The 200 Greatest Songs By 21st Century Women+ (20-1) 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+

M.I.A performs at Day 1 of Bestival at Robin Hill Country Park in Newport, Isle of Wight in September 2013. Caitlin Mogridge/Getty Images hide caption

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Caitlin Mogridge/Getty Images

M.I.A performs at Day 1 of Bestival at Robin Hill Country Park in Newport, Isle of Wight in September 2013.

Caitlin Mogridge/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.


20.

Adele, "Rolling In The Deep" (2010)

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Few contemporary artists can captivate a flock as far-flung as Adele, but there was a time before the mononym became the monolith of pop. Before "Hello" or "Someone Like You," "Rolling in the Deep," the leadoff track of 2011's 21, solidified the Brit's status, ultimately spending seven weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Despite its ubiquity, the smoldering sendoff got prominent play on Triple A and Adult Contemporary formats alike, ensuring that Adele would come to occupy the CD slots of cars across the country forevermore. —Lyndsey McKenna


19.

Beyoncé, "Formation" (2016)

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Beyoncé's two great obsessions — love and power — combine on her personal-is-political masterpiece, 2016's Lemonade. Like the album itself, "Formation" is a defiant celebration of black womanhood and the singer's Southern heritage. Though it finds her croon flawless, the song shines when she shifts to a raspy rap and deploys a series of lethal one-liners, culminating in a masterful parting shot: "You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation." It's a brilliant single, but Bey transcended the sonic realm with her self-titled album in 2013, and every track she's recorded since is inseparable from the imagery rolled out to accompany it. In this case, that meant a music video dense with references to Hurricane Katrina, racist policing and the resilience of black communities, followed a day later by dancers in Black Panther berets flanking Beyoncé at a Super Bowl performance. Released early in a year when overt racism and misogyny bum-rushed American politics, "Formation" remains the radical apex of a sui generis career. —Judy Berman


18.

Grimes, "Oblivion" (2012)

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Claire Boucher's third album as Grimes was like a Big Bang at the foundations of pop — fuel for the fire that has continued burning down the borders between the mainstream and underground, between genres in general. Visions fused traditional pop and new jack swing structures with the pointedly nontraditional forms of IDM, noise and punk. The voraciously curious spirit of post-punk was alive in Grimes as a pop language. She took the independence and oddity of bedroom pop and rendered it big screen.

That "Oblivion," her signature song, was about street harassment only foreshadowed a new era in which conversations about such topics are normalized. Grimes wrote it about being assaulted: "I took one of the most shattering experiences of my life," she said, "and turned it into something I can build a career on and that allows me to travel the world." With the resilient ambience of this powerful pop song, Grimes exploded possibilities for herself, and us. —Jenn Pelly


17.

Florence + The Machine, "Dog Days Are Over" (2009)

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It's hard to imagine a more striking opening gambit than this miniature epic, the first song on Florence + the Machine's debut album, Lungs. Remixing the baroque concept of Joanna Newsom and echoic aesthetic of Neko Case with older influences — 1960s girl groups, the heavy drama of Grace Slick, the sheer ambition of Zeppelin — the young U.K. band barreled onto the scene like the happiness Florence Welch sings about, which hits her "like a train on a track." That train gives way to the wilder imagery of horses bearing self-shattering news of recovery — "Here they come." Order likewise gives way to jubilation as musical elements that enter in sequence like train cars (harp, stomps, claps, drums, voices) gradually pile up. Into a tradition of women's pop music often defined by longing and pain, the group delivered an unexpected and raucous encounter with joy. —Emily Lordi


16.

Mitski, "Your Best American Girl" (2016)

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One of Mitski's rawest, most viscerally painful songs, "Your Best American Girl" is about striving hopelessly to be what someone else wants. It begins tenderly, with mention of finger kisses and spooning, but as her desire magnifies it becomes horrifying, swallowing the song in its brutality. "But, big spoon, you have so much to do / And I have nothing ahead of me," she sings, illuminating a longing that sands its victims down to nothing. Fuzzy guitars augment Mitski's audible desperation — "You're the one / You're all I ever wanted" — and in the song's devastating conclusion, she admits defeat: "I guess I couldn't help trying to be your best American girl." —Cat Zhang


15.

Nicki Minaj, "Super Bass" (2010)

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Nicki Lewinsky. Nicki The Boss. Nicki The Ninja. The Harajuku Barbie. The Female Weezy. Roman Zolanski. Chun-Li. Onika Maraj, best known to the masses as Nicki Minaj, has been one of rap's greatest chameleons. She has redefined what a successful female rapper is capable of. And although she's fully established herself in the canon of hip-hop crossover stars, it's almost funny to recall that it was less than 10 years ago that she was busting down music industry expectations.

Coming off the success of her debut album, Pink Friday, no one expected a deep cut mixing pop, EDM and rap to eclipse the initial release. But this bonus track became a sleeper hit and Nicki's sonic catapult to international stardom. "Super Bass" was co-written by Ester Dean, Roahn Hylton and Kane Beatz (the song's producer) to sugarcoat Nicki's signature raunch just enough to appeal to the radio and beyond. The message is playful enough that it can be censored down to a PG level and the hook makes use of catchy, cute onomatopoeia so virtually anyone, regardless of age or native language, can sing along. But as much as "Super Bass" gives a wink to the pop world, Nicki didn't sacrifice her punchlines and similes in the process. Rhyming double and triple time — often in the same verse — she proved candy-coated hip-hop can still deliver rap prowess. —Sidney Madden


14.

Hurray For The Riff Raff, "Pa'lante" (2017)

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Hurray For The Riff Raff frontwoman Alynda Segarra spent much of her youth hopping trains in search of America. The band's sixth album, The Navigator, follows the story of a similar young girl, Navita, as she does the same. "Be something!" goes the rallying cry of the American by-your-bootstraps dream, of "Pa'lante," Segarra's ode to the working class Puerto Rican community she grew up with in the Bronx. "Colonized and hypnotized / Be something," she sings in her piercing, wavering alto over a slightly out-of-tune piano — "Sterilized, dehumanized / Be something."

After an interlude drawn from Pedro Pietri's poem "Puerto Rican Obituary," first read in 1969, the same year the Young Lords of New York City adopted "pa'lante" as their motto, Segarra's "be something" resolves into that familiar phrase pointing forward. She urges pa'lante the same "millions of dead Puerto Ricans" that Pietri did: Juan, Miguel, Milagros and Manuel. Segarra adds to that list Julia de Burgos and Sylvia Rivera, and now, the estimated 4,645 dead after 2017's Hurricane Maria, whose homes continue to collapse in their absence and whose ghosts inhabit the music video in New York and on the island like silent flags. A call to keep moving with unwavering memory because we must, "Pa'lante" is Hurray For the Riff Raff's strongest anthem of resistance to date. —Stefanie Fernández


13.

Lana Del Rey, "Video Games" (2011)

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When Lana Del Rey released what would eventually become her breakthrough single, old-guard rock critics weren't quite certain how to receive her. Like so many starlets before, she'd journeyed west to reinvent herself — a new name, a new sound, a different, more glamorous look. Because her aesthetic was so plainly cultivated, she became an unlikely lightning rod for whatever authenticity panic was then seizing the culture. For a while, the extra-musical narratives about Del Rey — that she was too passive, too vapid, too scripted — subsumed any talk about "Video Games" itself. Yet the song is rich and transfixing, a devotional in the old-fashioned sense: Del Rey is pledging undying allegiance to the man she loves, regardless of whether or not he appreciates or even returns her feelings (one gets the sense, hearing the deep longing in her voice, that he doesn't). It's one of most immediate and evocative depictions of doomed love I can think of — the sound of being young and sad and in the grips of senseless passion. —Amanda Petrusich


12.

Solange, "Cranes In The Sky" (2016)

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Solange's magnificent "Cranes in the Sky" moves with such quiet, easy grace that for so long, I thought it was about birds. But in an interview with her sister Beyoncé, Solange explained that the song was actually about an all-too-ordinary image that had struck her years before while gazing out a window: construction cranes disrupting her view. "They were so heavy and such an eyesore," Solange explained, "and not what I identified with peace and refuge. I remember thinking of it as an analogy of my transition — this idea of building up, up, up that was going on in our country at the time, all of this excessive building, and not really dealing with what was in front of us." "Cranes in the Sky" is a serene soundtrack to that fearless journey inward, to pulling problems up from the root, and to that first blessed glimpse of clear blue sky after the storm. —Lindsay Zoladz


11.

Janelle Monáe (ft. Big Boi), "Tightrope" (2010)

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When "Tightrope" came out, people didn't tell you to listen to it: They demanded you watch it. And they were right. Heard alone, the song is deceptively upbeat: It's funky, it's old school, it's a bop. And Monáe is so charismatic that you almost — almost — don't notice how weird her music is. But pair the slightly surreal lyrics with James Brown-style, tuxedo-clad dancing through an asylum, and you're there. You've entered a part-dystopian, part-Afrofuturist, part-Motown alternate reality.

"Tightrope" brought Monáe from relative obscurity into the spotlight, but it certainly didn't make her mainstream. She's remained committed to self-defining what it looks and sounds like to be a queer black woman. The iconic black-and-white suit that marked her "Tightrope" days was one iteration. These days, when she rocks ruffled pink vagina pants in a video, it feels like the natural progression of a space she's been carving out for herself — and her fans — for years. —Leah Donnella


10.

Peaches, "F*** The Pain Away" (2000)

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Note: This entry contains explicit language.

Pop has always used sex as a vehicle, but nobody knows how to hot-wire that energy like Peaches. The Canadian artist released The Teaches of Peaches in 2000, and it opened with what would become her signature anthem and electroclash's calling card. Over sparse, farting bass and jubilant hi-hats, Peaches doesn't just tell us what feels good to her — "suckin' on my titties like you wanted me" — she demands sexual release with a cool stare, while also advocating for education and contraception. Her vocal was recorded live, and the song's brilliance owes much to the way she delivers explicit lyrics with punk insouciance — an attitude that continues to inspire conversations around gender and sexual expression. Early critical reception often cast Peaches' frank sensuality as "smutty," a reductive move that feels prudish at best. However, 20th century morals could never hold Peaches or "F*** the Pain Away" back; they're both of this new millennium, and still as potent as ever. —Ruth Saxelby


9.

Brandi Carlile, "The Story" (2007)

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Brandi Carlile's crossover from Americana's outsider darling into wider consciousness came courtesy of a Grey's Anatomy placement for her anthemic "The Story." The righteously direct song starts sweetly and quietly enough, but rachets up the country-rock drama with each verse, Carlile's voice sprawling, drawling and cracking. Toggling from grit to grace, she belts, "All these lines across my face / Tell you the story of who I am," like a call to witness her survival. —Jessica Hopper


8.

Alicia Keys, "Fallin'" (2001)

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With a few simple, arpeggiated piano chords, Alicia Keys went from a teen prodigy whose promising career was being fumbled by the recording industry to a powerful voice capable of dominating radio charts around the world. What a way to make a debut: With a progression sampled from James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," on an album that also included a Prince-approved cover of "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore," Keys established herself as a well-schooled, deeply feeling artist whose roots were firmly planted in the American soul, funk and R&B tradition but whose style was distinctly her own. —Andrea Swensson (The Current)


7.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, "100 Days, 100 Nights" (2007)

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Sharon Jones was never one to shy away from the toughest lessons love can teach, and her discography provides a potent syllabus for women scorned and left to stitch up their own broken hearts. "100 Days, 100 Nights," the title track of her third album, is a wise and wild-eyed groove that begs the listener to learn from what she's weathered. Jones moonlit as a wedding singer for years before she built a devoted following with the Brooklyn-based Dap-Kings on the strength of her voice and the outfit's reverent soul, and "100 Days, 100 Nights" is a sly distillation of what she did best with her favorite players. It encourages the listener to dance while she explains just how long it takes to figure out if a man is worth loving or leaving. When the hard truth hits that a former flame turned out to be the latter, you hear her say it — but you really hear her hard-lived heartache in every high note, belting hard and strong in case you need a reminder that you can be both. —Hilary Hughes


6.

Lorde, "Royals" (2013)

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Dismissing materialist luxe and bloody drama, Lorde's debut single was interpreted by some as a closed-minded critique of hip-hop. Really, it's more like a love letter to the form. "Royals" is a classic origin story detailing its 16-year-old writer's scrappy social scene that reveals her to be no less impervious to beauty and power than her assumed targets. She uses her low-slung suburban gospel to transform a defiantly simple beat — a huge flex amid 2012's maximalist pop scaffolding — and betrays her fascination with opulence with vocal harmonies that glitter like sunbeams glinting off a twirling diamond. Never mind riches: Her rags-to-rule declaration felt like the first anthem for her messianically purposeful Gen Z. While "Royals" topped charts globally, it ultimately didn't turn Lorde into a commercial pop behemoth but rather set her up for precisely the "different kind of buzz" she sang about: namely the intimate, aesthete's favorite, Melodrama. —Laura Snapes


5.

Alabama Shakes, "Hold On" (2012)

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It's always a good thing when a band challenges musical categorizations and visual expectations and wins. This single introduced the world to singer and guitarist Brittany Howard, who, perhaps unwittingly, defied popular culture's expectations by simply refusing to be categorized by her gender and ethnicity. Despite her ability to quickly transition from a sultry croon à la Janis Joplin to a bellowing, often disembodied howl, it's the lyrical wisdom that masks Howard's young age and makes this song special. "Hold On" is not just a mantra offering the encouragement needed to get through life's rough patches; it's a timeless song that wouldn't work without Howard's ability to interweave a myriad of emotions with raw honesty. —Laina Dawes


4.

Amy Winehouse, "Back To Black" (2006)

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Producer Mark Ronson said it took Amy Winehouse about two or three hours to write the lyrics and melody of "Back to Black." From start to finish, the lyrics are a master class in concision. The thesis, "I died a hundred times / You go back to her and I go back to black," perfectly describes the point during a breakup when there are no more moments to overanalyze and all that's left is the fact of the hurt. Ronson's chord progression is simple; Winehouse's melody spends much of its time on just a few notes. I hope Frank Ocean will forgive me for borrowing a line he wrote on his Tumblr about his favorite Prince song, "When You Were Mine": "It's a simple song with a simple melody that makes you wish you thought of it first, even though you never would have." I feel this way about "Back to Black." But of course, nothing about listening to Amy Winehouse (or Prince, for that matter) is simple. This is the title track of the album that changed her life. —Jenny Gathright


3.

Beyoncé, "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" (2008)

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As thrilling of a musical production as it is, "Single Ladies" wouldn't be cemented in pop culture history today if it weren't for the music video. In the 2008 clip, Beyoncé and two backup dancers twist, sashay and strike power moves around a white room for a total of three intense and influential minutes. The impact was immediate, inspiring many to imitate the video and upload their versions to YouTube. Bey ultimately credited the inspiration of the choreography to a mix of a black, Southern style of dance called J-Setting and a vanilla yet viral routine choreographed by Bob Fosse decades ago. The visuals, though, wouldn't have been made possible without the song itself: fierce, flirtatious, assertive and uplifting all at once, "Single Ladies" was the roll call women in search of a barometer of self worth had been wanting, and in some cases needing, to hear. It was Beyoncé demanding excellence and devotion on every woman's behalf. —Kiana Fitzgerald


2.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Maps" (2003)

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Slathered in olive oil, wearing a white tank top with her nipples covered by duct tape hearts: That's how Karen O stepped onstage at New York City's Mercury Lounge for Yeah Yeah Yeahs' first public gig. It was September 2000, and the band were opening for the White Stripes. This was three years before Yeah Yeah Yeahs would drop the debut album, Fever to Tell, that would feature "Maps," and the night I imagine many people first learned they wanted to be Karen O. She took the existing frontwoman rulebook, drenched it in punk guts and sweat and wrung it out to die. This is not feminist critique through the rearview mirror; this was by design. Of being in an "all-dudes rock world," O has said: "I had to scream and break things to make people listen to me, but they did."

Upon its release, "Maps" was not the stuff of 2003 mainstream radio. But in the then-brand-new era of online music discovery where fans were first becoming tastemakers (and thanks in large part to a much-seen music video featuring Karen O's real tears), it wasn't long before popular radio was listening to Yeah Yeah Yeahs too. Some critics say the success of "Maps" served as the, well, roadmap for many of the smash indie-pop crossover hits of the early aughts. Karen O says she just wanted to "f*** s*** up." Either way, we can safely say, job done. —Talia Schlanger (World Cafe)


1.

M.I.A., "Paper Planes" (2007)

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This runaway hit was hardly Maya Arulpragasam's first song about the dual consciousness and dissonance of being a refugee seeking to make sense in a hostile foreign culture, but it proved the most salient. Its immortal chorus, a gloriously acerbic flip on Wreckx-N-Effect's "Rumpshaker," posited that nothing's more thuggish than Western capitalist expansion, and her languorous vocal operated as both narrator and indicter, as she sang, heavy-lidded and purposely pitchy, about her own survivalist swagger. Written around the time she said the U.S. was giving her visa issues in 2006 but stamped with a years-long shelf life, ironically "Paper Planes" proffered her biggest platform yet: a spot on the 2009 Grammys where she performed with Jay-Z and T.I., nine months pregnant, proving that the immigrant hustle never ceases. It brought her music to the very mass American audience she was critiquing, a central tension within M.I.A.'s oeuvre that has kept her music so vital. She understood that colonization was the antagonist, capitalism was the vessel, and that she could subvert them both to get her point across. "Paper Planes" made M.I.A. famous, but more significantly, it solidified her as a biting analyst willing to use her pop stardom to expose the flaws in the very system of pop stardom itself — an uncomfortable outsider and iconoclast whose incongruities are as fascinating as her brilliant music. —Julianne Escobedo Shepherd


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