Being ArtEtc. Content Editor, it is safe to say I like music. Who doesn’t? But I also hold quality standards when talking about music; standards that when not maintained, like Snooki applying self-tanner, could be outright disastrous.
Rolling Stone released a list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” in 2008. This might seem out of date but, trust me, between Ke$ha and Kid Rock (I will never forgive him for “All Summer Long”), not much has developed singing-wise since then. Unfortunately, an intent look at who is on this list and where they are placed can be quite unsettling to the seasoned music listener, and I am sad to say nary a day has passed since this supposedly comprehensive list was published that I have not repressed some disappointment with Rolling Stone, my usual go-to for all things music. Hopefully this column will release me from said repression.
It’s understandable that when making a list of this nature, no one will be entirely happy with the result, even those who put the time and effort into the project itself. But what remains maddeningly evident is that its creators clearly took into account fame and notoriety more than anything, and spent very little time on technical music elements. Those “X” factors of singing should only come into play in other lists — Rolling Stone has had many over the years, such as best artist, best song — but calling this one best “singers” is simply a misnomer of the product that came out of the idea. It is doubtful that any sort of system was used in the selection of one singer over the other, coming out with a completed list of highly questionable rankings by even the most liberal of music aficionados.
The list is comprehensive across many genres and vocal styles, yes, but the inclusion of so much diversity of sound makes it feel distinctly like they were just trying to cover their bases. For example, Neil Young, Bob Marley and Kurt Cobain are astounding musicians, and there is no doubt in my mind that the course of world history has been greatly altered by their presence in the music industry. But all three would be uncomfortable, maybe even outraged, if ever the quality of their voices were to be critiqued by a vocal coach. “Greatest singer” just doesn’t seem to be an appropriate term, so what are they even doing there? Save singers like these for the “Most minds having been blown by their brilliance in music” list.
Furthermore, it is hard to believe that anyone at Rolling Stone would put Bob Dylan as the seventh best singer in history, for any reason other than to make a point (and he was bumped down from second in an earlier version). Dylan’s voice is one of the most diverse and iconic of American singers, that is true, but searches for any hint of pitch, tone, breath awareness or diction in his singing will surely come up dry. Many people claim that good music ends with Bob Dylan, and it is unfortunate that this attitude would influence the Rolling Stone so much as to place him on a pedestal, towering above true singing greats such as B. B. King, Art Garfunkel, Steve Perry and James Taylor. Even more frustrating than the lack of rhyme or reason to where singers ended up being placed is that there are gaping holes where celebrated vocalists were left off the compilation altogether. The absence of Eddie Vedder, Josh Groban, Alicia Keys, Sarah McLachlan, James Morrison, Billy Joel, Nico, Cat Stevens, Tracey Chapman and Mike Patton — to name just a few deserving singers — is regretful. Not to mention the crime of keeping Freddie Mercury out of the top ten (18), a man with a range some would kill for, who sang his heart out well into his battle with AIDS. I won’t offer my thoughts about who, out of the 17 above him, should be dropped down or taken out altogether, but I will say that if he was around today a serious battle on Karaoke Revolution would definitely be in order.
Regardless of its content, I will say it was interesting to see how Rolling Stone put together the list overall. They relied on other famous singers, many of them also on the list themselves, to write the bios of artists on the list. Rather than hear a professional writer’s perspective alone, you can hear an honest description by a musician about one of their idols, or another singer who has inspired them in their career. Nevertheless, trying to narrow down decades and decades of singers into one complete list is too far-reaching and intangible; maybe it’s just something you shouldn’t tangle with. Too many inconsistencies stand to be made. The current list contains many great singers as well as many captivating performers, brilliant lyricists, attractive chart-toppers and unique stage personalities, but I suppose it would be just a little too snarky to politely suggest they change the name of the current list to “100 musicians, some of which actually know a thing or two about singing.”