Some time ago I listed my favorite voices in music. But I realized that there was one glaring omission: female vocalists. I’m embarrassed about that, and I would like to rectify it now by listing my top ten female vocalists of all time. Women rock!
10. Idina Menzel
The first time I heard Idina Menzel was at the 2004 Tony Awards, when she performed “Defying Gravity” with Kristin Chenoweth (and won her Tony for playing Elphaba in Wicked). I fell in love with her voice at first listen – and to think she was nursing a cold during that performance! Idina’s voice can be both powerful like in the aforementioned “Defying Gravity” and vulnerable – her “I’m Not That Girl” is simply heartbreaking. Even when everyone was so sick of hearing the overplayed “Let It Go”, I never got tired of it because I loved hearing her voice soar. But the song I want to highlight for this list is from the musical If/Then. In “Some Other Me”, she sings about what her other lives might have been (or may currently be), and for me, it perfectly showcases her gift.
9. Stevie Nicks
I don’t think I fully appreciated Stevie Nicks until I heard this live version of “Landslide”. Her voice here shows her age and the wild life she’s led (she used to wear a vial of cocaine as a necklace!) But it’s exactly what this introspective song needs. Her unique and instantly recognizable timbre is the perfect match for the melancholy of the song.
8. Whitney Houston
I do not like this song. Which just proves how amazing Whitney Houston is, because she can make me respect it even if I don’t personally like it. I am not a fan of belters or singers who always reach for the glory notes. I find powerful voices grating more often than not. But Whitney! Whitney is different from everyone else. She reaches the high notes but somehow makes it seem like it’s so simple and like she is making no effort at all. So even if she is singing powerful ballads it is still relaxing to listen to her. I knew her first as an actress in the ’90s and only listened to her later songs because of early noughties MTV. And just when I was starting to appreciate her earlier masterpieces, she left us. I still feel a sense of loss over her death, and a bit of frustration that she didn’t make it through her troubles. I wish she were still here with us blessing us with her sass and singular voice.
7. Carole King
I used to think Carole King’s recording of “You’ve Got A Friend” was bland. She is a great songwriter and Tapestry is a masterpiece, yes, but she doesn’t exactly have the best voice. That’s why I much preferred James Taylor’s version. But the very reasons why I didn’t like the original are the same reasons I love it now – the melancholy, the quiet emotion, the rawness, the earnestness. I think going through some difficult times myself made me realize what this song really means, and why Carole King sang it perfectly.
6. Ella Fitzgerald
I came across an old vinyl of Ella Fitzgerald at home one afternoon and decided to give it a spin, and I was completely blown away. I was late as always, but I finally learned why she is a legend! Her scatting, phrasing, and timing – she could do anything with her voice and reach strange new notes (or is it chords? I’m not a musician, as you can probably tell) that I never knew existed. All I can say about Lady Ella is that listening to her makes me feel warm and cozy, and soothes my head and my heart.
5. Bonnie Raitt
Bonnie Raitt has such a rich voice that can tell a story in four minutes or so. It’s a bluesy, warm voice that doesn’t need any fancy tricks to make you feel all the feelings. Her performance of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is one of the best vocal performances ever. No one can listen to it and not have their heart break a little. Or maybe a lot.
4. Grace Slick
To this day I still can’t reconcile the Grace Slick who sang “Somebody to Love” as a member of Jefferson Airplane with the Grace Slick from Starship who sang “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”. They are two wildly different songs, to say the least. Are they really the same person? But I do know that it’s her voice – so full, so powerful – that makes even the most reviled song awesome. When she comes in with her line “Let them say we’re crazy”, the song reaches another level and becomes a full-on bop. I don’t care what anyone else says, this song rocks, and it’s because of Grace Slick.
3. Aretha Franklin
I will not attempt to describe the Queen’s voice. Others far better than me have already done that. So let me just present Aretha Franklin’s version of “Make It With You” by Bread. I was honestly shocked the first time I heard it – I never imagined an Aretha and Bread crossover could ever happen. I think the original is great, but I didn’t realize it could ever be so soulful. Aretha transformed the song beyond anything imaginable. Enjoy.
2. Tina Turner
I used to dismiss “What’s Love Got To Do With It” because it was overplayed – which meant I was dismissing Tina Turner’s vocals as well. But after rewatching the biopic named after her ubiquitous hit and the documentary “Tina”, I felt I unlocked a whole new respect for her. I finally learned to listen to her. I love making lists like this because it makes me go through the artists’ discographies so I can choose a song to highlight. With Miss Tina, I had a difficult (but wonderful) time choosing. I feel like I’m cheating a bit here, because “Missing You” is one of my favorite songs of all time, but I think Tina Turner covering it shows how brilliant she is – she changes up the song dramatically just by lending her vocals to it.
1. Karen Carpenter
Karen Carpenter’s voice is often described as the voice of an angel, and I agree wholeheartedly. Her voice is nothing short of perfect. My Carpenters journey started with thinking they were corny, to liking their songs but being embarrassed to admit it, to finally recognizing that Karen Carpenter is an actual genius and being a proud fan. I used to think Richard Carpenter overproduced their songs, but maybe that’s just because Karen’s voice is impeccable, which makes their recordings seem almost too refined. I could have chosen any song from the Carpenters’ catalog and it would have been the correct choice. The reason I chose “Only Yesterday” is because I love how it starts with Karen in her low register and then soars by the time she reaches the chorus. She was just flawless and I wish she knew it.