The future of music

25 Greatest & Most Famous Alto Singers

July 5, 2023
alto singers

We owe some of our culture’s most venerated, ambitious anthems to the tireless work of the songstresses profiled here.

They can ascend to thrilling heights and descend to evocative, heartrending lows.

Whether jazz, blues, country, or rock, they suffuse their sounds with unwavering candor and courageous iconoclasm. 

From Patsy Cline to Billie Holiday and beyond, they cover a compelling spectrum of decades, aesthetic silhouettes, and philosophical outlooks.

Strident, confessional, and elusive, in turn, they showcase the dynamic capacity of the voice, the OG instrument that has not yet been supplanted by modern wizardry. 

Let us all now worship at the altar of the Alto.  

Enjoy our list of the best alto singers!

1. Etta James

From the first potent, fragrant, notes of “At Last,” we are introduced to the soaring, caramel-textured depth that was Etta James.

Her sound spirits us away, transporting us to a labyrinthine and convoluted inner world, where we can encounter truth, beauty, sorrow, and wistfulness in turn. 

She traversed the gap between R&B, blues, and early rock and roll and was immortalized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as being “forever the matriarch of blues.”

Her crowning achievement is the startling, tear-rending, soul classic “I’d Rather Go Blind,” in which she channels the electric, convulsive torments of her own life into a sonic gut punch.

2. Patsy Cline

In her tragically short, but creatively untamed, life, Patsy Cline became one of the early adopters of pop music and established herself as one of the most valorous early altos in the twentieth-century canon. 

Her swinging, rockabilly-flecked country arrangements bespeak the organic, unpretentious origins of the American rural musical tradition and evoke the mythology of the South with full-bodied, melodic charisma.

Her death at 31 in a plane crash (that most rock n’ roll journey to the other side) only heightened her grip on the cultural consciousness, and she has been lauded posthumously across mediums as diverse as film, literature, and American history. 

3. Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt is the voice of the seventies and eighties, and her blues-driven, jazz-inflected vocals are arresting to newcomers and loyalists alike. 

She co-opted the elegant traditions of beatnik culture and the spirited philosophy of the tie-dye set and fused them in a witch’s cauldron of warm, honey-tinged vocals. 

Her easy-listening, non-flashy fare garnered her a Lifetime Achievement Award, and one could reasonably start with any of her releases as a point of contact.

We recommend the following formidably accomplished albums: 1972’s Give It Up, 1977’s Sweet Forgiveness, and 1995’s Road Tested.

4. Tracy Chapman

Few can imitate the piercing profundity and unflinching candor of a Chapman tune, and the cultural resonance of “Fast Car,” “Give Me One Reason,” and “Bang Bang Bang” are enduring testaments to her power.

Her voice is tender, poignant, and achingly textural, like a woven tapestry unearthed in a sacred site, and possessed of the same otherworldly resonance. 

Her songs are laments and odes all at once and are saturated with themes of protest and oppression and the vicissitudes of loves lost and gained.

5. Billie Holiday 

A voice like melancholic, melting velvet, Billie Holiday remains a romantic figure, shrouded in a certain delicate mystery and unruffled grandeur. 

Her swing and jazz blend was at once melancholy and life-affirming, and she bore witness to the quiet sorrows, ambivalences, and joys of the human condition. 

Her tempo and phrasing remain near impossible to replicate, and her luxurious, uncluttered melodies pierce right to the heart of the matter and right to the soul of the listener. 

Her world-weary, pain-soaked vocals do their best work on ballads like “Solitude” and “Strange Fruit.”

6. Nina Simone

Despite her prolific career and tectonic Civil Rights activism, Nina Simone remains an elusive, mysterious figure, one whose gaze at times evades us.

She was a trailblazer in R&B, jazz, soul, blues, and folk, and she weaved the pathos, perseverance, and unwavering courage of the Southern gospel tradition into jer multidimensional sound.

When she started playing cocktail lounges in Atlantic City, her family decried her choice to play the “devil’s music,” but it was that turn that brought her to the attention of the glittering international culture-makers.

Between 1958 and 1974, she released a staggering 40 albums and became a vocal figure in the fight for racial and gender equality. 

7. Ella Fitzgerald

All hail Ella, the reigning “Queen of Jazz,” or, if you’re feeling fanciful, the “First Lady of Song.”

Fitzgerald’s impact on the legacy of jazz cannot be understated, and her rich, commanding, generous vocals have become the enduring sound of mid-century elegance, sophistication, and mystique.

Fitzgerald’s flawless vocal purity, and resplendent, daresay whimsical spontaneity, infused her arrangements with a heightened suggestion of magic and earthy mysticism.

Although she has released hundreds upon hundreds of songs, get a taste of the evolution of her sound by sampling something from each decade: 1957’s Like Someone in Love, 1963’s These Are the Blues, and 1979’s Fine and Mellow.

8. Amy Winehouse

The name Amy Winehouse has become shorthand for the most harrowing rock and roll tragedy of our time, calling to mind the stunning ascendence and tormented descent of the likes of Morrison and Joplin.

Winehouse had a voice that would launch a thousand ships, and her provocative, whiskey-toned voice contained all of the smoky currents and woe-laced insinuations of a bar far past midnight.

The embers of her talent shall not dim, and “Back to Black,” “Rehab,” and “You Know I’m No Good” have joined the ranks of mid-century masters like Holiday and Fitzgerald.

9. Stevie Nicks

Stevie Nicks, in both her turn with Fleetwood Mac and as an accomplished soloist, tapped into a bewitching silhouette and a spellbinding free-spiritedness to cultivate one of the most captivating brands in history. 

Her solo sojourn in the eighties was raw, organic, and possessed of an unfettered, heartfelt cadence. 

Ballads like “Leather and Lace” and showstopping cinematic rock gems like “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and “Edge of Seventeen” rival any of her masterpieces with Fleetwood Mac.

The crisp, raspy timbre of her tone imbues her songs with a nourishing, soul-lifting generosity and wisdom.

10. Chaka Khan

Chaka Khan was a purveyor of a distinct sound, a kind of elevated, funk-laden R&B that rewards those who listen closely. 

Her career spans five decades, and her start in the heady, funk-forward late seventies informed her charming, open-hearted sound long after the halcyon days of the genre had passed.

Khan’s vocals have a silky warmth and a full-bodied density, adding a certain subdued elegance to her rhythmic, high-spirited offerings.

Go take 1978’s Chaka and 1984’s I Feel For You out for an ambient and memorable weekend night in.

11. Nancy Sinatra

Ever-sultry, elusive, and maddeningly self-contained, Sinatra’s tortured, entrancing, provocative vocal range continues to haunt and startle.

Inheriting her Papa Frank’s atmospheric, well-deep vocals, Sinatra cultivated a sensual nonchalance and insouciant defiance with her masculine-edged timbre.

She enraptured the spectators of the sixties and seventies with her provocative, sly country-inflected numbers like “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” “Sugar Town,” and “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).”

12. Annie Lennox

Scottish maverick Annie Lennox is best known for her turn with synthy, post-punk, new wave act Eurythmics, to which she lent her mesmeric, unblinking alto vocal range.

Her voice is preternaturally lucid, containing a curious blend of gruff earthiness and ethereal elegance.

Indeed, her voice lends a grown-up, recondite flair to popular eighties fare, and it reduces all of the other instruments in an arrangement to a supporting role.

To get a taste of her groundbreaking, unapologetic best, try 1983’s synthy Touch and 1986’s insatiable Revenge.

13. Grace Slick

Want “Somebody to Love?” “It’s No Secret” that Grace Slick is whom you seek.

The enchanting and defiant co-lead singer of Summer of Love mainstays Jefferson Airplane, Slick’s voice is a thing that sprouts wings, soaring to strange, alluring heights and cutting the air with piercing, urgent splendor.

Slick has always embodied the sovereignty, and healthy rebelliousness, that propelled the bohemian culture of the sixties to its zenith, and her animalistic, unrestrained vocals call to mind a mystic possessed by an alluring, vital force.

14. Adele 

If we could package the expansive timbre of Adele’s voice and sell it, well, we could have afforded to bring about world peace by now.

Adele has cultivated an obsessive coterie of loyal fans and has charmed and played coy with the international media, fostering curiosity about every move she takes.

From 21 to 25 to 30, her albums serve as a chronology of her daring evolution, tracking her as she grows into the full potential of her vocal range and stylistic capabilities. 

Perhaps one of the most imposing and unfussy voices we have in the pop world today, only time will tell what approach Adele will take next.

15. Norah Jones

The veritable modern sleeper sensation of the adult easy-listening subgenre, Norah Jones is the belle of the sophisticated ball with her mature melodies and sumptuous tonal range.

If you’ve ever stepped foot outside of your house, you’ll have been treated to Jones’ lush and meticulously arranged ballads.

From “Come Away With Me,” to “Don’t Know Why” to “Turn Me On” she brings a calming serenity and a wine-drenched ambiance to adult contemporary and inspires a moment of reflective, introspective solitude.

16. Gladys Knight

Long live the Empress of Soul, Gladys Knight, and her dreamy, spacious voice that speaks directly to the wounded heart and hopeful spirit.

Cleaning up the award circuit during her multi-decade career, Knight has won seven Grammys and scored a series of Billboard hits, solidifying her impact on mainstream observers and cultured connoisseurs alike. 

Her brand of soul marries the rhythmic components of R&B with the buoyant, stratospheric possibilities of the gospel tradition. 

Start with 1978’s Miss Gladys Knight, and 1994’s Just for You.

17. Sade

If you consider yourself cultured, erudite, and worldly, then you’ve spun a few of Sade’s serene, lush new age in your time.

Her poignant, atmospheric sound has been described in turn as sophistic pop and as a salient example of the intoxicatingly named genre quiet storm, a smooth, sublime jazz-like microgenre.

Her 1984 release Diamond Life was the definition of a surprise breakout success and became one of the bestselling releases of the eighties, demonstrating an appetite for a more subdued, emotive alternative to MTV radio fare.

18. Tina Turner

If you have working ears, you can hear Turner’s gravelly, sensual voice from the next town over, and you can feel her charismatic magnetism across state lines.

Turner is and will always be the queen of rock and roll, and her unrepentant, unapologetic stage presence, and swaggering silhouette remains a thing of theatrical majesty.

Getting her start with Ike Turner, her solo work is what she is most revered for now, and her 1984 album Private Dancer, with all its brazen self-assurance, is noted as the best comeback in music history.

The eighties were no match for the boldness and drive of Tina, and she dished out multi-platinum albums like it was child’s play.

19. Cher

Cher is nothing if not a shapeshifter, welcoming evolutions in style, philosophy, and artistic conventions, but she always maintained allegiance to breathless, feverish vocals.

From her bohemian folksy roots to her self-possessed, assertive turn in the eighties, Cher is a born performer and an effortless hand at mesmerizing and enchanting her spectators.

She is not called the Goddess of Pop for nothing, and her commanding contralto vocals add a dimensional body to dreamy, lighthearted fare.

1989’s Heart of Stone, her nineteenth studio album (you read that right), still makes for rousing listening.

20. Toni Braxton

You might not hear her name thrown around that often these days, but make no mistake: Braxton is a heavyweight in her class and was an absolute trailblazer in the nineties.

She has sold over 70 million records with her self-confident, audacious R&B approach, insightful lyrics, and complex rhythmic compositions.

You can’t go wrong with any of the tracks off her first few albums: “Another Sad Love Song,” “Breathe Again,” and “Un-Break My Heart.”

Her husky, sultry contralto imbues her radio-friendly hits with an intriguing depth and maturity.

21. Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey, our reigning diva with a capital D, is a larger-than-life figure and has become almost a campy figure with her outrageous brand and ostentatious dramatics.

But there’s no denying a good thing, and Carey’s versatile, soaring, rousing voice is a good damn thing.

Carey has made a good living off her cinematic five-octave vocal range and remains one of the highest-earning female vocalists.

She broaches topics both light and dark, rhapsodizing love, loss, and racial tension with a deft hand and startling self-assurance.

But she can also dish out high-spirited pop confections like none other. 

22. Liza Minnelli

Theatrics and flamboyance are the lifeblood running through the cult figure, the brand, and the music of Liza Minnelli, pop’s most endearingly over-the-top songstress.

She inherited her mother Judy Garland’s authoritative and spellbinding alto vocal cords, but she took glittering showmanship to a brave new plane.

Her musical theatre origins have always bled through and suffused her songs with an urgent, glamorous playfulness.

Her Warholian charm and quirkiness need to be encountered firsthand – 1969’s Come Saturday Morning will do the trick.

23. Buffy Sainte-Marie

Activist, wordsmith, and literary wunderkind Buffy Saint-Marie is the darling of thinking, feeling, and dreaming people everywhere, from the small dives of Portland to the bohemian outposts of Northern Canada. 

At 82, Sainte-Marie has been a fiery and courageous activist for Indigenous rights her entire adult life, and she has brought her poetic musings and untamed intellect to wildly original compositions.

Her voice simply silences a room, and her topics never look away from the difficult and the miraculous, from war to religion to mysticism to transcendence.

Get a taste of her folk-nourished songs with 1969’s entrancing Illuminations.

24. Shania Twain

The enduring and much-worshipped Canadian Country prophetess Shania Twain is rarely appreciated for the tonal qualities of her voice, as her undiminished acclaim is due more directly to her spunky lyrics and charismatic persona.

She’s sold over 100 million albums with her luminous, amicable vocal range and organic pitch, which allowed her to reimagine the trajectory of women in country music.

Because she embodies an approachable levity and breezy tone, she is often overlooked as true alto, with the purists among us denying she has the ability to cultivate a darker timbre.

Sure, she began her ascent with a soprano, but as she has matured, her voice has adapted and reached some spine-tingling lows.

25. Anita Baker

Anita, like fellow list entry Sade, was a denizen of the quiet storm micro-movement that was taking shape in the eighties and dictating the new norms at classy dinner parties and urbane cocktail bars alike.

Baker’s ballads are shimmering and viscerally soulful and add an intellectual, worldly patina to adult contemporary.

Her 1983 debut, The Songstress, and 1986’s Rapture are both delicate, alchemical bliss and invite the mind and spirit to wander and satiate themselves with evocative symbolism.

Best Alto Singers – Final Thoughts

How are you feeling?

Head spinning?

Mind-bending?

The alto will have that effect on the uninitiated.

Turn the phone off, light a candle or two, and accept the invitation to an emotive and luxuriant new realm.

You may also like: Best Singers of All Time

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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