Madonna’s earlier recordings may have brought her the stardom she so desperately desired, but Ray Of Light is the album that established the pop star as an artist. Based on a 1962 science fiction novel called The Drowned World (which eerily tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by climate change), Ray Of Light finds Madonna abandoning the tongue-in-cheek cooing and provocative bravado of her past work in favor of an honest exploration of aging, motherhood, and the isolation of fame. Never has she been as raw as when she opens “Drowned World/Substitute For Love” with, “I traded fame for love without a second though. It all became a silly game. Some things cannot be bought.” Madonna proved that electronic music can have a heart and soul and, almost immediately after its release, dozens of female artists (some older than her by decades) were already ripping her off. Ray Of Light marked a shift in the focus of Madonna’s music away from easily-digestible pop of Holiday toward more introspective and thoughtful compositions — and that’s something to celebrate.
After toiling for years as a songwriter for top-selling acts like The Shirelles, Aretha Franklin, and Dusty Springfield, Carole King turned her attention toward recording her own material and, in the process, invented the model for all female singer-songwriters to come. To list all of the female artists inspired (consciously or unconsciously) by her groundbreaking album Tapestry would be an exercise in futility. The album spent a staggering six years on the charts and a then record-breaking 15 weeks in the number 1 spot (a distinction it held until over 10 years later when Thriller was released). Its magic is in its simplicity and earnestness. Sparsely produced and lyrically straightforward, Tapestry is the perfect showcase for Carole’s old-school piano-centric pop and warm alto vocals. Tracks like “I Feel The Earth Move,” “It’s Too Late,” and “You’ve Got A Friend” solidified a legacy that has yet to wane.
Live Through This
Released just four days after the suicide of Courtney Love’s husband Kurt Cobain, Live Through This remains Courtney’s greatest contribution to the post-punk era of rock. Like her husband, Courtney uses her raw, gravely vocal texture to express the anger, shame, and dissatisfaction so often associated with grunge rock. When she sings, “Now I’ve made my bed, I’ll lie in it; I’ve made my bed, I’ll die in it” on “Miss World,” it’s evocative of Kurt’s wailing on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — and every bit as powerful. And like her husband, Courtney is a pop fan at heart. The melodies are stronger on Live Through This than on the band’s previous albums, helping her lyrics resonate at an even greater level on tracks like “Doll Parts” and “Asking For It.” Sadly, the band would only last for one more album (1998’s pop-oriented Celebrity Skin), but Courtney remains to this day the queen of grunge rock.
Lady in Satin
Lady In Satin was released just one year before Billie Holiday’s death from cirrhosis of the liver and it remains the definitive artistic statement of her troubled life. No singer before or since has suffered as much for her art as Billie and her choice of material for Lady In Satin reflects a surrender to the harsh realities of her painful past and its effects on her unsteady future. Her voice falters, its timbre diminished by years of abuse, but Billie more than makes up for the quality of her singing with her gut-wrenching and emotional interpretations of these 12 classic torch songs. Supported by a full orchestra (a departure from the jazz combo backing typical of Billie’s earlier recordings), the string crescendos only serve to heighten the plaintive mood of the album. Though Lady In Satin can occasionally be an uncomfortable look into the deterioration of a legendary performer, its this voyeuristic quality that makes it a brilliant piece of work and a testament to the tragic talent who created it.
She’s So Unusual
Her flaming red-orange hair, punk-inspired style, and eye-catching music videos caught everyone’s attention when Cyndi Lauper burst onto the scene in the early eighties, but it’s the legitimate musicality of her debut album She’s So Unusual that made her stick. The first female artist to score four top five singles from a debut album, Cyndi’s impressive four-octave vocal range and way with lyrics (she rewrote most of Robert Hazard’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” because she found the original misogynistic) inspired contemporary critics to call her, not Madonna, the next big thing. At the time, her record company had little faith in Cyndi’s songwriting skills but some of the most memorable and clever songs on the album are her compositions. “She Bop,” a brilliant paean to masturbation, and “Time After Time,” covered by more than 100 artists including the great Miles Davis, are two standouts. Unfortunately Cyndi was never able to recapture the success of her debut and her star began a steady decline throughout the rest of the decade — but thanks She’s So Unusual her originality and talent is immortalized.
Bjork describes Homogenic as concept album dedicated to the dichotomy of her home country of Iceland: The electronic rhythms represent the technological advancement of its people (“The number of people owning a computer is as high as nowhere else in the world,” she has said) while the lavish strings courtesy of the Icelandic String Octet evoke the natural beauty of its landscape. More sonically cohesive than Bjork’s earlier releases, Homogenic has an urgency that’s largely thanks to theatrical tracks like “Joga” and “Bachelorette.”Her simple lyrical profundity is displayed on “All Is Full Of Love” when she sings, “You’ll be given love; you have to trust it. Maybe not from the sources you poured yours into. Maybe not from the directions you are staring at.” Longtime fans may have been frustrated that the album didn’t contain any of the light, dance-friendly tracks heard on Post or Debut but Homogenic’s innovative blend of lush orchestral music and electronic wizardry make it unforgettable.
What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me
The Godmother of funk, Chaka Khan is at her undeniable best on What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me, a brash collection of groove-oriented, danceable tunes brought together by Chaka’s astounding and inimitable vocals. There’s muscle behind those pipes, but it’s Chaka’s control that is truly awe-inspiring. She deftly scales the ladder from falsetto purr to full-forced wail with staggering skill and has the ability to expertly syncopate hooks so each song moves forward without even the slightest bit of annoying repetition. The horns howl on tracks like “I Know You, I Live You” and “We Got Each Other” with Chaka keeping up marvelously, and on “And The Melody Still Lingers On (Night In Tunisia)” the full range of her voice becomes astonishingly clear. Her rhythmically imaginative reinterpretation of The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” is a testament to her talent for making even classic material her own and proved that you don’t have to be George Clinton to be funky.
To Bring You My Love
Before she ventured out as a solo artist with To Bring You My Love, Polly Jean Harvey was one member of a three-person band known as PJ Harvey. After disbanding the trio, she kept the name but abandoned the gritty low-fi sound of Dry and Rid Of Me, creating an atmospheric third album that’s a sinister mix of blues, grunge, and modern rock. Incorporating gothic elements like organs, chimes, and bell rings, PJ is more Nico than Patti Smith (a comparison she famously called “lazy journalism”). On tracks like “C’mon Billy” and “Send His Love To Me” an aggressively-strummed guitar provides the perfect backdrop for PJ’s raw, emotive, and bluesy vocals. The unabashed rock of “Meet Ze Monsta” and “Long Snake Moan” is arresting, but nothing penetrates as deeply as her almost supernatural whispers on “Down By The Water.”
In 1985 the world was introduced to a voice so powerful, so soul-stirring, it would change the direction of soul music from that point forward. Sure, there had been big vocals before, but none with such clarity or strength — you can practically surf on Whitney’s mighty vibrato. Amidst a pop landscape that favored rock and dance, Whitney Houston’s debut proved that gospel-oriented pop and R&B could rule the charts, too. At a time when a budding music channel called MTV was just establishing its roots as a showcase for up-and-coming talent, Whitney was one of the first black female faces to be seen on the network, inspiring a generation of hopeful artists. Whitney Houston practically invented the power ballad, with its slow, understated start and big finish and her vocals completely eclipse the lyrical thinness of some of the material. Listening to it now is a bit heartbreaking when you consider Whitney’s dramatic fall from grace. Luckily, the music still exists to provide proof of the birth of an undisputed diva and masterful vocal talent.
Back to Black
Back To Black marks what is possibly the most dramatic transformation in recent popular music. From her relatively clean-cut, girl-next-door-with-an-edge image, Amy Winehouse emerged as a brassy, dangerous siren with bouffant hair and eye makeup that looked like it was applied with a paintbrush. Even more striking was Amy’s shift from the jazz-influenced musak sound of her debut to the superb mix of ’60s Motown, soul, and R&B that made up Back To Black. Written as a response to her break up with then-boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil, Back To Black has, unfortunately, had some of its limelight stolen away by the drama surrounding its source material. “Rehab” has become an innocuous anthem for a host of unknowing teenagers, but a closer listen reveals Amy’s pain and disillusionment. The standout title track finds Amy pathetically singing, “We only said goodbye with words. I died a hundred times. You go back to her and I go back to black.” Back To Black established Amy as a formidable new talent and gave way to a flood of retro-inspired female crooners.