Joni Mitchell, James Taylor on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time

Rolling Stone has released their latest epic rock list: The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. Both Joni Mitchell and James Taylor appear on the list. Jackson Browne and James Taylor both contribute write-ups elsewhere on the list. Carole King and Yusuf Islam were among the panel of voters.

Joni Mitchell placed at #42. Key tracks are listed as “Both Sides Now,” “Help Me” and “Raised on Robbery”. The magazine claims that she has influenced Robert Plant, Jewel and Fiona Apple. The write-up includes quotes from Herbie Hancock and Bob Dylan.

Joni Mitchell began as the archetype of the folkie female singer-songwriter, an heir to Joan Baez. But she quickly moved forward, incorporating influences from jazz and the blues. “Joni Mitchell heard Billie Holiday sing ‘Solitude’ when she was about nine years old — and she hasn’t been the same since,” says Herbie Hancock. Those lessons of emotional vulnerability are evident in her delicate soprano trill, as well as in the undisguised wear of the sultry voice of her later work, punctuated by her jazzy syncopation. “Joni’s got a strange sense of rhythm that’s all her own,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone. Above all, Mitchell won’t be boxed in. “The way she phrases always serves the lyrics perfectly, and yet her phrasing can be different every time,” Hancock says. “She’s a fighter for freedom.”

The entry concludes with a playlist of 10 Joni songs: “Both Sides Now,” “Help Me,” “Raised on Robbery,” “California,” “River,” “A Case of You,” “Free Man in Paris,” “Woodstock,” “Coyote” and “Turn Me On I’m a Radio”. The links lead to a sound file from Rhapsody.com.

James Taylor was ranked at #74, with “Fire and Rain,” “Sweet Baby James” and “You’ve Got a Friend” as the key tracks. These three songs also make up the playlist for James’ page. James has influenced Jack Johnson and Garth Brooks, according to the magazine. The write-up includes quotes from James (from a recent Rolling Stone article) and David Crosby.

“I want to be in tune,” James Taylor told Rolling Stone in 2008. “I want to sing pretty, I want to sing sweet.” Taylor boasts a classic American voice — a clear, vibrato-less instrument as reassuring as a warm fireplace. “Don’t get fooled by James’ understatement,” says David Crosby. “As beautiful as his voice is, there’s nothing mellow about a performance like ‘Fire and Rain’ — it’s about a man who’s experienced highs and lows.” Taylor’s steadiness as a singer has allowed him to handle coffeehouse folk, rock & roll, country music and R&B with equal ease. “Ultimately, I think James’ voice reflects the man,” says Crosby. “He’s kind, lovely and very much a gentleman. He doesn’t walk off the path too far, but what a path he’s walked. It also doesn’t hurt that, for me, he’s up there as a songwriter alongside Lennon and McCartney, Dylan and Joni Mitchell — the best of the best.”

Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” are included in The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: The Playlist.

James Taylor also appeared elsewhere on the list. He wrote the entry for George Jones, who placed at #43:

George Jones doesn’t sound like he was influenced by any other singer: He sounds like a steel guitar. It’s the way he blends notes, the way he comes up to them and comes off them, the way he crescendos and decrescendos. The dynamic of it is very tight and really controlled — it’s like carving with the voice.

He has had a huge effect on all of country music — you can hear a direct line from him to Buck Owens to Randy Travis to George Strait. The Beatles listened to Buck Owens and his Buckaroos, and I think through them, George Jones’ sound informed McCartney’s style — McCartney had that George Jones swoop, as I call it.

The first time I heard George was on a copy of his greatest hits. I was already familiar with Hank Williams and Porter Wagoner, but not George and his West Texas thing. I was amazed at what he was doing with his voice. Since then, I’ve covered a couple of my favorites — “Why Baby Why” and “She Thinks I Still Care” — and I wrote a song called “Bartender’s Blues,” where I tried to sound as much like George as I could. And then he recorded it himself! It was one of those things where it all comes around.

James is also quoted in the entry for Paul McCartney, at #11:

“Paul is like an impressionist painter,” says James Taylor, who had the privilege of watching the Beatles record the White Album in 1968. “The pieces of his music are so elementary, yet the overall thing is so sophisticated. He’s such a precise and controlled singer.”

“People chose Lennon or McCartney,” says Taylor. “I was definitely on the McCartney side. He makes a beautiful sound.”

Jackson Browne contributed to the list as well, writing the entry for John Lennon, who ranked at #5:

There was a tremendous intimacy in everything John Lennon did, combined with a formidable intellect. That is what makes him a great singer. In “Girl,” on Rubber Soul, he starts in this steely, high voice: “Is there anybody going to listen to my story. . . .” It’s so impassioned, like somebody stepping from the shadows in a room. But when he comes to the chorus, you suddenly realize: He’s talking directly to her. When I heard this, as a young teenager, it hit the nail on the head. It embodied the feelings I was living with every day — completely burning with sexual desire, with almost a regret at being so overpowered.

He had a confidence, a certainty about what he was feeling that carried over into everything he sang. One of the things about John Lennon and the Beatles that went by a lot of people was how unusual it was for people in their class, from Liverpool, to be catapulted into the higher reaches of entertainment and society, without disguising their working-class roots and voices. It was such an audacious thing to do, not to change who they were. That was the heart of John Lennon’s singing — to say who he was and where he was from.

He didn’t sing very loud. I got that sense when I was learning “Oh My Love,” on Imagine. That song has to be done quietly, which turns out to be a feat of strength. It’s ironic — to sing high and quiet, you have to be physically strong. In “I’m Only Sleeping,” on Revolver, he sounds sleepy, like he’s half in bed as he sings. Or “I’m So Tired,” on the White Album — there is an irritableness to it. These songs live in you because of the remarkable facility of the singer to inhabit those moments and portray them. “Imagine” is a masterful performance. He inhabits that idea — our innermost longing for a world in which peace is real — when he sings it. And it is sung with fearlessness, without erring on either side — polemic or sappy. It’s wonderful to have an idea expressed so well that everybody can sing it. That’s a song he made you want to sing.

The more he developed as a writer, he was able to show his voice in various contexts. There is a thrilling aloneness in the way he sings “A Day in the Life.” His singing on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is to the bone. He willed himself to express his pain: “Mother/You had me/But I never had you.” It’s a crushing depiction that stays with you forever. Double Fantasy is less tortured — there is a lot of happiness there. The singing is just beautiful, perhaps more the product of singing at home, to his son. John Lennon went through a lot to have the life he had. He gave up some things to get others. And he died before a lot of those themes could be examined.

But it was a stunning thing — he always told the truth. He felt he had the right to talk about this stuff, and that gives his voice a singular identity. It’s not the chops of a heralded singer — no one goes on about his actual technique. He went right to what he felt, what he had to say.

Other notable entries include Bob Dylan (#7), Van Morrison (#24), Neil Young (#37), Bonnie Raitt (#50), John Fogerty (#72) and Tom Waits (#82).

The Voters: The list was generated by asking musicians, music journalists and other music professionals to list their 20 favorite vocalists from the rock era, in order of importance. Then a law firm sorted it all and figured out the list, which Rolling Stone published in their latest issue. Carole King and Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) were part of the list of voters, along with Art Garfunkel, David Crosby, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills.

Here’s a look at Yusuf Islam’s ballot. He voted for Stevie Wonder (#1), Sam Cooke (#2), Ray Charles (#3), Nina Simone (#4) and Aretha Franklin (#5) and left the rest of the ballot blank. Here’s David Crosby’s hand-written ballot, where he puts James Taylor at #2, Joni Mitchell at #6 and Jackson Browne at #13. Blues and soul singer-songwriter Solomon Burke’s ballot shows that he also voted for James Taylor, putting him at #9. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top (of all people!) has Joni Mitchell at #13. Singer-songwriter James Blunt put Joni Mitchell at #17 (although I guess she would be at #16 if he hadn’t been so humble as to put himself first).

Cinematic Passion and Crimes Against Music aren’t the only ones who noticed the omission of Carly Simon.

About Corey Blake

Corey Blake does things on the Internet, and sometimes even in real life.
This entry was posted in Carly Simon, Carole King, Cat Stevens / Yusuf, Commentary, Interviews, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, News and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Joni Mitchell, James Taylor on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time

  1. Sheridan Brinkman says:

    Good posting, thanks a lot!

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