There are certain elements of popular music that really grab me. A sexy saxophone solo. A biting electric guitar riff. A relentlessly driving beat. A potent lyric that succinctly captures an emotion.
But when it comes right down to it, I get most weak in the knees when I hear an excellent singer. From full-throated rock vocalists to gentle balladeers, from country crooners to feisty R&B wailers, I find myself more often mesmerized by voices than any other instrument in the mix.
And I’ll take this a step further: For the most part, I tend to favor female singers. Sure, I melt when I hear Roger Daltrey, or Marvin Gaye, or Art Garfunkel, or Peter Gabriel, or Willie Nelson. But to my ears, women’s voices have a hard-to-define superior quality.
I’ve recently completed a rather exhaustive review of female vocalists of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s — the period on which Hack’s Back Pages has always focused — and listened to hundreds of songs by many dozens of artists. My nearly impossible goal: to identify the women I consider the Top Fifteen Female Singers who really move me the most.
Some have bold, forceful, exhilarating voices that can knock you off your feet; others offer stunning, smooth, exquisite vocals that calm and comfort you. I’m sure there will be names my readers feel are glaringly absent, but I hope you’ll agree my list offers a healthy balance of both ends of the spectrum.
The Spotify playlist at the bottom includes two selections from each woman’s repertoire.
It was hard enough to whittle my list down to 15 entries; I couldn’t possibly rank them as well. So their names appear here in no particular order.
And here we go:
In Rolling Stone‘s list of the 100 Greatest Vocalists of All Time, compiled in 2010, guess who was voted #1? The great Aretha, of course. As the magazine put it, “When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing.” There are many superb soul lady singers — Darlene Love, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Ronnie Spector, Mary Wells — but Franklin leaves them all in the dust. When she brought her strong gospel roots to bear on any song (from “I Say a Little Prayer for You” to “The Weight,” from “Eleanor Rigby” to “The House That Jack Built,” from “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to “Think”), she almost made you forget any other version you’d heard. And when you hear “Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools” and especially “Respect,” well, there’s no one even in second place. She is, indeed, The Queen of Soul.
One of the vanguards of the early ’80s British New Wave movement was Lennox’s band The Eurythmics. Partner Dave Stewart gets credit for producing and co-writing the group’s synthesizer-laden material, but it was Lennox and her powerful singing that attracted most of the attention, and rightly so. The Eurythmics scored three Top Ten albums in the US and big hits like “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and “Would I Lie to You?” Lennox went out on her own in the ’90s, and her recordings — the mainstream pop on “Diva,” the lush mood music on “Bare” and some astonishing cover versions of classics on “Medusa” and “Nostalgia” — are uniformly superb. She has the kind of deep, expressive voice that sounds great singing virtually any genre. Don’t forget the Eurythmics’ reunion LP, “Peace,” with “17 Again” and “I Saved the World Today”…
Regular readers here know I regard Joni as one of the two or three most important artists of the past 50 years. Her songwriting is unparalleled in its creativity and diversity, and she offers truly inventive guitar tunings and chord progressions. She appears on this list because of her strangely captivating singing voice, which has evolved substantially over the course of her four-decade career. When Mitchell debuted in 1968 with a very high soprano that often drifted into falsetto, not everyone embraced her. But by her mid-’70s high-water mark (“Blue, “For the Roses,” “Court and Spark,” “Miles of Aisles,” “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” and “Hejira”), her voice had dropped into a half-soprano/half-alto range that was far more pleasing. Later albums featured an ever deeper contralto voice (exasperated by cigarette smoking) that was nonetheless just as appealing.
I recently read Hynde’s exhilarating/harrowing autobiography “Reckless,” and I feel confident she would approve of my referring to her as “the most badass chick in rock and roll.” My respect for her has only continued to grow over the years since she first exploded on the scene in 1980 as the focal point (lead singer, lead songwriter) of The Pretenders. Her vocal delivery is alternately staccato and flowing (think “Message of Love” and “Kid”) but either way very engaging, and perfectly suited for her band’s music. Part of my fondness for her is because of her Northeast Ohio roots, but that’s superficial. Quite simply, I think she’s the best female rock vocalist of the ’80s, and among the Top Ten (Five?) of all time. And she’s still pumping out great stuff in the new millenium (“Human,” “Time,” “Break Up the Concrete”).
I know, I know. To many people, she’s a Broadway-type diva whose material is a long way from rock. So what? You simply can’t argue with the fact that Streisand’s peerless voice might very well be the best America has ever offered. She has had her rock/pop moments (“Stoney End,” “Guilty” with Barry Gibb, “Enough is Enough” with Donna Summer), and her masterful delivery on standards like “People,” “The Way We Were,” and “Evergreen” is beyond question. She is the only woman — in fact, the only singer regardless of gender — who has reached #1 on the charts in six different decades, most recently in a series of delightful duets with the likes of John Legend, Stevie Wonder, Michael Bublé, John Mayer and even Elvis Presley (thanks to technology). She’s in a category all by herself.
Upon joining Fleetwood Mac back in 1970, Christine Perfect (who soon married bass player John McVie) was probably a better songwriter than a singer, offering great songs like “Spare Me a Little” and “Just Crazy Love” but a voice that sometimes lacked control. By the time the talented duo of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the band, McVie had honed her voice into a smooth, refined instrument that deftly balanced the deeper strains Nicks brought to the party. It was McVie’s sunny, soprano (and songs), for the most part, that were most often heard on the band’s omnipresent singles — “Over My Head,” “Say You Love Me,” “Don’t Stop,” “You Make Loving Fun,” “Think About Me,” “Little Lies,” “Everywhere,” “Save Me.” Uncannily, McVie’s voice blended perfectly with Buckingham’s on many of the band’s greatest tracks.
The songstress that Stephen Stills fell for and wrote “Judy Blue Eyes” about is one of my personal favorites from my formative years. Collins was part of the vibrant Greenwich Village folk scene in the early ’60s, playing guitar and adding her pitch perfect voice to folk standards and wonderful new material by up-and-comers like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Collins’s definitive rendition of Joni’s “Both Sides Now” made her a star, and she rode the tide of modest success well into the ’80s and ’90s, despite her struggles with alcoholism. Her recorded output includes everything from Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” and the Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe” to multiple Dylan covers and her own substantial compositions (“Since You’ve Asked,” “My Father,” “The Blizzard”), all magnificently rendered with class and taste.
I can’t think of a female rock singer besides Ann Wilson who could pull off the improbable — totally nailing a live performance of Led Zeppelin’s anthem “Stairway to Heaven” with Robert Plant in the audience! But she did, at the Kennedy Center Honors Ceremony in 2012, and she not only brought Plant and the crowd to their feet, the performance is ranked among the most popular videos ever on YouTube. Wilson and her sister Nancy were the core of Heart, by far the best hard rock band fronted by women, and enormously successful (35 million records sold worldwide) during their 40-year career. Ann’s wonderfully versatile voice was a crucial element, accomplished at hard rock, folk, power pop, adult contemporary, even mixtures of these (“Barracuda,” “Dog and Butterfly,” “Never,” “These Dreams,” “Crazy on You”).
One of the most charming and funny bundles of energy ever packaged into a (mostly) tiny body, Dolly is pretty much universally loved and respected by fans and peers alike, even those who aren’t wild about country music (like me). Her voice has an almost childlike quaver to it, but her soulful delivery can wring joy or heartbreak out of any lyric. Although she has influenced dozens, maybe hundreds of female country stars who followed her, Dolly is humble enough to self-deprecatingly describe her voice as “a cross between Tiny Tim and a nanny goat.” That’s pretty funny, but it’s not remotely accurate. There’s just something about the way she caresses a song that grabs me, whether it’s a strong ballad like “I Will Always Love You,” class country like “Jolene” or mainstream pop like “9 to 5.”
Until the arrival of Jefferson Airplane in 1966, no woman had ever handled lead vocals for a rock band, not in the States nor in England. Signe Anderson shared vocal duties with band founder Marty Balin for a year, but was soon replaced by a fiery woman named Grace Slick, who blazed a memorable trail for female singers for decades to come. Her soaring vocals on two huge hits, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” had jaws dropping everywhere in that infamous Summer of Love, 1967. Slick remained a tough, defiant presence, recording many extraordinarily strong vocal performances with not only the Airplane (“Lather,” “Triad”), but also their spinoff, Jefferson Starship, and their spinoff, Starship. Check out “Fast Buck Freddie” and “Play on Love” from the #1 LP “Red Octopus,” “Switchblade” from “Spitfire,” and “Love Too Good” and “All Nite Long” from “Earth.”
Of all the singers who were pigeonholed into the “easy listening” genre, I think Karen Carpenter stands head and shoulders above everyone else. Sure, some of The Carpenters’ repertoire was saccharine sweet, even cloying (“We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Close to You,” “Top of the World”), but with Karen’s flawless alto at the microphone, virtually everything they recorded sounded positively pure and serene. Even better, when they got their hands on top-shelf material like Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” and “This Masquerade,” the result was over-the-moon perfection. Those who are intrigued enough to explore more, I suggest you check out the medley of ’60s oldies they assembled on their 1973 LP “Now and Then,” where Karen nails renditions of “Johnny Angel,” “One Fine Day” and “The End of the World.” Wow!
What can I say about this whirlwind blues icon that hasn’t already been said? Emerging from a Texas small town in the early ’60s, Janis headed for San Francisco at just the right time, and latched on to a ragtag Bay Area band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. Her mind-blowing performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 established her as a hurricane force to be reckoned with. (If you haven’t heard her grab a hold of the smoldering blues classic “Ball and Chain” on the #1 LP “Cheap Thrills,” by all means, do so today). She could sing like a bird at one moment and then shred her vocal cords the next; check out “Kozmic Blues” from 1969. To most fans, she is known for the Top 20 hit “Piece of My Heart” and the posthumous #1 classic “Me and Bobby McGee,” but her all-too-brief repertoire includes so much more. I urge you to explore!
When you think of the ’60s, you think, mostly, of The Beatles and Motown. They ruled the airwaves. And when it comes to Motown, there were plenty of male singers who belonged on pedestals (Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Levi Stubbs), but on the distaff side, Diana Ross ruled the roost. The Supremes served up some of the Motown writers’ best creations — “Baby Love,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Love Child,” “My World is Empty Without You,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “Reflections” — and at the forefront of every single was Ross and her killer vocals. Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard (and later, Cindy Birdsong), provided excellent backup, but Ross was the star with her sultry, expressive voice, and Berry Gordy knew it, which is why he engineered her evolution to a solo superstar in the ’70s and ’80s.
What a survivor. She established herself early on as a formidable slide guitar player, widely respected by grizzled blues veterans everywhere. After nearly 20 years in the business, Raitt was recognized in 1989 with a boatload of Grammys for her “Nick of Time” album. And she continues to make fabulous music today — 2012’s “Slipstream” and 2016’s “Dig in Deep” stand up well against any of her ’70s and ’80s LPs. Through it all, her first-rate voice, alternately gritty and soothing, has massaged great songs by James Taylor (“Rainy Day Man”), John Hiatt (“Thing Called Love”), Eric Kaz (“Love Has No Pride”), Jackson Browne (“I Thought I Was a Child”) and other lesser-known songwriters, and even a few of her own (“Give It Up,” “Nick of Time”). Bonnie is a rare talent who can handle folk, blues, rock and country genres with equal aplomb.
My sleeper choice on this list is this relative unknown lady who was the front-and-center lead vocalist for the British classical rock group Renaissance for the majority of its run in the 1970s and ’80s. Although their unique blend of folk, classical, rock and jazz attracted cult audiences among fans of progressive rock groups like Yes and Genesis, Renaissance never sold many albums at home or in the States. But their string of mid-’70s records (“Ashes are Burning,” “Turn of the Cards,” “Scheherazade,” “Live at Carnegie Hall” and “Novella”) are well worth examining, if only to hear Haslam’s astonishing five-octave, crystal clear singing. When combined with prominent classical piano and smart ensemble playing, Haslam’s voice can send chills up and down your spine.
As I look back at the list of “honorable mentions,” I can’t fathom how some of these incredible women didn’t make my Top 15 Singers list. Rockers like Stevie Nicks and Pat Benatar? R&B titans like Etta James and Darlene Love and Tina Turner? Country legends like Patsy Cline and Emmylou Harris? Singer/songwriters like Karla Bonoff and Carly Simon? Pop songstresses like Bette Midler and Lesley Gore and Petula Clark? Iconic chanteuses like Sade and Madonna and Natalie Cole? Like I said, it’s a near-impossible task. There are just too many options. I’m sure I’ll take plenty of heat for not including some of these ladies (or countless others) among my top choices, but we all have our opinions…and I’d love to hear yours!