Having long since established themselves creatively, females in the ‘80s and ‘90s took their artistry to another level in terms of sales. The Go-Go’s topped the Billboard Albums Chart for six weeks in 1982 with their Beauty and the Beat debut album, making them the first all-female band to reach No. 1. Meanwhile, “divas” such as Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion scored hit after hit (though often on the overwrought side). Then there is Madonna, who scored 32 Top 10 hits and 11 chart-toppers on her way to becoming the biggest-selling singles artists of all-time. But female contributions to music in the ‘80s and ‘90s extended far beyond the sales figures of a few. This fifth installment of “Against Strong Odds” places the spotlight on 10 other women who left an unforgettable mark on music during those 20 years.
#41. Seven Year Ache – Rosanne Cash (Columbia, 1981)
With 11 number-one country singles in the ‘80s, Cash had assembled an impressive legacy as a country superstar when the dark-sounding Interiors arrived in 1990. Her marriage to fellow country star Rodney Crowell on the rocks, Cash elected to break free from her hit-making formula by penning an album of songs that at least partially addressed her personal struggles. Hailed for its lyrical profundity, Interiors wasn’t the first time Cash had taken her listeners to a deep place. That would be her first country chart-topper, “Seven Year Ache.” Merging an infectious melody with cynical lyrics, the Cash-penned tune is told from the perspective of a woman who has grown weary of her man’s frequent transgressions. It’s the key early moment in the career of a still-vibrant artist who deserves to be enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame (Cash was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2015).
#42. Back On the Chain Gang – The Pretenders (Sire, 1982)
The bittersweet “Back on the Chain Gang” is about confronting the harsh realities of life in the wake of the unexpected loss of a loved one. In this case that person is James Honeyman-Scott, who died of a drug overdose on June 16, 1982. With bassist Pete Farndon having been fired two days earlier (he would die of an overdose 10 months later), front-women Chrissie Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers cobbled together a temporary lineup to record “Back on the Chain Gang” and its B-side, “My City was Gone.” The choice of former Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner as the session’s lead guitarist was a masterstroke, as his dizzying array of Telecaster licks on the A-side provided a fitting tribute to the versatile Honeyman-Scott. Hynde, meanwhile, turned in one of her best vocal performances, conveying the sadness of the lyrics by pouring raw emotion into every line. The single went to #5, making it the band’s biggest U.S. hit.
#43. Girls Just Want to Have Fun – Cyndi Lauper (Epic, 1983)
A woman’s desire to do her own thing needn’t be inspired by anger. This point is delightfully illustrated in “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” the wild and woolly single that made Lauper a household name. A “girl power” ditty written by a man in Robert Hazard, the song become synonymous on MTV thanks to a zany video that featured Lauper and a bevy of “fun girls” dancing and wrestling manager Lou Albano playing her father. Meanwhile, the endlessly bouncy song became the kind of guilty pleasure that one turns way down when navigating city traffic but cranks to 10 when alone on the highway. A huge part of ‘80’s culture, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was an anthem of female attitude, setting fashion trends as the video showed Lauper wearing bright, outrageous clothes that looked like they came from a thrift store (they probably did).
#44. Fast Car – Tracy Chapman (Elektra, 1988)
With Suzanne Vega having broken through in 1987 with her #3 single “Luka” about child abuse, the late ‘80’s offered a glimmer of hope for folk music on the radio. Lifted by the multi-format success of the her #6 single “Fast Car” a year later, Chapman took folk to unimagined heights by topping the Billboard Albums Charts, selling six million copies in the United States alone. The album’s commercial popularity was matched by the widespread acclaim of music critics, who praised it for its simplicity, skillful vocals and lyrics that tended to take on political and social issues. Performed in June 1988 at Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute, “Fast Car,” which according to Chapman is about a failed relationship, became inspirational to women because it metaphorically addresses driving away from the struggles of everyday life and starting over. With new wave being phased out by hip hop, “Fast Car” was crucial in that it helped spur a rebirth of music’s counterculture ethos.
#45. Free World – Kirsty MacColl (Virgin, 1989)
Although she had the talent for stardom, MacColl probably would have been uncomfortable in that role for two reasons. First, the Welsh singer-songwriter had a stage-fright problem that made heavy touring unfeasible. Second, she had no interest in playing the music-industry games that are too often a prerequisite of fame. Adamant about making her own decisions, MacColl refused to have her career directed by the men who ran record companies. Though her enormous pop gifts remained intact, The MacColl heard on 1989’s Kite album is different from the artist who debuted in 1979 with the now-classic pop single “They Don’t Know.” There is a depth to MacColl’s songwriting that wasn’t heard previously, with the biting “Free World” being a prime example. A brash yet stylish attack on Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, the song finds MacColl’s soaring vocals defiantly delivering lyrics that pack a wallop. A stunner of an album, Kite is the masterpiece of a sadly departed artist who is worthy of a much-higher profile.
#46. Nothing Compares 2 U – Sinéad O’Connor (Chrysalis, 1990)
Coming along at time when mainstream radio had begun making room for non-typical-female singer-songwriters like Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman, O’Connor’s haunting worldwide hit was far-removed from some of the over-emoting divas who were making names for themselves. Written by Prince, “Nothing Compares 2 U” is one of just songs penned by outside writers on O’Connor’s sophomore album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. A tough but tender Dublin girl with a shaved head that was looking for a break, O’Connor had the ethereal voice needed to make the breakup song a hit, rising above the slight residue of late-80’s overproduction with an emotional but not overwrought performance. Key to the record’s splendor is when O’Connor takes her full-throat voice down to a whisper, revealing the full impact of the agony in the lyrics. The video of the Grammy winning song is genuinely affecting, highlighted by O’Connor’s shedding of a single tear.
#47. Something to Talk About – Bonnie Raitt (Capitol, 1991)
Having been a major-label artist since 1971, Raitt finally achieved mainstream success with her 10th album, Nick of Time. Released in the spring of 1989, the album went to the top of the U.S. charts following Raitt’s sweep of four Grammys in early 1990. She won three more Grammys with 1991’s Luck of the Draw while also notching her first two Top 20 singles in “Something to Talk About” (#5) and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (#19). The former is a perfect car-radio song, highlighted by a gospel-infused groove, Raitt’s esteemed guitar work and a fun, sing-along chorus. The latter, which focuses on her soulful singing, is a poignant ballad of unrequited love that finds Raitt beautifully conveying the pain in the lyrics over a muted piano played by Bruce Hornsby. Sometimes taken for granted, Raitt continues to make outstanding music, with her new Dig in Deep being particularly inspired.
#48: Maybe It Was Memphis – Pam Tillis (Arista, 1991)
The fourth single off Tillis’ stellar Put Yourself in My Place album, this nostalgic Michael Anderson composition is Southern poetry set to music, replete with lyrics that namecheck Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner and an intriguing storyline about a woman recalling a young love. The relentless rock-meets-country arrangement is stunning, with Tillis turning in a vocal performance that is raw and expressive. A leading contender for best country single of the ‘90’s, “Maybe it was Memphis” is also one of the greatest ever made, having kicked the door wide open in a decade where women tended to make the best mainstream country music (the song would be revived years later, when future country star Carrie Underwood sang it on American Idol). The ceaselessly creative Tillis would continue pushing country’s boundaries, proving to be an excellent songwriter while also becoming one of the first female country artists to produce her own recordings.
#49: One of Us – Joan Osborne (Blue Gorilla, 1995)
A prodigious singing talent who paid her dues on New York City’s music-bar scene, Osborne signed a major label deal after Rob Hyman, a onetime Hooters bandmate of “One of Us” author Eric Bazilian, introduced her to PolyGram producer Rick Chertoff after seeing her perform (the three men had worked together on Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual album). Centered around an intoxicating guitar riff and Osborne’s enchanting vocals, “One of Us” stands apart from other hit songs by broaching various aspects of belief, asking if one would want to see God’s face if it meant having to “believe in things like Heaven and in Jesus and the saints and all the prophets.” Though she didn’t win, Osborne earned four Grammy nominations for Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Female Pop Vocal and Best New Artist. She continues to record strong, independent-minded music.
#50: Drunken Angel – Lucinda Williams (Mercury, 1998)
Women were slow in joining the roots-rock movement of the ‘80’s. Then Lucinda Williams’ self-titled Rough Trade Records album came along and changed everything. Undeniably melodic, the 1988 disc’s blend of folk, country, blues and rock influences displayed considerably more grit than a female singer-songwriter album was supposed to have. It marked the beginning of an influential three-album stretch for Williams that also includes 1992’s Sweet Old World and 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. A lively sounding album that is crammed with well-written songs about the yearning nature of the human heart, the latter has become a lyrical and sonic template for many of the albums being made by today’s outstanding female artists, with the lone negative being that it took so long to make. A noted perfectionist, Williams supposedly fussed endlessly to get the sound of her vocals exactly right. The album is nevertheless a classic that is perfect for road trips.
(See the first, second, third, and fourth installments of this six-part series.)