Celebrate Women’s History Month with artists who define “girl power” on their own terms. Features Dolly Parton, SOPHIE, Kate Bush, Taylor Swift, TLC and more.
Though history books and Billboard charts don’t always make it obvious, women have always been at the forefront of popular music. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a modern genre that doesn’t owe a great deal to the contributions of great women.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Mother Maybelle Carter popularized the art of playing rhythm and melody simultaneously in country guitar. In the 1940s, Sister Rosetta Tharpe set the stage for rock’n’roll with crossover gospel hits that blended electric guitar and driving percussion. In the 1980s, Suzanne Ciani introduced millions to synthesizers on television via appearances on The David Letterman Show and more.
Join us in celebrating Women’s History Month with a playlist featuring musicians who define (and re-define) “girl power” on their own terms. The bold songwriting, lyrical mastery and immersive production heard here echo across time from the earliest days of rock and roll to underground raves. These women inspired movements and broke world records with unforgettable songs—even if they didn’t always get the credit they deserved.
Press play and celebrate women’s history every day.
SOPHIE — “Immaterial”
Experimental sound design meets sugary sweet electro-pop in the groundbreaking work of Scottish record producer Sophie Xeon, aka SOPHIE. On “Immaterial,” from her 2018 album OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, SOPHIE and vocalist/co-writer Cecile Believe get the party started with existential lyrics and crystalline candy-coated synths.
During her brief but bold career as a musician, vocalist and producer, SOPHIE lent her visionary sound design abilities to Charli XCX, Vince Staples, Madonna and others, injecting their songs with precision-molded dance-pop perfection. Often credited with popularizing the Hyperpop genre, SOPHIE’s slick productions sound like transmissions from a future utopia.
On June 16, 2021, the International Astronomical Union announced that the asteroid 1980 RE1 had been renamed Sophiexeon. A fitting tribute to a true pioneer.
Björk — “Army of Me”
Björk makes alt-rock history out of classic rock history on “Army of Me,” the lead single from her 1995 album Post. “Army of Me” pits a sample of John Bonham’s “When the Levee Breaks” drum beat against a sinister synthesizer bassline on this explosive electronic rock hit that marked the Icelandic singer’s first appearance on the UK Singles Chart top ten.
Björk first achieved international success in 1988 as the vocalist and keyboardist of the post-punk band the Sugarcubes when the single “Birthday” became a hit in the UK. This helped the group secure a licensing deal with Elektra Records, who released their debut album Life’s Too Good and provided radio support in the United States.
In her four-decade (and running) solo career, Björk has refused to be pinned down, bouncing between pop, rock, electronica, trip-hop and classical influences to refine (and redefine) her singular sound. Outside of music, Björk is an accomplished actor who won the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actress award for her starring role in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. In 2015, Time named Björk one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Kim Gordon — “Murdered Out”
What isn’t Kim Gordon? Beyond her historic role as Sonic Youth’s bassist, vocalist and songwriter, Gordon is also an actor, fashion designer, record producer, music video director, author and a breast cancer survivor.
Between 1981 and 2011, Kim Gordon ripped the rock and roll rulebook to shreds with Sonic Youth, the massively influential noise-rock band she co-founded with guitarist/vocalist (and ex-husband) Thurston Moore. After grinding it out in the New York no wave scene, Sonic Youth gained notoriety with the albums Sister and Daydream Nation before reaching commercial success on David Geffen’s DGC label—which, on advice from Kim Gordon, signed a little band called Nirvana.
“Murdered Out,” the lead single from her 2019 debut No Home Record, is the first music released under Gordon’s own name—a noisy industrial post-punk dance jam with a pummeling drumbeat from Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa.
Dorothy Ashby — “Come Live With Me”
With tuneful phrasing and a bumping R&B rhythm section, Dorothy Ashby brought the harp onto the jazz scene with an adventurous combination of funk, soul and standards, plus original compositions.
Ashby studied music education and piano at Wayne State University in Detroit. She encountered resistance from jazz purists when in 1952, she switched from piano to harp— an instrument jazz musicians considered “unhip” at the time. To set the record straight, Ashby organized free DIY concerts where she changed minds about the harp’s potential as a jazz instrument one solo at a time.
In addition to a prolific solo career, Ashby sat in with iconic soul artists like Bill Withers, Minnie Riperton, Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston and Bobby Womack (to name a few). She also composed original scores for The Ashby Players, the theatre company founded by her husband, John Ashby.
Dorothy’s influence reaches out across jazz, hip hop, indie rock and beyond—from Alice Coltrane’s spiritual free jazz harp to Jurassic 5, who sampled Ashby’s work on the 2006 album Feedback. Indie rockers the High Llamas wrote a song called “Dorothy Ashby” for their 2007 album Can Cladders.
Kate Bush — “This Woman’s Work”
British art-pop sensation Kate Bush wowed American audiences with “This Woman’s Work,” a dramatic piano ballad composed specifically for the birth sequence in the 1988 John Hughes film She’s Having a Baby starring Elizabeth McGovern and Kevin Bacon. In addition, an alternate version appears on the 1989 album The Sensual World, reaching number 25 on the UK Singles Chart.
Bush began her songwriting career at age 11, composing original works on piano, violin and an organ in the barn behind her family’s 350-year old estate. When Bush was sixteen years old, a mutual friend passed along a demo tape to Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, who introduced her to producer Andrew Powell and Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick.
With her formidable piano ability and stunning soprano range, Kate Bush floats between art-pop, glam rock, classical and folk on “This Woman’s Work,” building tension with tremendous crescendos and acrobatic melodies.
Broadcast — “Come On Let’s Go”
From 1995 until her untimely death from pneumonia in 2011, songwriter, vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist Trish Keenan led the British experimental group Broadcast, transforming film soundtracks, minimalist electronic music and retro psychedelic indie-pop into miniature electric symphonies for headphones.
On “Come On Let’s Go,” from Broadcast’s LP The Noise Made by People (2000), Keenan’s detached vocal glides between sparkling synthesizers and delicate harpsichord counterpoint in a spot-on retrofuturistic take on the swinging and psychedelic sounds of 1960s London.
While still recording and touring with Broadcast, Keenan studied creative writing at Birmingham University, following her literary instincts to craft nuanced and evocative lyrics inspired by HG Wells, Gertrude Stein and Edgar Allan Poe. In their review of The Noise Made…, NME remarked on the “uneasy—sometimes downright sinister—beauty” of Keenan’s “nonchalant vocals’ and the group’s use of “deconstructed waltz rhythms and flickering pulses of unidentifiable noise.”
Bobbie Gentry — “Ode to Billie Joe”
Just what exactly did Billie Joe McAllister toss off the Tallahatchie Bridge? Bobbie Gentry knows the answer, but won’t spill the beans in “Ode to Billie Joe,” a 1967 downhome whodunnit that knocked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band out of the number one position of the Billboard Top 200.
In neither the hit single nor in interviews has Gentry felt it necessary to disclose what Bobbie throws overboard. “It’s not really important what they are throwing off the bridge,” she says. “The important thing is that people don’t really care about what happens to another person.”
Besides besting the Beatles, Bobbie Gentry made Nashville history as one of the first women to write, produce and perform her own material—often without credit. It wasn’t until her final album, 1971’s Patchwork, that Gentry received full credit for being her own producer.
Like her characters’ motivations, Gentry remains elusive. She receded from public life in 1981 and refuses requests for interviews and performances. Gentry is 79 years old and her current residence is unknown.
Pretenders — “My City Was Gone”
Talk about culture shock.
Singer-songwriter and guitarist Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders escaped her hometown of Akron, Ohio just in time to experience the ‘70s UK punk explosion, where she covered the scene for the London music magazine NME, worked at Sex Pistols manager Malcom MacLaren’s clothing boutique SEX, jammed with an early incarnation of the Damned and once asked both Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious to marry her (they declined).
When Hynde returned to the midwest in the early ‘80s, she did so as the leader of the Pretenders, banging out one hit after another with a sharp sound that’s a little bit new wave and a whole lotta rock and roll. On “My City Was Gone,” the Pretenders sit on a single riff like the greatest bar band in the world while Hynde tells the autobiographical tale of economic and environmental downturn she witnessed in her childhood northeast Ohio home, a region once so polluted that a single river caught fire over a dozen times.
In addition to her songwriting career, Hynde is an outspoken environmentalist, vegetarian and animal rights advocate. She has appeared alongside Paul McCartney and Jude Law in support of ending the fur trade, and from 2007-2011 she operated VegiTerranean, a vegan restaurant in her hometown of Akron. In 2005, she was induced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Bikini Kill — “Rebel Girl”
Bikini Kill brought riot grrl into the punk lexicon with the single “Rebel Girl,” an incendiary feminist anthem for the ‘90s. Lyricist and vocalist Kathleen Hanna subverts typical love song tropes with an empowering singalong chorus that celebrates LGBTQ+ crushes.
Though often cited as the defining band of the ‘90s riot grrrl movement, Bikini Kill maintained a mainstream media blackout, opting instead to spread the word through their busy tour schedule. That’s where they distributed copies of their photocopied DIY fanzine, Bikini Kill, in which Hanna coined the term “girl power.”
During their initial 1990-1997 run, Bikini Kill recorded three versions of “Rebel Girl.” The version included on the CD compilation The Singles (and this playlist) was released in 1993 and features Joan Jett, who produced the session in addition to providing backing vocals and guitar overdubs.
The Ronettes — “Be My Baby”
The “original bad girl of rock and roll,” Ronnie Spector sings the lead on “Be My Baby,” the 1963 hit by the girl group The Ronettes. With an unbelievable vocal performance and support from an all-star lineup of musicians—bassist Carol Kaye, guitarist Tommy Tedesco and drummer Hal Blaine (later known as “The Wrecking Crew”)—”Be My Baby” hit number two on the Billboard Hot 100.
When Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys first heard “Be My Baby” on the radio, its influence was so profound that he reportedly pulled his car to the side of the highway to analyze the chorus. In a 2003 interview with the New York Times, Wilson said he’d listened to the song at least 1,000 times. In 2007, the Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately for all of us, Ronnie Spector, born Veronica Bennett, died in early 2022 after a brief battle with cancer, but her legacy cannot be overstated. Her influence crossed genres—from New York punk rockers like Joey Ramone and Lou Reed to pop divas like Madonna, who famously said, “I want to look like Ronnie Spector sounds.”
Dolly Parton — “9 to 5”
Dolly Parton throws a brick through the glass ceiling on “9 to 5,” her smash hit treatise on workplace inequality featured in the 1980 film of the same name starring Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and the Queen of Dollywood herself.
Besides winning two Grammy Awards, “9 to 5” took the top spot of both the Billboard Hot 100 and Country Music charts. The hit made Parton only the second woman in history to have the same song on both charts—the first being Jeannie C. Riley with her 1968 song “Harper Valley PTA.”
The song’s title comes from 9TO5, National Association of Working Women, a women's’ rights organization formed in 1973 with offices in Boston and Cleveland to advocate for equal pay, paid sick leave, and an end to harassment and discriminatory hiring practices in the workplace.
Patti Smith — “Because the Night”
Bruce Springsteen handed Patti Smith the baton to finish the lyrics for “Because the Night,” the first single (and first hit) from the Patti Smith Group’s 1978 album, Easter. Springsteen attempted to record the song for his album Darkness on the Edge of Town, but after four months of struggle, producer Jimmy Iovine (who was simultaneously producing Springsteen and Smith) suggested that The Boss delegate the tune to Smith.
Patti Smith listened to Springsteen’s demo, a barebones tape with only the title and a few bits of half-mumbled melody, finished the lyrics and the rest is rock history. “Because the Night” charted at the number 5 spot in the UK, propelling Smith and Easter to international success.
TLC — “Waterfalls”
TLC tackled some of the heaviest issues of the ‘90s on “Waterfalls,” from the 1994 album CrazySexy Cool. The R&B slow jam and “message song” that speaks out against the injustices of drug-related violence and the HIV/AIDS crisis was one of the decade’s biggest hits, spending seven weeks at the top of the charts.
Group members Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas and the late, great Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes made the song’s intentions painfully clear in a powerful and provocative music video in which the song’s verses unfold, revealing the tragic stories in real time.
Despite being the best-selling girl group of all time with over 85 million records sold, TLC filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 3, 1995, claiming that an unfair contract and unreasonable, non-industry standard charges for travel, food and other expenses left them insolvent. Though the case was settled and TLC renegotiated their contract, sessions for their next album, FanMail, were fraught with tension and TLC performed as a trio for the last time on August 1, 2001.
Regarding the group’s legacy, Beyoncé said in a 2003 interview with Entertainment Weekly, “TLC has influenced just about every female group that's out there now, and they definitely influenced Destiny's Child.”
Taylor Swift — “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together (Taylor’s Version)”
Taylor Swift rages against the machine—Big Machine Label Group, that is—on the re-recorded “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together (Taylor’s Version), putting a whole new twist on this classic breakup song.
After the conclusion of her seven-album contract with Big Machine, Swift tried for years to buy the rights to her masters (that is, the actual recordings of her songs used for CDs, vinyl and streaming, not the lyrics, chords and melody), but the label refused to sell—to Taylor Swift, anyway. In June 2019, music mogul Scooter Braun bought the label for $330 million with support from private equity, ending any hope of Swift owning her music. What’s an 11-time Grammy winner with 55 Guinness world records to do?
Easy: re-record every. Single. Song. That’s what Swift did for Red (Taylor’s Version), a remake of the album’s deluxe edition from top to bottom. It shattered several records upon its release on November 12, 2021, including the most single-day Spotify streams by a woman artist and the biggest vinyl sales week in modern history.