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

Nina Simone in the recording studio in approximately 1967. Gilles Petard/Redferns/Getty Images hide caption

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Gilles Petard/Redferns/Getty Images

Nina Simone in the recording studio in approximately 1967.

Gilles Petard/Redferns/Getty Images

21 by Adele.

30. Adele
21 (Columbia/XL, 2011)

No one refuses to let go like Adele. Her soaring voice against the simplicity of her accompaniments (sometimes strings or guitar, often just piano) barely masks the fact that 21 is a collection of songs about stubbornness. This is a woman grasping at dead things: Relationships, emotions, phases of life. But within that desperation lies so much power, too. 21 is an album that begs for people to sing along, and own up to the fact that they haven't recovered yet, either. When it was released in 2011, in the era of hyper-produced, self-assured pop-hop, 21 felt old schoolthere were no features, remixes or mottos. Just a woman singing into a mic about the things she wasn't over. The album is so inward-facing that it might have felt petty if it weren't for Adele's unwavering delivery. And it reminded people that that was enough: Just singing a story about a feeling you're not ready to move past. Not quite a kiss-off, but certainly a valediction. Leah Donnella (NPR Staff)


Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette

29. Alanis Morissette
Jagged Little Pill (Maverick, 1995)

Every teenager is expected to be angry at some point over the course of her adolescence. But not every teenager manages to shatter expectations surrounding women worldwide, as well as their access to and expressions of that anger. At age 19, the Canadian pop star Alanis Morissette started work on Jagged Little Pill, the 1995 record that would ultimately sell 40 million copies and which offered an unprecedented lyrical vocabulary for processing and experiencing young womanhood. A generation of listeners smashed plates to this record, and then gathered up the pieces and built something better. Jagged Little Pill contains flawless angry songs, but it also contains perfect songs of introspection and self-belief, radically centering the narrative on (female) self instead of (male) other. Often miscast as a breakup album, Morissette's blockbuster is really a fully-formed exploration of being a person feeling their way through the world. It broke ground by giving equal space and value to emotions that women are expected to express publicly, as well as those they aren't. Katie Presley (Contributor)


Nina Simone, Sings the Blues

28. Nina Simone
Nina Simone Sings the Blues (RCA Victor, 1967)

The High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone, was 34 years old in 1967. She'd been making music her whole lifeshe was trained as a classical pianistand, at 21, started singing in clubs. For the next decade, she bounced around, recording jazz and blues standards, and steadily earning a reputation as a remarkable performer. People loved watching and hearing Nina Simone perform, though critics weren't quite sure what to do with her. Was she a blues singer? A jazz pianist and performer? And what about those original songshow did they fit in? When Simone made the move to RCA in 1967, those questions started to become less important, and the focus now found itself on her voicethat voice! Slip-sliding between sultry sensuality ("In the Dark"), heart-wrenching reminiscences ("My Man's Gone Now") and the biting social commentary ("Backlash Blues," a song she co-wrote with Langston Hughes), Nina Simone proved, with Sings the Blues, that hers was a voice capable of anything. It made people fall in and out of love, it made them pay attention to the past, and it forced them to become aware of the social inequalities all around them. —Elena See (Folk Alley/Minnesota Public Radio)


Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos

27. Tori Amos
Little Earthquakes (Atlantic, 1992)

Tori Amos was dropped by her record label following the lukewarm success of her synth-pop act, Y Kant Tori Read. So the singer-songwriter was forced to reevaluate. Given that said project hadn't truly represented the image or music Amos wanted to create, she looked inward to find her true self. The introspection paid off, and yielded her game-changing 1992 debut, Little Earthquakes. On it, Amos sung brutally honest lyrics about typically taboo topics including but not limited to sex, religion and sexism. Little Earthquakes was so earth-shattering upon its release that it almost immediately became a standard influence for idiosyncratic singer/songwritersannoyingly, any woman playing a piano was hereby compared to Amos following the release. Little Earthquakes is rife with evidence that Amos was and is a bold musician, but that's nowhere clearer than on "Me and a Gun." The song is based on her own account of sexual assault and started a movement, as well as her assault and rape crisis hotline RAINN that encouraged victims of violence against women to speak out. Through Little Earthquakes Tori exuded sexual empowerment that was not for anyone else but her, which, in turn, transformed her into an icon. Cindy Howes (WYEP)


CrazySexyCool by TLC

26. TLC
CrazySexyCool (LaFace, 1994)

The album title says it all. With this record, TLC invented a new hybrid adjective and created a sound to match. CrazySexyCool posited that there's no one way to existas a woman, as a partner, as a friend. These songs are about women who are always real, women who can be unabashed about their sexuality, tender or righteously distant, depending on the moment. They're wise without being condescending or aloof; Chilli, T-Boz and Left Eye make it plain that they're telling the truth. Their delivery embodies "crazysexycool," too. In "Waterfalls," for example, the gone but not forgotten Left Eye serves thirty seconds of flow that rank among the best of all time. It should go without saying that almost all pop music to come after this record owes it a debt. But TLC's impact went way beyond the music. The question of whether their project is "feminist" is perhaps misguided; the popular understanding of the word failed to even include them. But with baggy clothes, condom accessories celebrating safe sex, an undying commitment to each otherand yes, a knack for exerting control over the very definitions of "sexy" and "cool"TLC was an undeniable revolution. Jenny Gathright (NPR Staff)


Little Plastic Castle by Ani Difranco

25. Ani Difranco
Little Plastic Castle (Righteous Babe Records, 1998)

Indie folk pioneer Ani DiFranco was well into her career, as well as heading her Righteous Babe Records, when she released her most sonically ambitious album, Little Plastic Castle. DiFranco, who had been consistently releasing albums once a year since 1990, had just come off of promoting the live album Living in Clip and took that band back to the studio in Austin, Texas. There, they crafted an album that reflected the true explosive energy of her live shows. Lyrically, the songwriting is not necessarily as challenging or refined as her previous work. But DiFranco's words resonated with her audience, which expanded considerably following this release. The album scored her highest ranking on the Billboard charts, and with it gave the alternative mainstream a chance to experience the potency of this remarkably independent and outspoken songwriter. Young teenagers in suburban America soon began singing her songs at open mics, playing her music on their college radio stations and making sure their "great female singers" mix tapes all had an Ani song. The album's lyrics dealt with infidelity, relationships across the gender spectrum and fighting for respect. And although some misunderstood her outspokenness for anger, many found her music completely cathartic, seeing themselves reflected in her pain and struggle. —Cindy Howes (WYEP)


Coal Miner's Daughter by Loretta Lynn

24. Loretta Lynn
Coal Miner's Daughter (Decca, 1970)

If Loretta Lynn is one of the queens of country music, Coal Miner's Daughter is the jewel in her honky-tonk crown. By 1971, Lynn was already a well-established Nashville songwriter, had sung her way onto the Grand Ole Opry, and had a reputation for her boundary-pushing, feminist songs about infidelity and domestic abuse. While the album doesn't betray those roots, its most beloved song is a sentimental autobiography; furthermore, Coal Miner's Daughter tells the story of Lynn's childhood in Butcher Hollow, Ky. She grew up with eight siblings, a mother who worked hard to care for them, and a father who worked in the Van Lear coal mines, an experience that's immortalized in the album's title track: "Well I was born a coal miner's daughter / In a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler / We were poor but we had love / That's the one thing that daddy made sure of / He'd shovel coal to make a poor man's dollar." It became her best-known song, the title of her autobiography and a 1980 Oscar-award winning movie about her life. But sadly, her father never lived to hear the album, or any of Lynn's recordings. He died of black lung disease in 1959. Lauren Migaki (NPR Staff)


Amazing Grace, Aretha Franklin

23. Aretha Franklin
Amazing Grace (Atlantic, 1972)

Aretha Franklin got her start in church, singing at her minister father's side as a young girl. She found critical success in the secular market, but her best-selling album, 1972's Amazing Grace, represented a grand homecoming. For two days, Franklin sang with mentor Reverend James Cleveland and his choir, the Southern California Community Choir, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Throughout the hour and a half of the recording, Franklin whips and wields her incomparable instrument in a way that leaves little room for any reaction other than awe. The record lives and breathes with the raw emotion of the spirit: Franklin connects with her choir and her audience through laughter and shouts, testimonies and affirmations. It's participatory, but never does the session's control leave the hands of Franklin herself. In a church that was filled to capacity, The Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts were students of Franklin; the group's next album, Exile on Main Street, wound up being their most gospel-influenced record to date. Amazing Grace is audio evidence that gospel is best experienced in the house it lives in. And it was proof to industry executives and fellow musicians alike that gospel music could chart, and sell. Kiana Fitzgerald (Contributor)


Diamond Life by Sade

22. Sade
Diamond Life (Sony, 1984)

Sade's album Diamond Life dropped when some of pop's biggest stars like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince and Duran Duran were topping the charts with their bright, punchy songs. Sade stepped into the middle of that and slowed the pace down with a subdued, graceful album that was simultaneously soulful and jazzy. Diamond Life wasn't the kind of album on constant rotation at the club: People listened to this album in a much more intimate way, especially as many of its songs focus on themes of love and undoubtedly provided the soundtrack to many romantic evenings for couples around the world. It wasn't all love, though. Diamond Life shone with socially conscious songs like "When Am I Going to Make a Living" and the moving Timmy Thomas cover "Why Can't We Live Together." Some critics at the time seemed genuinely surprised that someone so attractive (Sade was formerly a model) could sing with such accomplishment, as though somehow beauty was a reason for skepticism. But with Diamond Life, Sade stormed in with timeless music that featured both groove and sophistication. Alisa Ali (WFUV)


Rid of Me by PJ Harvey hide caption

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21. PJ Harvey
Rid Of Me (Island Records, 1993)

In 1992, PJ Harvey emerged from the rural town of Yeovil, England, and into the musical world with the seething tune "Sheela-Na-Gig." While Harvey's subsequent debut album Dry was a radical step forward, it didn't prepare anyone for her uncompromising next albumher bestthat would follow the next year, Rid Of Me. The album was pulled together against all odds, and you can hear it in the stark recording: Done in isolation, while the band sparked with internal tensions and Harvey's songwriting directly bristled against Steve Albini's abrasive production. Yet from the opening chords of Rid Of Me's title trackin which Harvey crooned "Tie yourself to me / No one else, no / You're not rid of me"she made it perfectly clear on this album that not only was she not intimidated by having all eyes on her, but also that she wasn't going anywhere. Behind the thrum of guitars on "50 Foot Queenie" she delivered a series of declarations that have rightful places as anthems: "I'm number one / Second to no one ... I'll tell you my name / F-*-*-* / Fifty foot queenie / Force ten hurricane." On Rid Of Me, Harvey also proved that she wasn't just capable of hanging with the boys; she had surpassed them entirely. "Can you hear can you hear me now / I'm man-sized," she roars on the eponymous song, one that, among others, once caused her contemporary Courtney Love to declare: "The one rock star that makes me know I'm shit is Polly Harvey. I'm nothing next to the purity that she experiences." —Paula Mejia (Contributor)

TURNING THE TABLES