Hear the 150 Greatest Albums by Women: NPR Creates a New Canon of Albums That Puts Women at the Center of Music History

What is it with all the trend­pieces on great women artists, writ­ers, direc­tors, singers, etc.? What, indeed. To ask the ques­tion is to acknowl­edge the premise of such pieces. Why should they need to be writ­ten at all if women in these fields received fair rep­re­sen­ta­tion else­where? That lists and arti­cles can be writ­ten in the hun­dreds puts the lie to pho­ny claims that “great” women do not exist in every field in num­bers. This is espe­cial­ly true in the 20th cen­tu­ry, when hard-won polit­i­cal gains opened cul­tur­al doors unimag­in­able to many pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. But those gains did not fun­da­men­tal­ly alter how cul­tur­al his­to­ries have been writ­ten.

Music crit­ic Anne Pow­ers and Lin­coln Cen­ter pro­gram direc­tor Jill Stern­heimer recent­ly con­sid­ered this prob­lem, one which, Pow­ers writes at NPR, per­sists even in the ways “music history’s being record­ed and revised in the dig­i­tal age.”

They won­dered, “why… was the impor­tance of women so often rec­og­nized as a trend instead of a source of last­ing impact? We came to a con­clu­sion that, in 2017, will like­ly strike no one as a sur­prise: that the gen­er­al his­to­ry of pop­u­lar music is told through the great works of men, and that with­out a seri­ous revi­sion of the canon, women will always remain on the mar­gins.”

This is a truth rein­forced in many dif­fer­ent ways: by the shelves weighed down with books about Jimi Hen­drix and Nir­vana, while only one or two about Aretha Franklin or Pat­ti Smith sit near­by; by the radio playlists that still only fea­ture women once or twice every hour.

This isn’t a prob­lem of “representation”—the term we so often hear applied to cast­ing deci­sions and awards shows. Pow­ers isn’t mak­ing a case for diver­si­ty in hir­ing, but for accu­ra­cy in writ­ing the his­tor­i­cal record. To that end, Pow­ers and Lin­coln Cen­ter, togeth­er with “near­ly 50 women who play a role in NPR… com­piled and vot­ed” on a list: “Turn­ing the Tables: The 150 Great­est Albums by Women.” You can hear near­ly all of those albums in our Spo­ti­fy playlist below. Call­ing the list “an inter­ven­tion, a rem­e­dy, a cor­rec­tion,” Pow­ers writes, “These albums were released between 1964, the year The Bea­t­les invad­ed Amer­i­ca… and 2016, when Bey­on­cé arguably ush­ered in a new peri­od with her ‘visu­al album’ Lemon­ade.”

The point is to offer a view of pop­u­lar music his­to­ry with wom­en’s work at the cen­ter. The list does not rep­re­sent an “alter­nate his­to­ry.” It stands for music his­to­ry, touch­ing upon every sig­nif­i­cant trend, social issue, set of son­ic inno­va­tions, and new avenue for self-expres­sion that pop­u­lar music has inter­sect­ed in the past fifty years.

Against the argu­ment for “affir­ma­tive action”—or sim­ply rewrit­ing old “great album” lists to include more women—Powers argues, “once a canon is formed, it gains an aura of immutabil­i­ty.” Plen­ty of lists include female artists. Almost none of them include women in the top spots, sug­gest­ing that “the par­a­digms that define great­ness remain mas­cu­line at their core.” Tokenism, no mat­ter how well-inten­tioned, does not make for “a shift in per­spec­tive beyond the sim­ple man­date to adjust the num­bers.”

Ava Duver­nay has made a sim­i­lar argu­ment against man­dat­ed “diver­si­ty” in Hol­ly­wood as a mol­li­fy­ing tac­tic that main­tains sta­tus quo pow­er rela­tion­ships. “The fact that the main­stream starts to gaze at this space doesn’t make it a moment,” she tells Hol­ly­wood Reporter, “it makes it a moment for them.” As Pow­ers writes of the way Joni Mitchell was often treat­ed by the rock estab­lish­ment, “the female musi­cian is a dream, a sur­prise and a dis­rup­tor. She can claim the cen­ter of atten­tion, but her right­ful point of ori­gin, and the place to which she returns, is a mar­gin.”

Instead of mar­gin­al inclu­sion in exist­ing cliques, Pow­ers argues for a cul­tur­al shift, a “new canon,” that isn’t hedged with the usu­al stan­dards that often exclude women on arbi­trary purist grounds. Keep­ing “wide para­me­ters,” the con­trib­u­tors “left room for acknowl­edged rock-era clas­sics as well as pop hits dis­missed by oth­ers as fluff.” That dis­claimer aside, there’s pre­cious lit­tle “fluff” on this list—mean­ing it’s hard to find albums here that wouldn’t qual­i­fy for “great­est” sta­tus on more nar­row­ly-defined genre lists. It is a list, that is to say, of 150 great albums, writ­ten, record­ed, and released over the course of fifty plus years, by some of the most tal­ent­ed writ­ers, play­ers, and musi­cians in mod­ern music his­to­ry.

“Lists have their lim­i­ta­tions,” Pow­ers admits, “They reflect bias­es and whis­pered com­pro­mis­es.” She and her con­trib­u­tors offer this one “as the begin­ning of a new con­ver­sa­tion” rather than an author­i­ta­tive state­ment. At such depth and breadth, how­ev­er, “Turn­ing the Tables” makes room for near­ly every pos­si­ble genre, from all over the world. Read the full list of 150 albums, with com­men­tary, here. A few of the 150 albums, includ­ing Lemon­ade, Biki­ni Kil­l’s Yeah Yeah Yeah, Joan Jet­t’s I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll, Joan­na New­some’s Ys, and Lau­rie Ander­son­’s Big Sci­ence aren’t on Spo­ti­fy, so did­n’t make our playlist above. The top ten albums on the list are:

  1. Joni Mitchell, Blue (Reprise, 1971)
  2. Lau­ryn Hill, The Mise­d­u­ca­tion of Lau­ryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1998)
  3. Nina Simone, I Put a Spell on You (Philips, 1956)
  4. Aretha Franklin, I Nev­er Loved a Man the Way I Loved You (Atlantic, 1967)
  5. Mis­sy Eliot, Supa Dupa Fly (The Goldmine/Elekra, 1997)
  6. Bey­on­cé, Lemon­ade (Parkwood/Columbia 2016)
  7. Pat­ti Smith, Hors­es (Arista, 1975)
  8. Janis Joplin, Pearl (Colum­bia, 1971)
  9. Amy Wine­house, Back to Black (Island, 2006)
  10. Car­ole King, Tapes­try (Ode, 1971)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Sev­en Hours of Women Mak­ing Elec­tron­ic Music (1938–2014)

1200 Years of Women Com­posers: A Free 78-Hour Music Playlist That Takes You From Medieval Times to Now

Women of Jazz: Stream a Playlist of 91 Record­ings by Great Female Jazz Musi­cians

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (22) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (22)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Stephen Lindsey says:

    The list also kind of sup­ports David Hep­worth’s claim (in his book “Nev­er a dull moment”) that 1971 was the most impor­tant year in rock his­to­ry as three of the top ten are from that year.

  • dave wibberley says:

    Anoth­er list designed by peo­ple who like a cer­tain cul­tur­al idea of music rather than lik­ing music itself.

  • Keisha says:

    Maybe if Joni Mitchell and Car­ole King are your idea of ‘rock’.

  • Fred says:

    Prob­a­bly because I’m old­er I’d have Janis Joplin high­er in the list. Also I’m think­ing Grace Slick should be here as well.

  • Mark Kucinic says:

    No Mary Chapin Car­pen­ter???!!! You got­ta be kid­ding me.

  • Susan Zahn says:

    No list­ing for Annie Lennox’s solo work at all? And Eury­th­mics only #101? I call shenani­gans!

  • Toad says:

    So, the one rep­re­sen­ta­tive of jazz is Shirley Horn, in one track??? Mary Lou Williams, Car­la Bley, Alice Coltrane, Diana Krall, Ani­ta O’Day…I mean, Bil­lie Hol­i­day, Ella, for cry­ing out loud.

    It’s got space for Yoko Ono and eleven tracks by The Ban­gles, but none of the above?

    Dis­crim­i­nates against jazz, I’d say.

  • Toad says:

    Oh, sor­ry, I was respond­ing to the playlist, tak­ing it as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the other…instead of look­ing for a delete but­ton after­wards, I should have been a lit­tle more care­ful with the sub­mit but­ton. My com­ment isn’t real­ly a very good one, actu­al­ly…

  • Randy says:

    Can’t wait for the great­est albums by the hazel-eyed, and left-hand­ed. What oth­er irrel­e­vant fac­tors can we group peo­ple by?

  • Mike says:

    Natal­ie Mer­chan­t’s Tigerlily is a glar­ing omis­sion.

  • Adam T says:

    In addi­tion the artists left off who have been men­tioned here already,
    no Kacey Mus­graves, Judy Collins, Maria McK­ee or Kel­ly Willis (or even Michelle Shocked)

    Also, Joan Jett but no Pat Benatar and Brit­ney Spears! but no Christi­na Aguil­era, who is a much bet­ter artist and Miran­da Lam­bert but no Car­rie Under­wood or Maren Mor­ris (or any num­ber of female ‘new coun­try’ singers from the 1980s and 1990s — Pat­ty Love­less, Faith Hill, Mar­ti­na McBride…)

  • aqif says:

    Hi, I like your all girls musi­cians team. And they are play­ing against whom?

  • Patrick Vanderheyde says:

    What about the 4 non blondes?

  • Lars Kvam says:

    This left off Judy Collins’ In My Life (1966). A baroque-folk mas­ter­piece.

  • Adam Tondowsky says:

    Absolute­ly, they had two Joni Mitchell albums (includ­ing at #1) but no Judy Collins. FWIW, in the Unit­ed States Joni Mitchell was basi­cal­ly a one hit won­der, at least in terms of sin­gles.

    Also, no Jen­nifer Warnes, though I guess she’s most famous as a cov­er artist (espe­cial­ly of Leonard Cohen songs.)

  • Tedious Music Lover says:

    lol, 21 by Adele and Like a Prayer by Madon­na are bet­ter than Jour­ney to Satchi­danan­da?

    MUA HA HA HA, this is not even fun­ny, i’m going to kill myself now.

  • Leonard McKenzie says:

    The 20 “best” albums or so are all Eng­lish-speak­ing ones. Pleeeease.

  • Adam Tondowsky says:

    I think they’re all by Amer­i­can or British Artists. Of course, the Amer­i­can ones includes a hand­ful of Lati­no records. There may be one or two addi­tions to Amer­i­ca or Britain but no more than that. I don’t think that’s unex­pect­ed though as I don’t know that it’s real­is­tic to expect that the NPR edi­tors will know a great deal of world music.

    Just sim­ply rename this list in your mind as NPR’s great­est 150 British and Amer­i­can albums by women.

  • HR Sutton says:

    I just cre­at­ed Youtube playlists for the list but I divid­ed them by decades because I don’t care about the rank­ings. This way I can see the pro­gres­sion from 1964 to 2016. The only two I could­n’t get were Liz Phair Exile in Guysville and Bey­on­cé Lemon­ade.

    Here are the links: 1960s https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7jdi2bzNFxbJF3EF4uCWVCPSbwq8M3Ai
    1970s https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7jdi2bzNFxbssxBeXn5krJqoKSZf8loS
    1980s https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7jdi2bzNFxblBUOp50Hk-kw2cJ9SAGT-
    1990s https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7jdi2bzNFxZ0nCNaZKoBPKKD3T76B3us
    2000s & 2010s https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7jdi2bzNFxaoeXP7gtr1eZenHCG1zcxs

    Hope you like them.

  • luciano tanto says:

    yes… there are no music ‑nor women- in the rest of the world.

  • Anne Mayea says:

    I can’t believe that Sandy Den­ny was left out alto­geth­er and Car­ly Simon’s No Secrets ( my favorite of all time) is ranked in the 100’s…and lots of albums that I don’t think are near­ly as good are in the top 20 — go fig­ure.

  • Areawoman says:

    I love the astute com­men­tary com­ing from the World Con­tin­gency. Touché! NPR isn’t as ‘woke’ as it is elit­ist. Fur­ther­more, no Janis IAN? WHAT?!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.