As this six-part series comes to a close, it should be abundantly clear that women have had an immense impact on the music scene for a long, long time. The numbers indicate as much. Of the first 26 albums listed on Billboard’s Greatest Selling Albums of All Time, 13 are by female solo artists, with a 14th, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, also having a strong female presence. Meanwhile, female artists such as Beyonce Knowles, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Adele Adkins continue to set sales records. But aside from mainstream popularity, women continue to maintain a strong creative presence. Here are 10 female acts that have made significant musical contributions since 2000.
#51. I Wish I Was the Moon – Neko Case (Bloodshot, 2002)
Blessed with a majestic voice that can buckle knees with its sheer power or seduce on a delicate ballad, Case has carved an intriguing niche in modern music both on her own and with power-pop band, the New Pornographers. While her earliest recordings draw from classic country, there is nothing retro about Case’s sound. Nor has she ever tried to play the contemporary country game. Following her own peculiar muse, Case creates music that frequently veers into dark, sometimes angry, places. The evocative “I Wish I Was the Moon” is an excellent place to begin an exploration of her music. Written about Case’s father, who, along with her mother, emigrated to the U.S. from the Ukraine, the song is about a man who came to feel betrayed by freedom. He’d become free upon entering America, only to be greeted by poverty. Alas, there was “nowhere free to go.”
#52. Look at Miss Ohio – Gillian Welch (Acony, 2003)
While their instrumentation and harmonies are linked to string-bands of a bygone era, Welch and guitarist Dave Rawlings have always had their musical feet set in the here-and-now. The duo’s best songs have been made memorable in how the characters are fleshed out in the lyrics. Witness “Look at Miss Ohio,” in which a young woman decides to take on the world on her own terms. She doesn’t know what she wants, just that she’s not ready for commitment, marriage or any part of the white-picket-fence American dream, asserting that “I want to do right but not right now.” The song’s last verse goes onto suggest that the woman has in fact done wrong and must now disentangle herself from the situation. The power of the song is that Welch never says whether the woman succeeds. All that’s known is that a young life is being lived, warts and all.
#53. Love is a Losing Game – Amy Winehouse (Island, 2006)
The most remarkable thing about Winehouse’s impact on pop music is how brief her actual recording career was. Taken from end to end, her entire oeuvre can be listened to in less than two hours. But what a two hours it is! Refusing to sidestep or sugarcoat her well-chronicled problems, Winehouse made music that rung honest due to openness in which she tackled those topics. Her cornerstone release is Back to Black, the 2006 album that sold millions at a time when album sales were supposedly in a terminal state of decline. The musical definition of heartbreak, “Love is a Losing Game” finds Winehouse at her most vulnerable, addressing a time when her then-boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil had abandoned her to return to his previous girlfriend. Over a solitary electric guitar and subtle drumming, Winehouse resignedly takes the stance that, as with gambling, you can only love for so long before ending up the loser. It was the final single she ever released.
#54. Not Ready to Make Nice – Dixie Chicks (Columbia, 2006)
In the blink of one negative Natalie Maines comment about then-U.S. President George W. Bush, the Dixie Chicks went from being the one act every country fan could rally behind to the most controversial band in the genre’s history. Yet despite the temperature change around them, no one could deny the impact of their exceptional music. Headstrong from the moment they signed their major-label deal with Sony, the Chicks revolutionized country music by insisting they play their own instruments in the studio while also demanding that the banjo be featured prominently. So it was no surprise when they returned after the controversy with a song about refusing to back down. The cathartic track finds Maines expressing no regret whatsoever, surmising “it turned my whole world around and I kinda like it.” The song earned the Chicks three Grammys, including Song of the Year and Record of the Year. The Dixie Chicks are now in the midst of a what has been a well-received comeback tour.
#55. The Story – Brandi Carlile (Columbia, 2007)
Blessed with a neo-operatic voice that is equally at home on pulsating rockers and gentle folk ballads, Carlile is one of those rare talents who sounds fully invested in every note she sings. She’s also an excellent songwriter, both on her own and with her bandmates, guitarist Tim Hanseroth and his bassist twin brother Phil. The title track of her second album, “The Story” is a song Carlile had no hand in writing, with Phil Hanseroth having taken those honors. She nevertheless wrings generous helpings of emotion out of the lyrics about one person’s devotion to another, singing so hard on the last repetition of the “all of these lines across my face” line that it becomes the most gripping part of the song. Those with an interest in heartfelt, accessible music that is squarely focused on good songs and performances are advised to check out Carlile, whether mainstream radio ever embraces her or not.
#56: Black Gold – Esperanza Spalding (Heads Up, 2012)
With jazz being very much on the cutting edge these days, it’s no surprise that women are among its movers and shakers. With a sound made distinguishable by grooving bass lines and neo-soul vocals, Spalding is among the young crop of musicians who have taken the genre by storm. Having beaten out Justin Bieber as Best New Artist at the 2011 Grammys, the Oregon native continues to seek out different ways to express herself musically. A positive, melodically sophisticated paean to pre-colonial Africa that encourages young black me to hold their heads high, “Black Gold” is a pop opus that targets an audience that doesn’t normally listen to jazz while remaining “jazz enough” to hold the interest of old-school jazz aficionados. Spalding returned in early 2016 with Emily’s D+Evolution, a non-jazz release that incorporates prog-rock-styled electric-guitars and Joni Mitchell-inspired poetic pop. She continues to book gigs as a jazz artist.
#57: Emmylou – First Aid Kit (Wichita, 2012)
Comprised of sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, Swedish duo First Aid Kid blend a love of ‘70’s folk music with pure-pop melodies that are downright irresistible. With ear-grabbing hooks and breathtakingly smooth harmonies at every turn, their three albums reveal a beguiling sense of pop songcraft that is elegant in its intensity. Focused more on authenticity than the glamorized pop music of the day, First Aid Kit sound as if they were beamed in another era if not another planet. With a long list of musical heroes that most people their age have yet to hear, it’s astonishing to think that Johanna is just 25 while Klara only recently turned 23. Included on their second album, The Lion’s Roar, the magnificent “Emmylou” finds the sisters paying tribute to some of their harmony heroes in Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris and Johnny and June Carter Cash. The song’s emotional wallop is in how the lyrics intertwine the personal and musical relationships of the two couples.
#58. I Didn’t Know What Time it Was – Cécile McLorin Salvant (Mack Avenue, 2013)
In an era in which jazz is often tinted with a weirdness that can obliterate the music’s roots, Salvant is something of a throwback. But while her simple, clean arrangements and vocal excellence bring to mind Sarah Vaughan, Abbey Lincoln and even Bessie Smith, the 26-year-old Miami native is not chasing down someone else’s sound. Blessed with an intuitive approach to singing that makes her influences seem more inherited than studied, Salvant places a modern, multi-cultural, feminist spin on jazz that sounds completely natural. Hers is not background music, but the type of sound that forces its way into the evening’s conversation despite being put on to soothe. With her For One to Love album having taken home a 2016 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album, the humble performer is well on her to establishing herself as the next great jazz singer.
#59: Follow Your Arrow – Kacey Musgraves (2013)
The reigning wunderkind of country music, Musgraves has achieved success by imbuing her accessible ditties with a sense of realness that country fans can relate to. Teaming with topflight Nashville songwriters like Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, the Texan crafts songs that merge a progressive viewpoint with the simplicity of classic country. Her first two singles, “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow,” offer a concise portrait of what makes Musgraves’ music so appealing. The former is country poetry of the highest order, using a nursery-rhyme chorus to illustrate how small-town folks turn to one distraction or another while their dreams slip away. The latter is the polar opposite in terms of spirit and message, imploring the listener to pursue a happy life in whatever way works for them. With her winning combination of smarts and sass, the 27-year-old would seem to have a brilliant future ahead of her.
#60: Independence Day – Gretchen Peters (2015)
Written by Peters and a 1994 country hit for Martina McBride, “Independence Day” is unlike any song in country radio history. Courageous in how it approaches the tragic subject of domestic violence, the story is told from the perspective of an eight-year-old girl whose battered mom burns down the family home while her drunken husband is sleeping inside. Though falling short of the country top 10 when many radio programmers declined to play it, “Independence Day” signified a major breakthrough for Peters, being named the Country Music Association’s 1995 Song of the Year while also earning a Grammy nomination for Best Country Song. Peters has since evolved into a wonderful recording artist in her own right, a process that reached new heights with Blackbirds, a deeply moving 2015 album that explores mortality and other dark themes with uncommon grace. Included as a bonus track on Blackbirds, Peters’ stunning voice-and-piano take on “Independence Day” is every bit definitive as McBride’s hit version.
(See the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth installments of this six-part series.)
Photo: Brandi Carlile (source: NPR)