The 200 Greatest Songs By 21st Century Women+ (120-101) This list tackles history in the making, celebrating women and non-binary musicians whose songs are redefining genres and attitudes and changing our sense of what popular music can be in this century.
NPR logo The 200 Greatest Songs By 21st Century Women+

The 200 Greatest Songs By 21st Century Women+

Janelle Monáe performs at the Greek Theatre on June 28 in Los Angeles, California. Kevin Winter/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Janelle Monáe performs at the Greek Theatre on June 28 in Los Angeles, California.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

This list is part of Turning the Tables, an ongoing project from NPR Music dedicated to recasting the popular music canon in more inclusive – and accurate – ways. This year, our list, selected by a panel of more than 70 women and non-binary writers, tackles history in the making, celebrating artists whose work is changing this century's sense of what popular music can be. The songs are by artists whose major musical contributions came on or after Jan. 1, 2000, and have shifted attitudes, defied categories and pushed sound in new directions since then.

Our list includes songs performed by women and non-binary artists. The use of the term "Women+" is part of our engagement in a movement to recognize a wide spectrum of gender identities coming to greater light in the 21st century.


120.

Miley Cyrus, "Wrecking Ball" (2013)

YouTube

That Miley's "Wrecking Ball" became her first No. 1 single is no surprise — it's one of the great showcases of her truest talents. A high-water mark in the current hits-by-committee era, the song was originally penned in a session for Beyoncé. With Miley drawing "wrecked" to four syllables, the woeful vulnerability of this break-up ballad infused undeniable depth into the controversy-courting roll out of Bangerz that set to singe her Disney image from collective memory. —Jessica Hopper


119.

Tanya Tagaq, "Uja" (2014)

YouTube

There is nothing in this world like a Tanya Tagaq performance. Crunching guitars and insistent drums form the bedrock from which her voice rises: unearthly, primal, visceral sounds — breaths, groans and roars — that rattle the soul and shake you to your core. On "Uja," Tagaq, a Canadian Inuk artist, takes an ancient women's throat-singing Inuit tradition and transforms it into punk glory. (And unbelievably enough, that huge vocal palette is all hers.) —Anastasia Tsioulcas


118.

Big Freedia, "Azz Everywhere" (2010)

Erika Goldring/FilmMagic
New Orleans Bounce rapper Big Freedia performs during the Bounce Shakedown at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at the Fair Grounds Race Course on May 6, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Erika Goldring/FilmMagic

After spending nearly a decade pumping the party in New Orleans as a prime purveyor of bounce music – that city's indigenous, exuberant style of party rap — Big Freedia busted it open on a national scale as the aughts became the teens. The weapon? The high-BPM, extra-danceable bounce that had evolved, over years, into pummeling cuts like "Azz Everywhere," plus the rapper's own radically inclusive, celebratory performances where the only requirement for entry was having something to shake. —Alison Fensterstock


117.

Jean Grae and Blue Sky Black Death (ft. Chen Lo),

"Threats" (2008)

YouTube

This Etta James-sampling, no-shit-taking cover of Jay-Z's "Threat" updates the soul-era response song and channels the moral authority of gospel to beat Jay-Z at his own self-aggrandizing game. "You're looking at the new Harriet Tubman," Grae raps, where Jay-Z was just "the black Warren Buffett." That this track appears on an album produced without Grae's consent (The Evil Jeanius) exemplifies the wrongdoing she protests here, even as it shows Grae at her witty, embattled best. —Emily Lordi


116.

First Aid Kit, "My Silver Lining" (2014)

YouTube

Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg took country-folk to epic, grand-scale proportions with their 2014 release as First Aid Kit, Stay Gold. "Silver Lining" layers their warm, organic, pitch-perfect sibling harmonies with a majestic and soaring orchestral arrangement. It's an atmospheric and galloping western ballad about a hopeful fight against fatalism that feels perfectly suited for cinema. —Lauren Bentley (WXXI)


115.

The Internet (ft. Kaytranada), "Girl" (2015)

YouTube

Blame it on her past association with the provocative hip hop group Odd Future, or her tough, boyish, gender-nonconforming look, but Syd (formerly Syd tha Kid) shocked the world with "Girl." The vocalist sells herself to a potential lover, infectiously offering vulnerability and sultriness. Eschewing the standard hip hop beats for a smooth, Afrofuturistic trippy tone, she softly croons, "I love you" with meaning and self-possession about who she is and what she is looking for with no pretension. —Laina Dawes


114.

Laura Marling, "Rambling Man" (2010)

YouTube

Laura Marling, the preeminent singer of London's nu-folk movement, released her second solo album, I Speak Because I Can, just as interest in the genre peaked. Here, Marling began reflecting on a woman's place in the world, creating a first-person narrative drawing on art, fiction, history and myth — themes she continued on 2017's Semper Femina. As she says in this song, released shortly after she turned 20: "Let it always be known I was who I am."—Kim Junod (WXPN)


113.

Flor De Toloache, "Dicen" (2014)

YouTube

Mariachi may seem somewhat inaccessible to new listeners. "Dicen" ("They Say") by New York City band Flor De Toloache is the perfect introduction to the genre: layered strings, driving rhythms and textured horns accentuating pitch-perfect harmonies, all under Mireya Ramos' powerful vocals that long for un amor sincero: a sincere love. It's the palpable emotion that Flor de Toloache effortlessly conveys that makes the group's 2014 breakout single not only a prime example of mariachi itself, but how this group of mujeres is makes the genre accessible to all. —Bruce Trujillo (Colorado Public Radio's OpenAir)


112.

Estelle (ft. Kanye West), "American Boy" (2008)

YouTube

In 2008, the world fell for British vocalist and rapper Estelle's song of transatlantic romance. With its lush, catwalk sound, "American Boy" embodies the confidence and desire of the newly connected Myspace generation. With production from The Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am and rhymes from a younger Kanye, Estelle's silky vocals and coy lyricism make this duet an anthem that's still too big to fail. —Annie Bartholomew (KTOO)


111.

Mary Halvorson Octet, "Away With You (No. 55)" (2016)

YouTube

The percussive, steely attack that defines the sinuous theme running through "Away With You (No. 55)" could only belong to Mary Halvorson, arguably the most acclaimed jazz guitarist of her generation. Halvorson has drawn more and more players into her orbit over the last decade as her groups have steadily expanded in size, and this octet format showcases her orchestral style of composing. —Rachel Horn


110.

Santigold, "L.E.S. Artistes" (2008)

YouTube

When Santi White moved to Brooklyn in the early 2000s, she was already Santogold (now spelled Santigold), an alternative hip hop artist with a too-cool voice made for hoppin' lounge rooms and reggae-rock beats that could rival The Police. She was also a Philly native weary of Lower East Side (or L.E.S.) artists, the artificial scenesters who were using music for the sake of social gain. So she lays it out for them on this 2008 track: Art is worth the hard work and the sacrifice, whether or not it's on everyone's lips, because it's "something worth dreaming of." —Joni Deutsch (WFAE)


109.

Angel Olsen, "Shut Up Kiss Me" (2016)

YouTube

Critics pegged Angel Olsen as a folk indie darling after her first two albums, but in 2016 she proved that wasn't the full story. She can do the country croon, give us pop yearning, go lofty and ethereal — but then she can don a sparkly silver wig, add a synth and take it to next level. In "Shut Up, Kiss Me," Olsen makes love sound so damn easy, giving three simple steps: "Stop you're crying, it's alright / Shut up, kiss me, hold me tight." Doing away with poetry and pretense, Angel Olsen tells it straight and gets you in the gut. —Jessi Whitten (Colorado Public Radio's OpenAir)


108.

Pistol Annies, "Bad Example" (2011)

YouTube

"Nobody around here wants to ramble," sing the Pistol Annies on "Bad Example," a track from their 2011 debut LP Hell on Heels. "What the hell, that's what I was born to do." With Carter Family-caliber harmonies, Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley made "Bad Example" a lyrically mischievous ode to the country shuffle that found three of the best working songwriters at the top of their game, yet perfectly willing to topple Music Row conventions. —Marissa R. Moss


107.

Gwen Stefani, "Hollaback Girl" (2004)

YouTube

Gwen Stefani has said that when joined ska-punk band No Doubt in the mid-'80s, she felt unlike other women in the industry because she embraced her femininity and projected a sweet, sultry side of herself, all the while calling herself the "tomboy" in the band. After her success in No Doubt, Stefani brought that same spirit into pop music as a solo artist. She released her first solo record in 2004, which features the most popular single from her career, "Hollaback Girl." Stefani called it the "attitude song" for the album, supposedly writing it as a response to Courtney Love calling her a cheerleader. "I will be one then," she told NME magazine. "And I'll rule the whole world, just you watch me." —Emily Abshire


106.

Babymetal, "Gimme Chocolate!!" (2014)

YouTube

In a genre marked by over-the-top theatricality, 2014's most controversial heavy metal act by far was a K-pop-tinged electro-metal band fronted by three diminutive Japanese teenagers in frilly black dresses. Babymetal's maddeningly catchy "kawaii metal" crashed into the metal scene like an alien invasion, ruffling purists' feathers even as it commanded adoration from a slew of others. Propelled by a crunchy nu-metal riff, light-fingered fretboard wizardry, the trio's poppy high-pitched vocals and effects that sounded like a spaceship powering up to blast off into a technicolor future, their debut single "Gimme Chocolate!!" is a manic ride through lollipop Hell. —Kim Kelly


105.

Thao & The Get Down Stay Down

"We The Common (For Valerie Bolden)" (2013)

YouTube

Before recording We the Common — her third album with The Get Down Stay Down — Thao Nguyen decided to take a breather from touring and writing. The San Francisco-based artist stayed put and became involved with the advocacy group The California Coalition for Women Prisoners. That volunteer experience inspired her resulting album, specifically the title track, "We The Common (For Valerie Bolden)." Nguyen told NPR in 2013 that Valerie Bolden, who was serving a life sentence without parole, was one of the first women Nguyen met in the prison. "We The Common" is a sprightly, banjo-driven tune that packages ideas of social justice in folk-pop sensibilities. It's uplifting but self-aware, injecting a crucial message into the discourse of popular music. —Desiré Moses


104.

Princess Nokia, "Tomboy" (2016)

YouTube

The confidence of the lyric "my lil' titties and my phat belly" is feminism at its finest. The song it's from — "Tomboy," from Princess Nokia's 1992 EP — is an unapologetic take on challenging body image and beauty norms. On "Tomboy," Princess Nokia shows her teeth while playing with her multifaceted femininity and masculinity. The song commands to control the male gaze as a tool of empowerment, sending a message to black and brown women that we define our own sexuality. —Jessica Diaz-Hurtado


103.

Beyoncé, "Countdown" (2011)

YouTube

Beyoncé's self-titled record arrived like a knockout punch, but the multimedia icon had been perfecting her swing for years. One part Bugatti, one part playground, 2011's "Countdown" serves as both stepping stone for Knowles-Carter's career post-Destiny's Child and blueprint for the preternaturally mature artist who emerged at the end of 2013. Frenetic genre-hopping is carried off by production her past work couldn't touch. Her pageant-winner vocal poise makes room for the Dirty Coast flourishes she now revels in almost full-time. And her light lyrical touch on topics that would become central to her work ("there's ups and downs in this love...") are downright poignant in hindsight. In the quantum leap between Beyoncé and Beyoncé, "Countdown" was a running start. —Katie Presley


102.

Janelle Monáe (ft. Grimes), "Pynk" (2018)

YouTube

Over the past decade, Janelle Monáe has performed as a sci-fi alter ego and crafted metaphor-heavy albums, but now, she's decided to be unapologetically herself. She calls her 2018 album, Dirty Computer, her most personal yet. Just ahead of the record's release, Monáe came out as pansexual, making her one of few out queer black women at her level of fame "Pynk" praises the beauty of female relationships, with women of all shapes, sizes and shades featured in its video. Perhaps the stars of the video are Monáe's "pussy pants" – parachute-type pants with various shades of pink ruffles meant to resemble labia. "Pynk" is a celebration of the spectrum of gender and sexuality, and encourages interpretation at the individual level for each of us to celebrate the things that make us who we are. —Emily Abshire


101.

Shovels & Rope, "Birmingham" (2012)

YouTube

Cary Ann Hearst has a voice that can bring a room to a screeching halt. Whether that room is home to a rabble-rousing honky-tonk or a DIY punk show, Hearst — along with husband and musical partner Michael Trent — doesn't just fit right in, but commands attention. Since debuting in 2008, the South Carolina duo has garnered a reputation for its rockabilly circus rooted in a homestyle ethos. Trading off drums and guitar, the couple typically employs raucous harmonies or call-and-response, but there's magic in the quiet moments, too. Nowhere is this more evident than on 2012's "Birmingham," the opening track on their sophomore release, O' Be Joyful. The cross-country slow-burner is loosely autobiographical, taking the protagonists from the "Crescent City to the Great Salt Lake," and the listeners on a journey from the rowdy to the poignant — a pathway that's become a cornerstone of their career. —Desiré Moses


Turning The Tables:
The 200 Greatest Songs By 21st Century Women+