Just in case anybody was thinking I’m some kind of expert in all things music, I have a confession to make: I’m not. I have been an avid consumer and lover of music my whole life but not an overall expert, and I feel like something less of an expert this week after National Public Radio offered “Turning the Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women.”
The list covers albums released in popular music genres since 1964, and the intent was to create a “canon” for music created by women, providing a guide to the best, a standard of excellence. The effort was prompted in part by the long-noted under-representation of women in best albums lists, especially lists that establish the canon for rock music.
There’s no denying that female musical artists have had a less than prominent place on broad “best” lists. No women were in the top 20 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and they are vastly outnumbered by male artists on the rest of the expansive list.
The music I’ve purchased and listened to most over the years shows a similar bent, and I have to think a big part of that is because I generally gravitate toward rock music. (There’s a shocker, right?) There aren’t nearly as many women in rock as there are men, but this NPR list got me thinking about whether I’ve given women rockers a fair shake in my listening choices.
I decided to have a look at the NPR album roster and see how many albums on the list I’ve actually purchased. I’ve heard a lot of the albums on the list, of course, but I just wanted ones that I spent money on as an indication of how that list and my listening priorities mesh.
I have bought only 15 of the 150. What kind of a music “expert” has a collection with only 10 percent of the classics?
Part of it has something to do with my prime music-buying years. Maybe I’d have a greater percentage of the list if we only looked at the albums that came out from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, when I had to shift more of the dwindling music budget to Raffi, Barney, Hans Mayer and Disney hits for the kids.
The classic albums by female artists I’ve invested in include (in order of their appearance on the NPR list) Fleetwood Mac, Lucinda Williams, Sade, Gillian Welch, Heart, Rickie Lee Jones, Linda Ronstadt, The Go-Go’s, Pretenders, Dixie Chicks, k.d. lang, Eurythmics, Joan Jett, The Bangles and Norah Jones. This does not include albums on the list I bought strictly for my daughters (Dixie Chicks, Spice Girls, Britney Spears and Taylor Swift).
I don’t think I have anything against music made by women. The last band I played in had a fantastic female singer who handled at least half our songs, and I had a lot of fun listening to and learning the cover songs we did that she sang.
Just for grins, I decided to look at the top 150 songs on another greatest albums of the rock era list and see how many of those are in my collection, again counting only ones I’ve bought. I was surprised I only had 18 of the 150, and two of those albums — Fleetwood Mac and Gillian Welch — were on the NPR list, too.
Artists from that other list in my collection include, in order of appearance on the list, Television, The Beatles, The Clash, The Rolling Stones, R.E.M., Led Zeppelin, Sex Pistols, The Who, U2, Bruce Springsteen, The Specials, Nirvana, Elvis Costello, The Byrds and AC/DC.
I’ve decided I’m not going to feel too bad about having so many great female artists missing from my collection, and I don’t regret not owning so many other classics of the rock music canon by the guys, and nobody else should feel bad either. I know these lists are somewhat subjective — especially the order of the rankings — and making people feel dumb because they aren’t up on what experts consider the classics or superior because they are isn’t the point of these lists. In a way, they are bucket lists to me, albums I should listen to while the ears are still working and the mind is still open.
I will keep that new NPR albums list handy, and when I am at a loss for what to listen to, I’ll check these albums out on Spotify. Even if I can can fit in one album on the list each week, I can get caught up on all that great music, a lot of it in genres I’ve left largely unexplored, in less than three years.
And that should still leave time for me to listen to female artists on my Spotify listening list that I would hope could one day be make the canon, including Courtney Barnett, Charly Bliss, Haim and Kristin Diable, who is coming soon to the Cavalier Theater.
So much music, so little time.
Rock on …