The 50 Essential Women-in-Music Albums

by Brian Underwood
September 18, 2009

Now that we've revealed all 50 of our essential women-in-music album selections, we thought we'd do a brief recap of all of our picks, ranked in order of influence. Our list was diverse so it was a tough job, but we think we nailed it. We also picked five up-and-comers we think could wind up on a list like this ten years from now. Once you've finished reading our rankings, it'll be time to tell us what you think. Did we get it right? Which albums did we leave off the list entirely? Who should've been ranked higher/lower? Let us know.

1. Blue (1971), Joni Mitchell
"Written over a period of several months while she was traveling throughout Europe, Blue brings Joni Mitchell's isolation and hopefulness vividly to life, displaying the talents of one of music's most visceral songwriters. The title track and "River" make her melancholy almost palpable while "Carey" flaunts a wistfulness and exuberance that belies its sparse instrumentation. There are no sweeping statements of emotion on Blue; just an honest examination of the minutiae of life and love that results in the listener experiencing Joni's words rather than simply hearing them. But it's not just her lyrics that contribute to Blue's piercing and unforgettable nature. Joni's guitar work, which makes use of alternative tunings, allowed her to pepper songs like "All I Want" with more complex and unusual harmonies. Though she bristles at her work being termed as "confessional," Blue set the standard for autobiographical storytelling in music."

2. Tapestry (1971), Carole King
"After toiling for years as a songwriter for top-selling acts like The Shirelles, Aretha Franklin, and Dusty Springfield, Carole King turned her attention toward recording her own material and, in the process, invented the model for all female singer-songwriters to come."

3. Horses (1975), Patti Smith
"Already a fixture in New York's club scene, Patti Smith - the Godmother of Punk - burst into the public consciousness with her debut album Horses."

4. Lady Soul (1968), Aretha Franklin
"After signing with Atlantic Records in 1966, Aretha Franklin's career began its staggering upward trajectory, turning her from a relatively unknown singer with a small but devoted fan base to a hit-making superstar with pipes of gold."

5. Pearl (1971), Janis Joplin
"The true injustice of Pearl is that Janis Joplin never lived to see its completion."

6. Parallel Lines (1978), Blondie
"Prior to the release of Parallel Lines, Blondie's New Wave and punk-influenced opus, the band was relatively unknown by American audiences."

7. Lady In Satin (1958), Billie Holiday
"Lady In Satin was released just one year before Billie Holiday's death from cirrhosis of the liver and it remains the definitive artistic statement of her troubled life."

8. Dusty In Memphis (1969), Dusty Springfield
"After years of recording soul standards with varying degrees of success, Dusty Springfield was looking to revive her career (an anti-establishment backlash was brewing against anything viewed as frivolous pop) by establishing herself as a credible rhythm and blues singer."

9. Jolene (1974), Dolly Parton
"In 1967, a young and unknown country songstress named Dolly Parton scored the big break of a lifetime when she was chosen to replace Norma Jean as Porter Wagoner's TV sidekick on his wildly popular show."

10. The Dreaming (1982), Kate Bush
"Discovered at the age of 16 by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, Kate Bush became the undisputed queen of art pop with her masterful fourth album The Dreaming."

11. A Kiss In The Dreamhouse (1984), Siouxsie & The Banshees
"The post-punk pioneers that inspired the development of gothic rock were fronted by one of the genre's most glam stars, Siouxsie Soux."

12. Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook (1956), Ella Fitzgerald
"Ella Fitzgerald's ambitious Songbook project, a series of eight LPs devoted to the music of individual songwriters, began with Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook, an album that established the nascent Verve Records as the country's most influential jazz record label."

13. Exile In Guyville (1993), Liz Phair
"Years before Sex And The City made female sexual frankness popular, Liz Phair was singing about blow jobs and churning out f-bombs assembly line-style on her debut album Exile In Guyville."

14. Live Through This (1994), Hole
"Released just four days after the suicide of Courtney Love's husband Kurt Cobain, Live Through This remains Courtney's greatest contribution to the post-punk era of rock."

15. Jagged Little Pill (1995), Alanis Morissette
"The haters harp on her misuse of the word ironic, but Alanis Morissette's monstrous hit album Jagged Little Pill sucked 33 million people in with its universally relatable (though a tad pedestrian) lyrics and can't-get-it-out-of-my-head hooks."

16. Tracy Chapman (1988), Tracy Chapman
"Like the first track on her debut album, which talks about starting a revolution with a whisper, Tracy Chapman quietly arrived on the music scene in the late eighties and brought socially-conscious folk back to life."

17. Kala (2007), M.I.A.
"The infectious blend of hip hop, electronic music, Bollywood, and urumee melam (a style native to South India) on M.I.A.'s ground-breaking second album Kala is doing for the first decade of this century what folk did for the 1960s."

18. Private Dancer (1984), Tina Turner
"In 1984, 44-year-old Tina Turner staged what is now considered the most spectacular comeback in the history of rock and roll. The launching pad: Turner's fearless Private Dancer album."

19. Heart Like A Wheel (1974), Linda Ronstadt
"Heart Like A Wheel introduced one of the world's most successful female artists of all time to the mainstream audience that, at one time, dubbed her the First Lady of Rock."

20. Broken English (1979), Marianne Faithfull
"Homeless, addicted to heroin, and on the verge of suicide, Marianne Faithfull's tragic fall from grace would only serve to make her comeback with 1979's Broken English all the more staggering - and solidify her return as one of the most dramatic transformations in music history."

21. Bella Donna (1981), Stevie Nicks
"In between the sessions for Fleetwood Mac's third album, Stevie Nicks began writing and recording demos for what would become her breakthrough debut solo project, Bella Donna."

22. Whitney Houston (1985), Whitney Houston
"In 1985 the world was introduced to a voice so powerful, so soul-stirring, it would change the direction of soul music from that point forward."

23. The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (1998), Lauryn Hill
"Lauryn Hill brought hip hop to new levels of artistry with her layered solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill."

24. Ray Of Light (1998), Madonna
"Madonna's earlier recordings may have brought her the stardom she so desperately desired, but Ray Of Light is the album that established the pop star as an artist."

25. Homogenic (1997), Bjork
"Bjork describes Homogenic as concept album dedicated to the dichotomy of her home country of Iceland: The electronic rhythms represent the technological advancement of its people ("The number of people owning a computer is as high as nowhere else in the world," she has said) while the lavish strings courtesy of the Icelandic String Octet evoke the natural beauty of its landscape."

26. Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989), Janet Jackson
"After achieving breakthrough success with 1986's Control, Janet Jackson faced pressure from her record company to replicate this commercial sensation."

27. Nick Of Time (1989), Bonnie Raitt
"After twenty years of recording and performing in relative obscurity, Bonnie Raitt achieved the belated accolades her talents undeniably deserved with Nick Of Time."

28. Diamonds & Rust (1975), Joan Baez
"The woman responsible for introducing the world to Bob Dylan scored her breakthrough top ten hit with a song supposedly written about her relationship with him - the title track on her 1975 album Diamonds & Rust."

29. Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (1998), Lucinda Williams
"After two decades of performing and recording, Lucinda Williams achieved delayed breakthrough success with her brilliant Car Wheels On A Gravel Road."

30. Back To Black (2006), Amy Winehouse
"Back To Black marks what is possibly the most dramatic transformation in recent popular music."

31. Boys For Pele (1996), Tori Amos
"Boys For Pele is Tori Amos's break up album. But instead of "You Oughta Know," she gives us "Blood Roses," a song composed primarily on the harpsichord and featuring lines like, "I've shaved every place where you've been boy."

32. Wrecking Ball (1995), Emmylou Harris
"By the early 1990s Emmylou Harris, like many of country music's older performers, began receiving less airplay on mainstream country radio as the majority of stations began shifting their focus to pop-oriented performers."

33. Supa Dupa Fly (1997), Missy Misdemeanor Elliott
"In the late nineties, the hip hop community was still reeling from the tragic apex of the legendary east coast versus west coast feud, which resulted in deaths of two of the rap music's most promising talents: Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G."

34. My Life (1994), Mary J. Blige
"After the breakthrough success of her debut album What's The 411?, Mary J. Blige returned with a moodier, more autobiographical set with 1994's My Life."

35. She's So Unusual (1983), Cyndi Lauper
"Her flaming red-orange hair, punk-inspired style, and eye-catching music videos caught everyone's attention when Cyndi Lauper burst onto the scene in the early eighties, but it's the legitimate musicality of her debut album She's So Unusual that made her stick."

36. To Bring You My Love (1995), PJ Harvey
"Before she ventured out as a solo artist with To Bring You My Love, Polly Jean Harvey was one member of a three-person band known as PJ Harvey."

37. Dreamboat Annie (1976), Heart
"Signed to small Canadian label Mushroom Records, Heart (fronted by Ann and Nancy Wilson) released one of the most successful and highly regarded debut rock albums when Dreamboat Annie came out in 1976."

38. Baduizm (1997), Erykah Badu
"Erykah Badu is the high priestess of neo-soul - and Baduizm is her Bible.

39. Not A Pretty Girl (1995), Ani DiFranco
"The acoustic guitar never sounded as ferocious as it does on Ani DiFranco's sixth album Not A Pretty Girl."

40. Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) (1983), The Eurythmics
"Annie Lennox brought the soul to synth pop with the release of The Eurythmics haunting and innovative second album Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)."

41. The Lion And The Cobra (1987), Sinead O'Connor
"Thanks to the contentious relationship she had the producer of her debut album, 20-year-old Sinead O'Connor was granted permission to produce it by herself - and The Lion And The Cobra was released in 1987."

42. Peace Beyond Passion (1996), Meshell Ndegeocello
"Before the Neo-soul movement spurred a slew of talented, literate hip hop and R&B stars, Meshell Ndegeocello was creating the mold on her stunning sophomore album Peace Beyond Passion."

43. What Cha' Gonna Do For Me (1981), Chaka Khan
"The Godmother of funk, Chaka Khan is at her undeniable best on What Cha' Gonna Do For Me, a brash collection of groove-oriented, danceable tunes brought together by Chaka's astounding and inimitable vocals."

44. The Divine Miss M (1972), Bette Midler
"Bette Midler famously got her start performing in New York City's gay bathhouses."

45. Indigo Girls (1989), Indigo Girls
"Folk music took two giant steps forward when Emily Saliers and Amy Ray joined together to form Indigo Girls and released their eponymous debut."

46. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1993), Sarah McLachlan
"After years of success in her native country of Canada, Sarah McLachlan scored an international breakthrough with her third album Fumbling Towards Ecstacy."

47. Yes I Am (1993), Melissa Etheridge
"Mainstream rock and roll found its queen with the release of Melissa Etheridge's fourth album Yes I Am. Her brand of bluesy, anthemic rock - epitomized in songs like "'I'm The Only One," "Silent Legacy," and the title track - recalls the earlier records of her idol Bruce Springsteen and proved that the girls can jam just as hard of the boys."

48. Ingenue (1992), k.d. Lang
"Armed with near-perfect pitch and a resonance that most singers would kill for, k.d. Lang enjoyed mainstream success with her second solo album, Ingenue."

49. I Am Shelby Lynne (1999), Shelby Lynne
"After a decade of trying to navigate the staid and, at times, oppressive waters of Nashville's country music machine, Shelby Lynne retreated to Los Angeles and released her breakthrough album, I Am Shelby Lynne."

50. Standing In The Way Of Control (2006), The Gossip
"Standing In The Way Of Control catapulted indie rock outfit The Gossip - and its marvelously unconventional front woman, Beth Ditto - to stardom."

The new guard:

1. Taylor Swift: Before she became country's brightest new superstar, Taylor Swift was sitting on the floor of her record company's office stuffing envelopes filled with her debut album and personally sending them to music reviewers. Not just a pretty face, Taylor writes all of her own music - an anomaly in today's bleak country landscape.

2. Ladyhawke: With music that manages to sound vaguely familiar yet totally fresh and innovative, Ladyhawke's eponymous debut album is a tour-de-force throwback to the best of '80s and '90s pop rock. We can't wait to see what she'll be doing next.

3. Lady Gaga: Love her or hate her, Lady Gaga has managed to capture the attention of people around the world. Her performances are provocative and her costumes garish, but it's her music that's really making a mark. Her back to back number one singles prove that she is the savior of dance pop.

4. Adele: This 21-year-old Brit has one of the best vocal instruments in the recording industry today. Her debut album won two Grammy awards despite moderate chart success and she is poised to make a major breakthrough with the release of her sophomore disc.

5. Katie Herzig: This virtually unknown folk/country singer-songwriter is a formidable talent. She wrote and performed every instrument on her sophomore album and two of the tracks were featured on Grey's Anatomy. Her distinct voice and introspective lyrics have already gained her a solid, but small, fan base.

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