What makes a great music artist? Is it their voice, their songwriting ability or their stage presence? In many cases, it’s a combination of all three. And all the top artists in history also have that indefinable je ne sais quoi that makes them magical.
Everyone has their favorite female artist, of course — that’s the beauty of music. There’s something for everyone. But certain artists just stand head and shoulders above the rest and will never be forgotten. We’ve looked at album sales, chart positions, cultural impact and music industry rankings to create a list of the greatest female music artists of all time.
30. Alicia Keys
At the age of 20, New York-born Alicia Keys became one of the best-selling artists of 2001 with her debut album “Songs in A Minor.” After co-founding the nonprofit She Is The Music in 2018, Keys was awarded the 2019 American Express Impact Award at Billboard’s 14th annual Women in Music event; she counts 15 Grammy Awards, 17 NAACP Image Awards and an award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame among her impressive collection of accolades.
As well as her spectacular songwriting and soulful voice, Keys is a classically trained pianist.
29. Carole King
Four-time Grammy Award winner and Grammy Hall of Fame inductee Carole King was still a teenager when she co-wrote “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” which was recorded by the Shirelles and became the first-ever No. 1 hit by an all-girl group. Today, more than 400 of King’s compositions have been recorded by more than 1,000 artists, spawning 100 hit singles.
In 2013, King became the first woman to be awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, presented by President Barack Obama. The recent success of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” cements King’s status as a true musical icon.
28. Kate Bush
The Guardian describes Kate Bush as not “just a singer-songwriter but an actual, no-further-questions genius,” based on the fact that she wrote her 1978 hit “The Man With the Child in His Eyes” when she was just 13 years old. When she was 19, Bush topped the U.K. Singles Chart for four weeks with her debut single “Wuthering Heights,” which made her the first female artist to achieve a U.K. No. 1 with a self-written song.
In September 2020, Bush was awarded a prestigious fellowship of the Ivors Academy, the U.K.’s independent professional association for songwriters.
27. Janis Joplin
Her distinctive raspy voice wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but there’s no doubt that Janis Joplin was an unforgettable performer. Thanks to iconic hits like “Down on Me,” “Summertime,” “Piece of My Heart,” and “Me and Bobby McGee,” Joplin was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
Rolling Stone ranked Joplin No. 28 on its 2008 list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
26. Bonnie Raitt
Queen of Americana music (a mashup of blues, folk, rock and country), Bonnie Raitt is ranked as one of Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time as well as the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
“When guitar was still considered a man’s game by many, Raitt busted down that barrier through sheer verve and skill,” wrote the magazine.
Raitt has bagged 10 Grammy Awards to date and is still going strong, with a North American tour planned for 2021.
In 2019, Lady Gaga became the first female artist to win all five big awards in one season. She took home the Best Original Song at the Golden Globes, Best Actress (tied with Glenn Close) at the Critics’ Choice Awards, three Grammys, Best Film Music at the BAFTAs and Best Original Song at the Academy Awards. Accolades aside, she’s a formidable presence on stage, has amazing piano skills and an unsurpassable ability to surprise.
24. Stevie Nicks
Known as the Reigning Queen of Rock and Roll, Stevie Nicks has her former band Fleetwood Mac to thank for her first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, but the second time around, she did it all herself. She also made it into Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, and has inspired legions of female artists with her distinctive voice and poetic lyrics.
23. Joni Mitchell
One of Canada’s most treasured musical exports, Joni Mitchell has enjoyed several decades in the industry. She ranked ninth on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest songwriters ever, and she has influenced everyone from Chaka Khan to Annie Lennox.
“She was writing these extraordinary songs with this extraordinary sort of commentary, poetic, special way, and this voice and this incredible playing,” Lennox told Rolling Stone. “As soon as you heard the first chord and her voice … I thought, ‘I want to do that.'”
22. Emmylou Harris
Emmylou Harris has enjoyed a 50-year career in the music industry, picking up 12 Grammys along the way and collaborating with everyone from Dolly Parton to Tracy Chapman. In 2020, The Colorado Sound named her the 11th best female musician, and The Guardian describes her as “one of America’s finest interpreters of song.” When she was missing from The Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, there was an outcry on Twitter.
21. Carly Simon
Considered to be one of the quintessential American songwriters, Carly Simon boasts 24 Billboard Hot 100 singles, 28 Billboard Adult Contemporary charting singles and several Grammy Awards.
Simon’s greatest chart success came in 1972-73, with “You’re So Vain.” It hit No. 1 on the U.S. Pop and Adult Contemporary charts, and sold over a million copies in the United States alone. In 2008, it ranked No. 72 on the Billboard Hot 100’s list of the top 100 songs from the chart’s first 50 years, August 1958 through July 2008, and in 2014, the U.K. Official Charts Company hailed it the “ultimate song of the 1970s.”
20. Dusty Springfield
Ranking No. 35 on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest singers of all time, ’60s pop icon Dusty Springfield is often described as the Queen of Blue-Eyed Soul. Arguably Britain’s greatest female singer, Elton John famously declared her to be the greatest white singer there has ever been. Springfield was inducted into the U.S. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.
19. Shania Twain
Five-time Grammy Award winner Shania Twain is one of the best-selling musicians of all time, with 48 million certified album units sold in the U.S., according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Her 1997 album release “Come On Over” became the biggest-selling studio album of all time by a female artist, the biggest-selling country music album ever and one of the biggest-selling albums in history.
Among her legions of fans is Taylor Swift, who told Billboard, “Shania showed the entire music industry that there were new options for where you could take your career in country music, how widely you could expand it. She was tough and she was sensitive. She was elegant, edgy and bold. Shania became everyone’s favorite woman because she represented how versatile a woman can be.”
18. Celine Dion
With 50 million album sales in the U.S. alone, Celine Dion is one of Canada’s most successful exports. She ranks No. 33 on Billboard’s list of the greatest artists of all time and has won numerous awards all over the world.
Dion will always be best known for “My Heart Will Go On,” the epic love song from 1997’s “Titanic” that won her an Oscar and two Grammys, but it’s only one of an extensive back-catalog of heart-stirring ballads.
17. Diana Ross
From lead singer of the Supremes — Motown’s most successful act during the 1960s and one of the world’s best-selling girl groups of all time — to one of the hottest solo artists of all time, Diana Ross has enjoyed a long career in the music industry. She dominated the singles charts in the ’70s (both in the U.S. and the U.K.), and was named Female Entertainer of the Century by Billboard in 1976.
Ross received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2007, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
16. Tina Turner
Tina Turner, she of the killer vocals and killer legs, is one of the best-selling music artists (male or female) of all time and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. A spectacular live performer, she holds the Guinness World Record for selling more concert tickets than any other solo performer in history to date.
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw [Tina] perform,” Beyoncé told Rolling Stone. “I never in my life saw a woman so powerful, so fearless.”
15. Billie Holiday
Considered by many top jazz musicians to be the greatest tempo singer that ever lived, Billie Holiday is a legendary artist with a voice like nobody else’s. Unfortunately, most of her success came after her death, including four Grammys and induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
In 1958, Frank Sinatra revealed the impact Holiday had on him. “It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me,” he said.
Since her first No. 1 single “SOS” in 2006, Rihanna has racked up a staggering 14 chart-toppers on the U.S. Hot 100. Her global album sales of more than 250 million makes her one of the best-selling artists of all time, and her accolades include nine Grammy Awards, 13 American Music Awards, 12 Billboard Music Awards and six Guinness World Records.
The Barbadian singer is also regularly hailed as one of the world’s top fashion icons. In an interview with Alexa Chung during Vogue Festival 2015, Balmain designer Olivier Rousteing compared Rihanna to some of the biggest fashion icons in music history, such as Madonna, David Bowie, Michael Jackson and Prince.
13. Janet Jackson
Janet Jackson is one of the world’s best-selling music artists of all time, but her impact goes way beyond the numbers.
“Any female pop singer working today owes a huge debt of gratitude to Janet. Anytime you see a choreographed dance troupe, a toned bare midriff, an elaborate music video, a blockbuster stage show, a film role between albums, or an ear [headset] microphone – Janet’s fingerprints are all over it,” wrote Out Magazine in 2014.
In 2019, Tris McCall called Jackson “the direct forerunner of most current female pop stars,” writing in Inside Jersey, “The techno-soul hybrid she pioneered in the ’80s (and the conflation of transgression, liberation and desire at the heart of much her writing) is now the sound of the commercial airwaves.”
After hitting the big time as the lead singer of R&B group Destiny’s Child – one of the most successful girl groups ever – Beyoncé took her stardom to icon level. In 2015, Time named her the most powerful female musician of the year, and she’s the most nominated woman in the history of the Grammys (she’s won 20 of them so far).
Like all true musical icons, Beyoncé about more than the music. In The New Yorker, music critic Jody Rosen described her as “the most important and compelling popular musician of the twenty-first century.”
In 2017, Adele’s album “21” overtook Carole King’s “Tapestry” as the best-selling album from a female artist ever, having charted for 319 weeks on the Billboard 200. She’s won Academy Awards, Grammys, Brit Awards and Ivor Novello Awards (among others), and the success of “21” earned her several Guinness World Records.
Veteran music consultant Bob Lefsetz described Adele as “the world’s biggest superstar” on his Lefsetz Letter blog. And in 2019, Insider named her “the artist of the decade,” with writer Kevin O’Keeffe saying “her powerhouse voice and ability to skillfully navigate complex emotional terrain make her music nearly universal in its appeal.”
10. Whitney Houston
Beyoncé, Faith Evans and Mary J. Blige count her among their greatest influences, and Whitney Houston’s captivating performance style and powerhouse vocals made her one of the most awarded female musicians of all time. She’s also one of the best-selling artists, having moved more than 170 million records worldwide. Before her tragic and untimely death at the age of 48, Houston had already become the only artist to ever chart seven consecutive No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hits.
“When I started singing,” Houston once said, “it was almost like speaking.”
Long before Beyoncé was Beyoncé and Adele was Adele, Madonna became the world’s first single-name icon. Her title as the Queen of Pop is undisputable – in the words of The Telegraph, she “laid out the template for the modern female pop icon.” She’s recognized as the best-selling female recording artist of all time by Guinness World Records, is the top touring female artist of all time, and continues, at the age of 62, to push boundaries musically, stylistically and culturally.
8. Barbra Streisand
Star of stage and screen Barbra Streisand is recognized by Billboard as the greatest female of all time on its Billboard 200 chart and one of the greatest artists of all time on its Billboard Hot 100 chart. She has also had No. 1 albums in each of the last six decades, something no other artist has managed to achieve. Chart success aside, Streisand has received unprecedented awards, including two Oscars, five Emmys and a special Tony award in 1970.
In 2016, Streisand released the album “Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway,” which paid tribute to Broadway and Hollywood and paired her with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Hugh Jackman, Jamie Foxx, Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin and Antonio Banderas.
7. Nina Simone
In second place on Ranker’s reader-voted list of the best female musicians of all time is Nina Simone, one of the most stirring (and beautiful) voices of the civil rights movement.
“White people had Judy Garland – we had Nina,” Richard Pryor once said.
Simone’s expansive catalog includes the melancholy ballads “He Needs Me,” the triumphant “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” her freedom song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” and the brilliant “I Loves You, Porgy,” which was her only top 40 hit. In 2018, Simone was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by fellow R&B artist Mary J. Blige, and the following year, her song “Mississippi Goddam” was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
6. Taylor Swift
At only 14, Taylor Swift moved to Nashville to pursue her country music dreams, and by the age of 26 she had 10 Grammys, an Emmy, 22 Billboard Music Awards and many, many more. She’s the youngest artist on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 greatest songwriters, with the magazine noting, “there’s no limit to where she can go from here.”
In 2020, Swift surpassed Whitney Houston for the most weeks at No. 1 among women in the history of the Billboard 200.
5. Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald, aka the First Lady of Song, is synonymous with jazz music. During her long and hugely successful career, she collaborated with fellow legends like Louis Armstrong and The Ink Spots, and was awarded 14 Grammys, a National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Fitzgerald ranks No. 5 on Ranker’s list of the best female musicians of all time.
“Man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest of them all, “Bing Crosby once said.
4. Amy Winehouse
The late, great Amy Winehouse, who tragically joined the “27 club” in 2011, poured her troubled soul into every note she sang. Her 2006 album “Back to Black” ranked No. 33 on Rolling Stone’s 100 best albums of the 2000s list, with the magazine describing it as “instantly classic” and that it “kicked open the mainstream door for pop oddballs from Lily Allen to Lady Gaga.”
After Winehouse’s death, Tony Bennett (with whom she collaborated on his “Duets II” album) said, “She was an extraordinary musician with a rare intuition as a vocalist.”
3. Etta James
Etta James may be best known for singing the blues, but she also performed in R&B, soul, rock and roll, jazz and gospel. As far as Ranker readers are concerned, there’s nobody better – at the time of publication, she’s first on the list of the best female musicians of all time. James is also 22nd on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 greatest singers of all time.
“She can be so raucous and down one song, and then break your heart with her subtlety and finesse the next,” singer Bonnie Raitt told Rolling Stone. “As raw as Etta is, there’s a great intelligence and wisdom in her singing.”
2. Mariah Carey
Billboard’s greatest female artist of all time is Mariah Carey – and she’s arguably the voice of the holidays, thanks to her smash hit “All I Want for Christmas is You,” which is one of the best-selling singles of any genre. Carey is also a prolific songwriter, and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 202o.
“Mariah Carey is one of the most gifted and influential R&B singers of her generation,” wrote Rolling Stone. “Though she’s best known for her multi-octave range and full-blast style, she is actually a versatile performer with total command over her incredible voice.”
1. Aretha Franklin
She’s got 18 Grammys, has been inducted into pretty much every musical hall of fame, is one of the best-selling artists in music history, and she’s known as the Queen of Soul. She’s Aretha Franklin, and she’s No. 1 on our list for all those reasons and more.
Franklin is also No. 1 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest singers of all time and No. 3 on Ranker’s reader-voted best female musicians list.
“You know a force from heaven. You know something that God made. And Aretha is a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing,” wrote Mary J. Blige in Rolling Stone.