The 200 Greatest Songs By 21st Century Women+ (40-21) 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+

Rhiannon Giddens Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Rhiannon Giddens

Claire Harbage/NPR

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.


40.

Rihanna (ft. Calvin Harris), "We Found Love" (2011)

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Calvin Harris' production of "We Found Love" feels prickly at first, then purely stimulating. It's an undulating landscape that gives Rihanna space to sing to the stars about the intangible but very real thing that connects us all: love. The relatable desperation and inescapably turnt energy of the song arguably made Harris into a pop superstar overnight, but it propelled Rihanna even further into the untouchable territory reserved for chart-dominating queens. The lyrics of the 2011 single are harmlessly enjoyable, perfect for dancing and fist-pumping the night away with both lovers and friends of all kinds. It's the love song of a generation that openly encourages every form of consensual affection. It's an anthem of inclusivity. —Kiana Fitzgerald


39.

Valerie June, "Workin' Woman Blues" (2012)

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Valerie June's Pushing Against a Stone opened with this provocative feminist anthem, written in the style of century-old standards — a driving guitar riff, lyrics repeated for emphasis ("I've been workin' all my life, all my life, all my life"). Halfway through, a trumpet comes out of nowhere and carries the listener from the Mississippi Delta on up to Harlem, with a minimalist beat that gets us bobbing our heads. For many, the song was a stunning introduction to this artist, who is equal parts avid traditionalist and mystical soothsayer. —Kim Ruehl


38.

St. Vincent, "Cruel" (2011)

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On her third record as St. Vincent, Annie Clark went for the jugular. Paring down her ostentatious art-rock affectations and sharpening her narrative focus allowed for an album of shimmering sweetness undercut by propulsive freak-outs: pop music, as Clark described it, by way of a "housewife on pills." "Cruel" does it all perfectly, cramming cinematic crescendos, an unforgettable earworm riff, mountains of textured guitars and near the entirety of Clark's vocal range into a brisk three and a half minutes. It's joyous but twisted, danceable but creepy: Clark at her most accessible and most delightfully bizarre. —Marissa Lorusso


37.

Paramore, "Misery Business" (2007)

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Let's take this from the top: Before Paramore's breakout, the '00s pop-punk/emo explosion was pretty much exclusively male: dude singers relaxing on an ugly-nasal vocal tone to carry formulaic, power chord sub-punk to radio and MTV's TRL. Singer Hayley Williams' very presence (and range!) revolutionized what those genres could do: tight instrumentation, memorable hooks, songs that weren't about murdering a female unrequited crush. Lyrically, "Misery Business" does date itself with internalized misogyny (lines like "Once a whore, you're nothing more"), which Williams has since apologized for. She might've smashed a glass ceiling, but she also cut herself on the shards. —Maria Sherman


36.

Bomba Estéreo, "Soy Yo" (2015)

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Empowerment anthems are a tricky business — there's a fine line between a feel-good affirmation and pure saccharine cheese. Bomba Estéreo pulled off "Soy Yo" without once venturing into the cringe zone, largely thanks to an 11-year-old from New Jersey. Sarai Isaura Gonzalez stars in the music video which takes viewers on a tour of a young Latina's world. She dances down sidewalks, confronting would-be cool kids with unabashed self-confidence. In one scene, two girls snicker at Gonzalez, who responds by triumphantly waving her plastic recorder in the air. It's no surprise that the video went viral — Gonzalez's jubilantly unselfconscious dance moves speak a universal language. —Lauren Migaki


35.

The Knife, "Heartbeats" (2002)

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One of the century's first perfect — and weirdest — love songs came by way of Swedish sister-brother duo Karin and Olof Dreijer. "Heartbeats" was as mysterious as its creators, who were known for wearing masks on stage and eschewing pop convention in both their music and business practices. But underneath its cool, electronic veneer, the song tapped into all-too-human feelings of uncertainty and the intrigue of new romance — perhaps a forbidden one. José González's acoustic distillation (which became a hit in its own right) shed light on its universality, but the rawness of the original remains its essence. Even misfits and outsiders yearn to connect. —Jamie Ludwig


34.

Carrie Underwood, "Before He Cheats" (2005)

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After achieving crossover success by letting "Jesus Take the Wheel" in 2005, Carrie Underwood took a risk with her post-American Idol image in the summer of 2006 with this unrepentant single. Before Taylor Swift or Beyoncé took a swing, Underwood made clear what fate your prized possessions would suffer if you did her wrong — and with waves of success on the country, pop and adult contemporary charts, the song pushed her debut into the record books. With it, she established herself as a superstar who wouldn't be confined by country. —Kim Junod (WXPN)


33.

Courtney Barnett, "Avant Gardener" (2013)

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How long had it been since indie rock manifested a major new personality? Not a showboating troll, but a person whose music told you everything you needed to know? Barnett's arrival was a revelation, one powered by dazzling wordplay that disguised her desire to go through life making as little fuss as possible. The indignity of the brilliant "Avant Gardener" isn't that she almost dies of anaphylactic shock while gardening, but that she makes a spectacle of herself doing so. —Laura Snapes


32.

SZA, "The Weekend" (2017)

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The highest-charting single from 2017's brilliant debut LP CTRL, "The Weekend" finds contemporary R&B singer SZA winding her lyrics like vines around and through ThankGod4Cody's wiry beats as she inverts a classic genre trope: a player, and the women who love him. Rather than competing for or dumping him, SZA chooses comfortable non-monogamy ("My man is my man is your man / Her, this her man too") — thoroughly modern and thoroughly rational, and a relatively new perspective for the mainstream. She worked with Solange on the visual for the song; a narrow-minded industry might pit one young star against the other, but they choose to work together and uplift one another, opting out of competition in parallel with the song's narrator and enriching their own unique artistic visions in the process. —Jes Skolnik


31.

Against Me!, "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" (2014)

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Note: This entry contains explicit language.

Although she publicly came out as trans in 2012, 2014 was the year we truly met Against Me!'s Laura Jane Grace for the first time. "Transgender Dysphoria Blues," the title track off the Florida band's sixth album, was an unapologetically raw depiction of her struggles with gender dysphoria that sent shockwaves through the scene. The punk ballad's triumphant, militant swing juxtaposes the delicate (the image of a pretty summer dress) with the confrontational ("You've got no cunt in your strut") to capture a beautiful, revolutionary portrait of love and rage in motion. —Kim Kelly


30.

Rhiannon Giddens, "At The Purchaser's Option" (2017)

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Rhiannon Giddens has become a leader in the Americana world by foregrounding her talent for telling black Americans' stories, as she does on her 2017 LP Freedom Highway. In the emotional opening track, Giddens creates a vivid picture of a slave woman in colonial America who is about to be sold and is trying decide whether to fall in love with her child. She created the tale based on an actual advertisement for a slave woman with a newborn baby, who could accompany the mother "at the purchaser's option." In Giddens' determined lyrics and melody, this haunting song portrays a strong narrator who has nearly met her breaking point, but claims her soul as her own. —Cindy Howes (Folk Alley & WYEP)


29.

Lady Gaga, "Bad Romance" (2009)

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Following the success of her 2008 debut, The Fame, Lady Gaga had an unusual sparkle about her. But in a popscape where Beyoncé, Kesha and Katy Perry served as radio's reigning queens, sparkle was in great supply and low demand — leaving Gaga no choice but to turn to sacrilege. Taking a page from the Madonna playbook and suffusing it with the horror glam of Alexander McQueen, Gaga revamped the diva in her follow-up EP, The Fame Monster. Its lead single, "Bad Romance," was pure Eurodance macabre with an industrial acerbity, speaking to Gaga's penchant for love that's doomed from the start. "I'm drawn to bad romances," she told Vanity Fair in 2010. "My relationships with straight men are always abusive, always tumultuous, always emotional. I don't trust anybody. I have this weird thing that if I sleep with someone they're going to take my creativity from me through my vagina." The five-minute video follows Gaga as she's drugged, kidnapped and sold to Russian mobsters — and closes with her scorching the highest bidder, right down to the bone. When she spits, "I'm a free bitch, baby," it sizzles. —Suzy Exposito


28.

Norah Jones, "Don't Know Why" (2002)

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In 2002, the charts belonged to angry skater girls and flashy MCs. Enter a singer/songwriter whose early love for jazz fueled her hushed, easy vocals. In New York City, you might have caught her (as I did) gigging with the JC Hopkins Biggish Band or playing solo for tiny audiences at The Living Room, a shy, beautiful nobody whose sudden and stupendous rise couldn't have been predicted.

Jones recorded her debut, Come Away With Me, with an acoustic trio on Blue Note Records. Among the album's originals was a track written by her friend Jesse Harris: "Don't Know Why," a quietly dazzling tribute to romantic indecision. It song crept its way from adult contemporary radio onto the playlist of every coffeehouse during that slow-to-thaw spring — and in 2003, Jones won five Grammys, including record of the year and best female pop vocal performance for "Don't Know Why." Twenty-seven million copies later, hearts are still melting with the line, "My heart is drenched in wine." —Lara Pellegrinelli


27.

Kesha, "Praying" (2017)

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Dr. Bessel van der Kolk changed neurophysiology when he argued that "the body keeps the score" — that is, it remembers traumas the mind buries. Kesha changed pop music when she proved it. "Praying" is a radio-ready single, but it's also the masterwork of an artist processing trauma she legally had to absorb in silence. Her struggles are public, but were they not, you'd guess upon listening. Her voice is newly bodacious, in the classical sense. That high note seems summoned by the struggle, possible only because of what her body now knows. In just under four minutes: both wound and recovery. —Katie Presley


26.

Miranda Lambert, "Gunpowder & Lead" (2008)

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Revenge songs were part of Miranda Lambert's repertoire right out of the gate, but it wasn't until she released "Gunpowder & Lead," the riotous, country-rocking eruption of a woman pushed to the brink by an abusive man, that she proved how dynamically she could inhabit such a role, how ready she was to embody strong-minded, blue-collar femininity. She wrote the song with a Texas songwriter named Heather Little, warping nursery rhymes about the sweetness of girls' nature into an anthemic number that started out with an antsy, down-home dobro figure and built to a searing, thrashy, electric guitar-powered climax. The fierceness of Lambert's wit came through in the way she eviscerated toxic masculinity. "He slapped my face and he shook me like a rag doll," she snarled in a vinegary drawl, her phrasing feverish. "Don't that sound like a real man?" And with that, she convinced the country music world just how real and riveting her music could be, something that wouldn't be forgotten even when she fleshed out other, more pensive sides of her persona in the years to come. —Jewly Hight


25.

Cardi B, "Bodak Yellow" (2017)

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From the second "Bodak Yellow" creaks awake with that lurching doomsday beat, it announces the arrival of something audacious, formidable and wholly unexpected — a changing of the guard in rap, declared over a barrage of snapping hi-hats. Cardi B rules this new world order, and the regular, degular, shmegular girl from the Bronx uses each throbbing verse to savagely flaunt her fairytale glow-up from stripper to social media star to hip-hop luminary. Her flow, clipped and staccato, is menacing, but there's also something deliciously triumphant in her voice. After being criminally underestimated, she's made it — something "Bodak Yellow" would affirm by becoming the first solo female rap record to top the Billboard Hot 100 since 1998. The track will always be Cardi B's gilded statement piece, as well as an addictive proclamation for women, especially those of color, to chant to as they relish their own hustle. —Julyssa Lopez


24.

Rihanna (ft. Jay-Z), "Umbrella" (2007)

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Rihanna's status as a pop icon was cemented on her third album, Good Girl Gone Bad, specifically with this irrepressible single. The song examines a fairly basic tenet of romantic relationships with a nuanced vocal delivery that slowly ensnares you. Just try getting the hook, "ella, ella, eh, eh, eh," out of your head; its sinewy simplicity is inescapable. Rihanna wisely recognized how well that repetitive refrain would "workworkworkworkwork," to quote a later hit of hers. "Umbrella" offers a cool confidence to which we can all aspire. —Alisa Ali (WFUV)


23.

Amy Winehouse, "Rehab" (2006)

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As an anti-temperance anthem, the lead single from Amy Winehouse's sophomore smash, Back to Black, was timed perfectly to a certain post-9/11, pre-financial crisis hedonism that asserted itself in the first years of the millennium. But it was no novelty: Powered by crackerjack backing outfit the Dap-Kings, a space alien could have tuned in to its crisp handclaps, big-bottomed baritone sax and taut, irrepressible groove and known that we had a hit on our hands — and one that masterfully deployed elements that dated back to when hits were invented, without ever sounding stale. Tying it all together with a black velvet ribbon, of course, is the diva's own fluid, slinky instrument, chewing with gusto on her toss-the-TV-out-the-window-level ode to appetites. —Alison Fensterstock


22.

Kacey Musgraves, "Follow Your Arrow" (2013)

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Kacey Musgraves established herself as country music's new-generation statement-maker when she insisted on releasing "Follow Your Arrow" as her third single. It was nothing new for a country artist to sing about what little use she had for middle-class measures of respectability or to espouse a live-and-let-live attitude, but this Texas-bred singer-songwriter offered a fetchingly fresh take on what that sounded like coming from a tradition-savvy and self-aware millennial voice. The lyrics lumped heteronormativity in with other restrictive social mores, including the policing of consumption, piety and sexual availability. Both of Musgraves' co-writers, Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark, happened to be gay, but it was Musgraves who insisted that their whimsical country-pop tune could, and should, articulate queer acceptance. Even more significant than what she wanted to say was how she said it: with an impatient eye roll and a sly, permissive shrug, as though she saw nothing radical about it. Musgraves also co-produced the track with McAnally and Luke Laird, draping her willowy singing — punctuated by shouts of affirmation from male voices and twee whistling — over ribbons of steel guitar and genial acoustic strumming. It was a singular blend of cool affect and cowgirl kitsch. —Jewly Hight


21.

Carly Rae Jepsen, "Call Me Maybe" (2012)

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The best thing about the song of summer 2012 is that it is exactly what it purports to be: a candy-crush teenybopper pop hit about meeting a cute guy (crazy) and working up the courage to ask him to call you (maybe). It's fun and it's flirty and it makes you want to dance. It's not trying to be super-deep or sexy — it's just reveling in the feeling of being young and happy and taking big risks, like talking to a guy at the pool while wearing Hollister jeans and a lot of lip gloss. If translated into emoji, at least half the lyrics would be hearts — with some kissy faces and sunshine thrown in for good measure. This is a song that will always sound best heard blasting from a radio somewhere. With a sparkly disco beat and an urgently catchy chorus, "Call Me Maybe" succeeds because of its ability to immortalize the feeling of summer through the mood of blushing teenagers. —Alyssa Edes


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