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The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women

Etta James, left, Marvell Thomas and David Hood rehearse a song before recording at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., circa 1967.MoreCloseclosemore
Etta James, left, Marvell Thomas and David Hood rehearse a song before recording at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., circa 1967.

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50. Hole
Live Through This (DGC, 1994)

Released on April 12, 1994 — seven days after her late husband's suicide, Live Through This is the first major label release and most definitive work by Courtney Love and her band Hole. Often viewed in the shadow of Kurt Cobain but built to eclipse it, the album is a mosaic of songs piecing together the band's former noise-grunge sound ("She Walks On Me") with an accessible rock melodicism ("Doll Parts"). At its heart is the turmoil of a new feminist punk revolution, images of beauty made ugly-pretty by Love's brassy vocals and distaste for expectation, tales of postpartum depression and tender lyrics revealing a female reality deemed unacceptable in the grunge rock boy's club Hole and Love operated outside of. Live Through This solidifies Love's place as one of rock music's most magnetic front people and a high-octane performer from the raucous opener "Violet" to the sentimental and critical "Rock Star." A fellow force to be reckoned with, Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna famously offered the riot grrl rallying cry "Find the biggest bitch in town and start a band with her." Courtney Love took that one step further, as though suggesting: Be the bitch. Maria Sherman (Contributor)


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49. Rickie Lee Jones
Pirates (Warner Bros., 1981)

Her startling debut and "Chuck E's In Love" made Rickie Lee Jones a fast-rising star, but her follow-up album, which came two years later, proved to be her masterwork. On Pirates, Jones refined the sonic stew of jazz, pop and R&B that earned her the Best New Artist Grammy Award, adding lyrical finesse in the form of high-culture nods and colorful street smarts that fly by so fast you nearly miss them. (Take that, Springsteen.) Add to that a breakup with Tom Waits and a move to New York to bring hard-earned life experience to the forefront — the opening piano notes of "We Belong Together" signal the beautiful, melodic drama about to unfold: "I say this was no game of chicken / You were aiming at your best friend." Characters shine in pictures so vivid it's remarkable they were squeezed into song structure: "Eddie's got one crazy eye / That turns him into a cartoon / When a pretty girl comes by," she sings. The rare mix of swagger and fragility on Pirates makes it clear how underrated Rickie Lee Jones has been, and how much we still need her now. —Rita Houston (WFUV)


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48. Etta James
Rocks The House (Argo, 1964)

On September 27 and 28th, 1963, Etta James howled her way through juke-joint blues, soul, and R&B numbers at the New Era Club in Nashville. These performances comprise her first live album, Rocks the House, released the following year. Hailed as one of the greatest live blues records ever captured, Rocks the House showcases an equally magnetizing but different side of James, whose strength as a balladeer was already popularized on stunning studio tracks like "A Sunday Kind of Love" and "At Last." On stage at the New Era Club, which James hand-picked specifically for these recordings, the 25-year-old attacks each song with the perfect storm of fire and grit. From the crowd's beckoning on the opener "Something's Got A Hold On Me" to the call and response on the raucous "What'd I Say," James' performance is a testament to the power of the human voice. With a backing band led by guitarist David T. Walker, she unabashedly delivers the blues and embodies soul in its rawest form. After all, she knew what it meant to experience the messier parts of life and to come out on the other side. (The ace bandage covering her wrist on the album's cover was meant to hide the track marks from her heroin usage — an addiction that would interrupt her career off-and-on throughout the years.) With her captivating rasp and sass, Miss Peaches got a hold on the world and never let go. —Desiré Moses (WNRN)


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47. Celia Cruz
Son con Guaguanco (Emusica/Fania, 1966)

When Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso sang, people stopped and listened. Alfonso, known by her stage name Celia Cruz, possessed a full-bodied voice filled with emotion and sincerity that makes you feel viscerally what she's singing. She took Cuban music out of Cuba, out of Latin America and into the world. And she did it as a black woman in a male dominated field that valued whiteness. On her 1966 album Son con Guaguanco, she sings about daily life—about not having manteca to cook, losing her purse and being deeply in love. As women fought to be taken seriously in the workplace, Celia Cruz tirelessly put out albums and toured the world as a single woman — something many people looked down on. But she was the ultimate example of a woman carving her own path and demanding the respect she merited. Though Son con Guaguanco didn't have much commercial success, it marks the type of music she popularized from the beginning of her career called pregón, which is a Cuban musical style based on the calls and chants of street vendors. She also popularized the Afro-Cuban sounds filled with the raucous horns and drums that comprise the basis of salsa, which became the music of Latinos in the 1970s. A true legend and superstar, and compared to Ella Fitzgerald by many in the American press for her soneos (improvisational sections of salsa songs more nuanced than jazz scats), Celia Cruz continues to be a shining example for being completely yourself. —Christina Cala (NPR Staff)


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46. Emmylou Harris
Wrecking Ball (Elektra, 1995)

Country singer Emmylou Harris was on the brink of fading from the musical landscape — until she successfully transformed herself, and the way we view Americana music, on her 1995 album Wrecking Ball. After finally throwing in the towel on country radio supporting her, Harris left her major label for Elektra Records, where they encouraged her to follow her vision of working with the sonically intuitive producer, Daniel Lanois. Lanois's solo work and his production on Dylan's Oh Mercy had moved Harris, and their collaboration resulted in one of the most stunning partnerships in modern music. With her haunting, soaring voice and Lanois's sultry and experimental production, the result was no less than magic from the first listen. Emmylou Harris has spent her career as a master interpreter and Wrecking Ball displays her gift for curation at its finest. Songs from Neil Young, Julie Miller, Lucinda Williams and others spring to life with Lanois' subtle, powerful sonic landscape. It's no wonder that Wrecking Ball won the Grammy for best Contemporary Folk Album. It was a courageous reinvention that gave Harris's career a second wind and left the music world questioning what was thought of as roots music, which previously would have been fiddles, pedal steel guitar and maybe a banjo. But this album helped to opened up endless possibilities within Americana and country. —Cindy Howes (WYEP)


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45. Dusty Springfield
Dusty in Memphis (Atlantic, 1969)

Following a string of more traditional pop hits in the mid 1960s, Dusty Springfield decided to stretch her sound and traveled to the now-famed American Sound Studio in Memphis to produce a more R&B-heavy record ... or at least try to. Springfield never actually managed to sing a note in that southern studio, as she was too intimidated to sing in the same booth as her musical hero Aretha Franklin (who was originally offered the song "Son of a Preacher Man" before turning it down). Regardless, Dusty in Memphis came together thanks to some vocal overdubs in New York, and in turn marked Springfield's debut on a major label. Although a commercial failure at the time, the record slowly became a pop culture milestone. Some might say the record's eventual success came from A-list producers (Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin) or songwriters (including Randy Newman, Burt Bacharach and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil), but it's truly Springfield's slow-burning sensual soul that anchors the record, shaping the soundscape of a woman so desperately in love with love. And by singing just a touch off beat, her rich voice keeps us hanging on, wanting more, knowing that we've been in Dusty's lyrical shoes but still want to hear her side of the story. Joni Deutsch (Mountain Stage)


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44. Heart
Dreamboat Annie (Mushroom, 1976)

In the mid-1970s, Ann and Nancy Wilson proved that hard rock was no longer the domain of men. Dreamboat Annie, the debut album from the Wilson sisters and their band Heart, first found success in Canada, where they recorded the album. Later, Dreamboat Annie's expansive blend of hard rock and folk crept across the border to radio stations across the United States. At a time when hard rock records invariably touted male perspectives, Dreamboat Annie — unabashedly focused on the female experienceoffered a refreshing rock and roll reversal. The album's singles "Crazy On You" and "Magic Man" are bold proclamations of autonomy that center female pleasure without apology or excuse. Dreamboat Annie has its share of breezy '70s ballads, flutes and orchestral arrangements. But it also features prog rock flourishes, screaming guitars and Ann Wilson's impressive, versatile voice, replete with shrieks that would have Robert Plant shaking. Nancy's intricate acoustic guitar playingas well as her technical prowess on electric guitarmade her an icon of hard rock guitar, especially for young women. With Dreamboat Annie, the sisters Wilson launched themselves into a stardom that would not be without sexist backlash. But in the process, they provided a model for a generation of unapologetic rock and roll women. Marissa Lorusso


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43. M.I.A.
Kala (XL/Interscope, 2007)

Kala is the album that launched M.I.A., a rapper-producer with an irrepressible flow and a disruptive sensibility, into bona-fide stardom. Before she started making scrappy, exhilarating dance tracks on a borrowed Roland MC-505, the Sri Lankan-born Londoner studied film; fittingly, Kala aims to challenge the brain and ears alike. This is no pedantic art-school experiment, however — Kala is visceral, intrepid and endearingly weird. During its recording, M.I.A. was stymied by visa troubles that prevented her from entering the United States, so she made the album in exile, jetting between studios in the likes of Trinidad and India. Likewise, Kala bounces exuberantly across borders, from Bollywood to Jamaican dance halls to the Australian bush. The album made M.I.A. into the standard-bearer for a new kind of pop, one in which the omnivorous absorption of musical motifs from across the Global South, far from being incidental, was the whole point: It was the music of immigrants, outsiders, rebels. Though M.I.A. has been accused of being more provocateur than activist, Kala showed that it was possible to tie radical sounds to radical notionsand still make people dance. Amelia Mason (WBUR)


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42. Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Song Book (Verve, 1964)

"You're just too marvelous for words," go the title lyrics to the first tune on Ella Fitzgerald's 1964 studio album, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Song Book. But it's also a fine characterization of the First Lady of Song. This album shows the queen perfecting her craft, thirty years after her debut amateur performance at the Apollo. Arguably one of the best of her eight songbook performances, Fitzgerald indubitably executes the libretto written by one of the most brilliant American lyricists, Johnny Mercer, on this album. Take the enchanting imagery in "Midnight Sun," in which she sings: "Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice / Warmer than the Summer night / The clouds were like an alabaster palace / Rising to a snowy height," the mellifluous melody complementing her bewitching vocals. Fitzgerald's elegant interpretations and sophisticated musical sensibilities float above the exquisite arrangements by Nelson Riddle, an American popular song genius. Collaborations with luminaries Harold Arlen on "This Time the Dream's on Me" and Hoagy Carmichael on "Skylark" further contribute to the album's prominence. Though not as popular as the well known Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and George and Ira Gershwin songbooks, the album's heartfelt emotion and impeccable musical architecture solidify this as one of Fitzgerald's finest works of art. Suraya Mohamed (NPR Music)


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41. Tracy Chapman
Tracy Chapman (Elektra, 1988)

When the Ohio native Tracy Chapman released her self-titled debut album in 1988, she instantly scooped up six Grammy nominations and three wins, including the Best New Artist award. Not that it was a surprise. Each one of Tracy Chapman's talents could have made her famous on its own merit. Take her soulful, gender-defying voice that stops you in your tracks and inevitably gives you goosebumps. Or her songwriting, which is personal, human and unpresumptuous. Yet you don't sell 20 million copies worldwide just based on that. That year, we all swayed to Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy," but that was more of a wishful state. What Tracy Chapman the album gave the world in 1988 was something much bigger: She gave us hope. Chapman did not write "Talkin' 'bout A Revolution" about a girl in Eastern Europe, but the story of struggle and fervent desire for change resonated with the people waiting in the unemployment lines in Cleveland and the Balkans. "Poor people gonna rise up," she sang -- and they did a year later. Then, we all began dreaming of our "Fast Cars," sitting next to the ones we love, running away from all our problems not of our making. Those eleven songs would outlast just about everything, because they will forever be humanity's anthems of hope for a better life. Monika Evstatieva (NPR Staff)

Copyright NPR 2017.

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