The Lava Lizard’s first Flaming Feature, 10 Greatest R&B Albums of the Last 10 Years, was a monster success and now we’re back for another dose of fun! This time, however, we’re focusing on the artists behind the mic by ranking the 16 Best Singers of the Last 16 Years!
It is no secret that young music fans enjoy comparing their favourite acts in various ways and one of the most popular parallels is drawn between singers. So, I pulled together The Lava Lizard team as well as a few special guests to participate in a heated debate that generated a list of the very best vocal performers, who released their debut studio albums during the 16-year period of 1997-2012 (yes, it is 16 if you include the year 1997).
How were the top singers selected? First, we each listed our choices, including artists from the genres of Top 40/Pop, R&B, Soul, Gospel, Rock and even Hip-Hop. Then, following a series of debates, we condensed the lineup from the top 40 to the last 16. Finally, the acts were scored with a 1-5 scale point system consisting of 5 categories – understanding and application of voice to music (phrasing, harmonising, vocal runs etc), use of range, power, control and emotion.
As a result of our scoring system, greater weight was given to those true vocalists who possess a clear understanding of music, use their ranges effectively and expertly control their instruments, thus allowing them to score higher. However, those gifted acts who naturally wield powerful voices or demonstrate conviction were able to rank high if they scored exceptionally well in those fields.
Now that you understand how our list was chosen and that I didn’t just pull it out of my backside, it is time to unveil the 16 Best Singers of the Last 16 Years! See the full lineup of artists below:
16. Christina Aguilera
Christina Aguilera’s #16 ranking on this list is probably a shock, both to those who consider her to be better or to those who don’t regard her hooting and hollering worthy of earning her a mention, even in the footnotes. Yet, there is a case for both schools of thought.
Despite arguably possessing the best voice on this lineup, Aguilera screams from her throat, uses the same vocal runs in almost every song as she attempts to imitate emotion and has almost zero understanding of music. However, when she keeps her wild antics in check, brief moments of brilliance shine through and she demonstrates the undeniable potential to become one of the best singers of our time.
Yes, Aguilera’s “vocal gymnastics” – she called it that, not me – can easily be classified as assault with a deadly weapon but when her instrument properly focused, she is quite impressive. So, I shall keep Aguilera in my prayers and hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Standout vocal performance: ‘I Love You, Porgy’ live at the 2008 Grammy Nominations Concert.
15. Musiq Soulchild
The first man on our list is Musiq Soulchild. Known for his work in the genres of contemporary Soul and R&B, Soulchild is one of the few male artists of the last 16 years who continue to push the boundaries of their voices.
Inspiring several young acts with his work, Soulchild experiments with the various textures and tones of his instrument as well as his wide vocal range. If you aren’t familiar with his work then simply imagine a man who can sing in falsetto without the crutch of auto-tune like Chris Brown, belt without yelping like Trey Songz and use the full extent of his range without showing strain or tension like Ne-Yo, who has a pretty voice but has been stuck in the same octave since 2005. Best of all, Soulchild knows how to relate to his audience as a true entertainer.
Standout vocal performance: ‘SoBeautiful’ from the ‘OnMyRadio’ album.
14. Amy Lee
Amy Lee made a name for herself as the leading lady of the Rock band Evanescence but she is far more than just a replaceable ornament in the group. Rather, she is a classically trained singer with a rich tone that is almost as captivating as her striking stare.
Drifting from warm lows to haunting highs, Lee brings a style to the world of mainstream Rock music that is usually only found in an Opera hall. Although she is often criticised for not having enough edge to her voice to deliver a dramatic climax to her songs as people expect from artists of her chosen genre, many argue that her refined approach to singing sets her apart from her otherwise screeching peers. Humorously, I sense that if Aguilera didn’t scream and knew how to properly use her voice, she would sound very similar to Lee.
Standout vocal performance: ‘My Immortal’ from the Evanescence’s ‘Fallen’ album.
13. Carrie Underwood
Isn’t this list such a colourful mix of talented artists of all shapes and sizes like a singer version of a Pokedex? Next up to bat is Country music’s reigning diva, Carrie Underwood, who leads all the other gals on the prairie.
Powerful, bold and well-controlled, Underwood is one of the best singers to emerge from the ‘American Idol’ generation of artists. Yet, what makes her special is the fact that she isn’t just another karaoke act, desperately trying to recreate the hits of her favourite performers while standing in a pair of Daisy Duke jeans, next to a jukebox in a dusty bar in Texas (Jessica Simpson, I’m looking at you).
Underwood is an artist of her own design and her skill easily ranks her among one of the best Country acts to hit the music scene in years. Really, it takes a lot of work to make that genre exciting and she did it without relying on an outburst by Kanye West on MTV.
Standout vocal performance: ‘Blown Away’ from the ‘Blown Away’ album.
12. Jazmine Sullivan
As we move away from soprano territory, we come to Jazmine Sullivan at #12. This husky contralto combines the styling of Kim Burrell, Brandy, Aretha Franklin and Lauryn Hill to create a phenomenal approach to singing that distinguishes her from her generally boring peers.
Sullivan’s runs flow smoothly through the music and although she often strains as she climbs to the top of her range, that roughness strangely compliments her emotional delivery. Indeed, the imperfections of Sullivan’s voice are the key to its beauty and her ability to manipulate those flaws to work in her favour represents the trademark of a uniquely talented singer who is severely underrated.
Standout vocal performance: ‘I’m in Love with Another Man’ from the ‘Fearless’ album.
Fantasia was first introduced to the world as a southern girl with mean finger waves in her hair and a raspy voice on ‘American Idol’. However, by the third episode of the show it became clear that she was much more than just another wannabe diva.
Singing with conviction and spectacular phrasing, Fantasia quickly earned a reputation as the second coming of someone great. Now, her personal troubles have overshadowed her work – I bet you know more about her relationship with Antwaun Cook than her near flawless ‘Back to Me’ album – and people have lost touch with this very talented singer. Of course, Fantasia’s bad habits of snarling and growling onstage also play a part in this unfortunate situation.
Standout vocal performance: ‘Summertime’ live at the UNCF tribute to Stevie Wonder.
10. Nicole Scherzinger
Her music is utter garbage but Nicole Scherzinger is an enormously talented vocalist. Trained to sing Opera, Rock, Pop and R&B, the former Pussycat Dolls lead singer has a broad vocal range and ability to adapt her voice to almost any material set before her.
Still, Scherzinger is a robot; a musical Stepford Wife with as much personality as an earlobe. Even when she does seem to connect with her songs, people refuse to believe her because she she is notorious for imitating real emotion and simply playing a part. No wonder fans of ‘The X Factor (US)’ wanted her kicked off the show with her tearless sobbing and fortune cookie advice.
Standout vocal performance: ‘Phantom of the Opera’ live on the Royal Variety Performance.
9. Leona Lewis
I bet your jaw just dropped when you saw the #9 next to Leona Lewis’ name. Before you grab your pitchfork and book a flight to Trinidad, let me carefully explain her ranking.
There is no question that Lewis has a great voice and is a master technician but similar to Scherzinger, she struggles to show true emotion. Honestly, if this list was solely based on skill, she would have easily scored a spot in the top 5 but singing is more than just a demonstration of vocal training.
On a positive note, there are still several impressive facets of Lewis’ vocals. She has a glorious head voice that can easily be classed with the best in the business and her vibrato is a perfect example of any textbook definition of the word. Moreover, her nasal lower register is quickly forgotten as she effortlessly ascends the scale to the top of her range to display the beautiful tone of well-trained soprano. Not bad for a singer ranked at #9!
Standout vocal performance: ‘I See You’ from the ‘Avatar’ movie soundtrack.
8. John Legend
John Legend is the only man listed in the top 10 and he certainly deserves that honor. This robust baritone represents everything that we wish Alicia Keys would be if she took the time to visit a vocal coach – on-key, controlled and powerful without yelling.
Refusing to miss a beat, Legend has the uncanny ability to dip to bone-chilling lows, while maintaining complete control, and climb to astounding highs. Remember Keys’ ‘You Don’t Know My Name’? That’s Legend singing the high notes in the background!
If Barry White and Luther Vandross were alive today, they would definitely be fans of Legend’s work. Really, this is a man who commands the respect of everyone from Al Green to Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige so to overlook him would be a crime.
Standout vocal performance: A live cover of Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’ from her ’21′ album.
7. Kelly Clarkson
Kelly Clarkson was the first winner of ‘American Idol’ and she also leads her peers from the series on this lineup. By far the most versatile vocalist to emerge from Simon Cowell’s never-ending quest to find the next superdiva, Clarkson is believable when singing songs of almost any genre.
At her core, Clarkson embodies the best qualities of her fellow talent show graduates. She has the power of Underwood, the range of Lewis, the vocal grit of Fantasia and the presence of Jennifer Hudson, who was too busy bellowing in a Weight Watchers commercial to qualify for this list.
Additionally, Clarkson has improved with each of her albums and abandoned the throaty screams of her short-lived Pop/Rock career, saving her vocal cords in the process. If she didn’t then she would probably sound as rough as Aguilera does today.
Standout vocal performance: ‘Sober’ from the ‘My December’ album.
6. Kelly Price
Kelly Price started her career by singing background vocals for Carey and Whitney Houston. Yet, when she released her ‘Soul of a Woman’ debut album in 1998, it became clear that she is a diva in her own right.
With the ability to harmonise with almost any artist, Price has proven herself to be a true student of music who has taken the time to understand the dynamics of her voice. Furthermore, she is widely respected for exercising restraint when it really matters. Honestly, we all know that Price can shake buildings with the power of her instrument but doing a song justice is more important to her than roaring at the top of her lungs similar to Jennifer Holiday on the set of ‘Dreamgirls’.
Standout vocal performance: ‘Tired’ from the ‘Kelly’ album.
5. Janelle Monae
Now, this is the ranking that most people probably didn’t see coming! Janelle Monae is still a relatively new artist when compared to the acts on this list but she has the fascinating talent of an ‘old soul’.
Depicting a cross between Anita Baker and Judy Garland, Monae’s milky tone and genius phrasing class her among the best singers across all genres of contemporary music. Listening to her voice is a true experience of sound as she sings crisp with diction and presence of the highest class. If Monae was a drink then she would be a fine, red wine that was stirred instead of shaken and dated to 1942.
Standout vocal performance: ‘Sincerely, Jane’ from the ‘Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase)’ EP.
4. Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse is gone but she certainly has not been forgotten. Now remembered as a musical genius, this British Soul singer opened doors for the current crop of performers from across the Atlantic, including Adele and Duffy, to dominate the US charts.
Winehouse was to the current generation as Billie Holiday was to that of our grandparents with her clever phrasing, smokey tone and subtle power. She turned every song into an instant classic and struck a chord with listeners from teens to adult fans of Jazz, Soul and R&B.
If you really want to hear Winehouse at her best then simply listen to her ‘Frank’ debut album. Indeed, ‘Back to Black’ presented her as an artist who cemented her sound but it was on ‘Frank’ that her voice and her excitement to sing were unbridled.
Standout vocal performance: ‘Moody’s Mood for Love’ from the ‘Frank’ album.
In the world of Pop music, there are few singers in the post-1997 era who can call themselves chameleons and Beyonce is one of them. She can adapt her brassy voice to music of any tempo, move through her range with unwavering resonance and change her style from a blushing diva to a hard-edged Hip-Hop performer at the drop of a dime.
Furthermore, Beyonce’s voice lacks the natural character of Aguilera or Sullivan but that is the exact reason why she is the ideal Pop singer. It is such a shame that she rarely connects with her material on a personal level and prefers to sing catchy hook-driven tunes instead of music that truly reflects her talent. Still, as Beyonce ages and the timbre of her voice continues to darken, she will soon be forced to mature as an artist and abandon the shallow jingles of her youth.
Standout vocal performance: ‘If’ - an unreleased track from the ‘B’Day’ album recording sessions.
2. Erykah Badu
Erykah Badu refuses to conform to the rules of Top 40 radio and that’s why people love her. Often to compared to her idol, Chaka Khan, Badu is a force of nature with a massive vocal range and an afro full of attitude.
There probably isn’t a singer out today who can belt or twist a lyric into a range of notes quite like Badu, although I would love to hear them try. Additionally, she never seems forced or contrived, and her style is all her own. Badu is an original, whether Pop music fans accept her or not.
Standout vocal performance: A live cover of Chaka Khan’s ‘Stay’ from Rufus & Chaka Khan’s ‘Street Player’ album.
1. Jill Scott
We’ve finally made to #1 on our list and the crown goes to none other than the incomparable Jill Scott! She can sing Opera, belt with more power than a city bus, scale back to a gently caressing coo and soar into the whistle register with enough ease to make even Minnie Riperton proud. Yes, Scott is the truth.
When she isn’t engaging her fans with the lines of her honest poetry, Scott is rocking their minds with a voice that can stand on its own without the aid of a mic. To find a flaw her singing is near impossible but if you need convincing then watch her perform ‘He Loves Me’ from her ‘Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1′ album and get blown away by her greatness below:
Now, it’s your turn to join the fun! Which of these singers is the best? Who should be moved down the list or omitted? Who else should have been added to the list? Share your opinions and take part in our poll below!