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Most Influential Female Musicians: 40 Trailblazing Women
List & Guides

Most Influential Female Musicians: 40 Trailblazing Women

From searingly honest songwriters to rock icons that defined their own terms, the most influential female musicians opened doors for change.


For many years, music magazines would, pretty much every year, trot out a “Women In Rock” piece. In these features, disparate artists were lumped together for nothing more than their gender. Sure, they may have celebrated the most influential female musicians, but their influence was discussed, if at all, only as it related to other female artists. The very idea that women could be pioneers seemed inconceivable.

The women on this list are all innovators. Taken together, they have influenced thousands upon thousands of other musicians – both male and female. Very few of these artists confine themselves to one genre, combining influences from all over the musical spectrum (and frequently working in visual, cinematic and activist spaces, too). As this list proves, the most influential female musicians often create genres of their own. They are inspirational, idiosyncratic, iconic – and absolutely majestic.

Most Influential Female Musicians: 40 Trailblazing Women

40: Chrissie Hynde (1951-)

Since the late 70s, Chrissie Hynde has been at the forefront of the sweet spot where punk meets mainstream rock. She has led Pretenders through triumph and tragedy, navigating huge mainstream success alongside harder-edged material. Extending her reach into pop culture, she also helped compose Smelly Cat, the signature song of the Friends character Phoebe Buffay. Hynde’s list of collaborators runs from Sheryl Crow (If It Makes You Happy) to Bruce Willis (in the Rugrats Go Wild film), and she’s also been a long-time supporter of animal rights; raising funds for PETA, along with other animal charities, Hynde even owned a vegan restaurant for a while. The best Pretenders songs (Don’t Get Me Wrong, Brass In Pocket) secure her place among the most influential female musicians, but Hynde’s commitment to standing up for what she believes in proves she is a class act through and through.

Must hear: Kid

39: Lil’ Kim (1974-)

The parameters of rap were completely rewritten by Lil’ Kim. Her strong, sexualised subject matter laid the foundations for many future rappers, while her vicious rhyming skills broke new ground in bringing hardcore hip-hop into the mainstream. She has had very difficult life experiences (and has also caused her own fair share of trouble), yet she channels her trauma into biting, survivalist and wickedly humourous lyrics. One of the best female rappers of all time, Kim is also notable for being a fierce LGBTQ+ ally – appearing on the cover of Out magazine back in 1999, when homophobia in hip-hop was rampant – and for her long-time charity work supporting people living with HIV/AIDS. All hail the Queen Bee.

Must hear: Not Tonight

38: Kylie Minogue (1968-)

You know an artist has secured a lasting place in history when they’ve become mononymous. While she found stardom in the late 80s, on the Australian soap opera Neighbours, Kylie Minogue has forged a decades-spanning career in music, and currently shows no signs of stopping. Like most great artists, she has gone through many periods of stylistic and musical reinvention, from recording sugary pop confections to dropping cutting-edge dancefloor-detonators. With collaborators as varied as Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds (Where The Wild Roses Grow) and Enrique Iglesias (Beautiful), and career landmarks such as the decade-defining Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, the “Princess Of Pop” is one of the best-selling Australian artists of all time, and a beloved icon in all corners of the globe.

Must hear: Spinning Around

37: Patsy Cline (1932-1963)

A true pioneer in country music, and a key figure in bringing its tropes into mainstream pop, Patsy Cline’s influence stretches far and wide. She was the first solo female artist elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame, but her importance goes way beyond her sales and celebrity. She strongly supported other women in their early careers, such as Brenda Lee and Loretta Lynn, standing up for herself and for others on the country-music circuit at a time when women were regularly taken advantage of, both financially and sexually. Some of her music was melancholy and mediative – she offered an outsider’s viewpoint, with her heart exposed and her vulnerabilities on show – while some was raucous, built of conviction and grit. One of the most influential female musicians in any genre, Cline laid the groundwork for later country artists, and those in the wider pop world, to portray the full complexity of a woman’s experience in song.

Must hear: Walkin’ After Midnight

36: Lizzo (1988-)

Winning a Grammy for one of the best songs of 2022 (About Damn Time), Lizzo’s many talents – as a singer, songwriter, rapper, actress and even a classically trained flautist – combine to make her the quintessential entertainer. Her conversational approach to songwriting makes her music feel so relatable, listening to her can make it feel as though you’re living her experiences, too. Changing the music industry from the inside out, Lizzo is continuing the legacy of Chaka Khan, Missy Elliott and others who celebrate diversity of race, sexuality, gender expression and body types. For any one of these reasons alone, she would be one of the most influential female musicians of the modern era. Taken together, they make her nothing short of an inspiration.

Must hear: Juice

35: Alanis Morissette (1974-)

Alanis Morissette’s impassioned mezzo-soprano voice lives outside of time and place: with her generation-defining third album, Jagged Little Pill, she has soundtracked breakups both on-screen and off, and the record has even been adapted into a successful Broadway show. Blending a no-holds-barred feminism with post-grunge rock and catchy pop hooks, Morissette anticipated the earthquake of the #MeToo movement, particularly on her 2002 album, Under Rug Swept. She has been cited as an influence by artists ranging from Taylor Swift to P!nk, and even Beyoncé covered her breakthrough single, You Oughta Know, at the 2010 Grammys, proving that Morrissette’s music has crossed genre barriers in order to stand on its own universally accessible emotional terrain.

Must hear: Hands Clean

34: Nancy Wilson (1954-)

As one of the best guitarists in the industry, Heart’s Nancy Wilson can switch seamlessly from rhythm to lead when she needs to, and she has successfully expanded her career beyond the group she found fame with, composing soundtracks for an array of movies, including Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky and Jerry Maguire. In return, Heart received a shout-out in the 2019 big-screen adaptation of Captain Marvel: the group’s hit 1976 single Crazy On You – featuring an intricate intro that showcases Wilson’s talent for groove and melody – appeared in the soundtrack, while the film’s protagonist, Carol Danvers, sported a Heart T-shirt after winning all her battles.

Must hear: Crazy On You

33: Ann Wilson (1950-)

With a powerful voice that takes on the highest of notes with ease, Nancy’s sister Ann became known as the “female Robert Plant” in the 70s. Though a great accolade, she needed no comparison, and has established herself as a highly influential musician in her own right. Synonymous with female empowerment, Wilson’s voice is a dominant presence in the male-dominated hard-rock scene, not least on such songs as Barracuda, which has become a Hollywood go-to for scenes in which women are under attack (see Shrek The Third and Birds Of Prey).

Must hear: Barracuda

Must hear: Crazy On You

32: Dusty Springfield (1939-1999)

One of the best 60s female singers, Dusty Springfield had a difficult relationship with her own artistry. What was so clear for others to hear – her feel for a song, her versatility, her deep emotion – was difficult for her to appreciate in herself. She consistently compared herself to jazz and soul greats without realising that she walked among them – yet she did, as a true innovator. Springfield fused a British 60s pop sound with a soul mood, creating something distinct from both. She was also deeply respectful of Black culture, and in 1964 was deported from South Africa for playing to a racially integrated audience, in defiance of government apartheid policy at the time. Later, she reinvented herself, creating 80s pop masterpieces with Pet Shop Boys. With her beehive hairdo, black eye make-up and expressive hand gestures, Dusty Springfield will forever be a visual shorthand for the exploratory impulses of the 60s.

Must hear: Son Of A Preacher Man

31: Linda Ronstadt (1946-)

Linda Ronstadt’s diverse career is a study in creative expression: she has conquered pop, country, rock, jazz standards, bluegrass and Spanish-language music. Her early hit with The Stone Poneys, Different Drum, put her at the forefront of the late-60s Laurel Canyon scene, and she was also an instrumental figure in the 1971 formation of Eagles, having recruited Don Henley and Glenn Frey to her band in 1970. With iconic albums such as Heart Like A Wheel and Simple Dreams, Ronstadt became one of the most prominent singers of the 70s, and the first female singer to perform an entire tour of arena venues. Together with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, she released the 1987 album Trio to international acclaim, and, that same year, recorded the solo album Canciones De Mi Padre. Revealing how Ronstadt’s early love of mariachi music influenced the strong vibrato and phrasing of her singing, that record became the best-selling non-English-language album in US history. Winning both mainstream and Latin Grammys, Ronstadt has secured her status among the most influential female musicians of all time, carving out a place for Mexican-American women within the English-speaking music industry.

Must hear: Blue Bayou

30: Sheila E (1957-)

Breaking gender norms within the music industry, Sheila Escovedo has made a name for herself as a percussionist, singer, songwriter and producer – and is a perennial go-to among the world’s best female drummers. Born into a musical family (her father, Pete, and uncle Coke performed percussion in Carlos Santana’s band), Sheila E began playing as a child and, by the age of 20, had performed with Lionel Richie and Marvin Gaye. In 1984, she sang backing vocals on the Prince B-side Erotic City, leading the Purple Rain star to help her fashion a solo career and, eventually, hire her as his drummer. In the years since, Escovedo has collaborated with everyone from Ringo Starr to Gloria Estefan and Beyoncé. Recently, she launched a non-profit program, Elevate Oakland, to promote art in the public schools of Oakland, California, and help create opportunities for inner-city youth.

Must hear: The Glamorous Life

29: Whitney Houston (1963-2012)

Having a successful gospel singer, Cissy Houston, as a mother, Dionne Warwick as a cousin and Aretha Franklin as a godmother, it was only natural that Whitney Houston would come into her own as a vocalist. After her early powerhouse pop hits such as Greatest Love Of All and I Wanna Dance With Somebody established her as one of the best 80s female singers, she recreated herself as a scarred, neo-soul survivor with her darker 1998 album, My Love Is Your Love. Her first film role, in the 1992 blockbuster The Bodyguard, saw her so wholly own Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You that most people don’t even know it is a cover version. There were many facets to Houston’s career, but she will always be loved for having an incredible voice that could turn any song into a hit.

Must hear: It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay

28: Judee Sill (1944-1979)

Influenced heavily by Bach, Judee Sill’s sound was an eclectic mix of classical, country, gospel and folk music. The two albums she released during her lifetime, 1971’s Judee Sill and 1973’s Heart Food, both tackled Christian themes of rapture and redemption, and blended them with ideas of romantic love and nature. A unique proposition, Sill’s music intersected with her short, turbulent, complex life, which was dominated by drug addiction and personal problems. Yet her music redefined the scope and depth of singer-songwriter artistry, and her place among the most influential female musicians is a given, despite having enjoyed little commercial success during her lifetime.

Must hear: Down Where The Valleys Are Low

27: Tina Turner (1939-)

The ultimate powerhouse performer, Tina Turner has more than earned the title of “Queen Of Rock’n’Roll”. Performing the same athletic dance moves at the age of 70 as she did when she was in her 20s, Turner never let something as trivial as age get in her way. Overcoming her difficult upbringing and domestic abuse at the hands of her first husband, Ike Turner, Tina embodies not only power and success, but also kindness and generosity. Her 2020 book, Happiness Becomes You: A Guide To Changing Your Life For Good, delves into her enlightened path as a Buddhist, and emphasises the importance of cultivating happiness in life. Through her music and her own story, Turner has inspired fans to follow their dreams and never give up.

Must hear: What’s Love Got To Do With It

26: Hayley Williams (1988-)

An emo figurehead since she was a teenager, Hayley Williams is one of the most influential musicians in the genre. From Paramore’s early rock albums, such as All We Know Is Falling and Riot!, to the group’s more recent pop-infused material and her own solo work, Williams has used anger and all-encompassing emotion to fuel her passionate vocals. As the best Paramore songs have long made clear, her music is openly cathartic, deploying her multi-octave range to full effect. She has cut a path for others to follow, from WILLOW to Olivia Rodrigo – a one-of-a-kind creativity that is intense in vision and explosive in effect.

Must hear: Still Into You

25: Carole King (1942-)

Carole King’s music has soundtracked many lives. As well as co-writing such 60s hits as The Loco-Motion (for Little Eva, later repopularised by Kylie Minogue), Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees) and Up On the Roof (The Drifters) with her ex-husband, Gerry Goffin, King’s solo work defined the shift from 60s pop to the confessional singer-songwriter era of the early 70s. One of the greatest break-up albums of all time, her 1971 debut, Tapestry, propelled her to the top of the charts in her own right. Speaking to listeners with all the intimacy of a close friend, songs such as I Feel The Earth Move and It’s Too Late have ensured that the Carole King songbook stands the test of time. A Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner, an activist for climate change and a role model for songwriters everywhere, King remains one of the most influential female musicians to emerge from the West Coast singer-songwriter scene.

Must hear: I Feel The Earth Move

24: Jody Watley (1959-)

It’s hard to imagine the music world today without the concept of a rapper and a singer collaborating. But it may never have developed in the way it did without the vision of Jody Watley. She pioneered this style of musical partnership on the 1989 track Friends, which featured Eric B & Rakim. As well as that innovation, Watley has shaped so much of what we understand today of modern R&B – a former member of Shalamar, she grew up in disco and funk, channelling this apprenticeship into a solo career brimming with deep, sharp soul classics. She came of age in the New Jack Swing era of the late 80s and, through tracks such as Looking For A New Love and Real Love, incorporated cutting-edge dance, hip-hop and club culture into her music.

Must hear: Friends

23: Donna Summer (1948-2012)

While touring Europe with the countercultural musical Hair, Donna Summer worked on the side as a studio backing singer. Forming a partnership with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, they created the groundbreaking 17-minute disco hit Love To Love You Baby, whose suggestive moans stirred major controversy even as the song went gold in 1975. Not always comfortable with the “First Lady Of Love” title she was given, Summer overcame mental-health issues and scored international hits in every year from 1975 to 1984 with trademark songs that moved from slow, ballad-like intros into uptempo dance territory. Going on to influence an array of artists, among them New Order (whose Blue Monday was inspired by Summer’s 1979 cut Our Love) and Selena Quintanilla, Summer’s place among the most influential female singers of all time is assured.

Must hear: Love To Love You Baby

22: Christine McVie (1943-)

This Fleetwood Mac member has created some of the catchiest hooks in music history. Having cut her teeth playing blues piano before joining the group – and creating some fantastic solo singles as Christine Perfect – McVie merged her blues roots with Lindsay Buckingham’s pop production to create the standout Rumours singles You Make Loving Fun and Don’t Stop. A decade later, in 1987, she continued to ensure Fleetwood Mac’s presence on the charts thanks to the blockbuster Tango In The Night songs Everywhere and Little Lies, the latter’s magnetic hook and electronic instrumentation giving the band their last Top 5 Billboard hit.

Must hear: Little Lies

21: Tori Amos (1963-)

One of the most fascinating singer-songwriters of her generation, Amos was a piano prodigy who earned a scholarship to the Peabody Institute aged just five. She also has a form of synaesthesia which causes her to see sounds as images of light. Her career breakthrough came in the 90s with the uncompromising trio of albums Little Earthquakes, Under The Pink and Boys For Pele, and she has continued to develop her unique artistic vision with experimental works such as The Beekeeper and American Doll Posse. As a mark of her legacy as one of the most influential female musicians of any era, Amos was ahead of her time in tackling “taboo” subjects such as grief and trauma abuse so openly in her music – something today’s artists do without fear of recrimination.

Must hear: Winter

20: Janelle Monáe (1985-)

This Renaissance woman has a conceptual vision that spans music, film, print, activism and fashion. Janelle Monáe’s chameleonic art is always both thought-provoking and seriously groovy. She uses her android character, Cindi Mayweather, as a proxy for delving into her own emotions and as a comment on society at large – and through her “Metropolis Saga”, which includes the albums The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, she has explored race, gender, sexuality and the very nature of humanity itself. Yet Monáe’s work is never pretentious; she loves the freeing power of dance, as evidenced by the best Janelle Monáe songs, among them the huge hits Dance Apocalyptic and Make Me Feel. Monáe received Billboard magazine’s Trailblazer Of The Year award in 2018, and, in Boston, 16 October is Janelle Monáe Day.

Must hear: Tightrope

19: Carly Simon (1945-)

Born into a musical and literary family, Carly Simon grew up learning the importance of the arts. As a young girl, she developed an unwanted stammer, which she nicknamed “famul”. Her mother suggested she sing her sentences, unknowingly setting her daughter on a path to the stars. From her self-titled debut album onwards, Carly crafted perfect vignettes that explored her love life and family issues in song, unapologetically creating the sense that there were no secrets between her and her fans. With the gold-certified hit You’re So Vain, however, she kept one secret to herself: a frenzy of speculation still surround the identity of the song’s target. The first artist to ever win a Grammy, an Academy Award and a Golden Globe (for the awe-inspiring hit Let the River Run, penned for the 1988 movie Working Girl), Simon has also survived breast cancer and established herself as both a children’s-book writer and the author of two memoirs as unflinchingly honest as her songs.

Must hear: You’re So Vain

18: Tracy Chapman (1964-)

In the late 80s, organic singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman blossomed with her self-titled debut album. The record dealt with difficult themes of poverty, abuse, racism and oppression, but it was never without hope, and Chapman quickly found millions of receptive listeners. In June 1988, just two months after the album’s release, a self-conscious Chapman wielded her acoustic guitar on stage at Wembley Stadium, a global audience looking on as she shared the bill with Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston and many others in celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday. Performing her signature song, Fast Car, the hypnotic riff, honesty in her voice and hardship discussed in the lyrics offered a refreshing realism that brought her overnight fame and which continues to resonate. Chapman’s debut album went on to win three Grammys and became one of the first albums by a female musician to sell more than ten million copies.

Must hear: Fast Car

17: Roberta Flack (1937-)

From romance to heartbreak, Roberta Flack has used her iconic voice to express the deepest of emotions. At just 15, her virtuosic classical piano skills earned her a full scholarship to Howard University, making her one of the youngest students to ever attend the institution. Eventually switching majors from piano to vocal performance, she began making money by accompanying opera singers on piano, but her vocal coach urged her to give pop music a try. In 1973, Flack’s version of Killing Me Softly With His Song spent five weeks at the top of the Billboard charts, cementing its place among the best Roberta Flack songs and underscoring the sophisticated sound her classical grounding brought to pop and soul music. “As a woman of colour, I, like so many others, had to do ten times as much,” Flack told Dig!. As one of the most influential female musicians of her era, she accomplished even more.

Must hear: The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

16: Björk (1965-)

Björk’s enigmatic music career began aged 11, when she recorded her first album. During her teenage years, she performed with different Icelandic groups in an array of musical styles, including punk and jazz. Moving to London, she begin her official solo career with the 1993 album Debut, which incorporated techno, dance and Bollywood music into a unique sound that made her stand out from the Britpop groups then gaining traction in the UK. Throughout her career, Björk has constantly experimented with sound, visuals and technology: her 2011 album, Biophilia, was a multimedia “app album” that sought to merge nature and music. Bringing the avant-garde into the mainstream has more then assured her place among the most influential female musicians in pop.

Must hear: Bachelorette

15: Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)

One of the most influential black musicians in history, jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald broke race and gender barriers in the 40s. With her two-and-a-half octave vocal range, she could mimic horn sections in the bands she performed with, using her trademark scat vocals as if her voice were another instrument. Throughout her career, Fitzgerald tackled a wide range of styles, from jazz to psychedelic music, and she collaborated with some of the most iconic names in jazz, including Duke Ellington, Louie Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. Having won virtually every award available for singers, Fitzgerald subsequently had many awards named after her – a clear recognition of her immense talent. Dubbed “The First Lady Of Song”, Ella Fitzgerald’s legacy is one of true elegance and grace.

Must hear: Sunny

14: Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001)

The distinctive 1963 Doctor Who TV theme, one of the first to be created entirely through electronics, was arranged by the genius that is Delia Derbyshire. As part of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Derbyshire wrote and arranged music for nearly 200 British radio and TV shows. Along with her colleagues at the Radiophonic Workshop, she drew from musique concrète and used cutting-edge technology to soundtrack the fabric of British life between 1962 and 1973. Some contemporary artists recognised the importance of Derbyshire and the Radiophonic Workshop at the time – Pink Floyd visited in 1967 – but Derbyshire’s influence really blossomed from the late 80s onwards, when the possibilities of sampling and electronic music became much more widely adopted by the mainstream. Derbyshire was a keen archivist of her own life, and her invaluable collection of reel-to-reel tapes and documents was used as the basis of Cosey Fanny Tutti’s soundtrack to the 2020 biopic Delia Derbyshire: The Myths And Legendary Tapes.

Must hear: The Doctor Who theme

13: Patti Smith (1946-)

When Patti Smith’s Horses album was released in 1975, it was the sound of the future. Drawing from the hardest edge of US rock – The Velvet Underground, one-shot garage bands, proto-punk such as MC5 – while adding elements of performance art and outsider poetry, Smith created one of the best debut albums of all time. Though her music would become more mainstream (notably on Because The Night, co-written with Bruce Springsteen) she always retained her daring, jagged edge. After a hiatus, Smith returned in 1996 with the mediative masterpiece Gone Again, a treatise on death, grief and aging. She has also authored several books of poetry, memoir and photography.

Must hear: Gloria

12: Enya (1961-)

With a mystical voice and ambiguous lyrics, Enya started out performing with her family’s Celtic band, which taught her about harmonies and how to use her voice to create texture. By layering multiple vocal tracks and synthesiser soundscapes, Enya created vivid imagery with her songs, not least on her breakthrough album, 1988’s Watermark. Blending her Celtic origins with Gregorian chants, the album’s old-world charm drew listeners in while establishing the sound she would develop on subsequent records, including The Memory Of Trees and the eerily prescient A Day Without Rain. Enya’s influence is vast, reaching into the hip-hop and R&B communities – she’s a favourite of Brandy and Nicki Minaj – as well as present-day avant-garde artists such as Weyes Blood and FKA twigs.

Must hear: Orinoco Flow

11: Aaliyah (1979-2001)

Aaliyah packed so much into her short life, it’s hard to believe that she was only 22 when she died. At the age of ten she performed on TV and appeared in concert with Gladys Knight; by 12 she had her first record deal. Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, her debut album, was released when she was 15 and it was brilliant, but it was what she created in the short years afterwards that really earn her such a high place on this list of the most influential female musicians. Particularly on Aaliyah, her third and final album, released in 2001, she explored darker R&B, hip-hop and the minimalist pop which has proved so influential in the years since. Tracks such as We Need A Resolution and Try Again capture both the immediate, tense, turn-of-the-millennium mood and also look forward to the next decade. Aaliyah was a seer, an innovator and an icon. It is tragic to think of the magic she would have created had she lived, yet wonderful that we have the music we do.

Must hear: Try Again

10: Chaka Khan (1953-)

With a career that spans over five decades, Chaka Khan has championed many styles of music but, as one of the best female soul singers of all time, she has always retained her commitment to providing danceable grooves. The future “Queen Of Funk” made her breakthrough in the mid-70s, with the Chicago group Rufus; her early solo sound reflected the disco era’s mirrorball magic, and she easily adapted her style to suit the electronic dance-pop production of the 80s, scoring her biggest hit with a cover of Prince’s I Feel For You, for which rapper Melle Mel provided a signature hook. Hip-hop has since plundered the Rufus and Chaka Khan catalogues for samples. Time may pass quickly, but one thing remains constant: people will always be dancing to Chaka Khan’s music.

Must hear: I Feel For You

9: Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973)

One of the best female guitarists of all time, Sister Rosetta Tharpe set modern standards for the instrument during the 1930s and 40s, with her innovations paving the way for electric blues and rock’n’roll. While she crossed over from her original gospel audience to appeal to rock’n’roll and rhythm’n’blues fans, her influence was felt within gospel, too, opening up avenues that would eventually feed into the development of soul music. She fought virulent racism, sexism and homophobia in her everyday life, and also had to overcome opposition from her more conservative peers working in the gospel world – but she was idolised by all of the early rock’n’rollers. Her response? “Oh, these kids and rock’n’roll… this is just sped up rhythm’n’blues. I’ve been doing that forever.”

Must hear: Strange Things Happening Every Day

8: Poly Styrene (1957-2011)

Poly Styrene redefined what it meant to be a star. With her dental braces, charity-shop clothing and distinctive vocals, this mixed-race ex-hippie feminist is one of the most loved of all punk-era artists. As the frontperson of her band, X-Ray Spex, she railed against consumerism, media manipulation and conventional standards for women, her passion and intelligence influencing artists from the late 70s, through the riot grrrl explosion of the 90s and right up to today. Following the break-up of X-Ray Spex, Poly Styrene put out the underheard, jazzy album Translucence in 1980, but releases after that were sparse. Despite her small number of recordings, her legacy among the most influential female musicians is potent, and she remains a touchstone for proud outsiders everywhere.

Must hear: Oh Bondage Up Yours!

7: Stevie Nicks (1948)

This icon danced a path across the world’s stages for all to follow. From her first Fleetwood Mac hit, Rhiannon, though to penning the group’s sole US No.1, Dreams, and her enigmatic solo work, Stevie Nicks’ music continues to transport listeners to another time and place. Collaborating with some of the best in the business – including Prince, Tom Petty and Don Henley – Nicks has demonstrated the importance of women in the industry, drawing power from mysticism and literature alongside personal experiences. The only woman to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame twice, Nicks’ position among the most influential female musicians is clear. As she sang herself: “Once in a million years a lady like her rises.”

Must hear: Rihannon

6: Madonna (1958-)

It’s not an overstatement to say that Madonna influenced a generation – not a generation of musicians, but an entire generation of people. Those who grew up in the 80s, in particular, can remember when she was the most famous person on the planet; she pushed boundaries and buttons, and before anyone could work out what she meant, she had moved on to the next idea. There was – and remains – a blistering energy about Madonna that no other performer has ever captured. Over her many-decades career, she has continually reset expectations for women in terms of sexuality and power. The Like A Prayer and Ray Of Light albums are the undoubted masterpieces among her discography, yet every person will have a different favourite among the best Madonna songs – it is testament to her popularity, longevity and the unbelievable depth of her catalogue that few fans pick the same. Gender doesn’t come into it: she is without a doubt one of the world’s most influential musicians, full stop.

Must hear: Like A Prayer

5: Nina Simone (1933-2003)

Mississippi Goddam, Nina Simone’s blistering 1964 call-to-action to end racial violence and discrimination in North America, shook the musical establishment to the core. Simone, known previously as a classically-trained pop and jazz vocalist, found her work boycotted and her politics seen as a “problem”; she reacted by exploring the topic in greater complexity and with increased vigour. From Four Women to To Be Young, Gifted And Black, Simone’s body of work stands as one of the greatest commentaries on civil rights in the US. Simone was also enormously versatile, equally capable of creating beautiful smoky torch songs, improvised progressive jazz and funky grooves. “She is loved or feared, adored or disliked,” Maya Angelou wrote in 1970, “but few who have met her music or glimpsed her soul react with moderation.”

Must hear: Mississippi Goddam

4: Missy Elliott (1971-)

Missy Elliott established her career in the early 90s with the R&B group Sista. In 1997, however, she marked her arrival as a solo artist with her iconic debut album, Supa Dupa Fly. Overturning hip-hop stereotypes and establishing a unique style, Elliott created her own template: forceful yet playful, and sexy without being sexualised. One of the most successful hip-hop artists of all time, Elliott set herself apart from her contemporaries – both male and female – thanks to her humorous free-association raps, delivered over beats that are impossible to shake. Writing her own songs and collaborating with the best producers in the industry, Elliott is also a performer with a keen eye for showmanship.

Must hear: Work It

3: Joni Mitchell (1943-)

An established painter as well one of the world’s best songwriters, Joni Mitchell[] creates vivid portraits in song. Key early works such as Both Sides, Now, The Circle Game and Woodstock took a unique view on the late-60s counterculture, while her 1970 hit, Big Yellow Taxi, stands as one of the first environmental anthems in music. The following year’s Blue album remains a landmark recording for singer-songwriters, even as Mitchell pushed far beyond the boundaries of what was expected of solo musicians in the 70s. Incorporating jazz and world music into her sound, on albums such as The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Hejira, Mitchell’s refusal to repeat herself created a body of work that continues to help listeners figure out what’s going on in the world today.

Must hear: The Last Time I Saw Richard

2: Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)

A beacon of light when your spirit is in the dark, Aretha Franklin has made a lasting contribution to both music and culture. Though known as “The Queen Of Soul”, she might as well be called “The Queen Of Music”. With a three-octave vocal range, her one-of-a-kind voice reached the heavens as part of her pastor father’s gospel revues, before going on to reach audiences of multiple generations as a soul singer. Opening doors for women’s rights and race relations, Franklin came to represent the American experience by fusing secular and spiritual music in the same way cultures mixed on the continent – and she could even handle opera: at the 1998 Grammys, Franklin stepped in for Luciano Pavarotti and sang a tear-jerking rendition of Nessun Dorma. Taking Otis Redding’s song Respect and making it her own, Franklin’s legacy is a reminder that people should be unapologetic in fighting for their both their rights and their worth.

Must hear: Respect

1: Kate Bush (1958-)

Emerging from the English countryside at the age of 19, Kate Bush already knew how to elevate her music to the level of high art. Her debut single, Wuthering Heights (from her debut album, The Kick Inside), took inspiration from Emily Brontë’s novel of the same name, with Bush channelling the 250-page psychological drama into a four-minute pop masterpiece, making her the first female artist to hit the UK No.1 spot with an entirely self-penned song. She can create dense conceptual pieces, such as the Ninth Wave suite (the entire second half of her Hounds Of Love album), or dazzle with the blistering emotional clarity of Moments Of Pleasure or This Woman’s Work, and the best Kate Bush songs epitomise sonic innovation, lyrical complexity and groundbreaking visuals. She is cited as an influence everywhere, from her obvious impact on singer-songwriters, through to her effect on techno, punk, R&B, emo and beyond. As well as her immense musical influence, she is also inspiring as an artistic controller of her own work at a time when women, especially young women, were expected to obey the men who dominated the music industry. She is one of the most inspirational people of all time, and more than deserves to top our list of the most influential female artists in music.

Must hear: Wuthering Heights

You’ve seen the most influential female musicians of all time, now find out the best female singers.

Original post: 8 March 2021

Updated: 8 March 2022. Words: Stephanie Hernandez | 3 March 2023. Words: Jeanette Leech

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