I decided it would be fun to respond to NPR’s “150 greatest albums by female artists” list released on July 28, 2017. I enjoyed reading their list; I own about 50 of the albums and love many of their choices. In terms of sheer range, their list has is great stylistic and cultural diversity, and a broad representation of eras. Still, no one agrees 100% with anyone’s list so this is my turn.
I selected albums only and tried to avoid compilations. There are a few albums from the 1950s that can only be purchased in combination with another album; fortunately, this did not compromise the quality of the list. I selected the albums based primarily on quality, as in “Does this album provide an enjoyable listening experience for me, and does it fulfill its artistic aspirations? I also considered, “Does this album feature songs, arrangements, and/or performances that has inspired other artists?” In essence, does it have staying power? Some artists have vast discographies of impressive music and repeat themselves so I tried to consider if the album is merely a good representation of their style or a true advancement?
To mix things up, I invited two Riffs, Beats & Codas readers to share a selection and their rationales. Checkout their selections in Part 3. I aimed for variety very intentionally so I had to edit myself to avoid overrepresenting prolific artists to provide space for a wide range of artists and styles. For example, I wrote an entire post in 2016 about my admiration for the artistry of Sarah Vaughan, thus I restricted my Vaughan entries to a few representative examples. Viva variety!
I organized the albums by year. This approach reflects a few things:
· Most recording artists recorded singles until the mid-1950s when albums were in the process of becoming the dominant recording medium
· Because of the latter, a lot of important artists (e.g. Bessie Smith) did not record “albums” during their lifetime and/or their best work is featured on compilations
· The yearly format illustrates the music of the zeitgeist; for example vocal jazz was still mainstream pop in the mid-1950s so the first decade is heavy on vocal jazz and cabaret
· You can see where I am age-wise by the volume of album/year. There are far fewer albums from the 2000-2010s and more independent music because as I have aged my taste has gotten narrower. I find less and less mainstream pop music appealing which explains the prevalence of music recorded in genres that appeal to older audiences such as blues and jazz.
· Related to this is the zeitgeist issue. There are albums that have sold millions of copies and are framed as “defining an age” that I find marginal in quality and/or overrated. This is highly subjective, which illustrates the fact that lists reflect personal tastes even when “serious” writers are trying to thing about historical posterity.
· Finally, every year is not represented. I whittled this down from over an initial list of 290 albums, which tells you a lot about the excellent albums women have recorded in the 67 year (!) period the list covers.
Most performers who sing in languages other than English have limited commercial exposure in the U.S. so there are fewer albums in these tongues than I would like. I listen to many vocalists singing in Portuguese and Spanish, but am not as confident in certain genres as I am in U.S,. styles. I listen to far less music sung in Creole, French, Korean, and other tongues. This reflects my own limitations and larger structural realities. U.S. record companies focus more on crossover acts, especially signers who perform in English and other languages to ensure crossover success, with rare exception. They also often lump diverse artists under the “world music” category, which flattens out difference. By association, many Americans have a limited familiarity with international acts. For example, many Americans know Astrud Gilberto (“Girl from Ipanema”), but know little about other Brazilian female vocalists. Few since Gilberto have really “crossed over” in the States. I hope to devote future attention to the topic.
I hope you recognize some of your favorites, discover some new artists, and find some head scratching omissions. Enjoy!
Ella Sings Gershwin: After years of singing commercial novelty songs Decca Records let Fitzgerald record a 10-song suite of great songs in a mature style, accompanied by the elegant pianist Ellis Larkins.[Pure Ella, which combines Sings Gershwin with Fitzgerald’s fine 1954’s set Songs in a Mellow Mood, is the only way to purchase both].
Night in Manhattan: Lee Wiley’s cool tone and supple phrasing bring out the emotional richness of ballad standards like “Manhattan,” “I’ve got a Crush on You,” and, “Street of Dreams” on this elegant album. [Recorded in 1951 when albums were only 8 songs, it is only available in a three-fer with exquisite “songbook” albums Sings Vincent Youmans (1952) and Sings Irving Berlin (1952) making it a great value!]
Dinah Jams: The country’s greatest blues singer showcases her ability to improvise with modern jazz musicians in front of an invited audience.
Sarah Vaughan: Bebop’s premier vocalist was able to sing and jam blissfully free from commercial pressures on this sumptuous suite of ballads and mid-tempo swingers with a simpatico small group, including trumpeter Clifford Brown.
Black Coffee: Vocal sensuality Peggy Lee made one of the first “concept albums” on this collection of torch ballads and love songs recorded in an intimate small group jazz setting that flatters her subtle vocal style.
For Those in Love: Dinah Washington and Quincy Jones collaborated on this exquisitely beautiful collection of ballads played by top-drawer jazz musicians and featuring brilliant solos.
In the Land of Hi-Fi: Sarah Vaughan and a big band swing their asses off on blazing versions of “Cherokee” and “How High the Moon,” and transform “Over the Rainbow” into a paragon of sensuous balladry
Something Cool: June Christy sang the anthem of the “cool school” vocal jazz aesthetic with its existential almost cinematic title track; she renders the surrounding songs with equal detail and musicality.
Blue Rose: Rosemary Clooney broke from commercial pop on this program of Ellington-Strayhorn songs, including the wordless title track Ellington wrote for her and the definitive version of “Sophisticated Lady.”
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook: Fitzgerald kicked off her heralded 16 album songbook series on this collection of interpretations that are as funny, sexy, and dramatic as Porter’s revered songs.
Midnight at Mabel Mercer’s: This eloquent program of songs captures the regal mannerisms and intimate interpretive genius of the Queen of New York cabaret Mabel Mercer in her prime.
Pick Yourself Up: The always hip and swinging Anita O’Day transitioned from swing to bop- inspired improvisation seamlessly; here, her cool tone never wavers on these virtuoso displays of improvisational prowess.
Songs of a Love Affair: Jean Shepard recorded the first country music concept album, in this case one organized around the drama of an affair breaking up amarriage; classic country drama!
A Tribute to Andy Razaf: Razaf’s witty, swinging, and diverse songs got their first proper album treatment via the delicate touch of the ever swinging Maxine Sullivan and her band of all-stars.
Odetta Sings Ballads & Blues: Folk singer Odetta began her legend here singing folk songs and spirituals that revived folk music as a vital contemporary genre and inspired generations of performers to explore the genre’s deep roots.
Swingin’ Easy: Sarah Vaughan thrived in a small jazz groups and on Swing she and her bandmates perform definitive versions of “All of Me,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”; she wrote and performed one of the most innovative (and imitated) jazz band anthems of all time, “Shulie A Bop.”
Little Girl Blue: Nina Simone’s debut turned listeners on to her elegant, powerful piano playing and unique vocal style; highlights include the classics “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “Love Me or Leave Me.”
Ella Sings the George & Ira Gershwin Songbook: Ella Fitzgerald and master arranger Nelson Riddle give a wide range of popular and rare Gershwin songs a deluxe orchestral and big band interpretive treatment over three discs.
Rockin’ with Wanda: Rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson staked her claim as the first lady of rock ‘n’ roll field with stellar cuts like “Fujiyama Mama” and “Mean Man.”
Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall: America’s most beloved singing actress gave a bravura performance of her signature tunes in all of her glory at Carnegie and the results were captured on tape. [1961 Grammy Winner Album of the Year]
Out of the Blue: Just when people thought vocal jazz had peaked Carol Sloane wowed everyone with her accomplished debut, one marked by the improvisational skill, musical phrasing and good taste that defined her career for the next 50 years.
Sings Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Favorites: Carmen McRae established herself at Decca records in the mid-1950s, but her finest early album is a salute to her greatest influence Lady Day; like Holiday, McRae is an individual with a high level of musicality who puts a personal imprint on everything she sings.
Songs I Like to Sing!: Helen Humes began as a sassy young blues singer and sang with Count Basie and big bands before becoming a formidable jazz artist; here she delivers some of the most effortlessly swinging performances of standards like “Mean to Me,” “My Old Flame,” and “St. Louis Blues” plus the best version of her original anthem “Million Dollar Secret.”
Getz/Gilberto: This lovely mix of instrumental and vocal tunes, sung by Astrud Gilberto, introduced Americans to the seductive sounds of Brazil’s bossa nova tradition notably on the Jobim classics “The Girl from Ipanema,” and “Once I Loved.” [1962 Grammy Winner Album of the Year]
Portrait of Sheila: Inspired by modern jazz, especially Charlie Parker, vocalist Sheila Jordan’s highly influential debut showed her ability to push the harmonic and rhythmic boundaries of popular songs like “Baltimore Oriole” and “Falling in Love with Love.”
Back to the Blues: On one of her final albums, the Queen of the Blues, Dinah Washington, reclaimed her crown singing with the incisive bite and radiant sexiness that made her famous.
Barbra Streisand Album: At 23 years old Barbra Streisand contemporized the vocal pop tradition with riveting dramatic versions of “Cry Me a River” and “Happy Days are Here Again” that indicated a startling command of the tradition and a remarkable instrument. [1963 Grammy Winner Album of the Year]
Nina Simone in Concert: Nina Simone shifted from a jazz chanteuse into an outspoken activist on this exciting live set, notable for the civil rights themes “Go Limp” and “Mississippi Goddamn.”
Wish Someone Would Care: Irma Thomas became the “New Orleans Soul Queen” because she bared her soul on songs like her self-penned title track, and original versions of rock classics like “Time is On My Side,” and Jackie DeShannon’s “Break-a-Way.”
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin became the Queen of Soul on the strength of “Respect,” “Dr. Feelgood,” “Save Me,” and “I Never Loved a Man,” and other classic performances that make this the best ‘60s soul album recorded.
More than a New Discovery: No 1960s pop songwriter wrote with the melodic freedom and lyrical intrigue of Laura Nyro whose debut features classics like “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Stoney End,” “And When I Die,” and “Flim Flam Man” that became hits for other performers, though her versions remain definitive.
Ode to Billie Joe: Bobby Gentry introduced the world to the mystery of Billie Joe McAllister on this moody, swampy southern folk classic.
Surrealistic Pillow: The Jefferson Airplane kicked open the door to psychedelic and acid rock era for a generation thanks to anthemic hits like “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love,” sung powerfully by Grace Slick.
Wildflowers: Judy Collins showcased the purity her crystal clear soprano and her interpretive chops on this folk masterpiece which features classic versions of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” and “Hey that’s No Way to sayGoodbye,” and her enduring original “Since You Asked.”
Delta Sweetie: On this layered mix of blues, country, and folk tunes Bobbie Gentry (“Ode to Billie Joe”) presents an offbeat, and often dark portrait of Southern life through a dazzling array of characters and scenarios.
Eli and the 13th Confession: After debuting with one of the most original and frequently covered collections of new songs to premiere in the 1960s, Laura Nyro revealed her inner creative essence in even more personal terms on the slinky melodies, cryptic lyrics and odd harmonies of sings like “Luckie,” ‘Poverty Train,” and “Emmie.”
Lady Soul: Aretha Franklin earned this album’s title easily galloping mightily through “Chain of Fools” and “Since You’ve Been Gone,” and delivering the unspeakably beautiful “You Make Me Feel like a Natural Woman,” and the majestic “Ain’t No Way.”
Dusty in Memphis: Dusty Springfield morphed from a skillful jack-of-all trades who could handle girl group pop, R&B, and bombastic balladry to a lean interpreter of soulful, coolly erotic anthems like “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Just a Little Lovin’” on this classic collection.
First Take: Roberta Flack pioneered a new fusion of folk, soul, jazz, and chamber pop on her debut which features her and a small band recording now iconic versions of “The First Time ever I Saw Your Face,” “Compared to What,” and “Hey that’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” in one take with Flack on vocals and piano; both the album and “First” became belated hits in 1972.
New York Tendaberry: Laura Nyro wrapped up one of pop’s most stunning trifectas in this lyrically elusive and stylistically kaleidoscopic masterpiece; many singers have mined the riches of “Save the Country” and “Time and Love.”
Blue: How could an album featuring oft recorded classics like “River,” “All I Want,” and “A case of You,” not be classic; Joni Mitchell’s first masterpiece.
Pearl: Janis Joplin’s epitaph is her greatest recording achievement highlighted by her nuanced version of “Me and Bobby McGee” and soulful wailers like “Cry Baby” and “Mercedes Benz.”
Tapestry: Carole King transitioned from a songwriter for hire to a popular artist capable of writing intimate yet relatable songs about her experiences, like “It’s Too Late,” “So Far Away,” and “Tapestry,” all documented on one of singer-songwriter pop’s most consistent and enjoyable albums.
Amazing Grace: You can always hear the gospel in Aretha Franklin’s voice, but she literally takes listeners to church on this stunning album recorded live in a church.
Be Altitude: Respect Yourself: The Staples Singer’s ability to sing secular music and still hold on to their gospel roots shines brilliantly on their definitive hits “I’ll Take you There” and “Respect Yourself” where the mighty Mavis Staples soars.
Give it Up: On her second album vocalist and slide guitar player Bonnie Raitt proved she could rave (the title track), smolder (“Love Me Like a Man”), and mourn (“Love Has No Pride”) with equal authority.
The Great American Songbook: Jazz singer Carmen McRae was a deft interpreter whose subtle improvisational choices put an individual touch on everything, which this album captures wonderfully live; it’s thrilling hearing her work her magic on tunes as varied as “Day by Day,” “A Song for You,” and “Mr. Ugly.”
Divine Miss M: Bette Midler remade cabaret into a hip contemporary style on her stunning debut, which slows down chestnuts like “Do You Wanna Dance” to draw out their subtext, and speeds up tunes like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” to reveal their inherent excess, an interpretive landmark.
Imagination: Gladys Knight and the Pips were performers since their teens, but they reached an acme of excellence on the consistently excellent performances on Imagination highlighted by their signature “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination,” and “Where Peaceful Waters Flow” among other tight, soulful performances.
Live in Japan: After a few years recording unsuitable pop material jazz legend Sarah Vaughan reminded listeners of her immense improvisational gifts on this spacious double album featuring some of her most thrilling vocals including an epic “Nearness of You” (featuring Vaughan on piano), and a hypnotic rendition of Jobim’s “Wave.”
Maria Muldaur: Singer, fiddler, and folkie Muldaur’s debut defined her as a progressive contemporary interpreter who could bring intelligence and musicality to classic tunes and expose audiences to outstanding contemporary songs by emerging writers like David Nichtern (“Midnight at the Oasis”), Dolly Parton (“Tennessee Mountain Home”) and Wendy Waldman (“Mad Mad Me”).
Check out Part 2: 1974-1992 on the blog!
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