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

Shakira crowd surfs during a performance at the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Scott Gries/Getty Images hide caption

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Scott Gries/Getty Images

Shakira crowd surfs during a performance at the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

Scott Gries/Getty Images

It's My Way! by Buffy Sainte-Marie

100. Buffy Sainte-Marie
It's My Way! (Vanguard Records, 1964)

Buffy Sainte-Marie, who was born into the Cree Tribe in Canada, released her debut album, It's My Way! in 1964. The cover photo showed Sainte-Marie herself with a mouth bowan image that was at once foreign, innocent, and intense, and a mere foretelling of the depths contained within the music. From the power of her warbling voice on "Cod'ine" to the insistence with which she commanded the lyrics on "Now That the Buffalo's Gone," It's My Way! is unusual, urgent debut oozing with an anger barely contained. While the album didn't hit it big on the charts, its influence goes far beyond it, with dozens of artistsincluding Janis Joplin, Glen Campbell, Roberta Flack and Joni Mitchellcovering her songs over the years. It's My Way! also launched Sainte-Marie's remarkable career; she continues to break new ground as the decades pass (she released an early electronic album, Illuminations, in 1969) while maintaining steadfast roots in advocacy for indigenous peoples of the Americas. Jessie Scott (WMOT)


Fearless by Taylor Swift

99. Taylor Swift
Fearless (Big Machine Records, 2008)

No listenership is cast aside with the same fervent damnation as young women—their interests are frequently written off with complete critical derision. Challenging that notion is best accomplished by being too damn good (and confident in that excellence) to ignore. So goes the success of the then-teenage Taylor Swift, a Nashville-via-Pennsylvania talent whose ideation reached its full fruition on Fearless, a self-written country-pop album of immeasurable catchiness. In "Fifteen," she writes from a place of newfound maturity, adopting a big sister role for those most affected by being young and vulnerable (everyone). In "Love Song," fantasy is grounded in intimate reality, a Romeo & Juliet metaphor imbued with restraint — she avoids grandiose gestures and instead offers timeless confessions. Fearless manages to play to Taylor's admiration for her female pop forbearers (Sheryl Crow is mentioned in interviews), the narrative songwriting of the country music she grew up on and her own personal hybridity. At its simplest, Fearless displays Swift as a brilliant songwriter. At its truest, the album shines with an explosive voice, an ineffable gift. No one can question Swift's success now, and Fearless proved it then. Just ask a girl. Maria Sherman (Contributor)


Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah by Bikini Kill

98. Bikini Kill
Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah (Kill Rock Stars, 1993)

In the 1990s, feminism's third wave had a soundtrack. Riot grrlthe raucous, scathing brand of women's punk rockdecried sexism, racism and homophobia, demanded justice for the oppressed and celebrated solidarity among women and girls. Its personification was the rebel girl, described in a song of the same name from Olympia, Washington's Bikini Kill; she is the "queen of the neighborhood" who spurns the male gaze and embodies revolution. The song "Rebel Girl" first appeared on Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, a split album Bikini Kill did with British riot grrl band Huggy Bear. Recorded in a D.C. punk house called The Embassy, it's less polished than the band's studio releases. But in that process, it celebrates its homemade veneer instead of shying away from it. Over the course of Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah's seven original songs (and those that were added in 2014's reissue), singer Kathleen Hanna takes aim at sexist oppression with terrifying force, rage and precision. These songs gave immediate, unfiltered language to a generation of young women who were ready to shout down rapists, who knew that their struggles were interconnected and who believed that women were stronger together. In Hanna's many voices through Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah the Valley Girl-esque whine, the punk bark, the rock and roll howlrefracted the diverse needs and desires of a new movement, opening the doors for any grrl angry enough to walk through. Marissa Lorusso (NPR Music)


Daydream by Mariah Carey

97. Mariah Carey
Daydream (Columbia Records, 1995)

Mariah Carey could have become a glitter-laden version of the '80s pop princess who ruled the decade before, Whitney Houston. Instead, Carey and her six-octave spanning pipes smashed the "Best New Artist" Grammy curse and sashayed off with the rest of the '90s, scoring a No. 1 hit nearly every year that decade. Daydream, released in 1995, was the fifth album into that run. The lead single "Fantasy" is a dreamy party-starter that, in part thanks to a remix featuring Ol' Dirty Bastard, came to define a whole genre of singles that followed its songbird plus gravelly-voiced rapper formula, a la Ja Rule and Ashanti. And on the track "One Sweet Day," all four members of Boyz II Men just barely match Carey's sole star power. Despite being one of her best-selling albums, Daydream was shut out of that year's Grammys (she lost all six categories for which she was nominated). But it proved that Carey had the creative savvy to embrace a new sound, and it established a different template for success than that of her earpiece-and-costumed competitors. Ultimately Carey is still finding her footing as a legacy artist, but she's been too good for too long. At this point, she's only competing with herself. —Audie Cornish (Host, All Things Considered)


Hard Core by Lil' Kim

96. Lil' Kim
Hard Core (Big Beat/Undeas Recordings, 1996)

We all knew Lil' Kim from Junior M.A.F.I.A., but we still weren't ready for her solo debut, Hard Core, when it released in November 1996. The album's title speaks for itself: The introductory track features a man pleasuring himself, presumably while watching a porn flick starring the diminutive rap diva. Track two cues up, and Lil' Kim's wordplay immediately lets us know how she used to be scared of the male member. On Hard Core she owned her sexuality; it was a Big Momma Thang. Lil' Kim goes in on these tracks, deftly weaving in between rapper's moll and hard-edged gold digger. She wasn't doing anything that women hadn't done beforeusing what they got to get what they wantbut Hard Core didn't sugarcoat it. Lil' Kim had no time for fake dudes; all they could do was give her orgasms, buy her jewels, cars and designer goods, then disappear. (Except for Biggie, of course, as she reps hard for him on "Queen B@#$H"). Luminaries like B.I.G., Lil' Cease and even Jay Z jump in with some bars here and there on the album. But trust, this is a Queen Bee jawn. Is it feminist? No idea. But Kim did it first, Nicki Minaj. Tanya Ballard Brown (NPR Staff)


Dónde Están los Ladrones? by Shakira

95. Shakira
¿Dónde Están los Ladrones? (Sony, 1998)

Shakira's luggage was once stolen at the airport in Bogotá, Colombia. The loss, which included a trove of lyrics in one of the suitcases, left her devastated and shook. But the incident also fueled the inspiration for what would be her next album, ¿Dónde Están los Ladrones? (its title means "where are the thieves?"). While it's in partially inspired by the robbery, the album hints towards the political corruption and mistrust Colombian society held towards their own government. As a follow up to her success with Pies Descalzos, Shakira produced every song on her fourth studio record while experimenting with new pop and rock arrangements. She certainly made the most of a bad situation: The imaginative songs of ¿Dónde Están los Ladrones?, brimming with Shakira's witty and brutally honest wordplay, cemented her place in the alternative Latin rock canon. Some Shakira fans see this album as her last piece of work in this genre before crossing over into the English-speaking market with her following record Laundry Service, which ignited cultural conversations about Shakira's authenticity. Yet as a half-Colombiana half Salvadoreña young girl, I never saw other young mujeres from my countries in the media doing what they loved. Shakira, and this album, represented embracing my "otherness" and owning it unapologetically. Jessica Diaz-Hurtado (NPR Staff)


Tuesday Night Music Club by Sheryl Crow

94. Sheryl Crow
Tuesday Night Music Club (A&M, 1993)

By 1993, Sheryl Crow had earned some solid music credibility by working as a backup vocalist with the likes of Don Henley and Michael Jackson, among others. Although she didn't know it at the time, she was on the cusp of superstardom. Enter the Tuesday Night Music Club, a group of musicians who'd get together once a week to push the boundaries of what constituted rock and roll, roots and soul music. It was in that setting that Crow, and several co-writers, created an incredibly diverse 11-song tracklist. While "All I Wanna Do" is so pop-tastically infectious that it easily could have thrown Crow into the "one-hit-wonder" category, songs like "Strong Enough," "No One Said It Would Be Easy" and "Run, Baby, Run" proved that a multi-faceted musician had arrived. It also earned Crow a rightful place in the public consciousness as a soulful singer and lyricist possessing a true gift for knowing which phrases to lean on, and a musician not afraid to get some new mileage out of some familiar country instruments (pedal steel and accordion, to name two). But it's the variety of textures, sounds and ideas you'll find in Tuesday Night Music Club that showed the music industry that women didn't have to be pigeonholed into any one category or genre. —Elena See (Folk Alley/MPR)


Baby One More Time by Britney Spears

93. Britney Spears
...Baby One More Time (Jive Records, 1999)

Oh baby, baby, how were we supposed to know that 1999 would birth one of the most lasting pop albums of the millennium (and beyond)? The combination of Britney Jean Spears' vocals and stellar production work from Max Martin made for an incredibly prescient record, one that still sounds pristine and poppy nearly two decades after its original release. This record broke through the boy band molds and showed me, as a seven-year-old growing up in West Virginia, the power of an independent woman on a single mic. But not everyone felt the same way. At the time Spears dropped her debut, critics immediately wrote her off as a Madonna rip-off and a Lolita-type with no discernible talent, complaints that tend to follow achieving young women with unique voices. And yet ...Baby One More Time went on to become one of the best-selling records of all time, the best-selling album by a teenage solo artist and a multi-platinum Grammy-nominated release for Spears, not to mention an international pop model for artists like Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, Grimes and South Korea's Girls' Generation. Teen pop is typecast as being irrelevant or shallow, but Britney Spears' debut is a multi-generational time capsule that's proven to be as relevant then as it is today when dealing with broken hearts, finding light in dark places and navigating the ups and downs of adulthood. Starting with that one record, Spears redefined pop music and (she drove us) crazy with her showswomanship. Joni Deutsch (Mountain Stage)


Peace Beyond Passion by Meshell Ndegeocello

92. Meshell Ndegeocello
Peace Beyond Passion (Maverick, 1996)

Few artists working in the '90s straddled groove-centric styles with more finesse, or exploited the potential of fluidity more masterfully, than Me'shell Ndegeocello. On 1996's Peace Beyond Passion, her second and best-known album, she brought cool precision to her fusion of hip-hop snap, taut funk, glistening soul orchestration, knotty jazz patterns and psychedelic rock eruptions, a combination that could've easily grown unwieldy in less steady hands. Since she played bass, her primary instrument, and plenty else on there, in addition to being vocalist, songwriter and co-arranger (with producer David Gamson), she was clearly the one shaping the feel and setting the tone on the album. Ndegeocello's vocal performances — sometimes singing, sometimes speaking — were powerfully composed, though her lyrics conveyed deep conviction, and some were artfully provocative. She began the album sagely savaging the oppressive, death-dealing use of religious texts and teachings against black people, queer people and people judged for their carnality, invoking and poetically interrogating familiar devotional language. Then, she turned her attention to quietly intense, androgynous, almost mystical meditations on owning kaleidoscopic sexual desire and negotiating mutual pleasure. Taking that journey with her was its own reward. —Jewly Hight (Contributor)


New Favorite by Alison Krauss and Union Station

91. Alison Krauss And Union Station
New Favorite (Rounder, 2001)

Alison Krauss had been perfecting her brand of sleek, songwriterly bluegrass for more than a decade by the time she and her band, Union Station, put out New Favorite in 2001. Though it was released the same year as the massively popular soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which prominently features both Krauss and Union Station's Dan Tyminski, New Favorite contains none of O Brother's sepia-toned nostalgia. Instead, the album evokes the tenebrous imprint left in the wake of a dream, and simultaneously represents the pinnacle of the group's patented sound. Its songs are shaded by minor-key melancholy and elevated by Krauss' singular voice, which seems to exist on its own cosmic plane. Some critics have written off the album for its polish. But Krauss, a former fiddle champion, did not reject bluegrass's characteristic grit so much as she synthesized it into something new, channeling the talents of her band's superlative pickers in service to the songs. That approach changed the landscape of the genre, and you can hear its influence in practically every contemporary bluegrass act today, from Punch Brothers to Sarah Jarosz. With New Favorite, Krauss showed, once and for all, that she had nothing to prove. Amelia Mason (WBUR)

Turning The Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women