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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
14 | Freddie Mercury
Freddie Mercury’s soul-stirring vibrato and four-octave vocal range — as well as his overwhelming charisma — ignited the music of Queen, making their art rock an arresting spectacle. “Bohemian Rhapsody” offers a crash course in Mercury’s greatness, thanks to its balladic bookends, feisty rock moments, and operatic middle — including the breakdown where Mercury’s vocals, accompanied by guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor’s, were mega-dubbed into a giant choir. Queen’s catalog is stuffed with other moments that show just how talented Mercury was: “Somebody to Love” floats on air as Mercury soars through octaves and moods effortlessly, “Another One Bites the Dust” is all snap and swagger, and “The Show Must Go On” is a ruefully appropriate coda, Mercury putting in a full-throated performance even as he sang of his deteriorating health. —M.J.
13 | Patsy Cline
Country-pop pioneer Patsy Cline’s career was cut short — she passed away in a plane crash at age 30 —but her strong yet supple voice is why she remains the standard-bearer for aspiring heartbreak chroniclers in Nashville and beyond. Cline attributed her contralto’s richness to a particularly grisly bout with rheumatic fever she’d had at 13: “You might say it was my return to the living after several days that launched me as a singer,” she wryly noted in 1957. But the nuanced way she interpreted her lovestruck material — her bursting-dam approach to the self-flagellating “Crazy,” her besotted seething on “I Fall to Pieces” — gave her performances emotional heft, and it’s a big reason why she’s still plucking heartstrings six decades after her death. —M.J.
12 | John Lennon
John Lennon’s voice was like his mind — agile, bright as a bell, startlingly alive. From his screamed-out version of Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” with the Beatles out-rocking the Motown original to the seething motormouth of “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” to even a lesser later rocker like “What You Got,” singing with everything he had was Lennon’s trademark. His first solo album, 1970’s Plastic Ono Band, is still astonishing — as critic Robert Christgau put it, “a complete tour of rock timbre from scream to whine.” The same can be said for the White Album — in particular, the transition from “Julia” to “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” —M.M.
11 | Little Richard
Little Richard is the patron saint of every singer who’s ever pushed their voice to the limit, and right past it, in the name of sending the listener into a frenzy. His immortal hits are clinics in how to generate excitement via constantly upping the vocal ante: On “Long Tall Sally,” he roars out of the gate with a gritty shout before switching to a vertigo-inducing falsetto “whoo-oo-oo-oo!,” and on “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” he chases further extremes of supercharged intensity, settling into a peak snarl that sounds hazardous to try to emulate and, leading into the sax solo, letting loose with a proto-punk scream that foreshadows everyone from Prince to Iggy Pop. —H.S.
10 | Al Green
There’s something feline about Al Green’s voice — a sinuous flexibility that flares up in places the listener isn’t expecting, which is always welcome. Few singers create the illusion of being carried away by the very song they’re singing the way he can. Whether he’s lying in a hard Memphis funk groove, like a python ready to dart (see the early “I’m a Ram”), or overdubbing multiple ethereal falsettos (a la the climax of “Have You Been Making Out OK”), the Rev. Green can evoke rapturous transport like it’s effortless. The truth was quite different — he worked hard on his classics — but whether he’s singing about God or eros, Green is the ultimate soul man. —M.M.
9 | Otis Redding
Onstage — start with his commanding performance at 1967’s Monterey Pop festival — Otis Redding was so boundless and revved up that he could literally make a stage shake. But especially in the studio, his emotive rasp was a marvel of controlled restraint. In his most penetrating soul ballads, like “Try a Little Tenderness,” “Mr. Pitiful,” and “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” Redding relished each anguished word, adding exclamatory lines at the end of phrases but never overdoing them. Another testament to his power: the way he could cover rock & roll hits, like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “A Hard Day’s Night,” and make you forget that anyone had sung them before he had. —D.B.
8 | Beyoncé
In Beyoncé’s voice lies the entire history of Black music. She is one of pop’s great historians, an artist so in love with the heroes who shape her that she can’t help but find opportunities to pay homage to them in her music, performance and, of course, her singing. But there’s nothing derivative about what Beyoncé does: Instead, she has heeded the lessons she can glean from Prince, Tina, Diana, Michael, Janet, Donna, and more and shaped herself into an icon worth standing next to those titans, even while still at the top of her game. At times brashly Southern or cherubically hymnal, her malleability and penchant for vocal theatricals have allowed her range to successfully fit into everything from funk to country to hard rock (sometimes all on the same album). And she’s as good a rapper as she is songbird, mastering each turn with ineffable control and power. —B.S.
7 | Stevie Wonder
Whatever tone Stevie Wonder is aiming for, from starry-eyed romance to gritty realism, his voice can convey it with ease. Few other singers could so convincingly sell both the unabashed tenderness of “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” or “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and the simmering anger that underlies “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” or “Living for the City.” The last song showcases Wonder’s patented growl, one of many vocal tactics he uses to push a song into overdrive (see also: the upper-register melodic acrobatics heard on “Sir Duke” or the gospel-like swoops on the climax of “They Won’t Go When I Go”). Talking about singers who “squall,” or favor an overheated delivery, in a 2014 interview, D’Angelo singled Wonder out. “The thing about Stevie Wonder,” he said, “was that he brought these vocal mechanics into the squall that other motherfuckers just couldn’t do.” —H.S.
6 | Ray Charles
“People call me a jazz singer and a blues singer, but I don’t really know the difference,” Ray Charles told an interviewer in 1963. “I just try to sing a song, and I only sing songs I like to sing. And I try to put a little bit of soul into everything.” He meant everything — Charles was a titan of R&B, pop, jazz, and country alike, and the reason his first retrospective box set, in 1991, was titled The Birth of Soul is because it was Ray’s rewriting of a gospel song as the straightforwardly lascivious “I Got a Woman” that made soul music happen. And he turned one of the most anodyne of national hymns, “America the Beautiful,” into a soul-wrenching epic. The man could make anything soulful. —M.M.
5 | Mariah Carey
Range, dahhling, is exactly what Mariah Carey possesses. Across five staggering octaves, the Elusive Chanteuse can pivot easily between a biting, taunting growl to an unreal whistle tone so sharply delivered it could cut steel. Since 1990’s “Vision of Love,” the singer-songwriter has always straddled the delicate balance between old-school soul and R&B with modern, often forward-thinking pop. Her secret has long been a sweetness that can be at times either angelic or devilish, depending on how she wields the multitude of secret vocal weapons she has in her arsenal. Everything from coy, breathy coos to guttural, full-bodied belts can be deployed with equally electrifying results. By combining her operatic vocal talents with a tough attitude and penchant for high glamor and drama, Carey birthed generations of imitators in her wake. But those she influenced still can’t beat the architect of modern pop’s sound. —B.S.
4 | Billie Holiday
Other jazz-vocal legends like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald thrived on refinement; Billie Holiday privileged emotional truth. It’s a quality that gave her a special status among fellow artists, from her longtime saxophone foil Lester Young to Miles Davis, who wrote in his autobiography that when Holiday would sing a ballad like “I Loves You Porgy,” about a woman tormented by an abusive lover, “you could almost feel that shit she was feeling. It was beautiful and sad the way she sang that.” She’ll always be known as a poet of gloom, her slow-drip delivery perfectly suited to the forlorn (“Lover Man”) or downright morbid (“Strange Fruit,” an aptly sickening condemnation of lynching), but she could also use the openness in her voice to convey overflowing elation (“Too Marvelous for Words”). “Billie Holiday makes you hear the content and intent of every word she sings — even at the expense of her pitch or tone,” Joni Mitchell once said. “Billie is the one that touches me deepest.” —H.S.
3 | Sam Cooke
There is American popular music before Sam Cooke and popular music after. He was already a gospel superstar with the Soul Stirrers when he went solo in 1957 and immediately began defining the idea of “soul music” both as a crossover star and musical innovator. His tenor seduced on 1957’s “You Send Me,” and it enchanted on “Wonderful World,” a song that in lesser hands might’ve sounded corny. But few singers savored being inside a song the way Cooke did. He did spotless standards on 1964’s Live at the Copacabana and a smooth version of gutbucket R&B on One Night Stand — Live at the Harlem Square Club, a badass 1963 set unreleased until 1985. And then there is his 1964 masterpiece “A Change Is Gonna Come.” A civil rights activist inspired by hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin in the Wind,” Cooke wails “I was booorrrn by the river…” over rising strings and matches the music emotion for emotion. —J.G.
The standard-bearer for R&B vocals, Whitney Houston possessed a soprano that was as powerful as it was tender. Take her cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” which became one of the defining singles of the 1990s; it opens with her gently brooding, her unaccompanied voice sounding like it’s turning over the idea of leaving her lover behind with the lightest touch. By the end, it’s transformed into a showcase for her limber, muscular upper register; she sings the title phrase with equal parts bone-deep feeling and technical perfection, turning the conflicted emotions at the song’s heart into a jumping-off point for her life’s next step.
Houston’s self-titled 1985 debut came out a bit more than six months before her 22nd birthday, and it established her as one of pop’s most potent vocalists. That was no accident: In 1993, Houston recalled how her upbringing, where she was around R&B greats like Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack — as well as her mother, the gospel singer Cissy Houston — immersed her in the idea of belting out her feelings. “It had a great impact on me as a singer, as a performer, as a musician. Growing up around it, you just can’t help it,” she said. “I identified with it immediately. It was something that was so natural to me that when I started singing, it was almost like speaking.” Houston’s natural delivery made the moments where she broke into record-breaking vocal runs; “Saving All My Love for You,” from her 1985 debut, feels like a wrenching talk with a skittish lover even as she’s hitting high notes, while the way her glum loneliness gives over to giggly jubilance on the sad-happy standard-bearer “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” remains as delightful on the 100th listen as it did on the first. Houston voice will resonate for decades beyond her 2012 passing. —M.J.
1 | Aretha Franklin
A force of nature. A work of genius. A gift from the heavens. Aretha Franklin’s voice is all that and more, which is why she remains the unchallenged Queen, years after her final bow. Her singing is the most magnificent sound to emerge from America — more universal than Coltrane’s horn, bolder than Hendrix’s guitar. She blew up worldwide with her 1967 hit “Respect,” claiming her throne as the greatest pop, rock, or soul singer ever. As Mary J. Blige told Rolling Stone, “She is the reason why women want to sing.”
Aretha could express jubilation, as heard in her gospel doc Amazing Grace. She could summon the deepest heartbreak, in ballads like “Ain’t No Way.” Her artistry is the greatest achievement of American music, if not American history. But her voice is the crossroads where all different musical traditions meet, from gospel to funk to rock to the blues. As she said, “I guess you could say I do a lot of traveling with my voice.”
She grew up as Detroit gospel royalty, getting her lessons in the church from Mahalia Jackson. At first, her label tried to mold her into a slick lounge singer, but she quit the crossover game, after meeting another young outsider on the label whose voice didn’t fit the pop mold: Bob Dylan. As she told writer Gerri Hirshey, “Neither of us was what you call — ah — mainstream.”
Aretha went to Muscle Shoals and became Lady Soul, creating her own raw, intense R&B sound. She forced the mainstream to cross over to her, changing the way music sounded ever since, all over the world. Her genius has taken so many forms: 1970s gospel, 1980s glam-disco, her collabos with disciples like Whitney Houston and Lauryn Hill. Or the night she stole the Grammys, singing “Nessun Dorma” without a rehearsal.
But whatever she sang, she claimed it as her own. And as long as you live, you’ll never hear anything like Aretha Franklin. That’s why her voice still goes right on changing the world. Singer of singers. Queen of queens. All hail Lady Soul.