You want to be sure to start an argument with passionate musicians? Ask them who belongs in the top 10 best 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 in the list?"
The bottom line is that every singer listed would be in most listener's lists, give or take a couple here and there. You'd think most of these artists would appear in the top 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 - James Brown
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 on stage. 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 Facts: 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.
#9 - Steve Perry
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 80's arena rock.
Trivia Facts: 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 best-selling bands of all time. Even today, their old songs from the 80's are peaking the download charts in apps like iTunes.
#8 - Paul McCartney
Genre: Soft Rock & Pop
Paul McCartney is a multi-instrumentalist that made his name with The Beatles. He's written and co-written 32 songs that have reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, usually co-written with bandmate John Lennon. His solo career, his band Wings, and his collaborations with Michael Jackson are all high points of an incredible run that still continues today.
Sir Paul has been knighted, honored and awarded in more ways than possible to list, and has one of the most pleasant voices to ever grace the microphone. He's one of the most influential musicians and people on the planet.
Trivia Facts: 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.
#7 - 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.
To attest to her skill, she's had 112 charted singles on the Billboard charts, won 18 Grammy Awards, and has become one of the best-selling 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 Facts: 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 best singer of all time, but I'm not ready to go that far. She's even won a Pulitzer Prize citation!
#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 that many. He's possibly the most popular and influential musician of the 1900's. 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 (not just musician). 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 of a mark as Michael Jackson.
Trivia Facts: 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 - Ella Fitzgerald
Genre: Swing, BeBop, Pop, Jazz, & Blues
Known as "The First Lady of Song," Ella Fitzgerald is recognized not only for her entertainment value but her vocal skill set. Professionals respected her diction, purity of tone, intonation, timing, phrasing, and improvisation with her scat singing. Her most prestigious accolades are 14 Grammys, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Her musical career stabilized with the Chick Webb Orchestra, grew with her illustrious solo career, and was hit a peak when she began appearing as a guest on daytime and nighttime TV shows and having roles in films. She was solidified as one of the best singers ever once she began collaborating with other vocal greats.
Trivia Facts: 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, which is way more in today's value.
#4 - Freddie Mercury
Genre: Hard Rock, Music Hall, Glitter, & Prog Rock
Freddie Mercury is possibly the best lead singer in rock music, ever. He's known for having an unbelievable four-octave vocal range. Though he passed on at an early age, he still managed to find his way into every music hall of fame and receive countless awards. He's even ranked as one of the Greatest Britons according to the BBC.
His life and singing talent was so incredible that there's been stage plays, musicals, biographical films, and TV shows all based around his life and that of his glam-rock band Queen. With Queen, he's one of the best-selling artists of all time.
Trivia Facts: 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.
#3 - Marvin Gaye
Genre: Soul, R&B, Funk, Pop, & Jazz
Marvin Gaye is one of the royalty that shaped 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 Hall of Fame as well as 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 Facts: Marvin Gaye become a "tax exile" in Europe for a while in the early 1980's. His rendition of the national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star performance was the first video VH1 ever aired on January 1, 1985. His estate still earns millions per year even after his passing in 1984!
#2 - Stevie Wonder
Genre: Soul, Pop, R&B, Funk, & Jazz
Stevie Wonder is one of the most successful songwriters and musicians of all time. He's seen as a pioneer of genres such as R&B, Funk, Rock, Pop, and Soul due to his heavy inclusion of electronic instruments before others caught on.
He's sold over 100 million records and has won 25 Grammys. He's in all of the Halls of Fame and even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Uniquely among musicians, he was even named a United Nations Messenger of Peace. He was given many honorary degrees, including a Doctor of Music from Yale University.
Trivia Facts: You probably know this, but Stevie Wonder is blind. He's tied with Frank Sinatra for the most Grammy Award for Album of the Year awards ever. Kanye West said his goal is to compete with Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life, two of Stevie's greatest albums. That's a high bar!
#1 - Michael Jackson
Genre: Pop, Soul, Funk, R&B, Rock, Disco, & Dance
Michael Jackson is without a doubt one of, if not the best singer of all time. Like others, he was given a title as 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 Facts: Michael Jackson had no formal music training and was unable to write or read music notation, though he could play multiple instruments to a degree. He preferred to beatbox when describing the music he was hearing in his head.
Runners Up: Who's Almost a Best Singer?
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 rightful 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: 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 companies all include her in their "greatest voices in music" lists, though not quite at the top yet. Soon!
Trivia Facts: Bjork once had surgery for a polyp on her vocal cords, and says that her "cords are as good as pre-nodule." She's bringing a lot of proteges with her, so there will be plenty of competition in the coming years.
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, Arethra 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's passing was tragically early, 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 Facts: In a 7 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 6 years old with his siblings in a group called the Singing Children.
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 5 singles all reach number one. She holds the record for the most number-one singles by a solo artist.
Though she cites many in the top 10 as her personal influences, the public most compared her to Whitney Houston (below) and Celine Dion, who she also recognizes as influential on her vocal style. MTV and Blender magazine both ranked her as the top greatest voice in music.
Trivia Facts: 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 Christmas song now.
Genre: R&B, Soul, Gospel, & Dance
Whitney Houston is the most awarded female artist of all time and one of the best-selling music artists ever. She's the only artist to have 7 consecutive number-one singles on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts. Like others, she also successfully merged into film acting.
Houston's nickname in the industry is "The Voice" (and also the "Queen of Pop") due to her exceptional talent. Her vocal range falls within the mezzo-soprano label. She ranks in nearly every top vocalist list ever. I'm not aware of any artist that's called an influence by more artists than Whitney.
Trivia Facts: Her early passing was an international tragedy, leading to many biographical films and documentaries on her successful life as well as even more posthumous awards to stack onto her already gigantic list.
Honorable Mentions for the Best Singers of All Time
Trying to choose only a top 10 and a few runners up is tough, especially when there's countless singers that could populate a list of 100. But who wants to read that? Here's a eight more all-time greats that at least deserve a quick shout out:
- Mandy Moore is a pure pleasure to listen to once she matured away 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 "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.
- 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.
- Adele is one of the newer artists on the list and quickly solidified her spot with her powerful voice and touching topics in her songs. She's taken a step back recently but she will undoubtedly grace us with more music eventually.
- Amy Winehouse is another amazing talent that left us too early. She was poised to bring back the 70's sound, especially that of soul and funk. Her career was short-lived but she made a lasting impact.
- 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 class as Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, an absolute world-class talent.
- 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 listen to her "best of."
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!