America's National Public Radio (NPR) recently published a list of their top 150 albums by women, with the intention of highlighting the important role women have played in making music what it is today.
The list was compiled by NPR's chief music critic Ann Powers and a bunch of other writers. Powers says she did it to challenge the popular assumption that the 'male perspective can stand for all perspectives'.
The team at RNZ Music liked this, so we compiled a list of top New Zealand albums by women. We've done a top ten (in no particular order) and then included another 34 albums we think are worthy. Enjoy!
Bic Runga – Drive (1997)
Drive, Bic Runga’s 1997 debut album, was aptly titled. Sony, the label she had signed to while still in her teens, had tried matching her with various producers and collaborators including Peter Asher (of Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor fame). Yet ultimately Runga wound up taking the wheel herself, producing and playing most of the instruments, proving the strength and clarity of her musical vision.
The shimmering title track had already won a Silver Scroll the previous year. On the album, it sits alongside other moody originals like ‘Bursting Through’, ‘Suddenly Strange’ and ‘Sway’, which would raise her international profile when it featured on the American Pie soundtrack two years later.
Moana & The Moa Hunters – Rua (1998)
From the ancient sounds of tāonga pūoro and kapa haka to the fairly new sounds of hip-hop and techno, along with smatterings of soul, funk and pop, Moana and The Moa Hunters made a sonically rich and inviting second album. But it isn’t the sound that makes this album significant – it’s the uncompromising political statements that Moana made (and continues to make).
Singing in both Te Reo Maori and English, singles such as 'AEIOU (Akona Te Reo)', 'Treaty' and 'Moko' saw Moana using her voice and lyrics as a weapon for change and education. I’d vote for her.
Jenny Morris – Shiver (1989)
When reflecting on Shiver, which was released nearly thirty years ago, the LPs’ slick, confident and sophisticated sound still stands. The subject matter of Jenny Morris’ second solo album puts the emotions, concerns and musings of a woman who could speak her own mind, at front and centre. On the album’s closing title track she questions her own vulnerabilities (“How can you make me shiver when it’s blazing red out there?”), while on ‘Little, Little’ she tenderly sings to her unborn baby.
The percussive clarity and rich production of Shiver puts it beyond any locally recorded material at the time, and to this day showcases the musical style of the late 80s and early 90s without sounding at all dated.
It even presented Morris with the opportunity to tour and open for Prince after he had heard the song 'Saved Me', which makes this album even more worthy of inclusion to this list.
Lorde – Pure Heroine (2013)
With whip smart lyrics that expressed the ennui and ironies of the millennial generation, the crisp delivery of a rapper, and a voice that could go from a gentle purr to a menacing howl, Ella Yellich O’Connor’s debut proved that NZ could be a major player in the international pop music market.
But it wasn’t just the artistry that made Pure Heroine a game changer. Here was a 16-year-old girl playing the music industry her own way, making decisions based on what she felt was right, rather than what record company execs wanted, with a singular vision as well as business acumen.
She instinctively knew how to reach her audience, and how to make them fall in love with her, while being uncompromisingly herself.
Bachelorette – My Electric Family (2008)
Annabel Alpers had already honed a wholly unique sound on her first album Isolation Loops, working with various electronic devices to build a sound-world that was mournful and retro-futurist. It earned her the attention of forward-thinking blogs the world over.
Her follow-up My Electric Family saw her adding other musicians to the mix (the clue is in the title), as well as a good dose of warmth, resulting in a beautiful collection of songs that married Alpers’ haunted tones to a welcome sense of optimism.
Look Blue, Go Purple – Bewitched & LBGP2 (1985/1987)
OK, not actually an album (until the amalgamation for the recent reissue Still Bewitched) but no list of influential NZ acts would be complete without these women.
With a gentle jangle, flute lines weaving through, splashes of tambourine and layered, washed out vocals, Look Blue Go Purple stood equally alongside The Chills, The Clean and The Verlaines to define the Flying Nun sound. Songs such as ‘Cactus Cat’, ‘Circumspect Penelope’ and ‘I Don’t Want You Anyway’ all have whimsical folk pop melodies that linger in your head well after the record has finished, and still sound as fresh as they did 30 years ago.
Ladi6 – The Liberation Of...(2008)
Karoline Tamati comes out swinging in the album's opening track ‘Bang Bang’ and by track four – '98 Til Now', she's displaying a braggadocio you’d more likely expect to come from a male rapper’s mouth:
“They said I couldn't do it so I had to go and prove it/To myself if no one else, I'm a leader in this movement/Yup they do up they come from all different crews, but I got news for you ain't no one fitting in my shoes.”
During the song, Ladi pays respect to her heroines Lauren Hill and Erykah Badu, and refers to her own impeccable Aotearoa hip hop pedigree.
The overall sound of The Liberation Of... is international – you half expect you’re in a smoky club in NYC or London. With her raspy, but warm voice, Ladi6 is without a doubt one of our finest songwriters, soul singers and MCs.
Shona Laing – South (1988)
Having already established herself as the original New Zealand guitar-wielding singer-songwriter with her 1972 hit ‘1905’, Shona Laing proved her talents could shine equally in a different era with this late-80s classic. Though arguably dated by its synths and drum machines, the album’s enduring strength is in its consistently excellent songs.
The centrepiece, ‘(Glad I’m) Not A Kennedy’, returns to the theme of American fame and its lethal side-effects that had inspired ‘1905’, while in other songs she comments on the arms race (‘Soviet Snow’), South Africa’s apartheid system (‘The Bishop’) and Cambodian refugees (‘The Migrant and the Refugee’). But the politics turn personal in songs like ‘Caught’ and ‘Drive Baby Drive’.
Fur Patrol – Pet (2000)
At a time where boys and guitars were rocking the stages and airwaves, along came Wellington’s Fur Patrol, led by the sassy and beguiling Julia Deans. She was the band’s chief songwriter, singer and most excellent guitar player.
The release of their 2000 debut album, Pet, showcased Dean’s talent for delivering ice-cold sentiments with a sweetly sung, hook-laden chorus. This was best executed in their smash hit ‘Lydia’. She was never really sorry in the very danceable, punchy 'Andrew'; rocked out on 'Now', but also despairs in the introspective and gentle ‘Hauling You Around’.
Deans proved that power chords were the realm of girls and that guitars should be played with 'the amp up to 10'.
Dinah Lee – Introducing Dinah Lee (1964)
Dinah Lee was the first Kiwi hitmaker of the beat era, and her first album shows what a rocking exponent of the genre she was. Recorded more than 50 years ago, it still jumps out of the speakers with manic energy. Dinah Lee was barely out of her teens when she had her 1964 hit in both New Zealand and Australia with ‘Do The Blue Beat’, an infectious cover of a song in the Jamaican ska style.
Her debut album combines that song with another eleven other party-starters. Rhythmically it never lets up, whether it’s more songs in the ska vein (like the locally written ‘Happy Blue Beat’) or flat-out rock’n’roll (Fats Domino’s ‘I’m Walking’ or Ray Charles’ ‘Hallelujah I Love Him So’). Dinah’s voice often sounds husky, as though she’s been partying hard, and the whole album is like an invitation to join her.
And there are a gazillion others, which we've included here in alphabetical order:
- Aaradhna – Brown Girl (2016)
- Aldous Harding – Party (2017)
- Anika Moa – The Thinking Room (2001)
- Ardijah – Take A Chance (1988)
- Ariana Tikao – From Dust to Light (2013)
- Brooke Fraser – What To Do With Daylight (2003)
- Cloudboy – Down at the End of the Garden (2001)
- Coco Solid – Denim and Leather (2005)
- Dear Time’s Waste – Spells (2010)
- Emma Paki – Oxygen Of Love (1996)
- Fazerdaze – Morningside (2017)
- French for Rabbits – Claimed By The Sea (2012)
- Goldenhorse – Riverhead (2002)
- Jay Clarkson / Breathing Cage – Misericord (1991)
- Jan Hellriegel – It’s My Sin (1992)
- Julia Deans – Modern Fables (2010)
- King Loser – You Cannot Kill What Does Not Live (1995)
- Ladyhawke – Ladyhawke
- Lorde – Melodrama (2017)
- Mahinarangi Tocker – Clothesline Conversations (1982)
- Mahinarangi Tocker – Hei Ha! (2002)
- Margaret Urlich – Safety In Numbers (1989)
- Maisey Rika – Whitiora (2012)
- Mel Parsons – Drylands (2015)
- Minuit – The 88 (2003)
- Nadia Reid – Preservation (2017)
- Renee-Louise Carafice – Tells You To Fight! (2008)
- Street Chant – Hauora (2016)
- Tami Neilson – Dynamite! (2014)
- Teacups – Forest Fiction (2009)
- The Brunettes – Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks (2002)
- The Topp Twins – The Topp Twins Go Vinyl (1982)
- Tiny Ruins – Some Were Meant For Sea (2011)
- Whirimako Black – Tangihaku (2004)