You want to start an argument with passionate musicians? Ask them who belongs on the “top 10 singers of all time” list. Given enough time you’d come up with at least 50 names because so much of it comes down to taste and preference.
Fortunately, because so many of us have voiced our opinions we can tell which vocalists have the most mass appeal, which should be taken into account. But splashed in here are my personal picks, and I expect to hear two types of complaints: “That person shouldn’t be in there” and “Where’s my favorite singer on the list?”
The bottom line is that every singer listed would be in most listeners’ lists. You’d think most of these artists would appear in the the 10 richest musicians in the world list, too. But only a couple do, and you can probably tell which they are as you read. So without further ado, lets count down the list of the best singers of all time…
#10 – Stevie Wonder
Genre: Soul, Pop, R&B, Funk, & Jazz
If you’re old enough to remember his days as “Little Stevie Wonder” then you no doubt know that his place on this list is warranted. But more than a singer, Wonder stands as one of popular music’s greatest songwriters. His contributions to genre-bending—he pioneered R&B, funk, rock, pop, and soul, among others—and his heavy inclusion of electronic instruments before others realized its potential is why he demands respect in the industry.
He’s sold over 100 million records and has won 25 Grammys but what so many remark about his work is that soul in his soaring, sweet voice. Put on Songs in the Key of Life and the second he addresses the listener, “Good morn of evening, friends,” you’re in a good mood.
Trivia: He’s tied with Frank Sinatra for the most Grammy Awards for Album of the Year. Kanye West said his goal is to compete with Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life, two of Stevie’s greatest albums. One thing you can’t say about Ye is that he isn’t ambitious.
#9 – Mariah Carey
Genre: R&B, Pop, Hip Hop, & Soul
Mariah Carey is called the “Songbird Supreme” due to her unbelievable five-octave vocal range and use of the whistle register. Her first album topped the Billboard chart for 11 consecutive weeks and is the only artist to have their first five singles all reach #1. She holds the record for the most #1 singles by a solo artist and has amassed an incredible net worth.
Though she cites many in the top 10 as her personal influences, the public most compared her to Whitney Houston (below) and Celine Dion, whom she also recognizes as influential on her vocal style. MTV and Blender magazine both ranked her as the top greatest voice in music.
Trivia: Mariah Carey describes herself as an alto, though music critics call her a Coloratura soprano. She credits polyps on her vocal cords for her ability to sing such high notes. Her “All I Want for Christmas is You” may be the quintessential modern Christmas song.
#8 – Elvis Presley
genre: rock, pop, rockabilly
The man is an icon. What’s more, the man is a king. THE king of rock ‘n’ roll. And if you’re going to be music royalty, you had better have a unique voice. Luckily, for Elvis Presley, he has the voice, the moves, the charm, the hips. He also had the career, which included studio albums, live albums, and soundtracks, AND several Hollywood films. Granted, he pretty much just played a musician (not really a stretch) but why play a larger-than-life character when you’re already larger than life?
Elvis could sing it all: gospel, country, rock. It always sounded like Elvis and yet that voice sounded at home in whichever genre he attempted. For this reason alone, the king deserves a place here.
Trivia: Elvis’s first album, Elvis Presley, was released in 1956 and became the first rock ‘n’ roll album to reach #1 on the Billboard charts.
Trivia: His popularity has even extended beyond music and into the science world, having a spider named after him, the Paradonea presleyi.
#7 – Ella Fitzgerald
Genre: Swing, BeBop, Pop, Jazz, & Blues
She’s known as “The First Lady of Song”, though we think “The First Lady of Singing”, while a slight alteration, is more appropriate. She brought incredible entertainment value but her vocal skill set is what stands out to us. Those in the know (vocal instructors, for instance) respected her diction, purity of tone, intonation, timing, phrasing, and improvisation with her scat singing. The general public may be ignorant of such nuances but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate her work, from her time the Chick Webb Orchestra to her illustrious solo career. Her popularity exploded once she started appearing as a guest on daytime and nighttime TV shows and having roles in films. Along the way, no matter whom she sang alongside, Ella held her own and, if we’re being honest, usually surpassed her duet partners. A bold statement considering the company she kept but one listen to those recordings and you will see it’s justified.
Trivia: In 2008, a fire at Universal Studios Hollywood destroyed much of her material. Fortunately we can assume most of her masters had been digitized by then. Fitzgerald was notoriously shy. She once took part in a series of shows on Broadway, which generated over a million dollars in two weeks in 1975.
#6 – Frank Sinatra
Genre: Jazz, Swing, Easy Listening, & Pop
If you thought Aretha Franklin sold a lot of records at 75 million, Frank Sinatra has sold twice as many. He’s possibly the most popular and influential singer of the 20th century. You’ve probably heard of the Rat Pack, a crew of artists that ran the Las Vegas casino venue circuit for a long time. He was the lead member.
The amount of lifetime achievement awards, music awards, and even governmental awards are too many to count. Time magazine even calls him one of the most influential people in general. To this day, his voice is one of the most recognizable, still heard frequently in all forms of entertainment. He was an incredible showman that left as big a mark as Michael Jackson.
Trivia: Frank Sinatra has had his likeness portrayed in many movies and TV shows, including an entire miniseries based on his life. Sinatra himself thought that the singer in “The Godfather” was secretly based on his own life. He released a total of 59 studio albums!
#5 – Freddie Mercury
Genre: Hard Rock, Music Hall, Glitter, & Prog Rock
That range, people! Few rock singers can boast what Freddie Mercury can boast. There’s a reason why, when he recorded “Barcelona” alongside Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballé, no one batted an eye. Is he the greatest lead singer in rock music, ever? That’s a tough call to make. But his place on this larger list is irrefutable. Since his passing from AIDS-related illnesses, there have been stage plays, musicals, biographical films, and TV shows all based upon his life and that of his rock band Queen. A reality show spent a season with hopes of finding his replacement. Queen’s music was sometimes grandiose but few complained—more time spent listening to Freddie was time well spent.
Trivia: Many question if Freddie Mercury’s passing is what revitalized the popularity of Queen, but that argument is moot now. It’s been 21 more years and they’re still crushing it in the digital charts and maintaining their fan base. His life and passing raised much awareness of a critical disease, showing how his contributions extended beyond just music.
#4 – Marvin Gaye
Genre: Soul, R&B, Funk, Pop, & Jazz
Marvin Gaye helped shape the sound of Motown, garnering him the titles of “Prince of Motown” and the “Prince of Soul”. He went on to influence the sound of future R&B sub-genres like neo-soul and quiet storm. To no surprise, he landed in the R&B Music, Songwriters, and Rock and Roll halls of fame, as well as earn a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Gaye’s four-octave vocal range was well known, and a testament to his singing talents, because he mainly recorded in baritone and tenor ranges, which are quite the opposite of each other. He’s widely covered and sampled by artists in tons of genres, including even metal.
Trivia: Marvin Gaye become a “tax exile” in Europe for a while in the early 1980s. His rendition of the national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game was the first video VH1 ever aired on January 1, 1985. His estate still earns millions a year even after his passing in 1984!
#3 – Whitney Houston
Genre: R&B, Soul, Gospel, & Dance
Before there was Mariah and Beyonce, there was Whitney. Known as “The Voice” in the industry, Whitney blended R&B, soul, and gospel and injected that aural concoction into the mainstream. How was it received? Well, she’s the only artist to have seven consecutive #1 singles on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts. And really, we could have just pointed to her version of “I Will Always Love You” as proof she deserves to be on this list. To wit, how many singers can take a Dolly Parton song that the Queen of Country herself has performed and make it their own?
Trivia: Her early passing was an international tragedy, leading to many biographical films and documentaries on her successful career, as well as even more posthumous awards to stack onto her already-gigantic list.
#2 – Aretha Franklin
Genre: Soul, Jazz, Blues, Doo-Wop, R&B, & Gospel
Aretha Franklin’s career finally took off in 1967 with her hit song “Respect”, and that attention helped everyone recognize how amazing her vocal talents and other songs were. It didn’t take long for her peers to deem her “The Queen of Soul”. Even in 1998 she was still topping the charts and releasing gold albums.
She’s had 112 singles on the Billboard charts, won 18 Grammy Awards, and has become one of the bestselling music artists of all time, selling over 75 million records globally. She’s also the first female to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She’s in nearly every other music hall of fame, too.
Trivia: Aretha Franklin has been awarded not only the National Medal of Arts but also the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Rolling Stone ranks her as the #1 singer of all time, but I’m not ready to go that far. She’s even won a Pulitzer Prize citation!
#1 – Michael Jackson
Genre: Pop, Soul, Funk, R&B, Rock, Disco, & Dance
Michael Jackson is without a doubt one of the best singers of all time, if not the greatest. Like others, he was given a title: the “King of Pop”. He’s one of the most significant cultural figures and is the greatest entertainer in the history of music. Even attempting to talk about all of his awards would be pointless. They even extend into the dance world. He is truly the king.
Jackson credited James Brown as one of his influences, as well as Diana Ross from whom he learned to interject sounds like “ooh” into his vocals. He began singing as a soprano, descended to a tenor, and ultimately settled on the higher falsetto range.
Trivia: Michael Jackson had no formal music training and was unable to write or read music notation, though he could play multiple instruments. He preferred to beatbox when describing the music he was hearing in his head.
Runners-Up: Who Almost Made The List?
There are, or were (rest in peace), a handful of artists who have a real chance of bumping another great out of the top 10 and claiming their spot among the stars. While some may work in genres you don’t enjoy, or seem puffed up by the media, you still can’t deny their vocal talents. Those are…
Genre: Soul, Gospel, & R&B
Sam Cooke, known as the “King of Soul”, played a large role in the rise of artists like Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and Curtis Mayfield. He’s even been credited as the inventor of soul music. What everyone loves is his smooth vocal delivery that comes off completely effortlessly.
Cooke died prematurely yet that didn’t stop him from receiving nearly every music award possible posthumously. Thankfully, he managed to release 14 studio albums so we have a treasure trove of great music to enjoy.
Trivia: In a seven-year span, Cooke scored 30 U.S. Top 40 hits, and several more after his passing. He attended the same high school in Chicago as Nat King Cole. His career as a vocalist began at six years old with his siblings in a group called the Singing Children.
Genre: Pop, Soul & R&B
Beyonce is fierce. Sasha Fierce, to be exact. (Sorry, we had to write that.) Lame jokes aside, there truly are few words beyond ‘fierce’ that encapsulate all that Beyonce is. Like so many others on this list, she has had chart success in a variety of genres, including pop, soul, R&B, hip hop, funk, rock, and gospel, selling over 150 million records worldwide.
She has taken her Southern roots and run them through an innovative use of harmonies, vocal layering, and intricate arrangements. The result is the beyhive, her acolytes who live and breathe every note she sings. While we still occasionally mourn the loss of Destiny’s Child, Beyonce’s solo career has allowed her fans access to her voice, unencumbered and soaring.
Trivia: Beyonce began her music career as a member of the girl group Destiny’s Child before embarking on a successful solo career. She has won 28 Grammy Awards, making her the most awarded female artist in Grammy history. She is also known for her philanthropic work, including her support of various charities and her advocacy for social justice issues.
Genre: Funk & Soul
James Brown is one of the most high-energy vocalists ever. You can hear it oozing through his recordings, let alone if you see him perform live. The amount of honors, awards, and halls of fame that he’s in are endless. He features at the top of most lists of greatest artists ever, let alone best singers.
You know a singer left a huge legacy when they are the most sampled artist of all time, an honor that Brown holds. Imagine the royalties that pour in from that alone. Few artists have been given titles that everyone agrees on, and James Brown is most definitely the “Godfather of Soul”.
Trivia: James Brown released 57 studio albums! His life was an incredible ride. He did great social activism work, was accused of everything under the sun and guilty of some of it, and has had many tribute concerts held in his honor.
Genre: Soft Rock & Pop
Paul McCartney is a Beatle, which means any introduction we could give him would not do justice to this legendary status. He’s written and co-written 32 songs that have reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. His solo career, his band Wings, and his collaborations with Michael Jackson—another name on this list—are all high points of an incredible run that still continues today. To appreciate Paul’s voice, you only need hear “Hey Jude”, a song in which he goes from sounding like a folk singer delivering a ballad to a sleepy child to a screeching mad man whose vocal cords could give out at any moment.
Trivia: The Guinness Book of World Records features Sir Paul McCartney twice, recognizing him as the most successful songwriter of all time and as the most honored composer and performer. McCartney’s song “Yesterday” is the most covered song of all time, remade by over 2,200 other artists and bands.
Genre: Pop Soul
While her album titles might underwhelm, Adele’s voice certainly does not. That’s because it has some of that South London attitude in it. Her most loved songs are those in which she reflects on a heart broken But what Adele has done with just the slightest of note changes is imbue those songs with hope. She can sing about emotional torment but, by song’s end, you feel optimistic everything is going to work out. That is a sign of a good songwriter, sure, but it’s also proof positive Adele is in complete control of her vocals and can instigate such nuances at will. We can’t balk at the frequent comparisons to other vocal powerhouses like Whitney Houston and Etta James—these ladies are esteemed company to keep and yet a reasonable comparison to make.
Trivia: She has a fascination with the paranormal. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Adele revealed that she is intrigued by ghosts and even moved out of a rented mansion in Sussex, England, because she believed it was haunted.
Genre: Rock & Roll
Steve Perry is best known for his work as the lead singer of the band Journey, though he’s had an illustrious solo career as well. Like James Brown above, Perry has been gifted a moniker, called “The Voice” by none other than Jon Bon Jovi.
Perry is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, ranked frequently among the best singers of all time, and renowned for his vocal range. He can sing from F#2 to A5, leading many to call him a “high tenor altino.” He’s the golden voice of ’80s arena rock.
If you’ve attended a karaoke night, you will have undoubtedly heard someone try to emulate Perry. Try… and fail.
Trivia: Steve Perry’s first solo record went two-times platinum. With Journey he scored one diamond, ten platinum, and three gold records, making them one of the bestselling bands of all time. Even today, their old songs from the ’80s feature on the download charts in apps like iTunes.
Genre: Experimental, Art Pop, Avant-Garde, & Electronica
Bjork’s music is the frequent subject of music analysts and historians, trying to deconstruct her genre-defying experimental songwriting. Her music and shows are more like live-art installations involving filmmakers, photographers, fashion designers, and much more. It’s truly next level, as are her vocals.
Bjork mentions artists like Chaka Khan, Joni Mitchell, and Kate Bush as influences. Her pleasant soprano vocal range spans from E3 to D6. Rolling Stone, NPR, and countless other outlets all include her in their “greatest voices in music” lists.
Trivia: Bjork once had surgery for a polyp on her vocal cords, and says that her “cords are as good as pre-nodule.”
Honorable Mentions for the Best Singers of All Time
Trying to choose only a top 10 and a few runners-up is tough, so here are eight more all-time greats that at least deserve a quick shout-out:
- Celine Dion is one that, depending on who you ask, might even be their top spot of all time. I put her in the same category as Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, an absolute world-class talent.
- Mandy Moore is a pure pleasure to listen to once she matured and distanced herself from pure pop music. Her work in the folk genre is something to behold. Sadly, she’s focused more on acting lately.
- Jon Anderson of Yes has the voice of an angel. Some say he has a “hate it or love it” kind of voice, but it’s so unique and pleasurable to those that do love him that he can’t be denied at least a mention.
- Amy Winehouse is another amazing talent that left us too early. She was poised to bring back the ’70s sound, especially that of soul and funk. Her career was short-lived but she made a lasting impact.
- Beyonce due to her powerful vocal range, dynamic stage presence, and unparalleled influence on modern pop and R&B music.
- John Denver is the kind of guy you’d want to sing you to sleep every night. His love songs, songs about nature, and general adventures merge perfectly with his command of the vocals as an instrument.
- Ronnie James Dio might seem like a strange pick since he works in the metal genres, but if you listen closely you’ll hear what seems to be a classically trained voice, but he says he received no training.
- Linda Ronstadt was a dominant voice in rock, country, Latin, and light opera for decades. You younger folks may not know her name, but do yourself the favor and check her out.
Considering we only mentioned less than 25 potential best singers of all time, you may not have seen your favorite music artist listed. Let us know if you think someone absolutely deserves a mention at least, or if one of our picks doesn’t deserve such a precious spot. I’ll argue with you about it, for sure!
The 10 Best Singers of All Time
This is the table for the top 10 best singers of all time. It contains their names and genre.
|Pop, Soul, Funk, R&B, Rock, Disco, & Dance
|Soul, Jazz, Blues, Doo-Wop, R&B, & Gospel
|R&B, Soul, Gospel, & Dance
|Soul, R&B, Funk, Pop, & Jazz
|Hard Rock, Music Hall, Glitter, & Prog Rock
|Jazz, Swing, Easy Listening, & Pop
|Swing, Bebop, Pop, Jazz, & Blues
|Rock, Pop, Rockabilly
|R&B, Pop, Hip Hop, & Soul
|Soul, Pop, R&B, Funk, & Jazz