Scan any music-related “Best Of…” list and you may notice a disturbing lack of respect given to artists of the female persuasion (the top 30 greatest albums in history can’t all be by men, can they?). So we concocted our own list, highlighting the most seminal recordings of female artists. There were a few rules: No repeats (sorry Joni, we know you put out about a billion albums), any bands on the list had to be unequivocally fronted by a woman (yes, this means Fleetwood Mac is not on here), and every album had to make an essential contribution to the role of women in popular music.
This week, we only reveal ten of our selections (in no particular order) – so don’t get worried if you don’t see your favorite yet. It was tough to limit ourselves to only fifty albums, but we tried our best. If you love female artists, these are the recordings you have to hear. Check back next Friday for Part 2.
In 1984, 44-year-old Tina Turner staged what is now considered the most spectacular comeback in the history of rock and roll. The launching pad: Turner’s fearless Private Dancer album. Frantically pieced together in response to her unexpected chart success with a cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” the album’s eclectic mix of material (from the jazzy title track to the New Wave-influenced cover of Ann Peebles’s “I Can’t Stand The Rain”) was truly inspired. Though not much of a songwriter herself, Tina made Private Dancer‘s ten tracks all her own. When she wails “I’m a soul survivor” at the end of the album’s opener, “I Might Have Been Queen,” you can’t help but remember her past struggles — namely, a maniac named Ike.
Discovered at the age of 16 by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, Kate Bush became the undisputed queen of art pop with her masterful fourth album The Dreaming. While there’s certainly brilliance in her writing and singing, the true genius lies in Kate’s idiosyncratic and layered production (The Dreaming was her first album to be completely self-produced). Oftentimes overshadowed by 1985’s Hounds Of Love, the album is now considered one of her most influential and diverse works, with Kate finding inspiration in everything from the Vietnam War (“Pull Out The Pin”) to Stephen King’s The Shining (“Get Out Of My House”). In a magazine interview in 1977, Kate said she wanted her music to be intrusive and arresting. After listening to The Dreaming, it’s easy to see how she’s achieved just that.
The haters harp on her misuse of the word ironic, but Alanis Morissette’s monstrous hit album Jagged Little Pill sucked 33 million people in with its universally relatable (though a tad pedestrian) lyrics and can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head hooks. In an era of talented but non-threatening female acts like Sheryl Crow and Suzanne Vega, Alanis was a refreshing breath of fire-tinged air. Rockers like “You Oughta Know” and “Right Through You” make the Spice Girls’ version of girl power seem as wimpy as an Amstel Light. But it’s on the more understated tracks like “Hand In My Pocket” and “Ironic” where Alanis really shines.
After achieving breakthrough success with 1986’s Control, Janet Jackson faced pressure from her record company to replicate this commercial sensation. She responded with a 20-track concept album exploring themes of social injustice, prejudice, and hypocrisy. The album alternates between full-length songs and periodic, mostly spoken word interludes (a format that Jackson would continue to draw upon through 2008’s Discipline). Rhythm Nation contains some of Janet’s best-known hits, including the title track, “Escapade,” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” – and therein resides it’s ingenuity: Janet refuses to let her message upstage the catchy, feel-good melodies of her songs. The result was an even bigger smash than Control and Janet’s signing of a multi-million dollar contract with Virgin Records that would make her the highest paid female performer at the time.
Boys For Pele is Tori Amos’s break up album. But instead of “You Oughta Know,” she gives us “Blood Roses,” a song composed primarily on the harpsichord and featuring lines like, “I’ve shaved every place where you’ve been boy.” Recorded at the height of Tori’s popularity, Pele’s dark and eccentric nature is a bold statement of professional independence on her part (and a foreshadowing of the tensions to come between Tori and her record label). While the source material for many of the songs – her experience “visiting” the devil while high on hallucinogenic drugs; the idea that God’s feminine nature has been stripped from mainstream religion – is obscure, the strong melodies temper the impenetrable nature of Tori’s lyrics and make Pele a truly moving listen.
The true injustice of Pearl is that Janis Joplin never lived to see its completion. Four weeks into the recording of the album, Janis died of an accidental drug overdose, leaving behind just enough recorded vocal material to secure its release. Titled posthumously after her nickname, the album deftly displays the range of emotion Janis was possible of conveying with her voice. From desperate longing on “Move Over” to tongue-in-cheek social commentary in “Mercedes Benz,” her husky vocals are soul-stirring. The recording’s major single, a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me And My Bobby McGee,” is now a classic and Joplin’s version owes more to “Blowin’ In The Wind” than “Respect,” proving she was no one-note blues singer — and leaving the rest of us wondering what could have been.
Prior to the release of Parallel Lines, Blondie’s New Wave and punk-influenced opus, the band was relatively unknown by American audiences. That all changed when the album’s monster hit single “Heart Of Glass” made the beautiful Debbie Harry a household name. But don’t let her high-pitched cooing on “Glass” fool you: Tracks like “One Way Or Another” and “Picture This” prove that she can growl like a pitbull. Though the album distanced the band from their downtown contemporaries — who saw the disco-stained release as a sell-out — Parallel Lines remains Blondie’s most important contribution to popular music by bringing the aforementioned musical genres to the attention of the mainstream American public.
After twenty years of recording and performing in relative obscurity, Bonnie Raitt achieved the belated accolades her talents undeniably deserved with Nick Of Time. An unlikely commercial success, the album’s title song, penned by Bonnie herself, poignantly tackles aging and the passage of time with lyrics like, “Those lines are pretty hard to take when they’re staring back at you.” Subsequent tracks like “Thing Called Love” and “Love Letter” highlight Bonnie’s exceptionally skillful slide guitar playing, gloriously gritty voice, and superb blues phrasing. Jimi Hendrix once said, “Blues is easy to play but hard to feel.” It’s this depth of experience that brilliantly shines through in Nick Of Time and secured the nearly 40-year-old Bonnie’s place as a true music legend.
Standing In The Way Of Control catapulted indie rock outfit The Gossip — and its marvelously unconventional front woman, Beth Ditto — to stardom. A dazzling mix of low-fi garage rock, punk, and even R&B, Control is amplified by Beth’s remarkably soulful voice. In “Yr Mangled Heart” she wails “I don’t want the world; I just want what I deserve” like she’s signing in a gospel choir. Compare that to her Peggy Lee-esque crooning on “Dark Lines” and it becomes increasing clear that Beth possesses a vocal dexterity rarely seen in the genre. Certainly much of the beauty of Standing is in its simplicity. Distilled down to its most flavorful elements — head-thumping guitar, strong drum beats, and memorable melodies resonating from a fantastic singer — it has got staying power.
Erykah Badu is the high priestess of neo-soul – and Baduizm is her Bible. With a voice like Billie Holiday’s, Erykah proved that R&B can be as insightful and politically-aware as folk. “On & On” espouses the idea that “The man that knows somethin’ knows that he knows nothin’ at all” and “Appletree” finds Erykah stating, “I have a ho and I take it everywhere I go. ‘Cause I’m planting seeds so I reeps what I sow – ya know.” All the while her voice hovers slightly above the syncopated beats and laid back melody lines, leaving her less-skillful peers in the dust. Baduizm introduced an artist adept at incorporating challenging subject matter with slick grooves. Certainly Jill Scott, Leela James, and Jazmine Sullivan were listening.