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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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
Read about the discographies of musical acts from the 1960s to the present day. Browse this site's review archives or enjoy these random selections:
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