The 200 Greatest Songs By 21st Century Women+
This list is part of Turning the Tables, an ongoing project from NPR Music dedicated to recasting the popular music canon in more inclusive – and accurate – ways. This year, our list, selected by a panel of more than 70 women and non-binary writers, tackles history in the making, celebrating artists whose work is changing this century's sense of what popular music can be. The songs are by artists whose major musical contributions came on or after Jan. 1, 2000, and have shifted attitudes, defied categories and pushed sound in new directions since then.
Our list includes songs performed by women and non-binary artists. The use of the term "Women+" is part of our engagement in a movement to recognize a wide spectrum of gender identities coming to greater light in the 21st century.
"Alaska" was released in October 2016 by the then-22-year-old singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Maggie Rogers. Her stunning, lush vocals paint a picture of her hiking trip through Alaska, which was the impetus for the song. She showcases self-empowerment with the lyrics, "Cut my hair so I could rock back and forth / without thinking of you / learned to talk and say / whatever I wanted to." The nod of approval and a few tears from Pharrell Williams didn't hurt, either. —Maggie Brennan (WCBE)
Already a phenomenon in Chile, Ana Tijoux got the attention of the world at large with her 2010 album 1977. Its title track is a revealing autobiography and her raw, evocative lyrics pair powerfully with explosive jazz and Spanish guitar-infused hip hop. Her unique rhythmic narrative that bends genres and blurs borders is one that you don't need to speak a lick of Spanish to appreciate. —Lauren Bentley (WXXI)
In her early work, SOPHIE shirked the expectation that women (especially trans women) use lyrics as a vehicle for self-exposition. Like her breakthrough single "Bipp," "Lemonade" told its story primarily through texture: the ASMR pop of synthesized bubbles; the wobble of detuned bass; the high, serrated whine of a treble patch; the laminated edge of a pitch-shifted voice. "I'll get that thirsty feeling/And I want lemonade," goes the quasi-surrealist chorus, refusing to make logical sense but reeling with the thrill of pop abandon. —Sasha Geffen
The Bay Area black metal collective's 2010 swan song The Tenant cemented its position as one of the most unique and vital bands in American metal — and then somberly laid the band to rest. Ludicrawas never a "typical" black metal band; it chose to look beyond the genre's typical fixations on frozen mountains and Satanic pageantry towards the more human evils of gentrification, poverty, addiction and urban decay, and illustrated said horrors in a compelling, prog-tinted greyscale. "Clean White Void," with its furious dueling guitars, serpentine melody and serrated howls from vocalists Laurie Sue Shanaman and Christy Cather, is a standout track on an album that punched far above its weight, far ahead of its time. —Kim Kelly
American lore holds that young people decamp to LA from so-called flyover country to lead more interesting lives, but Erika M. Anderson inverts that legend on 2011's "California." "Fuck California, you made me boring," the South Dakota native intones amid explosions of percussion straight out of minimalist hip-hop. Anderson shrugs off free love, borrows Joni Mitchell's inflection of "California" just to disavow it and singles out friends she left behind in the Midwest for apologies; a line about being "small-town and gay" could make you sob. The most arresting moment on her solo debut, the single heralded the arrival of a noise-folk experimentalist whose iconoclastic intelligence is matched only by her empathetic heart. —Judy Berman
Noura Mint Seymali is forging the future of African music. Born into a famous line of Mauritanian praise singers, Seymali is a composer, vocalist and ardin (stringed lute) player who has lived and breathed Moorish griot music since childhood. "Ghlana" is Seymali's current master study in fusion, found on her album Arbina. Staying close to her traditional roots, Seymali explores East and West, old and new on this track: employing grainy, groovy electric guitar (played by husband and collaborator Jeiche Ould Chighaly), audience call-and-response, rock drum beats and reverent, resonant vocals that share real life stories. —Michele Myers (KEXP)
2001 was a great year for pop music, especially the pop collaboration. Jennifer Lopez and Ja Rule gave us the "I'm Real (Remix)," and "Lady Marmalade" received an epic reimagining from Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Pink, Mya (and Missy Elliot) on the Moulin Rouge soundtrack. But above it all, The Ruff Ryders' first lady and Rolling Stone's newly-minted "Queen of Confessional Pop" held court with the release of "Let Me Blow Ya Mind," the deftly cool, swagged-out single from Eve's sophomore album, Scorpion. An instant classic, the track peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned the pair the inaugural Grammy Award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. Almost 20 years later, the collaboration can still blow ya mind. —Desiré Moses
Has a breakup ever been as amiable as it sounds in "The Wire"? The standout from HAIM's full-length debut, Days Are Gone, reflects on a relationship at its end, when you've given it a try but something's still off and it's clear where it counts. The intricacies of what has transpired are retold with ambiguity – after all, it's tough to articulate what's wrong when things aren't all that bad. And yet "The Wire" still moves with casual, conversational ease. From its rock-radio opening riff to its crisp, clap-along percussion and a chorus that's fit for a stadium, never has an "it's not you, it's me" speech sounded so sweet. — Lyndsey McKenna
In Spanish, the word fea translates to "ugly girl." It became the perfect name for the San Antonio-based Chicana punk band to make its own. In "Mujer Moderna" ("Modern Woman") Fea masters the riot grrrl sound and message. The band members speak out against rape culture and machismo in both English and Spanish, all over an audio assault that would make Chicana punk legend Alice Bag proud. Oh, and the band has also made "fea" an acronym for "f*** 'em all," reinforcing its Chicana punk message. —Bruce Trujillo (Colorado Public Radio's OpenAir)
Although The Moldy Peaches' "Anyone Else But You" was originally released in 2001, it hit mainstream popularity in 2007 when it was featured in the cult-classic movie Juno. When hearing this soft melody you can't help but get the warm fuzzy feelings like that of a first-time love, when you — as the song suggests — can't see anyone else but the one you love. The song is sung as a delicate duet, making you feel like you are hearing a love story from both perspectives. —Lisa Famiglietti (WXXI)
Caroline Shaw didn't need to write vocal arrangements for a remix of Kanye West's "Say You Will" to earn her street cred. She'd already won the Pulitzer Prize for music, becoming, at 30, the youngest composer in history to do so. Her "Partita for 8 Voices" was recognized as a fresh twist on Baroque musical forms, energized by spoken word, vocal effects and dense harmonies. It's a mouthful, even for the boisterous a cappella group Roomful of Teeth of which Shaw is a member. —Lara Pellegrinelli
As a coping mechanism, some of us try to forget our bodies. "Two Weeks" is a reminder of the body's potential, and not just because the song is about sexual confidence. FKA Twigsknows exactly what she's doing to your torso with each rhythmic choice. The best example comes around 3:05, when she chooses the upbeat on her way out of the bridge with the simple, seductive line, "I'll put you first." Nothing else sounds like her, but find her influence – industrial beats that hold space for softness, disregard for typical structure – in many corners of pop: Recent Rihanna, NAOand Vince Staples all come to mind. —Jenny Gathright
In the shadow of 9/11, American masculinity was in crisis and the music industry seemed keen to cash in on the resulting anxiety by assembling legions of male rap-rock malcontents. Meanwhile, singer-songwriter Amy Lee's sketches of gothic metal with classical foundations became Evanescence's 2003 debut, Fallen. But while shopping the band around for radio play, Wind-up Records head Ed Vetri was allegedly told radio stations wouldn't play "a chick and a piano." So Evanescence reluctantly agreed to add male rap vocals to its lead single, "Bring Me To Life." Paul McCoy, frontman of 12 Stones, came in to insulate chauvinistic rock listeners from Lee's operatic subjectivity. The song would peak at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earn a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance in 2003 – yet its resulting acclaim was a double-edged sword for Lee. "I've never tried to abandon my femininity with the band," she said in a 2013 interview. "I think it's very aggressive. I embrace that femininity. But I remember having many talks with the suits about that being a negative thing." Lee would later ditch the rap and assert her own vision of the song on the 2017 album Synthesis. —Suzy Exposito
"Coffee," from Sylvan Esso's 2014 self-titled debut, plays like a warm and hazy memory. There is a muted sense of nostalgia when Amelia Meath sweetly sings about her lover doing the "hanky panky" (a nod to Tommy James and the Shondells). The sparse instrumentation on the song allows you to hone in on shakers and twinkling keyboards while gentle electronic waves ripple beneath. —Alisa Ali (WFUV)
Matana Roberts is a jazz saxophonist whose dynamic projects encompass spoken word, sound art, video and visual art terrain. But let's simply think of her as a storyteller. "All is Written" opens the third album in her monumental COIN COIN series, projected to be a 12-part epic when completed. Searing horn parts, family remembrances, historic documents and venerable song forms are quilted together in a powerful new vision of an African American past. —Lara Pellegrinelli
Follow "River" and get cleansed inside this gorgeous soundscape of French Afro-Cuban dream music! On the surface, it's a song about absolution with an entrancing melody and hypnotic chorus. With the addition of Cuban beats and Yoruba singing in the intro and the outro, "River" is also the perfect introduction to the band itself. Naomi Diaz plays the cajón and Batá drum, Lisa-Kaindé Diaz plays the keys, and both sing vocals in English, French and Yoruba, making them stand-out originals. The first single from the band's self-titled album floated Ibeyito the airwaves, where the duo thrives from firmly planted roots. —Sheli DeLaney (KTOO)
It's perhaps poetic justice that Pink's Disney-verified, early-2000s rivals were ineligible for this list. Not Lolita-esque à la Britney("Tired of being compared to damn Britney Spears/She's so pretty, that just ain't me," Pink sings "Don't Let Me Get Me"), not, um, dirrtyà la Christina, Pink's package was less about sex appeal and more about a heart-on-her-sleeve tenacity that still positions her as the relatable underdog. Today, she fills stadiums with almost two decades of hits — from the raunchy to the angry to the anthemic — and death-defying acrobatics. "Don't Let Me Get Me" gave us Pink as a rebel girl for a new millennium of pop music. —Cyrena Touros
Young M.A. chooses her words wisely. The gooey, six-vowelled hook of her self-released superhit, "OOOUUU," mimes the sound of the Brooklyn rapper's typical reception (surprise, intrigue) as much as it does her own cheeky glee. It's only part of the cunning of the track itself: a numbingly cold, New York-does-Atlanta banger about family, self-assurance, sex with women — ideas completely par for the course when it comes to most late 2010s rap chart-breakers. But its tricky beauty is largely in the double-take these themes can prompt in light of M.A.'s identity, and the track's near-seamless integration into the modern mainstream. In taking trap's parlance and fitting it directly onto her image, M.A – by her own intent – suddenly made being an openly out woman in hip-hop almost a point of indifference. —Mina Tavakoli
"Put Your Records On," from English singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae's self-titled debut studio album, was one of the greatest summer songs of 2006. The song's opening is reminiscent of Bob Marley's "3 Little Birds" and the mentality that "everything gonna be alright!" The song has a cool groove that moves you to be who you are and embrace your inner beauty. It's a lift-me-up kind of song that reminds us that nobody's perfect — but that if we keep trying to do what we believe in, we'll find our own way. —Maggie Brennan (WCBE)
Jenny Lewis confronts societal expectations of women with wit and wisdom in the aptly titled "Just One of the Guys." The influential musician, who co-founded Rilo Kiley in 1998, spent much of her career holding her own in a field dominated by men. After years of touring as the only woman in her band, Lewis branched out to find her voice as a solo artist, and proved that she could be just as successful on her own terms. In her three solo albums, you can hear the profound strength of a woman who is able to call the shots. We need more anthems like "Just One Of The Guys" from fearless, genuine talents like Lewis to remind us that even though the world seems hostile, it's important to be who you want to be (rainbow suit optional). —Alisha Sweeney (Colorado Public Radio's OpenAir)
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