The list published yesterday already has people talking about what should be on it and why.
[Updated] A good list starts conversations, which is why they’re a staple of sports talk radio. Where does Quarterback X rank on the list of all-time greats? Who’s the closer you want on the mound in game seven of a World Series game when you’ve got a one-run lead? Questions like that can fill phone lines for hours. By that standard, NPR’s “The Greatest 150 Albums by Women” is already a success. One commenter on Facebook thought that the list should be alphabetized and titled “150 Great Albums by Women,” which would make the list a repository of trivia—an ending point instead of a starting one.
Writer Ann Powers addresses some of this in her excellent introductory essay. She recognizes the limits of lists including the way the canonizing impulse may be anti-feminist as it establishes hierarchies, but, she writes:
Another way to look at a list is as the beginning of new conversation. One is still needed when it comes to women's place in music history, despite decades of efforts by feminist historians, critics, activists and musicians themselves. For the past half-century — the period that this list roughly covers — most mainstream musical "best" lists feature startlingly few women, especially in their top ranks. Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, compiled in 2003 and updated in 2009, includes no women in the Top 20. Pitchfork's "People's List," a reader-determined Top 200 list spanning the publication's lifetime, included two bands with women in its Top 20. Recent lists by publications ranging from SPIN to Entertainment Weekly, Time and NME showed similar results. And the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has never remedied the problem of significant female underrepresentation in its ranks.
Those lists are roosters that lay eggs. What came first, the idea that men make more historically significant music than women do, or the institutionalization of a group of albums men made? Because the vast majority of lists extend from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to Thriller to Nevermind to OK Computer, with something by Joni Mitchell or Aretha Franklin showing up around No. 30, the paradigms that define greatness remain masculine at their core. This means that The Beatles represent modernity instead of Nina Simone, and Bob Dylan stands for poeticism made populist while Mitchell or Franklin only do so secondarily. It places Nirvana and Pearl Jam at the center of the 1990s rock renaissance, never suggesting that Alanis Morrisette or P.J. Harvey belong in that same spot. It maintains the notion that hip hop's golden era belonged to rappers like Biggie and Tupac instead of Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill. It obscures the fact that contemporary country's biggest influence is not Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard (or even Garth Brooks), but Shania Twain. It makes it difficult to see that Jay Z still has a major career as an artist mostly because of Beyoncé.
That conversation is currently taking place on Facebook and likely other venues around the country, and some are striking in their ferocity. Some commenters on Facebook take perceived slights and wrongful omissions personally, as if the lack of Aimee Mann on this list was a specific FU to you, Roger Cohen of 4217 Division St. in Des Moines, Iowa. That intensity would benefit from some perspective, but it also reminds us of how deeply that we invest our own identities in some artists, and how some artists such as Mann have the ability to connect to people on a cellular level. The ways we identify with musicians and assign value to their work validates the whole project because when female artists are marginalized, so are those of us who are invested in them.
There’s a good chance the online conversations are also taking place in readers’ heads as they contemplate their own relationships to the albums on the list. How does the listener's identity affect which albums in the list speak to him/her? What points of contention indicate aesthetic differences and which artists simply don’t speak to us? In the top ten, I won’t argue with Janis Joplin’s Pearl unless you ask me to listen to it. I would also put Carole King’s Tapestry, Missy Elliot’s Supa Dupa Fly or The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill at number one over Joni Mitchell’s Blue, but that’s simply because pop, funk, R&B and hip-hop are more central to what I listen to for pleasure than folk is. The impressive thing about the list as a whole is that it achieves its goal without folding in any calculated, controversial choices. Instead, the list implicitly advances a coherent value structure, and I can imagine most of these albums living in the same record collection.
Everybody will have personal reactions to parts of the list. Since I associate Portishead more with its sonic architect Geoff Barrow than its voice, Beth Gibbons, Dummy (No. 79) it seems out of place on the list to me, and I think Siouxsie and The Banshees' find a more distinctive voice with JuJu than The Scream. Alison Fensterstock makes convincing arguments for the inclusions of The Shangri-Las' Leader of the Pack (No. 107) and Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes featuring Veronica (No. 20), but I still wonder if those albums and Where Did Our Love Go? (No. 15) by Diana Ross and the Supremes aren’t on the list to recognize important singles artists more than great albums. Since Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes featuring Veronica and Where Did Our Love Go? are on Spotify, I’ll start my homework there.
A list becomes a reference point when its makers assume that there is a true and proper top 150 albums by women that can finally and authoritatively be carved in stone. That's clearly not the case here, and every conversation over who and what should be in or out is a conversation that incrementally makes women in the pop music story harder to marginalize. The fact that the list is accompanied by compelling writing is a bonus.
Updated July 26, 11:30 a.m.
I added a few lines to the "That conversation ..." paragraph to flesh out a thought.