The 150 Greatest Albums by Women before 1964


It is my modest hope that someday, when the list of 150 best lists made in response to NPR’s list of 150 Greatest Albums by Women (1964–2016) is written, that this entry of mine will make the cut.

Contra the received wisdom of boomer-centric pop historians, the album did not start being a cohesive form of expression when the Beatles cracked America, much less when they made Sgt. Peppers; it was always conceived of as a cohesive form as far back as the 1910s, when the first albums — thick volumes which held multiple ten-inch 78-rpm discs in separate sleeves — were issued so that gramophone enthusiasts could listen to extended classical works in the comfort of their own parlor. The first great pop album — a collection of popular songs selected and sequenced in relation to one another, in which the singer’s personality in relation to the material was foregrounded — was recorded and released in 1939, by a woman (#10 on my list below). But it is of course true that with the introduction of the long-playing vinyl record in 1948, and the LP’s subsequent expansion to twelve inches in 1955, the album became a much more common form of expression; so that the last five years represented on my list account for nearly as many records as the first twenty.

Because 1939 to 1963, inclusive, is a period of twenty-five years, which is twenty-eight fewer than NPR was working with; so this list necessarily has a smaller historical, musical, and (for lack of a better word) philosophical range. Some thoughts only began to be thinkable, much less sayable, and you can forget publishable, toward the end of the period; and far more has opened up and been dreamed up in the years since, to the extent that someone living in the year 2017 might be excused for thinking that the world pre-1964 is so limited that it’s not worth hearing from. But despite this list’s unavoidably middlebrow aura, I don’t think there’s anything here that isn’t, on its own terms, great: which is the only way anything can be. Our own times will be a puzzle to the future as well.

It is undeniable that women were afforded much less opportunity than men to be authorial in music before the 1960s — and while gains have been made, parity is still a long ways off. There is a great deal of interpretation and very little (credited) writing by women in this list. But interpretation can be its own form of authorship: women’s voices, whether or not they conform to patriarchal patterns of beauty or objectivity, are worth hearing for their own sake.

Most of these records are available on streaming services; those which are not are probably on YouTube, at least in part. I haven’t written blurbs for them because I wanted to get this list out while people still remembered NPR’s original list. But I extremely recommend every single last one of them — and the top fifty or so are change-the-world great, so much so that we often don’t even recognize how much we are living in the world these records made.


150. Yma Sumac, Voice of the Xtabay (Capitol, 1950)

149. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Wolf: Goethe Lieder (Columbia, 1959)

148. Etta Jones, Don’t Go to Strangers (Prestige, 1960)

147. The Shirelles, Baby It’s You (Scepter, 1962)

146. Alaíde Costa, Afinal… (Audio Fidelity, 1963)

145. Carolyn Hester, This Life I’m Living (Columbia, 1963)

144. Liane Augustin, Vienna by Night (Monitor, 1957)

143. Mabel Mercer, Sings Cole Porter (Atlantic, 1955)

142. Loretta Lynn, Loretta Lynn Sings (Decca, 1963)

141. Ruth Brown, Rock & Roll (Atlantic, 1957)

140. Shirley Bassey, Shirley Bassey (Columbia, 1961)

139. Barbra Streisand, The Second Barbra Streisand Album (Columbia, 1963)

138. Doris Day, The Pajama Game (Columbia Masterworks, 1957)

137. Kay Starr, In a Blue Mood (Capitol, 1955)

136. Elvira Rios, Noche de ronda (RCA Victor, 1957)

135. Libby Holman, Blues Till Dawn (Decca, 1942)

134. Etta James, At Last! (Argo, 1961)

133. Marlene Dietrich, At the Café de Paris (Columbia Masterworks, 1954)

132. Milva, 14 successi di Milva (Cetra, 1961)

131. Peggy Seeger, Barbara Seeger & Penny Seeger, American Folk Songs for Christmas (Folkways, 1957)

130. Annita Ray, Slow Glow (Äva, 1963)

129. Kathleen Ferrier with Bruno Walter & the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (Decca, 1952)

128. Miriam Burton, African Lament (Epic, 1962)

127. Dionne Warwick, Presenting Dionne Warwick (Scepter, 1963)

126. Mary O’Hara, Songs of Ireland (Tradition, 1958)

125. Betty Hutton, A Square in the Social Circle (Capitol, 1950)

124. Geula Gill, Yemenite And Other Israel Folk Songs (Folkways, 1958)

123. Libertad Lamarque, Canta canciones de María Grever (RCA Victor, 1953)

122. Juliette Gréco, Juliette Gréco (Philips, 1963)

121. Anita O’Day & the Gary McFarland Orchestra, All the Sad Young Men (Verve, 1962)

120. Jean Shepard, Songs of a Love Affair (Capitol, 1956)

119. Peggy Lee, Latin ala Lee! (Capitol, 1960)

118. Nana Mouskouri, My Favorite Greek Songs (Fontana, 1963)

117. Moms Mabley, At the “UN” (Chess, 1961)

116. Sylvie Vartan, Sylvie (RCA Victor, 1962)

115. Dorothy Ashby with Frank Weiss, Hip Harp (Prestige, 1958)

114. Josephine Baker, Chansons américaines (Columbia, 1951)

113. Joan Baez, Joan Baez (Vanguard, 1960)

112. Rosemary Clooney, Love (Reprise, 1963)

111. Sondi Sodsai, Sondi (Liberty, 1959)

110. Odetta, Sometimes I Feel Like Cryin’ (RCA Victor, 1962)

109. Omara Portuondo, Magia Negra (Kubaney, 1959)

108. Katie Lee, Songs of Couch and Consultation (Commentary, 1957)

107. Amália Rodrigues, Amália Rodrigues (Columbia, 1962)

106. Judy Garland, A Star Is Born (Columbia, 1954)

105. Ethel Ennis, Lullabies for Losers (Jubilee, 1955)

104. Dóris Monteiro, Vento soprando (Philips, 1958)

103. Dinah Washington, Back to the Blues (Roulette, 1962)

102. Toshiko & Her International Jazz Sextet, United Notions (MetroJazz, 1958)

101. Lena Horne, Moanin’ Low (Victor, 1942)

100. Ginette Martenot / Lily Laskine, Jolivet: Concerto pour ondes Martenot et orchestre / Concerto pour harpe et orchestre de chambre (Vega, 1955)

99. Dory Langdon, The Leprechauns Are Upon Me (Verve, 1958)

98. Wanda Warska & the Kurylewicz Quartet, Somnambulists (Polskie Nagrania Muza, 1961)

97. Barbara Lynn, You’ll Lose a Good Thing (Jamie, 1963)

96. Brenda Lee, Brenda Lee (Decca, 1960)

95. Lolita Cuevas, Haitian Folk Songs (Folkways, 1953)

94. The Peanuts, 可愛いピーナッツ [Pretty Flower] (King, 1959)

93. Pearl Bailey, Pearl Bailey Sings for Adults Only (Roulette, 1958)

92. Peggy Seeger, Folk Songs of Courting and Complaint (Folkways, 1955)

91. Mary Lou Williams, A Keyboard History (Jazztone, 1955)

90. Brigitte Bardot, Brigitte Bardot (Philips, 1963)

89. Ella Fitzgerald, Songs in a Mellow Mood (Decca, 1954)

88. Lex Baxter featuring Bas Sheva, The Passions (Capitol, 1954)

87. Lesley Gore, I’ll Cry if I Want To (Mercury, 1963)

86. Maya Angelou, Miss Calypso (Liberty, 1956)

85. Sarah Vaughan, After Hours (Roulette, 1961)

84. Ella Mae Morse, Barrelhouse, Boogie and the Blues (Capitol, 1954)

83. Édith Piaf, Chansons des cafés de Paris (Decca, 1950)

82. Mercedes Sosa, La voz de la zafra (RCA, 1959)

81. Billie Holiday, Billie Holiday (Commodore, 1947)

80. Nadia Boulanger, Charpentier: Excerpts from Medée (Decca, 1953)

79. Jeanne Moreau, Jeanne Moreau (Disques Jacques Canetti, 1963)

78. Jean Ritchie, Jean Ritchie (Elektra, 1957)

77. Ethel Azama, Exotic Dreams (Liberty, 1959)

76. Judy Collins, Golden Apples of the Sun (Elektra, 1962)

75. Helen Merrill, Helen Merrill (EmArcy, 1955)

74. Patachou, Chante Brassens (Philips, 1954)

73. Carmen Amaya and Company, Queen of the Gypsies: The Rhythms of Carmen Amaya (Decca, 1955)

72. Jeanne Lee with Ran Blake, The Newest Sound Around (RCA Victor, 1962)

71. Marian Anderson, Marian Anderson Sings Spirituals (RCA Victor, 1948)

70. Louise Bennett, Jamaican Folk Songs (Folkways, 1954)

69. Irene Kral with Junior Mance Trio, Better Than Anything (AVA, 1963)

68. Kitty Wells, Lonely Street (Decca, 1958)

67. Celia Cruz, Canta Celia Cruz (Seeco, 1956)

66. Ethel Merman, Annie Get Your Gun (Decca, 1946)

65. Nina Simone, Little Girl Blue (Bethlehem, 1958)

64. Dixie Kwankwa, Sadness and Joy (Troubadour, 1959)

63. Chris Connor, Sings Lullabys of Birdland (Bethlehem, 1954)

62. Sheila Jordan, Portrait of Sheila (Blue Note, 1962)

61. Nancy Wilson / The Cannonball Adderley Quintet, Nancy Wilson / Cannonball Adderley (Capitol, 1961)

60. Carmen Miranda, The South American Way (Decca, 1940)

59. La Lupe, Mongo Introduces La Lupe (Riverside, 1963)

58. Blossom Dearie, Blossom Dearie (Verve, 1957)

57. Billie Holiday with Ray Ellis & His Orchestra, Lady in Satin (Columbia, 1958)

56. Jo Stafford, Sings American Folk Songs (Capitol, 1948)

55. Peggy Lee, Black Coffee (Decca, 1953)

54. Maria Callas, Maria Meneghini Callas Sings Operatic Arias by Puccini (Columbia, 1954)

53. Mina, Il cielo in una stanza (Italdisc, 1960)

52. Françoise Hardy, Françoise Hardy (Disques Vogue, 1962)

51. Lorez Alexandria, Deep Roots (Argo, 1962)

50. La Niña de los Peines, Cante flamenco (Columbia, 1941)

49. Aracy de Almeida, Noel Rosa (Continental, 1950–51)

48. Olga Guillot, La mejor voz cancionera de Cuba (Puchito, 1954)

47. Anita O’Day, Anita Sings the Most (Verve, 1957)

46. Elizabeth Cotten, Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar (Folkways, 1958)

45. Betty Carter, Out There with Betty Carter (Peacock’s Progressive Jazz, 1958)

44. Silvia Telles, Amor de gente moça: Músicas de Antônio Carlos Jobim (Odeon, 1959)

43. Violeta Parra, Toda Violeta Parra (Odeon, 1960)

42. Ike & Tina Turner, Dynamite! (Sue, 1962)

41. Julie London, About the Blues (Liberty, 1957)

40. Ella Fitzgerald, Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin (Verve, 1960)

39. The Staple Singers, Swing Low (Vee Jay, 1961)

38. Alicia de Larrocha, Albéniz: Obras para piano (Hispavox, 1959)

37. Martha & The Vandellas, Heat Wave (Gordy, 1963)

36. Shirley Collins, False True Lovers (Folkways, 1959)

35. Eartha Kitt, RCA Victor Presents Eartha Kitt (RCA Victor, 1953)

34. Fairuz, راجعون [Rajioun] (Lebanese Recording Company, 1957)

33. Dinah Washington, Dinah Jams (Emarcy, 1954)

32. June Christy, Something Cool (Capitol, 1954)

31. Aretha Franklin, The Electrifying Aretha Franklin (Columbia, 1963)

30. Alberta Hunter, Lucille Hegamin & Victoria Spivey, Songs We Taught Your Mother (Prestige Bluesville, 1962)

29. Skeeter Davis, The End of the World (RCA Victor, 1963)

28. Juliette Gréco, St. Germain-des-Prés (Columbia, 1956)

27. Dayle Stanley, A Child of Hollow Times (Squire, 1963)

26. Cuarteto d’Aida, An Evening at the Sans Souci (RCA Victor, 1957)

25. Lata Mangeshkar, All Time Favourites of Lata Mangeshkar (Angel, 1962)

24. LaVern Baker, Sings Bessie Smith (Atlantic, 1958)

23. Mary Lou Williams, Signs of the Zodiac (Asch, 1945–46)

22. Lotte Lenya, The Seven Deadly Sins (Philips, 1957)

21. Wanda Jackson, Wanda Jackson (Capitol, 1958)

20. Amália Rodrigues, Amália à l’Olympia (Columbia, 1957)

19. Umm Kulthum, كوكب الشرق [The Twinkling Star] (Parlophone, 1961)

18. Mahalia Jackson, The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer (Columbia, 1955)

17. Miriam Makeba, Miriam Makeba (RCA Victor, 1960)

16. Odetta, Sings Ballads and Blues (Tradition, 1957)

15. Nina Simone, At the Village Gate (Colpix, 1962)

14. The Crystals, He’s a Rebel (Philles, 1963)

13. Chavela Vargas, Con el cuarteto Lara Foster (RCA Victor, 1961)

12. Édith Piaf, Récital 1962 (Columbia, 1962)

11. Sarah Vaughan, Sarah Vaughan (EmArcy, 1954)

10. Lee Wiley, Eight Show Tunes from Scores by George Gershwin (Liberty Music Shops, 1939)

9. Elza Soares, Se acaso você chegasse (Odeon, 1960)

8. Patsy Cline, Showcase (Decca, 1961)

7. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Gospel Train (Mercury, 1956)

6. Ella Fitzgerald, Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book (Verve, 1957)

5. Erika Stiedry-Wagner, Schönberg: Pierrot lunaire (Columbia Masterworks, 1951)

4. Abbey Lincoln, Abbey Is Blue (Riverside, 1959)

3. Celia Cruz con la Sonora Matancera, La Dinámica! (Seeco, 1960)

2. Judy Garland, Judy at Carnegie Hall (Capitol, 1961)

1. Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues (Clef, 1956)