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Naming the millenium's greatest voices

By Ron Wynn

OCTOBER 19, 1998:  As the millennium draws nearer, the inevitable outpouring of lists naming the "best of" or "greatest ever" in fields from science to literature to sports has begun. Given the highly subjective nature of such exercises--and their inevitable biases and/or distortions--all you can be certain of when reading them is that they will alienate and anger far more people than they satisfy.

That was certainly the case when a group of literary "experts" selected the 100 best novels of the 20th century for the Modern Library a few months ago; the same was true of the American Film Institute's 100 greatest films list, and controversy has engulfed Time magazine's issues featuring their choices for the century's greatest heroes in current events, sports, medicine, etc.

Now the British monthly Mojo, arguably the finest international pop music publication available, has entered the fray with its current issue dedicated to "The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time," irrespective of category. Leaving aside the issue of how one can objectively compare, for instance, an opera diva, a soul shouter, a country interpreter, and a jazz stylist, the magazine didn't turn to journalists or fans for their opinions. Instead, Mojo utilized a distinguished panel of 175 singers--from Vic Chesnutt to Elvis Costello, from Steve Earle to Rod Stewart, from Martha Reeves to R.L. Burnside.

The results are certain to ignite a furor on both sides of the Atlantic. Generally speaking, my own Top 20 choices would second most of the panel's, though not necessarily in the order assigned. From 20 to 2, Mojo ranked Roy Orbison, Joni Mitchell, George Jones, Nina Simone, Hank Williams, Van Morrison, Ella Fitzgerald, Paul McCartney, Nat King Cole, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, John Lennon, Ray Charles, and Frank Sinatra. At No. 1: Aretha Franklin, who was selected by 57 of the 175 voters.

Eye-popping exclusions included Enrico Caruso, Barbra Streisand, Aaron Neville, R. H. Harris, Rev. James Blackwood, Marian Anderson, and Rev. Claude Jeter, just to name some personal favorites who missed the cut. Other results that aren't easily digested include Louis Armstrong at 70 (!), Smokey Robinson at 67 (!!), and Bob Dylan tabbed ahead of Bing Crosby and just outside the top 10, surpassing Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, and a host of others with far superior pure vocal instruments. You can find Mojo at Mosko's, Tower, and other kiosks around town. Let the arguments begin.

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