25, Adele, Alison Goldfrapp, Amy, Amy Winehouse, Dusty in Memphis, Dusty Springfield, Elton John, Fairytale of New York, Florence and the Machine, Goldfrapp, Hannah Reid, High Fidelity, Joss Stone, Kirsty MacColl, Lists, Mary Coughlan, Nick Hornby, Sade Adu, Sinead O'Connor, Siouxsie and the Banchees, Siouxsie Sioux, The Pogues
Christmas time is a time for making lists. Not a time for serious blogs about the world of work – that’s for sure. Whether it be shopping lists for family and friends or a draft set of new year’s resolutions we, especially men, find comfort in writing things down. It’s been common business practice since time immemorial. On my list this year for my wife was 25, the new album by Adele. We listened to it on Boxing Day and I found it sounded quite familiar and not necessarily because we are all so familiar with Adele’s back catalogue of 19 and 21. So in true Nick Hornby style (a la High Fidelity) I found myself creating a bit of a list – Greatest UK female singers. It’s tempting, of course, to not rank too highly those who have just burst onto the scene, because longevity is a very real measure in the music business, but pure raw talent must count for something and with three monumental albums to her name Adele does qualify in the pre-qualification list. So here goes – my attempt to put together ten of the greatest UK & Ireland female singers of the popular music era with a bit of a rationale for why I think they warrant being here.
Dusty Springfield a tragic life story but Dusty (Mary O’Brien) is the greatest British female singer of the modern generation and arguably, for me, only second on the world stage behind Aretha Franklin. Adele’s voice is very similar and it is no coincidence that Adele’s look is very ‘Dusty’. They both have a lovely tone in their voice that conveys layers of emotion. As the song builds though their voices, at the top end, separate with Adele kicking through to full power where Dusty takes it towards the fragile and it is this tension between the fragility and the emotion that makes her without compare. Listen to Dusty in Memphis one of the greatest recordings of all time to judge for yourself.
Kirsty MacColl was tragically killed in an accident in Mexico in 2000. Contracted to Stiff Records she found herself without a label when they went bankrupt in 1986 but used this time to record with the likes of Robert Plant, The Smiths, Alison Moyet, Shriekback, Simple Minds, Talking Heads, Big Country, and The Wonder Stuff,. Her collaboration with The Pogues on Fairytale of New York in 1987 is the stuff of legend and it remains the best Christmas song of all time. Refusing to be pigeon-holed, her wonderful tonal qualities and her flexibility make her stand out from the pack. Check this out.
Mary Coughlan has a jazz based tradition and is a mesmerising performer. Her voice is beyond compare and if we look at the emotions that all the singers in this list put on display, none can match that of Coughlin. Where Winehouse rips her skin to reveal flesh, Coughlin squeezes lemon juice on it. Her tradition is Irish and this shines through with her soulfulness and at times cynicism, as well as her activism. I saw her in concert in 2002 at the Jazz Café in Camden and I recall being spellbound by a performance of such depth and emotion that I knew I was watching a legend. If you watch one clip in this entire list make it this one.
Sade Adu (Sade) was born in Nigeria but grew up in the UK. Her breathy songs with tinges of jazz and soul celebrate a timelessness and Diamond Life, her breakthrough album, sounds as fresh today as it did when first released in 1984. She won’t get the party rocking but as the party-goers drift away and you are left with the core friends this is the album to slap on the turntable.
Amy Winehouse Without Winehouse there arguably would not have been the likes of Adele or the myriad of others that have followed. Our family has had a personal connection with Amy that I won’t go into here (see photo from my recent trip to London), but regardless of that, she is still for mine the one who has led the way in the most recent years. Talented to a fault with the self-destruct button, like so many artists, always clearly on show. Where others, including Adele, sing with emotion and reveal their soul, Winehouse rips her skin off and reveals the flesh beneath. She is raw and urgent and we will never see the likes of her again. Tragically taken too soon.
Adele has only three albums to her name (compared to say Elton John’s 10 in 7 years) but is such a phenomenon that her recent CD (yes she went ‘old school’ for the release) carries only her face on the cover and the CD itself just carries the number 25 as the means by which it can be recognised. Her authenticity and non-diva approach, with heart on the sleeve lyrics and powerful voice already has her ranking as one of the great female singers – ever.
Joss Stone I can forgive Joss Stone for her flirtation with the often bland potpourri of RnB. When she’s in her element doing soul and blues her voice is right up there. Precocious talent that is a livewire in concert and the fact that so many old hands like jamming with her (Etheridge, Beck etc) it is clear she has street cred. Like a good red will only improve with age. This clip from 2010 shows her talent at its best.
Sinead O’Connor has suffered with bi-polar, or not, depending on who you listen to and it is fair to say that social media seems obsessed with her and, at times, her with it. Putting that aside, to watch her in concert is to see a consummate performer who is at once both shy and a master of her craft. Her song lyrics are raw and emotional and her album How About I Be Me (And You be You) is a fine example of how she blends her life and her music and lyrics together for such a potent brew.
Siouxsie Sioux (Siouxsie and the Banchees) the younger generation might be surprised on reprising clips of Siouxsie that the outfits and stagecraft of Lady Gaga have been done before. Siouxsie Sioux was at the forefront of the new wave movement of the 1970s with some punkish backnotes. As a lead singer in an era populated by strong male leads she led the way for women and her songs have been covered by many artists not the least Jeff Buckley. Great voice, great presence and an enduring legend.
Hannah Reid (London Grammar). There is something very ethereal about Reid’s voice. Primarily the voice is an instrument and Reid emphasises this with her vocal mastery more than most. Her voice completely complements the synth and guitar based sound of the band. On stage she is in total flow and I like this in an artist. There may not have been a London Grammar without a Florence and the Machine but I prefer Reid’s voice by just a smidgeon to relegate Flo to the almost but not quite list. Check out London Grammar’s Montreux Jazz Festival set in 2014.
Many others warrant being on this list e.g. Christine McVie (Fleetwood Mac), Florence Welsh (Florence and the Machine), Alison Goldfrapp (Goldfrapp), Beverley Knight, Annie Lennox (Eurthymics), Alison Moyet, Julia Fordham, Joan Armatrading, Linda Thompson, Beth Orton etc.
The beauty of lists, as Hornby reminds us, is the thought that goes into constructing them. In some ways this is more important than the list itself. There are no right or wrong answers, of course, and the same goes with management. Often there is no absolutely right way to do something. Time spent contemplating the best approach, what’s top of the list, is time well spent regardless of what approach you end up adopting.