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

Solange Knowles performs at the 2017 ESSENCE Festival in New Orleans, La. Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for 2017 ESSENCE Festival hide caption

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Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for 2017 ESSENCE Festival

Solange Knowles performs at the 2017 ESSENCE Festival in New Orleans, La.

Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for 2017 ESSENCE Festival

Norah Jones, Come Away With Me

140. Norah Jones
Come Away with Me (Blue Note, 2002)

At a time when the music industry was increasingly plagued by piracy and saw rapid declines in album sales, the debut album by a twenty-something old soul (who also happened to be a sitar master's daughter) was an unlikely success story. Norah Jones's distinctive voice, laced with a mellow smoke that might have originated at either the cabaret or honky-tonk, was immediately a force to contend with. On Come Away With Me, released by the storied jazz label Blue Note, she sang Great American Songbook standards like "The Nearness of You" and country classics such as "Cold Cold Heart" with rare, unhurried intimacy. Still, most of the album comprises original material, with Jones penning the memorable title songa lovely, country-tinged waltzand a few others. It earned her a major-category sweep at the Grammys, and in 2005, the album notched more than 10 million copies sold — a feat that made Jones the last artist to achieve diamond status for another seven years. Rachel Horn (NPR Music)


All Over the Place by The Bangles

139. The Bangles
All Over the Place (Columbia, 1984)

The sunshine-y MTV world of the '80s was made for The Bangles, four talented women from L.A. who brought the girl-group harmonies of the '50s and the psychedelic influences of the '60s into the decade of Rickenbacker guitars and power pop. We couldn't have asked for anything better than the slick production, well-crafted songs and hooky choruses on their first album, All Over The Place. On the infectiously catchy album, Susanna Hoffs, Vicki and Debbie Peterson and Michael Steele flexed their chops, sharing Beatles-worthy vocal harmonies and wielding jangly guitars like The Byrds. Like too many pop bands of the time, The Bangles became known more for videos with pretty faces and big hair than the true Girl Power they brought to us all. Yet to allow The Bangles' success to overshadow the group's credibility and importance would be a shame. —Rita Houston (WFUV)


Heaven or Las Vegas by Cocteau Twins

138. Cocteau Twins
Heaven or Las Vegas (4AD, 1990)

Just under the icy synthesizers and effects-laden guitars of early Cocteau Twins albums, Elizabeth Fraser's nimble, otherworldly voice peers up at the surface, hinting at pop accessibility without ever fulling committing. But on the Scottish band's 1990 album, Heaven or Las Vegas, Fraser's voice rose to the forefront, no longer submerged. Rather than crafting instrumental textures involving Fraser's voice, Heaven presents paintings whose principal color is her voice, and sacrifices none of the dense complexity underneath. On the album, Fraser's vocals are immediate yet still mysterious. She slurs syllables and turns vowels inside out to invoke both mood and meaning, demonstrating total control over the sounds and shapes of the words she sings. By centering Fraser's unique vocals and hooky melodies on Heaven or Las Vegas, Cocteau Twins crafted a truly gorgeous sound, and proved it was underneath the swirling technical innovation of its soundtruly a pop band at heart. Combined with lyrics that were more personal and, at times, more uplifting than on previous records, Fraser's performance on Heaven breathed life and warmth into the band's sound. In doing so, she proved how crucial the voice can be as an instrument, especially within the dream-pop and shoegaze movements Cocteau Twins inspired. Marissa Lorusso (NPR Music)


Fifty Gates of Wisdom: Yemenite Songs by Ofra Haza

137. Ofra Haza
50 Gates Of Wisdom (Yemenite Songs) (Shanachie, 1987)

Originally released in 1984 in Israel and released in the U.S. three years later, this album by Israeli singer Ofra Haza was an unlikely international touchstone, with lyrics sprung from the work of a 16th-century Yemeni Jewish poet, Rabbi Shalom Shabazi. It boasts a clever mix of Yemeni Jewish percussion and rhythms interwoven through a palette of strings, woodwinds, brass, synths and drum machines. The album's core, however, is Haza's rich alto voice, shaded with Middle Eastern melisma but driven by pop's raw power. And you can dance to it: The opening track "Im Nin'alu" has become something of a sampling staple, heard in Eric B. and Rakim's "Paid in Full," Public Enemy's "Can't Truss It" and MARRS' "Pump Up The Volume." But this album had a whole other side, and depth of meaning, that remained largely shuttered off to non-Israeli fans. Singing in a mix of Yemenite Hebrew and Arabic, Haza made this album as a declaration of pride in her roots as a young woman from the poor Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv, and as a Mizrahi Jew whose family came from Yemen (not Eastern Europe), a group historically derided and marginalized within Israeli society. At the same time, she was claiming her own power within the conservative Yemeni Jewish community, in which men held the reins. Decades before intersectionality became part of the cultural conversation, Haza (who died tragically of AIDS at age 41 in 2000) recognized that her self-identity had many layersand as an artist, she demanded her own place at the table. Anastasia Tsioulcas (NPR Music)


Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band by Yoko Ono

136. Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band
Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (Apple Records, 1970)

Has there ever been a female artist so overshadowed by her proximity to male greatness than Yoko Ono? A truly cutting-edge figure across multiple disciplines, Ono is nonetheless more often spited for daring to influence her collaborator-turned-husband John Lennon than lauded for her pioneering works of music and performance art. 1970's twin releases from Ono and Lennon, with their newly-formed Plastic Ono Band, epitomize this. Whereas John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band was critically acclaimed as an intimate, honest rock and roll album, few audiences knew what to do with Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. Jarring, experimental and stunning, Ono's album sounds like a head-on collision between her avant-garde art and Lennon's rock and roll (with touches of free jazz by way of an Ornette Coleman quartet on "AOS"). Yoko's voice is a powerful instrument, and it's honed to near perfection on this album; it ricochets with pre-punk raw aggression and incorporates hetai, a vocal style from Japanese kabuki theater. At the time of its release, critical reception to Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band was paternalistic at best and outright disdainful at worst; however, bands like The B-52's, Sonic Youth, Public Image Ltd, The Slits and many others bear strong signs of Ono's influence. Wide swaths of avant-garde rock, post-punk, sound art and experimental electronic music simply wouldn't exist without the fearless curiosity of Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. —Marissa Lorusso (NPR Music)


The B-52's, self-titled

135. The B-52's
The B-52's (Warner Bros., 1979)

The B-52's' self-titled debut album didn't sound like anything else when it was released, a fact that remains true to this day. The album is like some sort of otherworldly candy: You're not entirely sure what you're eating or where it came from, but you definitely find yourself reaching for more. The B-52's defied convention with their imaginative songs about aliens, dance crazes like the Shu-ga-loo and the Camel Walk, beachy fun with jellyfish, narwhals and rock lobsters, and loving that burns hot like lava and cracks like Krakatoa. The B-52's also represents a seismic moment in culture; this album was embraced at a time when the band's new wave and punk contemporaries gravitated towards a much more somber tone in their music. The band has been praised by everyone from R.E.M to Nirvana, and its singular style, including the vibrant clothes and beehive hairstyles of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, has also become a pivotal part of pop culture. There's also the fact that its songs are endlessly quotable, thanks in large part to the whip-smart songwriting contributions Pierson and Wilson made to the album, which includes lyrics like: "Some say she's from Mars / Or one of the seven stars / That shine after three-thirty in the morning / Well, she isn't!" from "Planet Claire" and "These are the principal girls of the U.S.A / Can you name, name, name, name 'em today?" from "52 Girls." More than anything, the irresistibly danceable songs of The B-52's prove that silly can be seriously good. Alisa Ali (WFUV)


134. Solange
A Seat at the Table (Saint/Columbia 2016)

Solange's A Seat at the Table was a gift during an epidemic season of police brutality, its sounds warmly embracing the ears as she spoke directly to black people in mourning. Each lyric was feathered delicately over modern New Orleans jazz compositions, alongside odes to funk, soul, R&B and hip-hop. It built a softness and sincerity that touched in areas that D'Angelo's Black Messiah and Kendrick's To Pimp A Butterfly couldn't get to (through no fault of their own). The album is also a testament to Solange's ear for arrangements and collaboration: Her choicesranging from Questlove, Raphael Saadiq, Dev Hynes and Dirty Projectors' Dave Longstreth on the production side and Tweet, Kelela, Moses Sumney, Sampha and BJ The Chicago Kid on the albummake it both a seamless and soothing listen. By including interludes from her parents and Master P, she reflected honor and forced us to peep game. Each song exudes comfort, nuance and an affirmation, especially on "Cranes in the Sky," which deserves to be the new Black National Anthem. A Seat at the Table is a recent classic, but more importantly, it's also a solution. Stasia Irons (KEXP)


Fanny Hill by Fanny

133. Fanny
Fanny Hill (Reprise, 1972)

"Now the sound and the fury have some place to go," June Millington sings in one of the liberation rockers on this boundary-breaking album, her slide guitar looping through the mix like a giddy spring wind. Fury is in the mix on Fanny Hill, the third and best album by the most masterful all-female band of the classic rock era; but so is joy, tenderness and total self-confidence. Fanny had made two albums before heading to Abbey Road Studios to work with Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick on this one, the four women were deeply in tune with each other, leaping from boogie-based hard rock to delicate ballads to Southern swampiness to proto-glam without missing a beat. Keyboard player Nickey Barclay was a fierce oracle on songs like "Blind Alley" and "Borrowed Time," speaking out against hypocrisy in politics and the rock star scene. Millington's songs were more pensive; her "You've Got a Home " spoke of a single mother's love for her childhardly typical fodder for the sausage party of hard rock. Fanny Hill did some serious world building within the realm of 1970s rock, creating a space not only for women's creativity, but for their whole humanity. Ann Powers (NPR Music)


I Am Shelby Lynne by Shelby Lynne

132. Shelby Lynne
I Am Shelby Lynne (Island/Mercury, 2000)

The country divas of the 1990s projected effervescence, empowerment, empathy and open emotionalism to their sisters in small-towns and suburbs. Shelby Lynne, on the other hand, spent most of that era trying to carve out a place for herself in Nashville's scene, applying her sumptuous twang to torchy, swinging and adult contemporary pop-leaning material from Music Row pros. Her participation in the country music industry concluded in the late '90s with her decision to become a very different kind of communicator — less demonstrative, more elusive and artful. She hightailed it to the West Coast, where she convinced producer Bill Bottrell to assist her in redefining herself as a singer-songwriter of cagey-cool southern pop. The result, I Am Shelby Lynne, was simultaneously more down-home and more uptown than anything else she'd done, its molten keyboards and sly, gristly guitar figures set to brittle digital percussion and opulent orchestration. For the first time, Lynne wrote or co-wrote her entire album, weaving earthy vernacular and masterful manipulation of tone into a barbed, powerfully sensual distillation of desire and disappointment. She loosened her phrasing and deployed a variety of vocal attacks — from toughened and tart to supple and insinuating — even supplying her own headstrong, soul-influenced background vocals, as if to affirm the singularity of the voice she'd cultivated. And she wasn't wrong. As both song interpreter and songwriter, she had a revelatory angle on self-regulated, southern-accented expression. —Jewly Hight (Contributor)


I Thought About You by Shirley Horn

131. Shirley Horn
I Thought About You — Live At Vine St. (Verve Records, 1987)

Since the earliest days of jazz recording, women have been at the pianoLil Hardin, Marian McPartland, Hazel Scott, Mary Lou Williams, to name a few. But they couldn't sing like Shirley Horn. I Thought About You was a much-anticipated comeback album for the combo leader who'd spent significant periods away from the bandstand, signaling the beginning of the last and most creatively satisfying period of her career. Horn's nice 'n' easy style often conjures Nat "King" Cole, but Miles Davis was her early, like-minded champion. Her mature sound has since been replicated by younger and more commercially successful women in jazz and pop music, including Norah Jones and, most particularly, Diana Krall. This album was Horn's first in 20 years. It features eleven standards performed at the Vine Street Bar & Grill, a cozy (and now defunct) Hollywood supper club. As a live recording, I Thought About You captures Horn's perfectionist leanings — the performance is immaculate. And her trademark balladry is as languid as ever: Horn's version of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars" is a sumptuous, nearly twelve-minute-long affair. —Gwen Thompkins (WWNO)

Turning The Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women