Who are the world's greatest singers?
January 28, 2009 7:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm a singer-songwriter and am looking to improve, expand, and hone the use of my voice by listening to recordings (studio or live) of some of the world's greatest singers. I'm looking for suggestions for who to give a listen to. Artists with great voices are obvious and easy to come by, so I'm more interested in suggestions for people you consider masters of interpretation, delivery, phrasing, conveying emotion, etc. I'm also really interested in learning more about the greats beloved in nations other than my own (I live in the U.S.). Thanks!
posted by Hydrophilic to Media & Arts (34 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Lucinda Williams, Lucinda Williams, Lucinda Williams, Lucinda Williams! Dolly Parton (listen to all eras of Dolly Parton - her phrasing just keeps getting better and better. Dolly Parton does it all and she does it all well.)

Patty Loveless for interpretation, delivery, and conveying emotion. Her voice seems to be getting richer the older she gets.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 7:17 PM on January 28, 2009

Merle Haggard
Natalie Merchant
Dar Williams
posted by yclipse at 7:19 PM on January 28, 2009

Betty Carter
Carmen McRae
Nina Simone
Cassandra Wilson
posted by box at 7:24 PM on January 28, 2009

For what you're asking for, Bob Dylan.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:39 PM on January 28, 2009

Johnny Hartman
posted by hortense at 7:42 PM on January 28, 2009

Townes Van Zandt. Objectively, his hangdog voice was truly mediocre. But he used it to frightening effect.
posted by notsnot at 7:43 PM on January 28, 2009

Jacques Brel (Belgium)
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Pakistan)
Césaria Évora (Cape Verde)
Elizeth Cardoso (Brasil)
posted by aiko at 7:44 PM on January 28, 2009

Sam Cooke is the first who leaps to mind - a master of delivering emotion through subtle changes in inflection.
posted by arcanecrowbar at 8:24 PM on January 28, 2009

Also, Willie Nelson has a remarkable style all his own. Get a compilation of some of his early stuff and listen to how he hangs behind the beat, or jumps in front of it, or just does anything but what you'd expect him to, and how those choices alter the meaning of the lyrics.
posted by arcanecrowbar at 8:26 PM on January 28, 2009

Cheryl Wheeler has wonderful vocal nuance.
posted by tdismukes at 8:29 PM on January 28, 2009

Caetano Veloso
Gilberto Gil
Gal Costa

These three singers have been around so long that they have lots and lots of records. Even though they've all gone through phases where their studio production is not the greatest, their voices are consistently expressive.
posted by umbú at 8:32 PM on January 28, 2009

Would a voice that sounds "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car" be something that interests you? I speak of course of Tom Waits.

His precise style may be irrelevant to you given I assume from your profil that you're a woman, but the man has an extraordinarily expressive voice. Certainly, his latter work leans more to the junkyard growl, but his classic mid-period stuff like Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones shows an amazing and utterly unique versatility.

One of my favourites is the live version of The Train Song on Big Time.
posted by tim_in_oz at 8:33 PM on January 28, 2009

Tim_in_oz's description of Tom Waits' voice could just as easily apply apply to Bill Morrissey
posted by tdismukes at 8:46 PM on January 28, 2009

This book may be of interest. I remember reading it and then finally understanding completely what made Sinatra so great. And, of course, Billie Holiday. It's about the vowels, and phrasing.

Can I also throw in a suggestion to help with the songwriting for Dave Alvin's King of California for some great storytelling in song (and, perhaps, Public Domain). Also, Richard Thompson's Vincent Black Lightning?

And for, delivery, conveying emotion and great songwriting in general - Paul Weller/the Jam keeps popping up in the shuffle, and I'm really enjoying songs like "Man in the Corner Shop" more than I did when I was younger and liked the noisier stuff.
posted by peagood at 8:55 PM on January 28, 2009

Rickie Lee Jones and Van Morrison
posted by juliplease at 9:06 PM on January 28, 2009

Some of my favorite singers of all time:

Nina Simone
Bob Dylan
Chet Baker
Leonard Cohen
Howlin Wolf
Marissa Nadler
Candi Staton
Karen Dalton (especially Something on Your Mind)
Michael Gira
Devendra Banhart
Spencer Wiggins
Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons)
Irma Thomas
Mary Wells
James Carr
Joanna Newsome
Whoever The Troublemakers sampled covering Bessie Smith on this track
Lisa Kekaula
Lou Rawls
Betty Davis
Van Morrison (Veedon Fleece in particular)
Rachel Nagy
Adam Stephens (of Two Gallants) - also one of my favorite contemporary songwriters
and the unique and one of the greatest of all time:
Scott Walker (yeah, those are the same guy, 25 years apart)
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:31 PM on January 28, 2009

From Lebanon, an icon of incalculable proportions: Fairuz
posted by ambient2 at 9:49 PM on January 28, 2009

Michael Jackson
Elis Regina
Otis Redding
posted by girlmightlive at 10:22 PM on January 28, 2009

I was always amazed at how Freddie Mercury adapted a chamber voice for rock and roll.
posted by eclectist at 12:35 AM on January 29, 2009

Toni Price -- she's got just the sweetest, lingeringest Southern voice, and the most heartbroke, too, she's so expressive, she's good live but she also comes across great on records, so much of the rich emotion often lost in an engineers magic machines of sterility makes it through that ghastly process intact. Austin royalty, and deserving of it.
posted by dancestoblue at 4:23 AM on January 29, 2009

I'm a vocalist too, and I've always thought Darren Hayes has a very emotional voice. He's my inspiration. Here are some links to songs to some examples on Imeem:

I Just Want You to Love Me - The note at 2:15 is heart-breaking.
A Conversation With God - The timing of the breaths in this song do a lot for conveying a frantic, suicidal feel.
Neverland - It's a song about a little boy who wants to kill his father because he hits their mother. When he gets into the PoV of the little boy, he changes his voice to sound younger. There's also a good mix of anger in that voice, like when he practically spits the word "crayons."
The Sun is Always Blinding Me - Soothing and joyous.
Sense of Humor

Also, one thing I like to do is listen to multiple covers of the same song to see what different people do with it. Then I figure out which one(s) I like the most and why. So, here's his cover of In Your Eyes.
posted by Nattie at 5:07 AM on January 29, 2009

Eight or ten minute interview of Toni Price (NPR) with excerpts of some of her songs. I'm so glad that there's a bit of 'Tumbleweed' on the interview, one of my very favorite songs sung by Toni (or anyone else, written by Gwil Owen), so evocative of Texas, it's sad and rich and heartbroke and beautiful and it's flat fucking great.

Anyone tells me that Texas sucks, George Bush this George Bush that, blah blah blah, I send them music, Toni and Willie and Stevie Ray and Bonnie Raitt and Calvin Russell and Terry Allen and Jo Carol Pierce and on and on and on forever and ever, Texas music the only reason to live here, other than golden-hearted strong people with welcoming faces and beautiful voices, and also there's pickups and pistols and swimming holes and lost roads and like that.
posted by dancestoblue at 5:21 AM on January 29, 2009

Jeff Buckley
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Aretha Franklin
Peggy Lee (check out Is That All There Is)
Joni Mitchell
Tom Waits
Frank Sinatra
Billie Holiday
posted by skylar at 6:03 AM on January 29, 2009

Probably not a popular choice, but Dave Matthews is a master of conveying emotion and tone in a song. Listen to this:

posted by Macallister Vagabond at 9:13 AM on January 29, 2009

Elvis Costello has maybe the most perfect singing technique of anyone in rock music. Truly he can do anything.

Bob Dylan is an example of taking an imperfect instrument and making perfect music with it.

Van Morrison is a good example of a white guy who has learned to sing as soulfully as anyone else.

The members of The Band all together sort of sum up the black/white divide of american music, and can ride both sides of it.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a virtuoso of another style entirely.

Tom Waits (I highly recomend the VH1 storytellers) sounds like two pieces of steak with air getting blown between them. In the best possible way.

Mary Lou Lord is a sort of unknown singer from Boston who is maybe the most amazing interpreter I've ever seen. Live City Sounds is by far her best album. She mostly does covers but can really smoke one.
posted by sully75 at 9:26 AM on January 29, 2009

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan - incredible.
Maria Callas - not the best technical singer, but her emoting is what made her unforgettable.
Billie Holiday - same.
Suzanne Vega and Astrud Gilberto (and to some extent, Dido) - for their minimalist, zero artifice effectiveness.
Annie Lennox - classically trained and man, can you hear it in her phrasing.
Nina Simone - nobody beats her. Good lord, what a voice and skillful use of it.
Joni Mitchell - obviously.
Janis Joplin - not the best voice, but so emotionally rich.

Honorable mention: Indigo Girls' cover of Dire Straits' 'Romeo and Juliet' will wrench your heart out with the sheer raw emotion of it.

I'll think of more!
posted by widdershins at 10:59 AM on January 29, 2009

Older Frank Sinatra records show that not only did he have a great voice, but he used it very precisely. (Someone wrote that he pronounced every syllable, or something along those lines.)

Recent Tony Bennett recordings reveal his age, but he's still got great phrasing.

I like John Wesley Harding, too, for using a non-spectacular voice to good ends.

Joe Jackson's got a pretty ordinary set of pipes (sorry, Joe), but he's one of my favorites.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:11 PM on January 29, 2009

Nthing Nina Simone. "Aint got" and one of her live versions of "When I was a young girl" are masterful. "Don't let me be misunderstood", "Sinnerman", she just has tons of classics that take you through a range of emotions where she just toys with you with her voice. Just takes you wherever she wants to take you.
posted by cashman at 2:09 PM on January 29, 2009

Mike Patton from Faith No More, Fantomas, Mr Bungle, etc has one of the most versatile voices I can think of.

Al Green and Marvin Gaye also spring to mind.

Also, seconding Sam Cooke.
posted by robotot at 2:45 PM on January 29, 2009

Sarah Blasko and Nick Cave (Australian) pop into mind. Both extraordinarily expressive.
posted by kjs4 at 5:23 PM on January 29, 2009

Response by poster: To anyone checking back to see the results of this post...many, many thanks for all of these thoughtful answers. I'm already digging into the listening and having a blast!

I'll be trying to apply some of what I learn as part of February Album Writing Month.
posted by Hydrophilic at 7:35 PM on January 29, 2009

I'm a singer-songwriter with a mediocre range and trouble staying on key, so my inspirations are those who make the most of what they have and focus on the lyrics, to wit:

Bob Dylan
Leonard Cohen
Townes Van Zandt
Neil Young
Liz Phair (who I've been told I sound like)
Elliott Smith
Courtney Love (and many others in the grunge genre)
Judee Sill

MeMail me if you want to discuss this further. I've got a bunch of resources that I use for vocal practice that have helped so much.
posted by xenophile at 3:44 PM on January 30, 2009

Peter Hammill of Van Der Graaf Generator has a totally unique singing style. He's the most theatrical singer I've ever heard, and he screams, growls and wails every other word. Great stuff.
posted by One Second Before Awakening at 9:21 AM on February 1, 2009

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