CLEVELAND, Ohio — As the saying goes, a spectacular voice can move mountains. And amazing singing has been in popular culture since before the days of rock and roll. Think Billie Holliday, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald or Dean Martin.
Genres change. New instruments are created. Sounds can be produced electronically. But if you can sing…you have the chance to write your own ticket to stardom. That’s as true today as it was nearly a century ago.
Our recap of the best singers doesn’t go back that far. We kept things rather modern, looking back at the world’s greatest singer (and a runner-up) ever year since 1980.
Several of the names won’t surprise. But don’t expect us to end any major debates. When you’re talking about the best singers, you’re often splitting hairs. Mariah or Whitney? Michael or Prince? Beyonce or Adele?
They are the questions we asked ourselves time and time again while making this list. We took into account ability, power, range, control, cultural impact and body of work during that particular year. We also limited it to popular music. So, you won’t find any opera singers on the list.
There is no perfect science. But we put together a list of some men and women we hope really hits the high notes.
1980: George Jones
Songs that prove it: “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will),” “I’m Not Ready Yet”
You might be surprised to see this list begin with a country singer. But not every country singer is George Jones, a man who was labeled the greatest living country vocalist over the course of multiple decades. Jones was a once-in-a-generation talent. His career is so spread out, there is no one album that sums up his greatness. But there is one song. And that’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” one of the greatest country tunes of all time, released in 1980.
Runner-up: Diana Ross
Diana Ross’ 1980 album, “Diana,” was a solo comeback of sorts that showed she was still one of the world’s greatest pop stars, even if the album’s sound was heavy on dance production from Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards.
1981: Steve Perry
Songs that prove it: “Open Arms,” “Who’s Crying Now,” “Don’t Stop Believin’”
In 1981, Journey released its blockbuster album, “Escape,” and a stadium-rock icon was born. Steve Perry’s voice on songs like “Open Arms” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” ruled the pop and rock charts. These days, it’s easy to forget that the man dubbed “The Voice” wasn’t even Journey’s first lead singer. He was actually the band’s third frontman, hired in 1978 to replace Robert Fleischman, who had replaced Gregg Rolie. Remember them? Didn’t think so. But it’s impossible not to immediately picture Perry when thinking of Journey.
Runner-up: Luther Vandross
Luther Vandross’ debut album, “Never Too Much,” and its title-track were a revelation that established him as one of the premier voices in soul music. The album’s closer, a cover of Dionne Warwick’s “A House Is Not a Home,” is astonishing. From a singing standpoint, Vandross was the clear rookie of the year.
1982: Michael Jackson
Songs that prove it: “Beat It,” “Human Nature,” “Billie Jean”
Where else were we going to go with this one? It was the year of “Thriller.” But with all the glitz and glamour of the album’s sound, it’s easy to forget how much vocal range Michael Jackson had throughout the 1970s and early 1980s (He would be our greatest singer of 1979 had we went back a year earlier to start this list). Consider on “Thriller,” the biggest album of all time, Jackson sings a delicate song like “Human Nature” and then goes into full rock mode with “Beat It.” Even the way he shouts “Thriller!” on the title track’s chorus gives you more chills than the zombies in the iconic music video.
Other contenders: Bruce Dickinson
Bruce Dickinson became a metal titan on Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast.” Not only does it stand as one of the greatest metal albums of all time. But it also showcases Dickinson the greatest metal singer of all time not named Rob Halford.
1983: Chaka Khan
Songs that prove it: “Ain’t Nobody,” “Got to Be There”
When you look back at Chaka Khan’s influence on the modern pop diva, it really begins with her 1983 self-titled album. Sure, she released “I’m Every Woman” in 1978. But this was Khan putting together a vocal display over the course of an entire album. And if you want the icing on the cake, she also stole the show on Rufus’ 1983 monster single “Ain’t Nobody.” Her voice was a force of nature.
Other contenders: Cyndi Lauper
Cyndi Lauper had a unique sound. Haters might call it annoying. But that’s too dismissive of one of the best hitmakers of the 1980s. Lauper’s debut album, “She’s So Unusual,” was a smash that features one of the greatest ballads of all time in “Time After Time.” Also consider her cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine.” If you can hold your own on a Prince song, you’re good to go.
Songs that prove it: “When Doves Cry,” “The Beautiful Ones,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Erotic City”
Prince was one of the greatest vocal chameleon’s in music history. His ability to morph into different characters vocally was second to none. Just look at what he did on the “Purple Rain” soundtrack. He’s an energetic rock star on “Let’s Go Crazy,” oozes sex appeal on “When Doves Cry” and then delivers, arguably, the best all-round vocal of his career on “The Beautiful Ones.” There’s also the climactic ending to the album’s title track. If that doesn’t give you goosebumps, you’re not human.
Other contenders: Sade
1984 was a great year for vocalists. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Tina Turner’s comeback, of course. But the runner-up choice for 1984 has to be Sade. She released “Diamond Life” and became the benchmark for smooth soul-singing moving forward. One listen to “Smooth Operator” will melt your soul.
1985: Whitney Houston
Songs that prove it: “Greatest Love of All,” “Saving All My Love For You,” “How Will I Know”
Whitney Houston dropped her debut album in 1985, beginning, perhaps, the greatest run by any vocalist in music history. Had she unleashed just one song from her self-titled album that year, she probably would have earned this spot on our list. Even 35 years later, songs like “Greatest Love of All” and “Saving All My Love For You” are vocally breathtaking.
Other contenders: Freddie Mercury
In 1985, Freddie Mercury and Queen made their comeback with the greatest live performance ever at Live Aid. Any other year, that would put Mercury back on top of the singing mountain. Same goes for George Michael hitting No. 1 with “Careless Whisper” or Chaka Khan getting massive airplay with “I Feel For You.” But they had to go up against Whitney Houston.
1986: Anita Baker
Songs that prove it: “Sweet Love,” “Caught Up in the Rapture,” “No One in the World”
With one album, “Rapture,” Anita Baker defined the quiet-storm genre, a sultry form of easy listening that merged soft-rock and soul while still being quite powerful. Baker would prove a precursor to the likes of Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey and Vanessa Williams.
Runner-up: Jon Bon Jovi
Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet” established Jon Bon Jovi as the premier voice in stadium rock and hair metal. On songs like “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead or Alive,” he delivers vocal performances that mainstream rock singers use studio tricks to pull off these days.
1987: George Michael
Songs that prove it: “Father Figure,” “One More Try,” “Kissing a Fool”
People knew George Michael could sing from his days with Wham! But it wasn’t until he released his solo debut, “Faith,” that music fans took note of how truly great his voice was. Forget the title track, which is fantastic. The album is full of astonishing vocal performances, from the old-school vibes of “Kissing a Fool” to the gut-wrenching “One More Try” to the soaring global smash, “Father Figure.”
U2 frontman Bono’s singing really came into its own on 1984′s “The Unforgettable Fire.” It got even better on 1987′s “The Joshua Tree.” The Edge’s guitar was the standout on U2′s early albums. But Bono’s voice drives the biggest hits from U2′s most iconic recording.
1988: Axl Rose
Songs that prove it: “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” “Paradise City,” “Patience”
Guns N’ Roses spent 1988 as the biggest rock band in the world. Hands down. You could make a case for Axl Rose as the best rock singer of 1987, when “Appetite for Destruction” was released. But the fact that GN’R sustained its dominance all the way through the end of 1988 and the release of “G N’ R Lies” was pretty amazing. Rose has one greatest vocal ranges in rock music history. But if you need proof that he didn’t need to shout to win you over, give another listen to Guns N’ Roses’ acoustic hit “Patience.”
Runner-up: Steven Tyler
Two amazing lead singers doing their thing in the late 1980s. What a time for rock and roll. After “Walk This Way” took off again with Run-DMC, Aerosmith was back on top and the band delivered some of its biggest songs from 1986 to 1989, including “What It Takes,” “Love in an Elevator,” “Angel” and Janie’s Got a Gun.”
1989: Luther Vandross
Songs that prove it: “Here and Now,” “Treat You Right”
You could argue that Luther Vandross was the greatest male singer of the 1980s (and maybe even the 1990s). His “The Best of Luther Vandross… The Best of Love” compilation put a stamp on that. It helped that the release came with a new song, “Here and Now,” which proved to be his first top-10 song on the pop charts and one of his greatest vocal performances.
Right behind Vandross was Kenneth “Babyface” Edmunds. The songwriter/producer’s sophomore album as a solo artist was full of new jack swing beats. But they weren’t enough to overshadow Babyface’s beautiful voice on tracks like the baby-making anthem “Whip Appeal.”
1990: Mariah Carey
Songs that prove it: “Vision of Love,” “Love Takes Time,” “Someday,” “I Don’t Wanna Cry”
Right from the release of Mariah Carey’s debut album and its lead single, “Vision of Love,” you could choose Carey as the year’s best singer for about an eight-year period and not be wrong. Her five-octave vocal range took hold of pop music for nearly a decade.
Runner-up: Sinead O’Connor
It wasn’t just her cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” But that was certainly a huge part of it. Sinead O’Connor’s album, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” is a stellar showcase for her unique, yet powerful vocal ability.
1991: Chris Cornell
Songs that prove it: “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” “Slaves & Bulldozers
Chris Cornell delivered a one-two punch in 1991. First was Temple of the Dog’s album with the members of Pearl Jam. Then came Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger,” which features “Jesus Christ Pose” — the greatest vocal performance of the grunge era or, perhaps, all of 1990s rock and roll.
Runner-up: Eddie Vedder
Eddie Vedder was the second singer on that Temple of the Dog album and held his own with Cornell. Oh, and Pearl Jam released “Ten,” which made Vedder the archetype of the grunge vocal.
1992: K.D. Lang
Songs that prove it: “Save Me,” “Constant Craving,” “Miss Chatelaine”
Not the biggest name on this list, but from a technical standpoint, few were better. K.D. Lang spent the early part of her career with a twangy country vibe. But on 1992′s “Ingenue” she switches to a pop/cabaret style that really shows of her vocal beauty. Rarely has anyone ever stretched notes in such a beautiful way. It’s a performance for the ages.
Runner-up: Layne Staley
Layne Staley’s tenor voice went beyond grunge music, making Alice In Chains one of the most formidable bands in hard rock. Staley’s vocals, along with Jerry Cantrell’s dual harmonies, turned the band’s album “Dirt” into a force to be reckoned with.
1993: Whitney Houston
Songs that proved it: “I Will Always Love You,” “I’m Every Woman,” “I Have Nothing,” “I Run to You”
Everyone else who made music in 1992/1993, clear the way. Whitney Houston’s “The Bodyguard,” both the film and its blockbuster soundtrack, arrived in late 1992 and remained pop music’s unstoppable force for the next year. It spent 20 non-consecutive weeks at No. 1. Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You,” of course, became one of the biggest singles of all time. But you could make the case it wasn’t even the album’s biggest showstopper (“I Have Nothing” is something to behold). At this point, Houston wasn’t just the best singer of the early 1990s. An argument could be made she was the best of all time.
Runner-up: Mariah Carey
Even Mariah Carey couldn’t top Whitney Houston in 1993, despite releasing “Music Box,” an album that’s sold more 28 million copies worldwide and featured two No. 1 singles.
1994: Jeff Buckley
Songs that prove it: “Grace,” “Hallelujah,” “Last Goodbye”
Jeff Buckley’s landmark album, “Grace,” wasn’t a smash hit when it was released in 1994. But those in the know were aware of his greatness. The album would gain a reputation over time, especially after Buckley’s death in 1997. Buckley is now regarded as one of the great singers of the 1990s with “Grace” as one of the best vocal performance albums in rock history.
Runner-up: Mary J. Blige
The queen of hip-hop soul built on the success of her first album with “My Life,” a more personal effort that showed off Mary J. Blige’s voice in spectacular fashion. “I’m Goin’ Down” remains one of her best live songs to this day.
Songs that prove it: “I Could Fall In Love,” “Dreaming of You,” “Tu Solo Tu”
Already a massive star in Mexico and with Latin-music audiences in the United States, Selena was on the verge of global superstardom when she readied the release of 1995′s “Dreaming of You.” She would die before witnessing its release. In 1997, the biopic starring Jennifer Lopez would bring Selena the fame she deserved. Had she lived, who knows how big Selena would have become.
Looking for something different, yet all the way inspiring? Here’s Bjork. Later in her career Bjork would construct “Medulla,” and album almost entirely comprised of sounds made by human voices. But when she released “Post” in 1995, she was making stunning electronica music with her voice serving as an uncompromising art-pop instrument.
1996: Toni Braxton
Songs that prove it: “Un-Break My Heart,” “You’re Makin’ Me High,” “How Could an Angel Break My Heart”
Toni Braxton arrived on the scene in 1993 like a cooler version of Anita Baker. By 1996, she had exploded into a pop diva armed with hit after hit, after hit. That peaked with “Un-Break My Heart,” the Diane Warren-penned love song that never gets old.
Runner-up: Maynard James Keenan
Tool’s music was sonically astonishing. But there was something about frontman Maynard James Keenan’s voice that put the band over the top. That power, matched with his haunting lyrics about pain and anger, showcased a level of depth the metal genre hadn’t heard in quite some time.
1997: Celine Dion
Songs that prove it: “My Heart Will Go On,” “Tell Him,” “The Reason”
Celine Dion spent the second half of 1997 releasing a duet with Barbara Streisand (“Tell Him”) and getting big overseas before absolutely exploding on the American pop scene with “My Heart Will Go On,” the theme from a little movie called “Titanic.” That one song made her as big as Mariah, Whitney and every other pop diva.
Runner-up: Erykah Badu
Erykah Badu arrived with a voice even the emerging neo-soul genre hadn’t heard before. Songs like “On & On” and “Appletree” drew Billie Holiday comparisons, which is a compliment of the highest order.
1998: Lauryn Hill
Songs that prove it: “X-Factor,” “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Superstar,” “To Zion”
Anyone who followed Lauryn Hill’s career knew she was destined to be a solo star. That became most apparent after the Fugees’ cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” hit big in 1996. Then came “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” in 1998. It was a hybrid of hip-hop and R&B. But some of Hill’s best performances came with via her amazing singing voice. Songs like “To Zion” and “Ex-Factor” stay with you.
Runners-up: Brandy & Monica
We’re breaking our rule of choosing one runner-up from each year. But it was impossible to separate Brandy and Monica in 1998. They each released the biggest solo albums of their careers and then joined forces for the massive duet “The Boy Is Mine.”
1999: Christina Aguilera
Songs that prove it: “Genie in a Bottle,” “I Turn To You,” “What a Girl Wants”
Britney Spears may have been the bigger breakout star in 1999. But everyone was willing to admit that Christina Aguilera had the greatest voice of the TRL era. Even on bubble-gum pop songs like “Genie in a Bottle” and “What a Girl Wants,” Aguilera’s voice remains the signature force. And then she released the ballad, “I Turn to You,” proving she was much more than a teen-pop diva.
Runner-up: Faith Hill
Faith Hill was already a huge country star by 1999. But she made the move to pop stardom thanks to the success of 1998′s “Faith,” which led all the way up to “Breathe,” the title track from her fourth album, which would make Hill the top female voice in country music.
Songs that prove it: “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” “Devil’s Pie,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” “Sent It On”
There were doubts that D’Angelo, or anyone for that matter, could top the neo-soul sounds of his debut album “Brown Sugar.” But D’Angelo kicked off the 21st century with the masterpiece that is “Voodoo.” His vocal performance throughout the entire album is flawless. Heck, even if it hadn’t been accompanied by a music video showing off D’Angelo’s nude physique, “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” would rate as one of the sexiest songs of all time.
Honorable mention: Jill Scott
As you can tell, the start of the 2000s was pretty good for neo-soul music. Aside from D’Angelo, Jill Scott released her debut album that summer, showcasing one of the strongest and most powerful new voices in genre.
2001: Alicia Keys
Songs that prove it: “Fallin,'” “A Woman’s Worth,” “How Come You Don’t Call Me”
Alicia Keys felt like a throwback. Maybe it was the image of her sitting at a piano on “Fallin,'” the way she worked harmonies like Marvin Gaye or conveyed a vulnerability like Nina Simone. Keys’ voice was a revelation on her debut album. Critics and fans were wowed.
Honorable mention: Shakira
Shakira’s voice is deceptively forceful. She comes across as a performer at first. But if you listen to a song like “Whenever, Wherever,” it soars on the strength of her voice, turning it into the global anthem it became.
2002: Justin Timberlake
Songs that prove it: “Like I Love You,” “Cry Me a River,” “Take It From Here,” “Rock Your Body”
Justin Timberlake got a pass in 2002, but he earned it. A white guy making R&B music, jacking Usher’s style and being compared to Michael Jackson usually brings about a backlash. But Timberlake was so charming, whether he was crooning a slow jam or a dance anthem, he was impossible to resist. And that falsetto had been untouchable since the days of N’Sync’s “Gone.”
Runner-up: Norah Jones
Norah Jones’ debut album, “Come Away With Me,” dominated the Grammy Awards. People couldn’t get enough of her throwback blues and jazz vibes. But her voice is not to be underestimated. Comparisons to Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan are warranted.
Songs that prove it: “Crazy in Love,” “Me, Myself and I,” “Dangerously in Love 2,” “Naughty Girl”
Right from the onset of her solo career, Beyonce was one of the greatest singers in the world. Removed from the group vibe of Destiny’s Child, Bey let loose. Her debut album is heavy on hip-hop vibes. But her voice, which moves from traditional R&B ballads to rap-assisted tunes to dance songs (see her Donna Summer impression on “Naughty Girl”) to even reggae, reigns supreme.
Runner-up: Amy Lee
In 2003, there weren’t a ton of great new rock singers. So when Amy Lee arrived with Evanescence, it was a “wow” moment. Evanescence came and went in terms of mass popularity. But it’s hard to deny the power of Lee’s performance on a song like “My Immortal.”
Songs that prove it: “Burn,” “Confessions,” “Superstar,” “My Boo”
Usher had established himself as one of R&B’s greatest voices during the 1990s. But “Confessions” took things to the next level. The production and songwriting (led by Jermaine Dupri) is exceptional. However, Usher’s voice takes the spotlight. Just listen to his tone on the title track’s chorus or marvel at his various vocal styles on “Superstar,” a throwback anthem in the mold of Teddy Pendergrass.
Runner-up: Brandon Flowers
Charisma can take you a long way and The Killers’ Brandon Flowers has it for days, especially on the group’s first album, “Hot Fuss.” The vulnerability on “Mr. Brightside” is moving, while “Smile Like You Mean It” gives you all the new-wave feels.
2005: Mariah Carey
Songs that prove it: “We Belong Together,” “Be Mine,” “Stay the Night,” “Shake It Off”
Theoretically, Mariah Carey should not be here. The greatest singer to start the 1990s is also the best in the world in the mid-2000s? Wow. Many had written Carey off. Then came “The Emancipation of Mimi,” her comeback album that was led by the lead single, “We Belong Together.” This was vintage Mariah, hitting the notes we hadn’t heard her hit in nearly a decade. And when Mariah Carey is on point, very few, if any, have ever been better.
Runner-up: Kelly Clarkson
Three years after winning the first season of “American Idol,” Clarkson came into her own with a run of singles that included “Breakaway,” “Because of You,” “Behind These Hazel Eyes” and the amazing “Since You Been Gone.”
2006: Carrie Underwood
Songs that prove it: “Before He Cheats,” “Don’t Forget to Remember Me”
Carrie Underwood came out strong after her “American Idol” win, building on the fact that she was the most popular winner in the show’s history. Her debut album, “Some Hearts,” was a smash. “Jesus Take the Wheel” was only the beginning in 2005. Underwood dropped her biggest hit, “Before He Cheats,” the following year and all bets were off.
Pink has already been one of the more underrated singers of her generation. She can sing anything, from rock and pop to folk and R&B. Tracks like “The One That Got Away” and “Nobody Knows,” from 2006′s “I’m Not Dead,” show how truly great she is.
2007: Amy Winehouse
Songs that prove it: “Rehab,” “Back to Black,” “Me & Mr. Jones,” “Tears Dry on Their Own,” “Love Is a Losing Game”
2007 easily belonged to Amy Winehouse. Her breakthrough hit “Rehab” peaked on the charts, while “Back to BlacK” became a critical darling. Winehouse brought the retro pop and soul sound of 1960s girl groups back into the mainstream, paving the way for Adele, Sam Smith, Lana Del Rey and others.
Runner-up: Thom Yorke
Plenty of art rockers have tried to sound like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (just ask Chris Martin). But it’s not so easy. Yorke’s best overall vocal display came on 1997′s “In Rainbows,” with amazing songs like “Reckoner” and “Nude.”
Songs that prove it: “If I Were a Boy,” “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” “At Last”
Beyonce could drop catchy dance anthems like nobody’s business. And while 2006′s “I Am… Sasha Fierce” may have been a little uneven, the single “If I Were a Boy” was a head-turner from a vocal standpoint. On top of that, Bey covered Etta James’ signature song “At Last” for the film “Cadillac Records” and more than does it justice.
Runner-up: Jennifer Hudson
Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar for her performance in 2006′s “Dreamgirls,” leading everyone to wonder how she got eliminated early on “American Idol.” She dropped her debut album and the single “Spotlight” in 2008 and became a megastar anyway.
2009: Miranda Lambert
Songs that prove it: “Dead Flowers,” “The House That Built Me,” “White Liar”
Forget Carrie Underwood or Taylor Swift. With the release of “Revolution” in 2009, Miranda Lambert became the premier female voice in country music. The chorus of the album’s lead single, “Dead Flowers,” is her coming-out party as a vocalist, while “The House That Built Me” took its place among the greatest country tearjerkers of all time.
Maxwell was one of the greatest and most important R&B artists of the 1990s. But some of his later work during the decade was heavy on vibes and grooves. He got back to focusing on his voice on 2009′s “BLACKsummer’night.” Songs like “Pretty Wings” and “Fistful of Tears” stand as some of the most beautiful tracks of his career.
2010: Michael Buble
Songs that prove it: “Cry Me a River,” “Hollywood,” “Haven’t Met You Yet”
A throwback to traditional pop and the days when crooners ruled music, Michael Buble was beloved at the start of the 2010s. In 2009, he released “Crazy Love,” which debuted at No. 1. A series of strong singles, a live CD/DVD from Madison Square Garden, various television appearances and a hit Christmas album in 2011 followed to make him a superstar.
Runner-up: Bruno Mars
Bruno Mars released his debut album, “Doo-Wops & Hooligans,” in 2010. But he was already everywhere before that, writing and singing massive hooks on other people’s hit songs like Travis McCoy’s “Billionaire” and B.O.B.’s “Nothin’ On You.”
Songs that prove it: “Someone Like You,” “Rolling in the Deep,” “Set Fire to Rain,” “Turning Tables”
When Adele arrived (like, fully arrived) with “21,” it became hard for any other artist to claim the title of greatest singer in the world. There was just no topping her performance on songs like “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You,” which stayed on the charts forever. Adele wasn’t very prolific during the 2010s, because she didn’t have to be. People just kept buying her records.
Runner-up: Lady Gaga
The title for 2011 would have easily gone to Lady Gaga, had it not been for the power of Adele. Gaga stepped away from dance music to prove she had one of the greatest voices in music on songs like “You and I” and “The Edge of Glory.”
2012: Florence Welch
Songs that prove it: “Shake It Out,” “Never Let Me Go,” “Lover to Lover”
Florence Welch doesn’t shy away from showing off the power of her voice, which is impressive given how Florence and the Machine’s art pop songs can really take off. But they never go anywhere without Welch’s soaring vocals, especially on the group’s stellar sophomore album, “Ceremonials.” Even with all the elaborate sounds and instruments, Welch’s voice is the focal point, something she would further prove during an “MTV Unplugged.”
Usher, Frank Ocean and Alicia Keys all released noteworthy albums in 2011. But none of them had the vocal range of Miguel on “Kaleidoscope Dream,” thanks to songs like “Adorn” and “Use Me.”
2013: Idina Menzel
Songs that prove it: “Let It Go,” “You Learn to Live Without”
“Rent” and “Wicked” made Idina Menzel one of Broadway’s greatest stars of all time long before Disney’s “Frozen” came out. But even those spectacular musicals weren’t as big as Elsa and Anna. “Let It Go” just wouldn’t go away. Holiday albums, national tours and appearances on “Glee” followed for Menzel, whose voice was just as powerful as it was when she was on Broadway.
Runner-up: Justin Timberlake
JT threw his hat into the retro soul arena on “The 20/20 Experience” and proved his falsetto was still to notch. The single “Suit & Tie” got an assist from Jay-Z, but it was JT’s style that won out.
2014: Sam Smith
Songs that prove it: “Stay With Me,” “Latch,” “I’m Not the Only One,” “Money on My Mind”
Sam Smith already had hits before he released his debut album. Only, you may not have known it was him. He’s the stunning voice on Disclosure’s “Latch” and Naughty Boy’s “La La La.” Of course, Smith would top both of those songs, becoming the male equivalent of Adele on amazing slow-burners like “Stay With Me” and “I’m Not the Only One.”
Sia finally stepped into the spotlight (well sort of) with her own hit album “1000 Forms of Fear.” She may not have appeared in the videos, but songs like “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart” were pop bliss.
Songs that prove it: “Hello,” “When We Were Young,” “All I Ask,” “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”
In 2015, Adele returned with “25,” which means every other singer had to move out of the way. Despite the fact that “25” came out in November, it essentially took over the year, beginning with the monumental release of “Hello.”
Runner-up: The Weeknd
By 2015, The Weeknd had cemented himself as the kind of alternative R&B. But he became a true pop star with the release of “Beauty Behind the Madness,” which featured three top-10 hits.
Songs that prove it: “Sorry,” “Freedom,” “Sandcastles,” “Pray You Catch Me”
Beyonce really turned to experimental R&B art pop during the 2010s. But make no mistake, she was still one of the greatest singers in the world. “Lemonade’s” biggest songs are driven by hip-hop sounds. But take a listen to tunes like “Sorry” and “Freedom” and realize Bey could put out a traditional R&B album anytime she wants and decimate all.
Runner-up: Sturgill Simpson
There were several great R&B and pop vocal performances in 2016 (See: Lady Gaga’s “Million Reasons”). But there was just something nostalgic and warm about Sturgill Simpson, who released “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” and drew comparisons to Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Marty Robbins.
2017: Bruno Mars
Songs that prove it: “That’s What I Like,” “Finesse,” “Versace on the Floor”
Bruno Mars released the title track to his 2016 album, “24K Magic,” at the end of the year. It became a hit, but wasn’t as big as that album got. “That’s What I Like” would rule the charts during the first half of 2017. Mars dominated the year as its biggest pop star and would clean up at the 2018 Grammys thanks to his throwback new jack swing vibes and sweet voice.
Runner-up: Harry Styles
After One Direction broke up, Harry Styles could have banked on the upbeat pop-rock the group sold millions of records with. Instead, Styles put the emphasis on his voice on his self-titled album with fantastic results.
2018: Lady Gaga
Songs that prove it: “Shallow,” “Always Remember Us,” “I’ll Never Love Again”
As you may remember, Lady Gaga starred in the remake of “A Star Is Born” in 2018 and wowed audiences around the world. She also released this little song called “Shallow” (with Bradley Cooper) that you couldn’t escape. Coupled with the film’s powerhouse ballads “Always Remember Us” and “I’ll Never Love Again,” “Shallow” delivered a chill-factor for the ages.
Runner-up: Brendon Urie
Panic! at the Disco’s lead singer Brendon Urie brought the influence of his time on Broadway (“Kinky Boots”) to the band’s album, “Pray for the Wicked.” The results made his voice sound bigger and better than it ever had.
2019: Ariana Grande
Songs that prove it: “Thank U, Next,” “7 Rings,” “Ghostin’”
After back-to-back No. 1 albums and a series of hit singles, Ariana Grande was the queen of pop music in 2019. She bounced back from the tragic 2017 Manchester bombing in inspiring fashion. Grande always had raw talent. But her 2019 album, “Thank U, Next,” gave her a glossy swagger without sacrificing her vocal talent.
Runner-up: Brittany Howard
The power of Brittany Howard’s voice is the driving force behind Alabama Shakes. But on her solo album, Howard takes things to new level on a song like “Georgia.”
2020: The Weeknd
Songs that prove it: “Heartless,” “Blinding Lights,” “In Your Eyes,” “Scared to Live”
2020 isn’t even halfway through. But it will be hard to top The Weeknd and his album “After Hours,” which has ruled the charts. His previous full-length “Starboy” saw new wave vibes overwhelm the sultry harmonies R&B fans have come to love. “After Hours” finds the perfect mix, allowing for some of best vocal performances of Abel Tesfaye’s career.
Runner-up: Fiona Apple
The Weeknd may be winning the battle on the charts so far in 2020. But the critical acclaim goes to Fiona Apple, whose “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is one of the best-reviewed albums in recent history. Apple has been making great music since the late 1990s and her uncanny, if awkward, jazz-influenced voice is a big part of the appeal.