Thursday, November 27, 2008

Top Singers of All Time?


I’m a sucker for lists.

Recently, Rolling Stone magazine featured its top 100 singers of all time.

I’m especially drawn to these sort of lists – the ones that rank music and art based on purely subjective criteria. These lists are always absurd and often terrible but they’re also a lot of fun. The value of them isn’t in the ranking but in the arguments they generate and what they reveal about your own tastes and preferences (and of course the inferior tastes and preferences of your friends, not to mention the so-called rock journalists who arbitrate such matters). And once you get past the spirit of competition, these sort of lists can be appreciated as a celebration of all those great artists. And when a magazine features a well-written tribute (like Bono writing about Bob Dylan) you might even be reminded of what was once worthwhile about such magazines and music journalism in the first place.

To be sure, any list of singers that features Bob Dylan at number seven tells you something about the criteria. We are not talking about technical ability or the beauty of a voice, and certainly not any classical or conventional measure of what constitutes great singing. Clearly, we are looking at other factors: A measure of singer’s influence on culture or other musicians? A unique vocal style? Some intangible quality that speaks to emotion? Or touches the soul? Or tells the truth? I suppose it’s any or all of the above. (The judges consisted mostly of rock musicians and journalists with some industry big-wigs thrown in for good measure).

Within the pages of the magazine, Jonathan Lethem eloquently defends the subjective and unconventional nature of the criteria:

For me, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, just to mention two, are superb singers by an measure I could ever care about – expressivity, surprise, soul, grain, interpretive wit, angle of vision.

Amen. But now it’s time to tear into this crazy list because there’s so much wrong with it:

• No Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday etc. This isn’t necessarily a criticism given that the Rolling Stone's focus is on the “Rock Era” but still, there is something arbitrary about such designations. If the list includes country legends Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and George Jones, why not Sinatra?

• No Chrissy Hynde! For me, this is the most glaring of all the omissions. Absolutely unconscionable.

• Generational Bias. Rolling Stone, as ever, is a magazine by Baby Boomers and for Baby Boomers. The list features only a handful of artists who emerged within the last 20 years: Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley, Thom Yorke and Bjork. I would add Eddie Vedder for certain. Less famous but also up there in my book are Layne Staley, Alison Krauss, Greg Dulli, and Mark Lanegan.

• I don’t care how good Patti Labelle may have been once or what kind of other-worldly pipes she possesses. Her destruction of the National Anthem before Game Four of the World Series this year should automatically disqualify her.

• Other noteworthy omissions: Michael Stipe, K.D. Lang, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer and Eva Cassidy.

At some point, I’ll include my own list. In the meantime, something to think about:

What makes a great singer?


innisart said...

Alison Krauss is overlooked for so many of her achievements. Doesn't she have the record for most Grammys? A great voice, great musician, and a smart businesswoman.

As for Sinatra, I still have a hard time accepting that he had a great voice. He definitely had a style, had a great music book, and was/is an American icon. I guess it depends on you criteria for judging a voice.

Costello and Simon don't have great voices to me, either, but they are both brilliant musicians.

Was Steve Perry on the list?


Steve Perry was #76.

And if rock critics didn't hate Journey so much, he'd probably have landed much higher.

I totally agree with you about Alision Krauss.

As for Paul Simon, I thought he deserved a mention because Art Garfunkel made the list (#86).

Now I do think Sinatra had a great voice - but here's where I think it's worth making a distinction between having a great voice...and being a great singer. It's the latter designation that matters most. The quality of the singer's voice is but one tool in the arsenal of a great singer - it is complimented by the phrasing, the emotional resonance, the command of the song.

Looking over the list again, I noticed one other omission which surprised me. Diana Ross.

innisart said...

What!? Steve Perry is always number 1!

I can agree with your response about Sinatra.

Garfunkel made the list, and Paul didn't? That is odd.

By the looks of Rolling Stones' list (at least the ones you mentioned), it seems like they often rewarded popularity and uniqueness of voice over actual singing quality.

Still, a hard list to compile.

Eva Cassidy was also another good suggestion.

Annie Lennox? Alison Moyet? Enya?

jwharding28 said...

This being Rolling Stone, I'm going to guess that Mick was #1, and Springsteen was #2.

And I'm only half-joking.