Part Six: Pop Goes the Country Universe, #1-#150
Today, we begin our conversation about the non-country elements of the NPR list. This post discusses artists who are on the list with curious albums to represent their work. Next, we’ll do a full post on the albums chosen from the extensive catalog of Madonna, and finally, a post of artists not included (MIA) and strangely included (WTF?).
As always, share your thoughts in the comments!
14. Whitney Houston, Whitney Houston
From sweet flirtation to full-throated proclamation, Whitney Houston‘s vocal range remains fresh and vibrant some three decades after this album was released. There are just 10 songs on this debut album by a daughter of soul royalty (her mother is Cissy Houston; her cousin, Dionne Warwick and her godmother, Aretha Franklin). But it’s chock full of Whitney classics, including the lovelorn ballad “All At Once” and the breezy “Saving All My Love for You.” —Nina Gregory (NPR Staff)
Kevin: Among the unfortunate trends of this list is its overemphasis on debut albums, celebrating female artists at the point of their careers where their experience and creative control were both limited. Sometimes an artist really does peak the first time out, but more often, they truly express themselves artistically once they have enough credibility to make music on their own terms. Whitney Houston is an album made by committee, and it sounds like it. Houston’s vocals are, of course, beyond reproach. But she was always more of an urban artist than her label allowed her to be. The best showcases of her talent are the 1990 release I’m Your Baby Tonight, which was followed up eight years later with the best album of career: My Love is Your Love.
Jonathan: Some of Houston’s phrasing choices on Whitney Houston nod toward jazz improvisation in ways that are more interesting and thoughtful than the glorynote belting that characterized so much of her subsequent work. In terms of just her singing, I think her debut remains her best album, though I agree that My Love Is Your Love is her best overall album: It’s the album on which the songwriting and production felt the most authentic to the artist Houston aspired to be.
25. Ani DiFranco, Little Plastic Castle
Lyrically, the songwriting is not necessarily as challenging or refined as her previous work. But DiFranco’s words resonated with her audience, which expanded considerably following this release…The album’s lyrics dealt with infidelity, relationships across the gender spectrum and fighting for respect. And although some misunderstood her outspokenness for anger, many found her music completely cathartic, seeing themselves reflected in her pain and struggle. —Cindy Howes
Jonathan: DiFranco was a pioneer for DIY, truly independent artists in the 90s, and she’s hands-down the most potent folk artist of her era. It always surprises me how little of her influence I hear in contemporary artists. While Little Plastic Castle was her most commercially successful album, it isn’t a patch on either Not A Pretty Girl or especially Dilate, which found DiFranco at the peak of her craft. She did outrage, introspection, and generation-defining angst better than just about anyone.
Kevin: Even NPR seems to hedge on their own pick here, and with good reason. As Jonathan articulates so well, the commercial peak and creative peak were not the same for DiFranco. I echo his selections, and agree that Dilate was a definitive high point.
27. Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes
Little Earthquakes was so earth-shattering upon its release that it almost immediately became a standard influence for idiosyncratic singer/songwriters — annoyingly, any woman playing a piano was hereby compared to Amos following the release. Little Earthquakes is rife with evidence that Amos was and is a bold musician, but that’s nowhere clearer than on “Me and a Gun.” The song is based on her own account of sexual assault and started a movement, as well as her assault and rape crisis hotline RAINN that encouraged victims of violence against women to speak out. Through Little Earthquakes Tori exuded sexual empowerment that was not for anyone else but her, which, in turn, transformed her into an icon. —Cindy Howes
Jonathan: I don’t have any reservations about the inclusion of Tori Amos’ astonishing debut, Little Earthquakes, on the NPR list or about its lofty placement. Both of those are richly deserved. If anything, the issue is that it’s the only one of her albums to make the list, when each of her first four albums– a run that includes Under the Pink, the dense and tricky Boys for Pele, and the nervy from the choirgirl hotel— belongs in a discussion of the best albums by women. And the same can be said for the fact that both Bjork and PJ Harvey were each included only once.
Kevin: My heart will always be with Little Earthquakes, one of those debut albums that was as much a revelation as it was an introduction. But the string of albums that followed delivered on the promise of that introduction and then some.
94. Sheryl Crow, Tuesday Night Music Club
While “All I Wanna Do” is so pop-tastically infectious that it easily could have thrown Crow into the “one-hit-wonder” category, songs like “Strong Enough,” “No One Said It Would Be Easy” and “Run, Baby, Run” proved that a multi-faceted musician had arrived. It also earned Crow a rightful place in the public consciousness as a soulful singer and lyricist possessing a true gift for knowing which phrases to lean on, and a musician not afraid to get some new mileage out of some familiar country instruments (pedal steel and accordion, to name two). But it’s the variety of textures, sounds and ideas you’ll find in Tuesday Night Music Club that showed the music industry that women didn’t have to be pigeonholed into any one category or genre. —Elena See (Folk Alley/MPR)
Kevin: Completely baffling choice. Both vocally and lyrically, Tuesday Night Music Club showcases Crow’s talents at their least developed. She followed up this album with two near-perfect collections – Sheryl Crow and The Globe Sessions. I’d pick Sheryl Crow as the stronger of the two, but both albums tower over the rest of Crow’s work, including her camparatively tepid debut.
Jonathan: Co-sign. This is an egregious choice for Crow. Her self-titled album is start-to-finish extraordinary– and it’s a better country album than her “country” album, for what it’s worth– and truly cemented her legacy. That it also served as a blistering reply to the men of the Tuesday Night Music Club who wanted to take some of the credit for her breakthrough would have made it a more pointed choice, too, for a list that’s meant to celebrate the achievements of women.
101. Eurythmics, Touch
Her rich contralto teeters a line of theatrics and overdramatics that creates a cohesion to Touch that would otherwise go unrealized. In “Right by Your Side,” she levitates in love, only to tear herself down with a cringe-worthy moment of clarity: “When depression starts to win / I need to be right by your side.” Even steel pans and joyous synthesizers can’t distract from harsh reality — and there is a particular loneliness to this album, particularly on “Who’s That Girl?” which allows narrative longing and minimal production to cut to the core. Sadness never sounded so cool. —Maria Sherman
Kevin: The contrast between the soulful vocals of Annie Lennox and the cold electronic sound of Eurythmics made for some great records, Touch included. But Annie Lennox should’ve been represented here by her solo work, particularly the landmark Diva album from 1992. “Why” they overlooked that set is a mystery to me.
Jonathan: I think I’d split the difference here and have included both of the albums you’ve mentioned. Diva is a significant album and a surprising omission to be sure, but I don’t know that I could say that it’s definitively the better album.
139. Bangles, All Over the Place
On the infectiously catchy album, Susanna Hoffs, Vicki and Debbie Peterson and Michael Steele flexed their chops, sharing Beatles-worthy vocal harmonies and wielding jangly guitars like The Byrds. Like too many pop bands of the time, The Bangles became known more for videos with pretty faces and big hair than the true Girl Power they brought to us all. Yet to allow The Bangles’ success to overshadow the group’s credibility and importance would be a shame. —Rita Houston (WFUV)
Jonathan: I love The Bangles the way you love Olivia Newton John: I have all of their albums, including their solo work and side projects. I love that they’re pop classicists and how, even at their most studio-slick, those instincts shine through. Song-for-song, All Over the Place is their strongest album, even though I also love the non-“Walk Like An Egyptian” tracks of Different Light just as much.
Kevin: And I would recommend that after enjoying All Over the Place and Different Light, to dive into Everything. I think that their finest moment on record was the stopgap between their two big hit albums, “Hazy Shade of Winter,” and I would absolutely be comfortable including all three core Bangles albums on any definitive list of albums by women. The Go-Gos got all the love, but the Bangles were the most consistently excellent women’s band that side of the Dixie Chicks.