Last week, NPR took the first major step in reimagining the music landscape in a way that orients the last 63 years of pop music history into a “new canon,” as Ann Powers, the editor behind the ambitious project, puts it, that places a fresh focus on the accomplishments and influence of women musicians. The project, Turning the Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women, is a monumental achievement, to be sure. It began with hundreds of albums and a diverse group of nearly 50 women women took part in shaping the list, the first of its kind and scope.
Powers, a longtime music journalist for NPR, stresses that the list is not meant to be definitive — rather, a place start a conversation, and she promises more lists created in the image of this one. She took some time to chat with Women in the World by email to give us the inside scoop on how she tackled the huge project, which artists narrowly missed being included and the groundbreaking impact Beyonce’s 2016 album Lemonade, which made the top 10, has had on pop culture, among other things.
At the bottom of the Q&A is a curated playlist with 131 selections from the albums that appear on the list. Be sure not to miss that.
Women in the World: The Turning the Tables list compiles 150 iconic music artists from more than half a century. We’re curious if you can tell us who was 151 on the list, and just missed the cut?
Ann Powers: It seems cruel to even mention this! But Annie Lennox’s Diva came very close. She’s represented on the list by the Eurythmics; still, her solo work is great in a different way. Another artist who came very close is Neko Case, and definitely her Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is an album that people responding to the list miss.
WITW: Compiling a list such as this seems like it a tremendous effort — nearly 50 women at NPR took part in shaping it. What was the process like?
AP: The project grew out of conversations with Jill Sternheimer, director of public programs at Lincoln Center, who is a good friend. We’re both huge fans of historical popular music, and of women groundbreakers in different genres. We wanted to honor them, and to figure out a framework to consider musical legacies created and shared by women. A list was a logical organizing principle. I called on my colleagues at NPR and partner stations because they are all very knowledgeable women, but with different areas of expertise. I wanted different perspectives, from working music critics to producers who really understand sound to DJ’s and hosts who interact with musicians a lot.
WITW: How did you collect input from everyone who had a say?
AP: We did a crowdsourced “suggestions” list that contained more than 500 titles. I gave some guidance about what “canonical” means — these albums should have had impact in their moment, should have been innovative and demonstrated the mastery of their authors. We wanted range within the general parameters of popular music, though we decided to not include classical music or go that deep into jazz.
And then people voted and the ballots were compiled.
WITW: Once the 150 artists were settled upon, how was the order of the list decided?
The top 10 was totally clear. Nearer to the bottom of the list, a smaller group of us, including experts in specific genres we want to make sure we represented, worked on breaking ties. I have very mixed feelings about rankings — I’ve always resisted them because I don’t think art should be quantified. But let’s be honest — rankings are one thing that get lists taken seriously. So we did it.
WITW: When the idea was proposed, what was reaction from women at NPR who were asked to help put it together?
AP: The response was overwhelmingly not just positive, but thrilled. There was a strong sense that this project is long overdue. Some women were too busy to participate, but they also expressed a lot of excitement about the project.
WITW: In terms of reader response, are their any artists that readers have been clamoring about not having been on the list?
AP: So many! But that’s the point of this list — not to close a door on a conversation about women’s place in the history of sound recordings, but to open one. To open many! I haven’t talked to one person who didn’t say, “I love the list, but you forgot … ” fill in the blank. So many names.
WITW: If there were an honorable mention, who might you give that distinction to?
AP: I felt very cautious about us including recent albums. Only a handful made it onto the list. But I’m a huge Jenny Lewis fan, and my personal list would definitely include her album The Voyager. I think she’s the best pop lyricist writing out there right now, and that album expresses so many complexities that smart, independent women have to deal with today.
I do think we made a mistake excluding Dionne Warwick. I think she’s one of those essential artists who’s better known for singles. But her 1964 album Make Way for Dionne Warwick had so many of those indelible [Burt] Bacharach-[Hal]David hits that her voice made so special. We should have included it. Speaking for Jill, my partner on this project — I know she really wanted to see Phoebe Snow on there too.
WITW: We noticed one prominent author in a post on Twitter question whether the list is “sexism masquerading as feminism.” Did you expect anyone to perceive it this way and what’s your response to those who do?
AP: The debate over whether “women in music” should even be a category has been raging at least since I started working as a music journalist in the 1980s. I agree that “woman” is not a fixed or essentialist category — just listen to the huge variety of approaches represented on our list. But because the popular music canon has been shaped by lists and other hierarchies that have marginalized women, we felt this intervention was necessary. The great Audre Lorde famously wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and to really eradicate sexism within popular music, we’re going to need more than lists or “women in rock” features in magazines. With this, we’re aiming more for a gut renovation.
WITW: Let’s talk about the top 10: Was there any controversy internally over the final ordering of the 10 best?
AP: I suspect you ask this question because older-generation legends sit right next to younger-generation ones in that top 10. But I expected that. Our voting panel is diverse, including in age. Joni Mitchell’s Blue, our number one, received almost exactly the number of votes as did our number two, Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Think about those two albums: One is all about a woman making unconventional choices and finding her own path in the early 1970s, the other is about the very same thing in the 1990s. That’s a reductive view, but the connection is real. Those albums belong next to each other, as do ones by Missy Elliot, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin.
WITW: Talk about Beyonce’s cultural significance. Apart from the late Winehouse (who died in 2011 and would be 34 today), Beyonce is the only artist in the top 10 under 40. And the album that won her that spot on the list (Lemonade) was released just last year. Decades from now, will she top a list like this?
AP: Here’s something: Jill and I originally wanted the list to end in 2010. We felt that current albums haven’t stood the test of time, so shouldn’t be included. But there was basically a riot when we said that, because of Lemonade. The impact of Beyonce’s album, the way it has spoken to a generation of women and especially women of color, is unique. In my lifetime, I think the only album that comes close in terms of defining a moment is Nirvana’s Nevermind. There’s life before Lemonade, and life after. And yes, I think it will still be considered that significant in 50 years.
WITW: Joni Mitchell’s iconic 1971 album Blue claimed the No. 1 spot on the list, and you wrote the glowing tribute for it explaining its place. That felt personal. Is Blue your all-time favorite album?
AP: I love Blue. There are songs on there that seem to speak to my own personal experience so deeply. But that’s its magic. Mitchell figured out how to tell stories that felt like they were her own, alone, but which also feel to so many listeners that they are theirs, alone. More than what I think or feel about it, I’m astounded by how many others feel so deeply about it. And she really did invent the singer-songwriter style that has endured ever since. She had many peers, but she’s the master.
In all honesty, however, Hejira is my personal favorite Joni album. Or maybe Hissing of Summer Lawns. See, you can’t pick just one. She’s just too good.
WITW: In your companion piece, you write about, among other things, the inspiration for doing this list having come from a conversation you had with your friend Jill Sternheimer a few years back. Why did it take a few years for this idea to materialize? Is it a case of the cultural timing being just right?
AP: Partly the reason is simply because I was busy writing a book, which is about to be published in August. It’s called Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music and it considers how popular music has been shaped, throughout history, by our sexuality and sense of eroticism and pleasure and desire. It was a big undertaking. Only recently have I been able to lead other big undertakings.
WITW: What did we forget to ask you?
AP: You forgot to ask about the future of Turning the Tables! We’re going to keep going all year and into the next. We’ll have several more programs with Lincoln Center. At NPR, we’re soon going to start publishing essays on Forebears (women whose main musical contributions precede the list’s time frame) and Shocking Omissions. We’ll also be publishing features about various subjects involving women and the recording process and the history of women in music, playing off the list. There’s going to be a series of audio conversations among voters about their favorite albums, kind of an ongoing audio listening party. We plan to keep Turning the Tables for a long time!
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.