For Today Only, And When I'm In The Mood For It, The Greatest : Monitor Mix Over on the main NPR Music page, they recently ran a feature searching for 50 great singing voices. Asking readers to contribute their own picks, the article garnered an interesting bunch of comments, which are definitely worth a read through if y...

For Today Only, And When I'm In The Mood For It, The Greatest

Over on the main NPR Music page, they recently ran a feature searching for 50 great singing voices. Asking readers to contribute their own picks, the article garnered an interesting bunch of comments, which are definitely worth a read through if you have a few minutes.

Though it's difficult to separate the notion of "greatest singers" from the objective standpoint that one needs to be at in order to make these sorts of proclamations, it's also apparent how subjective idea of "great" is. While most of us would admit -- or not argue against the fact -- that Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf are two of the greatest singers of all time, what also matters is when we want to hear these voices and in what context. Certainly, what constitutes greatness has to do with our surroundings, our moods, the people in the room with us, the city we are in, the lighting, the vehicle, the movie theatre, the landscape and the activity.

Sometimes we don't even want to listen to the greats -- as deemed by the critics or by the part of us that tacitly acknowledges the musical canon. Sometimes, we'd rather simply be sung to, and for that voice to speak to and embody the specificity of the moment.

Within contemporary music, it's difficult to divorce the singing style from the backing music, melody and song structure. Can a great singer be great in a mediocre band? I can hear a Killers song and think that Brandon Flowers has some vocal chops, but for me to extend that affection onto the band itself is like asking me to enjoy liverwurst just because there's a dollop of whipped cream on top. Maybe that's why a lot of the "great singers" aren't or weren't in bands, from Marian Anderson to Paul Robeson. (On a side note, it's funny to ponder whether we'd all love Nina Simone as much if she'd been the lead singer of Herman's Hermits. Well, that's one of the strangest sentences I've ever written.)

Personally, I need to break down the notion of greatness into categories that acknowledge the nuances and vicissitudes of taste:

For example:

Greatest Deep-Voiced Manly Style Voice: Stephin Merritt
Greatest I-Can-Make-You-Cry-When-You-Least-Expect-It Voice: Jackson C. Frank
Greatest Wack-a-Doo Voice: Kate Bush
Greatest Smart-Sounding Voice: Stephen Malkmus, Elvis Costello (tie)
Greatest You'll-Never-Be-As-Cool-As-Me Voice: Iggy Pop

And so forth and so on.
Please contribute your own categories and subsequent winners.