Welcome to part two of our round up of the 50 greatest albums by popular female artists. This week’s list spans a half century, from the swinging jazz of the 1950s to the birth of socially-conscious hip hop in the late noughts. To recap our criteria: we limited ourselves to only one album per artist and featured bands had to be fronted solely by a female performer. Mostly importantly, we wanted to feature works that have become a seminal influence on the music industry as a whole.
So without further ado, selections 11 through 20 (in no particular order) – and don’t forget to check back next Friday for Part 3.
Written over a period of several months while she was traveling throughout Europe, Blue brings Joni Mitchell’s isolation and hopefulness vividly to life, displaying the talents of one of music’s most visceral songwriters. The title track and “River” make her melancholy almost palpable while “Carey” flaunts a wistfulness and exuberance that belies its sparse instrumentation. There are no sweeping statements of emotion on Blue; just an honest examination of the minutiae of life and love that results in the listener experiencing Joni’s words rather than simply hearing them. But it’s not just her lyrics that contribute to Blue’s piercing and unforgettable nature. Joni’s guitar work, which makes use of alternative tunings, allowed her to pepper songs like “All I Want” with more complex and unusual harmonies. Though she bristles at her work being termed as “confessional,” Blue set the standard for autobiographical storytelling in music.
Wrecking Ball (1995)
By the early 1990s Emmylou Harris, like many of country music’s older performers, began receiving less airplay on mainstream country radio as the majority of stations began shifting their focus to pop-oriented performers. In response, Emmylou abandoned her more traditional folk-based sound and teamed up with established rock producer Daniel Lanois to release the plaintive alt-country masterpiece Wrecking Ball — one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the decade. Mainly an interpreter of other songwriter’s work, Emmylou already had a reputation for infusing her albums with smart, eclectic songs and Wrecking Ball is a brilliant culmination to this idea (her later recordings would find her writing more). But she is no covers artist — Emmylou fully inhabits each song, from heartbreaking nostalgia on “Goodbye” to bold defiance on “All My Tears.” Wrecking Ball would change the direction of Emmylou’s work and prove Emmylou as relevant and innovative as she was when she debuted in 1975.
Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook (1956)
Ella Fitzgerald’s ambitious Songbook project, a series of eight LPs devoted to the music of individual songwriters, began with Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook, an album that established the nascent Verve Records as the country’s most influential jazz record label. Cole Porter stripped Ella of the use of her renowned vocal acrobatics (most notably, her scat singing technique) and proved that the emotive quality of her velvety voice was no gimmick. Her versions of some of the best-known songs in the American canon demonstrate Ella’s masterful interpretive skills and impeccable phrasing. She transforms “I Get A Kick Out Of You” into a mid-tempo ballad full of ennui and diffidence and her take on “It’s De-Lovely” is definitive, taking full advantage of the tongue-in-cheek wit Porter infused in the song. Unfortunately, as clever a composer as Porter was, arrogance prevented him from seeing the genius of Ella’s rendering of his material. After listing to Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook in its entirely, he dismissively remarked, “My, what marvelous diction that girl has.”
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
Lauryn Hill brought hip hop to new levels of artistry with her layered solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Vacillating between vulnerability and bravado, Lauryn proved that fans of urban music were ready to embrace a woman who does more than writhe seductively in the background of a rap video. If Lauryn’s music is her sermon then Miseducation is her pulpit and she takes the opportunity to address the superficiality of the music industry (“Superstar”), the dangers of materialism (“Final Hour”), and the pain of lost love (“Ex-Factor”). “Doo Wop (That Thing)” is an anthemic “Respect” for a newer generation. Though the album’s perception as a staggering one-woman show (Lauryn is listed as composer, producer, and arranger in the liner notes) has been tarnished in recent years by the revelation that a group of key contributors went uncredited, its legacy is undeniable. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a huge step forward for African American female artists – and women in general.
The infectious blend of hip hop, electronic music, Bollywood, and urumee melam (a style native to South India) on M.I.A.’s ground-breaking second album Kala is doing for the first decade of this century what folk did for the 1960s. The album undoubtedly established the Sri Lankan-born artist as the voice of a new politically-active and socially-aware generation and brought world music to radio stations everywhere. Her songs are catchy and percussive but M.I.A.’s lyrics deal with hard-hitting subjects like immigration, war, and the price of fame. She takes an autobiographical turn on tracks like “Birdflu” and “Boyz” but M.I.A. is at her best when she’s tackling issues like genocide (“Jimmy”), war (“20 Dollar”), and the plight of the world’s refugees (“Hussel”). Of her work, she once said, “I wanted to see if I could write songs about something important and make it sound like nothing. And it kind of worked.” Did it ever.
Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) (1983)
Annie Lennox brought the soul to synth pop with the release of The Eurythmics haunting and innovative second album Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This). Largely considered to be the playground of emotionless male singers, the genre was redefined forever when Annie’s rich alto arrived on the scene. She does the deadpan thing on “I’ve Got An Angel” and “This City Never Sleeps” but her astounding technical singing skills (the perfect use of dynamics, expertly soulful phrasing) on tracks like “I Could Give You A Mirror” and “Somebody Told Me” are the stuff chills are made of. After the disappointing commercial failure of their debut, Sweet Dreams was a vindication of sorts, establishing The Eurythmics as an exciting and unique voice in music and Annie as the pioneering queen of the New Wave movement. With an influence that’s far-reaching and can be seen in artists from Lights to Ladyhawke, Annie’s legacy is as unforgettable as the title track’s synthesized bass line.
Not a Pretty Girl(1995)
The acoustic guitar never sounded as ferocious as it does on Ani DiFranco’s sixth album Not A Pretty Girl. A career-defining record for Ani, Not A Pretty Girl validated the considerable underground buzz steadily growing around her. Her deeply introspective and clever lyrics gained her legions of fans, but it’s her guitar work (characterized by a staccato style and the use of a rapid fingerpicking technique) on tracks like “Cradle And All” and “Light Of Some Kind” that make Not A Pretty Girl really stand out from the pack. Her DIY approach to music (completely self-producing her albums through the independent record label she founded) is addressed brilliantly on “The Million You Never Made.” She tells an imaginary record label executive, “You can dangle your carrot but I ain’t gonna reach for it because I need both my hands to play my guitar.” Ani shows us a more vulnerable side (not to mention her flair for poetry) on tracks like “This Bouquet” and “32 Flavors,” redefining the word “pretty” for horde of post-grunge music fans.
The Divine Miss M (1972)
Bette Midler famously got her start performing in New York City’s gay bathhouses. It was in one of them, The Continental, where she met and befriended her accompanist Barry Manilow. He would go on to produce her debut album The Divine Miss M, a fantastic mix of exuberant pop songs and cabaret standards that expertly showcases Bette’s beautifully expressive voice (which would be upstaged later by her deliciously bawdy stage shows). There’s plenty of camp on tracks like “Chapel of Love” and “Friends” but the raw emotion of “Superstar”and the gorgeously jazzy “Am I Blue” anchors the album in substance. Bette brilliantly transforms “Do You Want To Dance?” (a doo wop-style rocker made famous by The Beach Boys) into a moving mid-tempo ballad full of the insecurity and longing that the song’s question mark would suggest. In many ways, The Divine Miss M marks the end of an era (the AIDS epidemic would crush bathhouse culture) and the album’s true legacy is its ability to skillfully freeze that moment in time – and leave us wanting more.
Tracy Chapman (1988)
Like the first track on her debut album, which talks about starting a revolution with a whisper, Tracy Chapman quietly arrived on the music scene in the late eighties and brought socially-conscious folk back to life. While most of America was headbanging to Megadeth and AC/DC, Tracy was strumming her acoustic guitar in coffeehouses around Boston until her songwriting skills caught the attention of Elektra executives and Tracy Chapman was released. On “Across The Lines” Tracy poignantly addresses race relations and the haunting a capella of “Behind The Wall” tackles domestic violence with raw autobiographical lyrics and a chilling denouement tinged with regret and remorse. She incorporates elements of reggae into tracks like “Mountains O’ Things” and “She’s Got Her Ticket” but the straightforward and unembellished acoustic rock of “Fast Car” and “If Not Now” gave birth to the female singer-songwriter movement of the nineties.
Exile in Guyville (1993)
Years before Sex And The City made female sexual frankness popular, Liz Phair was singing about blowjobs and churning out f-bombs assembly line-style on her debut album Exile In Guyville. The low-fi indie rock movement of the early nineties had found its poster girl in Phair, with her deadpan delivery and striking but approachable beauty, as she emerged from Chicago’s underground music scene alongside Urge Overkill and Smashing Pumpkins. She was the cool girl-next-door who could hang with the guys even if, underneath it all, she’s as traditional as Donna Reed. When she sings, “I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas,” on “Fuck And Run” you can’t help but wonder if all of her boasting on “Flower” was just for show. It’s this paradox that makes Guyville so unforgettable: Liz Phair is the original “just a girl in the world,” trying to find her place with frankness and a guitar.
Related post: The 50 Essential Women-In-Music Albums: Part 1