The results are in for the first-ever NPR Turning the Tables readers' poll, and they send a strong message to anyone fancying themselves a cultural justice warrior in 2018. It is this: check your intervention. The original list of 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women, assembled by a committee of nearly 50 NPR-affiliated women, sought to correct a historic bias against putting women's stories, and their artistry, at the center of popular music history. Your votes and comments, which deeply modify and sometimes openly challenge that list, challenged us to recognize that no matter how justified the correction may be, in popular music - happily - no center ever holds.
Instead, music's center shimmies and bops. Playing the game of lists and charts, we might serve music better with an animated version of the classic Venn diagram, in which circles overlap, obscure each other, and stay in motion. The queens of one era are the forgotten ancestors of another. Time can also amplify importance: Artists who found their places within loyal subcultures may eventually emerge as central figures in a generation's story, their legacies tended by fans until they grow sturdier and more vibrant. That's the one ruling principle in popular music - fans matter. You make history.
Nearly 4,500 voters participated in this poll, stumping for a total of nearly 8,000 different albums. The story of your voting patterns is one of passionate advocacy for artists whose music changed your lives. "Another album that undoubtedly saved the lives of LGBT people and allowed many families to postpone funerals," wrote one voter about Melissa Etheridge's 1993 album Yes I Am, released shortly after the rocker came out as a lesbian and ranked at 26 on this list. Commenters showed similar intensity about Kate Bush - one called 1985's Hounds of Love, which ranks at No. 4, "quintessential to being." For a fan who entered college the year Lauryn Hill released her masterwork (and your No. 3 pick) The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the 1998 album was "both formative and transformative... like a diary I didn't quite know how to write myself yet." The overall message, throughout your comments (excerpted below), is that while music made by women is as innovative, virtuosic and historically relevant as any made by men, emotional resonance - the risk of the personal - is as crucial a criterion.
Indeed, at the top of the list, the 20th century's greatest poet and analyst of the personal resides, as she did in the first version of Turning the Tables. Joni Mitchell, in fact, charted here an astonishing seven times - every album she released before making a hard experimental turn in 1977 with Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, excluding her folkie debut Song To a Seagull, makes the cut. Mitchell's predominance speaks to the way her albums serve as a guide to life's phases for many people, the earnestness of For the Roses giving way to the wounded catharsis of Blue, to the cool self-preservation of The Hissing of Summer Lawns and the soul renewal of Hejira.
Mitchell's impact shows on the list beyond her own work. Blue, the original lists' Number One, barely edged out the album that has long been considered its chief rival in heralding the dawn of women's liberation - Carole King's Tapestry, which jumped from 10 on the original list to No. 2 here. Following not far behind are many singer-songwriters of the 1990s, who learned the fundamentals of artistic independence, defiant virtuosity and daring intimacy while holding Mitchell's and King's album covers in their hands. Tori Amos, whose Little Earthquakes ranks at 9, appears four times; so does Bjork, whose Homogenic appears at 15. Many who could be placed in Mitchell's and King's lineage appear here, though they didn't make the original list at all: not only Etheridge, but Sarah McLachlan, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Neko Case, Aimee Mann and Brandi Carlile.
Taylor Swift, whose music has dominated the current historical moment just as Mitchell's strongly defined the turn of the 1970s, stands for a different central tenet of canon-making, one the original document, assembled by "experts," obscured. Fan activism matters. Swifties place four of her albums here - only one, Fearless, made the first Turning the Tables, squeaking into the Top 100 at 99. Here, Swift is the highest ranking artist under 30, with 1989 claiming lucky 13.
Other current mainstream artists with notoriously passionate fan bases, strangely, didn't see as much gain. Lemonade did come in at 8, but only one other Beyoncé album charted, and there's not even a whisper of Rihanna here. That omission, alongside the absence of most jazz and R&B musicians and any Latinx artist, may say more about who this poll reached, and the demographics of NPR Music readers, than those artists' legacies. (This is how a list becomes a signal to the organization that publishes it, to consider its own blind spots.) Legends whose careers peaked before 1960 also mostly dropped off the list or ranked low. I'm curious about what happened to Nina Simone. Her I Put a Spell on You, No. 3 on the original list, drops to 80 here. It makes me wonder: Has her re-emergence as a major historical figure been mostly symbolic? Is her music as resonant as her biography - and if not, should those of us with the power of playlists be doing more to get it out there?
Maybe my questions here will prompt some responses from serious Nina fans. If this list doesn't satisfy, please feel free to argue ferociously. I hope you also simply celebrate. Your votes have already changed the shape of Turning the Tables: You've expanded the list's date range by voting in serious numbers for Billie Holiday and Etta James albums that came out before our original cut-off year of 1964 and also added many more artists whose contributions are coming into focus at this moment. As we said in July, our feminist canon is an open one. I'm overjoyed that this poll welcomes new voices into a conversation that should never truly be complete. From Lorde to Carly Rae Jepsen to Grimes and Courtney Barnett, your Turning the Tables points toward the future in exciting ways. Here's to you, and to the next spin of the circles. —Ann Powers
"The standard by which all other singer/songwriter albums should be judged and with good reason. Starkly confessional and painfully detailed, Mitchell found the key to turning her most intimate feelings and experiences into universal art; the personal became public. It's impossible to hear this record without projecting your own relationships and experiences onto its canvas. And therein lies its power. This album means something entirely different to everyone who hears it. The best art is not always necessarily a painting, but sometimes instead, a mirror. "
"The perfect combination of artistry and mass appeal songwriting. So many classics from this album have held up and withstood the test of time. Some artists are lucky to have one song that lasts through generations, Carole King has dozens and this album is just one pop standard after another. You can also see King's influence on artists today such as Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, Sara Bareilles and Adele."
"This album was both formative and transformative. It came out my freshman year of college and as a young black woman away from home for the first time, this album was like a diary I didn't quite know how to write myself yet."
"The timeless masterpiece sounds better than ever more than 30 years after its release. To me, the music of Kate Bush represents 'the elements' - in a single album like Hounds of Love, she takes the listener on a journey through land and sky, icy seas, thunderstorms and clouds bursting with rains that eventually become the transcendent morning fog. After the hits-laden side A comes the conceptual "story-suite" Side B which is entitled "The Ninth Wave," a gorgeous and terrifying achievement that still sends chills down the spine. It is truly a journey of an album. Closer "The Morning Fog" sees Ms. Bush escaping the nightmare and awakening to a bittersweet vision of her own family: "I tell my loved ones how much I love them." Kate Bush embodies the Earth Mother with gusto. Her "hill" is our struggle for success. Her "big sky" is our realm of creative possibility, her "ice," our deepest fears. This is intensely personal, prophetic music from one of the great muses. And it's one hell of a rock and roll album."
"There is not a song on this album that is disposable, her voice, her energy. It is still relevant to today's generation of women, Janis elevates all of us. Joyful, intense, thrilling."
"Bluesy, honkey, and funky; Pearl refined blues rock down to its very best components while simultaneously breaking away from it and into new ground; one step ahead of its contemporaries."
"Horses isn't pretty. It isn't apologetic. And it gives precisely zero f***s how you or anyone feels about it. It is the embodiment of punk."
"'Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine...' froze me where I stood, I needle-dropped 8 times, thinking God would strike me dead. When He didn't, I was set free."
"An absolute groundbreaking album. It shot a bit of rhythm and blues and jazz back into popular music, and paved the way for artists such as Duffy and Adele."
"It's all jagged corners with no need for smoothing or polish. Dark and haunting are often overused adjectives, but in this case, they are the highest of compliments."
"A love letter to black women. Each song is so vibrant and different from the rest yet they all come together each telling a chapter in a story of love, redemption and what it means to be a black woman in America."
"An amazing piece of art that is so many things at once: a feminist statement, an airing of grievences, a love letter letter, a musical masterpiece. And so much more."
"This album remains the most vital and dear to me of any ever recorded. At once traditional and strange, heartfelt and playful, this album broke the mold of what was possible in alternative music. While creating some of the most perfect melodies in existence, Amos also challenged the status quo of what women were allowed to say. This album is perfect and it is such a shame that systemic sexism and fear of feminine power in music criticism has caused it to be overlooked as one of the greatest of our time."
"This is the best musical documentation of the challenges of being female and famous in the '70s music industry. While the narrator of the songs may be 'selfish and sad,' you can't help identifying with and rooting for her."
"Where Blue bore the soul of Joni, sad and sweet like holy wine, Court and Spark took us to the party. This is Joni, the Cool Cat. Her jazz tendencies began inflecting her work thanks to her confident delivery of her lyrics and a new backing band, the L.A. Express. Shedding the image of 'confessional' songwriter, this album focused on story-songs about those that surrounded her. ... Court and Spark feels deceptively lighthearted upon first listen (a Joni album with a Cheech and Chong cameo? 'Man, this kid is twisted!'). But decades later, its depth and wisdom feels essential to her musical canon, without having lost any of its sheen."
"Nothing was the same after this collection of scorched-earth, bleeding-heart anthems for the heartbroken came along. Nothing about this album should have taken off the way it did. Looking back doesn't make it make any more sense. Chalk it up to once-in-a-generation talent, perfect timing and a worldwide craving for authenticity at the height of the EDM explosion. Also, every single song still knocks."
"I was a queer young teen when I bought this cassette (!) nearly twenty-five years ago. It taught me so much about love, sex, desire and relationships. I revisit it very often - it's maturity, humor and frankness are timeless."
"Brutal. Honest. Confessional. Brilliant, and served notice to a lot of rock-boys as to what those women were really thinking. Also fantastic rock/pop riffs that couldn't be denied, man or woman. And she could write and turn a phrase better than the next ten folks you could find."
"Without even considering the superb song-craft on this album and its can't-get-this-damn-song-out-of-my-head hooks, the cultural impact of 1989 is undeniable. Not only has everyone heard at least a few songs off of this album, but it also helped define the pop sound of this decade, ushering in a new wave of '80s-inspired synths. Its themes of independence and freedom resonate with mass audiences, whilst concurrently reminding us that pop music doesn't have to be vapid. How often do we get albums as multi-talented as this?"
"Groundbreaking and pulsating; a hymn to the human spirit."
"Pure soul music. The beginnings of a shift in music, period. This album was a woman's movement catalyst. Aretha demanded and commanded R E S P E C T, equality and love. She showed that women could take what men do and do it better."
"It's an absolutely seamless fusion of classical and electronic music, and it's proof positive that no one comes close to Björk's consistently invigorating musical vision."
"Inarguably one of the most influential electronic albums of all time. When Björk writes about love, she does it in a way so completely differently from everyone else."
"It's high literature as well as bare-knuckle music, as if Flannery O'Connor met Johnny Cash and she convinced him to make an album."
"A genre-busting country album with soulful lyrics and terrific full-throttle rock and roll guitar. Exceptional songwriting by Lucinda. Not a bad track on the record."
"This album unlocked my young mind to such interesting and new musical sounds, philosophies and in viewing myself as a woman standing on the shoulders of the thousand powerful women who came before me."
"Decidedly female-centric concept album excising male demons from her psyche - shows growth into new instruments and entry into electronic music."
"Impossible to hear her lyrics and not be moved. Poverty, womens rights, domestic violence ... she lays it all out there, naming real pain, yet leaving a sense of hope for change."
"I remember cooking with my mother as a child with this album on and just inexplicably understanding that Chapman's voice really represented this everyday idea of what being a woman is."
"The old Taylor can't come to the phone."
"In the death of her reputation, she felt truly alive."
"A grower. Unexpectedly vulnerable, poignant, under the brash and aggressive armor."
"My older sister helped pull me into the world of Joni Mitchell. I honestly don't remember exactly what compelled me to buy, or ask for as a gift, this album. All I remember is the joy it has brought me over the years. First listening to it as a teen, I quickly fell in love with the landscapes of each song. This album has always been my In-Case-Of-Emergency album. My go-to for shutting the door on the madness of life. Because in Joni's world, we look at the madness from a distance. We ask it questions. We notice its behaviors and its propagandas. We can call ourselves out when we find it inside us. And we can do so with exquisite poetry. And when I say poetry, I do not just mean the lyrics but also the poetry of the music ... not least of which, Jaco. There are so many levels to this stunning album and one of my favorite is the conjoined masterpiece of collaboration between Joni and Jaco. This album would not exist without both of their efforts, mastery, and understanding of the work they were doing together. Another album that has stood the test of time and that I have never tired of."
"Possibly the best second album ever put out, Joanna Newsom expanded her sound and vision for this album. Where her debut was an interesting singer songwriter album, largely played by Newsom herself, this album employed a full orchestra and was composed of five long songs that let Newsom breathe with her unique and powerful lyrics. I consider Newsom one of the best poets of the young century. She channels aspects of T.S. Eliot's imagery and lyricism, as well as sometimes obscure allusions to mythology and literature. But Newsom has a great focus on nature and scientific phenomena. Quite possibly my favorite album."
"She rips out your heart then hands it back so gently."
"There's something about Raitt's voice that makes you just want to sit down and spend time with her. The title track somehow conveyed the vulnerability of a lady's ticking clock while still being hopeful about life and love."
"When my friends were playing Nirvana and Pearl Jam, I wish teenage me had been brave enough to stand behind this album."
"No one can snarl "F*** you" like Courtney Love. Not now. Not ever."
"Bush makes that Great Leap Forward with The Dreaming: confident, fearless, inventive and often insane, it negates any perceptions that she is a novelty or a precocious prodigy, correctly establishing her as an artist, an innovator and a force to be reckoned with."
"When the trio's sound finally [jelled] - frantic, necessary, demanding, perfect."
"Your male punk band isn't worth s***."
"If my husband had mispronounced 'Sleater,' we would not have had a second date."
"Groundbreaking and trailblazing. She broke open the closet doors of silence, societal shaming and love that wasn't in the image of prime-time TV. Another album that undoubtedly saved the lives of LGBT people and allowed many families to postpone funerals."
"Four notes from the opening of Private Dancer and the flood gates of 1984 bust open! Tina Turner came back big and strong! An icon and legend who gave power to women of all ages. This is the phoenix rising in an album. 'Better Be Good to Me' made women walk taller and prouder hearing her cool, collected, damn-the-torpedoes, larger-than-life presence play out on the charts, stage, and TV!
This album was a testament to Tina Turner's personal story of survival - a story that likely helped other women reclaim their own lives."
"I had never heard anything like this when it came out. Neko Case still sounds like no one else, creating cosmic American music with one of the strongest voices of all time."
"I would pay to listen to Neko Case read the classified ads, but her songs about love, family, nature, and mental illness are unforgettable."
"The perfect marriage of singer, songs and arrangements."
"Sublime eclecticism of musical styles."
"Great songwriting and such heartfelt singing from Springfield, one of the underrated vocalists of all time. "
"The best collection of everything Aretha does well in one statement: sweaty, soulful and devastating. Her voice is canon, and deservedly so, but the sharp songwriting, swampy arrangements and timeless production make this record stand out in an already otherworldly discography. The fact that 'Chain of Fools,' 'Natural Woman' and 'Ain't No Way' all arrived on the same album is absurd."
"Appreciation for Fiona Apple's debut, Tidal, [is] 110% correct to laud everything about it. The diversity of writing structures, lyrical delivery, and perspectives on a single, universal theme can not be overstated or too adored, especially given the age of the artist at the time of its recording. With that said, that theme is a variation on wondering why the world and the people in it can't act with more decency. As time went on, Apple focused more and more inwardly, and on The Idler Wheel... she maintains a similarly monolithic focus on the theme of why she herself can't be more of the kind of person she feels is deserving of the affection that her 19 year old self was clearly denied or saw perverted back in 1996. That makes her latest musings simultaneously more uncomfortable and more necessary material for every person with a thought in their head or a feeling in their heart. It may not be fair to compare one person's later work with their prior so pointedly, but it's difficult to find anyone else who has so distinctly defined all the things that we know we don't know about love, so she'll have to remain the standard by which she's judged."
"A rite of passage for every adolescent girl since 1995."
"I was married and had young daughters when I first heard this album and it was like a gut punch. In it was all the pent up anger and frustration I felt being a working woman/mother in a man's world."
"The first album to show not only her depth, but her breadth as a songwriter, singer and purveyor of culture. Speak Now was the album on which she fully took the reigns and wrote every song alone. It may even flow better as an overall album. But the high points of Red are unimpeachable. Stadium rock, pop country, coffeeshop confessionals, synthpop celebrations and the most controversial EDM drop of the digital era were all carefully housed under the watchful ear and pen of our greatest and most consistently undervalued modern songwriter. It's also home to her two best songs, 'All Too Well' and 'Begin Again.'"
"Lorde just gets it. The album essentially is a polaroid capturing exactly what being a teenager today is like. The social anxieties, the love and heartbreaks, the need for friendships, the search for acceptance. Lorde just [captures] it all while having experimental sounds."
"Her first solo album, in it she shows versatility, creativity, a willingness to address tough social and interpersonal issues while continuing to entertain and entrance."
"Whether solo or with Fleetwood Mac, Steve Nicks had a style of her own."
"This album is just hit after hit after hit. The raw, driving nature of the album is not for the faint of heart."
"Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks dominate this album with each bringing their own version of love, heartache and groovable magic."
"Björk is the most creative artist of the last 30 years, constantly creating new soundscapes and universes. This album has always been my favorite of hers, as it feels the most honest."
"Her boldest declaration of love full. Lush arrangements, microsounds (stepping on snow, the shuffling of cards) and soaring vocals builds a world that is intimate, inviting you inside."
"Coming out right smack in the middle of the '90s after grunge's flame-out, this album answered the question of 'what was music going to sound like in the very near future?'"
"This album is a powerhouse of variety. From big band to electronic dance music to the beginnings of the tempo-less orchestral pieces she would lean into later in her career, this album is innovative without leaving her audience too far behind."
"Simply put, this album changed the direction of pop music. Marrying hard hip-hop beats with soulful pop and ushering in the New Jack Swing era set the blueprint for what pop music is now. Not to mention the coming-of-age feminism that has become a touchstone for countless young artists trying to shed their cookie-cutter pasts."
"Amos explores themes such as the gender of God ('God'), female friendship ('Cornflake Girl,' 'Bells for Her,' 'The Wrong Band'), and inner strength ('Icicle,' 'Yes Anastasia') - all thematic staples for women musicians of the '90s onward. Her revival of the piano as the main instrument on a mainstream music album has lead to a number of women musicians having success with the same setup (Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, Sara Bareilles, etc). Under the Pink proved that Amos was not a one hit wonder (after the success of Little Earthquakes) and solidified her status as piano rock goddess."
"An immaculate album for turbulent times. Solange brings us to the next level of consciousness."
"Capturing pain and power so succinctly and powerfully, she speaks to what it feels like to be taken for granted and to find the power in vulnerability. What a gift you are to this life, Solange!"
"She's giving you full pop perfection, and not on a budget, honey. She's playing the game she invented and bopping to the top all the while. Carly does pop better than anyone else in the industry and it shows. Since the 2015 release of EMOTION, her fan base has grown and remained fiercely dedicated to her. Eagerly we anticipate a new album that although promised, is evidenced in no concrete way of being on the horizon. I suppose that relistening to this 2015 masterpiece for the umpteenth time will suffice for now."
"A blood-curdling miasma of twisted Delta blues and gothic folk, held together by PJ Harvey's elastic voice."
"A high water mark in a stellar career of constantly re-inventing herself. This is a desert island disc."
"This record served as a roadmap for me learning about some of the best songwriters of the last century."
"'70s country rock that never sounds dated, and perfectly served to accentuate her breathtaking voice."
"This album angered and confused the bro music journalists of the '90s by being as unapologetically aggressive as Riot Grrl or alt rock bands like Hole while being as 'pretentious' and 'kooky' and 'precious' as the female singer-songwriters they loved to pan out of the other side of their mouths. It's catchy, relentless, raw, deep, beautiful and contradictory. It was provocative at the time in a way that has since become more accepted. It's self deprecating. It comes at its anger sideways - not by screaming over a wall of distortion, but sophisticated wordplay and flights of fancy at the keys. Her piano riffs are as heavy as any guitarist's grunge noodlings, but wander off into jazzier or prettier territory as the material dictates. And while many other characterizations of her fellow singer-songwriters as 'angry' were unfair, Fiona seems to thumb her nose at those critics by openly embracing her darker nature.... It sounds urgent and compelling even today."
"Kick ass album by my all time favorite guitarist. Super turbo modern sounding without being unappealing to a boomer, super accessible and easy to get into, but at points incredibly angular and hugely idiosyncratic. So much pop hooks, so much guitar fuzz."
"#MeToo movement made alive 25 years prior to its existence."
"Polly Jean takes all the previous ideas about how a woman fronts a rock trio and rips it to shreds to create her own voice, sound, atmosphere and power."
"As the debut solo effort by Annie Lennox after her departure from Euythmics, Diva is an award-winning showcase of Ms. Lennox's awesome talent, both as a performer and a songwriter (she penned most of the songs on the album). Repeated plays never result in boredom, only the discovery of nuances not previously heard."
"I had to knock Bonnie Raitt from my list because of The Breeders. This is another album that shook me when I first heard it. It was also my introduction to the Breeders. When I first heard that weird bass intro to 'Cannonball,' I wasn't sure what to think. It was such a poke in the side. But after a couple of random listens on the radio, I was in love and ran out to get the CD. I've never recovered. Again - women paving paths. Yes ... we can rock hard and be funny too. More recently, I was in a band that covered several Breeders songs. I learned that, though they may have simple chords, the songs aren't actually that simple. Perhaps a few are, but several have some crazy twists and turns thrown into them. During the hell of 2016, one thing that kept me going was knowing that The Breeders were back in the studio. I am so grateful to share the planet with the Deal sisters. They are both gold and I wish I could be their neighbor."
"PJ Harvey put together a really powerful, moving album here - some very ethereal, thoughtful music ('Horses in My Dreams') balanced with rocking out and taking agency as a woman ('This Is Love,' 'The Whores Hustle,' 'The Mess We're In')."
"I heard this album a year before I moved to New York. I didnt know how true all of the emotions it captured would end up being for me."
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