On this anniversary-ish of the NPR’s Top 150 Albums by Women, they have released a list of the top 200 songs by women of the 21st Century. It’s fine, and I’ll have to do my deep dive. I am pleased to share that CRJ has made it into the list twice this time, despite being left off of the album list. (I honestly want to let go, but it’s impossible, so please respect my journey.)
As I’ve said before, I was devastated at the oversights on the list, but it was nothing compared to my shame at the audience-generated list of top 100 albums by women that had not one but three Taylor Swift albums on it. Including Reputation as the top listed, which I guess is like a weird metaphor for the Trump presidential win. There’s a lot to unpack there, but we can discuss it later.
Because we want you to end your summer strong, I have invited some excellent women to talk about their favorite albums. Perhaps what most unites these albums–what makes them worth continued listening years after their release–is how they straddle the dual worlds of women who live in a perpetual double bind. The virgin-whore dichotomy, the competent but not bitchy businesswoman, the not too complacent and not too ambitious performer, neither too timid nor a career-obsessed banshee. These albums generally explore the complexity of a woman’s condition without patronization, giving each moment thorough, meaty explanation and deep exploration. These albums are about women in women’s words, identifying and grappling with society, regulations, media, personal demons, and more.
So here, for your listening/reading pleasure are our Top Snubbed Albums by Women. (Presented in alphabetical order for peace, and honorable mentions because we can.)
Kelly Clarkson, All I Ever Wanted (2009)
People have been sleeping on Kelly Clarkson’s “All I Ever Wanted” album from day one. (I know, you thought I was going to say Breakaway didn’t you. Surprise!) This album came out in college for me, my senior year, and I remember clearly all the thoughts and memories and feelings I had then every time I listen to it. This is an unapologetic, angry, yelling album that is somehow still wholesome. It celebrates the best of women and relationships, but not quietly. This album is LOUD. I rocked out to headbangers like “I Do Not Hook Up” (which was obviously not autobiographical for me, but I gave literally zero fucks about that), and “My Life Would Suck Without You” (which I want to angry yell at all my friends all the time because they’re fucking amazing people and should know it). I think people just, I don’t know, forget about how fantastic Kelly Clarkson is. Kelly is the original American Idol. She knows exactly who she is, and even when her personal politics are diametrically opposed to mine, she doesn’t fucking apologize for what she believes. Every woman should have the confidence to be as loud with their feelings as Kelly Clarkson is on this album. Listen to it again. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion (2015)
In interviews, CRJ is wont to talk about her love of pop music unabashedly, admitting that she has previously tried to tone it down, but she loves a great hook more. Jepsen is a terrific songwriter, and she decided to lean into that, leaning into the “guilty pleasures” of it all. Reviewers of her songs–as evidenced in the NPR write-ups of “Run Away with Me” and “Call Me Maybe”–often talk about her music through the lens of a guilty pleasure. But Jepsen is not writing for you to listen quietly to headphones with a straight face. She is not embarrassed about her songs or how catchy they are. These are songs to feel good about through and through. Emotion is the 80s pop album that Taylor Swift was trying to create with 1989, with the synths, the ballads, the true commitment to bliss that we associate with high ponies and dry ice smoke music videos. These are mature songs, though, showing a singer who knows herself and who stands firmly in that identity. Jepsen wears her heart on her sleeve, no secrets and no games. (But if you want some funny business, you could always listen to “Boy Problems” like Tolentino does with a healthy dose of queer theory.)
Lizzo, Big Grrrl Small World (2016)
Big Grrrl Small World, Lizzo’s sophomore album, did more than show her growth and talent as an artist, it cemented her as an icon. This album is Lizzo telling you exactly who she is and daring you to say something about it. Big girl, small world indeed: Lizzo is larger than life and it comes through on every track. Her charisma is undeniable and even though she raps and sings with equal brilliance, you also feel her wit and playfulness throughout. What is most striking is how it starts with these confident, assured song lyrics from a woman who knows that she controls her body, her life, and her career and only when we see Lizzo as the powerhouse that she is does she invite us behind the curtain and reveal the growth and work that got her there. “En Love” and “My Skin” are a one two punch of self-love and acceptance that drip authenticity and give wide berth to the more cringe-worthy, performative bops that attempt the same thing (ahem, Megan Trainor). Both songs celebrate the journey and the deep joy found when she realized that she didn’t just accept her body and her blackness, she reveled in them and the power that loving them gave her. This album centers Lizzo as the hero in her own story and her relationship with herself as the relationship that matters most. It’s powerful, it’s poignant, and it’s a damn masterpiece.
Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer (2018)
It’s a real shame that this album came out after NPR’s top list. Luckily, “Pynk” (a song with a video that is just as important and the song itself) is included on the top songs list. Monáe has said that this is her most personal album, and it makes sense given that she is openly talking about her sexuality in a way that she has actively avoided in the past. On Dirty Computer, we hear an openness that feels like a woman breaking loose. Indeed, “Pynk” manages to convey this sonically, with bare bones instrumentation and restraint that opens into loud guitars, yeahs, ahs, and harmonies. I told someone that you cannot listen to this album with the windows closed, and I stand by it. The album is a freeing of Monáe that urges listeners to let go, too. Her confidence, pride, and hard work (hustling for over a decade) show at the same time that she grapples with her blackness, her womanhood, her sexuality, her success, and so much more.
Jill Scott, Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 (2000)
In a public forum, they often tell you to not ask a question you don’t know the answer to. With 2000s “Who Is Jill Scott,” Jilly from Philly was well in command of both the question and its response; she knew exactly who she was, and what of her story she wanted to share with the world. With her debut Jill Scott continued in the long tradition of black songstresses, while adding twists both unique to both her hometown of Philly, and to the golden age of hip-hop that she came of age in. This album also manages to be both tied to its neo-soul contemporaries, yet uniquely timeless. It’s a coming out party for a woman who understood herself and her gift, which sonically and thematically is something to return to, learn from, and enjoy on repeat.
Kesha, Rainbow (2017)
Some albums don’t have to be “perfect” to be perfect. Some songs on Kesha’s Rainbow don’t work – they’re too fast, too forced, too obvious. But it’s almost as if the maniacal nature of those songs is a statement in of itself – an emphatic “HEAR ME, SEE ME, RECOGNIZE ME.” The legal & psychological warfare Kesha had been embroiled in prevented her from releasing new music for far too long – Rainbow was a manifestation of woman clawing her way out of the grasps of man. It’s aggressive and loud, but also beautiful and emotional. It makes you cry, it makes you cheer, but overall it makes you FEEL. In other words, it’s perfect.
Marina and the Diamonds, FROOT (2015)
Like her Electra Heart in 2012, Marina is looking at all of the different ways to be a woman in this album. As previously noted, Marina wrote all of these songs herself, a feat for any artist in this era, but especially for a woman in the pop scene. (Most of your favorite hits are produced by Jack Antonoff, Max Martin, other men.) This album is about a breakup; but unlike the Electra Heart persona, who would smirk at pain and become isolated, the FROOT heroine is openly vulnerable and then moves on, finding strength within herself. Ugh. Any time FROOT was reviewed, the writer would point at “Savages,” a song about how humans tear each other apart, bringing down the world around them. It’s a song that displays simultaneous resignation and alarm, intertwining our obsession with media and the façades we each put on to achieve–or at least present as having achieved–success. It is much like a woman alive today: aware of the constant threats to our personhood but determined to find a way through.
Rihanna, ANTI (2016)
Her biggest hits in the few years before felt like they were a string of her repeating the same phrase over and over on top of some EDM beat, but ANTI was different. There was soul in it. You felt like you were listening to the bounds of her vocal and emotional capacity on songs like higher. Also, she just didn’t seem to give a fuck about what anyone else thought on this album. So frequently risqué and challenging and brave. She did a cover of a Tame Impala song that changed literally nothing except her singing it and now that’s my go-to version. She took something and just by reflecting herself thru it she made it better.
Tegan and Sara, The Con (2007)
Quin sisters Tegan and Sara shift personas and moods easily in their music, deftly conveying anger, love, sadness, and–stunningly–hate. For a lot of listeners (based entirely on anecdotal experience at WashU around the album’s release), the standout single from this album was “Back in Your Head,” but I’d argue it’s “Nineteen.” The whole album is that reckless love or lust you feel when you’re teetering between late childhood and young adulthood. Sometimes the destruction goes out and sometimes it comes back in. It’s that college kind of love where you want it to consume you entirely while presenting as if you don’t care at all. That the sisters are queer adds a layer to the angst Tegan and Sara sing about, but the emotions are universal. This love story of this album is about trying to make love into a game, but as the album continues we realize we do not know what winning looks like.
India.Arie, Acoustic Soul (2001)
Lady Gaga, The Fame (2009)
Esperanza Spalding, Esperanza (2008)