After signing with Atlantic Records in 1966, Aretha Franklin’s career began its staggering upward trajectory, turning her from a relatively unknown singer with a small but devoted fan base to a hit-making superstar with pipes of gold. Lady Soul, the third in a string of ground-breaking soul albums with strong gospel overtones thanks to Aretha’s powerful and expressive voice, contains some of her biggest hits like “Chain Of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone.” But it’s the slow, bluesy numbers like “People Get Ready” and “Ain’t No Way” that showcase Aretha’s unparalleled interpretive skills and emotive signing. Aretha would be the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, largely based on the strength and legacy of these early Atlantic recordings. Lady Soul finds her at the height of her vocal powers with a collection of songs that prove she’s worthy of the title bestowed upon her with this album’s release.
Already a fixture in New York’s club scene, Patti Smith — the Godmother of Punk — burst into the public consciousness with her debut album Horses. The album is a masterful mix of various musical elements including honky tonk (“Gloria”), reggae (“Redondo Beach”), jazz (“Birdland”) and spoken word (“Land: Horses”/”Land Of A Thousand Dances”/”La Mer (De)”), all filtered through the garage rock and punk lens that was beginning to take hold in the mid-seventies. Rougher than her female contemporaries in the genre (Debbie Harry of Blondie and Siouxsie Soux of Siousie & The Banshees), Smith ignored the tenants of song structure and melody to create an album that almost amounts to poetry set to music rather than a collection of tuneful songs. Her gutsy delivery and androgynous image would inspire a new generation of tough-as-nails female rockers that would contrast distinctly with the female singer/songwriter movement also gaining momentum during the decade.
Dusty in Memphis
After years of recording soul standards with varying degrees of success, Dusty Springfield was looking to revive her career (an anti-establishment backlash was brewing against anything viewed as frivolous pop) by establishing herself as a credible rhythm and blues singer. She signed with Atlantic records (label home of Aretha Franklin — one of Dusty’s idols) and traveled to Tennessee to record songs for what would become Dusty In Memphis. Unlike the traditional artists of the genre, Dusty’s voice was understated and sensual, giving the songs less of a gospel flare and more of a smooth jazzy sound, especially on tracks like “Son Of A Preacher Man” and “No Easy Way Down.” Her impeccable phrasing can be heard on the album’s centerpiece and one of its standout songs, “Just A Little Lovin’.” Dusty’s sultry crooning gave rise to the jazz-influenced soul artists of the eighties like Sade Adu and Anita Baker.
Yes I Am
Mainstream rock and roll found its queen with the release of Melissa Etheridge’s fourth album Yes I Am. Her brand of bluesy, anthemic rock — epitomized in songs like “‘I’m The Only One,” “Silent Legacy,” and the title track — recalls the earlier records of her idol Bruce Springsteen and proved that the girls can jam just as hard of the boys. “Come To My Window” established the album’s hold on the charts when it was released (with a music video starring Juliette Lewis) and Melissa’s powerful and raw voice intensified lyrics like, “I would dial the numbers just to listen to your breath. I would stand inside my hell and hold the hand of death.” Her formula — a restrained verse followed by a belted chorus — serves her well here and would be featured prominently on her later recordings. The album’s title was thought to be a reference to Melissa’s sexuality (she came out as a lesbian shortly before its release) but it’s also a bold assertion of her place in the recording landscape: Yes I Am is the music Melissa was born to make.
Signed to small Canadian label Mushroom Records, Heart (fronted by Ann and Nancy Wilson) released one of the most successful and highly regarded debut rock albums when Dreamboat Annie came out in 1976. Borrowing from the folk-based California sound (typified by bands like The Mamas and The Papas) with elements of harder rock, Dreamboat Annie is held together with Ann’s piercing vocals (which led her to be known as the “female Robert Plant”) that are almost a clearer, slicker version of Janis Joplin’s famous wails. She deftly transitions from the more acoustic sound of “Crazy On You” and the title track to the harder-edged “Magic Man” and “White Lightning & Wine.” The band would go through several lineup changes in subsequent years but Ann and Nancy would remain constant members and enjoy a resurgence in popularity during the 1980s thanks to the success of their power ballads “Alone” and “These Dreams.” But Dreamboat Annie remains their definitive record and proved that a band fronted by two women could rock right up there with the best of the boys.
Diamonds & Rust
The woman responsible for introducing the world to Bob Dylan scored her breakthrough top ten hit with a song supposedly written about her relationship with him — the title track on her 1975 album Diamonds & Rust. One of Baez’s most diverse recordings, the album further distances the singer from her folk beginnings as she incorporates elements of soul (with a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer”), Southern rock (via the Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky”), and jazz (“Children And All That Jazz,” which features her gorgeous soprano vocals). Known mainly as an interpreter of other songwriter’s work, Diamonds & Rust features several Baez compositions and her rapid vibrato — a signature vocal style for Baez — is displayed on one of her compositions, “Winds Of The Old Days.” With a career that spans decades, her socially-conscious brand of folk and rock has influenced a eclectic mix of musicians from Judas Priest to Natalie Merchant.
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
After two decades of performing and recording, Lucinda Williams achieved delayed breakthrough success with her brilliant Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. Showcasing her smart, visceral songwriting that expertly evokes an immediate sense of place and time, Car Wheels won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album and established Lucinda as a major force behind the alt-country movement. Originally recorded with legendary country songwriter Steve Earle as producer, personalities clashed and Lucinda enlisted Roy Bittan, longtime keyboardist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, to take over. The result is a perfectly homogenous mix of country and rock that eschews the pop stylings that were popular in Nashville at the time — and led to Lucinda being named “America’s Best Songwriter” by Time Magazine.
In between the sessions for Fleetwood Mac’s third album, Stevie Nicks began writing and recording demos for what would become her breakthrough debut solo project, Bella Donna. The album reached number one, with singles like “Edge Of Seventeen” and “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” helping to propel the disc to the top spot — and, in the process, proving that Stevie was a marketable solo star in her own right. Like much of what she wrote for Fleetwood Mac, Bella Donna‘s collection of folk-influence rock song succeed largely thanks to Stevie’s poignant and reflective lyrics. For sure, the singles are strong. But the undiscovered gems like the title track and “The Highwayman” are what make the album worth listening to again and again. On the latter, she mournfully sings, “Alas he was the highwayman, the one that comes and goes. And only the highway-woman keeps up with the likes of those.” Stevie may be a rock artist, but her narrative songwriting (a style mostly associated with country music) is what sets her apart and makes Bella Donna her masterpiece.
(1994)Mary J. Blige
After the breakthrough success of her debut album What’s The 411?, Mary J. Blige returned with a moodier, more autobiographical set with 1994’s My Life. Created amidst Mary’s struggle with depression, addiction, and an abusive relationship, her pain is turned to poetry on tracks like “I Never Wanna Live Without You,” the title track, and “Be Happy” – where she sings, “How can I love somebody else if I can’t love myself enough to know when it’s time, time to let go.” Markedly less upbeat than her debut, My Life still knows how to get your head thumping, especially with the hit single “You Bring Me Joy” and the mid-tempo “Mary Jane (All Night Long).” For her efforts, Mary was rewarded with three top 40 singles — and heaps of praise from critics who though the success of What’s The 411? was just a fluke. Produced by Sean Combs (who oversaw her first album), My Life proved that Mary had what it takes to have a successful career while other ’90s R&B divas faded away before the decade was through.
A Kiss in the Dreamhouse
(1984)Siouxsie & The Banshees
The post-punk pioneers that inspired the development of gothic rock were fronted by one of the genre’s most glam stars, Siouxsie Soux. At the height of the band’s experimental period, Siouxsie & The Banshees release their masterpiece A Kiss In The Dreamhouse. As a result of the inclusion of bells, chimes, strings, and keyboards that sound like harpsichords, the album has an interesting almost baroque feel on tracks like” Cascade,” “Obsession,” and “Melt.” Siouxsie’s eerily low alto is as rich and velvety as ever on Dreamhouse, and her staccato vocals on “Slowdive” have all the power and anger of punk’s best male singers. Upon its release, Dreamhouse was met with almost universal critical acclaim in the British press and songs from the album have been covered by bands like LCD Soundsystem and The Beta Band, solidifying its place as one of the most influential British rock albums.