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

(From left to right) Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders; Debbie Harry of Blondie; Viv Albertine of The Slits; Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex; Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie And The Banshees; and Pauline Black of The Selecter in London in 1980. Michael Putland/Getty Images hide caption

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Michael Putland/Getty Images

(From left to right) Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders; Debbie Harry of Blondie; Viv Albertine of The Slits; Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex; Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie And The Banshees; and Pauline Black of The Selecter in London in 1980.

Michael Putland/Getty Images

The Pretenders, self-titled.

60. The Pretenders
Pretenders (Sire, 1980)

The word most often used to describe this debutthe crowning achievement of hard rock in the era of punk -- is "perfect." Chrissie Hynde made it that way: Raised in the rock and roll wellspring of Cleveland, Ohio, she'd moved to London at age 22 and spent years studying British cool and American songcraft, forming a band that had enough flash to embody the former and enough chops to apply punk's furious mandates to the latter. The sound of Pretenders connects early R&B and rockabilly with the reggae and classic rock that Hynde's friends in The Clash and Rockpile were remaking alongside her. Hynde had the best voice, with a girl group singer's sob and a snarl as disdainful as Johnny Rotten's. In her red leather jacket and kohl eyeliner, she was a self-conceived love child of Keith Richards and Ronnie Spector, but what made the rock chick persona Hynde cultivated so special was her willingness to go deep. Songs like "Precious, "Brass in Pocket" and "The Wait" were forthright about subjects most rockers sneered through, from rough sex to artistic ambition to the vulnerability women who wanted to live in the world had to manage somehow. "Not me baby, I'm too precious," Hynde spat at the haters; from her, a million young women trying to find their place within rock's noise gained the courage to say it, too. Ann Powers (NPR Music)


Indigo Girls, self-titled.

59. Indigo Girls
Indigo Girls (Epic, 1989)

The notes opening Indigo Girls' 1989 self-titled album are the most important ones of their careers to date. The thesis posited by the Atlanta duo on this song, "Closer to Fine," was unequivocal: We are here to get free. It would be years before Emily Saliers and Amy Ray would solidify their cultural standing as gay icons, but with progressive-leaning lyrics about growing horizons, and harmonies that were so compatible that they sounded more like fate than music theory, it was immediately clear that this band was making music for anyone who felt the pinch of being a big spirit in a small world. Their influence on the '90s coffeehouse sound, which became a defining thread of that decade, was indelible. On this album, Indigo Girls managed to make two guitars and two voices sound bigger than any identity box, any closet and any wall standing between a person and the best, truest version of themselves. Katie Presley (Contributor)


Nightbirds by Labelle

58. Labelle
Nightbirds (Epic, 1974)

Patti LaBelle and The Bluebelles, a doo-wop group known for releasing honeyed ballads in the '60s, found themselves at a crossroads midway through their careers. Girl groups were beginning to fall out of favor with major labels and mainstream consumers; in order to remain relevant, they had to do something drastic. So, they did. They switched up their style, look, musical direction and name, becoming simply Labelle. By the time their 1974 album Nightbirds released, the group members had fully transitioned from bouffant wigs and modest gowns to headdresses and interplanetary outfits. With this record, they began covering topics previously off-limits to black female groups, such as politics and sexual freedom. No song better represented that course change than the opening track of Nightbirds, "Lady Marmalade." Rooted in funk and disco but drizzled with the brashness of rock, the song appealed to listeners across genres with its candid storytelling. By March 1975, the song had hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2001, "Lady Marmalade" was reborn when singer-rapper-producer Missy Elliott flipped the track for the Moulin Rouge soundtrack, giving a new set of womenChristina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mýa and Pinkthe chance to tell the story to a new generation. Kiana Fitzgerald (Contributor)


What's the 411? by Mary J. Blige hide caption

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57. Mary J. Blige
What's the 411? (Uptown/MCA, 1992)

Mary J. Blige's debut album, What's the 411?, was a game-changer. It not only earned Blige the title of queen of the then-emerging hip-hop soul genre, but it became the blueprint that R&B would end up using for decades to come. Just two examples: Notorious B.I.G would reference "Real Love" from the album a couple of years later on his song "Dreams," and Frank Ocean would end up incorporating the song's refrain on his 2012 song "Super Rich Kids." Half of the tracks on What's the 411? became hit singles, and it wasn't unusual to hear Mary J. Blige blasting out of cars in many urban neighborhoods (I remember being struck by seeing a bunch of guys standing in front of a bodega in Harlem listening to her cover of Chaka Khan's "Sweet Thing"). Her music brought a new level of sensitivity to men, but it also meant the world to ladies. On the closing track, Mary J. Blige responds to rapper Grand Puba's macho bravado with her own rap in which she declares that she's "not having that" and, furthermore, she "don't have no time for no wham bam, thank you ma'am!". Blige then brilliantly transitions into a short cover of a Debra Law's "Very Special." It's fitting, because What's the 411? is just that. Alisa Ali (WFUV)


Germfree Adolescents by X-Ray Spex

56. X-Ray Spex
Germfree Adolescents (EMI, 1978)

Decades before the likes of Radiohead bemoaned ecological destruction and the pitfalls of capitalism, the English punk group X-Ray Spex stormed into the world with bracing, no-bullshit anthems about the cult of cleanliness, consumerism and exploitation on their debut album Germfree Adolescents. Led by the volcanic Poly Styrene, the opera-trained daughter of a Somalian father and a Scottish-Irish mother, the group merged conceptual brilliance with inventive rhythms. It's hard to overstate how much Germfree Adolescents rattled the then-oversaturated punk scene in the late 1970s, and challenged it to push past a generic formula of chugging chords, injecting the likes of saxophone-threaded hit "The World Turned Day-Glo" and the biting "Identity" into the mainstream. From the moment it released its first single (the seething "Oh Bondage! Up Yours!") the group combined music imbued with a simultaneous social consciousness an urgent reminder of why any of us got into music in the first place: It's a damn blast. Clever and captivating, and sparing none in the pursuit to unmask artificiality, Germfree Adolescents remains one of the most searing and irresistibly danceable punk albums ever recorded. Paula Mejia (Contributor)


Beauty and the Beat by The Go-Go's

55. The Go-Gos
Beauty And The Beat (I.R.S., 1981)

Leave it to the spiritual daughters of The Shirelles and The Ronettes to do backflips off the Wall of Sound. The Go-Gos wrote their own growling, gleeful songs combining the audacity and yearning of 1960's-era girl groups with the boyish bravado of surf rock and late-1970s punk. But the band — comprised of Belinda Carlisle, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin — also brought a hard-driving playfulness to their music, and an insouciant insistence upon being heard. They eschewed a male manager and no label would sign them, even with a Top 40 hit, "We Got The Beat." That single finally helped The Go-Go's secure a record deal in 1981, though, and the group's first album, Beauty and the Beat, sold millions of copies. It also became the first No. 1 record by an all-female band that played their own instruments and composed their own music. Beauty and the Beat remains celebrated as a cornerstone of American new wave music. Caffey and Wiedlin were the album's primary songwriters, and along with the rest of the band, they were initially dismayed by its bouncy, bubble gum production. They'd wanted Beauty and the Beat to sound rougher, grittier and more reflective of their punk roots. But something about that sheen of Southern California sunshine throws its shadows in relief. —Neda Ulaby (NPR Staff)


Chelsea Girl by Nico

54. Nico
Chelsea Girl (Verve, 1967)

There's something endearing about a singer who sounds unrefined and raw, and Nico is certainly one of those artists. Her voice is one-of-a-kind yet completely relatableshe's you, she's me, she's vulnerable and melancholic, and so imperfectly authentic. Before releasing her debut solo album Chelsea Girl, Nico spent time as a model, actress (Chelsea Girl gets its name from an Andy Warhol film in which she starred) and, most notably, a musician who performed with The Velvet Underground. This opened the door for her to record as a solo artist, and her debut album sounds as peculiar and unorthodox as Nico herself. Chelsea Girl is composed of songs written by Lou Reed, Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan, among others. There are no drums on the album, despite Nico's request to add them. There is no bass either. Instead, the guitars are accompanied by keyboards, strings, and flutea last minute addition Nico knew nothing about and abhorred after hearing the finished product. The album may have been despised by Nico herself, but it's adored by fans worldwide. Amy Miller (KXT)


Heart Like a Wheel by Linda Ronstadt

53. Linda Ronstadt
Heart Like A Wheel (Capitol, 1974)

Linda Ronstadt first received public attention in 1967, when her band, The Stone Poneys, found a hit with the rollicking folk-rock song "A Different Drum." Ronstadt soon became a household name, though, both because of her talents and because she railed against stereotypes of the time. That trailblazing instinct included her desire to have input into her own production, something she was incredibly impassioned about. It's nowhere clearer than on her fifth solo album, Heart Like a Wheel, released in 1974. The album, which Ronstadt co-produced with Andrew Gold and Peter Asher, was the first of many collaborations with Asher, who gave her the freedom to have full agency over her work. The contributing songwriters on the album are impressive, as well, and include the likes of Hank Williams, Phil Everly, J.D. Souther, Lowell George and Anna McGarrigle. The album proved to be a catapult for Linda Ronstadt, as it spent several weeks atop of the Billboard country album chart and garnered Ronstadt her first Grammy win for "I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love with You." Heart Like a Wheel also solidified Ronstadt's position as the most successful female artist of the time. Her powerful vocals, musicality, and stage presence were a revelation, which, in turn, opened the door for more women in the industry while illuminating country rock as a genre to be taken seriously. Jessie Scott (WMOT)


Nick of Time by Bonnie Raitt

52. Bonnie Raitt
Nick Of Time (Capitol/EMI, 1989)

It has been 28 years since Bonnie Raitt's debut, came, well, in the nick of time. Raitt had long held a singular level of respect as a female blues guitarist for her slide work, but large scale commercial success had evaded her. Nick of Time, her 10th studio album, changed all that. It signified redemption after being dropped by Warner Bros., and gave her a sweep at the Grammys. It was also the first she made after getting sober, and while Raitt is more often known for the way she can make another songwriter's work her own, on this album her clear-headed compositions are the most resonant. The opening title track is one that still holds meaning for women todaythe then-39-year-old Raitt brings into sharp focus the emotions of a female friend having to decide about kids before she is no longer able to have them. On the last track listeners hear Raitt's personal ode to career over coupledomthat guy may love her, but touring beckons to her in "The Road's My Middle Name." Nick of Time set Bonnie Raitt up for future commercial success, which she also saw with 1991's Luck of the Draw, but more importantly, it gave voice to the personal choices women still weigh heavily today. Kimberly Junod (World Cafe)


Sassy Swings Again by Sarah Vaughan

51. Sarah Vaughan
Sassy Swings Again (Mercury, 1967)

Hearing Sarah Vaughan's 1967 recording of Sassy Swings Again is like taking a master class in the juxtaposition of vocal acuity and fluidity. Here, she teaches women how to run a band with the sheer grace and unassuming power of her voice. On this album, she also effortlessly takes on horn solos and goes toe-to toe with the likes of Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, and Kai Winding on trombone. Manny Albam and Thad Jones arranged the instrumentation like a mosaic around Vaughan's vocals, putting the spotlight on her signature sound while ushering her seamlessly through each measure. The perfectly complementary relationship between the orchestra and Vaughan's vocalese makes this classic recording required listening for jazz disciples and fanatics alike. —Keanna Faircloth (NPR Staff)

Turning The Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women