Treble’s 50 Favorite Vocalists

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30. Amy Winehouse

It’s a tragedy that Amy Winehouse died so young, ultimately unable to overcome her demons. And it’s a disgrace that those demons (mostly drug problems) got more attention than her actual voice. About that Grammy-winning voice: It’s thick as molasses, smoky as a house fire, and classy. She really knew how to fill a room, for everyone else in it didn’t stand a chance to be heard; Winehouse could belt with the best. Breakout single “Rehab” annoyed me at first for its unadulterated catchiness, but despite the tune, it was Winehouse’s stark voice that mattered most. As it turned out, she had more to offer, but not too much. Tragedy struck, ending her progression. But that’s the thing about the recorded voice—it can still be heard long after the actual singer has passed. – JJM

Watch and listen: “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know”

29. Paul McCartney

Let the debate histrionics begin: Paul McCartney is The Only Beatle on This List. Drummer Ringo Starr could pull off a jokey warble once in a while. George Harrison is a beautiful singer but maybe a bit one-note, and the sad panda of the group. John Lennon got his share of votes for this countdown, and certainly led the most Beatles songs to chart success. Yet his voice has a much more nasal quality to it, and maybe his constant experimenting and solo career lost more people than they found. Macca wins out as a singer, I think, because of his consistently straightforward energy and storytelling nature. He’s felt like the most believable and realistic of the Fab Four, always rakish and fun, whether a mop-topped lad or a Wing or one of the all-knowing, all-seeing elder statesmen of rock. – AB

Watch and listen: “Eleanor Rigby” (with The Beatles); “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”; “Jet” (with Wings)

28. Rob Halford

One of metal’s most defining and powerful voices, Rob Halford not only secured his spot as a consummate metal frontman but helped craft the metal ethos and style. His trademark voice and incredible range can be heard and instantly recognized in songs like “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” and “Run of the Mill.” However, Halford’s full vocal presence can only truly be appreciated live. As he struts around with a menacing snarl in leather and studs, he reminds you of the supervillain in some dystopian 1980s B-movie. Halford, even decades after Judas Priest’s heyday, is still a vocal force to be reckoned with. – TH

Watch and listen: “Run of the Mill”; “Electric Eye”; “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’”

27. Sam Cooke

Cooke’s role in bringing soul to the masses (read: white folks like my parents and eventually me) is on par with Ray Charles, but even if he’d only made his epochal civil rights anthem “A Change is Gonna Come,” one of the greatest songs and vocal performances of all time, he’d still make this list. Fortunately, there are many more examples of his melodic perfection to enjoy. Crossover hits like “You Send Me,” “Cupid” and “I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons)” earned him fame, and despite their colossal sappiness are great because of his uniquely emotive phrasing, the way he stretches out a word just so or knows exactly where to drop a little gospel ad-lib to lend a lyric some muscle. (For some grittier Sam, try his live album at the Harlem Square Club. All of it. You’ll thank me.) – LG

Watch and listen: “A Change is Gonna Come”; “Bring It on Home to Me”

26. Janelle Monáe

I am sharper than a razor, eyes made of lasers, bolder than the truth,” sings Janelle Monae over Prince’s sexy, chugging guitar to open “Givin’ Em What They Love.” The conviction in her delivery should make you a believer. If not, then you may want to check your pulse because Monáe has one of the brightest voices in the business. She’s full of wild energy, warm and undeniably sweet. Monáe’s elasticity gives her an array of varied tones—her voice imitates an electric guitar in “Come Alive (The War of the Roses).” She’s capable of operatic heights, but also light and agile. Monáe’s fervor is the key to her striking appeal. She’s like the female James Brown, though with a little more control. – JJM

Watch and listen: “Tightrope”; “Givin’ Em What They Love”

25. Tori Amos

My favorite Tori Amos album is Under The Pink. I’m not sure that there’s a more well-rounded performance by a vocalist. Amos haunts when she needs to haunt (“Past the Mission,” with a little help from Trent Reznor), she mourns when she needs to mourn (“Cloud on My Tongue”), and she gets weird when the weird calls her (“Space Dog”). Even beyond it all, she’s a vocalist unafraid of risk. Unafraid of testing the limits of her seemingly impossible range. Consider where she sits vocally in some of those aforementioned songs, and then press play on a song like “Liquid Diamonds.” Amos makes the hard work look easy, which I think is the mark of any brilliant artist. And, if we’re talking complete catalog of work, it’s hard to deny that she’s got the goods. Over some challenging eras, she’s remained the same: A rock. – HA

Watch and listen: “Cloud on My Tongue”; “Space Dog”; Liquid Diamonds”

24. Neko Case

Not every singer who can pull off a great studio performance sounds quite as magnificent in person. But that’s never been a problem for Neko Case, whose live show belongs on everyone’s bucket list (go ahead, write her name down, I’ll wait). It’s not so much a voice that she wields as an incredible presence; it’s not enough to really hear her sing. You’re captivated by her, frozen in place and caught in her thrall. And it’s been like that since the beginning, with her 1997 debut The Virginian. Yet over time, her songwriting has more than caught up to her voice, with albums like 2013’s The Worse Things Get proving just how multi-talented Case truly is. But as good as songs like “Man” or “Night Still Comes” are, it’s a talent like hers delivering them that makes them great. – JT

Watch and listen: “Night Still Comes“; “Hold On, Hold On“; “This Tornado Loves You

23. Corin Tucker

To be honest, you don’t have to be a good vocalist to be a great frontperson in a punk band. The only required ingredients are some thoughtful words and a magnetic personality. But, when you can add some chops to that equation, like Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker always has, you can reach some magnificent heights. Tucker can bark and sneer with the best of them, but the true catharsis comes when she unleashes her overpowering belt on a song. Just like Janet Weiss’ thundering toms or her and Carrie Brownstein’s complex, intertwined guitar-play, Tucker’s execution doesn’t seem like it would work on paper, at least not for a punk song. But with 10 albums under her belt, many of them classics, it’s safe to say the payoff is worth the risk. – ATB

Watch and listen: “Dig Me Out”; “Rollercoaster”; “Gimme Love”

22. Billie Holiday

With one of the most distinctive voices in music history, I couldn’t imagine a list without Billie Holiday. Her unique tonal quality was paired with an uncanny performance instinct. Deeply influenced by her fellow jazz vocalists including Louis Armstrong, and blues singers like Bessie Smith, Holiday sang with a kind of emotional truth. Whether she was playing coy with sweet love songs or with defiance and protest, she sang honestly and truthfully, weaving stories with each note. Like any great performer, she shifts from song to song—the weariness of “Lady Sings the Blues,” the sultriness of “The Blues are Brewin’.” Holiday brings a rich dimension to each song. Her personal and ultimately tragic life gave her a gravitas that made each performance powerful and vulnerable at the same time. Perhaps one of her greatest performances came with the song “Strange Fruit.” With minimal musical accompaniment, her voice is haunting and the frank lyrics create a stark illustration of unthinkable inhumanity. She brings a kind of realism, a clear-eyed honesty that makes plain her protestations and her outrage, and that she expects it from you too. – JI

Watch and listen: “Lady Sings the Blues”; “The Blues are Brewin’”; “Strange Fruit”

21. Iggy Pop

If not Iggy Pop, then who? The shirtless hero is an inspiration to any rock ‘n’ roll frontman (or woman) that ever came after him. He’s so sleazy that it’s gorgeous, and so mutant that it’s inviting. A truly unique character, Pop is the prototypical punk singer. His stage antics got as much play as his voice, but it’s like peanut butter and jelly: you can’t have one without the other. Pop’s original run with The Stooges (The Stooges, Fun House, Raw Power) and his first three solo albums (The Idiot, Lust for Life, New Values) is where he really shined, but something can also be said about his vocal recordings on 1990’s Brick by Brick, which revitalized his long career. He’s fucking sporadic, but also intelligent and thoughtful. And even though Pop has had his share of imitators, no one else has his signature sexual snarl. It only takes one note to know it’s him. – JJM

Watch and listen: “Dirt” (with The Stooges); “Nightclubbing”

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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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