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Bowie the 32nd best singer?

I came across an article about Rolling Stone’s latest list— the “ 200 Greatest Singers of All Time,” which ranks Bowie at #32. #32? How’s that?

Well, to begin with, it’s entirely unclear why singers of certain types of music are included but not others. For instance, most of the top 10 can best be characterized as soul singers, though surely the likes of Ray Charles (#6) and Aretha Franklin (#1) demonstrated proficiency across genres. But in there too is Billie Holiday (#4), maybe the quintessential jazz singer. Country singers like Patsy Cline (#13) and Hank Williams (#30) are in there, as are singers best known for American Standards like Frank Sinatra (#19) and Barbra Streisand (#147) (but not Bing Crosby or Tony Bennett), and folk singers like Bob Dylan (#15) and Joan Baez (#189). But if the list includes all those types of singers, why doesn’t it include opera singers? (Rolling Stone had an explanation for that specific question— “our purview is pop music writ large”). Allowing for the possibility that some of the few names I don’t recognize might be foreign, the list has few or no singers who primarily sing in a language other than English. There’s an almost obligatory inclusion of Bob Marley, but other than him I don’t recognize anyone else representing reggae or related genres.

So the list is heavy on rock and pop singers, but I’m not even sure that half the singers on the list are rock singers. Arguably none of the top 10 from the list are rock singers: 1. Aretha Franklin; 2. Whitney Houston; 3. Sam Cooke; 4. Billie Holiday; 5. Mariah Carey; 6. Ray Charles; 7. Stevie Wonder; 8. Beyoncé; 9. Otis Redding; 10. Al Green. I take that back— nobody could seriously argue than anyone on the top 10 list is a rock singer.

As with the case of the explanation for why specifically opera singers aren’t on the list, Rolling Stone included some other attempts to explain the inexplicable— “this is the Greatest Singers list, not the Greatest Voices List” (huh?).

If you were somehow able to cull an actual, consistent standard from the scant tenants Rolling Stone explained for how these singers were ranked, there’s plenty of missing names. The point here is not to list them, but I will include the complete list of 200 below and you will see for yourself who isn’t there.

But my point is this: any list that contains both Iggy Pop (#176) and Loretta Lynn (#132), Robert Johnson (#124) and Chet Baker (#116) is meaningless. So too is Bowie’s rank of #32.

The illustration I used above came from another list, from an online publication called, UCR. I don’t know much about UCR, but it ranked the top 40 rock singers. Its more plausible top 10 is: 1. Freddie Mercury; 2. Robert Plant; 3. Paul McCartney; 4. Mick Jagger; 5. Steve Perry; 6. Joni Mitchell; 7. Bowie; 8. Chris Cornell; 9. John Lennon; 10. Axl Rose. (Personal assessment of who belongs where on such a list aside, even here I question the inclusion of Joni Mitchell— who is not a rock singer).

Rolling Stone figured out a while ago that people like lists, so that’s why this one exists. But it’s not meaningful.

OK— so what would my top 10 list be? I’d have to separate out Bowie (my list is 10% longer by stipulating what you already know if you are reading this, that Bowie is my favorite), clarify that I’m ranking rock singers and explain that my standard is purely subjective. So all that said, and with the added caveat that I might give you a different list tomorrow, here’s my top 10: 1. Aimee Mann; 2. Robert Plant; 3. Mick Jagger; 4. Paul McCartney; 5. John Lennon; 6. Iggy Pop; 7. David Byrne; 8. Jimi Hendrix; 9. Joan Jett; 10. Courtney Love.

And here’s Rolling Stone’s top 200:

200. Rosalía
199. Glenn Danzig
198. Billie Eilish
197. Burna Boy
196. Paul Westerberg
195. Poly Styrene
194. Kelly Clarkson
193. Brandy
192. Anohni
191. Jung Kook
190. Frank Ocean
189. Joan Baez
188. Fela Kuti
187. Bonnie Raitt
186. Ofra Haza
185. Alicia Keys
184. Karen O
183. Solomon Burke
182. Jazmine Sullivan
181. Bob Seger
180. SZA
179. Martha Wash
178. Tabu Ley Rochereau
177. Patty Loveless
176. Iggy Pop
175. Lana Del Rey
174. Buddy Holly
173. Marianne Faithfull
172. Juan Gabriel
171. Odetta
170. Chris Stapleton
169. Sylvester
168. Debbie Harry
167. Marc Anthony
166. Morrissey
165. Ronnie James Dio
164. Sandy Denny
163. Bobby “Blue” Bland
162. Françoise Hardy
161. Brenda Lee
160. Mercedes Sosa
159. Mississippi John Hurt
158. Carrie Underwood
157. Robert Smith
156. George Strait
155. Corin Tucker
154. Dion
153. Mahlathini
152. Michael Stipe
151. Martha Reeves
150. Bryan Ferry
149. Wanda Jackson
148. Levon Helm
147. Barbra Streisand
146. Ruth Brown
145. PJ Harvey
144. Darlene Love
143. Luciano
142. Russell Thompkins Jr.
141. Christina Aguilera
140. Bono
139. Rocío Dúrcal
138. Merle Haggard
137. El DeBarge
136. Lauryn Hill
135. IU
134. Axl Rose
133. Neil Young
132. Loretta Lynn
131. Jeff Buckley
130. Courtney Love
129. Rob Halford
128. Florence Welch
127. Tammy Wynette
126. Donny Hathaway
125. Joe Strummer
124. Robert Johnson
123. Karen Carpenter
122. Donna Summer
121. Jackie Wilson
120. Charlie Rich
119. Barrington Levy
118. John Fogerty
117. Patti Smith
116. Chet Baker
115. Erykah Badu
114. Chrissie Hynde
113. La India
112. Ozzy Osbourne
111. Fiona Apple
110. The Weeknd
109. Roger Daltrey
108. Caetano Veloso
107. Lou Reed
106. Bill Withers
105. Eddie Vedder
104. Aaron Neville
103. Leonard Cohen
102. Taylor Swift
101. Gladys Knight
100. Elton John
99. Clyde McPhatter
98. Bob Marley
97. Usher
96. Chuck Berry
95. Vincente Fernández
94. Toots Hibbert
93. Stevie Nicks
92. Anita Baker
91. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
90. Gal Costa
89. Selena
88. Jimmie Rodgers
87. Diana Ross
86. Michael Jackson
85. Johnny Cash
84. Lata Mangeshkar
83. Amy Winehouse
82. Steve Perry
81. João Gilberto
80. Chris Cornell
79. Emmylou Harris
78. Janis Joplin
77. Bruce Springsteen
76. Wilson Pickett
75. D’Angelo
74. Patti LaBelle
73. Héctor Lavoe
72. Muddy Waters
71. Roy Orbison
70. Ronnie Spector
69. Youssou N’Dour
68. Rihanna
67. Dennis Brown
66. David Ruffin
65. Minnie Riperton
64. Björk
63. Robert Plant
62. George Michael
61. Umm Kulthum
60. Kate Bush
59. Howlin’ Wolf
58. Lady Gaga
57. Brian Wilson
56. Barry White
55. Tina Turner
54. Willie Nelson
53. Miriam Makeba
52. Mick Jagger
51. Sade
50. Joni Mitchell
49. Rod Stewart
48. Toni Braxton
47. Linda Ronstadt
46. Mavis Staples
45. Ella Fitzgerald
44. James Brown
43. Ariana Grande
42. Teddy Pendergrass
41. Etta James
40. Aaliyah
39. Louis Armstrong
38. Curtis Mayfield
37. Van Morrison
36. Kurt Cobain
35. Dusty Springfield
34. Thom Yorke
33. Bessie Smith
32. David Bowie
31. Luther Vandross
30. Hank Williams
29. Chaka Khan
28. Mahalia Jackson
27. Dolly Parton
26. Paul McCartney
25. Mary J. Blige
24. George Jones
23. Smokey Robinson
22. Adele
21. Nina Simone
20. Marvin Gaye
19. Frank Sinatra
18. Celia Cruz
17. Elvis Presley
16. Prince
15. Bob Dylan
14. Freddie Mercury
13. Patsy Cline
12. John Lennon
11. Little Richard
10. Al Green
9. Otis Redding
8. Beyoncé
7. Stevie Wonder
6. Ray Charles
5. Mariah Carey
4. Billie Holiday
3. Sam Cooke
2. Whitney Houston
1. Aretha Franklin

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