Last year, NPR Music introduced Turning the Tables, a list of the greatest albums made by women in the classic album era. Today, the second iteration of the list concentrates on the 200 greatest songs by women and non-binary artists in the new millennium.
"We wanted to look at this moment we're living in and think about how women and non-binary artists are reshaping, re-visioning and pushing music into the future," Ann Powers, NPR Music critic and the co-creator of Turning the Tables, explains.
And while last year's list showcased a canon of significant albums by women, this year's consists of songs as a reflection of how people digest music in the 21st century.
"People now listen to playlists, especially younger people," Powers says. "So we were thinking about, 'How does the song operate in a world where streaming dominates and how has that reconstituted the way we listen and the way artists make music?' I believe that women are at the forefront of using these new technologies and I think this list really proves that."
The 2018 list, compiled from votes cast by more than 70 NPR Music staff members, NPR station affiliate members and music critics, makes an overall argument about how women and non-binary artists are leading music history as it's happening. The sprawl of the top five songs on the list — Alabama Shakes' "Hold On," Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black," Beyoncé's "Single Ladies," Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps" and M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" — shows how women have led the charge in evolving genres and identity constructs within the music world.
"This is what it's all about," Powers says. "Change within tradition. Change that doesn't destroy legacies, but that reveals the truth behind legacies."
NOEL KING, HOST:
Last year, NPR Music set out to make a list of the greatest albums by women, a list that was curated entirely by women. It was called Turning the Tables. Today there is a new list focused on the music of the 21st century. And Ann Powers is one of the people behind it. She's here with me now. Hi, Ann.
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, how are you doing?
KING: OK, so last year's Turning the Table (ph) list mixed some really obscure albums with classics. This year's list feels a lot more recognizable to me, anyway, in part because it's more contemporary. So why did you decide to go current?
POWERS: We wanted to look at this moment we're living in and think about how women and nonbinary artists are reshaping, revisioning and pushing music into the future.
KING: All right, so take me through the top five songs.
POWERS: OK. Number five is the song "Hold On" by the great rock band Alabama Shakes lead by Brittany Howard. Number four is Amy Winehouse's "Back To Black." Number three is by a little-known artist named Beyonce. It's "Single Ladies."
POWERS: Number two is the beautiful ballad "Maps" by the band Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And number one is M.I.A. with "Paper Planes."
KING: I have so many questions. But before I get to them, let's take a listen to some of "Paper Planes," number one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAPER PLANES")
M.I.A.: (Singing) Sometimes I think sitting on trains every stop I get to I'm clocking that game. Everyone's a winner. We're making our fame. Bona fide hustler making my name.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) All I want to do is...
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) And a...
(SOUNDBITE OF CASH REGISTER OPENING)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) And take your money. All I want to do is...
KING: I love that song so much. It is such a banger. But how on earth is it number one? It's awesome but, like, Beyonce (laughter).
POWERS: Artists who have one indisputably great work might make it higher on the list than an artist who has, say, eight or nine songs or albums that are all equally pretty great.
POWERS: So M.I.A. has a really rich catalog, but "Paper Planes" changed the sound of pop. And to this day it remains the jam you want to hear from M.I.A. I think.
KING: It remains the jam I want to hear at all times. Let me ask you. Why are you only dealing with songs? Why not full albums like last time?
POWERS: We were thinking about the 21st century. People now listen to playlists, and especially younger people. And so we were thinking about, how does the song operate in a world where streaming dominates? And how has that reconstituted the way we listen and the way artists make music? I believe that women are at the forefront of using these new technologies, and I think this list really proves that.
KING: So what do you think this list tells us about the first 18 years of this century?
POWERS: If you look at this top five, we have songs like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Maps," which is a rock ballad, but it comes from the voice of a woman, Karen O. As an Asian-American woman, you know, she is representing identities that haven't always been heard from in rock 'n' roll. You look at Alabama Shakes, that's a band from the South remaking Southern rock in the voice of a black woman. This is what it's all about - change within tradition, change that doesn't destroy legacies but that reveals the truth behind legacies. And that's why we founded Turning the Tables. And I think it's very strong in this list, too.
KING: It's been a pretty cool century.
POWERS: I'm looking forward to more.
KING: Ann Powers of NPR Music - thanks so much, Ann.
POWERS: Thank you so much.
KING: Ann is one of the people behind Turning the Tables. And today you can find their list of the 200 greatest songs by women and nonbinary artists of the 21st century. That's at nprmusic.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINGLE LADIES")
BEYONCE: (Singing) Don't be mad once you see that he want it. If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.