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The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women

Oumou Sangare performs at the Africa Music festival in Delft, Netherlands, in August 1993.
Frans Schellekens
Redferns/Getty Images
Oumou Sangare performs at the Africa Music festival in Delft, Netherlands, in August 1993.

This list, of the greatest albums made by women between 1964 and the present, is an intervention, a remedy, a correction of the historical record and hopefully the start of a new conversation. Compiled by nearly 50 women from across NPR and the public radio system and produced in partnership with Lincoln Center, it rethinks popular music to put women at the center.


150. The Roches The Roches (Warner Bros., 1979)

In the late 1970s, women across America sat in circles, speaking and listening intently. These simple acts of consciousness-raising were fundamental to second-wave feminism, throwing the light of everyday experience upon the false structures of sexism. The self-titled 1979 debut album by The Roches made consciousness-raising into music. It became a cult hit, turning Maggie, Terre and Suzzy Roche -- New Jersey-raised siblings who embodied both cultural feminism and Greenwich Village boho coolinto sneaker-clad heroines of the folk scene. Self-written songs about pregnancy, work, family tensions, complex love and the feminine mystique gained clarity from the utterly clear, deliberately imperfect harmonies The Roches had mastered singing holiday carols in the street. Art-rock guitarist Robert Fripp produced The Roches, and is often credited for its uniquely intimate feel. But that's wrong. His decision to mix these songs "in audio verité," so that everything in the speaker hit the ear with equal weight, was inspired by the way the sisters made their music, sitting in that consciousness-raising formation and vocalizing into each other's faces. Some male critics found The Roches startlingly intimate, but in its wryness and honesty, many women heard exactly what they were thinking. —Ann Powers (NPR Music)


149. Alicia Keys Songs In A Minor (J Records, 2001)

Alicia Keys graduated from high school at age 16 with a scholarship to Columbia University. But she decided to pursue a future with a different Columbia insteadColumbia Records, the label who signed her at age 15. Like many black women artists who came before and after her, she had to contend with people who lacked respect for her as a creator and a person. As she told The New York Times in 2002: "So I'm working with them, and them being not receptive to the fact that I play. 'Little girl, sit over there in the corner.' Them being attracted to me, whatever, 'Little girl let's go to the movies, let's go to dinner.'" Keys couldn't work under those conditions, so she found a Queens basement and made her own studio there. When she took her finished records to Columbia, they didn't like them. So she left and released Songs In A Minor with Arista Records. It reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts and secured Keys' position as one of the most visionary composers of her time. A classically trained pianist raised on hip-hop in Hell's Kitchen, Keys took varied influencesincluding Chopin (her favorite composer), Marvin Gaye, Billie Holidayand, with them, crafted a distillation of her spirit. The album's most enduring songs, "Fallin'," and "A Woman's Worth," are perfect. And when we listen to them, we should take care to remember the story of the young woman who made them. She taught an entire generation of us to persevere, to know our stuffand yes, to know our worth. Jenny Gathright (NPR Staff)


148. Terri Lyne Carrington The Mosaic Project (Concord Jazz, 2011)

Some will say jazz, in a word, is improvisation. An equally appropriate word might be transformation: Each player comes to the gig with her arsenal of licks and voicings, but when the tune starts it's all about reacting to and being inspired by one another, giving each other space to create and shaping the simultaneous offerings into a transmuted whole. Fittingly, "Transformation," a cover of the Nona Hendryx track sung by Hendryx herself, set the tone for drummer Terri Lyne Carrington's formidable convention of female musicians. Nestled confidently between jazz and R&B, her album The Mosaic Project was at turns brainy, sassy, soulful and revolutionaryrather like the women it celebrated. Carrington's project, which spawned a sequel album in 2015, remains a necessary intervention in a musical community whose presumed leading lights still allege that women don't care for solos. (Tell that to Ingrid Jensen, or Esperanza Spalding, or the late Geri Allen, or any of the other women who played fine solos on this record.) It sounded like a communal metamorphosis, a circle of women passing inspiration --as rapper Shea Rose declared in "Sisters On The Rise""from a sister to another to another funky sister." Rachel Horn (NPR Music)


147. Meredith Monk Dolmen Music (ECM, 1981)

In the early 1980s, when so much in the "new music" realm sounded jarring and almost self-consciously difficult, Meredith Monk took a different tack with Dolmen Music. With her voice, in its infinite permutationsgorgeous slides, ululations, breaths, cries, howls, dronesshe navigated a landscape that seemed both familiar and strangely unfamiliar. We have all heard a woman's voice, and women's voices are as old as time. Dolmen Music is a timeless use of the voice, in all its power and enduring mystery. Monk also plays piano, and others provide additional voices, along with subtle percussion and violin. Of particular note, the late and legendary composer Julius Eastman supplies his deep baritone on one of the tracks, and some additional percussion. But the added instrumentation never eclipses the power of the voice on Dolmen Music, which sounds ancient and modern at the same time. You could imagine it as music for a medieval ritual, or music for a science fiction future. (You've probably heard Dolmen Music even if you think you haven't: A sample from it features prominently on DJ Shadow's "Midnight in a Perfect World.") In a just world, Dolmen Music would be as big as Led Zeppelin IV, but it is a great gift for those in the know. It is like a hidden passageway, ending in a door that mysteriously opens to a secret room. It is a method, inscribed in music, of linking the old with the new. —Geeta Dayal (Contributor)


146. Patty Griffin Flaming Red (A&M, 1998)

Today, Patty Griffin is best known as an all-time great American singer-songwriter. But for a brief period in the late 1990s, she also harbored serious rock ambitions. About the era during which she released her second album, the electrified (and electrifying) Flaming Red, Griffin said: "I always felt like I was a rock singer. It was all I listened to. I felt like, 'Don't call me a folksinger.'" Her stance and sound have both mellowed since 1998, but Flaming Red remains a testament to the fire simmering under all of her work preceding this album, and what came after it. This is the only album in Griffin's catalog where her preternatural vocal control approaches an edge, opening up into exhilarating hollers and cracking into an unfiltered rock and roll scream. While many artists use an "unplugged" approach to get to the heart of their sound, at this early point in her lengthy and varied career, Griffin plugged in to find hers. Katie Presley (Contributor)


145. Oumou Sangare Moussolou (Women) (Kartell/World Circuit, 1989)

Moussolou was the potent debut album from Malian singerOumou Sangaré, who was just 21 years old when she recorded it in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Her lyrics upended social norms: She criticized arranged marriages, polygamy and women's general subservience to menand promptly sold a reported 200,000-plus copies of the cassette across West Africa. (World Circuit picked it up for European distribution in 1991.) But Sangaré's debut was not just notable for its topicality. By that point, she already possessed one of Africa's soaring, golden voices, which she deployed with incredible confidence and skill. And within that cassette-length framework, Sangaré helped carve out a new path for West African pop. Rather than depending on drum machines and synths to sound "modern," Sangaré and her arranger and bass player, Amadou Ba Guindo, framed her voice with a mix of acoustic and electric instruments, including the kamalengoni harp and the karinyan, a percussive metal scraper, in addition to guitar and violin. Nearly 30 years later, Moussolou retains all of its astonishing power and beauty. Anastasia Tsioulcas (NPR Music)


144. The Breeders Last Splash (4AD/Elektra, 1993)

How good must it have felt for Kim Deal to release the eclectic masterpiece Last Splash with her band The Breeders? Throughout the seven years prior to the album's 1993 release, she had made influential (but not very commercially successful) music alongside Frank Black in the Pixies, a band in which she never received credit she deserved. While Pixies is often name-checked for inspiring the likes of Nirvana to embrace dramatic dynamic shifts, Kurt Cobain bemoaned that more of Kim's songwriting wasn't featured on their albums. But on Last Splash, The Breeders' second album, Deal's songwriting moved front and center (with some co-writing from her twin sister Kelley, who was also in the band), and what was once her side project became her main gig. It left no question about her talents, as the album sold more than Frank's solo debut or any of the Pixies' albums. The brilliant Last Splash was also built for shifting attention spans: Its short songs ranged from the cotton candy single "Divine Hammer" to a grungy, racing instrumental "S.O.S.," which would later be sampled by U.K. big beat artist The Prodigy in its hard-driving international hit "Firestarter." In the age of the baby doll dress, Deal confidently stepped out bare-faced, in jeans and a t-shirt, and with a smile that said that nothing could be more fun than leading The Breeders. Kimberly Junod (World Cafe)


143. Robyn Body Talk (Konichiwa Records, 2010)

"I've got some news for you... fembots have feelings too." That's Swedish pop star Robyn for you, laying out the rules of gender politics via self-assured sing-talk proclamations, calypso synth and sparkling pop melodies. What's especially interesting about this recording, her fifth in the studio, is how it became long-overdue recognition for Robyn, born Robin Miriam Carlsson. She had actually begun her pop music career at the age of sixteen and made her stateside breakthrough with the classic dance-pop tunes "Do You Know What It Takes" and "Show Me Love," the latter of which she performed on Nickelodeon's All That. After wresting control back from Jive Records, Robyn created Konichiwa Records in 2005 to keep her artistry alive and well away from corporate control. If she hadn't done that, we likely wouldn't have the Röyksopp-produced banger "None of Dem" that calls out heteronormativity, the glittering '80s affair "Call Your Girlfriend" or the yearning-yet-empowering disco-pop gem "Dancing on My Own." Body Talk is the outspoken dance record this pop world so desperately needed, one that burns with a futuristic light and, above all, one that most certainly does not "go gentle into that good night." Joni Deutsch (Mountain Stage)


142. Iris DeMent My Life (Warner Bros., 1993)

When Iris DeMent released her 1992 debut album Infamous Angel, the first of a pair produced by Jim Rooney, country and folk music was rattled by a fresh voice packed with such honest and raw emotion that it commanded full attention. DeMent's follow-up album, My Life, released the following year, picked up where she left off, and in turn solidified her as one of our most captivating singers and songwriters of our time. My Life is the antithesis of a party album, though, given that it's filled with introspective songs and relatively sparse arrangements. But whether she's singing about a failing relationship ("You've Done Nothing Wrong"), the passing of a parent ("No Time To Cry") or emotional struggles ("Easy's Gettin' Harder Every Day"), DeMent's moving album inspires listeners to lean in and listen close to every word. Linda Fahey (Folk Alley)


141. Joanna Newsom Ys (Drag City, 2006)

Any fan of Joanna Newsom knows that to love her is to defend her. Her acolytes find ourselves defining her by what she is not: Not a waif, not an ethereal woodland sprite, not even really a folk musician. This habitual defensiveness is most common among music critics, who, in our eagerness to subvert a popular narrative, may have inadvertently kept it alive. But the truth is that Newsom long ago shook off the easy and obvious tropes that she initially accrued as a folk-adjacent female harpist. And that transformation began with her sophomore album, Ys. "Ys" is the name of a mythical Breton city that sank into the sea, and Ys is as mysterious and enchanting as its namesake. Across five sprawling epics, it's all there — Newsom's arresting warble, her dazzling musicianship, her exquisite melodic sense — but Ys is grander and more ambitious than her previous work. Composer Van Dyke Parks provides radiant orchestrations for material that is as dense and rewarding as any literary text. Newsom's medievalist predilections notwithstanding, Ys is a deeply contemporary work, intent on enfolding us in a world of the artist's own invention. In doing so, it shows us not what Newsom isn't, but what she remarkably, audaciously is. Amelia Mason (WBUR)

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