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Best Female Singers Of All Time: 20 Trailblazing Music Icons
List & Guides

Best Female Singers Of All Time: 20 Trailblazing Music Icons

From insightful songwriters to roof-raising vocalists, the best female singers of all time have made sure women in music get heard.

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To paraphrase James Brown, this world wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or a girl, and it’s true – where would we be without women? Not here, that’s for sure. For centuries, women have faced sexism and misogyny, especially in the music industry, for simply possessing a skill at an equivalent level – or, often, better – than their male counterparts. Thankfully, we are lucky enough to have an incredible record of female musicians, singers and songwriters who have stood the test of time and made history with their outstanding voices and unique ways of expressing universal truths. Here, then, are the 20 best female singers of all time.

Best Female Singers Of All Time: 20 Trailblazing Music Icons

20: Cher

Having long stood for female independence (her iconic “Mom, I am a rich man” quote has even been referenced by Taylor Swift), Cher has entertained audiences far and wide with her enviable jet-black hair, outrageous costumes, contralto voice and seeming inability to age. Initially making her mark on the music industry in the 60s, as part of the duo Sonny And Cher, she’s barely stopped since. With a discography that ranges from folk to disco, dance and rock music, the “Goddess Of Pop” has made comebacks in varying forms in just about every decade she’s been in the business. Making the once-controversial Auto-Tune a central part of the pop mainstream, Cher’s 1998 smash hit, Believe, is a pop masterpiece that still stands as one of the best-selling singles of all time. More recently, Cher reignited her acting career after appearing in the second instalment of the ABBA comedy-musical franchise, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, defying her age by singing, acting and dancing like a person many years younger.

Must hear: Believe

19: Dua Lipa

After the immense success of her seventh single, New Rules, from her self-titled debut album, Dua Lipa catapulted into stardom and became a household name in Britain. While her debut fluttered effortlessly with silky, rich and deep tones, making for a perfect fit on any party playlist, her second album, Future Nostalgia, took a cosmic-disco twist, tackling themes of female empowerment, inequality and intimacy, and earning critical acclaim in the process. Lipa’s credibility continues to grow: in recent years she’s collaborated with Miley Cyrus, had Future Nostalgia reimagined by US DJ The Blessed Madonna, and even duetted with Elton John. Trailing a ton of accolades and prestigious nominations in her wake, including BRIT and Grammy awards, Lipa has already earned her place among the best female singers of all time.

Must hear: Love Again

18: Lauryn Hill

The best female singers of the modern era owe a lot to Ms Lauryn Hill. Regarded as one of the greatest, most influential rappers of all time, Hill broke boundaries in the traditionally male-dominated hip-hop and R&B worlds. Her career began in The Fugees, where her bewitchingly soulful vocals blended with her gifted rap expertise, paving the way for her to go solo and release one of the best-selling albums of all time, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. Incorporating soul, hip-hop and a hint of reggae, the album explored love, faith and personal turmoil while flaunting Hill’s versatility. A considerable influence on future generations of MCs, among them Little Simz and Greentea Peng, it’s no surprise that Hill stands as the most awarded female rapper of all time.

Must hear: The Ex-Factor

17: Kylie Minogue

Renowned the world over as an LGBTQ+ icon, Kylie Minogue has been a sparkly pop presence since the 80s. Another record-breaking icon among the best female singers of all time, the “Princess Of Pop” is the highest-selling Australian-born solo artist in history, and it’s as though this accolade propels her to continue making hit records decades after her debut. Early singles such as I Should Be So Lucky and The Loco-Motion remain touchstones among the best 80s songs, while Kylie’s 2000s reinvention, with songs such as Spinning Around and Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, proved that she had what it took to dominate the charts in the early 21st century, and remain wickedly nostalgic reminders of another golden era for pop music. A firm Glastonbury favourite, Kylie’s 2019 headlining slot stands as the festival’s most-watched performance to date.

Must hear: Spinning Around

16: Ellie Rowsell

Wolf Alice frontwoman Ellie Rowsell is a remarkable, sometimes overlooked, voice in alternative rock. With all three of her band’s albums being nominated for the Mercury Prize – and 2018’s Visions Of A Life winning the award – the group have become hailed as one of the best bands in the UK, but that status probably wouldn’t be so assured without Roswell’s impressive vocals. Exceptionally versatile, she can soar to spine-tingling soprano peaks (Lipstick On The Glass) but also skip to gravelly spoken-word deliveries and climatic roars (Formidable Cool), earning her guest spots on records by the likes of Mura Masa and alt-J. An influencer in her own right, Rowsell has, since the mid-2010s, been a driving force for women in rock, proving that women who sing and play guitar can rightfully claim their place among the best female singers of all time.

Must hear: Delicious Things

15: Hayley Williams

Best known as the red-haired frontwoman of the rock band Paramore, Hayley Williams has evolved monumentally since the formation of her group, way back in 2004. Shifting from punk rock (2007’s Riot! album) to alternative rock (2013’s Paramore) and holographic indie-pop (2017’s After Laughter), Paramore’s sound has changed over the years, but Williams’ breathtaking voice has always remained first class. After an intense breakup resulted in a dip in her mental health, Williams launched a solo career as a form of therapy for herself – and only herself. Stripping ger music bare while placing her vocals at the forefront, she released the poignant, candid Petals For Armor in 2020 and followed it up less than a year later with the sultry, heavily acoustic FLOWERS for VASES / descansos. Boasting one of the best album covers of 2021, the latter revealed that her unfettered creativity was still running riot for all to hear. There’s not much that can stand in the way of Hayley Williams and her ability to make beautifully authentic music.

Must hear: Dead Horse

14: Janis Joplin

As resilient as they come, the hard-living Janis Joplin was relentlessly teased and mocked at school, but she went on to run with rock’n’roll in an era when it was heavily dominated by men. Coming out on top, she became not only one of the best female singers of the 60s, but one of the most iconic voices on the planet. Drawn to the countercultural epicentre that was San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the Texas-born Joplin joined the psychedelic blues-rock outfit Big Brother And The Holding Company in 1966. After a stream of intoxicated performances led to a falling-out with the group, she went solo, but barely got going on her own before dying of an accidental heroin overdose. One of the earliest entrants in music’s notorious “27 Club”, Joplin’s legacy as one of the best female singers of all time will live on forever.

Must hear: Piece Of My Heart

13: Lady Gaga

One of the most leftfield-thinking artists in modern pop music, Lady Gaga has made a name for herself beyond her music thanks to her unforgettable avant-garde live performances and eye-catching outfits (we all remember the meat dress). Some of her decisions are more bafflingly off-the-wall than others, but her music is indisputably versatile and is bolstered by a sumptuous voice that can be put to almost any genre she chooses. The reigning champion of electro-pop, Gaga revealed a stripped-back version of herself on 2016’s Joanne, delving into folk and soft-rock territory, and has even flirted with jazz and swing music, releasing two collaborative albums with legendary crooner Tony Bennett. The first woman ever to win an Oscar, Grammy, BAFTA and Golden Globe – all in 2018, for her all-encompassing performance in A Star Is Born – Gaga is truly one of the best female singers of her generation.

Must hear: Born This Way

12: Debbie Harry

Naming her groundbreaking New York City punk outfit after a catcall that truck drivers yelled as she walked down the street, Debbie Harry is without a doubt one of the best female singers of all time. Helping to crystallise the new wave scene that formed around New York’s CBGB club in the late 70s, Blondie went on to incorporate punk, electronica, funk and reggae into a musical style that allied sensationally with Harry’s rich and raspy vocals. Their third album, Parallel Lines, shot to success, with the disco hit Heart Of Glass and quintessential pop-rock track One Way Or Another making two different but significant marks on music history. Harry’s rebellious fashion sense – all red lips, glittered eyelids and that iconic shock of platinum-blonde hair – was unlike that of any other star in the 70s, and continues to influence each new generation of female musicians.

Must hear: Heart Of Glass

11: Stevie Nicks

Name another woman who can rock a top hat better than Stevie Nicks, we dare you. One of the defining singers and songwriters in Fleetwood Mac, and a mega-selling solo artist in her own right, Nicks is most notable for her work on Fleetwood Mac’s seminal 1977 breakup album, Rumours, in which she laid bare the dissolution of her relationship with her fellow-bandmate Lindsey Buckingham. It wasn’t until 1981 that Nicks embarked on her solo career, with the Bella Donna album kickstarting an era of greater creative fluidity while proving that her powerhouse vocals could be just as effective without the Fleetwood Mac engine room behind her. To date, Nicks remains the only woman to have two Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductions: one for her role in the band that brought her fame, and the other for the solo career that saw her cement her position among the best female singers of all time.

Must hear: Edge Of Seventeen

10: Joni Mitchell

A trailblazer in the purest sense, Joni Mitchell incorporated folk, rock, classical and jazz music into her songwriting, creating a body of work that can’t be pigeonholed. The 70s saw the Canadian singer-songwriter reflect on social and philosophical themes while also dwelling on womanhood and personal romances, and the best Joni Mitchell songs traversed boundaries in order to find universal appeal. Bearing the hallmarks of an empath, Mitchell used her platform to give a voice to the deprived, and also went on to speak out against the oppression of Black people and other communities of colour. Despite her voice changing tone with age, Joni Mitchell remains one of the best female singers or all time, instantly recognisable thanks in part to the skilful control she has over her triumphant range.

Must hear: Both Sides, Now

9: Tina Turner

Crowned the “Queen Of Rock’n’Roll”, Tina Turner is one of the most iconic figures in music. First breaking through in the 60s with her then husband Ike Turner, as part of the Ike And Tina Turner Revue – hailed as “one of the most formidable live acts in history” – she made her name with cuts such as River Deep – Mountain High and the US Top 5 hit Proud Mary before leaving her abusive husband and striking out on her own. After re-centring herself with the help of Buddhist practices, Turner made one of the greatest comebacks in music history, with her 1984 solo album, Private Dancer, going multi-platinum, and her signature song, The Best, becoming an all-conquering rock anthem. As both the first Black and the first female artist to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, and with her high-energy performances and mighty vocals paving the way for the likes of Beyoncé in the modern era, Tina Turner remains one of the most powerful figures in music history.

Must hear: The Best

8: Dionne Warwick

Known as the second-most-charting female singer of all time, Dionne Warwick’s success has been a journey of self-discovery. With a similar upbringing to many of the world’s best female soul singers, Warwick was raised in a deeply religious and musical household, and her first steps as a performer were through singing in her church’s choir. After forming a gospel trio, The Gospelaires, with her sister and aunt, Warwick went on to record early hits such as Walk On By and I Say A Little Prayer in the 60s. Having since amassed a catalogue of iconic ballads infused with soulful melodies, Dionne Warwick has become a catalyst for women in soul music and continues to rank as one of the best female singers of all time.

Must hear: What The World Needs Now (Is Love)

7: Adele

The UK’s very own queen of heartbreak, Adele has been wearing her crown for the last decade, inducing goosebumps and bringing audiences to tears thanks to her elegant vocal range and poignant lyricism. Debuting her music while still a teenager, Adele gained traction on the now-defunct social-media platform MySpace, and released her debut single, Hometown Glory, in 2007, as means of a protest after her mum persuaded her to leave her home city of London and attend university. In terms of genre, Adele switches with ease between heavy ballads and soulful power anthems which effortlessly fit her mezzo-soprano voice. In 2021, she released her fourth and most vulnerable album yet, 30, demand for which was so high it caused a global vinyl shortage. With her second album, 21, ranking below only The Beatles’ legendary Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in official counts of the UK’s biggest-selling albums of all time, Adele’s status as one of the best female singers in history seems set in stone.

Must hear: My Little Love

6: Madonna

Having sold over 300 million records worldwide to date, Guinness World Record holder Madonna is the most successful female recording artist of all time. Long crowned the “Queen of Pop”, her Confessions tour, staged in support of her 2005 album, Confessions On A Dance Floor, added to her achievements when it became the highest-grossing tour by a female artist. One of the best female singers of the 80s, Madonna has lost none of her relevance or influence as a pop-cultural icon and, with her flair for controversy and reinvention, she shows now signs of stopping any time soon.

Must hear: Like A Prayer

5: Billie Holiday

A pioneer for women in jazz, Billie Holiday’s innovative, fluttering vocals and improvisational skills remain the touchstone for any aspiring jazz singer. After finding work singing in a Harlem nightclub in 1928, Holiday took New York City by storm with her individuality and deeply moving singing style. Throughout the 30s and 40s, she found mainstream success on labels such as Decca and Columbia, though a long-running battle with drug abuse eventually landed her a short prison sentence. Holiday’s addiction eventually weakened her voice, but her vocal technique remained unparalleled, as was evident on her final album, 1958’s Lady In Satin. She lived a demanding life and poured many of her woes into her recordings, but Holiday’s influence as a vocalist remains apparent in the work of almost every jazz singer that followed.

Must hear: Strange Fruit

4: Kate Bush

A songwriter from the age of 13, Kate Bush was still a teenager when she released her debut single, Wuthering Heights, which made her the first woman to score a No.1 in the UK with a self-penned song. Her creativity has captivated audiences ever since, with her legendary soprano vocals and near-mystical literary lyricism inspiring successive generations, among them disciples such as Florence Welch, Björk and St Vincent. Her fifth album, Hounds Of Love, was a commercial and artistic triumph that, while also containing many of the best Kate Bush songs, cemented her place as an experimental art-pop genius among the best female singers of all time.

Must hear: Running Up That Hill

3: Ella Fitzgerald

Dubbed the “First Lady Of Song”, Ella Fitzgerald almost singlehandedly popularised scat singing, and had a way with improvisation that could run rings around even the best jazz musicians. Winning 13 Grammy awards and selling over 40 million albums, Fitzgerald possessed a flexible and ageless voice that could be turned to any style of song. Working with some of the jazz greats, including Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, Fitzgerald has created some of the most iconic jazz songs of all time, helping to establish a songbook that has become the bedrock for all jazz artists.

Must hear: Mack The Knife

2: Amy Winehouse

In many ways Amy Winehouse is an heir to the throne of Billie Holiday, but, as a naturally gifted singer with her own a tragic personal life, there was – and never will be – anyone quite like this London-born icon. Perhaps the greatest alumni of the BRIT School, Winehouse showed promise as an actress and a singer, and, by the age of 16, she was performing live with jazz groups – an early catalyst for her success. Fusing jazz and soul with a 21st-century twist, Winehouse showcased her untouchable voice and shrewd lyrics in both her debut album, Frank, and its critically acclaimed and multiple-award-winning follow-up, Back To Black. Her all-too-premature death, aged 27, in 2011, remains one of the music industry’s greatest losses.

Must hear: Tears Dry On Their Own

1: Aretha Franklin

Topping our list of the best female singers of all time, Aretha Franklin also stands as the most-charting female singer in history. Starting out in the gospel choir at her Baptist church, in Detroit, Franklin began her career as a recording artist in 1960, aged just 18. After moving to Atlantic and scoring a No.1 with a cover of Otis Redding’s Respect in 1967, by the end of the decade Franklin had earned the title of “Queen Of Soul”, with the best Aretha Franklin songs – among them I Say A Little Prayer and I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) – defining soul music. Aside from being a musical icon, Franklin was active in fighting for civil and women’s rights, and, in 2017, she declined to take part in President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Boasting a three-octave vocal range, Franklin sang with a cathartic energy that left audiences hanging on her every word, and she will forever remain music royalty, no matter the genre.

Must hear: I Say A Little Prayer

She’s topped out list of the best female singers of all time, now see where Aretha Franklin ranks among our best 60s female singers.

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