Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for TIDAL
Beyonce and Nicki Minaj on stage in Brooklyn in October 2015.
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for TIDAL
Beyonce and Nicki Minaj on stage in Brooklyn in October 2015.
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for TIDAL
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.
When Joanna Newsom's debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender was released in 2004, the classically trained harpist transported listeners to another time. Was this an old recording of an Appalachian traditional song? A newly unearthed 1920's folktale? Not since Bjork's singular voice emerged had a talent like Newsom been able to cross into the pop world and have such a lasting effect. The whimsical arrangement of "Peach, Plum, Pear" — with layered vocals and repeating harpsichord — introduces us to a style that could only be dreamed up by a truly gifted artist, and which instills listeners with a deep sense of wonder. — Alisha Sweeney (Colorado Public Radio's OpenAir)
Considered in light of today's egregious lack of women on country radio, Gretchen Wilson's five-week stint atop Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart with "Redneck Woman" is still a remarkable feat. It's also a daringly flipped narrative given current country gender roles, which typically only allow men to adopt the kind of bravado Wilson oozes when she sings, "Well, I ain't never been the Barbie doll type." Most importantly, though, the song is a catchy, damn good time, with Wilson extolling the virtues of drinking beer, shopping at Walmart and listening to Tanya Tucker better than anyone's done since. —Brittney McKenna
Natalia Lafourcade wants us to protect our memories, the good and the bad. Her vocals, full of longing, invigorate this nostalgic tune with the magic of what it feels like to fly away. Using a Mexican folk-style huapango riff and yearning strings, Lafourcade reminds those with more than one home to never forget where they come from. —Jessica Diaz-Hurtado
How can something so brutal be so beautiful? In the dance-pop masterpiece "Drone Bomb Me," Anohni identifies with an Afghan girl who has lost her family to a drone strike and, in a shimmering musical setting, fantasizes about her own death by the same means. Such paradoxical imaginings aren't new to the artist, who has sought out activist conversations and supported them through her lyrics since the beginning of her career in the late 1990s, fronting Antony and the Johnsons. —Lindsay Kimball (The Current)
Following a three-year break after almost a decade of back-to-back albums, "Bitch Better Have My Money" was a shift into the heart of Rihanna's ever-clearer persona — unapologetically itself, confident and in control. With gritty, forward-moving production, she signifies a rage uncoupled from romance: a legal dispute with her accountant over the loss of millions of dollars. For those in her audience who are historically overworked and underpaid, there was a special kind of catharsis found in the refrain: "Pay me what you owe me / Don't act like you forgot." Preceding her cosmetics and lingerie lines Fenty Beauty and Savage x Fenty, "BBHMM" punctuated Rihanna's first decade in the public eye with a declaration for the next. —Sydnee Monday
Best known for popularizing a more mature, unhurried strain of R&B, Jill Scott has always sung lyrics that matter. With the self-empowerment anthem "Golden," Scott sings about finding her "freedom," then putting it around her neck, in her car, in the way she walks, and even (most obviously and boldly) in her songs. The simplicity of this image and the jazzy minimalism of the beats built around it make an enduring foundation for the main attraction here: Scott's soulful, round behemoth of a voice. —Isabel Zacharias (KMHD)
Sharon Van Etten says this song is the result of a joke — playing around with her bandmates, trying to do her best Bruce Springsteen. Written while in the recording studio for her 2014 album Are We There, "Every Time the Sun Comes Up" addresses the mundane rituals of daily life, but it is anything but mundane: The song works because Van Etten's melancholy voice recounts what feels like a deeply personal experience. Only a talented artist such as Van Etten could create something so compelling and beautiful from a burst of spontaneous fun. —Alisha Sweeney (Colorado Public Radio's OpenAir)
Jumping into the air, party people around the world yell at the top of their lungs: "I don't care! I love it!" Written by British musician Charli XCX, who recorded the song with Swedish duo Icona Pop, this cathartic breakup anthem rules the dance floor. Edgy club beats kick the intro in, segueing boldly into pop romp vocals with punk attitude. Icona Pop is made up of Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo, Stockholm musicians who throw a lot of parties together; they formed in 2009 and specialize in songs about "being angry but sounding happy." With its unique sound and impressive reach, "I Love It" continues to be influential as it is appropriated and remixed into hip-hop and DJ culture by artists as diverse as Chiddy Bang, DJ Earworm and Style of Eye. —Michele Myers (KEXP)
Meeting Regina Spektor through her breakthrough album Soviet Kitsch in 2004 was akin to ripping down a long cobblestone street on a bicycle — relishing in the joy of possibility, feeling the texture of history below and becoming so enchanted you forget there is anything pleasurable at all about a smoother road more traveled. Before her family fled to the U.S. as refugees from Moscow when Spektor was 9, she studied Chopin and Rachmaninoff and was certain she would become a composer. On "Us," Spektor's small Soviet self meets her Greenwich Village grownup at the corner of classical and whimsical, where the word "contagious" has seven syllables, and a piano's 88 keys are stand-ins for infinite expressions of personality. —Talia Schlanger (World Cafe)
Less preachy than Lauryn Hill and less eccentric than Erykah Badu, India.Arie projects a paradoxical flair, residing in her suggestion that you might not have to try so hard to be a "queen." That, at least, is the message of "Video," a song whose quiet defiance was aimed more at industry execs than at the women who sought to conform to their standards. Presaging mellow productions by KING and Lianne La Havas, Arie's song and video brought to the self-affirming autobiographical movement in black women's neo-soul music an image of a natural-haired, brown-skinned beauty at home with herself and her craft. —Emily Lordi
Before Carrie Underwood and Maroon 5 and Justin Timberlake, Blu Cantrell wrote the script on cheater-revenge-fantasies. And mind you, this is a song about revenge — it has nothing to do with heartache or helplessness. In fact, it's not even directed at the schlub who stepped out (despite the cheeky sampling of Frank Sinatra's "The Boys' Night Out.") It's sung straight to the ladies, offering up a formula for restitution: "Spend until the last dime for all the hard times." It's deliciously self-righteous, belted out with a confidence that belies its status as a one-hit-wonder. Plus, it popularized the sarcastic, omnipresent, sorry-not-sorry "oops," for which we are all indebted. —Leah Donnella
Pinning your personality down is difficult no matter who you are, and especially for those who hesitate to embrace their cross-ethnic roots. On "Mexican Chef," Xenia Rubinos simultaneously defines both herself and her cultural inheritance. An ode to the Latinx working class and brown immigrants, the song plays off an uptempo funk bass line that channels Rubinos' own vibrant fusion of genres, all while creating a stark visual of how infrequently credit is given where it's due: "Brown walks your baby / Brown walks your dog / Brown raised America in place of its mom." Hearing a Boricua-Cuban artist like Rubinos not only celebrate what it means to be Afro-Latina, but pay homage to the rest of the brown community, is a welcoming reminder to other artists that there's space for them to do the same. —Nina Corcoran
"Male or female, it make no difference — I stop the world." Those words were uttered in "Feeling Myself" by one of few people who can stop the world on a dime with any unexpected movements: Beyoncé. While this 2015 song technically belongs to Nicki Minaj, her partnership with King Bey was a collaboration for which many had been waiting years. We got a glimpse of their shared greatness in 2014 with the "Flawless (Remix)," and "Feeling Myself" proved to be a continued master class on simultaneous self love and stunting, for men, women and gender nonconforming people everywhere. —Kiana Fitzgerald
If Tennyson's Lady of Shalott had an anthem, it would be 2008's "Heavy Water/I'd Rather Be Sleeping," a composition that drifts like a boat through still waters, its starry-eyed narrator as enchanted by her natural surroundings as she is cursed by fate. This drowsy voice belongs to Liz Harris, the ambient artist who records as Grouper, and the song marks one of her earliest gestures toward conventional song structure. Too quiet to demand attention, a tide-pool chorus pushes her diaphanous murmur and folk strumming into the realm of dream-pop, with a hook that laid the groundwork for a career at the intersection of accessible songwriting and avant-garde production. —Judy Berman
Sia Furler is the real Wizard of Oz. In her signature blonde bob wig, this master vocalist, performance artist and songwriter curtains herself from celebrity with nose-length bangs of distinction. Behind the brand, Sia backs up her vulnerable, poetic songwriting with show-stopping pipes. Her second chart-topper as a solo artist, the 2014 ballad "Chandelier," was a hard-won hit, not only on the pop charts, but in a personal way: It's the confession of a former self-proclaimed party girl in a land of newly earned sobriety. Nominated at the 72nd Grammy Awards in four categories, the lyrics in "Chandelier" dig deeper than many of the hits Sia has penned for pop royalty like Rihanna, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Madonna and Celine Dion. Harkening more to her solo releases and early work with trip-hop band Zero 7, "Chandelier" cries out for the magical abandon of the party life. "I'm gonna swing from the chandelier / I'm gonna live like tomorrow doesn't exist." —Michele Myers (KEXP)
Crossover artists often sacrifice something about their musical identities to appease a U.S. listenership. Shakira's biggest single, "Hips Don't Lie," did the opposite. Though never marketed as reggaeton, it's the most popular song in the genre's history: the dembow beat in the background, the trumpet sample of Jerry Rivera's "Amores como el nuestro" in the chorus, the obvious salsa influence. With Wyclef Jean on deck, Shakira proved that English-language audiences were ready for Caribbean sounds long before the days of "Despacito" or Cardi B. "Hips Don't Lie" is not only one of the best Latin pop songs, it's one of the best pop songs, period. —Maria Sherman
American Weekend, Katie Crutchfield's first solo album under the name Waxahatchee, is a lo-fi collection of songs for messing yourself up and putting yourself back together again. "Bathtub" is the sparsest one lyrically and musically, a short reflection on trust cast in scalding water. "Someone will hurt me so bad one day / And you'll resonate," Crutchfield sings, the short line and enjambment her greatest skills, a circular cant of love for those brave enough to forgive themselves. —Stefanie Fernández
While this era's faux-woke, grill-sporting Katy Perry has taken a nosedive into a cyclone of dystopian kitsch, there was a time when her appeal was simple: Her nostalgic pop singles were silky and pristine, like a soft swirl of vanilla ice cream. At a time when pop can feel overstuffed with spectacle — multi-artist guest features, visual drops, strategically planned Twitter beef — listening to "Teenage Dream" provokes wistful reconsideration of a classic formula, one whose subtlety and nuance can be easily overlooked. The song is a blissful memory encased in glass: "We can dance until we die / you and I," Perry sings, promising to stretch the ephemeral. The beauty is in stasis, sealed with a declaration: "We'll be young forever." —Cat Zhang
Critics rejoiced when M.I.A. dropped her Vicki Leekx mixtape in the final hours of 2010, especially after the mixed response to her third full-length, Maya, earlier that year. Vicki Leekx's standout, "Bad Girls," was a return to what the Sri Lankan-born artist does best: a fusion of global sounds, big-energy swagger and razor-sharp pop hooks. Its video, for a longer version of the song that would end up on 2013's Matangi, finds M.I.A. and a crew of fast-driving hijabis and keffiyeh-clad onlookers in Ouarzazate, Morocco — its desert visuals not meant to elicit imperialist sympathy or orientalist exoticizing but to provide a fitting backdrop for M.I.A.'s unbridled badassery. —Marissa Lorusso
If Broken Social Scene was an indie rock supergroup allegedly powered by male energy — that of founders Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew, who co-write nearly every song — then its female vocalists Emily Haines, Leslie Feist and Amy Millan were the band's under-acknowledged celebrities. Few tracks summarize the members' lasting impact like "Anthems For a Seventeen Year-Old Girl." As vast as the instrumental landscape reveals itself to be, building from isolated banjo strums to a crescendo of violins and percussion, it's Emily Haines' careful dictation that gives the self-reflective poem about adolescence its everlasting allure. Haines' breathy whispers capture what it means to grow up, trying to embrace the joy of designing your own makeover while honoring the kid you used to be, without dramatizing the delivery. In that, this song has directly influenced the sneakily simplistic indie rock of today. —Nina Corcoran