NPR “Turning the Tables” List – A Conversation, Part Seven: Pop Goes the Country Universe (MIA & WTF)

Part Seven: MIA & WTF

We wrap up our deep-dive into NPR’s list of the 150 greatest albums by women with a look at some artists who are missing from the list and a few puzzling inclusions.

The Missing:

Jonathan: With only 150 total spots, it was inevitable that some great artists and albums would be left out. Some of those omissions are more surprising than others.

Jonathan: Overall, I think the list did a fantastic job of representing the work of women of color; they even included albums by Ofra Haza, Miriam Makeba, and Buffy Sainte-Marie! Two R&B artists I was surprised not to see on the list, though, were Candi Staton and Betty Davis. Candi Staton from 1972 includes her definitive reading of “In the Ghetto” and several other choice covers and is among the best R&B records of its era. Betty Davis’ genre-defying They Say I’m Different is a direct forebear of contemporary albums by Beyonce and Janelle Monae; it still sounds ahead-of-its-time more than 40 years later.

Kevin: NPR also deserves credit for including Donna Summer, as her merging of her gospel roots with disco sounds gave her an artistic edge that her contemporaries lacked. They included a Chaka Khan solo album from 1984, but overlooked Ask Rufus, a landmark album from her days fronting Rufus. Diana Ross was also overlooked for her solo work. Either 1970’s Diana Ross or 1980’s Diana would’ve been fitting choices. Also, no Dionne Warwick! 1967’s The Windows of the World or 1970’s I’ll Never Fall in Love Again are both stellar.

 

Jonathan: The women of the Lilith Fair era were well represented on the list, as well, which makes it all the more shocking that the groundbreaking festival’s founder, Sarah McLachlan, didn’t make the cut. Her finest album, Fumbling Toward Ecstasy, helped women bridge the gap between harder-edged alternative rock and more accessible mainstream pop. She moved in a more banal adult contemporary direction on subsequent albums and, today, might be better-known for her unbearable ASPCA ads, but McLachlan is a true trailblazer. Several of her Lilith Fair cohorts are also missing from the list: Joan Osborne’s Relish (and folks should check out her country-twinged Pretty Little Stranger album from a few years back, too), Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily (or 10,000 Maniacs’ In My Tribe), and Aimee Mann’s I’m With Stupid are all great albums that made the 90s such a rich time for women in music.

Kevin: I’d also add into consideration Paula Cole’s This Fire. The nineties were definitely the peak of female representation in traditionally male-dominated genres like alternative rock, folk, and country. You could make up an entire list of 150 albums just from that decade because of it. Meshell Ndegeocello’s Plantation Lullabies and The Bitter would also be great additions from this time period. Amy Grant is also missing from the list, and either of her two best nineties albums – Heart in Motion or Behind the Eyes – are worthy of inclusion.

Jonathan: The NPR list includes plenty of pop albums– we’ll talk about a couple of them below, too– but there are two that I would have included in lieu of some others. Nelly Furtado is one of the most creative pop acts of her generation, and her sophomore album, Folklore, included a wide range of influences that should have built upon the success of her Grammy-winning deubt, Whoa, Nelly. No Doubt deservedly made the top 150, so I also would have liked to see garbage included. Their self-titled debut is a great album, but Version 2.0 was even better, marrying the angsty POV of the 90s to some killer pop hooks.

Kevin: Since they loved including co-ed bands so much, I’d have made room for Roxette’s Joyride, as good a pop album as we got in the early nineties. P!nk is another baffling exclusion. A case could be made for M!ssundaztood, I’m Not Dead, or Funhouse. Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, Fergie’s The Dutchess, Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway, and Gwen Stefani’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby were all successful, well-crafted 21st century pop albums. And while I’m not particularly a fan, it’s hard to tell the story of 21st century pop without including Lady GaGa’s The Fame or The Fame Monster.

 

The Say-What-Now:
In terms of quality control, the NPR list is pretty terrific from top-to-bottom, even if some of the choices of albums for individual artists were sometimes questionable. But there are a couple of absolute misses…

Jonathan: I’m all for the Poptimist perspective that “pop” music is every bit as deserving of the serious consideration typically afforded to other musical genres. But, sometimes, that view gets taken to extreme places where there’s an impulse to defend things simply because they’re popular. Case in point: Britney Spears’ … Baby One More Time has no business whatsoever being included on a list of the greatest albums by women. Hell, even if you’re willing to argue that Spears belongs on the list, even her most die-hard supporters would argue that her debut is far and away her weakest. The title track is a triumph of production, sure, but the album itself is a perfect example of why so many people are quick to dismiss pop music. If Spears needed to be included, which is debatable, Blackout is probably her best album.

Kevin: It’s like they wanted to include every big selling female album or something, because there is no other justification for this album being on the list. A better example of pop album by committee was Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl, which still holds up today. I wouldn’t complain about finding room for Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die or Kylie Minogue’s Fever, either. And what about Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint and Rihanna’s ANTI? There are powerful voices for the black woman’s point of view beyond Beyonce.
Jonathan: And then there’s Spice Girls’ Spice. I mean, on one hand, Spice was the best of their three albums. But there’s no way on God’s green Earth that it’s one of the 150 greatest album by women. Its singles weren’t even on par with “… Baby One More Time,” and the album offered very little beyond its empty “Girl Power!” posturing.

Kevin: The Spice Girls were a great idea that their music never quite caught up to. NPR had the good taste to include Bangles and TLC among the obvious (Supremes, Go-Gos, Runaways, Dixie Chicks) and dubious (Spice Girls, Shangri-Las) choices. But if they were hungry for one more nineties girl group, they should’ve chosen En Vogue’s Funky Divas.

 

4 Comments

  1. While I don’t have that Sarah McLachlan one (though perhaps I should rectify that…), I was a little baffled as to why she was overlooked while some of her Lilith Fair peers — Sheryl Crow, Fiona Apple, Liz Phair, the Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman — were recognized. No 10,000 Maniacs or solo Natalie Merchant was kinda puzzling, too, as was no Aimee Mann (though in her case, I might have picked 2000’s ‘Bachelor No. 2’).

    Agreed on Joan Osborne’s ‘Relish,’ of course — still one of my all-time faves. :) I also considered Paula Cole’s ‘This Fire’ (which I do own on CD); she might have seemed redundant alongside similar artists like Apple and Tori Amos, but some of those songs are still pretty uncomfortable for me to listen to for their sheer raw emotion.

    And big YES to En Vogue over the Spice Girls! I hated with Spices with a passion back in the day and they still haven’t grown on me, while EV’s harmonies on tracks like “Hold On,” “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It),” “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” “Free Your Mind,” and even the chorus of Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s “Whatta Man” have rarely (if ever) failed to make me smile.

    As for any other possible omissions, Kirsty MacColl is one of my absolute favorites, but I’m not sure I could single out an album that would best represent her. I also considered Shawn Colvin’s ‘A Few Small Repairs,’ and possibly Suzanne Vega’s s/t debut.

    Overall, this has been a really fascinating series. Great work, fellas!

  2. I do agree Sarah McLachlan should of made the list. Sarah is one of the best female artists ever. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is one of the greatest female albums of the 90’s. I would also include her Surfacing album. It’s fantastic as well. Joan Osborne is one of the most underrated female artists ever. Relish is one of the most overlooked female albums ever. Everyone quickly dismissed Joan over One Of Us, but Relish is a awesome album. Natalie Merchant’s work doesn’t get enough credit it deserve. Tigerlily is a great album. Aimee Mann’s I’m With Stupid is splendid. Her work with ‘Til Tuesday is also good as well. Nelly Furtado never gets the full credit she deserves as a artist. A lot of people dismissed Nelly as a another pop star. Whoa, Nelly!, Folklore, and Loose are amazing pop albums. Pink’s M!ssundaztood, I’m Not Dead, or Funhouse should of made the list. Pink is one of the best pop stars of the last decade. I’m super shock Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway didn’t make the list. You’ll think with Kelly’s popularity of the last decade, she would make it, but they were crazy for not including Breakaway. Breakaway is one of the greatest pop albums of the 00’s. I do agree that Paula Abdul and Kylie Minogue should of made the list. Paula’s Forever Your Girl is a good pop album to jam out to and Kylie has put out amazing pop music in the last 2 decades. I agree 100% that En Vogue should of been on the list. I always been in the minority that thought En Vogue was better than TLC (BTW, I love TLC). Funky Divas is one of my personal favorite female albums of all time. My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It) is my jam. Now, this is the part that I have to disagree with you guys on. Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, Fergie’s The Dutchness, Gwen Stefani’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby (I love No Doubt, but I never cared for Gwen’s solo work outside a few songs), Rihanna’s ANTI, or Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint shouldn’t made the list. I feel those albums are too inconsistent and personally feel they’re vastly overrated. I couldn’t listen to none of them straight through. I’ll admit Britney Spears and Spice Girls are guilty pleasures of mine. While Britney Spears and the Spice Girls are easy target to hate (and I don’t blame you), I do feel both deserve a place on the list. IMO, Spice deserve to make the list. Spice capture the Spice Girls’ personality and charm (too bad they couldn’t keep it up after Spice). Britney Spears’ … Baby One More Time was decent, but the best (and her only great) album of her career is Oops! I Did Again. It’s capture Britney at her best. It have the best songs in her career with Stronger, Lucky, and Don’t Let Me Be The Last One To Know (fun fact, the song was written by Shania Twain. The song is proof of Shania amazing, distinctive songwriting). You can make arguments for Lady Gaga’s Fame or Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die albums. I feel they’re decent albums, but not top 150 worthy IMO. Sorry for the long post, I just had a lot to say. I love this series so much!

  3. YEAH for the Fumbling Towards Ecstasy mention!! I love Folklore, too.

    I agree Baby One More Time’s inclusion is laughable. I also think Spice is a poor album, BUT I do think the p-funk of “Say You’ll Be There” ranks with some of the great pop singles of the 90s.

  4. I love Aimee Mann’s I’m With Stupid. One of my favorite albums of the 90s for sure. As for Natalie Merchant, I actually prefer Ophelia over Tigerlily (but both are great albums). I also agree that Amy Grant’s Heart In Motion should’ve been included.

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