That moment when an unknown track starts playing on the radio and you hear a familiar voice whose owner you can immediately name! There are not so many artists out there who can achieve that effect, are they?
If you try to think of singers with unique voices, a few might come to mind: from Freddie Mercury, Michael Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Axl Rose and Nina Simone to Bjork, Amy Winehouse, Beyonce, Thom Yorke (Radiohead), Jeff Buckley...
But what makes a voice unique? Is it the timbre? The vocal range? Or the vocal technique? Well, in some cases, it could even be all of the above - a bit like a special recipe in which all key ingredients are combined in the right way, resulting in a delicious and even addictive sonic substance for one’s ears. A unique voice, incorporated in the right melodic movement, has the ability to land in one’s soul and fill it up with bliss. And what I mean by "the right melodic movement" is how and where this voice is used, so that it reveals itself best. Just like water does - the voice has its own qualities but takes a different shape depending on where exactly it flows. And the riverbed (the notes, melodies, harmonies) allows it to unfold in a certain way.
So, who are those contemporary singers, active in the last 15-20 years that are able to set us on fire or take us on a journey to the deepest corners of our being with their distinctive vocals? This article is dedicated to some of them. And while names like Lana Del Rey, Lady Gaga, Florence Welch (Florence + The Machine), Adele, Rihanna, John Legend, Billie Eilish, Róisín Murphy (Moloko), etc., etc., have already received a lot of praise for their talent, we'll try to meet you with artists who haven't (yet) been that much in the spotlight.
Unlike our previous articles, dedicated to soul or hip hop artists, this one is much more diverse both genre-wise and gender-wise. Now, let's dive in!
Yukimi Nagano (Little Dragon)
While Yukimi Nagano, the Swedish singer and songwriter with an unmistakable voice, released her first record at the age of 18, she is mostly known as the vocalist for the electro pop group Little Dragon. She established the band together with her close high school friends Erik Bodin (drums) and Fredrik Wallin (bass) in 1996 while they were in high school. A fun fact is that Nagano and her bandmates actually applied to music college but weren't approved, but nevertheless continued to make music together while working side jobs. Yukimi has worked with the likes of Gorillaz, De La Soul, ODESZA, SBTRKT, DJ Shadow. Besides her other talents, Yukimi is also a percussionist!
Joe Newman (alt-J)
Joe Newman’s falsetto surely rings a bell every time you hear it on the radio. There’s something strong yet nostalgic in the UK singer’s voice, which so beautifully fits alt-J’s whole aesthetics adding that special dimension to each composition.
Born in Leeds, Joe got in an art school with the intention of starting a band and next thing you know alt-J's debut album wins the British Mercury Prize with much more to follow.
Ari Lennox (Courtney Shanade Salter) possesses the superpower to steal hearts with her soul-infused voice. There's something enchanting about her timbre that carries a powerful presence, reminiscent of icons like Aretha Franklin, while still sounding fresh and contemporary!
The US singer, who graduated from Duke Ellington School of the Arts, got her stage name from Mary Lennox, a character in the film adaptation of The Secret Garden. When she began uploading her music on the internet in 2009, her talent was noticed by J. Cole. Being the first female artist signed to his record label (Dreamville Records), Lennox made her debut appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 with the single "Pressure" (2021) and continues to gain recognition for her talent.
Fusing pop and soul, Seinabo Sey's velvety vocals are usually combined with poignant lyrics to offer irresistibly smooth vibes. With her father Maudo Sey being a renowned musician in The Gambia and Senegal, it was clear that music is in Seinabo’s blood.
The Swedish artist wanted to become a lawyer when she was a teenager but soon realized that music is her path and enrolled in a music school, graduating from Fryshusets esthetics program with a concentration in soul music. A great decision, I’d say!
Conor Mason (Nothing But Thieves)
Conor Mason’s voice is a real gift from above, as cringy as this may sound! The lead singer of Nothing but Thieves has the ability to combine soul and rock in a brilliant and captivating way. His outstanding warm and textually rich vocals infuse the alternative rock band’s songs with an extraordinary amount of vitality and passion.
Conor used to sing in a choir and studied singing only for three years, after which he continued developing his voice on his own. He highlights the importance of figuring his own voice out and let whatever is within him come out naturally. With his father (a blues gospel singer) introducing him to B.B. King and Sam Cooke, it’s no surprise he sounds the way he does. He also enlists Jeff Buckley as one of his biggest influences.
Green Tea Peng
Greentea Peng (Aria Wells) stands out not only with her pleasant vocal tone but also with her unusual appearance. Aria’s stage name refers to her love of green tea and the London slang word 'peng', which means attractive or tasty. And indeed, her music is tasty and incredibly soul-satiating. Her calming velvety voice feels so nurturing, especially combined with her uplifting lyrics, infused with wisdom.
With Aria’s very own sonic brew of neo-soul and dub, the UK singer and songwriter is a real pearl in the indie r&b waters. She describes her sound as 'psychedelic r&b' with her musical influences ranging from Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu to Miss Dynamite and Lily Allen.
Willow’s music career started in 2010 when she was only 10. Since then she has released various projects, exploring different genres. But one thing remains the same - her passionate approach to music and ability to channel feelings the way she does. Her powerful soulful vocals are usually accompanied by a strong message and provide the meat to the track, piercing through all the noise to reach one’s heart. Her vocals are not polished and aiming for perfection but deeply heartfelt - the result of exploring what is inside and letting it all out.
Her latest pop-punk endeavour one more time shows how versatile the US singer/songwriter can be, check her collab with Yungblud to be blown away!
Ama Lou was only around 19 when she codirected the visuals for her debut EP, Dawn, Day, Dusk (DDD) - which you can check out above.
Born and raised in London, she was classically trained as a singer and began writing music at the age of 11. Her father is the soul singer Eon John (90's band Honeychild). Inspired in part by his love of soul, r&b and jazz, Ama grew up listening to Gil Scott-Heron, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. This inevitably shaped not only her music taste but also vocal style, leading to the beautiful music we get to enjoy today.
Starting to release music in 2015, Sevdaliza (Sevda Alizadeh) was a basketball player before becoming the singer, songwriter, record producer, visual artist and director that we know today. An outstanding artist, who turns heads with her sound and visuals, she continues being independent, doing things her own way.
Raised and based in the Netherlands, Sevdaliza is of Azerbaijani, Russian, and Persian descent, with her Iranian roots being noticeable in both her appearance and vocal style. Exotic and remarkably charismatic, she infuses fresh blood into r&b and triphop and will hopefully get the recognition she deserves for that soon.
Kali Uchis’ unmistakable vocals add an exotic touch to any track she is part of. The American singer/songwriter of Colombian roots dropped her debut mixtape, Drunken Babble, in 2012, followed by her first album - Por Vida (2015), for which she worked with the likes of Kaytranada and Tyler, The Creator. The track above is exactly from this album, full of absolute gems, which you should definitely get to to know if so far you’ve only been familiar with her more commercially-oriented sound.
It’s hard to put Moses Sumney in a box. The LA singer/songwriter, known for his elegant falsettos and poignant lyrics, likes experimenting and instead of labeling himself, prefers to focus on delivering a strong message - both sonically and visually, no matter the genre. Since his first appearance on the music horizon in 2014, he has continuously challenged the stereotypes, with one of his latest ambitious endeavours being the concert album film Live from Blackalachia (2021).
The track above has a gorgeous video, but the COLORS session hits different. It offers the opportunity to observe how Moses is fully immersed in the sound, singing with his whole body. Clearly, there are layers of artistry in addition to his vocals, that set him apart from others and point to the great future he is meant to have when it comes to music and art as a whole.
Sampa The Great
Sampa the Great (Sampa Tembo) - a real lioness who conquers hearts with ease. The Zambian-born Botswana-raised rapper and songwriter stands out with captivating delivery in combination with great lyricism. Her charisma as a performer makes her look not only appealing but also inspiring. On a mission to empower her audience, she fits perfectly in the shoes of a role model.
As for how she got into music, apart from her genetic predisposition (her mother was a dancer and her father - a DJ), Sampa received both piano and singing lessons and started writing poems/lyrics from the age of nine. She studied music for visual media at the Academy of Art University (San Francisco/ Los Angeles), as well as audio engineering at SAE Institute (Sydney, Australia). Living on different continents, she developed herself both as an individual and as a musician, stirring all these influences in her sound and political outlook, which inevitably resulted in some really great music.
AURORA - Scandinavia’s eccentric angel, who overflows with creativity, sharing her beautiful inner world with all of us. The Norwegian singer, songwriter and dancer combines electropop and nordic folk in an elevating way, enchanting with both innocence and wisdom.
She grew up listening to different genres - from heavy metal to jazz, influenced by artists like Leonard Cohen, Bjork, Bob Dylan, Enya, and The Chemical Brothers, Gojira. AURORA wasn’t fond of her singing voice and aspired to become a doctor, a physicist or a dancer. She started learning to play the piano when she was six and took dance classes for ten years. She wrote her first songs when she was nine years old and was keeping music a private affair but things took quite a different turn and she realized that sharing her songs with the world, for those who need to hear them, might be the right thing to do. Which was indeed the case!
Chet Faker (a.k.a. Nick Murphy)
The Australian singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist's real name is Nicholas James Murphy. He blew up in 2012 as Chet Faker with his EP Thinking in Textures and there’s hardly a person who hasn’t heard of his cover of Blackstreet's "No Diggity".
After winning a number of awards, in 2016, Murphy dropped the Chet Faker moniker to start performing and releasing material under his birth name. While his first stage name was supposed to pay homage to Chet Baker, Nick decided to switch to his real name, while still keeping the source of inspiration prominent in his sound. His warm and soulful vocals sound equally well situated in an electronic or acoustic sonic environment, always carrying something nostalgic that makes you crave more.
If you liked this article, feel free to check out our other lists with female rappers and r&b/neo-soul female singers who write and produce their music.