A New Canon: In Pop Music, Women Belong At The Center Of The Story Why make a list of the greatest albums by women? To start a new conversation, where musicians who have too long been marginalized are now at the center.
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A New Canon: In Pop Music, Women Belong At The Center Of The Story

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A New Canon: In Pop Music, Women Belong At The Center Of The Story

A New Canon: In Pop Music, Women Belong At The Center Of The Story

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Listen to some of the so-called greatest albums of the rock era, and you may hear a pattern.


THE BEATLES: (Singing) He's a real nowhere man.


BOB DYLAN: (Singing) You say, who is that man?


RADIOHEAD: (Singing) Arrest this man.


PRINCE: (Singing) I'm not a man.


THE CLASH: (Singing) By your man...


MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) Don't be a macho man.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Big man...


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) A man...


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing) Man...


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #4: (Singing) Cool man...

INSKEEP: Wow. The word man is being sung an awful lot there by an awful lot of men. That, at least, is what Ann Powers thinks. She's a longtime music writer, regular guest on this program. And she got together with a bunch of other rock critics and music fans to compile a list of the greatest albums by women in rock history.

Hi, Ann.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve. How you doing, man (laughter)?

INSKEEP: I'm doing OK, man - uh, Ann. Ann is what I meant to say. So what got you started on this project?

POWERS: Well, my friend Jill Sternheimer, who is director of programs at Lincoln Center, and I were having a conversation about how women in music, as they get older, aren't always as honored as men.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I'm thinking about the fact that, if you're the Rolling Stones, you can continue to play the kind of shows you played when you were 20 forever.

POWERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

INSKEEP: But if you're a woman, at some point in your career, you have to sing an album of standards and just kind of project to a different audience.

POWERS: Oh, yeah, unless you're Patti Smith, I guess (laughter).

INSKEEP: I guess so. I guess so. So you're thinking that women are disadvantaged in some way. But what does that have to do with lists?

POWERS: Lists are one central way that music history is recorded. So most lists of the greatest albums do not include that many women, and the women they do include are kind of scattered throughout - few and far between. So I thought, well, what would happen if we just told the story of popular music solely through albums by women?

INSKEEP: Well, now we know the answer to that question because you've got this project called "Turning The Tables" - little bit of an old-timey pun, there - 150 albums on the list. It's on NPR Music right now. And let's hear a little bit from No. 1.


JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) But it don't snow here. It stays pretty green. I'm going to make a lot of money, then I'm going to quit this crazy scene. I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

INSKEEP: Oh, such a distinctive voice.

POWERS: Well, that, of course, is Joni Mitchell from her 1971 album, "Blue."

INSKEEP: Why is it No. 1?

POWERS: Well, it's interesting, Steve. The women who voted for these albums, they're intergenerational - very diverse group - but so many of them believe that this album is the quintessential singer-songwriter album. It achieves that very intense intimacy that many music listeners crave but also has such high craft. And I think the women who voted for Joni Mitchell love her personally and revere her as an artist. And that's what makes her No. 1.

INSKEEP: So you have different kinds of listeners attracted to different kinds of music that are on this list, but they're all women. Is there something about women's music, if I can use that phrase, that many of these songs have in common?

POWERS: It's a controversial thing to say that women making music are different in any way than men. But one thing that I realized during this process is that the greatest albums made by women speak to each other about particular things. If you look at the top five albums on this list - "Blue" by Joni Mitchell, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" by Lauryn Hill, "I Put A Spell On You" by Nina Simone, "I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You" by Aretha Franklin, and Missy Elliott's "Supa Dupa Fly"...


POWERS: You wouldn't necessarily - I know (laughter). Kind of awesome five, right (laughter)?


POWERS: You wouldn't necessarily see the commonalities immediately, but Joni Mitchell has a song on "Blue" that's about the daughter she entrusted for adoption at birth.


JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) So you sign all the papers in the family name. You're sad, and you're sorry. But you're not ashamed.

POWERS: Lauryn Hill has a song on her album that's about the son she chose to keep even though people advised her it would be bad for her career.


LAURYN HILL: (Singing) I knew his life deserved a chance. But everybody told me to be smart.

POWERS: Intimacy, mastery, authority, vulnerability - I think those are some of the main themes in these albums.

INSKEEP: OK, well, now that you've got this storehouse of hits and great albums, what are you going to do?

POWERS: Well, we're going to have a big party at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, July 26. Rickie Lee Jones is going to perform her album "Pirates" in its entirety. Then we're going to continue this project into the fall and the spring with more events, more coverage throughout NPR, all sorts of plans to celebrate women's talents in the recording studio and the great albums they've made.

INSKEEP: Sounds good, man.

POWERS: Thank you, man.

INSKEEP: (Laughing) That was a joke. It's a joke.

POWERS: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: That's Ann Powers of NPR Music introducing us to a project called "Turning The Tables." And the highlight here is a list of the 150 greatest albums by women in the rock era, which you can find at nprmusic.org right now.


MISSY ELLIOTT: (Rapping) I'm driving to the beach - top down, loud sounds, see my peeps.

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