Whether it’s igniting a fire in your soul or breaking you down to tears, women are powerhouses when it comes to creating emotional and intimate music people connect with. What makes an incredible musician, though, is different for everyone: songwriting, vocals, phrasing, instrumentation, and presence are all important aspects to great artists.
However, they all have one thing in common, an inexplicable ability to translate their emotions through music. Everyone has their favorites, but the greats are undeniable. These are the top 20 best female musicians of all time.
20. Idina Menzel
From Broadway to the big screen, Idina Menzel has brought energy and innovation to every performance she’s given.
Starting her career off in one of the most famous musicals in history, Rent, was no small feat, and becoming one of the most recognizable on the cast was even more difficult. Menzel then out-did this success as one of the leads in another of the most successful Broadway hits of all time, Wicked.
Who can forget every child’s karaoke song of choice, “Let it Go” from Frozen? Menzel did that too, hopping over to Disney in order to become an animated princess in the most successful Disney princess movie of all time.
Clearly, Menzel is no one trick pony. She has dazzled us with her incredible voice, breathing life and wonder into every song and performance, and solidifying herself as one of the most renowned musical artists throughout history.
19. Florence Welch
Only one word can capture the essence of what Florence Welch, the lead vocalist and primary songwriter of the indie band Florence and the Machine, truly is: distinct.
Since the band’s debut album Lungs, Welch has mesmerized her audience with her dark and fearless presence. The vocal stylings she weaves throughout each song sound like a living embodiment of emotional release. Her vocals aren’t the only skill on her arsenal, though.
Welch’s songwriting ability is truly breathtaking. She pours her life and essence into each song she writes, creating much more than lyrics but rather an effortlessly vibrant poem which resonates vulnerability. While not the best selling artist in the world, Welch’s unfathomable talent speaks for itself, marking her as one of the greatest female musicians.
18. Hayley Williams
At just sixteen years old, Hayley Williams shocked the world with her innovation and ability as the lead vocalist in the punk pop band Paramore. From live performances to singing in the studio, Williams creates a work of art with whatever she’s singing.
In a genre noted for its youthful feeling and unchecked emotion, Williams has continued to bring a fresh feeling and edginess to every song and album with a surprising amount of control. Her vocal gymnastics have captured the attention of millions of people as she pounds her emotion into every song using her four-octave range.
What’s particularly unique about Williams, too, is how she is able to imbue her charisma into her music. In every song, the honesty and authenticity which she embodies shines through, a talent which definitely qualifies her as one of the best female musicians of all time.
Though not often receiving the recognition she deserves, Shakira is an expertly talented musician. Shakira possesses an extremely unique vocal style in which she incorporates yodelling techniques derived from Arabic influences. Though she translates her music into multiple languages, she is immediately recognizable.
Translating her music also requires incredible lyrical skills, keeping the integrity and melody of the song while having to change the words themself. Her unique stylings and musical ability make her an incredible musical force amongst the best female musicians.
16. Lady Gaga
While many discount her based on her eccentric personality, there is no denying Lady Gaga’s musical abilities. Hailing from Julliard, Gaga is a very calculated and intentional singer, making sure every performance, song, and album has a very specific purpose.
There’s never a moment to become tired of her, either. Every album or new venture is completely different from anything she’s ever done before.
Just when you think you know what or who she is, she’s moved on to something different. From pop to metal to country to jazz, there is no genre she cannot master, making her a true musical chameleon.
This versatility and artistic perspective easily lands Lady Gaga in the top female musicians of all time.
15. Norah Jones
Easy, breazy, beautiful, Norah Jones. Soft and intimate, Jones’ music elicits a hazy yet familiar feeling to it with her purposefully airy sound. Though she doesn’t utilize drastic vocal stylings, she instead fosters an intimate connection between the music and the listener wherein you are instantly transported to a small piano bar with her brilliant use of dynamics.
Beyond her voice, Jones’ songwriting furthers the connection to her audience by focusing on relatability. Though they are personal stories, her music is instantly relatable, creating an even deeper connection to her audience. Within these stories, she uses her deep understanding of music to purposefully emphasise certain phrases using expertly placed dynamics and stylings.
This incredible understanding and use of musical stylings earns Jones a spot with the best female musicians of all time.
14. Kelly Clarkson
After her career skyrocketed in 2002 from winning the first season of American Idol, Kelly Clarkson, deemed America’s Sweetheart, continued to remind us why we chose her time and time again.
Whether it’s pop, R&B, or even country music, Clarkson is able to bring a certain genuineness and freshness to everything she sings, even if it’s just a cover of someone else’s song. What makes Clarkson particularly special, though, is her ability to transport you into the music.
Every song and video of Clarkson feels like an immersive experience, and it only gets better when you are in person. If there’s anything she is known for, it’s her live vocals, making even her contemporaries nervous to sing on the same stage as her and earning herself a spot in the top 25 best female musicians.
13. Pat Benatar
Pat Benatar is living proof that looks can be deceiving. At just five feet tall, this rock powerhouse has a voice that’s carried throughout the decades. With her classical training background in opera, Benatar has maintained her distinctive gritty sound since the 1970’s, and she still hasn’t slowed down.
Benatar’s raw, emotional songs and rhythmic talents have inspired millions, earning her five platinum albums and fifteen number one singles throughout her career. Her music is cut throat, evoking feelings of pure passion, of which one album is aptly titled Crimes of Passion. The consistently talented and inspiring music of Benatar is more than enough for her to sit as one of the best female musicians.
12. Celine Dion
More than her heart, Celine Dion’s voice has gone on to inspire countless people throughout her career.
With one of the most powerful voices in pop music, she expertly wields a five octave range with intensity. There’s no doubt in her vocal abilities as she is able to shift from whispers to belting effortlessly, an act which even the most impressive singers rarely can match, making her one of the best female musicians.
11. Judy Garland
More than just the actress who played Dorothy, Judy Garland was an expert vocalist. With a fantastically identifiable voice which felt like velvet, she projected incredible power into her music.
Most notably, she was an extremely emotive singer. She never held back, having an extremely unique ability to almost translate facial expression and body language into sound. This uncanny ability earns her a spot as one of the best female musicians of all time.
10. Maria Callas
Though she may not be well known in popular culture, Maria Callas is the epitome of a legend in her field. With a voice that possessed as much force as a baritone and ability to perform incredible vocal feats, Callas’ soprano range astounded the opera for decades.
A true student of the art, Callas took note from nineteenth century singers and imbued her vocal style with drama and authenticity rather than the bird-song style which was popular at the time. Her voice leaves no mystery, displaying her incredible dedication to opera as she lept from note to note throughout her unfathomable vocal range in a consistent tone.
Callas’ vocal mastery and inspiration to opera are what makes her one of the best female musicians of all time.
9. Sarah Vaughan
Known as the “Divine One” of jazz, Sarah Vaughan had no equals during her career. Known for her full, heavy vibrato and distinctive voice, Vaughan created musical art with her liberal use of vocal embellishments and techniques.
More than that, Vaughan was an exceptional improvisationalist. Her voice would fill arenas as she spun phrases off the top of her head. This incredibly difficult talent was innate in her, marking her as one of the best female musicians of all time.
8. Tracy Chapman
For true musicians like Tracy Chapman, music is more than an art, it’s their essence. After her debut album, Chapman became an overnight success, despite her reluctance to the fame.
Her unusual timber and intimate style focuses on connecting not with the audience but with emotion itself. More than her voice, Chapman has an undeniable talent for creating songs which tell deep stories that are somehow relatable to everyone, inspiring and resonating with emotions we can all relate to.
Her songs have true meaning, making Chapman one of the greatest songwriters of all time, let alone musicians.
7. Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday was a pioneer and inspiration to the world of music even beyond jazz. Though she had a pretty voice, neither her range nor her tone were where she held a strong influence.
Holiday’s masterful way of phrasing and manipulating tempos were what made her such an incredible musician. With no formal musical training, Holiday was an extremely instinctive singer, bending the structure of a song to her will and developing her own personal style of singing.
Holiday’s articulation punched each syllable which was in direct juxtaposition to her layback phrasing, giving an incredible swooning affect which mesmerizes listeners to this day and makes her one of the greatest musicians of all time.
6. Dolly Parton
Country music has become synonymous with the music legend Dolly Parton. Her warmth and wit has made her a distinct singer ever since she first captured our hearts in 1966. More than just a beautiful soprano voice, Parton carries a certain soulfulness and seriousness in her music despite her cheery and silly personality.
Parton is also an exceptionally talented songwriter, where she is exceptionally prolific. Parton’s catalog is extremely impressive with fifty-one studio albums, especially when you consider she’s written almost all of the songs. She’s been clocked at being able to write a song, and a good one, in under ten minutes right off the top of her head.
Parton is a master storyteller. Her songs have the distinct ability to perfectly capture a feeling in a story with intense imagery, and, as she gives life to the song, it leaves the listener aching for more, making her one of the best musicians of all time.
5. Mariah Carey
This list wouldn’t be complete without Mariah Carey, a star since her first performance. Her brilliant singing ability is rare if not a one of a kind.
With a five octave range, Carey proudly holds the record for the highest and one of the largest vocal ranges of any female singers in history. Most notably, she frequently delves into whistle notes, the highest register of the human voice, and is even credited with popularizing it.
Carey also has incredible foresight for the music industry. Long before the shift happened, she went from singing old standards to incorporating hip hop into her tracks, sensing that was the direction music was heading. This unbelievable knack for music and understanding of its audience is why she is one of the best female musicians.
4. Barbra Streisand
The height of classical talent is easily Barbra Streisand. Her meticulous control over her breath and voice is nothing short of pure perfection. The incredible ability she possesses to bring out such a powerful, weighty, and recognizable tone has been lauded for decades.
Streisand has a natural gift for interpreting music, as well. With her classical perspective, she is able to bring about a unique style to any original or cover of a song, which she has made a name for herself doing. Her music is simply expressive, clear, and effortless, establishing herself as one of the best musicians of all time.
3. Amy Winehouse
Despite her short career, Amy Winehouse challenged norms and changed the music industry in a major way with her incredible talent and frank, no pun intended, demeanor. Talent and passion aren’t even close to enough to describe what she possessed.
Winehouse had a true ear for music and performed in the old style of musicians, never performing the same song the same way more than once. She always had a new twist of phrasing, style, or note as she breathed new life into her many many hits.
If that wasn’t enough to make her a musical giant, her songwriting definitely was. The brutally honest yet poetic lyrics she writes about herself and experiences created timeless classics. She held absolutely nothing back, allowing us to see through her otherwise closed-off personality.
With just two albums, Winehouse integrated herself into the music industry and secured a spot amongst the best female musicians of all time.
2. Aretha Franklin
There’s a reason the singer Aretha Franklin is dubbed the Queen of Soul. Her demanding voice radiated emotion from pain to joy even when she began her career at the young age of twelve. From an early age it was obvious Franklin was destined for greatness, crafting incredible melodies with her vast musical knowledge.
Franklin’s powerful and clear voice exploded with charisma as she crafted each phrase. More than her stylings, she was able to funnel the trauma and hurt she had experienced into her rich, warm voice. This passion fueled the timeless songs she sang, inspiring millions of fans throughout her career and making her one of the greatest female musicians of all time.
1. Whitney Houston
If you’ve ever listened to her, you know why Whitney Houston is our top female musician of all time. Music oozed out of Houston, flowing effortlessly and creating magic out of every note she sang. She had perfect vocal control, the perfect vibrato and use of if, and an incredibly wide range with no natural breaks between registers.
Unusually, Houston’s voice was dark and metallic yet also warm, creating a dramatic presence which drew in listeners. Whenever Houston opened her voice, time stopped and the listener was captivated by her musical prowess. Her cadence created a trust with the audience, allowing her to hit every note and melody with ease as the listener relaxed and rode along with the music.