Saturday, May 09, 2020

My List of the 100 Best Albums by Women (TOP 20)

20. SURFACING (SARAH MCLACHLAN)
Year of Release: 1997
Labels: Nettwerk, Arista
Key Tracks: "Building A Mystery," "Angel," "Adia," "Sweet Surrender," "Full of Grace"

This has been one of my go-to albums when I just want to be bathed in beautiful, sweet melodies, a sort of, yes, "sweet surrender." "Building A Mystery" was the song that got me to purchase the album on the strength of Sarah McLachlan's luscious vocals and that killer starting line: "You come out at night / That's when the energy comes / And the dark side's light / And the vampires roam." Afterward, I fell in love with "Adia" and especially "Angel," which I and my girl friends in college sang to incessantly for months. The album is full of soul.

19. TALK ON CORNERS (THE CORRS)
Year of Release: 1997
Labels: 143, Lava, Atlantic Records
Key Tracks: "Only When I Sleep," "So Young," "What Can I Do," "I Never Loved You Anyway," "Paddy McCarthy"

With a string of hit singles, starting with the ballad "Only When I Sleep," Talk On Corners is certainly one of the late 90s best pop albums. Aside from ultra-catchy melodies, each song showcases lead vocalist Andrea Corr's sweet vocals, most evident in "So Young" and "What Can I Do" but so effective even when she sings kitschy lyrics like those of the bitter anthem "I Never Loved You Anyway." And if you're looking for the traditional Irish flavor and Sharon Corr's beautiful violin that are sadly mostly missing from later albums, it's in full force here, particularly in the instrumental "Paddy McCarthy." This album will always have a special place in my heart for another reason: I watched The Corrs live in concert during their promotional tour for this album in the Philippines, and I got the siblings' signatures on the cover. It's one of my most prized possessions.

18. WHEN THE PAWN... (FIONA APPLE)
Year of Release: 1999
Label: Clean Slate/Epic
Key Tracks: "Paper Bag," "Limp," "Fast As You Can," "A Mistake," "To Your Love"

As you likely know, the actual title is 90 words long. For the uninitiated, or even for those whose only exposure to Fiona Apple before this has been her "This world is bullshit!" speech at the VMAs, she might come across as immature and pretentious. Apple is anything but. She wrote the songs of her astonishing debut album Tidal when she was a teenager, and When the Pawn... just takes her further into introspection. There's a lot of frenetic, angsty energy to the songs here, especially "Limp" and "Fast As You Can," which makes the relatively serene "Paper Bag" even more of a standout. 

17. HORSES (PATTI SMITH)
Year of Release: 1975
Label: Arista
Key Tracks: "Gloria," "Break It Up," "Birdland," "Redondo Beach," "Free Money"

The first time I listened to this album, I was blown away by its utterly powerful rawness. It's a genius punk rock album, the type that you can flail around to in your room in a semblance of a trip-induced dance. Patti Smith's voice is hardcore and unsentimental but takes you through a wonderful journey into the brilliant mind of a poet celebrating freedom. To listen to this album at full volume is to unfetter yourself, so do yourself that favor as quickly and as often as possible.

16. HOMOGENIC (BJÖRK)
Year of Release: 1997
Labels: One Little Indian, Elektra
Key Tracks: "Jóga," "Hunter," "Alarm Call," "Bachelorette," "All Is Full of Love"

Between her more dance-pop Post and her more experimental later albums, Björk's Homogenic is a safe transition. And by safe, I mean utterly beautiful to anyone with an ear for good music. "Jóga" and "Hunter" are probably two of Björk's most gorgeous songs ever, and "Alarm Call" is an upbeat track that wouldn't have been out of place in Post. I believe that her vocals are at the peak of their prowess here.

15. THE MEMORY OF TREES (ENYA)
Year of Release: 1995
Label: WEA
Key Tracks: "Anywhere Is," "On My Way Home," "The Memory of Trees," "Pax Deorum," "Hope Has a Place"

This is probably one of my most listened-to albums of all time. There was a time when I would play it everyday, especially when I'd feel stressed. That's the magic of Enya's music, whether or not you'd like to call it "New Age" (which she doesn't). All the songs are transcendent, with "Anywhere Is" and "On My Way Home" being true standouts. But the album is opened by the wonderful "The Memory of Trees," which you can totally imagine hearing in a dimly sunlit forest in a fantasy realm. Heart-achingly beautiful.

14. THE KICK INSIDE (KATE BUSH)
Year of Release: 1978
Labels: EMI, Harvest
Key Tracks: "Wuthering Heights," "The Man with the Child in His Eyes," "Strange Phenomena," "Them Heavy People," "Oh to Be in Love"

Hounds of Love is easily Kate Bush's most celebrated album and is probably her biggest technical achievement, but come on, this is the album with "Wuthering Heights" and what other song can showcase her kooky, shrill brilliance just as well? And then when you get past how deliciously weird that song is, you get to a stunningly lovely and deep track like "The Man with the Child in His Eyes." Then you're back to crazy Kate with "Them Heavy People" and "Oh to Be in Love." The music videos of these songs are a must-watch for the full, immersive Kate Bush experience, but if you just want to be impressed by some of the most unique melodies and the most singular voice in pop-rock, the album's enough.

13. TAPESTRY (CAROLE KING)
Year of Release: 1971
Labels: Ode, A&M
Key Tracks: "I Feel the Earth Move," "It's Too Late," "So Far Away," "Where You Lead," "You've Got a Friend," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman"

Oh, Tapestry! Among the albums in my list, this is probably the most universally loved, and deservedly so. Carole King has written many fantastic songs for other artists, but in Tapestry it's all hers. On any day, you can just start this playing and your day will be so much better. It's hard not to sing to and smile to each and every one of these aural gems. All of them are so warm and familiar, like an old dear friend that you love talking to.

12. THIS FIRE (PAULA COLE)
Year of Release: 1996
Labels: Imago, Warner Bros.
Key Tracks: "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?," "I Don't Want to Wait," "Me," "Feelin' Love," "Mississippi"

I remember buying this album and reading on the album sleeve that Paula Cole recommends it be listened to at full volume. I couldn't quite crank it up to full in my house, but the loudness does help convey the richness of emotion that's in full display in this fiery uncompromising album. Whatever spirits possessed Cole when she wrote and recorded these songs should be worshipped, because it's raw and wild. The quieter, gentler moments, like with the lovely "Me" and the sultry "Feelin' Love" are just as powerful. Each song here can be an anthem. It's sad that Cole never manages to match the brilliance of this album with any of her later works, but at least we have this gem to treasure for life.

11. FROM THE CHOIRGIRL HOTEL (TORI AMOS)
Year of Release: 1998
Label: Atlantic
Key Tracks: "Spark," "Jackie's Strength," "Raspberry Swirl," "i i e e e," "Playboy Mommy"

This is the Tori Amos album that immediately follows Boys For Pele, which appears later in this list, so my expectations were very high. It's not quite as demented or unnerving as Pele, but it makes a very worthy follow-up in terms of the dark, deep emotions that Amos continues to explore with such abandon. Though I miss the prominence of the harpsichord in Pele, Amos's piano is still the star here, unlike in some of her newer albums. I think the best word to describe this album and many of its tracks is haunting, from the sad nostalgia of "Jackie's Strength" to the repentant defiance of "Playboy Mommy," and lines like "She's convinced she could hold back a glacier / But she couldn't keep baby alive" ("Spark"). But lest you forget that Amos can have fun like the rest of them, there's the wildly danceable raunchy, feminist "Raspberry Swirl," for which she rightly got a Grammy nomination in the Female Rock Vocal Performance category.

10. SPIRIT (JEWEL)
Year of Release: 1998
Label: Atlantic
Key Tracks: "Hands," "Down So Long," "Kiss the Flame," "Jupiter," "Life Uncommon"

After our "Angel" and Sarah McLachlan phase, my girl friends and I had a long-lasting relationship with the criminally underrated Spirit that lasts until now; in bouts of nostalgia, we still talk about the elegant, fragile beauty of the songs and the earnest vocals of someone who had never sounded better or written more poetic, artistic songs. I bought this album and Jewel's book of poems at around the same time, and both of them show the soul that she has an artist. This album is simply phenomenal. There is not a single mediocre or forgettable song in the bunch. And "Hands" is one of the most hopeful songs ever, one that everyone should be listening to more often nowadays. "Cause where there's a man who has no voice / There ours shall go singing."

9. SPICE (SPICE GIRLS)
Year of Release: 1996
Label: Virgin
Key Tracks: "Wannabe," "2 Become 1," "Who Do You Think You Are," "Say You'll Be There," "Mama"

This is the one that started it all. Girl Power. The Spice Girls phenomenon. It was so easy to scoff at them and their first single, "Wannabe," as I did the first time I saw the music video. But then getting over that kneejerk reaction and just allowing yourself to surrender to the exuberant joy of it all is the most rewarding experience. This album can take you out of the dumps. And what a lot of people don't appreciate as much is how good the Spice Girls are at harmonizing. Sure, individually, each girl might not have the best vocals, but together, they're unstoppable. Five hit singles in one album, and the rest aren't slouches either. One of the most fantastic debut albums by any musical act ever.

8. JAGGED LITTLE PILL (ALANIS MORISSETTE)
Year of Release: 1995
Labels: Maverick, Reprise
Key Tracks: "Ironic," "Hand in My Pocket," "You Oughta Know," "All I Really Want," "Head Over Feet"

Speaking of fantastic debut albums, Jagged Little Pill shook the world. Really, Alanis Morissette shook the world and started a new female revolution in pop-rock. Sure, her first single was the very angry "You Oughta Know," which could have thrown some people off, but then it was followed by "Ironic," "Head Over Feet," and "Hand in My Pocket," which were much less edgy but no less empowering. Jagged Little Pill is an album of pure feminine wonder and power. Two other reasons why this album will always be absolutely special to me: 1) along with another album that will appear later in this list, it's the first one I ever bought; and 2) the first live concert that I ever watched was Alanis's Philippine stop for her tour.

7. TIDAL (FIONA APPLE)
Year of Release: 1996
Labels: Clean Slate, Work  
Key Tracks: "Criminal," "Sleep To Dream," "Shadowboxer," "Never Is a Promise," "Sullen Girl"

Stop to think about this for a moment: Fiona Apple wrote most of the songs in this astonishing album when she was 16. Lines like "You say love is a hell you cannot bear / And I say give me mine back and then go there for all I care" ("Sleep to Dream") or that whole stanza in "Sullen Girl" about her rape...all at 16. Apple would become more and more creative and intelligent in both her lyrics and melodies with every long-gestating album, culminating in the 2020 masterpiece Fetch the Bolt Cutters (which will DEFINITELY be somewhere in an updated version of this list in the future), but in many ways, there's still no topping the sheer unapologetic, raw, gutsy brilliance of Tidal.

6. LITTLE EARTHQUAKES (TORI AMOS)
Year of Release: 1992
Label: Atlantic
Key Tracks: "Silent All These Years," "Crucify," "Winter," "Me and a Gun," "Precious Things"

I love the kitschy pop of Y Kant Tori Read, Tori Amos's first failed attempt at a musical career, but boy am I (and millions of others) glad that she found her true voice and started anew with Little Earthquakes. This is easily one of the most personal, precious, and intelligent albums in this list or in any other that's wise enough to include it. A personal favorite of mine is the solemn "Winter" ("When you gonna make up your mind / When you gonna love you as much as I do"), but who hasn't fallen in love with "Silent All These Years" (which I'd die happy after learning how to play on the piano) and "Crucify?" Of course, the other defining song of this album is "Me and a Gun," which is a painfully beautiful account of Tori's rape, played to no instrument except her own forlorn voice, which has never been and probably never will be used to such a level of power.

5. DAYDREAM (MARIAH CAREY)
Year of Release: 1995
Label: Columbia
Key Tracks: "Always Be My Baby," "Fantasy," "Underneath the Stars," "One Sweet Day," "Looking In"

When I started realizing my taste in music, I made my first ever album purchases: Jagged Little Pill and Mariah Carey's Daydream, on the strength of the regular radio airing of "Fantasy" and "Always Be My Baby," which are absolute earworms and much beloved to this day. I don't think Mariah has ever been as awesome as she is in this album. The level of vocal control that she has in songs like "Looking In" and "When I Saw You" is astounding. Ultimately, it's a damn near perfect pop album, certainly one of the best of all time.

4. RAY OF LIGHT (MADONNA)
Year of Release: 1998
Labels: Maverick, Warner Bros.
Key Tracks: "Frozen," "Ray of Light," "Nothing Really Matters," "The Power of Good-Bye," "Mer Girl"

We all know how good Madonna is at transformation. Ray of Light is probably Madonna at her most transformational, most otherworldly, most introspective, and most intelligent. There's no one way to describe the sound of the album because it's aurally so diverse, with Middle Eastern influences enriching the dance, electronica, and trip hop. And permeating through it all is the spiritualism that comes from Madonna's immersion into Kabbalah, Hinduism, and Buddhism. All of these make for what I would say is one of the most excitingly creative and mesmerizing artworks in pop music. Aside from the amazing singles, watch for "Mer Girl," an absolutely haunting gem about mortality where Madonna sings: ""And I smelled her burning flesh / Her rotting bones, her decay / I ran and I ran / I'm still running away."

3. COMET'S TAIL (CYNTHIA ALEXANDER)
Year of Release: 2005
Key Tracks: "108 Eyes," "Turquoise Blue," "Alone," "Thioviolight," "Heya!"

All of her other albums already having appeared in this list, I've already said a lot about the artistry of Cynthia Alexander. I'll just rely on superlatives for this one, then. Richly textured and layered, sonically colorful and lush, this is a master at the top of her game. Each and every song is a captivating work of art. For me, it's the best album by the country's best songwriter. I've been so fortunate to have seen her and her band perform several of these songs live, and it always fills me with life. I wish the rest of the world knew how amazing she is.

2. BLUE (JONI MITCHELL)
Year of Release: 1971
Label: Reprise
Key Tracks: "A Case of You," "Blue," "California," "River," "My Old Man"

In many lists of best albums by women, this is at #1. Even in lists of best albums by anyone, you can count on this to be somewhere in the top 10 usually. For many good reasons, first and foremost among them being the woman herself, Joni Mitchell, who is peerless as a songwriter and has one of the most recognizable voices in the industry. "A Case of You" and "Blue" could easily be among the most beautiful songs ever written, which would be enough to make this album a prized possession, but then you also have "California," "River," and less celebrated gems like "My Old Man" and "Carey." If you haven't given Joni Mitchell a chance and would like to know why so many artists have been influenced and inspired by her, Blue is a perfect gateway into her craft.

1. BOYS FOR PELE (TORI AMOS)
Year of Release: 1996
Label: Atlantic
Key Tracks: "Caught a Light Sneeze," "Hey Jupiter," "Talula," "Blood Roses," "Mr. Zebra," "Professional Widow"

My first two album purchases, Jagged Little Pill and Daydream, started me off on my love for female pop-rock music, and I probably wouldn't have detoured to less conventional, less mainstream material had my brother not given me a cassette of Boys For Pele for my birthday. It was absolute love at first listen. My other interests, particularly in literature, anime, and cinema, have always leaned toward the more weird, so it shouldn't have been surprising. Tori's sound (her piano, her harpsichord (!), her wailing) and her thought-provoking lyrics assaulted and shook me, and I knew then that my concept of good music was forever changed. "Caught a Light Sneeze" and "Hey Jupiter" are probably the most accessible tracks--though the lyrics are just as mind-boggling as the rest of them--but the harpsichord-heavy "Blood Roses" and the cute (as cute as a Tori song can be) "Mr. Zebra" are other songs worth highlighting to show Tori's eccentric artistry. Then of course there's the bombastic "Professional Widow," remixes of which gave her a rare hit in the dance charts. I think it's a somewhat divisive album even among fans, especially those who prefer the gentler Tori that has emerged from a happy family life post-Choirgirl, but for me, after all these years, it's still the best album not only by Tori Amos but by any woman.


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