Turning The Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women NPR's list of the greatest albums made by women, from 1964 to the present.
NPR logo The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women

The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women

Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac in the recording studio, circa 1975. Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images hide caption

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Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images

Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac in the recording studio, circa 1975.

Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images

... Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes by The Ronettes Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the artist

20. The Ronettes
Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica (Philles Records, 1964)

The British Invasion hit American shores in February 1964, changing the course of American pop for the foreseeable futurebut three girls from Spanish Harlem invaded the British first. Twenty-year-old Veronica Bennett, her sister Estelle and their cousin Nedra Talley arrived at Heathrow that January with a Billboard No. 2 hit, "Be My Baby," under their belts, and when they met The Beatles, the four mop tops were already adoring fans (so was their opening actThe Rolling Stones). "Be My Baby"the centerpiece of the trio's debut albumwould hook millions more, rock royalty and commoners alike, with its heart-thumping kick drum, plaintive whoah-oh-oh's and dense production courtesy of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, which dependably takes the listener's breath away by filling every available molecule of air with music. The studio work is wizardly, but it's Veronicathe future ex-Mrs. Phil, and the forever Ronnie Spectorwho is the magic element, switching between rock and roll swagger on the loose-hipped "(The Best Part) of Breaking Up" and demure teen yearning on "I Wonder," plus a loose, muscular, full-throated take on Ray Charles' "What'd I Say," all stamped with her indelible sweet-tart voice. Everything about The Ronettes always teetered on the blissful edge of too muchtoo-tight dresses, too-bountiful beehives, too-heavy eyeliner drawn to a razor-sharp wing, and Fabulous Ronettes is an overflowing platter. But whoah-oh-oh is what passion sounds like, when transcends the capacity of language. Alison Fensterstock (Contributor)


Amor Prohibido by Selena

19. Selena
Amor Prohibido (EMI Latin, 1994)

It's tough to overstate the impact and power Selena Quintanilla had across the United States and in Latin America as the Queen of Tejano music. Her humility, talent and sense of style influenced generations of Latinos enamored with and overwhelmed with pride of their culturea culture often perceived to be less than. With her music, she made the voices and experiences of Latinos in the United States visible. That's especially true of her album Amor Prohibido. Her last release before she was killed in 1995, Amor Prohibido is an ageless cultural symbol that was meant to transcend a moment in history. It did, to say the least. It became the best-selling U.S. Latin album of all time, went platinum, had four No. 1 singles and put Tejano music on the map. With Amor Prohibido, Selena was able to reach larger audiences with her more experimental and cross-cultural sounds, including a fusion of Mexican mariachi and Colombian cumbia sounds, and elements of R&B, techno, pop and the ballads known as corridos. Writing about her is surreal, though. I remember hearing my aunts and mom sing "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" growing up. The floors would tremble when this song came on as everyone was pulled to the dance floor. In college, my friends and I would blast these songs to find some kind of familiarity when everything felt so different from us. She didn't break barriers with this album as much as she tore them down.—Jessica Diaz-Hurtado (NPR Staff)


Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

18. Lucinda Williams
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (Mercury, 1998)

Lucinda Williams had released four albums when she began recording songs for what would, years later, become Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, now an Americana standard. On the album, Williams successfully married rural snapshots with articulate, near-photographic songwriting. The combination resulted in a vibrant and vividly-detailed album, especially for the time. In the late 1990s, alternative country was still a nascent scene with a palpable absence of both female voices and female songwriters in the genre. Car Wheels On A Gravel Road changed all of that. The album won the 1998 Grammy Award for Contemporary Folk, and also went golda first for Williams. Tracks like "Can't Let Go" and "Right In Time" became modern classics and solidified Lucinda's position as one of the best American songwriters of our time, thanks in part to her talents for capturing granular slices of life, delivering them with a poet's eye and a craggy, world-weary voice. Jessie Scott (WMOT)


 Control by Janet Jackson

17. Janet Jackson
Control (A&M, 1986)

There would be no Rhythm Nation, Janet, or Velvet Rope without Control. This was the breakout album for then-19-year-old Janet Jackson, who until then was fondly known as Michael Jackson's little sister, Penny from Good Times and Willis' girlfriend on Diff'rent Strokes. She fired her dad as her manager, got with producers Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam from The Time, and made an album that clearly said "I'm a grown-ass woman," in case anyone was confused. The album, released February 1986, took on important issues such as sexual harassment, safe sex and abstinence, and we sang right along with her, making hits out of "What Have You Don't For Me Lately," "Nasty," "Control," "When I Think Of You," "Let's Wait Awhile" and "Funny How Time Flies (When You're Having Fun)." But Janet did something especially pivotal with the video for "Pleasure Principle," another single from the album. She walked alone into an empty loft with kneepads on, kicked over a chair, cabbage-patched and clarified for those in the cheap seats that she was as great a performer as her big brother: "Ba-by you can't hold me down! Ba-by you can't hold me dow-ow-own!" Tanya Ballard Brown (NPR Staff)


Rumours by Fleetwood Mac

16. Fleetwood Mac
Rumours (Warner Bros., 1977)

For those of us who didn't live through the late 1970s, the Fleetwood Mac story — of sex and drugs and rock and roll and epic songwriting sessions in the middle of it all, this member breaking up with that member and taking up with another, piles of cocaine, or was it champagne? — is beyond tantalizing. But it wouldn't be anything more than tabloid trash if the band hadn't made the music it did, particularly on the monster of an album, Rumours. Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie set out to make a record with no fillers, and they very nearly hit their mark. When Rumours came out, it topped the British and U.S. charts and won the Grammy for Album of the Year, eventually becoming one of the best-selling albums of all time. Why? Rumours is the sound of a band bending but not breaking, led by two women who wrote songs about the full range of human emotion. It's Stevie responding to Lindsey singing "You can go your own way," with "Dreams," a song she wrote in 10 minutes, that became the band's only Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit ever. It's Christine McVie crooning "You Make Loving Fun" to her new love, while her ex plays bass. And in the depths of all the romantic turmoil that was going on within the band, Christine wrote "Don't Stop," cheerfully reminding everyone to look ahead to tomorrow. It's personal, it's relatable, and because it captures the whole scope of a romantic experience, from new love through breakups and back again, it's a mainstay. —Sarah Handel (NPR Staff)


Where Did Our Love Go by The Supremes

15. Diana Ross and the Supremes
Where Did Our Love Go (Motown, 1964)

It's surreal to go back and listen to The Supremes' breakout album all these years later, when most of the singles on it have become synonymous with oldies FM radio and baked into our nostalgic memories of early R&B. Hit singles were the name of the game back in the early 1960s and they had started pouring out of Detroit's Hitsville U.S.A., the cramped Motown studio where Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson would hang around every day after school hoping to clap and sing in the background of someone else's #1 song. R&B fans were used to women appearing as backup singers, but The Supremes and their peers like The Shirelles and Martha and the Vandellas turned the whole game around. A woman's voice could deliver the lead as well as support it, harmonies locking together, a squad unified in power and voice. Where Did Our Love Go captures The Supremes in that tender moment between finding their footing as a "girl group" and rocketing to superstardom; by the end of the decade, they would be Motown's best-selling act, and will have paved the way for a long lineage of powerhouse trios like the Pointer Sisters, En Vogue and Destiny's Child. Andrea Swensson (Minnesota Public Radio)


Whitney Houston's self-titled album

14. Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston (Arista, 1985)

From sweet flirtation to full-throated proclamation, Whitney Houston's vocal range remains fresh and vibrant some three decades after this album was released. There are just 10 songs on this debut album by a daughter of soul royalty (her mother is Cissy Houston; her cousin, Dionne Warwick and her godmother, Aretha Franklin). But it's chock full of Whitney classics, including the lovelorn ballad "All At Once" and the breezy "Saving All My Love for You." This album also includes the perfect '80s song, "How Will I Know," though admittedly it's hard to separate the iconic video from the song. Whitney bobbing her head with a silver bow in her hair, hot pink lips glimmering while crooning, "There's a boy!" captures the joy and innocence of first love. And then, of course, the reason so many of us bought this album in the first place: the show-stopping singalong, "The Greatest Love of All." Like her 1992 hit version of Dolly Parton's, "I Will Always Love You," this song is a cover that Whitney made a signature. Her velvety voice defiantly proclaiming, "No matter what they take from me they can't take away my dignity," was my power anthem as an 11-year-old, and I still revisit it. We all need to be reminded from time to time of the beauty we possess inside. Yes, Jermaine Jackson and Clive Davis had hands in this album, but no one outshines Whitey's performance throughout, and it's one that sustains over time and trends. —Nina Gregory (NPR Staff)


Like a Prayer by Madonna

13. Madonna
Like a Prayer (Sire, 1989)

In 1989, AIDS was ravaging cities everywhere, particularly New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Supreme Court had begun to chip away at abortion rights. Activists were handing out condoms in the streets and fighting the indifference of the Reagan Administration, which instead supported the abstinence-only policies of fundamentalist Christians and the Catholic Church. Madonna's album Like A Prayer, released that same year, daringly takes on the struggles of a generation that refused to accept spirituality without sensuality. Through interweaving gospel, funk, soul and pop, the album's songs raise questions about religion, sexuality, gender equality and interdependence. For one thing, the title song opens with a few seconds of a hard rock guitar that stop abruptly and make way for a gospel choir and an organ. The lyrics suggest a girl who might experience God as a loveror is it a girl who loves a man as if he is God? While "Oh Father" was in many ways about Madonna's own father, it goes beyond her relationship with him and instead alludes to someone who abuses power. And when all those activists weren't agitating in the streets they were dancing to "Keep It Together," Madonna's tribute to her family. While most critics saw this as the album where Madonna went from bubblegum pop to true artistry, that wasn't the only thing she did with Like a Prayer. With this album she also led the way for a new generation top female pop stars to express themselves. Laura Sydell (NPR Staff)


Baduizm by Erykah Badu

12. Erykah Badu
Baduizm (Universal, 1997)

Erykah Badu is not afraid to repeat herself. Baduizm begins and ends with "Rim Shot." The songs in between echo themselves and each other over and over and over again — "On and On" is referenced in "Appletree"; "Certainly" and "Certainly (Flipped It)" are mirror images; there are two different songs called "Sometimes." In "No Love," Badu repeats the same phrase ("You don't show no love") eighteen times. But time doesn't seem to be a concern for Badu — she sings like she's having a conversation that might go on forever, accidentally. Lines like "Take your time," "I don't need nobody telling me the time" and "I'll see you next lifetime," are littered throughout out the album. For Badu, if there's a thought worth articulating, it's worth ruminating. And when she's not doing it herself, her sound is still echoed by people around her, like The Roots, Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000, Mos Def, India Arie and Drake. Leah Donnella (NPR Staff)


Coat of Many Colors by Dolly Parton

11. Dolly Parton
Coat Of Many Colors (RCA Records, 1971)

For most of Dolly Parton's performing career, it's been impossible to separate the sequins and spangles of her outsize image from her humble, hardscrabble mountain roots, so intertwined are the two in the persona she's presented. Her 1971 album Coat of Many Colors was a formative moment both in the way it helped established her artistic self-sufficiency — no longer viewed simply as Porter Wagoner's "girl singer," she was making her mark on the country charts as a standalone singer-songwriter — and how it sketched the contours of her enduring narrative. It's hard to overstate the importance of the self-penned title track; through the lens of plainspoken reflection, Parton's lilting folk-country ballad wove together a touching account of her mother's Appalachian ingenuity and her own alternative vision of beauty and glamour, grounding both in a homespun yet nonetheless aspirational ethic that would frame her music forever after. Released during a fruitful period in country's autobiographical storytelling tradition, during which peers like Loretta Lynn and Tom T. Hall were also doing important work, the song is one of the reasons that Parton came to be recognized as the tradition's archetype. With the remainder of the album, mostly written by her with a few Wagoner compositions thrown in, she laid out more of her musical template: her supple modernizing of ancient-sounding folk's gothic, modal melodies and pastoral sentimentality; her fabulously knowing backwoods wit; her amplifying of emotions shaken loose by adult heartbreak; her openness to pop's buoyancy. She was, it would become clear, a splashy, savvy, broadly appealing complete package like neither the country nor pop worlds had seen. —Jewly Hight (Contributor)

Turning The Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women

Correction July 25, 2017

Selena Quintanilla was killed in 1995, not 1994 as originally written.