While celebrating the accomplishments of women in music should never be confined to a time and place, we’d like to put a particular emphasis on our favorite leading ladies in the industry as we near the end of Women’s History Month!
Videos by American Songwriter
From Beyoncé to Brandi Carlile, the American Songwriter team has chosen their favorite female-led albums of all time. Check out our picks, in no particular order, below.
1. Back to Black – Amy Winehouse
If an album could have a snarl, it would be Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. The LP has so much attitude, it almost couldn’t exist without tragedy. Winehouse had one of those effortless voices where the notes seemed to leap off her lips. Sometimes like bullets. Sometimes like kisses. Sometimes like letters that carry bad news.
Music fans would be hard-pressed to find a record that made someone more of a star than this one did for its singer. Sure, Winehouse had releases prior, but this one turned her from a twinkle into a universe, which made it that much sadder when the fans saw her deteriorate in tabloids and then die like a light switched off. From “You Know I’m No Good,” which the rapper Ghostface Killer, upon hearing, had to stop the production of his own solo in order to get her sample on his LP, to the dark bop of the album’s title track, which is as soulful as a gospel choir in the deep south.
Winehouse’s record will live in the hearts of those who love any musical genre but especially within those that love the songs from a delicate individual who built herself into a constellation of toughness. (JAKE UITTI)
2. 25 – Adele
Though it would be a reach to dub it a concept record, Adele’s 25 feels like it lives in its own space. For the 50 minutes you’re tuned into the album, you’ll be engrossed in the singer’s story of regret, nostalgia, and fear at the passing of time, buying into every moment of emotion wholeheartedly.
She expertly meanders in and out of ballads, anthems, and pop hits on the album. Songs like “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” could work as driving, floor-fillers while songs like “Love In The Dark” make the listener want to crawl into a ball and cry out the extent of their tears. Grounding it all is her transcendent vocals that fly straight past your ears and take root deep within your soul.
Adele is an artist that is seldom found today. One would sooner put her in a class of crooners from a time gone by, but her particular brand of singer-songwriter is gravely needed in today’s pop scene. (ALEX HOPPER)
3. Jagged Little Pill – Alanis Morissette
Alanis Morissette’s third studio album, Jagged Little Pill, put the singer on the map. The alt-rock project marked a shift from the Canadian’s previous pop-leaning albums and soon made Morissette a household name. Hit singles “You Oughta Know” and “Ironic” both spent multiple weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart as well as hit No. 6 and No. 4, respectively, on the Hot 100.
Jagged Little Pill spans the emotional spectrum. Morissette spews vitriol at an ex on “You Oughta Know” while the hopeful “Hand in My Pocket” has a more positive outlook as she sings, And what it all comes down to / Is that everything’s gonna be fine, fine, fine.
Jagged Pill remains one of the best-selling albums of all time and made Morissette the first Canadian to achieve double-diamond certification by the RIAA. It also earned the singer a Grammy Award for Album of the Year and Best Rock Album at the 1996 ceremony as well as Best Female Rock Vocal Performance and Best Rock Song for “You Oughta Know.” Released nearly 30 years ago, Jagged Pill stands the test of time and continues to inspire other women to write what they feel with honesty and conviction. (ANNIE REUTER)
4. Lemonade – Beyoncé
No other album has rallied more people around Beyoncé than her seismic Lemonade. The 2016 release is layered with heartache, rage, but mostly resilience as the star turned her lemons into a Grammy award-winning album. A musical response to her husband, rapper Jay-Z’s, infidelity, Lemonade is a relatable, introspective journey that spans genres and emotions. It shows Beyoncé’s feminine and artistic powers on full display as she strives for catharsis against a banging soundtrack. (ALLI PATTON)
5. By the Way, I Forgive You – Brandi Carlile
Another album that turned its established artist into a household name, Brandi Carlile’s By the Way, I Forgive You kickstarted her career into the other-wordily thing it’s become today. Carlile plays with Joni Mitchell and Elton John, lifts up voices like Allison Russell and Lucius, and has carved out a place for herself that will never fade. All were born from the idea of forgiveness—a word that is as scarce today as water in some regions of the world. But we all need to drink it up. Water is life and so is the absence of self-hate or hate for others. Carlile reminded us of that on her LP, which helped her garner Grammy Awards and a place in popular culture.
Her song “The Joke” is a therapy session with a hug afterward. The piano-driven “Party of One” highlights the reality of loneliness and the allowance for self-love. “The Mother” is about bringing that sense of self-love and forgiveness to another person. Thank God for motherhood. We should all study at the foot of Carlile and be allowed to whenever we need to hear her lessons again. (JAKE UITTI)
6. Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves
From the moment I heard “Space Cowboy,” one of the singles released before Golden Hour dropped in March 2018, I knew Golden Hour was going to be a special record. But I didn’t realize how truly impactful it was going to be until Musgraves pierced my soul singing, old soul/Waitin’ my turn/I know a few things/But I still got a lot to learn/So I’m alright with a slow burn, on the opening track “Slow Burn.”
What follows is a series of songs that beautifully touch on the nuances of life that we’ve all felt, but may not be able to put words to. Thankfully, Musgraves does that for us with songs like “Happy and Sad” that speaks to the in-between moments of pure joy and sadness, missing family and friends on a “Lonely Weekend” and reveling in the fascinating planet we live on with “Oh, What a World.” The album quickly garnered critical and commercial acclaim, earning Musgraves a pile of Grammy Awards in 2019, including the coveted Album of the Year. Golden Hour is truly a masterpiece and still stands the test of time. (CILLEA HOUGHTON)
7. Trio – Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris
Gal pals Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris are a country dream team. When they released the collaborative 1987 album Trio, the three megastars—all long-time admirers of one another —debunked the dated belief that women couldn’t work well together in the music industry. Instead of being pitted against each other, the three joined forces for a spectacular release. Then they turned around and did it again in 1999, dropping Trio II. (ALLI PATTON)
8. Wide Open Spaces – The Chicks
Certain songs instantly recall childhood memories. For me, that transportive experience comes via The Chicks’ Wide Open Spaces. The album keeps a healthy balance between jaunty, up-tempo offerings, and earnest ballads.
Songs like “Give It Up or Let Me Go” and “Let ‘Er Rip” live in a neon-lit dive bar that has both the beer and the good times free flowin.’ To this day, few things drive me into a party mood like these honky tonk-flavored hits.
Elsewhere songs like “Lovin’ Arms,” “Once You’ve Loved Somebody” or “You Were Mine” belong exclusively to those in throes of heartbreak. I was seven years old crying at the thought of divorce and single motherhood with the Chicks. Though, obviously, I couldn’t understand the breadths of those issues, I couldn’t help but be moved by the emotion the trio was putting out. It hits just as hard today. (ALEX HOPPER)
9. Blackout – Britney Spears
Britney Spears helped revolutionize modern pop when she released Blackout in 2007, which is arguably her best album to date. Spears executive produced Blackout and teamed up with producer Danja, creating a one-of-a-kind sound that is still quintessentially Britney. From the moment she drops the iconic opening line, “It’s Britney, bitch,” on “Gimme More,” it sets the tone for an album that’s dark and gritty, offering a different flavor than her previous releases. It provides everything one would want in a Spears album, from the electrifying beats to piercing lyrics like in “Piece of Me” where the singer stands up for herself against paparazzi and the media. Blackout stretched Spears’ musical bounds, helping to solidify her legacy as a music legend. (CILLEA HOUGHTON)
10. Horses – Patti Smith
Shot in black and white by Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith’s androgynous, willowy profile on the cover of her 1975 debut Horses gives a semi-romanticized image of the visceral, intellectual, and spiritualized rock poetry within her first eight songs. Her words weaving through Lenny Kaye’s enigmatic guitar strokes, Horses cuts through with “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo,” a partial cover of Van Morrison’s 1064 song “Gloria” and the Catholic hymn “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” her story of “Redondo Beach,” written after an argument with her sister Linda several years earlier, and “Free Money,” about her mother’s life-long dream of winning the lottery.
Produced by John Cale in his post-Velvet Underground days and recorded at Electric Lady Studios, the unfiltered stories on Horses left a musical mark on R.E.M., U2, Garbage, and countless artists who followed Smith’s lead. (TINA EVES)
11. Musicbox – Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey’s third studio album, Musicbox released in 1993, put the singer in a league of her own. Carey’s highest-selling album to date, Musicbox was certified diamond by the RIAA and reached No. 1 in 15 countries. The project’s standout singles “Dreamlover,” an eight-week No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, and “Hero,” a four-week No. 1, showcased Carey’s vocal chops and knack for writing catchy and thoughtful pop hits.
“Anytime You Need a Friend” highlighted Carey’s soulful and powerful belts while the whispered title track demonstrated her control as a vocalist. Meanwhile, “I’ve Been Thinking About You” impressed with slick R&B beats, showcasing her versatile influences and ability to meld them together on one project. The emotive “Without You,” penned by Pete Ham and Tom Evans and originally released by Badfinger and then Harry Nilsson, became Carey’s highest charting international single, reaching No. 1 in countless countries. Musicbox was just the beginning of Carey’s illustrious career and nearly 30 years later, the 10-track album remains a masterpiece. (ANNIE REUTER)
12. She’s So Unusual – Cyndi Lauper
Soon after releasing an album with her band Blue Angel in 1980, Cyndi Lauper parted ways with the band and continued writing many of the songs that would end up on her 1983 debut, She’s So Unusual. Just as Madonna was making her mark in the Top 10 with “Holiday,” Lauper did the same with her She’s So Unusual hits “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “She Bop,” and pop ballad “Time After Time.” By 1985, Lauper won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1985, and 30 years later she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015. (TINA EVES)
Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy