C Brandon/Redferns via Getty Images
C Brandon/Redferns via Getty Images
C Brandon/Redferns via 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.
Few songs have left as indelible a mark on reggaeton as Ivy Queen's 2003 hit "Quiero Bailar." The Puerto Rican emcee roars that expressing her sexuality on the dance floor doesn't mean she's heading toward anyone's bed and, in one fell swoop, gives power and agency to every girl moving to the music. The track set Queen up as the outspoken matriarch of reggaeton while profoundly changing the conversation around gender dynamics in the genre. —Julyssa Lopez
The magic of "Girl Crush" was there from the start. When songwriter Lori McKenna pitched the title to her partners in pen, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey, Rose didn't quite get it, until the first verse rolled right off Lindsey's tongue, pretty much intact. By the end of the day, the vocal group Little Big Town had laid claim to the song, and the rest soon became history thanks to Karen Fairchild's smoldering vocal performance. Though media outlets fueled a fabricated backlash, claiming country fans were disgusted by the song's alleged gay agenda, they were wrong — as more than 2 million singles sold and 13 weeks at the top of the country chart proved. —Kelly McCartney
The beauty of "Someone Like You" is in its simplicity. Accompanied only by piano, Adele seeks reconciliation in a heartbreak so heavy, you wonder how she ever survived it. She proves the breadth of her vocal range during the chorus — the strength, control and timbre perhaps comparable to Whitney Houston at peak moments. We've seen her shed a tear while performing the song live, and it's this vulnerability paired with her indomitable voice that has won her an abundance of adoring fans. —Amy Miller (KXT)
"Born this Way" was a rebirth for Lady Gaga. After an early career focused on fame and fashion, the song revealed her as a pop star on a mission who had politics, feminism and social justice on her mind. The combination of a relentless, banging beat and Gaga's vulnerable yet fierce delivery makes you want to yell while you dance — Yes, I was born to be free sexually, to love whoever I want to love — and made for an instant worldwide hit. The song is not without its problems (Gaga should perhaps have thought twice about using the words "chola" and "orient"), but it remains a powerful anthem, not only for the LGBTQ community but for anyone who has ever felt marginalized or misunderstood. —Gemma Watters
Inescapable and infectious, "I'm Like a Bird" catalyzed Nelly Furtado's swift rise to pop stardom (and supermarket soundtracks) across the globe and provided an exuberant, Grammy-winning foundation for the evolution of her style. Delivered in her signature vocal timbre, the lyrics nod wistfully at the uncertainty of youth. Furtado can be wholesome and sugary sweet one moment and then totally badass the next (particularly as evidenced on her 2006 album, Loose), proving to her admirers that letting the pendulum whip in either direction can work wonders. —Alison Zero Jones (WXXI)
Nothing else sounds like Tune-Yards. The percussion is industrial-strength. The vocals are acrobatic, soaring, dipping, blurting, stretching. With 2011's Whokill, Merrill Garbus' brainchild rightfully earned recognition as one of the best music machines out there. "Powa" showcases the many dimensions of Garbus' voice, how she seamlessly vacillates between soft and vulnerable to an otherworldly strength in manipulated yelps, howls and bends. The song's true power is in the hush and burst, as she controls layers that would be chaotic if not maneuvered with such delicate grace. —Jessi Whitten (Colorado Public Radio's OpenAir)
When Margo Price released her 2016 debut, Midwest Farmer's Daughter, a delicious bit of sly, drunken honky-tonk called "Hurtin' on the Bottle" catapulted her to the national stage. But it was the album's opener, the six-minute opus "Hands of Time," that positioned her as one of the most adept interpreters of traditional country in her generation. The song not only tells her life story through all its devastating hills and valleys, it fearlessly weaves together genres in a way that makes potent, heartbreaking sense. The strings weep, a soulful bass line marches forward and Price's voice is as solid as oak, flourishing after the storm. —Marissa R. Moss
While she's made her name lending her unparalleled vocal chops to mischievous old blues tunes and forgotten Broadway melodies, Cecile McLorin Salvant has equally mastered spacious, searching ballads. "Monday" is of the latter ilk, an impressionistic Salvant original that floats like a two-minute daydream. It's nestled midway through her 2015 album For One to Love, which found the French-trained 20-something honing her songwriter's voice with keen observations on romance, yearning and human interaction. —Rachel Horn
Vanessa Carlton followed her pianist mother's path with the harmonic homerun "A Thousand Miles," a debut single that catapulted the then-21-year-old onto the mainstream's radar. The track's cameo in the (otherwise problematic) Wayans Brothers' 2004 film White Chicks says it all: this solo-piano-turned-full-orchestral banger is iconic. From the first ivory tinklings, any listener could tell the pop ballad would forever change radio waves. Granted, Alicia Keys was climbing charts around the same time, but Carlton's guts and melodies empowered a whole new class of earnest femme-identifying singer-songwriters including Nellie McKay and Sara Bareilles. Carlton strikes the crucial balance of sincere — "If I could just see you/ If I could just hold you/ Tonight" — without broaching sappy. —Beca Grimm
With the release of "1234," Feist arrived as a new type of singer-songwriter-superhero, equipped to joyfully save the spirit of indie rock in blue sequins. The nano-sized elephant in the room is, the iPod commercial helped catapult Feist into pop culture consciousness, but Apple can't take credit for this song's indelible charm nor its enduring appeal. Those accolades belong to Feist and co-writer Sally Seltmann, who, with nursery-rhyme simplicity and a sweet swell of innocent emotion, manage to deliver one of those rare moments of pop culture magic where everyone — even Elmo, who harmonized with Feist on Sesame Street in 2008 — seemed to be singing along to the same big shiny tune. —Talia Schlanger (World Cafe)
In recent years, Providence, R.I.'s Downtown Boys have garnered a reputation for some of the most explosive, energetic punk rock shows of this generation. These are radical dance parties where people can think — and act — to destroy systems of racist, classist, sexist and homophobic oppression, all while busting a move. The fearless "Monstro," released in 2015, exemplifies that ethos, and soon became an anthem inspiring and elevating listeners through a thrum of saxophones, guitar thrashes, and Victoria Ruiz's triumphant refrain: "She's brown! She's smart!" Spitting fire and knowledge, Ruiz rails against white hegemony and the feeling "that we never have enough with just what's inside of us," in this critical invitation to continue fighting to dismantle the monster that is colonialism. —Paula Mejia
"Dancing on My Own" has the contradictions of a great Robyn song: A steely cyborg backbone protects a bleeding open heart. "I'm in the corner, watching you kiss her," the Swede-pop queen sings — and then there's that gut-wrenching, "Ohhhh!" But it's the stubborn persistence of that millennial-Moroder synth line that makes the Body Talk single such a stirring anthem of self-reliance (used to great effect to soundtrack a triumphant moment in the first season of Girls.) "Dancing on My Own" might start off sounding like an ode to heartbreak, but by the end it's become a deeply felt love song to the self. —Lindsay Zoladz
It's no coincidence that the funky brass blare that opens "Crazy in Love" sounds like it's announcing royalty: It not only introduces one of the best pop songs ever written, but also the woman who would become one of the greatest artists of the 21st century. With winking exuberance, her first words are, "You ready?" Not even close.
"Crazy in Love" represented the critical break from Destiny's Child that allowed Beyoncé to become a full-blown superstar. Producer Rich Harrison ripped the horn sample from a 1970s soul single by The Chi-Lites called "Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)," but much of the rest of the song was off-the-cuff magic. The immortal lyric "Got me looking so crazy right now" came from something Bey said while looking in the mirror. She improvised the "uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, oh, no, no" hook that captures the song's loose, almost reckless vibe. She added a rap from then-new-bae Jay-Z at the last minute. And her bridge out of that verse is pure joy — a celebration of making a fool of yourself while falling madly, crazily in love. —Alyssa Edes
Like the Frankie Valli classic "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," "Complicated" isn't a slow love song and it isn't a poppy dance song — it's a ballad with an edge. At a time when tweens seemed obsessed with dressing alike, Avril Lavigne busted onto the scene and taught young women that it was OK to be different. In embracing her uniqueness, she told us all that being ourselves is way less complicated. —Lisa Famiglietti (WXXI)
Note: This entry contains explicit language.
No one in the history of music has pronounced the word "cunt" with as much relish as Azealia Banks. The New York rapper and singer thundered into public consciousness with a debut single that showed off her inimitable range. Not only can she rattle off chains of syllables with the best rappers, she also commands a belt and a scream that transformed "212" into a multidimensional whirlwind of sound. It's a song about self-possession and dominance, sure, but it also frames a young queer woman as being in full control of her own pleasure — a rarity in 2011 and a rarity now. —Sasha Geffen
They say certain songwriters are given five perfect songs from God (or whatever spiritual force you follow). "Why We Build The Wall" is one of folk singer Anaïs Mitchell's God Songs. First recorded on Mitchell's 2010 album Hadestown, a folk opera based on the myth of Orpheus, it's told from the perspective of Hades, king of the underworld, portrayed by veteran singer-songwriter Greg Brown. Hades is explaining isolationism to his citizens: "Why do we build the wall, my children?" The wall represents safety, security and wealth, the things humans fear losing to "the others" in society. Mitchell captured all that in an ingenious song that's experienced a new life onstage, especially since the 2016 presidential election. —Cindy Howes (Folk Alley & WYEP)
A self-care anthem for the ages, Lizzo's "Good as Hell" probably would have sounded just as satisfying had it come out a year earlier — but damn if it wasn't the exact salve we all needed in 2016. As the presidential campaign bent reality and the national conversation turned toxic, Lizzo blasted through our speakers to remind us that turning inward and taking the time to treat yo' self isn't selfish: In this climate, it's survival, and something worth celebrating. Boss up, as Lizzo says, and change your life. —Andrea Swensson (The Current)
Taylor Swift has read your headlines, and on "Blank Space," she's come to revel in her reputation with a knowing wink and nod. Like much of 1989 -- not her first foray into pop but her most firm-footed departure from her home base of country — Swift engages with elements of '80s music and the current day's dominant sound. In the lyrics, everything's exaggerated, with only two possible outcomes: forever or flames. But Swift's in command, with her composed cadence set against percussion like pointed punctuation, accented by the click of a pen. —Lyndsey McKenna
Prince once said he'd thought he could play bass until he met Esperanza Spalding. That's not hard to believe once you've heard the deeply funky opening bars of "I Know You Know," which heralded Spalding's career as a shapeshifting, jazz-rooted virtuoso who can dip fluidly in and out of pop, R&B and rock without sacrificing her music's complexity. On this track, Spalding's buoyant vocals came to the forefront for the first time, reassuring a wary romantic partner that she's there to stay. She might as well have been addressing the music world at large. —Rachel Horn
The lead single from her second studio album, Breakaway, "Since U Been Gone" transformed Kelly Clarkson from an underdog reality-show spectacle to a pop sensation. It showcased the best of what we loved about her on American Idol (a show she helped define with her first-season win), her emotional intensity and her range — heard here across two octaves, from a low G3 to a high G5. And it infused mainstream music with a new energy desperately lacking in an era dominated by auto-tune and manufactured pop. Clarkson's furious euphoria reflected both the rage and relief that comes at the height of a complicated breakup. It's an honest emotional dump, not trying to be cool or mature: She's pissed and she's sad and she's free and she's so moving on. With anthemic force, Clarkson managed once again to unify Americans across the country — because who didn't shout along to that hook at least once? —Alyssa Edes