Courtesy of A24 Films and the documentary Amy
They’ve yet to invent the musical instrument that can move us more than the human voice. Great singers convey a world of emotion in a single note, turn simple melodies into symphonies and imbue the most straightforward lyrics (think of Aretha’s “Baby, I love you”) with the depth of a Russian novel. No guitar solo can do all that.
In compiling this list of our favorite singers, we looked beyond range, technique and pitch to consider other factors: expressiveness, phrasing, originality, showmanship — and, let’s be honest, how much fun they are to imitate at karaoke. We also inevitably got subjective, and compared apples to oranges. Is Axl Rose really a better singer than Frank Sinatra? Are there really four R&B singers more talented than the greatest opera soprano of all time? Probably not, but ranking them and arguing about those rankings is half the fun.
Here, then, are L.A. Weekly‘s picks for the 20 greatest singers of all time, in any genre.
20. Ronnie James Dio
Ronnie James Dio was the voice of heavy-metal thunder for four decades. Whether he was singing about the “Man on the Silver Mountain” with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, revitalizing Black Sabbath in the wake of Ozzy Osbourne’s departure or flying solo on classics like “Holy Diver,” Dio’s voice soared with an operatic grandiosity that matched the often fanciful nature of his fantasy-themed lyrics. But he also anchored his delivery with a sense of serious gravitas, which dignified such over-the-top lyrics as “Love can be seen as the answer/But nobody bleeds for the dancer” — verses that would have fallen flat in lesser hands. Even well into his 60s, almost right up until his death, his voice — and stage mannerisms — carried far into the cheap seats. —Jason Roche
19. Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey is the quintessential pop diva. When she first swooped audiences away back in the early ’90s, she was young and beautiful and could also hang with the boys, trading verses with the likes of Boyz II Men and even, at one point, Ol’ Dirty Bastard. But in the end, her enduring legacy has everything to do with her voice. With her multi-octave range and impressive versatility, she’s been able to modulate between big-and-brassy and breathlessly fragile modes (sometimes in a single tune), and of course there’s that “whistle register” that lets her float into the highest heavens. Sure, she’s probably overdone it with the melisma more than a few times, but her influence on current greats like Ariana Grande shows how Carey has helped to lay the foundation for contemporary R&B and beyond. —Peter Holslin
18. Diamanda Galás
This Greek-American singer-pianist-provocateur made her solo recording debut in 1982 with The Litanies of Satan, a bloodcurdling blast of screaming, spitting sonority based on texts by poet Charles Baudelaire. Recorded in a freezing basement studio in London after Galás had been awake for 24 hours, Litanies is a glossolalic galaxy further perverted by fiendish floods of spatial delay, complex signal processing and overdubbing. It remains a terrifying work, one that established Galás as a troubling, troublesome singer of “homicidal love songs” who boasted a multi-octave voice of ungodly power and technical prowess. Even at age 60, her performances remain tour de force affairs that fling the Galás voice around in wicked wars between the Devil, God and all we wretched victims caught in the middle. —John Payne
17. Marvin Gaye
Forget for a moment that Marvin Gaye wrote some of the most memorable songs in pop history, or that he was practically inventing his own sophisticated fusion of R&B, jazz and funk when he was tragically shot to death by his own father in L.A. in 1984. Instead, consider that voice, which encompassed a three-octave range that roamed smoothly between tenor and baritone but could also soar exhilaratingly into a soulfully purifying falsetto. Sinuous and sensual on “Sexual Healing,” Gaye’s pleading yet soothing voice alone communicates more heartbreak and yearning than the lyrics of his eternal cry for love, “What’s Going On.” —Falling James
16. Ella Fitzgerald
In an early example of talent overcoming body shaming, Chick Webb in 1935 agreed to hire a chubby teenager for his vaunted Savoy Ballroom Orchestra, despite her disheveled appearance. Yet nothing could have been more graceful and gorgeous than the heavenly voice of Ella Fitzgerald, and the awkward young woman eventually became the First Lady of Song and the Queen of Jazz. A quick imagination and perfect pitch allowed her to scat-sing jaw-dropping improvised solos unmatched by anyone before or since. Fitzgerald’s countless albums have forever ensconced the tunes of the Great American Songbook in a voice of equal parts matronly elegance, girlish charm and playful sassiness. Saying Ella is one of the best simply doesn’t give her enough credit. —Gary Fukushima
For Prince, his voice is merely another instrument that he’s dutifully mastered. Like his virtuosity on guitar, Prince’s vocal dexterity is a thing of beauty, something he can use to subtly shade a song or to completely melt your face off, sometimes over the course of a single track (see “Little Red Corvette” and “When Doves Cry”). He’s crafted it into a multifaceted tool that covers a range of notes and emotions, from a sweet, soaring falsetto to an attitude-laden, low-end growl. Prince’s singing is front and center on his current Piano & a Microphone Tour, which finds him stripping his vast catalog down to the core essentials to showcase his artistry in its purest and most revealing state. —Scott T. Sterling
14. Maria Callas
Maria Callas had a voice that was even bigger than her larger-than-life persona. To the general public, the Greek-Italian star (born in New York and raised in Athens) was the epitome of a clichéd diva, with torrid love affairs and overhyped business scandals. But Callas was actually a diva in the classic sense, a supremely gifted and technically skilled coloratura soprano with an atypical, distinctive and otherworldly voice. At her early peak, she could cast her voice aloft to the highest aeries while still retaining a powerful ferocity, even in such vocally tricky bel canto operas as Norma and Lucia di Lammermoor. —Falling James
13. James Brown
It’s hard to separate James Brown’s singing abilities from his renowned performance style. For the “Godfather of Soul,” singing was an intensely physical act. He pushed his voice to emotional extremes. The party songs (“I Got You (I Feel Good)”) were joyous; the sorrowful ones (“Please, Please, Please”) were devastating. So rousing was Brown’s voice that he could keep the words to a minimum and still make an impact. His use of call-and-response was incredibly effective, especially when making a political statement as on “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Brown’s legacy extends to every aspect of his performance, from the caliber of musicians who joined him onstage to his costumes and dance moves. But none of those elements would have meant much if he didn’t have a voice that demanded your attention. —Liz Ohanesian
12. Jimmy Scott
Jazz balladeer Jimmy Scott, who started singing professionally with Lionel Hampton in 1948, didn’t just inhabit his songs — he used them as a vehicle to expose and exorcise the darkest, most painful, soul-deep human truths. His mournful alto, capable of stratospheric reach, and his drastically idiosyncratic delivery — always staying just a shade behind tempo and relying on a brilliantly timed use of sustained, drawn-out single notes — could completely redefine a lyric. Conflict, loss and yearning were his primary focus, but Scott also excelled at unspeakably tender, bittersweet declarations of love. Whether exploring a romantic high or a punishing low, Scott conveyed such a perpetually innocent sense of wonderment and poignancy that it was often impossible to tell where his own personal experience left off and his artistic genius began. —Jonny Whiteside
11. Elvis Presley
Before Elvis, white America was shackled by crippling conservatism. Then, four years into the 1950s, a hillbilly with greasy hair sang like the American teenager felt inside. The singer from Tupelo, Mississippi, had what record producer Sam Phillips was looking for, a “white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel” (language that makes us cringe now — but at the time, Elvis’ “sound” and “feel” did more to break down color barriers in popular music than any white singer ever had). Elvis’ low, trembling transmission to teenage America was emancipation in the form of rockabilly, gospel, schlocky love songs, Christmas standards and muddy blues. In the ’60s, his voice was muted by forgettable films, but in 1968, wearing a leather jumpsuit, he reminded America that the suffering in his voice was sex in a sexless society — a pink Cadillac crashing into daddy’s station wagon. —Art Tavana