Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Against Me! performs at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival Manchester, Tenn., in 2015.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Against Me! performs at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival Manchester, Tenn., in 2015.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
110. Miranda Lambert
Platinum (RCA Nashville, 2014)
Miranda Lambert had been releasing albums made with a cultivated circle of collaborators — producer Frank Liddell, songwriters Ashley Monroe and Natalie Hemby, among others — for roughly a decade by 2014, and had long since become one of country music's hardest rocking and most recognizable stars. Due to her indelible performances in the roles of women sticking it to cruel, bullying men and gleefully flouting the rejection of feminine propriety, Lambert was — at least in the minds of either casual or casually sexist observers — tethered to a cartoonish spitfire persona. Then Platinum, her first truly great album, made her shrewd self-awareness undeniable. Throughout a 16-song set that felt simultaneously personal and engineered for popular impact, she split the difference between her singer-songwriter and arena headliner sensibilities with a tone that was playfully serious and seriously playful — here, her spry, vinegary delivery confirms her as one of her generation's great wits. Recorded with frisky production at a moment when women were relegated to the margins of a seemingly homogenized, male-dominated country format, Lambert's riffs on womanly wisdom were both proudly countrified and thoroughly contemporary. She summoned confessional vulnerability, hard rock theatricality, gossipy candor and knowing sentimentality in songs about everything from the bizarre, transformative effects of celebrity to the perverse attraction of nostalgia and the simultaneous brutality and utility of beauty regimens. She not only made one of the most sophisticated, and fun, gestures of gender solidarity in the history of country music, but on Platinum, she finally displayed her real range. —Jewly Hight (Contributor)
109. Against Me!
Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Total Treble, 2014)
Against Me!'s founder and singer, Laura Jane Grace, spoke publically about her gender dysphoria years before releasing Transgender Dysphoria Blues. But with this studio album, her band's sixth, she put it all on the line. Here, Grace owns her identity as a trans woman with full-throated howls and lyrics about dresses and eyelashes, but they're never a costume. The trappings of femininity become tools for singing about the tricky parts of her transition, which included moments of loneliness, disappointment and confusion. The album doesn't sacrifice anything of what fans of Against Me! might expect to hear: A band at full tilt, and songs with lyrics that cover more traditional punk ground like politics and capitalism. But it's in the moments when Grace speaks candidly about her identity — whether be they proud or profoundly heartbreaking — that the album makes your heart swell with understanding. It's important music, a milestone moment of a trans woman declaring her identity and articulating the highs and lows of her story. And Grace has never sounded stronger. —Sarah Handel (NPR Staff)
108. Gladys Knight and the Pips
Imagination (Buddah Records, 1973)
Imagination is a declaration of independence, of sorts. After spending years with Berry Gordy at Motown Records, Gladys Knight & The Pips departed after feeling that more attention and resources were going to other artists on the label. The leap paid off; Imagination, their first album with Buddah Records, went gold, topping the pop and soul charts. Throughout Imagination, Knight's powerful vocals are on full display — but vocals from The Pips also get an opportunity to shine, too. They'd had some experience harmonizing together, to say the least. Gladys Knight grew up singing in church, and after winning a singing competition at the age of eight, assembled her singing group with her cousins and siblings. But by the 1960s, Knight's deep alto was supported by all-male backing vocals. Gladys Knight & the Pips continued to record several albums together before Knight launched a solo career, but this album cemented their place in musical history. From "Midnight Train to Georgia" to "I've Got to Use My Imagination" and "Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me," this album is filled with classics. —Lauren Migaki (NPR Staff)
107. The Shangri-Las
Leader of the Pack (Red Bird Records, 1965)
The girl-group boom of the late 1950s and 1960s cast the voice of the American teenage girl squarely into the spotlight. But The Shangri-Las, with their tough-girl personas and blue-collar Queens accents, tapped into its darker side, with dispatches from the more haunted part of the adolescent psyche — where every broken date or fight with mom is weighted with potentially apocalyptic significance. Neither of the two sets of sisters — the Weisses and the Gansers — that comprised the group were over 17 when they recorded the Billboard chart-topper "Leader of the Pack," the melodramatic apex of the teen-tragedy genre that gave their 1965 debut LP its name (and which, it turned out, wouldn't even be their only song in which a young lover dies blinded by tears.) The revving motorcycles and breaking glass on the title cut, co-written by Brill Building hitmakers Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry alongside producer George "Shadow" Morton, along with the Morton-penned, mournful "Remember (Walking in the Sand)," set the tone for The Shangri-Las' most memorable recordings. More often than not, these were abstract, eerie radio plays as much as pop tunes. The Shangri-Las would only release one more album, but their aesthetic would reverberate for generations, through endless covers and name-checks by acts ranging from Bette Midler to Blondie to Amy Winehouse. In particular, their frequency of danger and doom resonated with the men of hard rock and punk — they've been referenced and cited by The Jesus and Mary Chain, Twisted Sister and maybe most famously, The New York Dolls — who not only quoted them on the song "Looking For A Kiss," but also put Morton at the helm of their 1974 album Too Much Too Soon. —Alison Fensterstock (Contributor)
106. No Doubt
Tragic Kingdom (Interscope, 1995)
Back in the the early nineties, Alanis Morissette, Courtney Love, Liz Phair and Shirley Manson were dominating the alternative rock scene. So maybe it's no surprise that amidst of all that, Gwen Stefani was there too, belting about the experience of being a woman in the world without a modicum of self-doubt. Her delivery on her band No Doubt's standout album, Tragic Kingdom, is so convincing and unabashedly self-assured that it makes the sexism she's talking about seem utterly ridiculous. "I'm just a girl in the world / That's all that you'll let me be," she sings on "Just A Girl," at once describing her confines and refusing to abide by them. By doing so in 1995, she carved out a space for other people to do the same for the next two decades: Sing about politics, gender roles, breakups and ambition all on the same album, right next to each other. They needn't be mutually exclusive. Tragic Kingdom can be goofy and cheesy and theatrical, the way ska punk sometimes is, but there's no space, on that album, to doubt what Stefani is saying. Her reality is so captivating, it's like nothing else exists. —Leah Donnella (NPR Staff)
105. Sheila E.
The Glamorous Life (Warner Bros., 1984)
Though she be but beautiful, she is fierce! Sheila Escovedo, better known by her moniker Sheila E., stands in command at her timbale set, with cowbells, a cymbal and a microphone. Sensuous and sexy. Poised and polished. Confident, demure and blazingly talented. She beats her drums with authority and assurance, moving her feet in perfect step. She sings and glances sideways with a smirk that suggests she's also having fun, too. And on her 1984 debut solo album, the Prince-produced The Glamorous Life, Escovedo champions young ladies' imaginations with gripping detail: "I'm in love with the Belle of St. Mark / I've been wondering what to wear, I love our noon rendezvous / We're gonna have fun, Oliver's house / All I ask is for a little decency and class / Next time wipe the lipstick off your collar / She wants to lead the glamorous life / She don't need a man's touch," she sings, a badass percussion solo following the title track's uplifting hook. These days, The Glamorous Life is garnering more rightful celebrations as one of the greatest, if underrated funk albums of the mid-1980s, thanks in no small part to Sheila's flawless drum technique and swaggering stage presence. —Suraya Mohamed (NPR Music)
Come Away With ESG (99 Records, 1983)
Four teenage sisters from the South Bronx — Deborah, Marie, Renee and Valerie Scroggins — started writing punkified dance songs together in the 1970s. They named themselves ESG, an acronym stands for Emerald, Sapphire and Gold. It's not hard to see why: Every second of their rhythm-centered debut album, Come Away With ESG, is a gem that casts light in every direction. It's unexpected, too. A surging surf rock current runs through the likes of "Chistelle," while the woozy "About You" is perhaps the sultriest song to ever feature the cowbell. Come Away With ESG bursts with lean, rhythm-driven love letters to the dance floor — including the funk-punk jam "You Make No Sense" and the infectious "Dance," which will make just about anybody start to move and groove — that have been sampled countless times and undoubtedly contributed to hip-hop's development. At the time, ESG's prescient songs defied definition; today, they're proof that seemingly-disparate influences, like Latin funk and post-punk, can indeed coexist in the same sonic universe, the very one they're urging us to along to. We'll follow them anywhere. — Paula Mejia (Contributor)
103. Umm Kulthum
Enta Omri (You Are My Life) (Sono, 1964)
It's been over five decades since the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum — the Star of the East, and still the all-time most famous star of the Arab world — began performing what might still be the love song to end all love songs: "Enta Omri." Written in 1964 by Mohammed Abd el-Wahab, a composer who would later become a frequent collaborator for Kulthum, and with poetry by Ahmad Ramy, it's a song that Arabs of all ages still listen to and sing along with, note for note and aching word for aching word. Like other songs in her repertory, Umm Kulthum would frequently spin out a live performance of "Enta Omri" for over an hour or even two — bringing something new to each phrase, each note a perfect gem but imbued with a deep, unrelenting pathos. But there is something uniquely, and universally, appealing about this Abd el-Wahab song in particular. The enticement begins with that compelling, sinuous melody that he gave to an electric guitar — a watershed moment for Arab music, which had previously been played with all-acoustic instruments. Take a hint from her adoring fans: Some Thursday evening — the night of the week when, once a month in a practice that went on for decades, Umm Kulthum would spellbind millions of people with a live, hours-long radio performance — turn on one of those slowly unspooling, completely dazzling performances of "Enta Omri," and be transported to another time, another world. —Anastasia Tsioulcas (NPR Music)
102. Alabama Shakes
Sound & Color (ATO, 2015)
While Alabama Shakes were nominated for three Grammy Awards following the group's 2012 debut, its members proved themselves masters of rock texture and rhythm on their second studio album, Sound & Color. The album begins and ends with an otherworldly synthesizer pulse beautiful enough to stop even the most jaded music fan in their tracks, yet vocalist and guitarist Brittany Howard brings us back down to earth with a voice that carries real longing and range. Howard's intimate, introspective lyrics probe love, and every rise and crash that it brings, on songs like "Don't Wanna Fight." In front of the world she is remembering, letting go of frustration and calling out to a lover who will never hear. And on "Future People," Howard's voice ranges from angelic to soulful, hitting like a volt of electricity. Meanwhile, "Miss You" is melodic with doo-wop rhythms and poignant details of a love since lost: "I'm gonna miss you and your Mickey Mouse tattoo," she sings. It's a prime example of what's most remarkable about Sound & Color; it tackles the familiar anticipation of unexpected love, all while treading new sonic territory. —Michele Myers (KEXP)
Touch (RCA, 1983)
In 1983, Eurythmics — the formerly romantic creative duo of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart — finally had a hit, one that would prove to the biggest of their career: "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." The soulful synth pop masterpiece was plagued by romantic longing — sonic storytelling far removed from the robotic isolation that punctuated many new wave songs at the time. The same year, the prolific pop savants released Touch, another commercial success confirming their idiosyncratic greatness. Who knew that sad, strange and human could also be popular? Melancholy, as delivered by vocalist Lennox, is what made them great. Her rich contralto teeters a line of theatrics and overdramatics that creates a cohesion to Touch that would otherwise go unrealized. In "Right by Your Side," she levitates in love, only to tear herself down with a cringe-worthy moment of clarity: "When depression starts to win / I need to be right by your side." Even steel pans and joyous synthesizers can't distract from harsh reality — and there is a particular loneliness to this album, particularly on "Who's That Girl?" which allows narrative longing and minimal production to cut to the core. Sadness never sounded so cool. —Maria Sherman (Contributor)