A new list of the top 200 singers of all time is stirring controversy on the interwebs, with various snubs and oddities causing much ado—despite a solid top 10 and a diverse crop of artists from around the world. A number of Black Catholics also made the list, most of them in surprising slots.
Rolling Stone’s count, released on New Year’s Day as an update to a 2008 list of half the size, featured an all-Black top 11 with several no-brainers therein—including Whitney Houston at #2 and Mariah Carey at #5, with the Catholic-baptized Beyoncé sneaking in at #8.
In its introduction to the new list, the publication admitted that their previous attempt had “skewed toward classic rock” and singers from the period of America’s counterculture movement—resulting, of course, in a list that was unjustifiably White.
“This new list was compiled [by] our staff and key contributors, and it encompasses 100 years of pop music as an ongoing global conversation,” the editors wrote.
“Our purview is pop music writ large, meaning that almost all the artists on this list had significant careers as crossover stars making popular music for the masses.”
Aretha Franklin took the top spot overall, one of several relatively unexpected picks that nevertheless did not cause much uproar. Of a similar nature was Catholic jazz crooner Billie Holiday at #4, a respectable choice that broke the pop-music chokehold in the list’s upper echelon.
Other Black Catholics in the top 30 include Afro-Cuban legend Celia Cruz at #18 and Chaka Khan at #28. The multi-genre master Nina Simone came in at #21, and though her religious affiliation is murky, she was buried with a Catholic funeral in her adopted home of France.
Among the most surprising placements was R&B songstress Aaliyah at #40, given her relatively short career and prime—both cut short by her untimely death at 22 in a plane crash—and the fact that she is not particularly known as a singer extraordinaire. (This writer contends, though, that her vocals are severely underrated.) She came just one spot behind Louis Armstrong, a fellow baptized Catholic New Yorker whose voice is among American music’s most iconic. Toni Braxton, who recently detailed her partially Catholic upbringing, was a few spots down at #48.
Perhaps the most glaring snub on the list was the French Canadian songbird Celine Dion, a near inexplicable omission given the stated criteria and the inclusion of complete non-virtuosos like Taylor Swift (#102). Two travestied spots behind the country-turned-pop megastar was Aaron Neville, a devout Catholic whose vocals are relatively incomparable. A former Catholic in Gladys Knight just edged Swift at #101.
“Before you start scrolling (and commenting), keep in mind that this is the Greatest Singers list, not the Greatest Voices List,” Rolling Stone warned, however.
“Talent is impressive; genius is transcendent. Sure, many of the people here were born with massive pipes, perfect pitch, and boundless range. Others have rougher, stranger, or more delicate instruments”
La India, an acclaimed Afro-Latina salsa artist from Puerto Rico—who has given credit to the African-American community for much of her career motivation—came in at #113. Two spots below was the Catholic-educated Erykah Badu, a household name in neo-soul. Afro-Brazilian composer-activist Caetano Veloso, formerly Catholic and lately an atheist, landed at #108.
The next Catholic connection on the list is its last and near the bottom, at #190 with Frank Ocean, the multidisciplinary rapper-singer known for his unique lyricism and highly idiosyncratic style. Not known for his religious leanings, the Creole crooner noted in 2010 that he was briefly a practicing Catholic in his early youth.
At 35, Ocean is the youngest of the living Black Catholics—current or former—included in the new list.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).