprises me. She just always sounds like Aretha, not that there’s much wrong with that. Points deducted for continually appearing in dresses that expose more up top than Dolly Parton does when she showers. Points added for once subbing on an opera tune for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti with no rehearsal.
2. Ray Charles
He’s the bomb, but he has to be faulted for some of the schmaltz that he somehow constantly seemed too fond of or at least was intent on putting up with to please a middle of the road audience. Listen to Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me” and you’ll hear both. Ray ripping up a heartbreaking vocal, while for some reason being backed up by singers straight out of the Perry Como orchestra.
3. Elvis Presley
Number one for me and no one else comes close. Ignore for a second that Presley was the most beautiful human being of all time and that he was easily the most electric performer ever, Elvis in his prime could sing anything (rock, opera, metal, soul, blues, country – no problem). All the wonks will tell you he did his best work at Sun, but for me his immense '50s RCA output is so explosive that it puts everyone else to shame. It’s not just that Elvis had an amazing instrument, no one ever had so much fun putting it to use. Whirling back and forth from low to high, from raspy to angelically pretty, the only singer ever that could take any song and transform it into something that sounded like it came from somewhere else a galaxy or too away.
4. Sam Cooke
Died far too young, and wanted to be successful at the white bread Copa a little too much. Pretty much invented both Rod Stewart and Otis Redding. Who else could have gotten so much from a song as slight as "You Send Me"? When he sings “please hear my cry” in “Cupid” that’s exactly what it sounds like.
5. John Lennon
Famously hated his own voice and was constantly trying to disguise it, I find it nearly impossible to listen to anything Lennon recorded without smiling (well, with the exception of “Mother” – that song scares me to death). My personal favorites are the early ballads with the knockout bridges like “Anna” and “This Boy,” where Lennon cried out in agony for true love as wrenchingly as anyone who has ever walked the earth.
6. Marvin Gaye
Marvin should easily be second on this list. Gaye wanted to croon like Frank Sinatra, but had to settle for being the sexiest thing imaginable. Marvin was sexier clearing his throat than Madonna is during a nude photo shoot with Big Daddy Kane and Vanilla Ice. Marvin could be singing about “fish filled with mercury” in “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and women around the world would still be instantly erupting in sexual heat. Gaye’s 70s multi-layered vocal recordings are simply astounding – the man used a recording studio to turn himself into the ultimate vocal orchestra.
7. Bob Dylan
We could argue about this forever. Here he is at number 7, and without a doubt he never would have come close to making it past the audition phase of American Idol. Dylan forever changed the notion of what a singer was and could be. Once claimed that he was as good as Caruso and in his strung out, mid 60s electric period he might have been right, but Bob’s live recordings over the last 30 years have often sounded like Porky Pig unintelligibly wrestling with a foreign language. Despite the fact that he often claims to be just a song and dance man, he seems to care as little about showmanship as Miles Davis did.
8. Otis Redding
Gotta, gotta, gotta love Otis! Put the sweat into soul.
9. Stevie Wonder
Shares Ray Charles weakness for schmaltz and hasn’t been relevant for years, but he’s still worthy of his adopted last name.
10. James Brown
Up there with Elvis as an electric boogie front man, don’t let Eddie Murphy let you forget that he wasn’t just “hhhhhhheeeeeeeehhhhhhhhhh!” Listen to “Prisoner of Love,” Soul Brother Number One could sing with anyone.
11. Paul McCartney
Often sappier than the worst of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder combined, listen to him belt out the end of “Hey Jude” and forgive him.
12. Little Richard
Whooooooooooooooop! I’m guessing Paul McCartney would have gladly switched places with his idol on this list.
13. Roy Orbison
Had he been born in Italy he would have been the greatest opera singer of all time.
14. Al Green
Getting doused with hot boiling grits? That’s got to be less than pleasant.
15. Robert Plant
“Does anyone remember laughter?” Robert can belt, but often times you just can’t stop laughing at the absurd things that are coming out of his mouth. Just because “Immigrant Song” is the funniest thing ever recorded doesn’t mean that it doesn’t kick ass too.
16. Mick Jagger
Jagger’s an inexhaustible performer, which is a good thing because he often sounds like a bloated grouper live. His leering recorded output and evil, sex drenched phrasing nevertheless justifies this slot.
17. Tina Turner
She can belt. She can strut. Not very versatile, she has one power level – atomic devastation. She’d be way lower had I made this list.
18. Freddie Mercury
Often more absurd that Robert Plant, Mercury had an incredible instrument, and no one ever worked a crowd harder.
19. Bob Marley
Simon Cowell: I don’t know what you’re thinking …
Jason Castro: I was thinking Bob Marley! Yeah!
You don’t need to be stoned to rank him here, but it helps.
20. Smokey Robinson
If you’re ever in the inner city, do your best not to mention that Smokey sounds like a prepubescent girl. You could get your ass kicked.
21. Johnny Cash
Not exactly the best instrument on this list. Hardass cool and the ability to mind-blowingly interpret Trent Reznor with one foot in the grave goes a long way.
22. Etta James
Cadillac Records starring Beyonce coming to a theater near you.
23. David Bowie
Not exactly the most knowable empathetic singer, but that Christmas duet with Bing is incredible.
24. Van Morrison
"Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)" so you better believe that even Van wishes he were a notch or two lower on this list.
25. Michael Jackson
The most insane man in the history of the world still has a catalog that anyone would die for. No one has ever sounded so sexy, while at the same time being so asexual. The most unknowable artist of all time.
26. Jackie Wilson
Exhaustively dynamic performer, operatic voice, Elvis would tell anyone in earshot that Jackie Wilson was the whole package. He should easily be in the top ten.
27. Hank Williams
Died at 29, looked and sounded about 80. Deserves to have someone else besides George Hamilton portray him in the movies.
28. Janis Joplin
Most credible white female blues singer of all time. Someone is annoyingly imitating her in a bar near you. Her descendants should forever get a percentage of Southern Comfort profits.
29. Nina Simone
Haven’t really gone there, looking forward to getting to her. Music is fantastic because there’s always more to explore.
Can sing like a man or a woman. Prince can work himself into a frenzy with the best of them. Nutty as a fruitcake, but as Chris Rock once said, “Remember when we used to argue over who was better: Michael Jackson or Prince? Guess what? Prince won."
31. Howlin' Wolf
Haunting voice. Scarier than most horror movies.
Got away with naming himself Bono Vox (sort of Latin for Good Voice), lived to talk about it. If you get a chance, find his live version of Lennon's "Help" from U2's Amnesty International concert tour. The way he sings "my independence seems to vanish in the haze" never fails to make my spine tingle.
33. Steve Winwood
Loved those high energy Spencer Davis tracks. Often bores me. Where did he disappear to?
34. Whitney Houston
Cocaine is a hell of a drug. Compare the bombast of her performance of “The Star Spangled Banner,” with the more nuanced and emotional version by Marvin Gaye and you’ll hear why I have little use for her histrionics.
35. Dusty Springfield
Seemed to take Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction to remember how fantastic she was.
36. Bruce Springsteen
Fantastic performer, great guy, why do I have zero interest in anything he’s recorded since Darkness on the Edge of Town?
37. Neil Young
Great artist – doesn’t merit being up here this high.
38. Elton John
When he avoids the Donald Duck outfits and his schmaltzier side he’s fantastic.
39. Jeff Buckley
Haunting and doomed.
40. Curtis Mayfield
His voice was high and beautiful, he was a great writer and artist, but would be lower on my list.
41. Chuck Berry
Did his emphatic best with what he had. Chuck defined rock and roll attitude. His early sides were sped up to make him sound younger. “Too Much Monkey Business” may have invented rap.
42. Joni Mitchell
I know everyone worships her, but she doesn’t do anything for me.
43. George Jones
This is what a sad drunk should sound like.
44. Bobby "Blue" Bland
I'm too ignorant to comment.
45. Kurt Cobain
I saw Nirvana at the Cow Palace in San Francisco and was just astonished at how this guy could push his larynx beyond overdrive. It was like seeing John Lennon sing “Twist and Shout” for an hour and a half straight and seemed physically impossible, and yet although he was as screwed up as anyone on the planet, when you heard him scream, it sounded like he understood all the pain in the world and was absorbing it all inside of him to make you feel better.
46. Patsy Cline
Simple and wonderful.
47. Jim Morrison
I’m actually proud that Rolling Stone has him up here this high. The fact that he could really sing has too often been totally obscured by his looks, legend, and often buffoonish drunken behavior, but he was an amazingly authoritative stage presence who could command your entire attention without doing anything but standing slumping over his microphone stand. He could croon and scream and is for my money the most credible white blues singer ever.
48. Buddy Holly
“True Love Ways” is the prettiest song ever.
49. Donny Hathaway
Did you know that was him singing the Maude theme song? Sadly, didn’t live long enough to see himself become the go-to guy for American Idol contestants everywhere. Deserves to be much higher and as a vocalist was every bit as good as Stevie Wonder.
50. Bonnie Raitt
I find myself oddly attracted to her despite her age. We could delete her from this and I wouldn't care.
51. Gladys Knight
Sorry, I was always more interested in the Pips.
52. Brian Wilson
Before he destroyed his voice with substances, his ventures to the high range of his voice were the most earthly sign of angelic innocence to visit our world.
53. Muddy Waters
Those Led Zeppelin dudes owe his estate some serious money.
54. Luther Vandross
Never really a fan, but he died too soon.
55. Paul Rodgers
Way too high. Has a few classic sides, but trying to replace Freddie Mercury in Queen is either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.
56. Mavis Staples
Definitely sang “Respect Yourself” better than Bruce Willis did.
57. Eric Burdon
Fantastic deep, scary voice. The poetry verses of “Spill the Wine” are absurd, but by the time he belts out the chorus, it doesn’t really matter.
58. Christina Aguilera
Being leagues better than Britney doesn’t merit anointing her an all time great. Talented, but something about her creeps me out. Would have won American Idol every year in her sleep.
59. Rod Stewart
Should be much higher, but has consistently made career decisions that make George W. Bush’s look brilliant in comparison.
Too whacked out and weird for me to objectively rate, I may be just too stupid to get it. Love the Spike Jonze video for “It’s So Quiet.”
61. Roger Daltrey
“Yeah!” Early in his career he was the least interesting presence in the Who, but he constantly got better and became one of the best front men ever.
62. Lou Reed
Does nothing for me. Zero. The Velvets are easily the most overrated band of all time. Sorry.
Criminally all but forgotten, the King of Doo Wop.
64. Axl Rose
Dude, seriously, what happened to you?
65. David Ruffin
An egomaniac and far less than the greatest human being in the world, nevertheless when he bragged that he was the Temptations, he was pretty much correct. “My Girl” sounds slight and worthless sung by anyone else in the history of the world. Should be in the top 20 – disagree? Listen to “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me).”
66. Thom Yorke
I know that I’m legally supposed to worship Radiohead, but I’m not convinced that Thom Yorke deserves to be on this list.
67. Jerry Lee Lewis
He’s 150 or so, and still scares the living daylights out of me. I’d never say one bad word about the Killer.
68. Wilson Pickett
69. Ronnie Spector
I still have no idea why the Ronnettes made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her being higher than fellow Phil Spector player Darlene Love is a sick joke.
70. Gregg Allman
71. Toots Hibbert
“Pressure Drop” right?
72. John Fogerty
Just serviceable, without his songwriting he’s still stuck in Lodi.
73. Dolly Parton
Sadly let her breasts eclipse her talent. Fantastic, but trying to get Sylvester Stallone to sing was a mistake of epic proportions.
74. James Taylor
Pleasant enough – probably more effective than Ambien.
75. Iggy Pop
Minus the sideshow, doesn’t do much for me.
76. Steve Perry
God, I hate Journey. Are the lead singers from Styx and REO coming up next?
77. Merle Haggard
I’m not going to even pretend that I’ve listened to any Merle Haggard. Seems like it would have been cool to party with him though.
78. Sly Stone
Cocaine is a hell of a drug. Saddest flameout of all time.
79. Mariah Carey
The most successful recording artist of all time! Is that amazing or what? Amazing voice, amazing body, much of her work makes me form a silly smile. Could anyone else have taken an inane song like “Touch My Body” and made it so absurdly enjoyable.
80 Frankie Valli
Incredible range, sounds uniquely annoying at any pitch.
81. John Lee Hooker
Ranking these blues legends is tough. All the guys on the list get huge props for the danger in their voices, but B.B. King probably out sings any of them on a good night.
82. Tom Waits
Who am I to argue with Scarlett Johansson?
83. Patti Smith
With all due respect, Chrissie Hynde would be a better choice.
84. Darlene Love
Should have been a bigger star, but was dwarfed by Phil Spector’s ego and belief that he could just stick any singer in front of his wall of sound.
85. Sam Moore
Loved him in Tapeheads.
86. Art Garfunkel
Too slight of an artist to be here.
87. Don Henley
As Mojo Nixon once cheerfully sang: “Don Henley must die/Don’t let him get back together with Glen Frey.” To Henley’s credit he once drunkenly popped up on stage with Mojo and showed that he had a sense of humor.
88. Willie Nelson
There’s a lot more there than meets the eye.
89. Solomon Burke
90. The Everly Brothers
If I could tell them apart, I’d tell you which of them I like better. Hint: It’s the one that sings the solo breaks in “Cathy’s Clown.”
91. Levon Helm
Pretty much defines the best of what it means to sound country.
The Smiths' rep in England has somehow now reached Beatles level. God or buffoon, no one has ever walked that line as well as Morrissey.
93. Annie Lennox
Probably ahead of her time, but seems in desperate need of a sense of humor.
94. Karen Carpenter
What no Donny Osmond? Pretty voice and pretty shallow at the same time.
95. Patti LaBelle
I hate what I call Star Search singing – trills in search of a reason. The worst example of this came during what I think was a Grammy tribute to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell by Patti Labelle and Office Space favorite Michael Bolton. I can’t prove it, but Marvin and Tammi sounded like they felt every note they sang to each other. Patti and Michael were like bad metal guitarists who know a lot of scales.
96. B.B. King
Should be higher.
97. Joe Cocker
He has skills, but after John Belushi had his way with him, how can I possibly take him seriously?
98. Stevie Nicks
Please don’t let Stevie find out that she was lower than Karen Carpenter.
99. Steven Tyler
I really wish that I had missed “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” Proves that you can have a legendary career just by imitating Mick Jagger.
100. Mary J. Blige
What no R. Kelly?
Feel free to tell me who besides Levi Stubbs was criminally ignored. Here are some I think merited consideration.
- Elvis Costello
- Ray Davies
- Joe Strummer
- John Lydon (No, I’m not kidding!)
- Aimee Mann
- Aaron Neville
- Bon Scott
- Billie Holliday
- Frank Sinatra
- Robin Zander
- Clyde McPhatter
- Ben E. King
- Fiona Apple
- Michael Stipe
- Eric Carmen
- Steve Marriot
- David Lee Roth (Yeah, I said it — David Lee Roth!)