We put together a list of ten vocalists – from a variety of music genres – who we feel might just be among the most unique of all time. Not necessarily the best, or most commercially successful, or even the most influential, but rather those that a listener can hear and instantly realize that it can’t possibly be anyone else.
#10. Neil Young
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Bob Dylan had already established that singing ability (as it’s traditionally thought of) was less important than the singer’s message. However, Canadian rock powerhouse Neil Young took the notion to another level, with a take-no-prisoners angst in his vocal style, which could still also exhibit a somber sensitivity when needed.
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The accessibility of music has changed drastically in the twenty-first century, and as a result, the most successful artists don’t really enjoy the icon status that they once did. Among the few exceptions is Adele Adkins, whose powerful, soulful voice has made instantly recognizable when coming through any radio anywhere in the world (and early reviews of her new album further validate the notion of her staying power).
#8. Bryan Ferry
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Although he would never have major success in the US, Bryan Ferry would have an enormous impact in his native UK as both a solo artist and the frontman for Roxy Music, and his smooth but powerful voice, which seems to convey both vulnerability and determination, was much of the reason for this. What Ferry conveyed was that class and sophistication could still retain street smarts.
#7. Phil Collins
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For a musician who would also consider himself first and foremost a drummer (which, sadly, he’s recently had to abandon completely due to health issues), Phil Collins is among the most instantly recognizable vocalists of the past forty years, both in his solo career and as the frontman of Genesis. He has his detractors, but thanks to his subtle yet soulful voice and overall everyman vibe, most likely they’ll never outnumber his fans.
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Prince Rodgers Nelson displayed a variety of vocal ranges on his records throughout his recording career, injecting them with screams, wails, and squeals which became his trademark. This might not sound very appealing or accessible, but put together with his solid natural singing voice they made him one of the most distinctive music artists of all time.
#5. Frank Sinatra
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Sure, he’s your grandmother’s favorite singer, and It may not seem that way now, but when he first arrived on the Big Band scene in the late 1930s Francis Albert Sinatra really did bring a raw, streetwise edge into the polished and concise vocal practice which known as “crooning.” All this made him probably the first true idol of youth culture, which at the time was a new anomaly. Sinatra never lost that edge – or his popularity – right up until he died in 1998.
#4. Smokey Robinson
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Even as he helped create the Motown sound as a songwriter for other artists, William “Smokey” Robinson conquered the radio waves with his own indispensable smooth R&B vocals. Robinson’s voice has always been notably high-pitched, but always on key, and always projecting emotions that could sell both the “happy” songs as well as the heartbreakers.
#3. Mick Jagger
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While it’s longtime Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger’s physical moves onstage which have made him instantly notable (or notorious) since the mid-’60s, it’s his singing voice – strong enough to invite a mass listenership, but still just imperfect enough to give him an edge – which has made the sound of his band instantly recognizable to two generations (and counting).
#2. Sam Cooke
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On the many hits which he sang between 1957 and 1964, R&B singer Sam Cooke didn’t go for vocal gymnastics, instead of coming off more like he wanted to have a conversation with the listener. This resonated greatly during this period, and Cooke became a major influence to other R&B singers in the late ’60s and beyond (made all the more tragic by Cooke’s untimely death from a shooting at 33-years-old).
#1. Aretha Franklin
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The late Aretha Franklin routinely tops lists of the greatest vocalists in popular music – not just among women, or from the ’60s or within R&B or soul, but period. That’s with good with reason: She had a voice like no one else ever had or probably ever will, undeniably powerful yet somehow just grounded enough to dare anyone to underestimate it (always a mistake). There’ll never be another Aretha, and those who’ve followed (in any genre) can only hope to learn from her.