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  • Writer's pictureNeil Rajala


Updated: Jul 26, 2023

“If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.”

That’s a quote from the great Aretha Franklin, and it pretty much sums up my approach to this list. These singers share the qualities of not sounding like anybody else and not being completely focused on the Billboard charts. I believe the records on this list were made to be singular statements by creative artists, although a couple did find significant commercial success. Most importantly, they all feature that alchemic combination of a wonderful female voice paired with emotionally affecting songs that hit me right in the reptilian part of my brain. A couple have joined my regular rotation recently, the majority claimed their spots decades ago.

To make the long list of possibilities more manageable, there were two rules. First, the album's lead vocals needed to be entirely by one woman, named on the cover. That ruled out some long-time favorites featuring shared vocals with a male singer (Richard & Linda Thompson, X, etc.) Second, no band albums, even if there was a female lead singer (The Pretenders, Blondie, etc.) Those two categories definitely deserve their own list down the road apiece.

My list is chronological, pretty much following my order of discovery and, as always, I'm reserving my right to toss in some near-misses at the end.

• Patti Smith, Horses (1975) - My first wake up call. Before Patti’s debut, I was used to hearing women singing on the radio in traditionally “pretty” or “soulful” voices. Horses was the first time I heard a female artist ignoring the rules of commercial success, leaning into attitude and expression over accessibility. Patti wails, croons, whispers, snarls, and recites over eight songs of punk-adjacent poetic anarchy. Horses is ground zero for the arrival of creatively adventurous women rockers over the next several years. Patti’s singing on the record still sounds every bit as compelling and bracing today as it did back then.

EARWORM: "Redondo Beach" - A weird-ass shot of reggae amid the downtown NYC attitude.

• Rickie Lee Jones, Pirates (1981) - · The music buying public got caught up in a big way by the folky beatnik-ness of Rickie Lee’s persona and singing on her debut album. “Chuck E’s in Love” hit #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, the album hit #3, and she took home a Best New Artist Grammy. Warner Bros. invested more time and money on the follow-up, waiting a year and a half for Rickie’s masterpiece, Pirates. It’s a sprawling, theatrical, even cinematic piece, far less accessible (but no less hook-filled) than her debut, without an obvious hit single. The music is jazzy, poppy, dense in spots, emotionally sparse in others. A couple of tracks move through “suites” - pieces of a larger composition. Progressive jazz-pop, if there is such a thing. At the center of it all is Rickie Lee’s buoyant, joyous, adventurous, singing. Her performance is so commanding, her songs so consistently creative, that Pirates sounds more unified in concept and execution than it has any right to. A vision as seamless as Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks comes to mind as a useful comparison.

EARWORM: "Skeletons" - The most spare and heartbreaking song of Rickie's career, beautifully sung.

Sade, Diamond Life (1985) - It’s not wrong to say Sade’s been making essentially the same record repeatedly over her long and successful career. Her detractors say it makes her catalog repetitive and a little boring; her avid fans will tell you she found a winning formula and stuck with it. I fall somewhere in between. I’ve heard all of Sade’s releases, and never mind listening to one, but I think she peaked right out of the gate. Her smoky, seductively understated voice, her swinging little jazz-r&b combo, and, most importantly, the best batch of songs of her career make Diamond Life endlessly enjoyable to my ears. She would have some great singles and a some standout album tracks going forward, but her debut is a seamless, grooving, late-night statement she’s never matched.

EARWORM: "Cherry Pie" - The most first-person lyrics on the album, a groovy lost love epic.

• Nanci Griffith, The Last of the True Believers (1986) - I’m enough of a Nanci fan to have picked any of five or six of her records to put on this list. I love her quirky singing voice, her lyrics, and, especially, her ability to match her words to the uniquely Texas syncopation of her voice. I'm convinced she's woefully underappreciated by the general music-listening public. Nanci's career is a story of being mishandled by record labels and management. They were trying to make her a star, and I’m all for that, but it was too often a square-peg-in-a-round-hole kind of attempt. More country, and when that didn’t work, more pop, and when that didn’t work, sorry, Nanci, try another label.

But before the commercial merry-go-round started, Nanci released her final album for the small folk & americana Philo label. There’s some folk music in the mix, some country, an obligatory Texas waltz or two, even a touch of country rock, all played superbly by a combination of her own Blue Moon Orchestra and big name Nashville studio pros. Last of the True Believers is, for me, Nanci’s finest batch of songs, eleven absolute gems, and proves that nobody knew better than she did how to present the uniquely splendid phrasing and power of her lyrics and voice.

EARWORM: "Lookin' for Time (Working Girl)" - A song from a hooker's POV. Nanci had a sly, subversive sense of humor.

• Jennifer Warnes, Famous Blue Raincoat (1986) - If you mention Jennifer’s name to a casual music fan, most know her because of two giant hit singles – the easy-listening “Right Time of the Night” and her duet with Joe Cocker “Up Where We Belong” from the soundtrack to An Officer and a Gentleman. Those two songs have undoubtedly paid her rent for many years, but overlook the rest of her remarkable career, including her time as Leonard Cohen’s backup singer and vocal arranger onstage and in the studio from 1972 to 2012.

Famous Blue Raincoat is her remarkable tribute to her former boss. Nine of his songs on the original release, thirteen on the 20th anniversary expanded CD reissue. If nothing else, the record is a reminder that Leonard wrote amazing melodies, even if he couldn’t quite sing them with the vocal range they required. His gruff dramatic approach made them work in context, but Jennifer’s lithe, precise singing puts them on display to wonderful effect. Every song on Famous Blue Raincoat sounds like she’s unwrapping a gift, letting the world really hear the emotional heights Leonard’s songs could reach when thrillingly sung in their full melodic range.

EARWORM: "The Singer Must Die" - The most melodramatic cut on the album, with an over-the-top chorus I can't get out of my head.

• Emmylou Harris, Red Dirt Girl (2000) - Emmylou shook up her career with her previous album, Wrecking Ball, a record I also love. Produced by Daniel Lanois, it has an atmospheric spookiness to it that fits the mood of the songs she chose perfectly. Some of her long-time country/folk fans were put off by the change of direction, but she attracted lots of new fans from the modern rock/pop side of the fence, and these days Wrecking Ball is usually ranked by fans and critics as one of the best in her huge catalog.

Five years later, she did something equally unexpected. After spending decades as one of American popular music’s finest song interpreters, she released Red Dirt Girl, on which she was at least a co-writer on all but one song, the solo songwriter on eight. The songs don’t have the pop chart smarts of the many brilliant songwriters she’s covered, but they don’t need it. Red Dirt Girl is very likely the most soulful folk album I’ve ever heard. Her songs aren’t without hooks, but the overall presentation is subtle and nuanced. Lanois’ engineer Malcolm Burn worked with Emmylou on the record, but rather than being a typical sparse and echo-y Lanois production, Red Dirt Girl is warm and lush, flowing with gorgeous acoustic and electric undercurrents. Over the top, Emmylou fully inhabits the world of her own songs and sings them like she gave birth to them. Her voice expresses gravity, humor, sorrow, and hard earned realism with exquisite phrasing and warmth. Her obvious personal connection to her own songs, missing from her previous albums, is what puts Red Dirt Girl on this list and in my regular rotation.

EARWORM: "One Big Love" - A co-write with the great Patty Griffith. Shoulda been a big hit.

• Gillian Welch, Soul Journey (2003) - If you listen to Gillian Welch’s albums and see film and/or photos of her performances, you could easily believe that she was raised in poverty somewhere in the Appalachians and learned music on the front porch at her momma’s knee. The plain, unadorned clothes, unfussy hair, occasional cowboy hat, lack of makeup, plainspoken singing and lyrics; it all fits her carefully crafted image. But it’s all just a mirage. Gillian is the daughter of successful Hollywood writers and performers, went to private schools, and has a degree from Boston’s Berklee College of Music. She’s taken a lot of flack over the years from music writers decrying what they see as “cultural appropriation,” and I don’t care about any of it. I’m a big fan, whatever her background might be. Yes, her records sound like deep backwoods folk, a little bluegrass-y at times, a lot of old, rural country, and decidedly noncommercial. She didn’t follow her path for the money, I’m convinced she truly loves and inhabits this older, distinctly American, music.

The big news on Soul Journey was the addition of some electric guitar, dobro, fiddle, bass, and drums to her previously sparse acoustic sound, but you’d be mistaken to think this was her pop, or even country, move. The songs are still deeply old-school rural, just fleshed out a tiny bit to give them a little more heft and, very noticeably compared to her previous records, hooks. Every song on Soul Journey is one of my favorites from her catalog, and Gillian’s singing is sublime throughout in her typical understated but intriguing style. Nobody would confuse her with a "pretty" singer, but her unique style is emotional and affecting. The aforementioned hooks can be subtle, but they’re there, and every song has burrowed itself into my brain. David Rawlings' guitar playing is, as usual, tastefully spectacular. his harmony singing her perfect accompaniment. To me, Soul Journey is one of those flawlessly conceived and executed albums that are always exciting to find.

EARWORM: "Look at Miss Ohio" - Gillian's best album opener by a country mile. David's dobro playing is especially lovely.

• Madeleine Peyroux, Half the Perfect World (2006) - Born in Georgia, Madeleine spent her teen years on the streets of Paris, singing with a variety of busking old-school jazz bands. She toured Europe with the last one, then came back to the U.S. when Atlantic Records called. After Madeleine’s first two records did well enough, the second going gold, the music press and her quickly growing fan base were eagerly awaiting album #3. Madeleine and her jazzbo pop band went into the studio with Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, k.d. lang, steel guitar hero Greg Leisz, and a string quartet, and made this wonderful record. Oddly, it climbed higher on the Billboard album chart than her previous album, but didn’t sell enough to go gold.

Madeleine was getting compared to Billie Holiday in a lot of the press articles of the time, and I kinda get it. There’s a kind of forlorn graininess to her singing that calls Billie to mind every now and then. But I hear the Paris streets a lot more on Half the Perfect World. The lush and exquisitely played pop/jazz has an old-school European feel to it, right in Madeleine’s wheelhouse (I especially love the stabbing jazz guitar licks from Dean Parks.) Becker’s only contribution is co-writing the opening track, “I’m All Right,” one of my most favorite pop songs. He would be much more involved on her next couple of albums. Classics like “The Summer Wind” and “Smile” are perfect vehicles for her rich, melodic, slightly sassy singing and the band's effortless swing. She totally owns “Everybody’s Talkin’” and Tom Waits’ “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night.” k.d. sings Joni’s “Rivers” with Madeleine and adds a terrific contrasting voice. Half the Perfect World isn’t a dance club record, it’s more a glass of wine at a Paris outdoor café listen. It glides on by, catchy and beautiful.

EARWORM: "Half the Perfect World" - The title song is a marvelous Leonard Cohen obscurity.

• Amy Winehouse, Back to Black (2006) - All the glorious songcraft of 1960s girl groups with an big ol’ pile of 2000s attitude. What’s not to love? Everybody knows “Rehab,” it was a double-platinum single in the U.S. Fewer people paid attention to the follow-ups, “Tears Dry on Their Own” and "Love is a Losing Game,” but Back to Black went on to break sales records in 2006, and again in 2011 when she passed, joining the infamous “27 Club.”

Easily the most successful and most-heard album on this list, I doubt I can add much to what’s already been written about the memorable songs, the brilliant modern/faux-retro production, and Amy’s unmistakable singing. The dramatic, complex arrangements might have overwhelmed a less forceful singer, but Amy is in full command on every song. Her charisma leaps out of your speakers and sticks with you. Back to Black was only her second album and, sadly, her last. It’s a damn shame she couldn’t find a safer path to walk in life.

EARWORM: “Back to Black” – Because everybody knows “Rehab,” but may not know what a stunner the title track is.

• Samara Joy, Linger Awhile (2022) - This was a joyous (pun intended) surprise from last year. I love the female jazz vocal genre and usually at least sample most of the new releases. Rarely does one jump immediately into my permanent rotation like Linger Awhile. The immediate comparison for an old jazz-head like me is Ella Fitzgerald. The playful phrasing, the ever-so-slightly gritty edge on an otherwise buttery smooth voice, the effortless vibrato, and swoops up and down the scale. Samara’s voice conveys a ton of emotion to go with her impressive chops; every song is a seamless, uplifting, small jazz combo treat. If I can see an area of growth for her going forward, it would be for her to record with some of the true jazz giants of her time. Worked out really well for Ella.

EARWORM: "'Round Midnight" - You don't get to hear the wonderful lyrics of this Monk song often enough. Granted, with Miles they weren't necessary, but still...

Honorable Mentions: This could have gone on a while, remembering another album worth considering for my list was happening on a daily basis. Five more that made it to the very last cut:

• Linda Ronstadt, Don’t Cry Now (1973)

• Marianne Faithful, Broken English (1979)

• Stevie Nicks, Bella Donna (1981)

• Toni Childs, Union (1998)

• Susanna Hoffs, Bright Lights (2021)

As always, I'm ready to hear about the ones I missed.

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1 Comment

Jul 23, 2023

These would be some of MY choices:

Mary Timony - Mountains

Joni Mitchell - Blue

Akiko Yano - Tadaima

Kimya Dawson - Remember That I love You

Laura Nyro - Eli And The Thirteenth Confession

Dolly Parton - Jolene

Laurie Anderson - Big Science

Yoko Ono - Approximately Infinite Universe

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