Treble’s 50 Favorite Vocalists

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40. Scott Walker

Very few vocalists have covered as much musical ground in their lives than Noel Scott Engel. Bursting onto the swinging ‘60s scene as frontman of teenage pinups The Walker Brothers, he went on to make a string of critically heralded but commercially unsuccessful solo records which married his reverberating baritone voice with a European balladeer tradition. Eventually embracing his declining popularity, the second half of his career has been a long journey into ever more inscrutable avant-garde experimentation. All the while, his extraordinarily elegant, cavernous vocals offer a welcoming embrace for those for whom the weirdness is a step too far. – MP

Watch and listen: “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” (with The Walker Brothers); “The Seventh Seal”; “Farmer in the City”

39. Dinah Washington

Laugh all you want at the treacly movie adaptation of chick-lit lynchpin The Bridges of Madison County, a rare moment in Clint Eastwood’s film canon he probably wishes he could forget. Yet its period jazz soundtrack reintroduced to American moviegoers and music consumers one of Chicago’s favorite adopted daughters. Amy Winehouse’s default muse, Washington was also taken from us far too soon, overdosing in 1963 at the age of 39. She left behind a shimmering catalog of vocal work that incorporates the bounce of Ella Fitzgerald, the steamy swagger of Etta James, and the emotional heft of Sarah Vaughan. – AB

Watch and listen: “What a Difference a Day Makes”; “Teach Me Tonight”; “I’ll Close My Eyes”

38. Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar’s talent as a rapper was never in question; the man can flip between emcee styles at the drop of a hat, often constructing intricate, conversational rhyme-schemes that would leave an everyday rapper bent over, out of breath. But To Pimp a Butterfly shows K.Dot as a rapper, poet, and singer all in one. Rumor has it that Lamar spent a lot of time studying the work of legends like George Clinton and Miles Davis in preparation for that most recent outing and, if that’s true, it surely shows. On it, Lamar plays his voice like a jazz instrument, weaving in, out, and between melodies and rhythms to find the most surprising and awarding paths possible. – ATB

Watch and listen: “i”; “Poetic Justice”

37. PJ Harvey

Veteran singer/songwriter/badass Polly Jean Harvey may have the widest vocal range of any outspoken person on this list. For evidence, click on the 11-minute clip below and listen. She basically has all of the scientific pitch notations covered from A to G; labeling her as a contralto is just silly. This is better: A prime example of what a real performer can be. PJ Harvey can strike fear in your heart as much as she can sing you to sweet beauty sleep. I suggest putting her entire discography on shuffle and letting it ride. You will be amazed. – JJM

Watch and listen: “The Vocal Range of PJ Harvey”

36. Tom Waits

Nobody would argue that Tom Waits is worthy of a place on a great vocalists list based on technical skill. His distinctive raspy growl may not have the range or power to set him apart, but it has character and storytelling potential to rival anybody’s. Whether the lovelorn troubadour ballads of his earliest records in the 1970s, or the drunken, ramshackle, multi-genre dabbling that marked his 1980s peak and onwards, the gravel voice is always the star of the show. It is at its most emotionally powerful on understated, broken-hearted moments such as the precious “I’m Still Here” from 2002’s Alice. – MP

Watch and listen: “I’m Still Here”; “Martha”; “Hell Broke Luce”

35. Peter Gabriel

Nobody (except for, perhaps, Phil Collins) sounds quite like Peter Gabriel. There’s a spark in Gabriel’s voice that started all the way back during his early work in Genesis and continues today with his ambitious (if often misunderstood) modern orchestral work. But what’s even more intriguing about Gabriel’s voice is how it evolved over time. What started as a powerful prog-rock talent, somewhat inaccessible to the world at large, quickly became a defining voice for artistic pop-rock. By the time we reach the man’s first solo outings, he’s not just impressing the hell out of us; he’s doing it to a groove we just can’t help but get down to. – ATB

Watch and listen: “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” (with Genesis); “Red Rain”

34. Janis Joplin

As far as emotional expression through music goes, Janis Joplin is in a league of her own. Janis Joplin’s vulnerable performances were a sort of performance art—raw expressions of pure, unadulterated emotion. For Janis, she would never just “sing” a word. Her versatile belting and trademark hoarseness were legendary and influential for generations of musicians. One doesn’t have to look far to see her shine; from her upbeat thumping anthem “Move Over” to the exuberant “Piece of My Heart,” to the tenderly tragic “Me and Bobby McGee,” she bares her soul in a way that has rarely been reproduced, even now. – TH

Watch and listen: “Piece of My Heart”; “Move Over”; “Me and Bobby McGee”

33. Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye’s voice was a revelation. His voice isn’t just heard; it is felt, whether in his hypersexual croon, in his soaring falsetto, or in his raspy pleas for peace. Despite the fact that Gaye likely was the soundtrack to the conception of many of our readers, he was also a voice for social change. Moved by the turmoil in the world of the mid-to-late 1960s, he transformed from sex symbol into a voice of reason and hope in a mad world. His passionate pleas in “What’s Going On” are equally as relevant now as they were then. – TH

Watch and listen: “What’s Going On”; “I Heard It through the Grapevine”; “Let’s Get It On”

32. Annie Lennox

Annie Lennox came out of Scotland with a shock of neon orange hair and pop sensibilities that weren’t so much cool as they were icy. Over time, the erstwhile lead singer of Eurythmics warmed up and thawed out, helping her expand her impact. She’s one of the few ladies of New Wave who managed to stretch into Top 40 residency, singer-songwriter credibility, and reverent delivery of standards, torch songs, and the occasional devil blues. Lennox doesn’t do anything other than make statements: I dare you to look at this list and find many other artists as comfortable with deadpanning fembot synth-pop melody as with dropping you off of Cole Porter’s nearest sad cliff. – AB

Watch and listen: “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” (with Eurythmics); “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”; “Take Me to Church/I Put a Spell on You” (with Hozier)

31. Lauryn Hill

Oh, precious comet. Falling to earth, exploding with brief light, and gone in almost the same breath. Lauryn Hill’s work on The Score is similar to Allen Iverson, dragging a painfully mediocre and underachieving Philadelphia 76ers team to the NBA Finals. Can we name another album where someone has a verse as fierce as Hill’s on “How Many Mics” and then also has a vocal performance as incredible as her “Killing Me Softly” cover? It’s impossible to imagine, really. Time (and reclusiveness) has perhaps made Lauryn Hill into a bigger icon than she was. But, without even considering and talking about her iconic solo effort, it has to be said. Lauryn Hill was a titan. – HA

Watch and listen: “How Many Mics” (with The Fugees); “Killing Me Softly” (with The Fugees)

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View Comments (5)
  • “John Lennon got his share of votes for this countdown, and certainly led the most Beatles songs to chart success.”

    Actually, if we are talking about #1 hits, the majority of those Lennon/McCartney songs began with and were sung by Paul.

    • Hey, one of the authors here. Sorry I didn’t get to this earlier. IIRC I was going by total charting Beatles songs, not just #1 hits, so that’s why I said Lennon had the “most” success.

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