10 Essential Female Voices

10 Essential Female Voices

carly simon
Carly Simon circa 1976. Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns.

We’re celebrating International Women’s Day (March 8th) with a look back at some the most stirring vocal performances ever committed to tape. These ten tracks (a mere handful of deserved entrants) boast more than just a powerhouse vocal performance – they’re unapologetic, razor-sharp statement pieces that have left an indelible mark on the blueprint of modern music. Who knows where music would be today without these game-changers in the scene! 

1. Aretha Franklin | “Respect”

Aretha Franklin was only twenty-five when she clinched the title of ‘Lady Soul’ with her unforgettably candid and confident cover of Otis Redding’s ‘‘Respect.” In a legendary one-day session, Franklin flipped the script on Redding’s original plea for due respect when he brings home the money, turning it into a timeless anthem of self-empowerment with a few tweaks to the arrangement. Franklin's version adds the "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" chorus and the backup singers' refrain of "Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me..." – marking the emergence of a new era of fresh, forthright soul music.

The almighty ‘Queen of Soul’ went on to become one of the most celebrated artists of all time. Her “Respect” cover was a landmark for the feminist movement and won her two Grammy Awards in 1968 for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording and Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance, Female. In 1987, Aretha was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. 

2. Carly Simon | “You’re So Vain”

Carly Simon’s ode to a self-absorbed lover was one of the biggest hits of the 70s. The title subject's identity has become one of those mysteries for the ages, which has surely contributed to the song's enduring legacy. Simon cleverly left a big blank space for the listener to fill in with their own story, making 1972's “You’re So Vain” forever timeless and universal.   

The song was a number-one hit in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and reached top ten in many other territories around the world. In the decade that followed, Simon became the first artist to win the three major awards … Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe … for a single track, with 1988’s "Let the River Run." 

3. Pretenders | “Brass In Pocket”

That voice. That style. Those songs. In an ever-changing world, Chrissie Hynde has remained an effortlessly cool fixture on the rock scene since 1978; consistently standing among the best female rock singers for decades. 

1973’s “Brass In Pocket” put Hynde and her band, Pretenders on the map. With unshakable confidence, the song is unapologetically self-assured, yet never gets aggressive enough to break its charming spell, effectively doubling down on its powerfully sassy allure. 

4. Madonna | “Express Yourself”

The cultural impact of Madonna is immeasurable. Over the last 35 years, she has steamrolled any boundaries with her provocative lyrics, music videos and on-stage performances, paving the way for the generations of female artists to follow. 

“Express Yourself” embodies the sentiment at the core of the Queen of Pop’s entire catalogue, overflowing with wild and flamboyant anthems that have made the ’80s pop icon a perpetual cultural force. Her accolades are bountiful and the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes her as the best-selling female recording artist of all time.

5. En Vogue | “My Lovin'”

In 2005, Blender Magazine put "My Lovin'" – lead single on En Vogue’s 1992 multi-platinum hit album, Funky Divas – at 148th place on their list of ‘500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born’, writing: "Before En Vogue, girl-group harmonies hadn't been heard in such force on the pop charts for three decades. With Dawn Robinson singing lead, this was a female-empowerment anthem that would have done Lilith Fair proud-the repeated harmonized chanting of "You're never gonna get it" was a kiss-off par excellence. The song-and the group-were anachronisms. It was unprocessed feistiness and sass, just before hip-hop took out a monopoly on swagger."

6. k.d. lang | “Constant Craving”

k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving” has been tugging at the heartstrings of listeners since the day it was released on Ingénue in 1992. It was a watershed year for lang who had coincidentally just come out as being gay. In a photoshoot for Vanity Fair, she decided to recreate a scene from a French movie called The Hairdresser’s Husband with supermodel Cindy Crawford. In an interview with Advocate Magazine, she noted: “It caused a huge sensation. People started questioning Cindy’s sexuality but I’m very proud of that cover. I’m not sure Constant Craving would have been such a big hit without it and I don’t think I’d have been in The Advocate or Vanity Fair without Constant Craving. It was a moment in time that clicked.”

The religious groups picketing k.d lang at the 1993 Grammy Awards were powerless in the wake of “Constant Craving” which earned her Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, Best Female Video and was even nominated for Song of the Year.

7. Tina Turner | “The Best”

Tina Turner is the master of blending pop with soul-filled rock music to create timeless and universal power anthems. She crossed genre and racial lines at a time when no one else could, owning each song with her signature raspy vocals and unstoppable energy and inimitable talent.

“The Best” has become an Aussie standard as the official NRL anthem for over three decades. Check out the updated NRL ad campaign that was released just last week to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the original 1989 'Simply The Best' campaign here

8. Alanis Morissette | “You Oughta Know”

"I had a really big agenda: my agenda was to be self-expressed and to be as authentic as I possibly could, and I wouldn't stop until that happened.”

At just 21, Alanis topped the charts with eloquently biting smash hit, “You Oughta Know.” Fierce. Vulnerable. Unapologetic. Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill tore through 1995 like the sharpest breathe of fresh air known to man – and remains one of the biggest albums of all time. Don't miss your chance to see her play it live when she arrives in Australia to celebrate the album's 25th anniversary. More info here.

9. Tori Amos | “Cornflake Girl”

The title of Tori Amos’ "Cornflake Girl" is a reference to breakfast cereal ingredient distribution, implying that ‘raisin girls’ are much harder to find than "cornflake girls". Amos declares herself sure of her specialty in the song’s opening line, singing, "Never was a cornflake girl." Which is a fair call – Amos possesses the rare ability to transcribe a broad range of topics, including sexuality, feminism, politics and religion into perfect pop songs that slink their way into the mainstream with a deceptively carefree sound. 

10. Missy Elliott | “Get Ur Freak On”

“Get Your Freak On” is hit-maker, Missy Elliot’s call to arms, more or less turning her into the pied piper of hip hop. The singer-songwriter, rapper, producer and pop culture icon, has been making waves in the hip-hop world since the early ’90s, both in the spotlight and behind the scenes. She has worked with and boosted the careers of a number of artists including Aaliyah, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson – just to name a few!  

Missy led female hip hop album sales during the late 1990s and early 2000s, and her recent collaboration with Lizzo affirms the empowering and positive influence her work continues to have on artist’s coming up in her wake. 

Listen to the Women Of Music International Women’s Day 2020 playlist on Spotify:

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