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DJ Jen Hughes: 25 Essential Albums by Female Artists from Rock’s First Half-Century

Jen Hughes of Hot Roxx, the Twin Cities’ premier ’70s-focused DJ night, is a veritable ENCYCLOPEDIA when it comes to music (not to mention a nationally recognized stylist and educator ), and we’re so glad she’s signed on to spin amazing music by women between sets at our Live Tribute to Women in Rock kickoff.

Jen put together an epic list of must-listen records, all by talented female artists. Fire up your turntables (or at least your internet browser) for some of the best records of rock ‘n’ roll’s first 50 years!

Kitty Wells – “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” 45rpm – 1952

This song marked the first time a woman solo artist had a #1 country hit, and its success also made Kitty country’s first major female star, blazing the trail for the genre’s biggest female stars such as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Tammy Wynette. It was the first popular song to offer a female perspective and defy the stereotype of a woman remaining passive and tolerant of her man’s cheating ways—a stance so shocking for the times it was banned from the Grand Ole Opry.

Wanda Jackson – Wanda Jackson – 1958

Wanda’s first record is indicative of her versatility as an artist. She recorded both country and rockabilly songs, and the latter earned her the moniker “Queen of Rockabilly.” It would take two years from the album’s release for her raucous version of “Let’s Have a Party” to become a top 40 hit. The song was recorded in 1957 by her tour mate and brief romantic interest Elvis Presley. Like Presley, Jackson was a huge influence on the early rock and roll sound.

The Ronettes – Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica – 1964

With Phil Spector’s famous “wall of sound” production behind them, the Ronettes had the most groundbreaking sound of all the girl groups. Their oft-imitated thick black eyeliner and sky-high beehives also gave them the genre’s most enduring image. The group’s only full-length LP contains the epic “Be My Baby,” as well as “Walking in the Rain” and “Baby, I Love You.”

The Shangri-Las – Leader of the Pack – 1965

A big influence on numerous 70s punk bands and female artists, these bad girls from the ’60s girl group scene crooned about teen angst, runaway romance, and a boyfriend’s fatal motorcycle crash – their biggest hit being the title track of this album. Wholesome by today’s standards, their lyrics were deemed so depraved in their day that they were yanked from tour bills and banned from the radio.

Aretha Franklin – I Never Loved a Man the Way That I Love You – 1967

This album has so many of Franklin’s signature songs, its track list reads like a greatest hits album. Her version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” took on different meaning coming from a female perspective and became an anthem for the feminist movement. This album is almost devoid of filler, but especially strong tunes include the title track, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” and “Save Me.”

Nico – Chelsea Girl – 1967

The record takes its name from the Andy Warhol film in which Nico starred. Previous bandmates The Velvet Underground contributed songs and instrumentation on the album, which incidentally contains no bass or drums. The result backs Nico’s haunting vocals with a more folky Baroque pop sound. Nico’s then-boyfriend Jackson Browne also played on the album and contributed two of its finest and most famous songs (thanks to Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack) “These Days” and “Fairest of the Seasons.”

Dusty Springfield – Dusty in Memphis – 1969

In an effort to reignite her career, British pop star Dusty Springfield went to Tennessee, channeled her hero Aretha Franklin, and set out to make an exclusively R&B record. Although boasting the hit “Son of a Preacher Man,” the album was not initially a commercial success, but garnered more acclaim over the years and is today highly recognized as one of the greatest soul records of all time. Aside from the album’s hit, stand-out tracks are “Just a Little Lovin’,” “Breakfast in Bed,” and “Don’t Forget About Me.”

Dolly Parton – Coat of Many Colors – 1971

This was Dolly’s first accomplished record as a solo artist after parting ways with her mentor and singing partner Porter Wagoner (although he contributes 3 songs to the record.) The record firmly establishes Dolly as one of the great songwriters with tracks like “My Blue Tears,” “Traveling Man,” and the autobiographical title track which is considered by Dolly to be the finest song she ever wrote.

Suzi Quatro – Suzi Quatro – 1973

Formerly a member of the Pleasure Seekers, which became Cradle (both of which are other essential artists sadly not included on this list) with her sisters, the Detroit-bred Suzi Quatro released her self-titled glam rock debut in 1973, featuring “Can the Can,” “48 Crash,” and “Glycerine Queen.” Quatro was a huge influence on Joan Jett both musically and in her personal aesthetic – Joan adopted her 70s shag which became Jett’s signature look. She also starred in Happy Days as Leather Tuscadaro, a name later used by TeenBeat Records band Tuscadero in the 90s.

Tina Turner – Acid Queen – 1975

Although a huge fan of her work with Ike and the Ikettes, I felt the nature of this list necessitated a powerful solo offering from “The Queen of Rock and Roll.” The second from Turner – recorded right before her emancipation from her abusive husband and music collaborator Ike Turner – the record features a compilation of originals from their back catalog and strong rock and soul covers including “A Whole Lotta Love” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” The title track takes its name from the role she played in the film adaptation of The Who’s rock opera Tommy.

Loretta Lynn – The Pill” 45rpm – 1975

Loretta Lynn, known as “The First Lady of Country Music,” became one of country’s biggest-selling and most award-winning stars. She charted 70 songs – 16 of which went to number 1 – making her greatest efforts more about her singles and less about her albums as a whole. In the spirit of Kitty Wells, some of her earlier hits like “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind),” and ‘Fist City” focused on the issues affecting working-class females like cheating spouses and their persistent other women. In later singles, her honest portrayal of more taboo topics (unwittingly for Lynn) came from a feminist viewpoint. Her most famous example was the song “The Pill,” a humorous ode to birth control and reproductive choice sung from the perspective of a wife to her husband. Deemed risqué in the conservative world of country music, the song was banned from numerous radio stations, but became her biggest pop cross-over hit to date because of its controversial nature and all the publicity it generated.

Patti Smith – Horses – 1975

Punk poet Patti Smith is widely hailed as one of the most influential female rock musicians of all time. A strong admirer of the poems of rock singer Jim Morrison and French poet Arthur Rimbaud, she combined improvisational spoken word with Lenny Kaye’s sparse and primitive guitar sound to create her landmark debut album – produced by The Velvet Underground’s John Cale – that predated and informed most of the punk/new wave bands to emerge from her own NYC scene as well as the burgeoning U.K. punk movement.

The Runaways – Queens of Noise – 1977

The Runaways broke serious ground as one of the first successful all-female bands (whose members all happened to be teenagers) and were a huge influence on bands such as The GoGos, L7 and The Donnas. Their second album released to poor reception in the US but scored them three gold records in Japan. Album favorites include “Neon Angels (On the Road to Ruin),” “California Paradise,” and “Born to Be Bad.” Joan Jett and Lita Ford would go on to achieve greater success as solo artists in the 80s and beyond.

Blondie – Parallel Lines – 1978

Blondie was the most commercially successful of the bands to emerge from the New York City CBGB’s punk/new wave scene. This success is often attributed to the band’s wide range of influences—including garage rock, disco, reggae and hip hop music—and to the magnetism and high fashion/low brow sass of their strikingly beautiful and iconic front woman Deborah Harry. The release of their third album is oft-considered to be the very moment when the previously underground genre broke through to a mass audience. The album has no weak moments, but stand-out songs include the international hit “Heart of Glass,” “Will Anything Happen,” and The Nerves cover “Hanging on the Telephone” in which they nearly top the original.

B-52s – B-52s – 1979

Not only did the female members of this ultimate new wave party band sport colorful, kitsched-out beehive hairdos (a lá The Ronettes), but the B-52s also named the band after them: “B-52s” is the southern slang term for the beehive hairdos that resemble the front of the aircraft bearing the same name. The band’s debut album proved that the band’s look wasn’t the only thing original about them. Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s high-pitched harmonies and Fred Schneider’s campy spoken singing bounced back and forth over a manic fusion of pop, surf punk, avant-garde and funk to create a truly unique sound amongst their new wave contemporaries. “52 Girls,” “Dance This Mess Around,” and their first single and the record’s biggest hit, “Rock Lobster,” are album favorites.

The Slits – Cut – 1979

Before you even pull this record from its sleeve (the cover features three young warrior-like women dressed in loincloths and slathered in mud) you know you’re in for a raw and confrontational experience. The album fused world music and dub reggae with aggressive punk. An all-female perspective (sans drummer Budgie,) lead singer Ari Up’s German/Jamaican accent plus off-kilter singing style combined with Tessa and Viv’s sparse and funky guitar parts made Cut a post-punk classic.

 

Joan Jett & The Blackhearts – Bad Reputation – 1980

Following the rejection of 23 record labels, the former Runaway became one of the first female artists to start her own record label, Blackheart Records, which released her debut – a mix of punk, glam and 50s rock – and most Joan Jett albums to follow. “Bad Reputation,” and covers of Gary Glitter’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me” and Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” all assert Jett as rebellious, raw, and in control.

Stevie Nicks – Bella Donna – 1981

Everyone owns Rumours, (as they should), so I picked Stevie’s first solo record as my essential choice for the Gold Dust Woman. Bella Donna drew from many of Nicks’s demo tapes and was recorded between sessions for her band Fleetwood Mac’s third album, Tusk. The album is most famous for the single “Edge of Seventeen” and its popular duets “Leather and Lace” with Don Henley (originally written for Waylon Jennings and Jesse Coulter for their duets record by the same name) and “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with Tom Petty (originally written by Petty for his band The Heartbreakers). But with its pedal steel guitar and wistful lyrics (written pre Mac-era when she was a member of Buckingham Nicks), the countrified “After the Glitter Fades” is my personal favorite song on the record.

 

Siouxsie and the Banshees – Hyaena – 1984

A progenitor of gothic style, Siouxsie Sioux challenged traditional beauty ideals with her large mass of spiky ink-black hair, graphic Egyptian eye makeup and leather bondage attire, the latter of which later became a signature punk look. Rooted in the U.K. punk scene of the 70s, her band the Banshees took a decidedly more experimental turn with their major label debut Hyaena (and its studio precursor A Kiss in the Dreamhouse.) Layered arrangements mixing strings, horns and keyboards with guitar, bass, and heavy percussion combine with Sioux’s deep, haunting vocal style to result in a sound that is both dark and menacing, yet beautiful and atmospheric. Key album tracks include “Dazzle,” “Bring Me the Head of the Preacher Man,” and their cover of The Beatles’s “Dear Prudence” which became one of their biggest hits.

 

Kate Bush – Hounds of Love – 1985

Kate Bush’s enchanting and eccentric vocal stylings, literate and complex songwriting, and dance-influenced performance style have made her one of England’s most commercially and critically successful female artists. Although no less intricate than her previous work, Bush tapped into more progressive pop sensibilities for her fifth studio album, which helped to gain her a following in America as well. Three of the album’s singles and finest moments include her first U.S. hit “Running Up That Hill,” “The Big Sky,” and “Cloudbusting.”

 

Queen Latifah – All Hail the Queen – 1989

Long before she became an entertainment juggernaut – starring in her own talk show, Covergirl ads and Dolly Parton movies – 19-year-old Queen Latifah was pioneering female empowerment in hip hop. Stand out tracks on the debut album are her first single “Wrath of My Madness,” “Mama Gave Birth To The Soul Children” (with De La Soul), and the infectious feminist anthem “Ladies First” (with Monie Love).

Bikini Kill – The C.D. version of the First Two Records – 1992 & 1993

Kathleen Hanna and her band Bikini Kill pioneered the riot grrrl feminist punk movement of the early 1990s. The songs from the first two EPs are equally as vital and together make a solid full length. They were first released together in 1994 on CD and are currently available digitally. Riot grrrl classics include “Suck My Left One,” “Carnival,” and “Rebel Girl.”

 

PJ Harvey – Rid of Me – 1993

Fresh off the heels of her acclaimed debut Dry, Harvey’s second album was written in the wake of a nervous breakdown and a relationship break-up. She chose famed producer Steve Albini, whose minimal and raw recording style proved to be the perfect accompaniment for the record’s raw emotion, tortured lyrics and distorted guitar sound. Its lyrics were widely thought to be feminist in nature, but when interviewed, Harvey claimed that she wrote from a genderless perspective. The album was recorded at Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, MN, and features a cover of “Highway 61 Revisited” by Minnesota native Bob Dylan. Its sound would provide the point of departure for Albini’s next recording, In Utero by Nirvana.

Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville – 1993

“Guyville” referred to the Wicker Park neighborhood in Chicago and its male-dominated independent music scene where women typically sat on the sidelines. Yearning to be a part of the scene, Phair crafted clever, semi-fictional sonic accounts of her relationships while living there. Her lyrics were blunt and sexually forthright, contrasting her low voice and deadpan delivery, giving them a sense of detachment. The songs were engineered by Brad Wood in a lo-fi production that would become a trademark of 90s indie rock. Phair structured the album with the same pacing as The Rolling Stone’s Exile on Main Street, hence the first part of its titleThe result was a flawless first album, one considered by many to be one of the most important records of the 90s.

 

Thee Headcoatees – Punk Girls – 1997

Punk Girls is equal parts classic punk covers (like Undertones’s “Teenage Kicks,” The Ramones’s “Pinhead,” and Plastic Bertrand’s “Ce Plane Pour Moi”) and equal parts Billy Childish-penned two-minute garagey-blues nuggets (“Billy B Childish” and “You’re Right, I’m Wrong” are top-notch). Thee Headcoatees started in 1991 in the Medway Garage Scene in Kent, England as an all-girl warm-up group for Childish’s band Thee Headcoats. They went on to tour with Thee Headcoats and released records until 1998. The band’s primary vocalist Holly Golightly has continued making music as a solo artist.

 

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