In 2008, Rolling Stone released a controversial list titled “100 Greatest Singers of All Time.” The article made headlines, with many critics questioning Rolling Stone’s rankings. On January 1, 2023, the publication released a new list, titled “The 200 Greatest Singers of All Time.” In it, they commented on their 2008 rendition, claiming that the results “skewed towards classic rock and singers from the Sixties and Seventies” after receiving inputs from well-known musicians during the voting process. Still, the 2023 list has been met with much criticism.
In an introductory statement to their list of 200, Rolling Stone claimed that the voting process exclusively relied on their staff and critical contributors credited in the publication. This change prevented bias towards one genre, allowing for a culturally inclusive decision-making process. The magazine states that the new list “encompasses 100 years of pop music as an ongoing global conversation.”
Rolling Stone provided readers with a list of criteria in hopes of subduing anticipated controversy. “Before you start scrolling (and commenting), keep in mind that this is the Greatest Singers list, not the Greatest Voices List. Talent is impressive; genius is transcendent,” the article says.
The team acknowledged opera as one intentional omission in their list—excluding vocal talents such as Italian operatic lyric tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who was considered the greatest of his era. Rolling Stone upholds their decision to focus on artists who “had significant careers as crossover stars making popular music for the masses.” So, if their rankings are not solely reliant on vocal abilities, what are they determined by?
Factors that the publication considered include “originality, influence, the depth of an artist’s catalogue, and the breadth of their musical legacy.” A voice can be gorgeously effortless like Ariana Grande‘s, gravelly and unmistakeable like Louis Armstrong’s, fall into a low bass-baritone like Axl Rose, or contain a velvety quality like Ella Fitzgerald‘s—who somehow did not make it on the ranked list. In the grand scheme of things, Rolling Stone set out to compile singers who “can remake the world just by opening their mouths.”
The singer who takes the number one spot on their list is “the Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin, who described her mantra in music as “me with my hand outstretched, hoping someone will take it.” Rolling Stone places emphasis on the bond between the artist and listener.
Whitney Huston, Sam Cooke, Billy Holiday, and Mariah Carey follow Franklin in the top five. Number six is Ray Charles, a champion of R&B, pop, jazz, and country. His rewrite of a gospel song as openly passionate as “I Got a Woman” was the birth of Soul music. The ranking of artists like Charles is hard to combat.
Otis Redding earns his rightful place in the top ten with ballads such as “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and “These Arms of Mine.” Moreover, Redding is actually the original writer of “Respect,” which he recorded in 1965.
Other notable artists found in the higher ranks of the list include Stevie Wonder, Al Green, John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, Prince, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, David Bowie, and Michael Jackson. But who was excluded from the list? Despite numerous disclaimers, for most fans, the backlash of controversy is inevitable.
Most fans took to Twitter to express their outrage that Rolling Stone decided to exclude Celine Dion. CBC News reported that “fans of the Quebec-born singer were quick to take to social media to express outrage over what some say is a ‘crime against humanity.’”
But the snub doesn’t end with Dion. Rolling Stone left out other singers who have impacted the lives of many, such as Janet Jackson, Bon Jovi, and Franki Valli. Despite Valli’s placement in the 2008 list, his legacy did not stop after “Sherry” in 1962.
I strongly feel that some artists on the top 200 list deserve a re-ranking—namely Michael Jackson, who claimed number 86. As “The King of Pop,” you’d think that he would achieve a higher spot. Frank Sinatra, at number 19, should have also been given a higher ranking. Few can convey Sinatra’s emotional depth through song, and accompanied by his charm and relaxed maturity, his style is one of a kind.
What is most upsetting to me is that Elvis Presley was number three in 2008 but descended to number 17 now. If we are talking about originality, charisma, and cultural impact, Presley is number one on my list—and I think many would agree. There is a reason why we call him “The King,” after all. Through his eccentric dance moves and wide-legged trousers, Presley’s unique sound blends diverse influences and pushed through social and racial barriers during his time.
As one of the highest ranking music magazines, you’d expect Rolling Stone to provide credible information. However, music is extremely subjective—there is no right or wrong answer on who can be considered “the best,” but there are classifications to who can qualify as “legendary.” While the debates on Rolling Stone’s list of 200 continue, I hope that their next list—maybe a list of the greatest 300 artists—will fill in the gaps that many music listeners are missing.