The Greatest Singers of All Time, Ranked
The late composer Richard Strauss once said, "The human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all, but it is the most difficult to play." Strauss was right, but you don't have to carry a tune perfectly to make an impact with a song. It’s so much more than that.
A great singer can surprise you through a powerful howl or a quiet whisper. An iconic singer can leave you emotional, inspired and changed forever. These music legends shaped our worlds with their exceptional vocal talent and timeless music catalogs. Because of that, they are the greatest singers of all time.
The Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós creates magnificent soundscapes using classical and minimal elements. But their compositions don't come to life without frontman Jónsi's angelic falsetto. He offers a soft but powerful coo that amplifies the emotional tone of each Sigur Rós track.
29. Luciano Pavarotti
You can't talk about opera without mentioning this legendary Italian tenor. Pavarotti's operas sold more than 100 million records, making him one of the most successful singers of all time. His crystal clear tone separated him from the pack and made him one of the best singers of the 20th century.
28. Cedric Bixler-Zavala
Bixler-Zavala is the fiery frontman of progressive rock bands The Mars Volta and At the Drive-In. With a range spanning from D2 to C7, his electrifying voice easily weaves through different vocal styles with precision. Any punk band in training should take notes from his blaring vocals.
27. Chet Baker
Jazz wasn't "cool" until the chiseled trumpeter Chet Baker stepped onto the scene. In the 1950s, the dreamy sighs he finessed catapulted him to stardom. Unfortunately for the world, his voice also led him down a path of destruction.
26. Christina Aguilera
Something wild separated Aguilera from her pop music contemporaries of the late 1990s. None of the other singers sounded like soul dynamos of the '30s and '40s. To heighten the drama, she pairs her soulful, sonic screams with a melisma that can showcase her four-octave range in seconds.
Prince's music can compel you to do a lot of things. Choose any song from his 39 studio albums and he will make you want to dance in your underwear, kiss a stranger and cry in the rain — maybe even in the same song. Go ahead, try it.
24. Amy Winehouse
By blending '50s doo-wop and '90s hip hop with her smoky voice, Winehouse explored a musical world in the early 2000s that was uniquely her own. Her anguished contralto made her a fine jazz singer, but Winehouse's demons elevated her into a timeless storyteller.
23. Amalia Rodrigues
In her native Portugal, Rodrigues is widely regarded as the "‘Rainha do Fado" ("Queen of Fado"). The genre consists of mournful, melancholy songs that are often about the sea or poverty, but Rodrigues gave it a new life and a global platform.
22. Bruce Springsteen
In the early years of his career, Springsteen relied on passion over technique in his music. His method did the trick, thanks in large part to his talent for relatable storytelling. Blue-collar workers of America found a conductor to turn their feelings into dynamic music.
21. Nina Simone
The "High Priestess of Soul" has a flaming cry that sticks to you like syrup. The piano virtuoso brought outrage, misery and intensity to her performances like no other artist of her time. Later in her career, she refocused her fire and force to support the civil rights movement.
20. David Bowie
The British legend's feathery baritone was capable at best, but Bowie was far more than a singer. He was the most talented actor on stage every time he stepped in front of the crowd. Each character he played had a unique, outstanding flair for invading your consciousness.
19. Marvin Gaye
Motown Records defined the soul-pop sound that dominated the 1960s. The singer that led the flock of tender songbirds was the velvet crooner Marvin Gaye. The "Prince of Motown" had the smoothest voice to ever dominate the airwaves.
18. Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley was more than a singer. He could take simple lyrics about a hound dog and turn them into euphoric broadcasts. His voice was extremely powerful, and his entire body shook during his performances in a way that prompted network censors to hide his moves on television.
17. Billie Holiday
A calm, seductive softness came from Billie Holiday when she sang. But behind the big-band and cabaret glamour was a pain no singer could escape. A lifetime that included teenage prostitution, abuse and addiction was her reality, and they affected how she sang.
16. Edith Piaf
There’s a reason Piaf’s legacy will never die. "La Môme Piaf" (The Little Sparrow) was a songbird who specialized in songs about love, loss and sorrow. As the world's ultimate balladeer, she emoted her pain like no other.
15. Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston will always be America's ultimate pop star. As a child of gospel choirs and church hymns, Houston quickly learned what to do with such a powerful voice. So it came as no surprise that a talent like hers launched her to global superstardom.
14. Otis Redding
Otis Redding isn't known for his vocal range. Low notes were rarely sung in his songs, and high notes were even rarer. Yet, with every song from Redding, you felt an emotional depth incomparable to anyone else.
13. Janis Joplin
Joplin had more than a booming rasp in her repertoire. The control of her mezzo-soprano voice was what actually beguiled listeners. By embracing the rough edges of the notes, Joplin rebelled against cultural constraints. No one else could scream and cry on a song so beautifully.
12. Stevie Wonder
Some people play music to unwind; others sing to express their feelings. Stevie Wonder sings to come to life. His singing style is very straightforward, and it paints a perceptible picture. For a blind musical prodigy, his other heightened senses could explain why his talent is almost supernatural.
11. Etta James
James had the strongest set of lungs in R&B music. That power came from years of fighting addictions, abuse and troubles with the law. Her experiences gave her voice layers of sass and resentment, which made her songs about love all the more relatable.
10. Little Richard
Little Richard's songs are electrifying from the moment he opens his mouth. His ferocious delivery raised the level of energy required to emote rock music. Heck, there wouldn't even be rock music without Little Richard. He was the first to understand how rock music can send shivers down your spine.
9. Robert Plant
Robert Plant is the charismatic frontman of Led Zeppelin, one of the world's most innovative and influential rock groups. The band changed the sound of rock music in the '60s and '70s, but they couldn't have done it without Plant's otherworldly voice.
8. Ella Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald is often called "The First Lady of Song" for good reason. Her voice was like a fine-tuned jazz instrument, and no one could match Fitzgerald's silky scatting abilities. She could improvise with the precision of a professional horn player.
7. Johnny Cash
Country music resonates with music lovers because its subject matter is so relatable. No singer in the genre told stories quite like Johnny Cash. His voice was calm but deeply layered and pained. The Man in Black shared his hardships with a vulnerable honesty you wouldn't expect to find under such a tough exterior.
6. Ray Charles
By combining blues, gospel and R&B, Ray Charles pioneered soul music with his smooth, seasoned voice. He brought new life to radios with his fast, improvised chuckles that let the world know he was having fun — and everyone else was just along for the ride.
5. Darlene Love
Producer Phil Spector tried to hide Darlene Love from the world. Her first hit "He's a Rebel" didn't feature her name. Instead, The Crystals capitalized on her guttural calls. The song became one of the defining songs of the girl group era of the 1960s, but in reality, Love's voice dominated the whole genre.
4. James Brown
The lyrics weren't important in a James Brown song. What mattered was the moment when Brown released his earth-shaking squeal to jumpstart the band. He was a lively, outrageous performer who gave every song his all, pumping energy out to the crowd from every bone in his body.
3. Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra was a vocal chameleon. A song was always just a starting point for him. Instead of singing a song one way, he became that song, and his baritone expressed whatever mood consumed him the most at the moment.
2. Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin may be the most confident singer to ever record a song. It makes sense when you're that naturally gifted. She had a knack for bringing out the physical force of every word she sang. It's like you could see her shout for respect from your radio.
1. Freddie Mercury
Freddie Mercury is the king of showmanship. His four-octave vocal range was impressive enough, but the Queen frontman also had the theatrical stage presence and genre-blending expertise to create bombastic musical experiences no one could ever forget. Who else could seamlessly weave opera into heavy metal with such assurance?