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The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women

Beyonce Knowles, Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child in 2005.MoreCloseclosemore
Beyonce Knowles, Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child in 2005.

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70. Stevie Nicks
Bella Donna (Modern, 1981)

On September 3, 1981, Stevie Nicks graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, flanked only by the same pet cockatoo that accompanied her on the cover of her newly-released solo debut, Bella Donna. In the sub-header, Rolling Stone dubbed Nicks the "Reigning Queen of Rock & Roll" -- a title cemented two days later when Bella Donna hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. It was a seminal turning point in Nicks' career, transforming her from one of three songwriters in Fleetwood Mac into a bona fide icon. Here was the ethereal gypsy woman pulling back the shroud and emerging stronger than ever. Her voice unfurled, backed by a propulsive guitar riff on "Edge of Seventeen," one of the album's four Top 40 singles and arguably her most recognizable song. (Destiny's Child even sampled the riff in their 2001 hit, "Bootylicious," with Nicks making a cameo appearance in the music video.) With "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" (featuring Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) and "Leather and Lace" (featuring the Eagles' Don Henley) peaking at No. 3 and No. 6 respectively, Nicks not only proved that she could hold court with some of the biggest male names in rock, but that she was a pioneer in her own right. Throughout the years, Nicks' voice has been a gateway to a world of depth, and her words a vehicle for nostalgia. As she sings midway through Bella Donna, "the feelings remain" long after these songs end. But when it comes to Stevie Nicks, the glitter never fades. Desiré Moses (WNRN)


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69. Cyndi Lauper
She's So Unusual (Portrait/Sony 1983)

She's So Unusual helped usher in the sound of a decade; specifically, the "I Want My MTV" 1980s. The albumCyndi Lauper's firstburst out in 1983 with a synth-pop confetti cannon and that little earworm, "Girls Just Want To Have Fun." Yet the album is sprinkled with other hits, like "Time After Time" and "All Through the Night," and went platinum six times. Lauper unabashedly sung about female empowerment all over the album, but on "She Bop," a song about masturbation, she really drove the message home. Heavy panting punctuates the song's upbeat synths and features lyrics like: "Well I see them every night in tight blue jeans / In the pages of a Blue Boy magazine / Hey I've been thinking of a new sensation / I'm picking up good vibrations." The song was a hit on the charts, but also made its way onto a different sort of chart: "She Bop" landed on the Filthy Fifteen list, a list of songs deemed inappropriate by the Parents Music Resource Center that ultimately played a role in the creation of the parental advisory label (Lauper was in good company, with the likes of Prince, Madonna and AC/DC). Controversy aside, the album manages to touch on heavy topics (her powerful cover of The Brains' "Money Changes Everything," for example) while still staying true to its joyful core. The cover art and synth sounds root this album firmly in the '80s, but Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual transcends time. Lauren Migaki (NPR Staff)


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68. Rosanne Cash
King's Record Shop (Columbia, 1987)

It's most often been men credited with bringing about major shifts and innovations in the country music landscape of the 1980s, from a resurgence in neotraditional sturdiness to an infusion of singer-songwriter intellectualism. But Rosanne Cash deserves as much credit as anyone for the latter development. She spent her twenties sharpening an approach to country music-making that was stylishly contemporary and embedded with emotional complexity, yet also wise to tradition, in the process developing an artistic identity entirely distinct from that of her legendary dad, the Man in Black. At age 32, with a decade of recording under her belt, she set a high-water mark for sophisticated, commercially successful country album-making with King's Record Shop. Cash's then-husband/producer Rodney Crowell foregrounded her sultry, self-possessed performances in front of a stylish, shimmery, jangling guitar attack. Over the course of 10 songs, she was the very embodiment of a woman owning her desires and laying out her limits, summoning a combination of rocking attitude, confessional clarity and deep self-knowledge that felt utterly new in her format, and would prove influential for years to come. —Jewly Hight (Contributor)


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67. Sinead O'Connor
I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got (Chrysalis Records, 1990)

The same year Madonna released "Vogue" and MC Hammer's "Can't Touch This" was a monster hit on MTV, Sinéad O'Connor dropped her sophomore album, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. The 1990 album opened with a serenity prayer before spinning into a nearly-seven-minute-long song about disillusionment ("Feels So Different"), which preceded the similarly themed "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by a year. Whereas Nirvana's breakthrough was propelled by testosterone-fueled distorted guitars and banging drums, O'Connor's tune on the same subject stood on the strength of her nuanced vocals and a string ensemble. Here, disillusionment was less a momentary burst of anger than it was truer to life, a dark room through which one must find their way alone. Still, it was the album's Prince-penned lead single, "Nothing Compares 2 U," which most listeners will remember best. The video featured O'Connor's closeup face framed by a black background, as she unloaded the song with so much emotion it was almost uncomfortable to watch. Meanwhile, "Last Day of Our Acquaintance" remains the breakup song to which every other breakup song aspires to this day. This felt like a punk record at the time, but was held together with folk and classical instrumentation, making it ahead of its time in far too many ways to sum up in this space. Kim Ruehl (Folk Alley)


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66. Miriam Makeba
Pata Pata (Reprise, 1967)

In 1967, the South African singer and songwriter Miriam Makeba was living in exile when the U.S. audience first heard modern African music -- Afropopwith the album Pata Pata (Touch, Touch). Sung mostly in Makeba's native Xhosa language, the unforgettable melody of the title tune is perhaps known by most everyone. But exactly, what is it? "Pata Pata is the name of the dance / We do down Johannesburg where / And everybody starts to move / As soon as Pata Pata starts to playwhoo!" she sings. Though melodically and harmonically jubilant, the music on Makeba's album challenged serious social themes like apartheid and land reclamation. Forbidden to return to South Africa for more than 30 years, Makeba, dubbed "Mama Africa," said in a 2006 NPR interview: "... in life you make choices. You say, 'OK, are you going to sit here, Miriam Makeba, and say, I'm a star and forget about home?' Or do you decide to say, 'I'm a South African, and this is what is happening to our people and so on.' And I made that decision. And from then on, I was branded that artist who sings politics." Suraya Mohamed (NPR Music)


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65. Cassandra Wilson
Blue Light 'Til Dawn (Blue Note, 1993)

When you grow up a fan of folk and country blues music, after a while you think you've heard enough Joni Mitchell and Robert Johnson covers. That is, until you're introduced to the unique and compelling voice of Cassandra Wilson and her 1993 Blue Note Records release, Blue Light 'Til Dawn. From a jazz singer, you'd expect interesting interpretations of cover songs, but the album is a unique amalgamation blending Wilson's sensual voice overlain with unique arrangements of familiar songs that meld together jazz, folk, blues, and pop. Her version of Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey" is relatively straightforward but nonetheless captivating, and when you listen to Robert Johnson's "Hellhound On My Trail" and "Come On In My Kitchen," plus Joni Mitchell's "Black Crow," you realize this is an artist you've been waiting to hear for a long time. Ann Peebles' "I Can't Stand the Rain," which closes out the album, is another standout here, along with Wilson's original tune "Redbone." With Blue Light 'Til Dawn, Wilson not only crafted a musical milestone but also carved out a pathway for what jazz-pop was capable of becoming. Linda Fahey (Folk Alley)


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64. Spice Girls
Spice (Virgin, 1996)

20 years ago, the sound of platform sneakers scuttling across the floor hit American airwaves, giving way to the laugh heard round the world. Those three seconds before the beat drops serve as the introduction to "Wannabe," Spice Girls' first single from their debut album, Spice. They are so universally recognizable that "Wannabe" was ranked the catchiest pop song since the 1940s in a recent study. Ushering in a new wave of zealous pop, Spice Girls knew what the world really, really wanted — and delivered. "Wannabe" topped the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks and became the best-selling single by a girl group in history. The rest of Spice followed suit, borrowing from R&B, hip-hop and even disco to relay messages about safe sex ("2 Become 1") and female solidarity ("Love Thing"). Scary, Sporty, Ginger, Baby and Posh influenced a whole generation of women (even Adele is a fan) and last year, Project Everyone's #WhatIReallyReallyWant campaign repurposed "Wannabe" as a call for women's rights internationally. While riot grrrl champions Bikini Kill released a zine titled 'Girl Power' in 1991, The Spice Girls were the first to peddle the concept to the mainstream. Despite the complicated implications of their commodified feminism, their overarching message of empowerment and strength in numbers was one to get behind. And as a unit, they were a multifaceted force to be reckoned with. Spice was a manifesto by women who ditched their management team in search of more independence and evenly split song royalties amongst the group, and its endurance is palpable; Spice is still the best-selling album ever released by an all-female group. Now, that's girl power. Desiré Moses (WNRN)


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63. Madonna
Like a Virgin (Sire, 1984)

Her self-titled debut, in 1983, had been Madonna Louise Ciccone's declaration, of sorts. She would one day be a household nameand just one name, thank you, would be plenty. But it was the follow-up album Madonna released, Like a Virgin, that made that a reality. Co-produced with Nile Rodgers, its buoyant, confectionery dance-pop glossed with a modern, new wave sheen helped usher in the golden age of MTV, an era that still feels defined by her ecstatic writhing, wrapped in acres of bridal tulle, dangling crucifixes, and rubber bracelets, on the stage of the first VMAs two months before the full album's release. She went on to show savvy, intuitive mastery of the new form (and marketing platform) to build a dazzling, ever-shapeshifting 360-degree personasound, image, art, textwhich she manipulated with an iron fist clad in a fingerless lace glove. Like a Virgin, and all that came with it, made it clear that there would never be a pop music landscape without the impact and influence of Madonna againand it made it hard to imagine how there had even been one without her in the first place. —Alison Fensterstock (Contributor)


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62. Dixie Chicks
Wide Open Spaces (BMG/Sony, 1998)

Wide Open Spaces is not only the Dixie Chicks' most important work — it's also arguably one of the greatest country albums of all time. It's the album that launched the Texas trio to international stardom, won a Grammy for Best Country Album, and set the record for the best-selling group album in country music history. A wide-ranging mix of bluegrass, contemporary Americana and mega-hits, Wide Open Spaces established the trio as masters of country music. The Dixie Chicks emerged after Garth Brooks transformed the sound of pop-country. These three women rejected that sound by instead distilling bluegrass aesthetics for a mainstream audience. Natalie Maines, the lead vocalist and proven firecracker, became an outspoken icon for women's independence through the album's title track. While most women in country music declare their independence in opposition to a man, Maines finds autonomy without even considering a man, driving away from her hometown to a place large enough "to make her big mistakes." That set the stage for Maines to become one of the most controversial figures in music history. When she declares "she knows the highest stakes," it's perfect foreshadowing for the day she'd take on a sitting president and see her trio's fall from grace — all because a woman wasn't afraid to speak her mind. —Alyssa Edes (NPR Staff)


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61. Destiny's Child
The Writing's on the Wall (Columbia, 1999)

Feminism in the late 1990s was about asserting independence and a woman's ability to define her relationships. The Writing's on the Wall set down the commandments of relationshipsand showed how strong black women navigate them. It gave a voice to women balancing the fierceness of work, men and taking care of themselves and their own. The group's second studio album (and the last recorded by original four members Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland, LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett) also saw them asserting more control over the music they put out. The pop classic "Bills, Bills, Bills," which advocates dumping a guy who can't pay your bills, and "Bug a Boo," about a guy who's too clingy, were some of the first the four women wrote and producedand also some of their finest songs. And while "Jumpin' Jumpin'" calls for a night out doing whatever you'd like, "Say My Name" asserts a need for love the way you deserve it. The likes of "Hey Ladies" ask the tough questions; specifically, why it's so hard to leave someone who's treating you wrong. While some critics at the time said the album's lyrics were full of nonsense, Destiny's Child asserted themselves with this album as a girl group that served as the voice of a new generation of women, like their collaborator Missy Elliott, TLC before them, and many more in the future.Christina Cala (NPR Staff)

Copyright NPR 2017.

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