I finally got around to reading Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers issue, and while there's plenty to take issue with, they pretty much nailed the top of the list. Not all of the singers in the top 10 make my list, but it's hard to quibble with any of them.
The lead-in essay by Jonathan Lethem is an amazing read. He puts forth the best argument I've ever read about why those singers without classically great voices can still be considered great singers: "We judge popular vocals since 1956 by what the singer unearths that the song itself could never quite." How true. That's why Dylan and Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain and every rough-edged voice out there is capable of stirring deep emotion in the listeners. It's about conveying the heartache, or joy, or mystery of life - it's about the power that great singers have of layering meaning on top of the lyrics, just by how they make those words sound. Dylan has the greatest inflection of any singer I've heard, and he uses that skill to make a song like Idiot Wind sound more venomous than his own terrific poetry ever could.
What struck me most about Rolling Stone's list were a couple of omissions I was sure the magazine would include: Emmylou Harris and Jackson Browne. They're both square in the Rolling Stone demographic, and hell, Browne even wrote the John Lennon essay. Both make my top ten. I put together a quick list of other omissions, and stopped as it stretched to 50. Some others that didn't make my list include Elvis Costello, Nick Drake, Roger McGuinn, Gillian Welch, Joe Strummer, Roberta Flack, Lucinda Williams and Donald Fagan.
So without further ado, since Rolling Stone didn't get around to collecting a ballot from Catfish Vegas before they went ahead with this little exercise, I'll have to publish it here.
1. Van Morrison
2. Emmylou Harris
3. Sam Cooke
4. Marvin Gaye
5. Neko Case
6. Jackson Browne
7. Otis Redding
8. Bob Dylan
9. Tom Waits
10. Willie Nelson
11. Lyle Lovett
12. Dwight Yoakam
13. Aretha Franklin
14. Johnny Cash
15. Bruce Springsteen
16. Robert Plant
17. Roy Orbison
18. Elliott Smith
19. Natalie Merchant
20. John Doe / Exene Cervenka
And it kills me to leave off Solomon Burke, Mick Jagger, Neil Young, Sam Beam, Eddie Vedder, Jim James, Thom Yorke, Tim Booth, Kurt Cobain and Morrissey.
Rolling Stone is by of course stuck in the 1960s and 1970s when it comes to a list like this. Of the lengthy list of nominators, only Jim James and James Mercer represent anything close to the world of indie rock. And the magazine's top 100 had just two singers whose debut records came in the last two decades. So I had to bring the balance.
One last word on my main criteria: the singer had to have captured my full attention, imagination and spirit, solely with the power of his or her voice, and have that wonderful feeling of being truly moved to a new place emotionally stick around long after the song has ended. All of these, and many more, have done that, and the best ones do it time and time again, and leave such lasting impressions that I can't even think of the singer without recalling the sensation of experiencing the music.
Van Morrison - Into the Mystic (live)
Emmylou Harris - Shores of White Sand (live)
Jackson Browne - Fountain of Sorrow (live)
Neko Case - Live, Nov. 16, 2007, from Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (entire show)
Bob Dylan - Idiot Wind (live)
Elliott Smith - Waltz #2 (live)
Get a zip file with all 20 singers.