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The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women

The Runaways perform at CBGB's in New York City in August 1976.MoreCloseclosemore
The Runaways perform at CBGB's in New York City in August 1976.

80. Laurie Anderson
Big Science (Warner Bros., 1982)

Laurie Anderson never intended to become a pop star. After an initially tiny pressing of "O Superman" found its way to BBC DJ John Peel's ears and later became an unexpected U.K. hit, Warner Brothers beseeched her to make an album. She assented, turning the "politics" section of her six-hour performance piece United States I – IV into her 1982 debut Big Science, and in doing so, wielded a mass medium as a critique against itself. Aware of her novelty value, she used her uncanny delivery to highlight humankind's frighteningly banal secession to the post-industrial age, lulling audiences into the placid state that she sought to critique. Big Science is simultaneously silly and prescient, and takes a refreshingly wry attitude to technology's perils compared to today's often obvious commentary on the subject. Anderson's playful use of machine-speak subverts the industry's reliance on women's voices as a shortcut to maternal comfort while also progressing the trailblazing synthesizer work of pioneers like Delia Derbyshire and Suzanne Ciani. Despite Anderson's clear aversion to dehumanization at the hands of technology, Big Science is thrilling because it isn't a case of clashing binaries arguing for or against. "I don't want to nail things down," she told Sounds in 1986. "I want them to either breathe or explode." —Laura Snapes (contributor)


79. Portishead
Dummy (Go! Beat, 1994)

Portishead has a long-standing reputation for being enigmatic, due to the fact that its members don't often perform live and that they make music in a deliberate, unhurried way (the group has released three impeccable albums since its inception in 1991). But in terms of a mission statement, look no further than the chorus of "It Could Be Sweet," a song from the Bristol trio's standout debut album Dummy: "It could be sweet," Beth Gibbons sings. "Like a lone forgotten dream." This band could be sweet, but it's not. It's that very tension that makes Dummy one of the most urgent, burning albums to ever be put to tape, and a high water mark of the trip-hop genre that flourished in the early 1990s. Dummy sounds familiar yet foreign; sultry and sure, but something's not quite right. These extremes are grounded by Gibbons' achingly soulful vocals — which overlay Geoff Barrow's electronic production and Adrian Utley's sweeping guitar work — and range from pleadingly sincere to knowing within a single verse, from the lonesome reminisces of "Sour Times" to the strutting "Wandering Star." Though Gibbons has said that she never had aspirations to be a songwriter, she had previously been singing in pubs before joining Portishead. Yet some of the vocal demos she made at home, like "Strangers," were so potent that they were left intact on Dummy, which nabbed the Mercury Prize the following year. It's especially telling that the centerpiece of the albumand Portishead's most popular song, to bootis "Glory Box," a slow, subtle nudge for gender equality as Gibbons sings: "Move over and give us some room." —Paula Mejia (contributor)


78. The Bulgarian State Radio & Television Choir
Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares (Nonesuch, 1987)

Spine-tingling, otherworldly beauty is not what the world might have expected from a Soviet-ish group called the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir. And yet a string of albums, beginning with an alluringly named 37-minute compilation called Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares (The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices), cracked open a whole sonic world largely unknown beyond the Balkans, full of gorgeous dissonances and fierce, sung-out emotion. Originally released in 1975 by the Swiss ethnomusicologist Marcel Cellier, who ran his own boutique label, the first Mystère album became a hotly sought-after prize among cognoscenti, who dubbed cassette copies for each other. One of those fans was 4AD Records founder Ivo Watts-Russell, who managed to license the material and re-release it in the U.K. in 1986 (and in 1987, Nonesuch did the same in the U.S.). Soon these women from all over Bulgaria became international stars, with their plushly layered, plangent voices weaving together Bulgarian dissonance and Western European-style choral singing. Despite any lyrical context (given that in their U.S. and U.K. versions, these translation-less village songs carried such unrevealing English titles as "Diaphonic Chant"), the music's emotive power and haunting beauty comes shining through. Anastasia Tsioulcas (NPR Music)


77. Aaliyah
Aaliyah (Blackground/Virgin America 2001)

For her third and final act, Aaliyah made her strongest and most important offering. Her very tragic and untimely death shortly after the release of this self-titled album made it difficult and haunting for most people to listen to. But Aaliyah is a revelation that projects an effortlessly cool aesthetic coupled with the actual vulnerability that comes with being cool. The compositions on the forward-thinking album, most by Stephen Garrett (Static Major), were complex and futuristic, much more so than any other R&B records released at the time, and the way Aaliyah perfectly embodied Garrett's songwriting is astounding. You'd never think that she didn't write these songs herself. On this album, Aaliyah continued the legacy of soprano singers like Minnie Riperton and Mariah Carey, and simultaneously set the stage for artists like Kelela and Solange to emerge. In the process, Aaliyah became a catalyst and bridge that created a smooth transition from '90s style R&B into Modern PBR&B. Stasia Irons (KEXP)


76. Tammy Wynette
Stand By Your Man (Epic, 1969)

There's a generation of feminists who might know Stand By Your Man and its title song primarily by an infamous 1992 interview Hillary Clinton gave in support of her husband's first presidential bid. There's a generation before that, though, who know the album for its perceived affront to the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s. But if Tammy Wynette's focus on domestic life ran counter to many women's aspirations, it gave voice to many others who could identify with what they heard. The songs on Stand By Your Man exemplified the way Wynette centered the personal heartaches that women suppress in order to care for loved ones: The burden of holding an imperfect marriage together, the strength summoned to comfort a child whose father's walked out, the difference between a weekend fling and a commitment that lasts through the weekday routine. This album also portended Wynette's role in shaping the lush countrypolitan style with which Nashville infiltrated the pop charts into the '70s. And while sweeping strings weren't yet supplanting steel guitar, Stand By Your Man's crossover-friendly backing choirs and tearful evocation of middle-class hardiness ushered it into the mainstream. Rachel Horn (NPR Music)


75. Donna Summer
Bad Girls (Casablanca, 1979)

Right before Donna Summer released Bad Girls in April 1979, she had struggled with depression and became a born-again Christian, which makes it all the more interesting that this albumher best-selling one, no lessdisplays Summer as a prostitute on the cover, and its signature song is about streetwalkers on a stroll. Maybe her background in theater helped with separating art from faith? In any case, Bad Girls earned Summer the title "Queen of Disco," and marked her reign over a music genre that seemed to personify a culture of hedonism and decadence. The singles it spawned, from the guitar riffs of "Hot Stuff" that transition into the horn-driven "Bad Girls" to the soulful "Walk Away," are a perfect encapsulation of the disco era. That said, Summer also proved she was more than a disco diva, as the songs drew from rock, soul, country and electronic elements. The last few songs on the album, including the stripped down "Sunset People," sound like they were wooing people into a new electro-pop age. It was a prescient move, especially now that we know these literally were the last days of disco. Tanya Ballard Brown (NPR Staff)


74. The Raincoats
The Raincoats (Rough Trade, 1979)

Musicians are often asked when they first realized they could be their truest selves through art. It's as important an origin story as one's actual arrival into the world, and one that few artists have ever captured like the Raincoats. On the London band's ecstatic 1979 debut, the members of the four-piece sound as if they're playing for their lives atop a crumbling cliff, shouting joyfully into the wind, constantly reassessing their footing, and showing the simultaneous pleasure and negotiation required to survive as women and opponents of punk orthodoxy. Eight months prior to The Raincoats' release on Rough Trade, Margaret Thatcher became the U.K.'s first female prime minister, a moment that was naively heralded as a feminist win. Although the Raincoats didn't explicitly critique the country's political climate, they represented the disempowering futility of aping men to seize power, coining a unique musical language that rebelled against the male-dominated canon and its values. The Raincoats is complex and "nonlinear," as noted band scholar Jenn Pelly has described it, pitting discordant emotional experiences and sounds against one another. Rather than contradictory, the effect precisely encapsulates the messiness of being alive. —Laura Snapes (Contributor)


73. Astrud Gilberto
The Astrud Gilberto Album(Verve Records, 1965)

In the mid-1960s, Verve Records thought that a collaboration between Astrud Gilberto's husband Joao Gilberto and saxophonist Stan Getz would be what would jettison Brazilian bossa novawhich melded samba and jazz togetherinto the American popular consciousness. The Getz/Gilberto combo was a hit, but it was Astrud's voicefragile, yet cool and sophisticatedsinging "The Girl from Ipanema" that topped the charts and helped usher in a stateside Bossa Nova craze. Some thought her sound came from her poor grasp of English. In fact, she was fluent in both Portuguese and English, but she was asked to sing the English version of the "Girl from Ipanema" because her husband only spoke Portuguese (so the style is really more of a choice). Following the hit song, Verve then tested her star power by releasing The Astrud Gilberto Album; soon Gilberto's soft voice floated around suburban homes and swimming pools. In songs like "Once I Loved," Gilberto's voice is almost affectless as she sings "love is the saddest thing when it goes away" over violins, flute and delicate percussive sounds. Yet it's her understated delivery of these words that makes them all the more bittersweet. While Bossa Nova and Gilberto no longer top charts, songs from this album, including "Agua De Beber" and "Once I Loved" continue to stand the test of time, popping up in soundtracks of TV shows like Mad Men and films like Juno. Laura Sydell (NPR Staff)


72. The Runaways
The Runaways (Mercury, 1976)

The Runaways is the sound of a handful of untested chemicals being poured into a beaker and exploding. It's the sound of a knee-high platform boot stomping down onto the top of a guitar amp, of a gang of warriors, of defiance. It's the sound of a band too good to lasta band so sure of its chops that it started its record with "Cherry Bomb," the first of many hits Joan Jett would help pen in her career, and refused to back down from there. Decades of documentaries, biopics and interviews have revealed just how much the group endured just to get into the studio and on stage, but damn if it wasn't already a chilling experience to listen to Cherie Currie wail about her "Secrets" and whisper back and forth with Jett on the album's final track, "Dead End Justice." From start to finish, The Runaways captures a band that tapped into the zeitgeist of its era with curiosity and passion, chugging power chords, snarls and screams. Though it was underappreciated when it was released, it captures a moment in quintessential '70s rock. Andrea Swensson (Minnesota Public Radio)


71. Salt-N-Pepa
Blacks' Magic (London, 1990)

Blacks' Magic was Salt-N-Pepa's third album. In 1990, the Queens trio broke down the concept for the album as simply as the lyrics to the track of the same name: "We call this song "Black Magic" cuz it's a fact," they said. "Anything that's tragic relates to black. Coincidental? (No)." Racial politics played a role in the album, but what made Blacks' Magic a hit was a message of female empowermentit was unabashedly sexual yet responsible. "All the ladies, louder now, let's talk about sex," the trio chanted on the certified gold song of the same name. Just a month later, Madonna would tour the country, dressed with her signature pointy bras, ferociously expressing herself. But Salt-N-Pepa was not rapping about letting go of your inhibitions: Blacks' Magic was a call for female equality, while tracks like "Independent" and "Expression" established them as rappers with credibility and sass. They no longer were the R&B crossovers doing covers. Blacks' Magic was an encapsulation of their sound and their voicesand everyone was listening. Monika Evstatieva (NPR Staff)

Copyright NPR 2017.

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