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

Aretha Franklin sings in the Atlantic Records studio in New York City in January 1969. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images hide caption

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Aretha Franklin sings in the Atlantic Records studio in New York City in January 1969.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Rapture by Anita Baker

120. Anita Baker
Rapture (Elektra, 1986)

To put it succinctly, Anita Baker's third album, Rapture, is akin to good home cooking. In fact, my earliest memories of this album include it being used as a soundtrack to my mom's kitchen escapades. The luscious tone of Baker's voice truly feels like soul food as she effortlessly floats on the simplest, cyclical melodic lines like: "I love you here by me, baby. You let my love fly freely." You can't help but allow yourself to be swept away as the lyrics engulf you. Since its 1986 release, which won Baker her first pair of Grammy Awards, artists ranging from George Duke to JoJo have either sampled or covered some of the album's most resonant chart-toppers, including "Same Ole Love" and "Caught Up in the Rapture;" further proof that Rapture has certainly staked its claim in the R&B Bible. Keanna Faircloth (NPR Staff)


Cut by The Slits

119. The Slits
Cut (Island Records, 1979)

"We are not punks. We're the Slits," Palmolive told ZigZag magazine in 1977. Although the Spanish-born drummer would leave the group before they released their 1979 debut album, her definition held strong. As outsiders to the male punk norm, Ari Up, Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollitt recognized how quickly that work had been codified ("it's all just a uniform, what they wear and what they do," Up continued), and sought to break the mold. Crucially, they wanted to avoid creating a new one while they were at it. Their debut, Cut, kicks back at the social strictures placed on womenin professional, capitalist, domestic and psychological contextsand figures out how life might feel beyond them. Averse to consumerist sugarcoating, they weren't afraid to highlight the precariousness of living outside society's rules. "Searching for something that makes hearts move, I found myself," Up sang on "Adventures Close to Home." "But my best possession walked into the shade and threatened to drift away." Yet mostly, Cut's joyful noiseAlbertine's scratchy, lilting guitar; the limber, tricksy rhythm section of Pollitt and Budgie, later of Siouxsie and the Bansheesis propaganda for agitation as a life-giving force. Anyone in doubt only needs to catch the end of "Shoplifting," where Up, overcome by the sheer exhilaration of playing alongside her co-conspirators, howls "I've pissed in my knickers!" —Laura Snapes (Contributor)


I Feel For You by Chaka Khan

118. Chaka Khan
I Feel for You (Warner Bros., 1984)

In the 1970s, Chaka Khan was the darling of funk as a central member of the Chicago band Rufus. But I Feel for You, Khan's first official album released in 1984, had her standing front and center with zero distractions. (Rufus dissolved in 1983.) By that time, rhythm & blues had been largely overtaken by high-tech production tools that bent and reshaped traditional vocals and instruments, transforming them into something entirely new. That fresh landscape became the foundation for Khan's I Feel for You, a quintessential example of black '80s pop. The album's title track was originally written and performed by Prince as a ballad in 1979. But Khan, along with Stevie Wonder on chromatic harmonica and Grandmaster Melle Mel and his "Ch-ch-ch-chaka-chaka-chaka Khan" intro, turned the song into an energetic marriage of hip-hop and new-school soul that shot to number one on the Billboard R&B singles chart. Khan's impact on hip-hop would later be felt via one of rap's leading men, Kanye West, who used I Feel for You's standout ballad, "Through the Fire," as the base of his debut single "Through the Wire." This song would eventually become the blueprint of West's sample-heavy production style, which inspired scores of producers that came after him. Kiana Fitzgerald (Contributor)


I Love Rock N' Roll by Joan Jett

117. Joan Jett
I Love Rock 'n' Roll (Boardwalk, 1981)

Fresh from a path-forging run with the teenage rock band The Runaways, Joan Jett burst out in 1981 with her first album fronting the deliciously hard-rocking Blackhearts. (She'd released Bad Reputation, her solo debut, a year earlier, and it was re-released in 1981.) Aside from its incredible commercial success — more than 10 million copies sold — I Love Rock 'n' Roll was a bold collection of covers and originals whose title track became an iconic anthem for the definitive hard rock scene of the 1980s. Though there were certainly other women fronting rock bands at the time (Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde), Jett's daring, energetic approach to the form is singular. Where one got the sense that Harry and Hynde were specifically forging a path for women in rock, Jett was just rocking. She didn't bother changing the "her" in "Crimson and Clover" to "him," because such a change would've ruined the rhyme, and her delivery of that iconic tune paired her devil-may-care vocal delivery with heavily distorted electric guitar. The couple of tunes that Jett wrote herself (particularly "You're Too Possessive") were among the most throttling tunes on the record, and no doubt set a bar for what would become a game-changing Riot Grrrl movement a decade later. Kim Ruehl (Folk Alley)


On How Life Is by Macy Gray

116. Macy Gray
On How Life Is (Epic, 1999)

It's the late '90s. An artist gets dropped from her first major label deal, meaning the rock record she's completed will never see the light of day. She goes through a difficult divorce and finds herself a single mother of three. What do you think her debut album, a sum of those experiences, might sound like? Whatever it is, it's nothing like the funky and fun, tender and hopeful wonder that is Macy Gray's On How Life Is. In fact, Gray's debut was so original that the industry struggled to find apt descriptions of exactly what they were hearing. Her music was too bombastically gritty, too alive with rock and roll imperfection to fit comfortably within the smooth lines drawn around R&B by two of the genre's biggest releases that year -- Mary J Blige's Mary and Destiny's Child's The Writing's on the Wall. And Gray's voice was beyond compare, although that didn't stop critics referencing the likes of James Brown, Rod Stewart (on helium) and Janis Joplin while trying to find an apt descriptor. While "I Try" is the career-defining single that earned Gray a Grammy and has been covered by at least one contestant per season of every singing competition on reality TV since, it's useful to look at the two songs it's nestled between on the album to truly appreciate the ground she breaks here. "I Try" is preceded by the raunchy, thumping "Caligula" which opens with the lyrics: "Hush, the neighbors hear your moaning and groaning." It's followed by the self-explanatory "Sex-o-matic Venus Freak." In Gray's world, female sexuality is ecstatic, autonomous and wonderfully messy, and its expression is not exclusively limited to starlets whose appearance is constructed to match some ideal. That was a unique thought in 1999. Unfortunately in many circles in the music biz, it still is today. Talia Schlanger (Host, World Cafe)


La Pareja by La Lupe

115. La Lupe & Tito Puente
La Pareja (Fania/Tico Records, 1978)

By 1978, Guadalupe Victoria Yoli Raymond, known as La Lupe, was a venerable star. Known for her extravagance and exuberant performances — in which she would sometimes toss off her wigs and shoes — La Lupe was the reigning queen of Latin soul in the 1960s and 1970s. The vocalist, who was Cuban but had long since settled in New York, teamed up with the percussionist and bandleader Tito Puente (a legend in his own right) for La Pareja in 1978. On the album, Puente's jazz-imbued arrangements illuminate but don't overshadow La Lupe's inimitable pipes; she refuses to bend, even to El Rey. "No Me Importa," for instance, is a refusal, as La Lupe spits pure venom as she matter-of-factly sings "no me importa que diran" (I don't care what they'll say). And on a cover of Joan Manuel Serrat's "Como Un Gorrión," she becomes the subjectinverting the observational lyrics to make them in the first personwhile injecting a burst of adrenaline that the original song lacked. Often overlooked, La Pareja was lightning in a bottle, a coming together of two forces who both transcended a cultural moment to become icons. —Paula Mejia (Contributor)


Rumor Has It by Reba McEntire

114. Reba McEntire
Rumor Has It (MCA, 1990)

In 1990, Reba McEntire was in the midst of a streak of successesin the recording studio, on stage and on screen, too. She might have been criticized for moving into a more country-pop crossover sound with her previous album, Sweet Sixteen. But in true Reba fashion, she didn't seem to care. She even took it a step further with Rumor Has It, sounding by turns like a slick '80s lounge singer on "Now You Tell Me," a true country music maven on the defiant anthem "Climb That Mountain High," and a 1930s traditionalist on "You Lie." And who can forget "Fancy?" That Bobbie Gentry cover about a teenage girl whose mother sells her to the highest bidder and how she triumphs fifteen years later, might well be the most memorable song Reba McEntire ever recorded. Her chameleon-like ability to take on any character and make it her own is why Rumor Has It stands apart in McEntire's huge discography. While the songs run on familiar themeslove, loss, infidelityeach one is an ode to moving on, discovering yourself, and figuring out how to live the life you want to live. —Elena See (Folk Alley/MPR)


Young, Gifted and Black by Aretha Franklin

113. Aretha Franklin
Young, Gifted and Black (Atlantic Records, 1972)

Young, Gifted and Black turns self-confidence into art. There's no more potential hereFranklin is at the peak of her creative and vocal powers. More than half of the songs on the album are covers that she re-imagines, creating bridges between seemingly disparate listeners by making each aware of the other. For instance, Franklin changes the center of gravity on John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "The Long and Winding Road," making it a black gospel show stopper. And in her hands, the Otis Redding and Jerry Butler classic "I've Been Loving You Too Long" becomes a woman's story of sensual fulfillment. She also tweaks the title track (a Nina Simone original) into a more joyous statement of fact. Only Franklin had the moxie to have recorded this albumat the time, the original hits had barely grown cold. But what makes To Be Young Gifted and Black the apotheosis of Franklin's best decade is its winning mix of old and new. Many of the songs Franklin wrote or co-wrote for the album — including "Day Dreaming," "Rock Steady" and "All The King's Horses" -- are now standards of soul music and have been recorded by artists including Mary J. Blige, Corinne Bailey Rae, Natalie Cole, Hall and Oates, Prince and Joss Stone. Gwen Thompkins (WWNO)


Mercedes Sosa en Argentina by Mercedes Sosa

112. Mercedes Sosa
Mercedes Sosa en Argentina (Universal Distribution/Philips, 1982)

Mercedes Sosa was known as the "voice for the voiceless." With her deep alto voice, La Negra (as she was often called, because of her black hair and mestizo indigenous roots) popularized the socially conscious "nueva cancion" or new song movement in the 1960s. Sosa was a political activist and folk singer who gave new life to traditional Latin American music with her emotive takes on songs by greats like Violeta Parra. Her left political leanings led to her exile in 1979, when she was forced to flee an oppressive military regime. But Sosa's album Mercedes Sosa en Argentina, which came out in 1982, marked her return home. It highlights some of those signature songs like "Gracias A La Vida" (meaning "thank you to life") or "Sólo Le Pido a Dios" that became anthems for generations to come. The double album became an instant best-seller and marked another important step in the music of Argentina and Latin America, in that it incorporated more modern sounds, like rock and roll and international pop, with the folk sounds of the past. Sosa was also a champion of young artists and a constant innovator. This album and her music in general continues to be a staple of any Latino household. Christina Cala (NPR Staff)


The Litanies of Satan by Diamanda Galá

111. Diamanda Galás
The Litanies of Satan (Y, 1982)

The iconoclastic pianist-vocalist Diamanda Galás grew up in a sheltered household where she wasn't allowed to listen to the radio. Her escape became music, in a way; Galás played piano from a young age and was talented enough that she started performing with the San Diego Symphonic Orchestra at age 14, but she was forbidden from singing. There is no voice like the terrifying, terrific one that Galás possesses, though, which has been said to span eight octaves. It was bound to unleash itself into the world at some point, and it did in 1982 when she released her debut album, The Litanies of Satan. The album is comprised of two long pieces: The eponymous "The Litanies of Satan," which holds its roots in Charles Baudelaire texts, and the piercing rattle of "Wild Women with Steak-Knives (The Homicidal Love Song for Solo Scream)." The album, which clocks in at twenty-eight spine-jolting minutes of Galás's wheezing, whispering and rhythmic wailing that can be heard into the next lifetime, is one of the most singularly influential avant-garde recordings to make its way out of hell and into our world. Artists including PJ Harvey and Zola Jesus have been shaken by The Litanies of Satan, thanks to Galás's stupefying vocal acrobaticswhich suggest anything is possible if you dare to pick up a microphone and start screaming. Paula Mejia (Contributor)

Turning The Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women