We love lists at Bart’s Record Shop. And why not—what music lover doesn’t love lists? The greatest movie about record stores ever, High Fidelity, centered around Top 5 lists (and if you haven’t seen High Fidelity, stop reading right now and go watch it). Passionate music fans are perpetually crafting lists in their minds and defending them against invisible, perceived objections. At Bart’s you’ll find a number of lists: New arrivals and reissues on the blackboard in the northeast corner of the store; picks of the month from store employees on the east side of the store; and Rolling Stone’s Top 100 albums of all-time, placed in order in a bin right by the register. To these lists, we have now added a new one: NPR’s recently-released Top 150 Albums by Women.
To help you navigate this new section, here are my takes on five of the top ten, all of which were in stock the last time I checked:
Joni Mitchell – Blue (#1)
While Joni Mitchell’s 4th release is universally recognized as her best, it was not a radical departure from its predecessor, Ladies of the Canyon. So why was Blue the record most-likely-to-be-overplayed-by-your-older-sister and most-likely-to-come-out-of-a-college-coed’s-dorm-room in the ‘70s? No doubt because its highly confessional lyrics chronicle the emotional journey from first love through a painful breakup, and its stripped-down production allows Mitchell’s intoxicating mezzo-soprano voice to soar above the music. Singing about current- and failed-relationships with rock stars Graham Nash and James Taylor probably didn’t hurt; for a multitude of reasons, Blue has brought a little piece of Topanga Canyon to millions of households and dorm rooms since its 1971 release, and is the cornerstone of any folk music collection.
Aretha Franklin — I Never Loved a Man The Way That I Love You (#4)
What can you say about that voice? It’s no surprise that Rolling Stone ranked Aretha as the greatest singer of all-time; she sings with an expressiveness and a soul that break through all barriers and render her truly timeless. And yet through her first nine releases, Aretha never reached a wide, multicultural audience. I Never Loved a Man changed all that; whether she was championing feminism in “Respect,” begging for love and reciprocity in “Do Right Woman” or belting out her feelings for a new lover in the title tune, R&B never sounded the same again after she sunk her voice into it. This masterpiece though, which crowned her queen of soul, didn’t come easy. The first sessions for the album were created at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, but a jealous blowup between Aretha’s then-husband and the session’s trumpet player forced much of the recording North to Atlantic Records’ New York studio (see The Muscle Shoals documentary for a vivid retelling of the session and the ensuing fistfight outside Aretha’s hotel room).
Patti Smith – Horses (#7)
Punk wasn’t about art until Patti Smith came along. Bands like The Ramones and the Sex Pistols were mostly about venting youthful energy and democratizing rock to the point where anyone who knew two chords could play an hour-long set featuring 30 songs that all sounded the same. With her debut, Patti Smith elevated the genre, most notably by adding resonant, poetic lyrics to punk’s sonic fury. No surprise that decades later, Smith became a celebrated author. Her nights at the Chelsea Hotel, her passion for art and her desire to take punk to new places made Horses a totally-unique revelation upon its release in late ’75, and while she’s made many fine records in the ensuing decades, Horses is still, start-to-finish, the rawest thing she’s done. Just Kids, her National-Book-Award-winning autobiography, is the best rock memoir of this decade (sorry Keef).
Janis Joplin – Pearl (#8)
Like Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin is a member of the infamous “27” club, rock stars who never made it to their 28th birthday. Other notable members include Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix. Inclusion in the club invariably means limited output from the artist while alive followed by buckets of posthumous releases of everything ever produced, often regardless of quality or merit. Pearl, Janis Joplin’s swan song, was released three months after she passed, and couldn’t have been more popular if she was around to promote it. Her 4th release—and her first pure solo album—it distilled her gutsy, pain-soaked blues wail into the more accessible pop material, and turned “Me & Bobby McGee” and “Mercedes Benz” into two of radio’s most played songs of 1971. For pure psychedelic energy, Cheap Thrills (recorded with Big Brother and the Holding Company) is still probably her best record, but Pearl turned Janis into one of the biggest stars of the ‘70s, even though she never lived to see its release.
Amy Winehouse — Back to Black (#9)
While Amy Winehouse’s 2003 debut made her a star in her English homeland, it was her second—and final—release that made her a global star. The credit in part goes to producer Mark Ronson, who added a Motown sheen to her lovelorn R&B. And while her well-publicized soap-opera lifestyle, her highly erratic live performances, and her ravenous drug habits built her legend for better and for worse, it was her truly unique voice and styling that gave her widespread appeal. Back to Black spoke with an originality and an accessibility that garnered fans across all genres, and is unquestionably one of the best albums of the aughts. We’ll never know how she would have built upon Back to Black, but she still opened the door for many soulful Brit female crooners (I’m looking at you, Adele).
Written by: Randy Goldner