1. Freddie Mercury
Singing isn’t just about the notes that you can hit; it’s about the way you use your ability. No one exhibited that more than Freddie Mercury. His astonishing range and purely powerful voice allowed him to tackle a myriad of genres — from rock to folk to opera to funk — all of which he infused with his own style.

He was always more than simply a (really, really) good singer. His was the voice that could bring folks to the dance floor in droves (“Another One Bites the Dust”) and inspire terrible, yet entertaining, sing-along sessions (“Bohemian Rhapsody”). In his quietest moments, as with “Who Wants to Live Forever,” he could trigger tears. His flexibility as a singer gave him broad appeal; he attracted the jocks (“We Will Rock You,” “We Are the Champions”) and the nerds (shout out to the fellow Highlander fans). Now, nearly 25 years after his untimely death at age 45, his voice will make you stop flipping through radio stations. You stay still and listen until your heart hurts, because there will never be another Freddie Mercury. —Liz Ohanesian

2. Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin, the universally acknowledged Queen of Soul, is a vocalist with an innate ability that goes so far beyond any discussion of technique, influence or what, if any, training she received that it beggars description. Her gospel background is, of course, a critical element (it bears repeating that her father was the famed Baptist Bishop C.L. Franklin, aka “the Man With the Million Dollar Voice”), but even that sanctified foundation pales beside what is clearly a profound and God-given natural talent. Aretha’s expressive, masterly phrasing, sheer atmosphere and color, and ability to communicate such manifest depths of palpable emotion and psychic information provide her a transcendent superiority that no other singer, alive or dead, can possibly aspire to match. —Jonny Whiteside

3. Axl Rose
Axl Rose was the last rock & roll singer, and in a perfect world he’d enjoy more critical acclaim than a certain divorce-rock godfather from Aberdeen. “A small-town white boy just trying to make ends meet,” Rose possesses perhaps the most instantly recognizable voice in all of rock. His nearly six-octave range is among the world’s largest, which is bragworthy, but more important is how he uses it. He goes from a mean growl to a soaring screech to a soulful croon on a single album side. His little asides in songs (my favorite is “That’s right!” but there’s also “All right, that sucked!”) add that extra something that only a master can. —Nicholas Pell

4. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Pakistan’s king of Sufi devotional music, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was already a superstar in his homeland when he was introduced to Western audiences through his collaborations with artists such as Peter Gabriel and Michael Brook. His style of music, called Qawwali, features elaborate, improvised vocal passages that resemble a cross between gospel-inspired melisma and jazz scat-singing, and Khan could do it better than anyone, unleashing dazzling runs of notes that would make Ella Fitzgerald’s head spin. “He’s my Elvis,” said another of his Western acolytes, Jeff Buckley. Khan died in 1997 when he was just 48, a devastating loss not only for Qawwali music but for anyone who appreciates the kind of artistry that transcends barriers of language and culture. —Andy Hermann

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