In music, there is no shortage of high-quality singers. The best among them, though, stop the listener in their tracks, filling their ears with sonic gold.
Some names pop right up. Marvin Gaye and his smooth-as-marble delivery. Dolly Parton, with her signature twang and immediate recognizability. Aretha Franklin’s sheer might and unbelievable range. Brian Wilson and the hallowed harmonies of his band, the Beach Boys. Stevie Wonder and everything his epic voice touched. But what of the other golden-voiced acts out there?
When the topic is golden vocal cords, we’re not just considering those with rare ability. These vocalists and band leaders sing so supremely that their voice is an instrument — if not a host of instruments — in its own right. To experience some of this brilliant ear candy, look no further than the following list.
Holder of some of the best pipes to ever grace a stage, Sam Cooke seemed to never miss a note. His voice managed to be spotless while having just a touch of smokiness, a recipe for timelessness.
Essential track: You can’t go wrong with any of Cooke’s work, but “Bring it On Home to Me” is especially breathtaking.
Late opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti earned his acclaim through the intricacy and complexity inherent to his well-trained voice. It was enough for the Italian to become viewed as perhaps one of the best tenors that ever lived.
Essential track: It’s almost impossible to pick but many critics point to his brilliant tackling of “La Bohème.”
You may know Neko Case from her work with Canadian indie-rock supergroup The New Pornographers. But she’s also responsible for a stellar solo career built around her resonating voice. Case has the kind of vocal gusto that can fill entire canyons from horizon to horizon. While certainly influenced by Patsy Cline, Case’s voice is wondrous and meanders into new territory altogether.
Essential track: Case’s discography is great start to finish but “Margaret vs. Pauline” is a particularly powerful number showcasing her vocal prowess.
Not many can sound so effortlessly retro as Leon Bridges. The soul and classic rhythm and blues maestro are blessed with a voice that seems plucked straight from the biggest stages of a couple of generations ago. But it’s not just nostalgia, as his collaborative work and successful dabbling in different genres attests.
Essential track: While “Coming Home” is a modern classic, it’s the new track “Texas Sun,” a collaboration with fellow Texas musicians Khruangbin, that really elevates Bridges.
Jeff Buckley lived a relatively short life but managed to leave a lasting vocal impression. He’s perhaps best known for his incredible Leonard Cohen cover, but Buckley turned out some incredible original blues-rock material as well, at a time when many were expecting grunge.
Essential track: “The Way Young Lovers Do” from Buckley’s Live at Sin-é record is practically untouchable from a vocal standpoint (keep in mind he’s also playing a mean guitar throughout).
The lead singer of Waxahatchee, Crutchfield has a voice that’s compelling partly because it’s tough to put a finger on. A little rugged, a little Bonnie Raitt, and all kinds of confident, it commands your speakers and freezes the listener in place.
Essential track: While the latest record, St. Cloud, is near-perfect, Crutchfield’s collaboration with Kevin Morby is arguably her best, especially “Farewell Transmission.”
Veloso is a South American legend, having helped create the Tropicalismo scene. His gorgeous Portuguese lyrics and elegant accompanying sounds can be enough to make you cry.
Essential track: Despite a great body of work that helped define Brazilian music, his show-stopping performance in the film Talk to Her is utter magic (seen above).
Rihanna’s voice sticks to your soul. Sure, sometimes it’s tinkered with in the studio, but even on its own, it’s nimble, evocative, pure, and lasting. She’s proven her immense worth via solo records like Anti and, most recently, the playful summertime film she made with Donald Glover called Guava Island (which is worth a view or two). Records form around her voice, not the other way around.
Essential track: “Work.” Enough said.
Frontman for My Morning Jacket, a crucial part of Monsters of Folk, solo artist, and possessor of an outstanding beard, Jim James does it all. His soaring voice functions like an electric guitar solo that can steal an already busy and noisy stage.
Essential track: In “Wordless Chorus” from 2005’s outstanding Z record by My Morning Jacket, James exhibits his force as well as his heavenly falsetto.
Maybe this one is obvious, but Stevie Nicks truly offers something singularly her own with a mic in hand. For years, her voice managed to beat out the many other talented sounds emanating from her band Fleetwood Mac.
Essential track: “Beautiful Child” from the amazing Tusk album remains a vision in terms of vocal ability.
Most of us know of the robust vocals offered by the iconic Roy Orbison. Marlon Williams can rightfully be called his apprentice, with a similar tone and signature howl that harkens back to the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. Like Orbison, Williams manages to perfectly weave in elements of country. The New Zealander is as confident yodeling as he is singing an impassioned folk ballad.
Essential track: “Dark Child,” a haunting song that flexes the spirited nature of Williams’ approach.
There’s no doubting the cool-as-a-cucumber factor at play with Anderson .Paak’s work. A percussionist and vocalist, the young Californian musician has already accrued an esteemed portfolio of records, most revolving around groove-ridden pop, hip-hop, and Golden State motifs.
Essential track: “Make it Better,” which features the legend Smokey Robinson, is dripping with sweet-as-honey vocals that will make you, too, want to “make love at the drop of a hat,” as he sings.
Honorable mentions: CeeLo Green, Diane Coffee, Tupac Shakur
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