Welcome back to our round up of the 50 greatest albums by women in music. We’re only one post away from revealing our complete list and this week’s selections are some of the most diverse. From the seminal recording of one of country music’s biggest stars to the hip hop artists that changed it all, the artists featured here are true greats. Just to recap our criteria one more time: No artist can appear more than once on our list, bands featured have to be unequivocally fronted by a woman, and every recording here must have made a significant contribution to music.
So, without further ado, here is the fourth installment (and check back next week for our final 10) of our list of the 50 most essential albums by female artists.
In 1967, a young and unknown country songstress named Dolly Parton scored the big break of a lifetime when she was chosen to replace Norma Jean as Porter Wagoner’s TV sidekick on his wildly popular show. Seven years later, however, Dolly’s iron-clad contract (which gave Wagoner complete control over her career and forced her to record albums like 1972’s My Favorite Songwriter: Porter Wagoner) began to seem like slave labor rather than a dream come true. In a bold move in the male-dominated world of Nashville, Dolly walked out on her contract with Wagoner to have more of a stake in her career. The first album she recorded post-Porter would be her breakthrough: 1974’s Jolene. Dolly wrote all but two of the album’s tracks (very rare for a female country performer at the time) and it includes some of her biggest hits like the title track and “I Will Always Love You.” Dolly’s gorgeous mountain soprano and skillful narrative songwriting are on full display on Jolene and, if anything, the album proved that underneath the rhinestones and flamboyant wigs is a masterful musician.
Supa Dupa Fly (1997)
Missy Misdemeanor Elliott
In the late nineties, the hip hop community was still reeling from the tragic apex of the legendary east coast versus west coast feud, which resulted in deaths of two of the rap music’s most promising talents: Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. It was also at this time that Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott emerged to start the healing process with her debut album Supa Dupa Fly. Lyrically, Missy diverted America’s attention from the negative aspects of rap by fueling her songs with an aggression of the sexual nature. Musically, with partner Tim “Timbaland” Mosley, Elliott eschewed the sample-heavy style popular earlier in the decade and, instead, infused her tracks with percussive elements and dancehall-style beats – an approach that would revolutionize the genre and make the duo one of the most in-demand production teams. Image-wise, she was a far cry from her contemporaries who were often found writhing in wet bikinis on the hoods of sports cars (Missy’s first music video famously featured her wearing what amounted to a stylish garbage bag). She would later revisit the sound of old school hip hop on subsequent releases, but the infectious sound of Supa Dupa Fly is what rappers twenty years from now will be drawing upon for inspiration.
The Lion and the Cobra (1987)
Thanks to the contentious relationship she had the producer of her debut album, 20-year-old Sinead O’Connor was granted permission to produce it by herself — and The Lion And The Cobra was released in 1987. A collection of raw, introspective, and, at times, aggressive songs, the album brilliantly features Sinead’s disarming voice and literate writing (Troy is a reference to William Butler Yeats’ poem “No Second Troy” and the title of the record is taken from Psalm 91:13). Sinead’s singing climbs from the forceful, guttural alto of “Mandika” to the heady and exhilarating soprano of “Jackie,” captivating the listener with its ferocity and tragic vulnerability (her mother, from whom she was estranged, was killed in a car accident two year’s prior to Cobra‘s release). Unfortunately, Sinead’s volatile nature often overshadowed her music, and after a notorious picture — ripping incident on Saturday Night Live, her early work was largely forgotten. But her debut remains a striking testament to her explosive and unique talent.
Peace Beyond Passion (1996)
Before the Neo-soul movement spurred a slew of talented, literate hip hop and R&B stars, Meshell Ndegeocello was creating the mold on her stunning sophomore album Peace Beyond Passion. An inspired mix of retro ’70s soul, funk, and blues, Passion tackles difficult subjects like homophobia (“Leviticus: Faggot”), religious hypocrisy (“The Way”), and racism (“Deuteronomy: Niggerman”). One of the undoubted highlights is a cover of Bill Withers’ classic “Who Is He And What Is He To You?”; Meshell turns the original on its head with veiled references to lesbianism. Her skillful bass playing is featured on several of the albums tracks and she moves from rapped to spoken word to sung lyrics with ease. One of the first artists to sign with the Madonna-founded record label, Maverick, Meshell pioneered the idea that women in the hip hop world could be smart, sexy, and produce music with real meaning.
Broken English (1979)
Homeless, addicted to heroin, and on the verge of suicide, Marianne Faithfull’s tragic fall from grace would only serve to make her comeback with 1979’s Broken English all the more staggering – and solidify her return as one of the most dramatic transformations in music history. Faithfull began her career in the early sixties with a sweetly unobtrusive voice, cooing delicately on hits like “As Tears Go By” and “Come And Stay With Me.” After becoming a fixture in London’s social scene (with then-boyfriend Mick Jagger), Marianne began using marijuana, then cocaine, then heroin. During a drug raid of Keith Richard’s home, she was famously found high and wearing nothing but a fur rug. After living on the streets of Soho for two years, Marianne released Broken English and it became her definitive record. Her voice had become raspy and lower in pitch and the choice of material (including several of her own compositions) reflected her years of hard living. Incorporating elements of punk, New Wave, rock, and reggae, the album gained notoriety thanks to its final track, “Why D’Ya Do It,” an expletive laden rant in which Faithfull confronts a former lover.
Indigo Girls (1989)
Folk music took two giant steps forward when Emily Saliers and Amy Ray joined together to form Indigo Girls and released their eponymous debut. Full of tuneful songs incorporating brilliant harmonies, Indigo Girls established Ray and Saliers as two of the key figures in the folk revival of the late 1980s. The album included their major hit single “Closer To Fine,” an upbeat track about the oftentimes fruitless search for meaning in life, as well as many songs that would become fan favorites, like “Prince Of Darkness,” “History Of Us,” and “Land Of Canaan.” Michael Stipe makes an appearance on “Kid Fears” and Irish band Hothouse Flowers back Ray and Saliers on several of the tracks. The album won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording and established the duo as a promising new industry talent (although they lost the Best New Artist Category to Milli Vanilli).
I Am Shelby Lynne (1999)
After a decade of trying to navigate the staid and, at times, oppressive waters of Nashville’s country music machine, Shelby Lynne retreated to Los Angeles and released her breakthrough album, I Am Shelby Lynne. With an aptly chosen title (I Am Shelby Lynne was a coming out, of sorts, for Shelby as it was her first album to be recorded outside the control of her former record label) and a slick mix of blues, traditional country, and R&B, the album quickly gained the respect of critics and music fans alike. Shelby opens the disc with the old school girl group-inspired “Your Lies” and segues seamlessly into bluesy tracks like “Leavin'” and “I Thought It Would Be Easier.” Her husky voice is the perfect compliment to gritty rockers like “Life Is Bad” and “Why Can’t You Be.” Ironically, I Am Shelby Lynne garnered Shelby a Grammy award for Best New Artist in 2001 — even though she had been recording and releasing albums for over ten years by that time. While it didn’t gain Shelby the widespread popularity she was hoping for, the album established her as a genre-redefining artist and a true maverick.
Heart Like a Wheel (1974)
Heart Like A Wheel introduced one of the world’s most successful female artists of all time to the mainstream audience that, at one time, dubbed her the First Lady of Rock. Linda Ronstadt had been a cult favorite for years before she released Wheel, known for her savvy song choices that re-imagined classics while simultaneously championing the talents of younger songwriters. A smart mix of country and rock, the album distanced Linda from her folkier beginnings and set the standard for her subsequent seventies releases. Her bluesy vocals on “You’re No Good” helped catapult it to the number one spot on the charts and the challenging harmonies displayed on “Faithless Love” proved that she was a gifted technical singer. The release of Heart Like A Wheel propelled Linda into the stratosphere of superstardom and helped to prove, in coming years, that women could sell out stadiums as quickly as men.
Armed with near-perfect pitch and a resonance that most singers would kill for, k.d. Lang enjoyed mainstream success with her second solo album, Ingenue. The album was a departure for Lang, who was primarily known for her renderings of traditional country torch songs, and she was rewarded with her first Top 40 single (“Constant Craving”) and a Grammy award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. With a laid-back, cabaret feel, the album displays Lang’s expressive and melodic voice set against subtle and stripped-down arrangements with elements of traditional pop, folk, and even bossa nova (on “Miss Chatelaine”). Lang has often referred to Ingenue as her “stalker” album since it deals heavily with desire and obsession, but it’s the plaintive sound of the tracks that have had the most significant impact on her career and changed its direction forever. Subsequent releases would follow in Ingenue‘s reflective, serene footsteps and carve out a niche in the recording industry for Lang’s unique sound.
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1993)
After years of success in her native country of Canada, Sarah McLachlan scored an international breakthrough with her third album Fumbling Towards Ecstacy. Sarah’s brand of moody, folk-tinged pop resonated with fans and would serve as the impetus behind her wildly-successful all-female music festival, Lilith Fair. Produced by Pierre Marchand, with whom Sarah had worked on her previous album, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy has a melancholic feel thanks to songs like “Wait,” “Ice,” and the title track. Sarah’s smooth voice lulls on “Good Enough” and “Fear” and she sings with such earnestness that “Your love is better than ice cream” becomes poignant, not absurd. One of the better-known tracks from the album, “Possession,” was written about a crazed fan who would eventually sue for songwriting credit as the lyrics borrowed from his letters to Sarah. Her follow-up, the platinum-selling Surfacing, established Sarah as a pop superstar, but it was Ecstasy that pointed her in that direction.