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.
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 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 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 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.
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 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.
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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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.
Neko Case practices her singing instead of photographing babies with peas.
Also will be covering her this year!
She’s certainly an acquired taste – I like her though.
I’ll be posting on her in my Women Music March 2023. You’re right, she is a treasure in many ways, including her singing.
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.
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.
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.
It’s especially tough once you add country people – too many choices. Why not Ashley Judd or Dolly Parton if we go there. I love your idea of Natalie Merchant. She’s a treasure.
I like the bangles woman (Suzanne I think) and belinda Carlisle and both of the indigo girls.
Thanks, Andrew, so many good vocalists out there.
I like Belinda Carlisle as a vocalist – Brandi Carlile too.
Thanks for the reminder on Ronstadt. I went back and added her. I love your “I’m on board” statement. 🙂
Happy you’re on board with Ronstadt 🙂
Thanks for writing in! O’Riordan seems like one of the more polarising voices out there. It would have been good to fit Staples and Ronstadt, and I like Merchant’s accent/timbre a lot.
You’re welcome. Not sure if you know it or not but every March I feature one female musician each day. This will be my 3rd year doing it.
Yup, I remember it last year.
What I will do is add the choices here to my list for future WMMs. If they are that good I need to know more about them, which I do learn as I write them up.
I really like the sound of Carly Simon’s voice. And she has some of the most unforgettable songs ever.
Most people on this thread seem to prefer Linda R, which is ok with me, obviously. Also she has a song about my short career as a hockey goaltender = “Blue Bayou”
One of my favorites by Carly:
That’s a funny reference to “Blue Bayou”. I prefer Ronstadt to Simon I think – Simon seems quite traditional.
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
Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star)
Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane)
Polly Jean Harvey (PJ Harvey)
Liz Fraser (Cocteau Twins)
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?
Kim Deal (The Breeders, The Amps)
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.
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 didn’t realise she worked with Brian Ahern as well.
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.
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.
I was conscious that none of the female singers on my list are really rock singers – thanks for the suggestions.
Yes, you did. You missed Adele!!
And Whitney and Taylor and Streisand , Janet Jackson and Judy Garland. Impossible task!
An impossible task, indeed..
Taylor Swift has gone from an OK vocalist to actually pretty good.
Lana Del Ray, Mama Cass, Janice Joplin, Lorde also
I like her voice, and enjoyed ‘Rolling in the Deep’. Not so keen on ‘Hello’. Would I be likely to enjoy her other stuff?
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
Good choices all – Warwick’s god daughter Whitney blows DW away. Both started as gospel singers. Watch the documentary “Whitney”. It’s amazing.
Yeah, Whitney’s great. Dionne may not have her power but I’ve always loved her voice, especially the Bacharach stuff
Yes. I love Dionne Warwick’s Burt Bacharach stuff. I don’t love Whitney though. Not by a long shot.
I kinda like I Will Alwats Love You
I think Whitney has a ton of vocal talent, just doesn’t record songs I enjoy. I listened to a few other famous songs by her I didn’t know on YouTube and it was a bunch of adult contemporary ballads.
I have been listening to Texas Flood a bit. I’m mainly impressed by the guitar so far.
I did think about Lennox for my list and Warwick is someone who gets mentioned a lot as a great female singer who I really don’t know. I think I’ve overlooked her because I conflate her with Diane Warren, a songwriter who’s responsible for a lot of crap IMO.
Listen to Anyone Who Had a Heart, Walk on By and I say a little prayer by her.
SRV was an amazing guitarist. He is revered, especially by blues players of course
Then seriously find the documentary’Whitney’ on Netflix or wherever.
The movie opens with WH singing that song in Berlin (completely drugged out).
Tragic but Unforgettable.
I’ll add it to the list.
Jim, great list (except for those honorable mentions! lol)
Heh! I heard Yoko recently “singing” on the Beatles’ “Get Back” doc. Let’s say she’s an acquired taste at best.
Jim, when I hear Yoko singing, I say, “Get Back!” lol
I don’t think I’ve ever heard her, weirdly.
You’re been blessed, Graham. Best described as intentional caterwauling.
She’s about to become a nonagenarian!
Seriously!? I keep thinking of her like she was in the Get Back days. Time does move on…
Oh, crap I forgot Ronstadt. If it’s 10, alas, I’ll have to pull Hynde and put Linda there.
Your list can go up to 11 if you’d like.
Keep them both in. Have you heard the album Ronstadt did, “Duets”? She is in a class by herself solo, but with other singers wow, she soars.
I’m aware of it but no I haven’t heard it. She shows up in the Chuck Berry doc “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n Roll” and blows everyone away. A shame about her now.
Haven’t seen that one. Not surprising. Yes, it is a real shame about her voice 🙁
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! 🙂
I thought about Lennox – my wife suggested her when we were brainstorming. She’s got a pretty cool blue-eyed soul voice.
Christian wonderful additions. Streisand is off the charts. Love Lennox also. I’m going to be writing about Flora Purim next month, a Brazilian jazz fusion singer, that is really out of this world good.
Looking forward to Flora Purim. Her name doesn’t ring a bell! 🙂
Have you listened to Chick Corea’s Return to Forever? If so maybe you have 🙂
I have not. In fact, I think I haven’t heard to any Chick Corea album yet. I guess he might be great for a “Sunday Six”. I’m going to chick him out further! 🙂
Christian you should definitely chick him out 😉 Jazz fusion and Return to Forever is a kickazz ensemble. Stanley Clarke on bass. Oh no, I just found out that Chick Corea passed away in 2021 🙁
Yeah, I saw that as well, sad!
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!!
I don’t think people are going to march to New Zealand to protest.
I don’t know, I wouldn’t mind visiting New Zealand.
But probably not to protest about the omission of Celine Dion?
No, just to visit that beautiful country!!
LOL, why not have vocaloids put on RS list!
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
Kate Bush cruises into any ten best solo artists list I’d make, but sometimes I find her vocals a bit too theatrical.
In that vein, Tony, I would also add Tori Amos. She’s got a beautiful, distinctive voice. And Mitski also!
I’m actually working through Tori Amos’ discography at the moment. She’s got this kind of different gear, where she can put on this weird cabaret voice.
Graham, which album is it that she’s going through fairy tales? I heard that one awhile back and want to listen to it again.
I have no idea! I liked her 2021 album, but I’m finding diminishing returns about 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk.
OK, I remembered Steve for the Deaf wrote the post on it, so I went to his blog’s archive and found it. Here you go:
I didn’t think about fairytales for that album! Is it the artwork?
Did you read Steve’s review? Maybe you will afterwards 😉
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.
Enrique, you have my vote. Diana Ross a bit reedy for my taste, but the rest yes.
Flatula Lee Roth (Tragic Mulatto)
Johanna and Klara Söderberg (First Aid Kit)
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.
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
The money’s in the basement!
Why isn’t Taylor Swift on that list? She is also remarkable with her works that are never empty of enthusiasts
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.
Karen Carpenter…I have to add her now
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.
Good list, Max.
Ariana Grande is definitely one of the best modern female singers ever!
Totally – I like watching videos of her trying to hit high notes live. Seems like she’s not using autotune live. I like her slur – gives her voice a bit of personality.
I never noticed the slur until you brought it up, to be honest.
She kinds of runs her words together and doesn’t enunciate very clearly.
Omg you’re right!
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.
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.