Monday, January 22, 2018

List and You Shall Hear (V): Women Missing, Please Report to NPR



Continuing my extended reaction to NPR's "150 Greatest Albums Made By Women" (see previous posts in this series for all the relevant links) I am now going to discuss some of the more egregious oversights in NPR's list.

Plenty of people have commented on the artists who did not make it onto NPR's list, including some second-guessing by the list's curators, Ann Powers and Jill Sternheimer. Nevertheless, here for the record (album) are the Parrot's picks for:

Worst Oversights in the History of Women's Music Listmaking

a title justified by the fact that quite a few of them are also missing from several other lists of albums by women.

Rock and the like
I will begin by discussing the women whose impact on rock, pop and country music genres is so important that their absence from the list of beknighted "greatest albums made by women" sort of defies words. Each of these artists could have been included on the same criteria that allowed the selection of at least some of the artists who are on the list; but for what seem like utterly arbitrary reasons, the "canon" of women in music has to do without them. So much the worse for such a canon. Who designated 150 as the magic number anyway? But the artists and albums that follow should probably be in the top 100, several of them in the top 20, on any fair list of "greatest" albums by women.

Grace Slick: If the NPR list were confined to albums by solo female artists, or overwhelmingly female bands, or female artists who had overall control of their recorded output, then clearly Jefferson Airplane should not be on it. Even Volunteers, which is largely dominated by Slick, is a joint product of many musicians. And if it were a list of consistently great albums then Conspicuous Only In Its Absence, the release of live recordings by The Great Society after they had broken up, should not be on it. Since neither of these is the case, though, they should both be on it. Slick was not only one of the first prominent women in rock; her voice, songwriting and stage presence had a major role in creating the musical style of a succession of bands. The Great Society lasted only until she left. She then joined the Airplane and later formed Jefferson Starship with Paul Kantner. She played several instruments, and shook up the industry with her vocals, which aside from the raw power of her voice included explicit political statements, sexual references and profanities before any of them were considered acceptable. (I suppose her being a former model made that all the more difficult for the establishment to take.) She wrote  "White Rabbit", the theme song of acid rock and the Airplane's most well-known song. The fact that the list doesn't include her encapsulates the absurd inconsistency of their approach.

Joan Armatrading: Unbelievable! Everyone who knows anything about women in music knows that Armatrading was a game-changer. A prolific songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with a voice reminiscent of Odetta, this black, female, working-class immigrant was so overwhelmingly talented and had such a distinctive style that she was soon claimed to be the British answer to Joni Mitchell. Her work was a statement that women could rock (especially after Me Myself I, her biggest-selling album), while she also managed the melding of musical styles in a wholly original way (cf. Lauryn Hill). Joan Armatrading, her brilliant, eponymous third album, produced and engineered by Glyn Johns, is my first choice. Me Myself I should also be on the list.

Pat Benatar: Hell is for adults who favor teenage pop idols over Pat! Hardly less jaw-dropping than the first two oversights, we have to begin with the fact that the operatically trained Benatar is one of the best vocalists rock has ever had. Secondly, she is one of the best female rockers rock has ever had. The list of her awards, charting singles, platinum albums etc. is too long to get into; what is more important is the musical integrity she brings to everything she records, her willingness to explore taboo subjects in pop songs, and, for the purposes of this list, her outspoken feminism. Once again, though, I have to add a comment about the difficulty of identifying music "made by women": although her albums have been released under her name, her husband Neil Giraldo, one of the finest guitarists in rock, has pretty much created her sound and written a good deal of her music. On a more restrictive definition of "made by women", Pat's recordings might not qualify; they are "Pat and Neil" productions. On the more relaxed operating definition here, Crimes of Passion would be an obvious entry. But I will argue for Gravity's Rainbow, because it's not only a great album but the first one on which she co-wrote almost every song. She is also co-credited as Executive Producer.

Natalie Merchant: Once again, huh? I mean, Eurythmics, B-52's, Pretenders... and not 10,000 Maniacs? Bjork, but not Merchant? Tigerlily, the album with which she started a second musical career that was even more successful than her first; but In My Tribe would be a fine choice too.

Evanescence: An example of critics largely missing the boat: after being dismissed as just another goth-metal band, Evanescence emerged as the essential one, all but knocking their predecessors off the chart. Amy Lee's vocal style has been widely imitated, with top female vocalists like Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne and many others copying her sound on a track or two, making her one of the most influential contemporary female vocalists. (Evanescence ex-pats David Hodges and Ben Moody had a hand in some of these knockoffs.) Fallen is the obvious choice.

Bette Midler: This omission is almost as looney as the others. The Divine Miss M, an epic female vocal album, end of story. Well, not quite the end – she's just finished a run kicking it out on Broadway, to wild accolades. (The Parrot was tempted to squawck something about her being a "Superstar" but thought better of it.)

Dionne Warwick: In the same way that Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera and Celine Dion would not be who they are if there had not been Whitney Houston to clear a path for them, there would not have been a Whitney without Dionne Warwick. To my ears you can actually hear Dionne's tone and phrasing in some of Whitney's early recordings. Already one of the most familiar voices in popular music before 1967, her album The Windows of the World begins with "I Say a Little Prayer", the first certified gold single for her and for the Burt Bachrach-Hal David songwriting team. It's a remarkable set from beginning to end; the title song was also a hit, and the set includes another famous Bachrach-David song that she was the first to record (though the original version was not released), "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me".

The Mama and Papas: Did you say Heart? B-52's? Once again the parity-of-reasoning argument: I don't understand what distinguishes these mixed-gender groups with female vocalists from The Mamas and Papas such that the latter don't get on this list. Mama Cass in particular was one of the definitive women in rock throughout the 60's. "Words of Love", "Creque Alley", "Dedicated to the One I Love", and other big M&P hits were showcases for her voice, which sometimes has the most character even on tracks where she is not singing lead. (Like Grace Slick, who could similarly change the character of a tune with her outstanding harmonies.) I'd go with their Greatest Hits, if that's okay with the canon-makers.

Shirley Bassey: "Goldfinger, he's the man / the man with the Midas touch / a spider's touch / Such a cold finger beckons you / to enter his web of sin / but don't go in... Golden words he will pour in your ear / but his lies can't disguise what you fear..." Was this supposed to be about a future American President? Well, read the NPR commentary on some of the albums they picked and you will surely become aware of their efforts to make what seem like personal statements - vulnerable, sassy or just proud – into political statements by their vocalists. Please let Ms. Bassey join the crowd. Aside from that, she made more than 30 studio albums over a 57-year career, so if her contributions to the Goldfinger or Diamonds Are Forever soundtracks don't do it I'm sure one could find something. In fact... Something, her highest-charting album.

Ellie Greenwich: Granted most of her songs were made famous on recordings by others. But so were Carole King's. She was one of the most important songwriters in the history of popular music, aside from doing backup singing for an arm's-length list of major artists, and she did in fact record quite a few of her best numbers. To include groups for whom she wrote the songs that made them famous, but exclude her own quite excellent recordings of her own songs, seems like a miscarriage of justice. Let It Be Written, Let It Be Sung, the greatest album you've never heard of by a female songwriter. (I've owned it for about 30 years and it has never been out of rotation for very long – "Maybe I Know", "Be My Baby", "Chapel of Love", plenty more.)

Joan Osborne: She and Alanis Morisette appeared on the scene at about the same time and had about the same effect; Morisette stayed in the public eye a bit more by sticking with in-your-face hard rock songs while Osborne tended to stick closer to the blues, soul and folk idioms. Relish certainly deserves a place on this list. Incidentally, I like Morisette a lot, but she is a bit more predicatble than Osborne, who once showed up in Downtown Brooklyn to play a spontaneous solo acoustic set on an outdoor stage near my office.

4 Non Blondes: The list is about great albums, right? Not necessarily representative albums by women with long and storied careers, right? But Linda Perry, who sang all the lead vocals and wrote most of the songs on Bigger, Better, Faster, More! has since had a long and storied career, writing and/or producing songs for a long list of contemporary pop stars and recording several solo albums. The 4 Non Blondes album, by a band that originally consisted of four women ( the guitar player was replaced by a male guitarist during the recording) is generally seen as her crowning achievement as a performer. She has said she doesn't like the album, and she's entitled to her opinion. For me it is a package of 11 songs that range from good to great (their revolutionary anthem "What's Going On" being an example of the latter), with Perry's vocals moving from the contralto to soprano registers with equal power. One of the greatest one-off rock recordings I know of.

Maxayn: Like Jefferson Airplane, this terrific 1970's group that brilliantly fuses rock, jazz and soul would not make the list if the term "made by women" were taken seriously. But if ever a female lead vocalist justified that label, it would be Maxayn Lewis. And like Slick, Maxayn Lewis also contributed songwriting and keyboard skills, so that altogether she was a major influence on the sound of the group. Simply put, she is one of the greatest singers popular music has ever had, and greater than many others in that she moved fluidly between rock, soul and jazz. The very first cut on their first album, "Trying for Days", announces a voice that should be as famous as that of just about any soul singer, earlier or later – she has the power, grit, technical abilities and tonal nuance of far better known R&B singers. Or check out her version of "Gimme Shelter", one of the best Stones covers I've ever heard, including a fantastic extended jam by the band, which is fully equal to their brilliant lead vocalist. Maxayn, their first album, is perhaps their strongest, but Mindful, their second, is a jazzrock masterpiece. NPR did a good turn in recognizing little-known Fanny on their list, but they missed the boat with Maxayn, whose three studio albums have finally been released as a CD set and made available on streaming services.

Folk is No Joke
Possibly even worse than the exclusion of A-list women in rock+ and pop is the fact that in spite of several notable entries, women who contributed to folk music and its modern singer-songwriter progeny have been so systematically neglected it casts serious doubt on the value of the list as something other than a popularity contest. These women did something far more courageous and, arguably, musically important than those who made spiffy pop records in search of mass audiences: they continued and expanded a cultural tradition that is in some ways the soul of nations. Overlooking them in this context is embarrassing and unconscionable.

It's nice that the canonizers found their way to one of Cris Williamson's under-the-radar but excellent albums, but left on her own among so many equally worthy but unmentioned folk musicians she looks like the token feminist artist. I'm talking about committed feminism, not the sort of allusive feminist innuendo of so many female pop artists, much less the attribution of stories about cheating men and whatnot as some sort of feminist statement. Feminist music is represented mainly in the folk song movement - see the entry on Holly Near below.

Moreover, I have the distinct impression of a serious lack of what I will simply call taste in the making of the list. For the work of some of these artists seems to me so clearly superior to so many of the beknighted "greatest albums" that I am left struggling to find words. To take one example, Janis Ian seems to me so vastly superior a songwriter to (conservatively) half the artists on the list that I don't how to begin to argue that she should be there and not them, except perhaps to say, "take the cotton out of your ears and then listen". That is to say nothing of the social importance of songs  like "Society's Child", "Seventeen", "Stars", or "Jesse", which argues in a different way for her inclusion. Even leaving aside such obvious oversights, there are surely albums by Shawn Colvin, Beth Orton, Lydia Adams Davis or Dar WIlliams, to take just a few examples, that are no less worthy of being "canonized" than quite a few of those that were obviously selected on the basis of popularity alone; and these are not even my top picks among overlooked folksinger-songwriters. In spite of a few deservingly recognized artists (Joan Baez, Odetta, Tracy Chapman, Gillian Welch) the status of folk music on the list demonstrates emphatically that good judgment, of either a musical or social sort, did not always prevail.

Here are some of the more screaming oversights, though there are plenty of other candidates:

Judy Collins: I can see no rational argument for including Joan Baez and not Judy Collins, as if one prominent female folksinger is just about enough. Judy was also a pillar of the folk revival, songwriter as well as song interpreter, and, like Joan, one of the great voices of the 60's and beyond. True Stories or her "best of" album Colors of the Day, or both, belong on any list of great albums "made by women".

Suzanne Vega: Huh? Do I need to say more? I mean, pick an album. Solitude Standing... there, I did it for you. As with Joni, there must be half a dozen of her albums that would fit the bill. One of the most original and creative female recording artists, with hardly a missed beat in her entire output of studio recordings. How can a woman contribute this much and not get recognized in a list like this?

Janis Ian: Once again, I just don't know what to say, except sqwaaaauck. Not Janis Ian or Between the Lines or Stars or Breaking Silence – just a few of the albums that contained songs of great social and political import and happened to be quite successful to boot? She is one of the most important female musicians of our time, so I mean, if you like Britney and Mariah Carey and Shania Twain and Taylor Swift and their seriously charting pop songs with 200 million hits on Spotify, fine, but at least recognize that for all the $$$ their albums have made, their cultural importance is limited. They never wrote a song that had the musical or social depth of "Society's Child" or "At Seventeen". A tremendous oversight.

Holly Near: She founded Redwood Records in 1972 and used it as a platform to promote progressive music with a decidely feminist slant. She herself recorded about 30 albums, performed with many of the greatest folksingers of the day, and helped promote the careers of several other female, progressive singer-songwriters, including Cris Williamson (the only one who made the list), Meg Christian, and Betsy Rose. I don't know which is the best, but A Live Album contains the first release of her most famous song, "It Could Have Been Me". Near is also an outstanding example of what one woman can accomplish, having been a prominent actress, a writer, a political activist, and a teacher as well as a terrific musician. Another absurd oversight.

Loreena McKennitt: Like Holly Near, she may not be a household name, yet excluding her is really inexcusable, particularly in light of some of the shamelessly commercial pop that is on the list. She blazed a daringly original trail as an indie artist, founding her label Quinlan Road in Canada five years before Ani DiFranco started Righteous Babe records a little below the border. Her complex, original takes on Celtic and Arabic music defy easy genre classification: she is a folk, rock, world and New Age artist all rolled up in one. Her voice is the equal of almost any artist on the list; Joan Baez would be a good comparison. Either The Book of Secrets or The Mask and the Mirror, replacing any number of lightweight pop albums, would give the list more gravity and critical respectability.

Enya: She is the second most popular Irish artist ever, after U2. She has won four Grammies and a host of other awards. More importantly, she almost singlehandedly made New Age music respectable and popular. (I'm not sure Windham Hill on its own achieved either of those.) She is to Ireland everything that Céline Dion is to Quebec. My personal favorite is The Memory of Trees, but there are several other options for Enya albums to put on a list like this. Not putting her on at all is not really an option, though the illustrious judges at NPR seemed to think it was more important to have two Madonna albums, Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Destiny's Child and Chaka Khan. Dance all you want, then take a rest and listen to some music.

Michelle Shocked: Along with Suzanne Vega, whose first album had come out a year earlier, she helped kickstart the "second folk revival" with her Texas Campfire Tapes, a low-tech live recording that went viral before there was music on the Internet. Shocked and Vega paved the way for mainstream acceptance of new folk artists like Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin, Lucinda Williams and a host of others to come. Since becoming a born again Christian she has made some remarks about homosexuality and gay marriage that are ambiguous at best, but I don't get the sense that most of the other artists on the list have been given a litmus test on their social views. Her important role should be recognized.

Neko Case: Okay, the list is trendy enough, with Joanna Newsom, Lauryn Hill, Alabama Shakes, M.I.A., Taylor Swift, Adele, Amy Winehouse, Beyonce , Solange, Alicia Keys and Miranda Lambert representing just some of the post-2000 recordings. (Where, I beseech you once again, is Lana Del Ray, not to mention Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Kesha and Ariana Grande? Picky, picky...) Are these artists all supposed to be part of the "canon"? Give me a break; there is no principled distinction here between current popularity and longevity; no serious effort to separate merely good pop tunes from significant creativity. If it's the latter we are after then I'm going to remove about half of these entries and replace them with people like Neko Case and others who are actually trying to do something musically forward-looking. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is probably the consensus choice for Case, but her follow-up album Middle Cyclone is as good or better.

Malvina Reynolds: Like Elie Greenwich she's known more as a songwriter than a performer, but she nevertheless released numerous albums of her own work. Malvina Reynolds Sings the Truth, for example, contains her well-known song "What Have They Done to the Rain", as well as "Little Boxes" and "God Bless the Grass", both made famous by Pete Seeger, and the once-popular children's song "Magic Penny". As I have emphasized, "greatest" depends on many things; Reynolds' unique gift for musical social commentary makes her a standout artist who should be recognized in a list such as this.

Nanci Griffith: Other Voices, Other Rooms is one of my favorite albums in any genre; it is all covers, but one could certainly pick from other albums of hers with great originals. Like Neko Case, she is one of those folk musicians who transcends the genre.

Kate Wolf: She would be one of the first names to roll off the tongue of anyone who really knows the recent history of folk music: there are tribute albums and even a music festival devoted to work she recorded on 10 albums in her short life. The title song of Give Yourself to Love was something like an anthem of the folk movement in the 1980's. Not including her suggests ignorance of the history of contemporary folk music.

Christine Lavin: Funny they left her off, seriously funny. Don't know what I'm talking about? Well, there's Google, Wikipedia and YouTube to explain it.

Maria Farantouri: If she had done nothing but champion the songs of Mikis Theodorakis she would merit a place next to Mercedes Sosa, another expressive contralto who was happily discovered by the somewhat nearsighted makers of this pop list. But aside from her many other musical recordings she has truly stuck her neck out for justice in Greece and elsewhere. I'd pick her first album Songs of Freedom, with John Williams and featuring music by Theodorakis, but only because it's the one I know best; there is much else to choose from.

Make Our Country Great Again
Mary Chapin Carpenter: How about instead of some of those ladies with the blockbuster country albums we recognize this thoughtful and socially engaged songwriter? She has written almost every song on more than a dozen albums, including many great ones. Somewhat like Roseanne Cash, who was happily included, she has enough Nashville hits to be a household name but is also capable of setting record sales aside and making albums of honest integrity just for the sake of the music and what she has to say. I'm going to go with A Place in the World, but among her 13 studio recordings there are other possible choices, including her excellent breakout album, Come On Come On.

Faith Hill: She is similarly bedecked with country music awards and billion-selling albums, like Shania Twain and Reba Macentire; why they made the list instead is once again beyond the limits of my understanding. I happen to like her voice better. Breathe is the album I know best, and would be happy to see it on the list.

Carrie Underwood: If American Idol had done nothing else, discovering Carrie Underwood and her stunning vocal capabilities would have been a singular contribution to popular music. If her voice has any defect at all it is that it is possibly too good, making quite a few other leading lights of country music sound like they could be her students. I'm not as thrilled with her material as I am with her voice; it tends to be formulaic and lead her into predictable vocal moves. She also seems a bit obsessed with songs about taking revenge on cheating lovers. None of that is quite enough to remove the pleasure of hearing her bang out a tune with everything from coloratura melismas to throaty growls. I don't know which album of hers should be on the list: Some Hearts was her breakout recording, but in later albums she took more of a role in the songwriting. I'd go with Blown Away because her own material is acutally some of the best on the album and the best she's recorded.


Round-up

Also Worth Considering

Those are some of the more obvious oversights, the ones where it either boggles the mind how a list of the greatest albums by women could be thought complete without them, or where there seems to be no reasonable argument for including some of the artists who were included and not including those who are either their peers or in some sense superiors. Of course, there were plenty of opportunities for the listmakers  to step up and recognize some artists who are not names on the tip of anyone's tongue. Were I to construct my very own list with an all-female cast of musicians, one of the things I would try to do is find under-recognized artists whose work deserves greater recognition, for example: Julia Holter, Lili Haydn, Jane Siberry and Melanie DeBiasio among others. They would all replace a lot of dubious pop selections on my list. Blossom Dearie recorded more albums than almost any three of the listed artists put together; I don't really know them (I've heard individual songs), but she had a fanatical following well into her 60's and continued recording at least through her early 70's. Tania Tagaq is an Inuit throat singer who won both Canada's Polaris Prize in 2014 and Juno Award in 2015 for her album Animism; if we are looking for women who make a musical statement that gives voice to a culture (like Mercedes Sosa or Umm Kulthum) this is a good place to look. In the rock category, there's a parade of M's that seems to have dropped through the cracks, including Minnie Riperton, Maria Muldaur, Melanie and Melissa Manchester; in addition to Phoebe Snow, these are popular names from an earlier era who made memorable albums that are not commonly heard today. If they are not worthy of "canon"-ization it suggests that some of the many pop, hip-hop and country stars who landed a spot may not be worthy of it either, and if they are, well, then they are. Suzi Quatro is another odd oversight, a prolific and influential role model for the duly recognized Joan Jett and one of the first women to go it alone as a hard rocker.

In the folk category, an older generation of singing-songwriting women await recognition for their important contributions to American culture, including Peggy Seeger, Jean Ritchie and Faith Petric. I don't have the time or resources to figure out which of their many albums might be among the greatest recordings made by women; perhaps none, because for the most part they were well on in years before they made solo records. (I have suggested that a better approach than the "greatest albums" effort would be a "Lifetime Achievement" list, where these artists would be more likely to get fair representation.) Singer-songwriters like Cindy Kallet, Pat Humphries, Bev Grant, Lydia Adams Davis and Priscilla Herdman, among many others, have given us memorable albums that anyone seriously researching a "greatest" list rather than a popularity contest might have found.

I decided long ago...

Never to spend six months critiquing a list? Oh well, another New Year's resolution out the window. (Anyone concerned about my sanity will be pleased to know that during that time my literary efforts have also included a draft of a short story, a piece of micro-fiction, some poetry, work on a novel, a memoir and a couple of philosophical essays. So, you could say I'm obsessed with this list stuff; but only between roughy 11:30 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. on weeknights.) But let's put some kind of cap on this at last. Here are my final squawcks:

Ranking: It is a fine thing to draw the attention of the public to women's contributions to popular music, but a much less fine thing to try to order one's selection according to some notion of "greatness". It is really of almost no interest that this group of judges thinks that Blue is the greatest album made by a woman, that The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is the second greatest, etc. So maybe Pride and Prejudice is the greatest novel written by a woman, Jane Eyre is the second greatest, and Middlemarch is the third greatest...? Or should To the Lighthouse or Ship of Fools, or something else, be in there? On what basis do you make judgments like this? You can make some very broad generalizations about entire bodies of work, in which case Joni Mitchell's stands out so far above Lauryn Hill's that they belong miles apart, while that of Pauline Oliveros looms far greater over contemporary classical music than anything the makers of most of the 100-odd albums in front of hers ever accomplished in relation to rock, pop, etc. Even rankiing the artists' overall contributions is only possible in a few cases. It is easy to say that Bob Dylan is the greatest singer-songwriter in modern times, but it is not so easy to say who is second, third, etc. Rankings also tend to lose their force as soon as they are challenged. For example, The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is probably the consensus choice for the greatest album ever made; but I know more than one rock critic who believes it is not even a good album, much less the greatest ever made. They too can give reasons for their views, and make it seem like myth is doing more work than quality in upholding the album's status. Powers, NPR and their friends would have done a greater service by doing without rankings at all and just bringing to our attention the most interesting and important albums in which women had the most prominent roles.

So my comments on what is not included on the list are made without regard to any ranking. But that does not mean I can permanently resist the temptation to offer a list of what I think are the greatest albums made by women! I will do so in the next post, but with enough caveats to make clear just how little is being claimed in that list.

Quality: In the end, my biggest beef with the list is that it seems to treat quality as an afterthought. Quality comes in many forms, but it can certainly be distinguished from sales and popularity, to say nothing of marketing. Originality, importance in various ways, influence, musicianship, lyrical depth, complexity, intensity of feeling, the fit of words and music, and many other factors can contribute to quality in addition to the basic factors of performance chops and songwriting skill. On the other hand, excessive use of standard musical formulas, clichéd lyrics, sentimentality and over-reliance on technical production tricks may contribute to an album's popularity but not to its quality. Taking this distinction seriously would have eliminated many very well-known and popular albums on the list and replaced them with music that deserves the name "greatest". That is what critical responsibility is all about, but it seems to have been largely abandoned here.

Quantity: As if 150 were not a generous enough number of "greatest" albums by women, TheFader.com has graciously contributed another 150 such disks for our perusal. I have never heard of many of the albums, or even quite a few of the groups, on TheFader's list, but it ranges from the obvious move of adding every big contemporary female pop star (Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, etc.) to the highly speculative inclusion of albums like the Pharmakon effort mentioned in my previous post. This may be more of a comment on the nonsense of modern listmaking than on perceived gaps in NPR's "canon", for in the end it is hard to tell which list is the primary one and which the supplement.

Since I might seriously question whether there are 300 truly great albums altogether in the history of popular music, the idea that there are 300 made by women is a little hard to wrap my mind around. But if we take "greatest" in its purely relative sense, such that albums after the first 100 or so may be boring, irritating, or trite but greater than the next group of albums, I guess we could find another 200 and make it an even 500 Greatest Albums Made By Women. Then I might have a hard time keeping Britney and other lightweight Top 40 nonsense off the list.

Or maybe not. I haven't mentioned every worthwhile but overlooked female artist I know of yet. Take Bonnie Koloc for instance: one of the best voices among folksingers in the early 70's and after, she never got much attention outside the Chicago area. You can Spotify her (if that's a verb now) though they have only a couple of her later efforts. How many other little-known names might there be? Friends of mine who are music critics know an awful lot of artists and albums that I don't know, and I suspect they would rate quite a few of them higher than most of the NPR list. With the help of some like-minded souls it's not impossible we could at least have a 500-album list of recordings by women that did not compromise on quality or pander to any formulaic pablum.

Oh well, when I started this I thought I was done. But there's one more post to go; the one in which I produce
The Greatest List of All

But my next post really will be The Last Post of All on the "150 Greatest Albums Made By Women".

Monday, January 1, 2018

List and You Shall Hear (IV): Reviewing the Situation



I wrote much of this review before somewhat belatedly reading Wesley Morris's article "Voices in My Head" in the October 8 Sunday Times Magazine, and now that I've read it I feel much better. I thought that any reader who found his or her way to my blog posts on the NPR list of "150 Greatest Albums Made By Women" would wonder if I had a few screws loose, spending so much time listening only to music by women, and not incidentally offering my critique of the list. Now I can at least respond that I am not the only one: Morris informs us that for months he listened to the entire NPR list, from #150 to #1, and at least 75 more albums by women to boot. I have not even been through all 150, though the still unheard albums tend to be those by artists I am familiar with, even if I don't know the chosen album in full, as well as some of the jazz and classical artists. I have, on the other hand, listened to way more than 75 other albums by women, probably closer to 200 or so, not to mention attending concerts by Rickie Lee Jones, Tori Amos and an ensemble performing works of Pauline Oliveros.

Did all this increase my appreciation of the importance of music "made by women" (a term Morris does not seem to question, in spite of its inaccuracy)? I at least owe Powers et al. a note of thanks for sending me off on a journey of music discovery that has turned up numerous gems of which I was unaware. Some are albums on the list, some are other albums by artists on the list, and quite a few are albums by artists who were not included at all. Had the NPR list done nothing more than bring to my attention the brilliant early 1970's Filipino-American female group Fanny it would have done me a great favor. In fact, you can also now count me as a confirmed Siouxsie and the Banshees fan, and throw in The Bangles and a few others.

But it also pushed me to check out the empty spaces where Suzanne Vega and Janis Ian albums should be, and to listen to many alternatives to the listed works. Morris notes the exclusion of artists like Shawn Colvin, and questions (subsequent to a Tori Amos quip about the lack of "testosterone" in the Lilith Fair lineup) whether we are making the wrong demands on music by women. I would put it more bluntly: the list indulges vulgar commercial efforts at the expense of more serious artists, and often picks albums based on hits and sales rather than inherent quality.

Morris also makes some questionable judgments in his piece. Nostalgia for Donna Summer is perhaps understandable, as the loss of her and Whitney Houston in the same year is still an open wound five years later. But calling her "the musician who paved a boulevard for lots of women who top charts" is a bit much. The women who paved that boulevard aren't even allowed on this NPR list – Betsy Smith, Patsy Cline, Martha Reeves, and many others who laid down that pavement are not there due to being pre-1964 artists. Dionne Warwick is not on the list; neither is Judy Collins. But even if we stick with those who are on the list, after Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Dusty Springfield, The Ronettes and Aretha Franklin put down the blacktop, all Donna Summer needed to do was walk on it. Nostalgia for Janet Jackson is a bit harder to explain, but since his tastes also include an outsized admiration for Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville and the dismissal of Janis Joplin's Pearl as "not a great album" I guess all I can do here is shrug and move on.

Morris also indulges the statistical game of counting albums "by women" in this or that list and comparing them with the much larger number "by men" and concludes that indeed music by women is underappreciated. It takes more work than this numbers game to show that, if it's true. There could be many reasons why there are fewer women than men represented in lists and such; those reasons may well show that women have not been treated fairly in the music industry (this would hardly surprise anyone) but not that the achievements they managed in spite of this are underappreciated.

Morris does not seem fazed by any of the criticisms I've harped on in my posts: that most of the albums are not in fact "made by women" in any sense other than (at most) having female lead vocalists; that it does not really recognize the greatest albums but rather offers us representative albums by those considered the greatest or best known female lead vocalists; that its tokenish inclusion of a few classical and jazz artists, and slightly more international artists, is ridiculous and results in absurd juxtapositions; that the rankings themselves are extremely arbitrary and could be radically revised even for the albums selected, to say nothing of those not selected (e.g., probably 2 or 3 albums each by Joan Armatrading, Suzanne Vega and Janis Ian could be among the top 25 albums in the list); that what is included has an overall commercial tilt that ends up under-representing many of the greatest female songwriters and musicians (Morris does hint at this point but doesn't target it directly); that it is not even an original idea, largely repeating the choices of earlier, similar lists; and that the starting point in 1964 is very arbitrary and excludes those who set the standard for female recording artists, on the misleading notion that before 1964 they did not primarily make albums.

Well, back to business, as I have elaborated all those objections in previous posts. Having had my say on the choices of Joni Mitchell albums, I will now discuss the rest of the list, identifying the albums in groups by their numbers on the list.

*****
  
1 (Joni Mitchell, Blue), 121 (Joni Mitchell, Hejira)

Please see my previous post regarding Joni Mitchell's albums.

2 (Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill), 9 (Amy Winehouse, Back to Black),  12 (Erykah Badu, Baduism)  57 (Mary J. Blige, What's the 411?),  77 (Aaliyah, Aaliyah), 92 (Meshell Ndegeocello, Peace Beyond Passion), 116 (Macy Gray, On How Life Is)  149 (Alicia Keys, Songs in A Minor)

If there is anything particularly new or provocative about the list it is the promotion of neo-soul, hip-hop soul and other variations on classic 1960's soul music to the center of the musical conversation. The sub-list doesn't stop with those seven selections, especially if you include early influences like Sade, and fellow travellers like Norah Jones and Adele, and of course Beyoncé, whose sometimes soul-inflected album Lemonade sits at #6 on the list. I am inclined to ask: is this correct? I mean, is Lauryn Hill's neo-soul/reggae/hip-hop crossover album the second greatest album ever recorded by a woman? The women I have asked tend to raise an eyebrow and then suggest that it's not a bad choice, but perhaps a bit surprising. To put it another way, are 3 (or 4, if you include Lemonade) of the 12 best albums ever made by women neo-soul albums? That's a lot of credit for this subgenre. Historically speaking, neo-soul had a brief heyday around 20 years ago, while hip-hop/soul confections continue to crop up. (Aside from Lemonade, Kehlani's SweetSexySavage is the latest entry in this category to win all sorts of accolades.) Not all of it represents what I would call first class songwriting, which is one of my main criteria for a great album.

Some, like Baduism, make a kind of musical/poetic statement: trim down the arrangements, don't be afraid to express your deepest feelings, make each single note as expressive as a symphony. These are solid ideas, but my simple ear just wants to know if it is an album full of great music. I'm not sure; after playing it maybe half a dozen times it still doesn't seem to compare with Sade's Diamond Life, for instance, nor with soul-inspired classics like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? or Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul. Similarly for many of the others here. Alicia Keys' Songs in A Minor is a very nice, listenable album, especially if you ignore the lyrics, which rarely rise above sentimentality; it would be hard to argue with a rank of #149, barely making it onto the list, if there weren't so many other better albums by artists who were not included on the list. Mary J. Blige's What's the 4-1-1? is also a perfectly fine album, on which she does a great job singing a collection of fairly straightforward R&B covers. Her My Life would have been a better choice: like Baduism and Aaliyah it's a completely seductive album on which (like Badu, unlike Aaliyah) she co-wrote almost every song. It's been listed again and again among the greatest R&B albums ever made, so why the former would be chosen to represent her instead is just one more of the ultimately unanswerable questions raised by this list. Ditto for Meshell Ndegeocello's Peace Beyond Passion: very nice album, but Plantation Lullabies, her first, seems to me superior to it in every sense.

But My Life and Plantation Lullabies still do not sound like the cream of the crop in popular music. Perhaps #57 and #92 would be good places for them, assuming some of the stuff that does not belong at all was removed. But what about #2, #9, #12 – can these really keep company with the best of Joni Mitchell, with Diamond Life, Tapestry, Pearl – or with some of the greatest albums by unaccountably excluded artists like Joan Armatrading or Suzanne Vega? Not to my ears. In fact I don't think they compare with #139 (The Bangles, All Over the Place) or with #133 (Fanny, Fanny Hill) for musical interest, and certainly not with #122 (Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Scream), or with Kate Bush, Tori Amos or Sonic Youth for innovation. So what are they doing in these exalted positions?

What I described above as "the fog of music" may have enveloped the brains of the list's jury members. The truth is, every one of these albums is pleasant, easy to listen to, takes some interesting new approaches, includes some notable performance moments, etc. They may be among the top albums in their genre, even if that is construed broadly. None of this adds up to being a great album, a term that brings together a number of outstanding qualities that create a surge of musical satisfaction and that rise far above the multitude of good albums released every year. Generally, such albums either identify themselves as summits of achievement in a certain style or era of music, or become points of reference for much that comes after them. But all these neo-soul albums stand on approximately the same plane, like latter-day reflections on Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes and Nina Simone after the social and musical developments of the 2-3 decades since their greatest albums. Like neo-psychedelia and neo-punk, some excellent music can emerge, but this is rarely the place to look for great albums. Which, unless we are going to be uncharitable, suggests that they are over-represented and overrated on the NPR list.

 ***

3 (Nina Simone, I Put a Spell On You), 28 (Nina Simone, Nina Simone Sings the Blues)

Nina Simone's I Put a Spell On You is an odd choice for a #3 album on this list. For one thing, in spite of the fact that this was also the title of her autobiography, it is not her best or most representative album, and seems to have been picked solely because it is the first acceptable one post-1964, the list's arbitrary cutoff date. Secondly, in spite of the fact that she has influenced a lot of artists, Simone herself is fairly controversial, and not just for her advocacy of violent revolution, use of gun threats to get her way, or fabled histrionics. Her artistry, though widely revered, is a bit uneven. I personally think Robert Christgau's highly critical assessment, cited in Simone's Wikipedia entry, is too harsh by half – he was clearly not listening to her best work either as vocalist or pianist. (See my previous post on his mis-assessment of Joni Mitchell's later work.) That said, my feeling is that in contrast to some rich early recordings, both tone production and emotional resonance are somewhat spotty in her subsequent work. The controlled vibrato of her early (pre-1964) work is largely replaced with a tremolo that is not always applied to the best effect. Her keyboard work is impressive at its best, humdrum at worst. She has an enormous recorded legacy and I am far from being ready to speak about all of it, but my impression is that there are more important albums to occupy the title of "3rd best album made by a woman". Now, having said that, I am going to flip back the other way and say that Nina Simone Sings the Blues, at #28, is one of her better later albums; her performance of the Gershwin-Heyward song "My Man's Gone Now" by itself deserves some sort of place in musical history, a sockdolager in every way. Overall her voice shines, and even the tremolo works better than in more popular material. Her keyboard playing is no great shakes but there are other worthy musical performances on the album, and it's her voice that is front and center on this album anyway. In short, #28 no problem; #3, not convinced.


 ***


5 (MIssy Elliott, Supa-Dupa Fly), 33 (Queen Latifah, All Hail the Queen), 43 (M.I.A., Kala), 71 (Salt-N-Pepa, Blacks' Magic), 96 (Lil' Kim, Hard Core)

No expert on rap, here, though I've listened to it on and off since the days of Grandmaster Flash. I think I can distinguish great rap from average run of the mill rap, and I can certainly distinguish intelligent lyrics with something to say from gratuitous scatoligical garbage and self-indulgent violent rants. Here, in the few more or less pure rap selections, we have both ends of the spectrum.On the one hand, Queen Latifah holds down the classic end of the genre on All hail the Queen, which more or less made it a commercial and artistic success. Salt-N-Pepa's album Blacks' Magic mixes fairly straightforward rap rhythms with a sometimes feminist message that defied the often misogynistic tenor of rap at that time. 

Lil' Kim also defies misogyny, as well as taste, decency, the law, and a long list of other rappers, with whom she has feuded endlessly. Her foulmouthed and violent lyrics earned her music the label "gangster porno rap", which is fitting for someone who has been convicted of perjury for covering up her violent friends' perfidious activities. Any complaints I have aired regarding the moral fiber of Nina Simone, Britney Spears or Amy Winehouse are lightweight stuff compared with this treasure. Or is it not just obvious that the answer to sexism is not to offer one's vagina and anus as weapons in the battle to conquer male sexual dominance? All the rappers here can be explicit enough about sex and sex roles; but explicit can be in good taste, while raunchy and violent cannot. Really poor judgment putting Hard Core anywhere on the list, in my opinion.

Missy Elliott is one of the most important people in hip hop and in R&B generally, but that is more the result of her production and songwriting activities, which also helped catapult Timbaland into the first ranks of hip hop producers and musicians. As for Supa Dupa Fly, it is a fine album, but its exalted place at #6 on the list may be more a token of recognition for Elliott's overall contribution than a true rank for the album itself. Neither her singing voice nor her rap skills are first rate, but her great creative talent makes it a very good recording nonetheless - at some points not unlike some of Aaliyah's work, which she helped write and produce.

As for Kala, I'm not sure what to make of it. Being the only Tamil pop superstar certainly makes M.I.A. a person of interest. The eclectic mix of rap, dance, electronica and I'm not sure what else ranges from musically inspired to boring, and the lyrics, where I could follow them, have patches of interest and obscurity among their various personal and political directions.


 ***


6 (Beyoncé, Lemonade), 134 (Solange, A Seat at the Table).

Am I the only one who finds it a tiny little bit suspect that two albums that are just over a year old, done by two sisters, both happen to make the list, all but serving as bookends? I've heard and respect both of them, but as to the extraordinary confidence in placing the recently released Lemonade near the top of the list... can we talk? I mean, I can see the argument for it: Beyoncé has practically invented a new form of musical expression, something that is equal parts rock opera, hip-hop, poetry, video art, soul, electronica - it is so much to digest that perhaps the course of least resistance is to just call it one of the most innovative albums of the 21st century so far, and leave it at that. But I have asked, and will continue to ask, the more basic question in relation to list-formation: is it a best-ever experience as music, as songwriting, as instrumental and vocal performance? Perhaps this is unfair to hip-hop and its ever-expanding reach into popular music, since "songwriting" is not exactly what it's about. (Nobody would characterize the achievement of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly as somehow lesser because it is not an album of tunes you can whistle.) But for me, that is one of the things that needs to be there for an album to be near the top of a "greatest" list. There are a couple of outstanding songs on Lemonade ("Sandcastles" is an instant classic, and "All Night" is a beauty too) but it is the album's concept, spirit and visuals that have captured the imagination. It gets a seat at the table for that reason, but I'm not putting it at the head of the table without a more or less continuous stream of great music. Speaking of A Seat at the Table, Solange's album too may deserve one, but only by opening up numerous places from albums I don't think belong there, since there are quite a few more obvious choices that were omitted from the list altogether.


 ***


9 (Amy Winehouse, Back to Black), 93 (Britney Spears, ...Baby One More Time)

How did Lindsay Lohan's two recordings were overlooked? These two singers' personal issues have made for at least as much copy as their musical efforts. True, one can turn up plenty of tabloid worthy material on Janis Joplin, Nina Simone and others; we would lose a lot of talent if we denied people their rightful place in music history based on a few run-ins with the police or stints in drug and alcohol rehab. So what exactly does that place consist in? Amy Winehouse captured a lot of attention on the basis of her soulful but highly derivative style, and even if her notorious self-destructive force rates up there with some of our recent hurricanes, it is hard to deny the effectiveness of her music. I seriously question, though, whether she should be at any such illustrious position on this list or any other. She ranks here above Whitney Houston, than whom there is no greater vocalist in pop history; Barbra Streisand, about whom little needs to be said; and people like Kate Bush, Tori Amos and Rickie Lee Jones, all deep fonts of creativity on a level that Amy Winehouse does not even pretend to. Back to Black is a brilliant pastiche of soul-inspired styles, as is Frank, her only other commercial recording. But recognizing that is quite compatible with her being assigned a more modest role among the many creative women in popular music.

As for Britney Spears, there is absolutely nothing to recommend her from a musical point of view, unless popularity with teenage girls is in itself a sign of greatness. She has no particular vocal abilities; the material on her recordings is about as trite as you could dream up, even if some of it may have been vaguely transgressive in a quasi-feminist way that Madonna had long since made into a brand, or tickled the nascent sexual imaginations of teenage girls everywhere. I think the popularity of her recordings, to the extent it has any relationship to the music itself, is 90% about the production, for that is all that stands out as differentiating them from the mass of mainstream pop, if anything does.


 ***


10 (Carole King, Tapestry), 44 (Heart, Dreamboat Annie), 45 (Dusty Springfield, Dusty in Memphis), 53 (Linda Ronstadt, Heart Like a Wheel), 83 (Bobbie Gentry, Ode to Billy Joe), 85 (Joan Baez, Diamonds and Rust), 124 (Carly Simon, No Secrets), 126 (The Carpenters, A Song for You), 133 (Fanny, Fanny Hill)

This imperfect sublist captures what you might call the rock, light-rock and country-rock genre of the decade from1967-1976 as represented on this list – that is, whatever is not strictly R&B, traditional country, early punk, experimental/jazz, etc. Of all of them, only two strike me as consistently good in a way that ranks them among the greatest albums by men or women: Tapestry, of course; and the discovery of the decade, Fanny Hill. The latter is like discovering the equivalent of Canned Heat, Humble Pie, or maybe Bad Company, having never even heard the name, and realizing that you have to rewrite the history of the era. The Carpenters' A Song For You is an inspired collection of songs, but I tend to relegate albums that are mostly covers of other people's material to a different class from wholly original ones; and The Carpenters are one of many - many – groups on the list where men and women played roughly equal roles (see the next section). 

Most of the rest are really held in place by one or two hit singles. Carly Simon's No Secrets, for example, is not even a good album overall; I'm not even sure "You're So Vain" is a particularly good song (my favorite of hers is still her first hit, "The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be"). She is an excellent singer (way better than Carole King in that respect), but a sample of her many other albums suggests that she is good for one or two standout songs on a recording, a lot of fair-to-middling material and the occasional unlistenably trite filler. Like Taylor Swift, she sometimes makes me want to scream: "Not every single thought you've had about some passing relationship is worth writing a song about!" 

Bobbie Gentry's Ode to Billie Joe is a dubious pick not so much for the songwriting as for the recording, which sounds like it took place in a cardboard box and managed to sneak into the mastering room without a final mix, or even so much as a small concession to reverb. Heart's Dreamboat Annie is the source of a couple of great R&R hits, but as for the album, they have better, including their much more recent Fanatic. I love the title song of Diamonds and Rust but repeated listening over many years has not convinced me that the album is as essential as the song. (Her One Day at a Time and Gracias a la Vida are two of my favorite folk albums.) Dusty Springfield and Linda Ronstadt are each represented by "classic", "landmark", "breakthrough" country-rock records that one can't help feeling a bit sentimental about, without necessarily wanting to listen to them much.


 ***


16 (Fleetwood Mac, Rumours), 35 (Blondie, Parallel Lines),  79 (Portishead, Dummy),  87 (X, Los Angeles), 127 (Sonic Youth, Sister), 135 (The B-52s, The B-52s), 138 (The Cocteau Twins, Heaven or Las Vegas)

None of these bands are female-led groups in the same sense that, say, Hole is truly Courtney Love's group or The Pretenders is Chrissie Hynde's. The history of Fleetwood Mac is very complex and it certainly is not adequately captured by calling it a mainly female band in any of its several eras. Other than lead vocals, Chris Stein had a roughly equal role with Debbie Harry in Blondie, and The B-52's are also more or less gender-equal. Beth Gibbons seems to have had a role roughly equal to her two male collaborators in creating the music of Portishead. Calling this an album "made by women" seems like a calculated attempt to grab some foundational trip-hop credit for "women" when in fact nearly all the personnel except the lead vocalist were men. Elizabeth Fraser's vocals are central to the Cocteau Twins' sound but so are Robin Guthrie's synthesized guitars; songwriting credits are given to "The Cocteau Twins". I will deal with X and Sonic Youth below, and I have mentioned The Carpenters above. I do not understand why these groups would be on the list and not ABBA – though I am not offering ABBA or their material as instances of greatness. (They do, however, have the distinction of having twice won prizes in the Eurovision song contest, with "Waterloo" winning overall and "Ring Ring" placing third.) Given the largely mainstream nature of the list they seem like equally good candidates. But if we are talking about albums "made by women" these mixed gender groups are even less appropriate than some of the albums which, as I pointed out in earlier parts, are merely sung by women.


 ***


17 (Janet Jackson, Control), 75 (Donna Summer, Bad Girls), 118 (Chaka Khan, I Feel For You), 130 (Teena Marie, WIld and Peaceful)

There was a time when disco-era R&B performers like Janet Jackson, Donna Summer, Teena Marie and Chaka Khan would not only not make my list of deserted island disks, they would be sufficient reason to remove to a deserted island without electricity. I may be more open to dancehall funk, disco and post-disco now than I was then, but in spite of critics like Vince Aletti and changes in historical perspective, they are still not going on that ship with me. I have a short list of disco-pop songs (not many albums) that I like as pure music, for I am not really interested in what songs are best to shake your booty to; but they are not "made by women" even in the loose sense of this list. It is interesting to compare these with R&B entries like 4 (Aretha Franklin), 14 (Whitney Houston) or 15 (Diana Ross and the Supremes) – I would argue with anyone who denies their artistry, whether or not those particular positions are the right ones. But times have not changed enough for me to put any but a handful of disco/dance-pop songs on a list of "greatest" anything, and nothing I heard in the selected albums moves me to change that opinion.


 ***


27 (Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes), 37 (Kate Bush, Hounds of Love)

Tori Amos is represented by her first solo album, Little Earthquakes, having made way for higher-rated choices like Selena, Janet Jackson and Madonna. The injustice of this is startling. A brilliant songwriter, classically trained keyboardist and superb singer, she is one of the most interesting artists of any gender in the last 20 years. In the way she creates poetic, free form lyrics and then manages to coax formally coherent and powerful songs out of them she seems to me unique and something of a genius. Her From the Choirgirl Hotel, Scarlet's Walk and Abnormally Attracted to Sin, and possibly several others deserve to be on the list as much Little Earthquakes. Other than Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin, only Madonna seems to have been deemed worthy of multi-album representation (Joan Jett and Beyoncé each appear in two different musical formations), but that is ridiculous, and Tori Amos is one reason why.

The recognition of Kate Bush's work is also pretty lame. As great as Tori Amos is, she walks in part in Bush's footsteps, as do so many other female recording artists. Yet Bush's Hounds of Love is ranked below Adele's 21, Björk's eclectic Post, Grace Jones's interesting but hardly earth-shaking Nightclubbing, etc. While I am still searching for the Kate Bush album that will thrill me as much as the best work by Tori Amos (or the unaccountably overlooked Suzanne Vega), many of them are greater creative works than anything Adele has yet done (and produced more charting singles than Adele may ever do, for what that's worth). Perhaps the lesson here is that by offering a spurious and chaotic ranking of individual albums the NPR list does a disservice to women whose musical accomplishments are far greater than the sum of their parts.


 ***


30 (Adele, 21)

Adele has sold a lot of albums. "Rolling in the Deep" was a great single. But it will be a long time before we know whether there is a legacy here worthy of this sort of recognition. While she clearly has a strong voice, nothing else she has done signals more than another good pop singer/songwriter. That's just not enough to be selected for this position in a "new canon" because there are just too many such artists, big in their day and largely forgotten not long after. (Don Williams died a few weeks ago; remember him? Even if you do, does he stand out in the pantheon of Nashville stars? He had seventeen #1 singles on the Country charts, and 14 albums in the top 15. Get my point?)


 ***

35 (Blondie, Parallel Lines), 56 (X-Ray Spex, Germfree Adolescents), 72 (The Runaways, The Runaways), 74 (The Raincoats, The Raincoats), 87 (X, Los Angeles), 119 (The Slits, Cut), 122 (Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Scream), 127 (Sonic Youth, Sister)

Scattered around the list are these late 70's/early 80's groups with punk roots (or pretensions), many of them dominated by women. (I have omitted ESG's Come Away With ESG because I am not sure they really fit the category – they may be in a category or their own, like "minimalist dance-punk" or whatever.) The first question posed by this category is how many of these bands fall under the "made by women" label at all? Blondie and Siouxsie and the Banshees were co-founded by a male and a female member; in both cases, the female member did the lead singing and co-wrote some of the material, and the male member created the guitar parts and co-wrote some of the material. As for X, after joining the band formed by her boyfriend John Doe and guitarist Billy Zoom, Exene Cervenka contributed many of the lyrics for the album and shares the vocals with Doe. Sonic Youth is an even more dubious choice for the "made by" label. So half the bands in this category fit tenuously if at all in the list. The second question is, what justifies this distribution of punk-related albums? Does the order hold up even in itself, much less in relation to the rolling wave of genres and styles that characterizes the list? Here are my thoughts:

Parallel Lines by Blondie is certainly the most commercial; that it is the best of the lot could be argued for, but is not a truism, especially to those who deplore the commercialisation of post-punk. Impressive that they could make the jump so cleanly after two hardcore punk albums, but one is not required to prefer these clearly catchy pop tunes (including the discotheque number "Heart of Glass") to solid punk tracks. Cheap Trick, The Police and other post-punk bands took a similar turn, with similar results; apparently, all one had to do was decide to sell a few more records and it was not hard to trade in the revolutionary fervor for a spot on the Billboard charts.  

Germfree Adolescents by XRay Spex is one of the great one-off albums in rock, a masterpiece of punk by a band that crashed and burned before releasing a second album but left a big mark, largely thanks to their female lead singer, Poly Styrene. With or without the punk anthem "Oh Bondage Up Yours", an early single which was added to the original LP later on (I have to credit the Trouser Press review for pointing this out), this album could easily exchange places with many of this list's top-30 selections - Adele, Lucinda Williams and several others, by my lights.
 

The Runaways were more like punk wannabes than a true punk rock band; The Runaways is a slick hard rock/heavy metal album that could have been the work of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath or any other competent metal band of that era, lyrics aside. Unlike The Raincoats, Siouxsie, or The Slits they are not much given to experimentation (an understatement, perhaps) but reliably land one hard rock number after another. Their later albums occasionally veer into a slightly more punk sound, while still exhibiting the same polish - think of ZZ Top covering The Ramones. Being a sucker for solid, guitar-driven hard rock I have no bones to pick with them on that score, but the sense of self-consciously pandering to adolescent rebelliousness sort of leaps off the vinyl every third song or so, and other than their gender very little of their music (particularly on this album) breaks any new ground at all.

The eponymous The Raincoats is here accorded the honor of being the 74th greatest album "made by women", ahead of anything by Laura Nyro, Sheryl Crow or Carly Simon, for example. In spite of the endorsement of Johnny Rotten, Kurt Cobain and other Ministers of Noise, one can go either way about calling this album one of the "greatest" of anything. It may be one of the greatest recorded jokes in the industry: the lead singer can't sing, the rest of the vocals consist not in harmonies but off-unison shouting, the guitarist certainly can't play anything resembling a solo even when she is actually in time with the band. The drummer is quite competent and Vicky Aspinall, the violinist, suggests what might have happened if Chubby Wise or Buddy Spicher had moved to London and joined a punk band. That's as much as you can say for the performances. The lyrics, to the extent one can understand them, do seem a bit more interesting, and the music as a whole has a kind of anti-commercial integrity that is admirable if not often lovable.  Perhaps it deserves a place somewhere at the nether reaches of the list, but that surely suggests that all nonsense by the Spice Girls, Britney Spears, Taylor Swift and the like is excised to make room for it.





As for Los Angeles by X, it is not even remotely an album "made by women". The style sometimes verges on "punkabilly", but however unusual, it's a great record and a piece of classic American post-punk, made mainly by men with significant contributions by a woman.
 

The Slits' Cut, another more-or-less one-off (discounting compilations and variations) stops short of being "experimental" but neither is it easily accessible, either in the way punk and post-punk can be, or as standard rock. "Artpunk" may be the best term to describe it. Because I'm partial to experimentation that somehow manages to work as songwriting I give this choice a thumbs up, keeping in mind that it feels more like a preview of things which never came than a completely convincing statement.
 

Siouxsie and the Banshees are surely the greatest, boldest and most influential of these groups. If The Scream were not on the list at least 2 or 3 of their other albums could be; critics seem to prefer Juju, Tinderbox and Peepshow to this one, and it is extremely difficult to see why The Raincoats or Cut would come out ahead of just about any of their albums, including their uncompromising Join Hands, some of which already brings to mind the much later rock trend known as "shoegaze". I thought this list was the work of people who have some in-depth knowledge of rock history, so I am a bit flabbergasted how this seminal group ended up with a single album near the end of the list, making way for higher-rated purveyors of superficial Top-40 pap. Then again, Suzi Quatro is represented by no album at all, so perhaps we should be thankful that the feminist listmakers saw fit to recognize one Siouxsie under an alternative spelling.

It is hard to imagine what on earth convinced Powers et al. to include Sonic Youth's Sister in a list of albums made by women, unless it was the album's name (referring to a sister of Phillip K. Dick who died shortly after birth). Nothing about the band's history suggests that it was so dominated by Kim Gordon as to justify the claim that any of Sonic Youth's albums were "made by women" – Gordon didn't have a more than equal role in the lead singing or songwriting, nor can the band's often noted alternative treatment of guitars (modified tunings, insertion of objects under the strings, etc.) be her invention alone. (None of those techniques were new to popular music in any case.) I am not trying to minimize what she did do, which is contribute to one of the most original and influential bands in history, but to call their albums "made by women" puts this in the wrong perspective. It is reasonable to point out the role that women have had in all sort of innovative ensembles, from Pauline Oliveros to The Breeders, The Raincoats to Sonic Youth, but overstating the case does not help correct any historical oversights. The choice of albums is perhaps beside the point; their next album, Daydream Nation, is often considered their masterpiece, but the band's constant evolution makes the choice of any one album even more arbitrary than with many other groups.

Take the current order of appearance of these albums in the list as (1)-(7); for my money, judged on the basis of overall quality, with some credit for originality, the correct order would be:
         1. (7) Siouxsie and the Banshees – Scream (or any of several others)
         2. (2) XRay Spex – Germfree Adolescents
         3. (1) Blondie - Parallel Lines (I'd replace it with Eat to the Beat)
         4. (8) Sonic Youth – Sister (not really an album "made by women")
5. (5) X – Los Angeles (not really an album "made by women")
         6. (6) The Slits – Cut
7. (3) The Runaways – The Runaways (Waiting for the Night might have bumped them up a notch)
8. (4) The Raincoats – The Raincoats
If the original order is so far off, interspersing these albums in that order between albums that are far removed in musical style seems like a recipe for a pretty random list.

***
 

47 (Celia Cruz, Son con Gauguanco), 73 (Astrud Gilberto, The Atrud Gilberto Album), 78 (The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Choir, Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares), 103 (Umm Kulthum, Enta Omri), 112 (Mercedes Sosa, Mercedes Sosa en Argentina), 115 (La Lupe and Tito Puente, La Pareja), 137 Ofra Haza, 50 Gates of Wisdom, 145 (Oumou Sangare, Moussoulu)

If the list's efforts at cross-cultural inclusion are slightly greater than their efforts at cross-genre inclusion (see below), it is still a mere token selection of third world female artists. There is so much else to choose from, and so little to go on in choosing albums by these particular artists that it just does not make sense. Without trying too hard I can think of Greek, Polish, Lebanese, Israeli, Chilean, Mexican, Venezualan, Jamaican, Algerian and Inuit artists who have as good a claim to inclusion as many of these artists, and I'm sure this is also just scratching the surface. It's silly to imagine that of the 150 greatest albums made by women, just 10 or so are albums made in non-English-speaking third world countries. To take a few examples: While the nueva cancion genre is represented by Mercedes Sosa, the great Cuban singer Sara Gonzalez is equally important and deserving of recognition. Umm Kulthuum seems to be representing the entire Arab world, but there are others not quite so famous but perhaps more accessible, like the contemporary Algerian/Berber singer Souad Massi; her 2003 album Deb is one of my favorite pieces of so-called "world music". Please see my next post regarding the Greek singer Maria Farantouri.


 ***


55 (The Go-Gos, Beauty and the Beast),  59 (Indigo Girls, Indigo Girls), 64 (Spice Girls, Spice), 139 (The Bangles, All Over the Place)

Girl groups? Where's Bananarama? How about Pajama Party? (Just kidding – I happen to know someone who was in the band, though not on their recordings – you can see her introducing them in concert here.) One thing the list brings out is how differently we perceive bands with women filling most of the key instrumental and vocal roles. I've never heard anyone refer to Heart or Hole as a "girl group", and even Bikini Kill, which actually coined the term "girl power", is not really a "girl group" in the sense that the Spice Girls, who co-opted the term in support of a completely different musical experience, are truly a "girl group". A few comments are in order, anyway. 

·         First of all, the positions of The Go-Gos' 55.Beauty and the Beat and The Bangles' 139.All Over the Place should at least be reversed. The Go-Gos occupy an interesting place in rock history as perhaps the first all-female "New Wave" group. But they always sound like they are knocking off some tune by Blondie, The Knack, or The Cars; after all, Eat to the Beat, Parallel Lines, Get the Knack, Candy-O and a bunch of other New Wave albums were out before Beauty and the Beat. I'm not sure what makes it "one of the 'cornerstone albums of US new wave' (AllMusic), breaking barriers and paving the way for a host of other new American acts" (from their Wikipedia entry) – weren't those so-called "barriers" long gone, or at least seriously diminished? (What were Suzi Quatro, Joan Jett or Pat Benatar doing if not breaking those very barriers? To say nothing of earlier female rock stars from Janis Joplin to Linda Ronstadt.) I'd call it a good album, not a great or highly original or pathbreaking one. 

·         On the other hand,The Bangles' All Over the Place is one butt-kicking piece of rock and roll, good to the last drop, one that belongs in any "greatest albums" list that goes this deep. One note, though: The Bangles' 1987 smash hit "Walk Like an Egyptian" is more than a little reminiscent of "You Can't Walk in Your Sleep (If You Can't Sleep)" on this 1981 Go-Gos album – not close enough to call it plagiarism, but surely in debt to it as a predecessor.

·         The Spice Girls' Spice is bottom-feeding bubblegum trash, and with the very partial exception of their hit "Wannabe", it belongs on a list of the 150 Least Adventurous Albums Made by Humans. There are dozens of albums that could replace this in the list, even if we limit ourselves to overlooked albums by the artists already represented. As for their historical relevance, here's a quote from the album's Wikipedia entry: "It is considered to be the record that brought teen pop back, opening the doors for a wave of teen pop artists." And one from Britney Spears' Wikipedia entry: "Spears is... credited with influencing the revival of teen pop during the late 1990s." Credited? Was that supposed to have a "dis" in front of it? Something tells me that Powers et al. were sufficiently impressed with the "importance" of these pop outings that they felt it necessary to include such clearly unremarkable recordings for fear of offending middle school girls from Brixton to Brooklyn. I don't see why such pandering should determine the "canon" of music by women.

·         The Indigo Girls, by contrast, are more aligned with the folkrock genre, show consistent artistic integrity, manage to be highly accessible without playing to lowest common denominator tastes, and are all but a women's musical separatist movement, so tightly do they control the gender makeup of their album personnel. (They do have a few men in their lineups but they are a distinct minority.) Whether you like this separatist approach or not, their results speak for themselves. As for which album belongs in a "greatest" list, this duo once again suggests that bodies of work rather than albums should be the main focus, as Indigo Girls is on a par with several of their other efforts.


 ***


78 (The Bulgarian State Radio & Television Choir, Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares)  80 (Laurie Anderson Big Science),  111 (Diamanda Galás, The Litanies of Satan), 128 (Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening), 136 (Yoko Ono, Plastic Ono Band), 147 (Meredith Monk, Dolmen Music)

Far be it from me to deny that these artists deserve recognition, but such clearly editorial choices seem so ridiculously out of place with the heavily pop orientation of the list that they are almost embarrassing. Oliveros' 1989 album Deep Listening, for example, consists of a series of very long tones played in an underground cistern. Is that better or worse, more or less important, than the album 100 places above it - Nina Simone Sings the Blues? Aside from showing that the one-list-fits-all idea was a bit loony, it also throws into question what the limits of "greatness" are. If Galás' incomprehensible and astringent wailing is to be bestowed with the "greatest" tag, why not add Pharmakon's Bestial Burden, an esoteric and deeply disturbing electronic assault that TheFader.com kindly placed on their list of 150 More Great Albums Made By Women? It is also worth pointing out that while these particular albums may stand out among these artists' work, it is far more difficult with experimental or classical artists to identify a single album as "greatest" rather than recognize the originality and influence of their work as a whole. The albums are mere tokens, representing not only a few unique artists but a whole world of contemporary music with numerous worthy female practitioners.

The same goes for the few non-vocal jazz entries (Alice Coltrane and one or two others) – they seem like mere placeholders. Apparently, for example, the listmakers were not familiar with the brilliant pianist Geri Allen, who passed away this year after making numerous recordings with many of the great jazz masters of the last 30 years. What's the point of throwing in a few classical, experimental, jazz or crossover artists without really exploring these areas? And by what criteria do you select these artists or albums while not recognizing someone like Blossom Dearie, also unique but not given to the vocal experiments of of Ono, Galas or Monk?

 

89 (Shania Twain, Come On Over)  99 (Taylor Swift, Fearless), 114 (Reba McEntyre, Rumor Has It)

What distinguishes the albums by any of these latter day country superstars from their superstar peers like Faith Hill, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood or several others? I can see the temptation to include older, known entities like Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, who have a sort of legendary status, whether or not they made any albums I'd call "great". I can understand the impulse to recognize slightly off-the-beaten-path artists like Iris Dement, Rosanne Cash, Miranda Lambert and the Dixie Chicks, all of whom challenge Nashville norms in one way or another and have made some great music doing it. But I do not see the point of including several mainstream, formulaic, slickly produced country albums, even if some of them write their own songs, when nothing makes their music stand out from the tidal wave of Nashville slush. Yes, Twain supposedly broke some rules, edging very close to rock at times while also playing to a Nashville audience, but I'm not sure what is so exciting about someone figuring out that you could sell even more records by appealing to both Nashville and rock mainstream audiences. (And that someone was mostly her husband, Mutt Lange.) In any case that idea was not new, since Graham Parsons, Linda Ronstadt, Dwight Yoakum and many others had already figured it out; what was new was that the over-the-top production job that added layers of studio complexity to the standard Nashville sound. (This is how a Canadian ended up as the all time best-selling artist, by some measures, of music typically made below the Mason-Dixon line.) Why this is a significant contribution to music "made by women" eludes me – the listmakers seem to be so dazzled by the gold dripping from some recordings that they just can't ignore them.

As for Taylor Swift, she is a prolific songwriter, but has not an ounce of the depth that the similarly prolific Mary Chapin Carpenter has in that regard, and is no great shakes as a singer either. Once again, record album sales seem to speak louder than musical accomplishments in this list. There's no question that Reba McEntyre can sing, but Carrie Underwood is also an extraordinary singer, who began (unlike McEntyre) co-writing her material after her first album, not to mention exhibiting more of an active engagement with social causes than the typical female country singer.

I have questions about the selection of albums even for country artists I admire. Lucinda Williams' 18. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is accorded a dizzying degree of respect in the top 20; but it tries a little too hard, for my taste – her first album is better, though I doubt it belongs anywhere near #18 either. Rosanne Cash's 68.King's Record Shop is a good album with a lot of hit songs, but not especially pathbreaking; starting with Interiors she set out on a less commercial path, retreating from the Country Hot 100, and it might have been better to recognize those efforts instead. I don't know who thinks Iris Dement's second album, My Life, is better than her inspired debut, Infamous Angel, but apparently such opinions are represented in NPR's committee.

To me, all this adds up to questionable judgment in the country department. We can consult Billboard or Wikipedia if we want to know who sold the most albums or which album got the most rave reviews; the only reason to do a list like this is to present the verdicts of taste, independent of album sales.

***



97 (Mariah Carey, Daydream)

I will not stand on a soapbox and insist that no Mariah Carey album should be on the list, but it is my duty to report that "One Sweet Day", the zillion-selling single from Daydream, is a syrupy, sentimental, bottom-feeding piece of trash. Other songs on the album are considerably better, but it is also worth pointing out that Carey's endless melismas sometimes hide an underlying lack of inherent melodic interest. This reminds me to ask again, where's Mariah's melismatic sidekick Christina Aguilera? Selling over 100 million albums and winning six Grammys is not enough to get her a spot in the parade of superstars? This is the sort of thing that puts the whole list in question, as it seems like purely arbitrary decisions were made about what's in and what's out.


*****
 
So, that's it for my comments on the choices for the list. I have no regrets about devoting the time and energy to this, but I have also become more convinced than ever that there are few artists and perhaps fewer albums that deserve the label "great". Kate Bush is a great artist, but if Hounds of Love is her best album – and I've listened to most of her others more than once as well – she may not have made any great ones, on my definition. A great album doesn't have one or two hits and a bunch of okay material to fill out the record; it is an album where nearly all the songs are at such a high level that the hits do not stand out as exceptions. A great album may have one or two songs that don't generate much enthusiasm, without being completely lost causes; or it may have a song that is a sort of throwaway but a very amusing or entertaining one. Other than that, it has to grab you, song after song, right to the end.

Most great bands don't make many great albums. The Rolling Stones have made 26 studio albums by my count; other than singles collections I'd call only one or two great albums. I may enjoy listening to half a dozen of them, but they're not "great", they just have enough great material to warrant hearing them again. Great albums are not defined by having multiple hits – that may in fact signify an album that is reaching for commercial play at the expense of artistry. Queen had just one hit song on Sheer Heart Attack, "Killer Queen", but every song is exceptional; that makes a great album. 10cc's The Original Soundtrack sports the ever popular "I'm Not in Love"; it may be the least memorable song on the record. King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King has no hits, but is a seamless, genre-defining brilliant album. Steely Dan was not much of a hit generator, but by my lights made one great album after another. The artists and bands who by general agreement created more than one or two great albums are few and far between: you might get consensus on The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Elton John – after that (and possibly before), tastes will diverge. I would gladly put Siouxsee and the Banshees as well as Suzanne Vega on that list. But due to the sheer quantity of male recording artists and male-dominated groups, there are a lot more great albums by males than females.

I have a lot more questions about the list than I've had time to raise in the reviews above. Like, whether there should be two Madonna albums on such a list; or, for that matter, why the two Like a... albums and not her first album, which had a generally better critical reception, or her much more courageous and artistic Ray of Light, which eschews the predictable hooks and sexual innuendo in favor of a spiritual journey? Or whether Sleater-Kinney isn't way more important to women in music than their #81 slot suggests? Or whether Robyn's #143 electro-dance-pop Body Talk is more than a curiosity with it's cute-catchy "Fembot" and a lot of sterile discotheque material. Or whether Joanna Newsom's squeaky voice and monotonous melodic lines on #141 Ys have even less to recommend them than the bloodless vocals of Lana Del Rey, whose Born to Die was unaccountably overlooked for the Top Contemporary Female Folk-Pop spot. Or whether Kelly Clarkson's Breakaway isn't so much better than Taylor Swift's #99 Fearless; not that it would be amiss to reserve a spot or two for Certified Pop Child Prodigy, though Swift would have quite a bit of child-superstar competition these days. Etc.

But I don't have the patience to argue for each of these claims; besides, they're either as obvious to you as they are to me, or you probably won't listen to my heartfelt arguments anyway.

Please stay tuned for my next and last post on this topic, in which I offer a list of overlooked artists and albums, serious consideration of which might force a radical revision of the NPR list.