10 Best Female Vocalists

Rolling Stone magazine recently published its list of The 200 Greatest Singers of All Time. To my mind, they did a good job – covering a lot of bases, and highlighting some excellent vocalists. But it’s received a lot of negative attention, most notably for its omission of Celine Dion. Irate Dion fans travelled six hours from Montreal to New York to stage a protest at Rolling Stone’s offices. I’m on Rolling Stone’s side – Dion sings a bunch of boring adult contemporary ballads, and her voice is devoid of personality despite its histrionics.

And if Celine Dion is supposedly the great singer that she says she is why is there auto-tune on every f***ing word in her songs? Can’t you just hit it, Celine? Do you have another baby book to shoot? You gotta paint your baby to look like a pot of peas? What are you doing that you can’t be singing in the studio? It’s your f***ing job!

Neko Case, Pitchfork

Rolling Stone’s list reminded me that I’ve been meaning to split my 10 favourite vocalists list into male and female lists. I published the male list a few weeks ago, and here’s the female one. As a one-person website, this list is subjective – just ten voices that I always like to hear, listed in alphabetical order. As an album review website, inclusion requires that I enjoy listening to their albums – this is unfair to singers like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, who probably belong on her on a technical level.

10 Best Female Vocalists

Karen Carpenter

Karen Carpenter started her musical career as a drummer – she formed the Dick Carpenter Trio with her brother Richard, enlisting guest vocalists. But it was her pure voice that attracted a record deal. The Carpenters’ songs often had a clear undertone of sadness, like ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’ and ‘Superstar’. Despite her three-octave range, many of The Carpenters’ hits showcase her lower contralto singing – she noted that “the money’s in the basement.”


Denny attained prominence with the English folk-rock band Fairport Convention, fronting their landmark 1968 and 1969 albums with her commanding yet expressive voice. In the liner notes for a Denny reissue, Robin Deneslow wrote that Denny “was blessed with a remarkable voice, that was both delicate, sensitive and powerful.” After leaving Fairport Convention, she embarked on a solo career, where she often wrote and performed on piano. She was the only guest vocalist to appear on a Led Zeppelin album, duetting with Robert Plant on ‘The Battle of Evermore’.


The Queen Of Soul was a commanding vocalist, a force of nature whirling through standards like ‘Respect’. President Obama wrote that “nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R. & B., rock and roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope. ” Bonus points for standing in for an ill Luciano Pavarotti in the 1998 Grammys, and delivering Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ beautifully.


The ethereal voice of the Cocteau Twins, Liz Fraser gave their best work an other-worldly beauty. She often avoided comprehensible lyrics, choosing words based on sound. Melody’s Maker’s Steve Sutherland described Fraser as “the voice of God”. Fraser is also a sought-after guest vocalist, with notable performances on Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ and Felt’s ‘Primitive Painters’, while there’s a gorgeous bootlegged duet with Jeff Buckley on ‘All Flowers in Time Bend Towards the Sun’.


Ariana Grande is a modern successor to the divas of the 1980s and 1990s, like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. While previous generations of divas had great voices but were stuck with sentimental and straightforward material, Grande has upbeat songs in her catalogue like ‘Into You’ and ‘Breathing’. Her effortlessly beautiful voice is never overbearing and her slur is distinctive. She’s capable of vocal histrionics, but she has the good taste not to overuse them.

Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill started her career in The Fugees, barely out of her teens when they scored hits with ‘Killing Me Softly’ and ‘Ready Or Not’ (Barack Obama’s favourite ever song). She branched out solo with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, an immensely successful album that went diamond and won the Grammy for album of the year. Hill is notable for her ability to rap and sing. Unfortunately, she’s barely managed to record since her landmark 1998 solo debut – her only other album is an unpolished MTV Unplugged acoustic record of all-new material.

Nina Simone

Nina Simone grew up in a poor family, facing discrimination. In her first concert, her parents were shifted to the back of the hall to make room for white people. Emerging in the late 1950s as a recording artist, she blended jazz, classical, R&B, and blues. Her low-pitched voice was always passionate – while she was particular about her piano technique, her singing was untrained and from the heart.

Cleo Sol

Before linking up with Inflo, Cleopatra Nikolic was struggling to break into the music industry. But she’s perhaps sung more lead vocals in the studio than any other female artist in the past few years. As well as a couple of decade, she’s the main vocalist for Sault, who’ve released almost a dozen albums since 2019. Her voice is gentle and supple, adding warmth to any song she features on.

Dusty Springfield

Dusty Springfield started her career in the folk-rock band The Springfields, with hits like ‘Silver Threads and Golden Needles’ and ‘Island of Dreams’. Going solo, she scored a string of hits in the mid-1960s. When she hit a career slump she reinvented herself with Dusty in Memphis. Dusty Springfield didn’t have the range or the power of other celebrated female vocalists, but she was fantastic in her niche – delivering blue-eyed soul with a sultry inflection.

Jessie Ware

London’s Jessie Ware has established herself as a sophisticated diva for adults. She’s never enjoyed a top 20 single, but all four of her albums to date have reached the top ten – incidentally, she announced her fifth studio album, titled That! Feels Good!, yesterday. She’s a vocal chameleon, pure yet sultry – her high notes on ‘Champagne Kisses’ are a thing of beauty.

Did I omit your favourite female vocalist?

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Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.


  1. Once again it’s an impossible errand. I don’t see how you can leave off Whitney.

    I also like Edie Brickell and Tracy Chapman.

    And cause I’m from Canada: Joanie M and Sahara Maclaughlan, Leslie Feist, Niko Case, Teegan and Sarah, Nelly Furtado, Emily Haines, and even Shania Twain.

    No Celine or Anne Murray or KD Lang.

    Maybe your girl Carlie Raye is decent enough. Or Margot Timmons.

    • And also, how could you be Canadian and not like Buffy Sainte Marie?? The weirdest singer to ever come from Canada. Even though I think her singing is great I certainly understand that she’s hard to take a lot of the time. But when she’s on she’s great.

      • Actually – I have my own list of the greatest 10 covers of all time.

        And in the top 10 is the aaventura (Dean Wareham and Brittany P) cover of BSMs Moonshot. YouTube it. Amazing.

        Also Sylvia Tyson is great, if we are in the subject of “off the beaten path” Canadian woman singers. I like Nikko case also

        • Wow. I’m surprised I never heard that before cuz I like Dean Wareham cuz Luna’s albums are some of my favorites ever. That was better than Buffy’s. I loved the film clips of L’avventura too. I only heard him singing in that song though and not the woman.

          • I was watching White Noise (with Adam Driver) on Netflix the other day, and there’s a Dean Wareham song in there.

          • Now that you mention it, you are right it’s only Dean in the moonshot cover. I do really enjoy Britta Phillips though.

    • With Houston I have a pathological hatred of ‘The Greatest Love of All’ and of her cover of ‘I Will Always Love You’. She’s a great singer for sure, but the latter is so overblown – like it’s showing off rather than serving the song. ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ is great, and I wish she had more songs like that.

      • Right on. I think of Whitney Houston and Celine Dion as being in the same category. They were like new Barbra Streisands for a new age, but without the little things that made Barbra Streisand Barbra Streisand.

  2. I have no issue with any of your choices. It’s just that my three favourite singers (male or female) aren’t there. They would be Kate, Joni and Laura.

    • All three would probably make my top ten solo female artists. I did think about them all – Nyro is probably my favourite singer of the three.

  3. I know Nina, Dusty, Aretha, Sandy, and Karen and am on board with them. I would add to your list (I know there is only 10 spots, but…) Mavis Staples, kd lang, Linda Ronstadt, Tammy Wynette, Dolores O’Riordan, Lzzy Hale, and Natalie Merchant. Oh, and Joni Mitchell.

  4. I did a list here on your thing before and I think only two of these were the same, Aretha Franklin and Liz Fraser. I don’t think I had Karen Carpenter but I meant to and just forgot.

    • From before – Women: top tier

      Janis Joplin
      Deborah Harry
      Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star)
      Joni Mitchell
      Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane)
      Polly Jean Harvey (PJ Harvey)
      Liz Fraser (Cocteau Twins)
      Ella Fitzgerald
      Aretha Franklin
      Pat Benatar

      • Nobody mentions Stevie nicks or Christine mcveigh. I find that kind of interesting. Also I do like the Wilson sisters from “heart” and the woman from “the head and the heart”. Also Florence and Billie Eilish

        • I did think about Nicks for my list. McVie and Lindsey Buckingham sound amazing together IMO, but she’s not a particularly distinctive solo vocalist. Billie Eilish is a pretty strong singer IMO – she’s charismatic.

      • Oh yeah. That was the first tier. The second tier was much more interesting. Isn’t it?

        Anita O’Day
        Billie Holiday
        Kim Deal (The Breeders, The Amps)
        Kate Bush
        Barbra Streisand
        Buffy Sainte-Marie
        Diana Ross
        Dionne Warwick

        • Kind of looks like you did the first few letters of the alphabet and stopped – most people on your list start with A, B, or D.

  5. Anne Murray started out great when she did those first few countryish Brian Ahern albums early in the 70s. And who doesn’t love Snowbird?? I know I do.

    • IDK – Anne is a great national treasure and I think an amazing person. But I give grades to people who compose their own songs. So Lady Gaga may not have the best voice of all of them but she is a classically trained guitarist who writes all of her own songs. That has to count for something.

      I really like the Kate Bush idea that someone said.

      • I think he was just a local producer in Canada and then when her records got successful he went on to Nashville and stuff. I think.

        • That’s cool – sounds like two talented people who were lucky to cross paths and helped launch each others’ careers.

          • Snowbird is my favorite country single of all time. One time I made a list of my favorite country songs and I think that was number one if I remember. And then also Danny’s Song and Love Song are probably top 10 too. I read in an interview she did that she ran into John Lennon somewhere I think in Toronto and he told her that her version of You Won’t See Me is better than the Beatles and they should have done it that way because he wasn’t satisfied with the way they did it.

  6. I would add Canadian singer Lee Aaron and though she is virtually unknown, the vocals of former Leaves Eyes singer Liv Christine totally blew my mind when I saw the band t Bloodstock 2010.

  7. I can’t believe those people took that list so seriously. Really, who cares? To go all the way to RS to protest? Anyway, here’s my list with some comments. (Sandy Denny could easily be on this list. I keep forgetting to finish listening to Liege and Lief. I am going to put it on my to-do list and listen to it one more time.) In no particular order:

    Janis Joplin – a hell of a blues singer
    Aretha Franklin – what can one say?
    Karen Carpenter – the only singer who could make me cry.
    Tina Turner – ballsier than most guys
    Tracy Chapman – great voice. Too bad she seems to have disappeared. Last new album was 15 years ago.
    Annie Lennox – great pipes. Would I lie to you?
    Bonnie Raitt – not only a great blues singer but just a great singer
    Dionne Warwick -I’ve loved her voice since forever. She’s actually touring and I tried to get anybody to go see her. No takers.
    Chrissie Hynde – instantly recognizable
    Koko Taylor – another great blues singer

    And of course, honorable mention to Celine Dion and Yoko Ono

  8. I like a good number of female vocalists on your list, including Aretha Franklin, Karen Carpenter, Sandy Denny, Nina Simone and Dusty Springfield. I agree with some of the commentators that Linda Ronstadt should be on there – what a voice! While I don’t necessarily listen to her, I think Barbra Streisand is an outstanding vocalist. Also, how about Annie Lennox? The more you think about, the harder it gets! 🙂

  9. A nice mixture of old and new and some I’ve never even heard. Great list. Where is Celine Dion!! She was left of Rolling Stones list and now yours…the shame!! LOL!!!! Let the public outcry begin!!

  10. Great to see Elizabeth Fraser on here… I’d have to give this one some thought but off the top of my head I’d put Kate Bush up there

  11. Nice list. Here is an alternative option: Diana Ross, Cass Elliot, Grace Slick, Dione Warwick, Ann Wilson from Heart, Agnetha Faltskog from ABBA, Donald Summer, Olivia Newton John, Annie Lennox, Dolores O’Riordan from The Cramberries.

    • I’m planning to do a best group vocal post sometime – the ABBA ladies would waltz into that. They sound amazing together, like they’re psychically linked. I thought about Summer a lot.

  12. Grace Slick
    Sandy Denny
    Joni Mitchell
    Flatula Lee Roth (Tragic Mulatto)
    Nina Simone
    Kate Bush
    Dolly Parton
    Johanna and Klara Söderberg (First Aid Kit)
    Christine McVie
    Shirley Caesar

    Off the cuff based on what I am listening to of late. As always, inquire again next month for a different off the cuff list . . .

    • Cool – we have a few in common. I find Slick and Mitchell both have a slightly haughty edge to their voice, which spoils my enjoyment a little.

  13. Excellent choice with Karen Carpenter – I tend to gravitate to the ladies with lower vocal ranges, so my list would likely also feature Annie Lennox, perhaps Tracy Chapman & Fiona Apple too

  14. This is a hard task because there are so many. I think they did a MUCH better job with this list than with their albums. The one that I forgot about is Karen Carpenter….that is a great pick, Graham.
    You could guess my top two probably. I agree with you about Celine Dion but…that is a problem across the board now…as far as autotune…but she is soulless to me…a female Michael Bolton. I usually don’t like pretty voices like Houston or Carey…they do nothing for me.
    Aretha Franklin
    Janis Joplin
    Tina Turner
    Dusty Springfield
    Bessie Smith
    Deborah Harry
    Billie Holiday
    Karen Carpenter…I have to add her now
    Bonnie Raitt

    • I have some respect for Carey – she’s a long way ahead of Dion as a creative figure and has a more interesting and stronger voice. Dion was always rubbished when I was a teen – it’s interesting to see the pendulum swing round on her, while Bolton remains on the outer.

      • Carey does have a strong voice…and Whitney Houston…that I will say…I’m just not a fan but a good voice is a good voice.
        I was happy in the comments to see at least one more Joplin vote. She could sing and not just scream…especially at the end of her career.

  15. Why the fuss about Celine Dion? She’s maybe somewhere in the top 20 Canadian female vocalists:

    1. Sarah Maclachlan
    2. Leslie Feist
    3. Joni Mitchell
    4. Anne Murray
    5. Neko Case
    6. Emily Haines (metric)
    7. Shania Twain
    8. Teegan and Sarah
    9. Carlie Rae Jepsen
    10. Nelly Furtado
    11. Sarah Harmer
    12. Martha Wainright
    13. Margot Timmins
    14. The woman from Stars
    15. The woman from Alwayys
    Etc. pretty tough competition

    • She’s good technically, just kind of mainstream and soulless. Pretty sure critics would have just dismissed her in the 1990s. It’s good pop music gets more respect and analysis now, but I don’t know she warrants it.

      That’s a cool list. McLachlan has a pretty pristine voice.

      • Thanks!

        You could add KD Lang, Buffy St Marie, Sylvia Tyson and so on – to get to 20 without even straining your brain too much.

        And I’m missing tons of amazing French Canadian singers.

        Celine (French Canadian) does belong on the list somewhere, obviously.

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